A celebrity retreat since 1964, the newly renovated Kahala is quite possibly the best hotel in Oahu. Yet its vibe is more "family fun" than "pretentious glitz" -- think swimming with dolphins, not posing in lounges. Sure, it's your only luxury option in a quiet setting without leaving Oahu -- but it's also a great one.
Quiet, understated luxury in a posh Honolulu neighborhood, 10 to15 minutes removed from the loud bustle of Waikiki
Built in 1964 as one of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton's pet projects, the Kahala quickly became a Hawaiian icon -- Liz Taylor and Richard Burton hid out from the paparazzi in a cabana there after getting married (for the first time) in 1964. It has hosted celebrities from all domains ever since. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Clinton, the 1987 (i.e., mid-"transformation") version of Michael Jackson -- they're all up there on the hotel's Wall of Fame just off the main lobby, along with dozens of others. Some have even left love notes. Carrie Fisher: "Aloha Kahala -- the only two Hawaiian words I need to know(?!) except mahalo + love." Elton John: "What a great experience to come back to a hotel that is paradise. Thank you SO much for the care and service."
Elton knows a good place when he sees one. And it's that care and service he mentioned that, as much as its quiet locale, separate the Kahala from its few luxury competitors in Oahu. Throw in four superb restaurants, a quasi-private beach, and the only swim-with-the-dolphins experience on the island (the only other one in Hawaii is at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island) and you have a unique Oahu experience more akin to the luxury resorts on Maui and Kauai than anything on its own island.
Others like it too -- and not just celebrities. The Kahala hosts scores of weddings every year, sometimes as many as four or five in a single weekend. It gets named on just about every "best of" list every year, including Travel + Leisure'sTop 500 Hotels list and Conde Nast Traveler'sGold List. Even more impressive, it garners those accolades without the benefit of the glitz and flash of the other islands' best hotels. No one spritzes you with Evian water by the pool like they do at the Four Seasons Maui. You're not greeted by a wall of waterfalls and Fernando Botero sculptures like you are at the Grand Wailae. Instead you get a pet stingray, a "kissing point" out off the beach, and toddlers petting dolphins as part of the "Wee Family, Fins and Fun" package.
The service is what really separates the Kahala from its competitors in Waikiki. Some of the employees have worked at the hotel since the beginning (1964) -- a fact the hotel's management takes great pride in. In the dining rooms, I was addressed as Mr. W____. When you arrive in your room, Hawaiian slack-guitar music is playing on the CD player. Every employee you pass smiles and says hi. And listen to this:
At breakfast one morning, one of the acai berry compotes at the buffet was filled to the brim, and I spilled juice on my shorts on the way back to my table. Having seen the accident, my waitress immediately grabbed club soda and lemon juice and rushed over to work on the stain. (Get your mind out of the gutter! -- the stain was at the base of my shorts.) By the end of breakfast, when it was clear the stain hadn't completely come out, my waitress sent the manager over. I told her it was no big deal, but she insisted, and left to talk to the hotel manager. A few moments later she returned to let me know that the hotel would wash the shorts for me, no charge, and have them ready by the next day. All I had to do was hang them on my door. The next morning at breakfast, the first thing my waitress asked me was whether my shorts got cleaned. "Yep," I said. "Good as new."
Guests are greeted with wet washcloths and leis.
In-room check-in allows you to skip whatever lines might be at the front desk.
In one of Honolulu's poshest neighborhoods, 10 to 15 minutes by car from Waikiki
The Kahala is named for the residential Honolulu neighborhood in which it sits. While technically part of Honolulu, Kahala feels like an upscale suburb: $3 million homes with palm trees and perfectly manicured lawns, quiet parks like Waialae Beach Park, and, adjacent to the hotel, the Waialae Country Club. (At one point, the club's golf course merges with the Kahala's lawn.) Removed from the bustle of Waikiki, the Kahala has a distinct advantage over its competitors down the road: namely, peace and quiet. That solitude is a double-edged sword, of course, if you want to spend a lot of time off-site.
Directly behind the hotel lies 800 feet of soft white sand, a small public beach masquerading as a private one. Since all coastline in Hawaii is public land, the Kahala's beach is technically open to all, but it might as well be private. During my stay, almost everyone I saw there was a guest of the hotel. The few who weren't were affluent Kahala locals -- not exactly hoi polloi -- so they mixed in just fine. The result is a quiet, uncrowded beach, opposite, in every way, from its famous neighbor 10 to 15 minutes up the coast.
Calm, warm waters and soft ocean floor -- excellent for swimming, even for kids
No fish; not so excellent for snorkeling
Free hour-long surfing and standup paddle-boarding orientation from the respected Hans Hedemann Surf School; real lessons available for a fee
Rooms vary a lot by type -- and there are many types -- but they're all spacious, pristine, and beautiful.
The Kahala's website lists 11 different types of rooms and five types of suites. No matter which way you go, rest assured your room will be impressive -- $30 million of the $52 milion the hotel spent on renovations went into the rooms. Mine, a Mountain Lanai Room, was one of the more modest they have, yet it looks like this -- 550 square feet of functionality and class. The rooms are low-frills for a 5-pearl hotel: amenities are pretty much limited to ceiling fans, a CD of Hawaiian slack-guitar music, and Harney & Sons tea and 10-percent Kona blend coffee (restocked nightly). But the rooms' decor and little touches (bathrobes, slippers) make up for it.
As you'd expect, the Kahala boasts an impressive array of amenities, both in quantity and quality. Its trademark feature, though, is what really makes the Kahala unique. The hotel's 26,000-square-foot lagoon is home to six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and for a (bracingly steep) price, you can interact with them firsthand through the hotel's Dolphin Quest program.
"Adult Dolphin Encounter" package allows you to wade into the lagoon and get up close and personal with the animals for a half-hour. For more about the various programs and rates, click here.
Fresh off a $52 million renovation, the Kahala looks brand new, and given the quality of the maintenance, it's likely to look that way for a long time. For instance, the balconies' floors and hardwood floors, trouble spots for most hotels, were barefoot clean. The only blemish I found: some remnants of seagull dive-bombings on the balcony of my room -- but that's been a problem on every balcony I've seen.
Three superb but pricey restaurants on-site; you'll need to drive 10 to 15 minutes away, to Waikiki, for anything else.
The upsides and downsides of dining at the Kahala are pretty clear. The good news is that you'll eat well at any one of the hotel's five excellent sit-down restaurants. The bad news is that they're all pricey, and unlike at the luxury hotels in Waikiki (the Moana Surfrider, the Halekulani, and the Royal Hawaiian), dozens of other cheaper options do not await you at your doorstep -- Waikiki is 10 to 15 minutes by car.
To give you a taste (heh heh) of what you can expect to pay, at the more expensive restaurant, Hoku's, named after one of the Kahala's dolphins, I ordered the salt-crusted Colorado rack of lamb, carved tableside, with ratatouille and an absurdly tasty slice of bacon cornbread. To start the meal, a shrimp ceviche amuse-bouche; to end it, banana-creme-filled chocolate lollipop petits fours. Total damage, including tax, tip, and a glass of wine: about $80.
Hoku's -- regarded as one of the finest restaurants on the island -- serves innovative Asian fusion. Reservations recommended.
New to the hotel in June 2012, Arancino offers Italian-Japanese fusion. A wood-burning stove serves up pizza while chefs prepare traditional Italian dishes like lasagna and homemade pasta. For an interesting twist, there is also a sushi bar and some Japanese dishes on the menu.
For lunch, it's the aptly named Seaside Grill, where the food is as good as the setting.
The restaurants all serve 100-percent Kona peaberry coffee, rare for an eat-in establishment in Hawaii. It's worth mentioning, though, that even the 10-percent Kona blend they provided in my room was delicious.
Room service is available 24 hours, from the hotel's main kitchen. Check out the spread I ordered my first night there. It tasted as good as it looks.
Gorgeous beachfront weddings at one of Hawaii's most romantic hotels -- it's costly, but well worth it, especially when compared to Hawaii's much larger luxury hotels
Wedding Size: Up to 300 people; up to six weddings held daily
Extra Fees: If you hire your own photographer, there's a steep fee. For an officiant, the Kahala charges for a one-hour service.
Wedding Packages: The most basic, Say "I Do" package includes a beach ceremony (on the beach, not under the gazebo), a minister and all the marriage paperwork, a lei for the bride and groom, a photographer for the ceremony, and a champagne toast for up to 10 guests; alternative packages also cover a 40 person wedding at the gazebo, a live duet for the ceremony, fresh orchids, a prewedding signature cocktail, two hours of photography and one hour of videography. The Kahala provides a wedding manager to help handle on the on-site arrangements, but for any other needs they are partnered with local wedding coordinators who can provide more elaborate services.
Ceremony Locations: The Diamond Head Gazebo (up to 150 people) or the Koko Head (up to 300)
Reception Locations: In addition to its ballrooms and meeting rooms, the hotel has five major reception spaces, both indoor and outdoor, such as the Waterfall Garden which seats 20 to the Kahala o Ke Kai reception area with a tent which seats 100. Outdoor receptions can be in view of other resorts guests, however, so if you want a more private space you'll have to book the Maile or Waialae ballrooms.
Photographers and Videographers: The Kahala has its own list of partnered, independent photographers whose packages range from one hour to multiple shooters all day long. If you want to fly in your own special talent, you'll first need to gain approval from the hotel and then pay a steep fee (at most other hotels, there's no extra fee). Likewise, the hotel can find a number of videographers, but if you bring your own camera man there's no extra fee.
Music: As the hotel books its entertainment through an independent agent, they can find you just about any type of music -- though, as with photographers, the rates can be steep. You can set up your own music arrangements, so long as the musicians first make arrangements with the hotel and there may be an extra fee.
Food: Each four-course dinner menu is designed to meet the guests' needs, and the hotel offers plated, stations, and butlers -- prices vary per person, depending on menu selections. The Kahala also offers specialized vegetarian, breakfast, and more affordable "keiki menus" for kids ages three to nine. (Kosher menus, however, are not available.)
Cocktail Hour: Hors d'oeuvres charged per person; select wedding packages also include glasses of the Kahala's specialty cocktail.
Cakes: The Kahala's in-house pastry chef can make designer cakes -- whatever flavor, decoration, or color you want, they can make it happen. Costs range depending on type of cake and decorations.
Flowers and Decorations: Most flower arrangements are included in the standard wedding packages, though the costs vary for each additional request, such as table centerpieces or bridesmaids' bouquets. Prices, however, can be steep. As for the general decorations, the Kahala doesn't go with a one-size-fits-all approach to romantic ambience -- decorations are custom designed to suit the guests' tastes. Naturally, there's a steep price for this kind of personalization.
Spa Treatments: Full menu of services, including hair and makeup
Honeymoon Suite: Unlike most Hawaiian resorts, the Kahala has a number of specialty suites that better suit a honeymooning couple -- the Kahala Beach Suite, for example, is located on a more secluded area of the resort near the Dolphin Lagoon and has a wraparound terrace that opens directly onto the sand. Plus, it's worth noting that if you book a suite, you also get a number of free perks, such as a beach cabana reservation, pressing on arrival, photocopying, and round-trip airport transportation.
Freebies: Freebies depend based on how much you spend, but they can include free nights, Tiffany champagne flutes, free parking, and upgrades in plates or chairs.
Airport Transportation: The resort does not provide airport transportation; guests will have to take taxis.
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