Halekulani: Hawaii’s heavenly house

Luxury and indulgence await at the Halekulani hotel in Waikiki

Waikiki somehow manages to be hedonistic and relaxed at the same time. Maybe that’s got something to do with the shaggy-haired beach boys and girls, who have been coming to this golden sweep of sand for decades. They come to the beach fringing the city of Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, to soak up the rays and ride the waves, their colourful surfboards lined up in the sand like tall picket fences. All of them walk in the sandy footsteps of the great Duke Kahanamoku – the “father of surfing” and an Olympic swimming champion.

Kahanamoku was among the first of the modern era to pick up his giant redwood board and paddle out towards the breakers. He is venerated as a legend in these parts, a place that looked very different when he was born in 1890.

There were no high-risers, no low-riders cruising the main drag of Kalakaua Avenue, music blaring. (Incidentally, the Avenue’s Waikiki Christmas Store is great for fun Christmas gifts – think Santas in sunglasses.) No busy shops, bars and restaurants. Just the shore, the slumbering giant Diamond Head, a dormant volcano, beyond the eastern end of the beach and a long line of palm trees nodding towards the Pacific. There were, by this time, also a scattering of houses.

Swimming pool at Halekulani

A cattleya orchid shimmers in the pool

©Halekulani

In the garden of one of these, a kiawe tree (meaning “to sway” in Hawaiian) was planted three years before Kahanamoku was born. As the decades passed, the home became a guesthouse, which in turn became a hotel – the Halekulani (meaning the “house befitting heaven”). It was here, in 1919, that Earl Derr Biggers came up with the first of his Charlie Chan novels, The House Without A Key, featuring the Chinese-Hawaiian detective.

Today, the Halekulani looks quite different. It was redeveloped and reopened in 1984, having lost none of its aloha approach to hospitality. From the balcony of our smart, modern room, the swimming pool looks like a sapphire jewel, graced with the image of a cattleya orchid formed from a million tiny glass tiles in various shades of blue. Beyond lies the beach – an area where ancient Hawaiians took the healing waters. They called it Kawehewehe, meaning “the removal [of ailments]”. Naturally, modern Hawaiians also retire to the spa at the Halekulani with its programme based around the “Art of Wellbeing” for the same reason.

Bedroom at Halekulani

Bedrooms are smart and modern

©Halekulani

Breathtaking views

For an hour or two of brisk exercise, you can do no better than to climb Diamond Head along the trail laid out in the Diamond Head State Monument national park. Be sure to book ahead, because the trail takes you to Fort Ruger, which was begun in 1908 and expanded during World War I. The view from the top is breathtaking. All of Waikiki is laid out before you – the soft blues of the ocean, the golden sand, the white towers of the city and the volcanic hills of O’ahu in the distance.

The view from Diamond Head

The view from Diamond Head

A little further afield, the Bishop Museum offers a fascinating and extensive look at Hawaiian culture. It is one of the finest museums of Polynesian history in the world, together with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in Wellington. Further afield still is Pearl Harbor, site of the infamous Japanese attack in 1941 that brought the US into World War II. The USS Missouri, the battleship affectionately known as the “Mighty Mo”, witnessed the signing of Japan’s surrender – and last saw action in the Gulf War in the 1990s.

But back at the Halekulani, peace reigns. In September, the fine-dining partially al fresco House Without A Key restaurant reopened after a renovation that introduced a state-of-the-art, glass-fronted kitchen and a specially made Italian pizza oven. Favourites have been added to the menu, including a deconstructed laulau (a Polynesian dish of pork and fish cooked in taro leaves), char siu coconut ribs and the Halekulani’s famous coconut cake, which is so light it can’t have any calories (at least that’s what I told myself). In the new Earl’s cocktail bar, you will find the hotel’s signature Mai Tai.

Hula dancing at Halekulani

Traditional hula dancing in front of the old kiawe tree

©Halekulani

But it’s not all change. Ernest Hemingway’s table is still here. The author checked in for his honeymoon in 1940 and had to have that table – table 97 – for its view on Diamond Head, and, of course, the ocean. The nightly impossibly-graceful hula dancing is still performed by Miss Hawaii and Miss Hawaii USA winners, accompanied by live traditional Hawaiian music. And providing the beautiful backdrop to all of this is that venerable old kiawe tree.

Chris paid a media rate. From $805 a night, plus taxes. The “Halekulani Heavenly Indulgence” festive package offers a fifth night free. Book by 15 December, using promotional code FIFTHNIGHT at halekulani.com, or call 001 844 873-9424.

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