Luxurious and historic, if not royal; one of the top hotels in Waikiki
"From the earliest of times, the land surrounding the Royal Hawaiian was the playground of the ali'i (chiefs). ...The Great Chief Kakuhihewa planted the Royal Coconut Grove on the site, which later became the summer home of Queen Kaahumanu. Today, remnants of the original Coconut Grove, now hundreds of years old, provides the 'piko' of the Royal Hawaiian."
So read the postcard that accompanied the turndown service on my first night at the hotel. The next night the card was titled, "Famous Guests That Have Stayed at the Royal," and included tidbits about Shirley Temple, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kevin Costner, among others. Indeed, the Royal Hawaiian takes some serious pride in its venerable past. As well it should. Built in 1927, it's the second-oldest hotel in Waikiki, behind the Moana Surfrider, built in 1901. (For more on the history, click here.)
Known as the "Pink Palace of the Pacific," the Royal Hawaiian's pink stucco exterior makes it the most conspicuous building in Waikiki. Just about every other aspect of the hotel is a different shade of pink: the corridor walls, the lobby ceilings, the umbrellas, even the bellmen's jackets. Like the guy who wears a fuchsia shirt to the party, you better have the goods to back up that much pink, and the Royal Hawaiian does.
After shutting down to complete a massive (and much-needed) renovation, the hotel reopened in January 2009 as a Luxury Collection property, one of Starwoods' top-tier brands. All but the exquisite hand-carved ornamentation on the rooms' front doors was updated or replaced inside the hotel's historic wing (though the rooms in the tower wing are still waiting for their re-do). Still, given the impact of this renovation, the Royal Hawaiian surpasses its closest competitor, the Moana Surfrider, and is now up there with the Halekulani for the title of Most Luxurious Hotel in Waikiki. As for which hotel is better -- the Halekulani or Royal Hawaiian -- it's largely a matter of taste: whitewashed Zen elegance at Halekulani versus bright, tropical fun at the Royal Hawaiian.
Excellent across the board; friendlier and less formal -- more of the "aloha spirit" -- than at the Halekulani hotel
More so than at its Waikiki competitors, the services at the Royal Hawaiian is first-rate from the moment you arrive -- bellmen wearing (what else?) pink jackets ready to take bags; a welcome lei; a cool washcloth; a glass of a "pink hibiscus elixir" (hibiscus and acai berry, with a twist of lemon); a private introduction and check-in from one of the front desk clerks. Following check-in, it's a full tour of the property -- which can also included a very detailed history of it -- and then a full tour of the room. Once you're finally settled in the room, there's the final courtesy call from the front desk to ensure that all is satisfactory.
Helpful concierge staff, available throughout the day, can arranges day trips
On the beach, a seashell's toss from the busiest section of the busiest street in Waikiki
As long as 500 years ago, the Royal Hawaiian was considered a prime piece of real estate -- Chief Kakuhihewa first staked out the plot of land in the 16th century -- and it still is today. It sits on the busiest part of Waikiki's main drag, Kalakaua Avenue. But the hotel is still nicely insulated by its sprawling grounds and the Royal Hawaiian Center -- meaning that you don't have to listen to the bar crowds all night, unlike at many of the Royal Hawaiian's neighboring hotels.
Kalakaua Avenue is a touristy, milelong stretch of shops, restaurants, and high-rise hotels that runs along Waikiki Beach on Oahu's southeast coast. It offers a curious blend of mainland creature comforts and local flavor. On the sidewalks, Japanese tourists intermingle with tanned locals, surfboards under their arms, on their way to the beach to catch a few waves after work. On both sides of the street, high-end retailers -- Tiffany, Cartier, and yes, even an Apple store -- are interspersed with indoor malls and streetside vendors hawking cheap seashell jewelry and Obama bobbleheads. Seemingly every midmarket chain restaurant can be found here -- Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, Tony Roma's -- along with more than a handful of Starbucks and fast-food joints. And towering above it all: 40-story, thousand-room hotels like the Hyatt Regency and Princess Kaiulani dotting the landscape like pins in a cushion.
Cheap and easy to get around Waikiki via the local bus (appropriately nicknamed "The Bus")
Honolulu International Airport is a 20- to 25-minute cab ride.
Pearl Harbor, Hanauma Bay, and Diamond Head Crater -- three of the most popular tourist sites outside Waikiki -- are all within 30 minutes by car.
A private (sort of) section on the most famous stretch of one of the most famous, and most crowded, beaches in the world.
Loosely speaking, the entire 1.5-mile stretch of sand alongside Kalakaua Avenue is known as Waikiki Beach. In reality, it's more like three separate beaches, the borders of which vary depending on whom you ask. The Royal Hawaiian borders the section called Queen's Beach, which is the part you see on postcards of Waikiki: manicured, palm tree-dotted lawns leading to a sunny white-sand beach. Children splash about in the shallow water near the shore, while surfers and standup paddle-boarders (the rad new thing to do) patrol the outer waters.
To summarize Queen's Beach in one word: packed. Packed with energy, packed with activity, packed -- most significantly -- with people. Towels carpet the sand like blankets at a sold-out concert. Families with small children, honeymooning couples, even locals taking lunch breaks -- they all merge here, sunning, swimming, and sandcastle-building, all the while doing their best not to kick sand in each other's faces.
Technically, all beach space in Hawaii is public, yet the Royal Hawaiian has staked out a "private" plot of sand adjacent to the hotel grounds by cordoning off a rectangle with a low-hanging metal chain. (The Moana Surfrider is the only other hotel that does this.) The difference between the public and "private" beaches was never adequately explained to me -- alcohol is prohibited on both sides of the chains. The main difference is that the beach chairs in the Royal Hawaiian's rectangle are exclusive to guests and off-limits to outsiders (though there is a daily fee to rent this equipment, and advance reservations are encouraged by the hotel). Otherwise, it seems mostly a tactic to mislead the hoi polloi and discourage them from trampling through and kicking sand on the Royals.
Warm, shallow water -- a decent place to swim, especially for kids
Sandy, not rocky, ocean bottom -- unlike neighboring Kuhio and Fort DeRussy Beaches
Lifeguards monitor the beach throughout the day.
Water sports equipment like surfboards and paddle boats available for rent at the many Star Beach Boys stands dotting the sand
As you'd expect for a large high-end hotel, the Royal Hawaiian features a nice collection of amenities, from the standard (pool, business center, parking) to the unique (local musician performances, "hula therapy") and deluxe (Abhasa Spa). The pool -- called the Royal Beach Tower Pool -- features a pleasant, well-tended pool area, but it's also quite small (although that's not unusual for Oahu; for a bigger pool, you'll have to head to Maui or Kauai). As a Royal Hawaiian guest, you also have access to the amenities at the Sheraton Waikiki next door, including the epically chaotic -- but superb for kids -- Helumoa Playground Pool.
Lovely Abhasa Spa features the standard array of spa and salon treatments, including the oxymoronically named "back facial" along with a few specialties, like the body cocoon.
Free daily activities, including hula lessons, Hawaiian quilting, and concierge-led tours of the property
A no-brainer for those who like pampering their children (ahem, kid-size bathrobes!)
For luxury-minded families, the Royal Hawaiian is probably your best bet in Waikiki. In addition to specialized turndown treats when you have kids in the room, the little ones will also receive pint-size bathrobes and a welcome kit with a personalized greeting card and gift.
Guests can also drop the kids off at the Sheraton's kids club that offers daily activities (for an extra charge)
Suites don't have pullout sofas, so most families opt for separate rooms or adjoining rooms, which cost extra
Cribs (free) and rollaway beds are also available in all room types.
Kids' menus are available at all of the restaurants, and are free for kids under 12 when accompanied by a paying adult. Surf Lanai and Mai Tai Bar also serve kid-friendly fare on the main menus (pizzas, nachos, etc.).
Excellent breakfast and dinner spots on-site, plus dozens more within steps in downtown Waikiki
You could do pretty well for yourself (but not your wallet) by eating all your meals at the hotel.
Azure (open only for dinner) is one of the finest seafood restaurants in Waikiki; entrees vary based on what the restaurant purchases every morning at Honolulu's fish auction. For a typical meal -- fresh moi, a side of asparagus, and a cocktail -- it'll cost about $65, but this also includes free lavash (a type of Armenian cracker) with clam dip and French bread with unsalted butter, topped with sea salt.
For breakast, Surf Lanai, out by the pool, is classy all the way -- gourmet jam on the table, complimentary smoothie shots, warmed maple syrup
Mai Tai Bar serves snacks and light meals, but my Cobb salad and nachos were both overpriced and disappointing. Instead, just go for the namesake cocktail, evening entertainment, or (if you're of a certain demographic) the attractive waitresses in short skirts and dark shades.
For dessert, try the "Royal Hawaiian Banana Split" at Azure -- caramelized local apple banana, macadamia nut ice cream, whipped coconut cream, cinnamon-balsamic syrup, Myers's Rum caramel sauce. Hungry yet?
Ample off-site dining within walking distance
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