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Kahala Connection

The History of Hawaii & Evolution of The Kahala


The state of the Hawaii is one of the most recent to be annexed into the United States. Today it is a thriving economic area and a popular tourism destination, boasting a gorgeous climate, fascinating wildlife and beaches. The state is highly ranked for quality of life and the state has several prominent universities and businesses. Vacationers will visit Hawaii to get a massage, sit on the beach and experience the lovely environment. Hawaii, however, has had something of a chaotic past.

Before Hawaii became the place for vacationers to visit the beach and get a massage, it was a country of its own. There is sign that the islands of Hawaii have been populated as far back as 300 CE. The people of Hawaii had their own government, religion and culture until their first contact with Europe in 1778. Like in many cases of European explorers meeting natives for the first time, the outcome was disastrous. The people of Hawaii had no resistance to European diseases like smallpox, and their population quickly shrank. The Europeans were also, in keeping with tradition, startlingly disrespectful. They took an idol and some fencing from a temple for firewood and then abducted a King in hopes of getting ransom. The people of Hawaii, instead of meekly handing over the ransom, fought back, and many of the European explorers were killed.

In 1887, the then King of Hawaii was forced to sign the Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the King of his authority and granted the right to vote, but only to the wealthier white inhabitants of the islands. In 1898 Hawaii was officially annexed into the United States, and it was a territory until 1959 when it became an official state. In 1993 a joint Apology Resolution was made by the United States Government apologizing for overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy.

Today, Hawaii is a part of the United States. Through its difficult past it has become one of the most beloved destinations in America, attracting tourists, surfers and students. Hawaii also has a draw for scientists because of its rich marine life and ecosystem. It is also one of the few places in the United States that contains active volcanoes. People who visit Hawaii can enjoy beautiful beaches, the wildlife and the other various perks of vacation, like hotels that offer spas where they can get a massage. When visiting the Hawaii of today it is hard to imagine its difficult history and its conflict with the United States. Now the conflict is over and it is a relaxing place to enjoy a massage and sit on a beach.

From opening day in 1964, The Kahala has built a reputation as one of the world’s great hotels.

by Thelma Chang

For countless centuries before the arrival of ancient Hawaiians, the Pacific golden plover, of speckled feathers and thin spindly legs, alighted in the thick bushes and tall sorghum grass that thrived at the oceanfront site where one day in the distant future a grand hotel would be built. These hearty birds—still common in the Islands—brave the 3,000 miles between Hawai‘i and the Siberian tundra to appear every summer, spend their winters in the warm Pacific air and leave by late spring to repeat their herculean feat. You could call them the original tourists. As the centuries passed into modern times and the land was settled, the Wai‘alaeKahala area became home to a dairy and workers who tended to the cows, pigs, chickens and horses. Even an elephant could be seen at the dairy’s “mini-zoo.” Old-timers recall the open ocean nearby and how their childhoods were spent swimming, torch fishing at night or hunting for limu, a tasty seaweed enjoyed by early Hawaiians, locals and others. “I used to catch and cook white crabs at the nearby park,” said longtime area resident Robert Sing. “Back then, we could see lots of fish.” In those yesterdays, who could have envisioned that a tropical oasis would one day rise to become a world-renowned resort symbolic of elegance by the sea? Today, as the 10-story, 338-room Kahala Hotel & Resort celebrates its 50th anniversary, visitors are able to see and feel the visualization of a dream that made its debut in January of 1964. 

A serene haven of 6.5 acres, which includes deluxe suites, waterfall, fine dining, gardens, a luxurious spa, two man-made peninsulas at each end of the resort and the inviting blue Pacific just footsteps away. Throughout the decades, guests have relished the resort’s atmosphere of solitude and gracious hospitality. “To The Kahala, this place is what moved me to Hawai‘i—thank you, thank you, thank you,” wrote actor Jim Nabors, an early hotel guest whose autographed photo may be seen on a hallway wall filled with pictures of distinguished guests. A simple walk through the spacious lobby presents a striking view of the way it was decades ago. Floors of teak parquet from Thailand glow with their original beauty. Massive chandeliers overhead reflect nature’s light with some 28,000 colorful pieces of fused glass chunks made to resemble seaglass found on Hawai‘i’s beaches. And when sunlight streams through the lobby, the pieces sparkle with color—from topaz golds to emerald greens—just as they did in 1964. The decor echoes a sunny spirit of optimism that prevailed in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the seeds of a resort away from Waikïkï Beach filled the minds of several dreamers, including real estate investor Charles Pietsch and hotelier Conrad Hilton. Hawai‘i in those years was on the cusp of booming growth, and Pietsch and Hilton were determined to be part of it. They overcame such challenges as zoning issues and public debates, hired noted architects Killingsworth, Brady and Smith of Long Beach, California, and started construction in summer 1962. The building soon revealed its “bones” in the open post-and-beam style of architecture that became a Killingsworth hallmark.

In January 1964, the Beatles’ song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” rose to the top of the charts. People paid 30 cents for a gallon of gas, a nickel for first-class postage and 21 cents for a loaf of bread. U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” Having rebounded from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and despite the distant rumblings of Vietnam, in 1964 hopes were high around the country and much of the world. The hotel made its own mark when it formally opened on January 22, 1964, with the esteemed Reverend Abraham Akaka officiating at a blessing ceremony that included pastors of different faiths. Guests enjoyed a dinner called “Polynesian Fantasy,” wearing lei of highly polished kukui candlenut made by O‘ahu prison inmates. Travel writers reported glowingly about the hotel. “A fairyland of utter elegance,” reported Francis Harris of the Honolulu Advertiser. Room rates were around $32 a night on opening day, depending upon the accommodations.

Gaylynne Sakuda experienced the hotel’s growth almost from the start. “I was a college student and in 1967 received an internship cleaning rooms for the summer,” said Sakuda, who worked at the hotel for 45 years, retiring only recently. “I never worked so hard in my life, but it was a great way to work up. I served with three regimes (Hilton, Mandarin Oriental and Landmark) and wore many hats: executive housekeeper, payroll controller, administrator and food and beverage assistant before becoming human services director in 1981.” Soon after The Kahala opened in 1964, Sea Life Park asked the hotel to temporarily host two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins were so popular with guests that The Kahala has maintained a dolphin program ever since. Nowadays run by Dolphin Quest, marine animal education is a major focus of their activities.

The hotel soon began to attract celebrities such as actress Jill St. John. Through word-ofmouth, including praises from such celebrities, the resort’s renown gradually grew. From 1967, for instance, locals and visitors packed the showroom at the Hala Terrace (today the Plumeria Beach House) night after night to watch Hawaiian entertainer Danny Kaleikini perform with warmth and aloha. Sometimes an audience member turned out to be the sensation, as in the case of actor Shintaro Katsu, otherwise known as Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, who was one of Japan’s most revered samurai film stars of the day. The low-key Katsu was almost invisible in the audience until someone pointed him out. “When Danny brought Zatoichi to the stage, the Japanese people there went berserk and stormed the stage,” said Adam Suapaia, the Hala Terrace’s assistant manager and another hotel veteran (1972-1995). “The show closed very late that night.” Kaleikini’s popular show lasted for 27 years. Hotel occupancy grew steadily from the 1970s. Already the resort enjoyed a stellar reputation among celebrities and world leaders, from Johnny Carson and Queen Elizabeth to Sammy Davis Jr. and Emperor Hirohito. No wonder that noted Honolulu columnist Ben Wood dubbed the hotel, “the bunkhouse of the stars.” The public spaces of the hotel resonated with music and laughter, especially from the staircase which led from the lobby to the Maile Lounge where guests could hear jazz artist Kit Samson or dine at the Maile Restaurant (today, the large space is the Maile Ballroom). At least one young Hawai‘i-born diner would become a member of the U.S. Congress a few decades later. “It was such a treat to go as a family—three generations of us—to the Maile Room,” said U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa of her first visit there. “Most of the family would be enjoying Chef Martin Wyss’ famous baked kümü (fish). Fortunately the staff was mostly local, so they understood when my grandparents wanted the head of the kümü more than the filet. We all left that evening carrying little ceramic cups, each with a chocolate in it. We collected them to remind us of those special dinners at The Kahala.” The Kahala welcomed U.S. President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan in 1984 when the hotel was celebrating its 20th anniversary. Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited the next year, their royal entourage and security team requiring 100 rooms. Later, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton stopped by, signifying yet another change, another decade. “The Clintons were surrounded by a huge crowd but they took the time to shake hands with just about everybody,” said Nancy Daniels, an employee when Louis Finamore was the resort’s general manager. “And they made an eye-to-eye connection with each person so that we felt very special. Mrs. Clinton remembered some of our names. That made an impression.” The Kahala closed in 1995 when the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group assumed partial ownership of the property, renaming it The Kahala Mandarin Oriental, Hawaii, and invested $75 million for major renovations. For instance, the lounge, terrace and Maile Restaurant were closed, the space transformed into the Maile Ballroom. What was once a shuffleboard site became Hoku’s, the property’s fine-dining and award-winning restaurant. Reflecting different needs for guests, the Mandarin Fitness Center now stood where a festive hukilau, complete with fish, poi, floor mats and entertainers, had been a Sunday ritual. In 2005, The Kahala Hotel & Resort was purchased by Kahala Hotel Investors, LLC, placing the now-independent property under the umbrella of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World. Since then, the hotel has received some $60 million in upgrades and refurbishments to its guest rooms, ballrooms, restaurants, the spa and fitness center. In the summer of 2013, The Kahala launched a Golden Jubilee Celebration program in which the 1960s are remembered, from menus to stories to Hawaiian music. The lobby’s iconic chandeliers, designed by Seattle artist Irene McGowan for the 1964 debut, will be sparkling anew as the resort honors five decades of elegance and history.

In 1990, Ed Sheehan wrote "The Kahala, the hotel that could only happen once".  This book chronicles the history of one of the most famous and important hotels of the 20th Century. It contains tons of great photographs, as well as some of the important guests that visited the hotel in it's hay day. While the hotel has since slipped since it's once golden era (in the opinion of many), this book preserves the hotel's best days to be seen and shared for years to come. https://www.amazon.com/Kahala-hotel-that-could-happen/dp/0962816701


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