Review: The Royal Hawaiian Resort (Honolulu, Hawaii)

Wednesday newsletters always feature a hotel or flight review.

Last summer, I traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, where I had a wonderful time. You can read my trip reports here:


Today (November 15, 2017): Review of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel.

When The Royal Hawaiian opened in 1927, the hotel – also known as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific” – ushered in a new era of luxury travel to Hawaii. With its rich history, magnificent Spanish-Moorish architecture, and connection to Hawaiian culture, this iconic Honolulu hotel is spectacularly located on the famed Waikiki Beach and the ideal starting point to any adventure in Honolulu. The 528 rooms and suites at The Royal Hawaiian feature modern comfort, indigenous accents and refined luxury. In the Royal Beach Tower, each room provides an intimate lanai for a private vantage point of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. In the Historic Building, fresh and elegant guest rooms are furnished with custom dark wood, crisp white bedding, boudoir pillows, a warm paint palette accented by a bold fuchsia pink and platinum silver headboard. The resort’s signature restaurant, Azure Restaurant, is perched along the Waikiki beachfront and serves some of the best seafood in Honolulu.

The Royal Hawaiian features in my top 10 list of the best luxury hotels & resorts in Hawaii.

In this review (more info below my slideshow & Youtube clip):

  • Pros & things I like
  • Cons & things to know
  • My verdict
  • Tips for future guests & save money
  • Best time to visit
  • How to get there
  • Photos

Click to view slideshow.

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PROS & THINGS I LIKE
  • The Royal Hawaiian has been the most iconic hotel in Honolulu for almost a century. It was built more than 90 years ago at a price tag of $4 million USD to attract wealthy luxury-cruise passengers. When it opened in 1927, the resort instantly became a playground for the rich and famous such as presidents, royalty, and actors, but that era of opulence came to an abrupt end on December 7th, 1941 when Japan attacked nearby Pearl Harbor. During WWII, The Royal Hawaiian was leased by the US army as a major rest and relaxation center for the Navy personnel. After the war, the property was restored to its pre-war elegance and became Honolulu’s Grand Lady – and it still is today.
  • Although Waikiki beach itself is word-famous, it’s not particularly attractive as it is quite narrow, extremely crowded, and dominated by high rises. That said, the Royal Hawaiian does enjoy the most coveted and enviable location on Waikiki’s white sands. The beach in front of the hotel is considerably wider than any other part of Waikiki beach, making it the best strip of sand in Honolulu. Although the beach is public, The Royal Hawaiian cordons off a private plot of sand with chaise loungers and umbrellas, directly adjacent to the resort grounds and for exclusive use of its guests (albeit at a fee of $40 USD per day plus tax for two loungers).

  • The hotel is the ideal starting point to any adventure in Honolulu or the island of Oahu. Shopaholics will be delighted to know that the hotel is minutes from Kalakaua Avenue, which is lined by hundreds of retail stores, including high-end boutiques such as Tiffany, Cartier, and yes, even an Apple store. Foodies will appreciate that The Royal Hawaiian not only features a terrific restaurant (more on that below) but is also within walking distance from Honolulu’s best dining scene.
  • The site of The Royal Hawaiian boasts a majestic royal lineage.  The area was used as a playground for King Kamehameha, after he led his forces in the legendary Battle of Nuuanu, which resulted in the conquering of Oahu and the eventual unification of the Hawaiian Islands under one rule in 1810. The summer palace of Queen Kaahumanu – the favorite wife of King Kamehameha I who also acted as regent of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as Kuhina Nu – was previously located in what is now the hotel’s Coconut Grove garden. As a testament to its rich history, the resort still offers guests a complimentary tour of its historic royal grounds.

  • Known as the ‘Pink Palace of the Pacific‘, the Royal Hawaiian’s bright pink hue of its concrete stucco façade makes it the most remarkable building in Honolulu. The six-story structure was fashioned in a Spanish-Moorish style which popular during the 1920s (when the resort was built). Its design was heavily influenced by Hollywood film star and legend Rudolph Valentino and his Arabian movies. And it’s not just the exterior that is pink. Many other elements of the hotel feature a pink shade as well, from the corridor walls and lobby ceiling, to the umbrellas and the staff’s outfit. The hotel’s somewhat overwhelming pink theme is soothed by the classic, elegant and dark interior.
  • The Royal Hawaiian features a grand lobby, centered along a T-shaped, high-ceilinged hall which features vaulted archways, a few seating areas, and boutique shops on both sides. The reception & concierge area is tucked away in a corner of the lobby, from where an oustide pathway – with beautiful tiled floors – leads to the hotel’s bakery and Coconut Grove gardens. Remarkably, the hotel’s architects designed the lobby away from the sea since the hotel was built in the 1920s, when travellers reached Hawaii by steam ship and were tired of ocean views after all those days on a ship. It’s only at its far end that the lobby opens to a lovely and perfectly manicured lawn, stretching all the way to the sands of Waikiki Beach.
  • This historic oceanfront resort features 528 rooms, including 33 suites­­ with 18 situated oceanfront. Rooms are either located in the 6-story 1920s historic wing or the more contemporary 16-story Mailani tower, which was added in the 1960s. Accommodations in the Mailani wing come with balconies (so called ‘lanais’) with plush pink outdoor seating. During my stay, I was upgraded to a very spacious ocean front suite (the so-called Duke Kahanamoku Suite), an upgrade I received thanks to my booking via Virtuoso. The suite – which came with breathtaking views of Waikiki Beach and Honolulu’s famous Diamond Head crater – had a separate living area, a large bedroom with king-sized bed and a small but functional bathroom with a shower in a bathtub and one sink. It featured dark wooden furniture, paddle fans, and a warm paint palette accented by a bold fuchsia pink and platinum silver headboard.

  • I found the food at the hotel’s signature restaurant Azure to be one of the highlights during my stay. This truly world-class seafood restaurant is perched along the beach under the canopy of The Royal Hawaiian’s dramatic architecture and serves locally caught fish served with bright tropical and innovative Hawaiian flavors. During the day, Azure is transformed into the breezy Surf Lanai restaurant, which offers a buffet breakfast (complemented by a la carte items) in the morning and light American fare and simple island cuisine during lunch time. At the hotel’s celebrated Mai Tai Bar, you can mingle with international jetsetters and Hawaii’s elite while sipping in refreshing cocktails and contemplating the lovely panorama of Waikiki Beach.
  • Nestled in the Royal Grove Courtyard of the hotel, Abhasa Waikiki spa is noted for being the only spa in Honolulu offering luxurious treatments in a serene tropical garden setting. The spa offers a variety of treatments from classic to local massage styles, traditional to tropical facials, body wraps and cocoons, nail and hair salon services, and more (although I did not try out any of that during my stay as I prefered to lounge on the beach and explore Honolulu).
  • The Royal Hawaiian has two pool options: the intimate Malulani pool and the larger Helumoa playground. Located in the shade of the Mailani tower, the Malulani pool is a quiet pool area that fronts Waikiki beach, with lounge chairs under pink umbrellas and private poolside cabanas surrounding a tiny round pool. The much larger (and crowded) Helumoa plaground is shared with the neighboring Sheraton Waikiki Hotel and features two extensive fresh water swimming pools, with a slide and fountain areas for kids and two large whirlpool spas for adults. The hotel has a pool chair tagging policy for chairs left unattended for more than 2 hours, which is great thing given the number of guests.

  • Despite its massive size, service at the hotel is excellent and feels personal and upscale. From the flower lei at check-in and chilled towels distributed along the pools to the evening turndown service with water and chocolate, the staff will do all they can to accommodate your wishes and treat you with the warm hospitality that is Hawaii is known for.
  • The hotel is managed by The Luxury Collection, a brand of the Starwood Hotel Group, which was acquired last year (2016) by Marriott. Under the umbrella of The Luxury Collection, the hotel closed in the 2000s for major upgrades that were necessary to preserve the historic charm and elevate the accommodation to match the luxury expectations of the times.  In 2009, the resort once again re-opened its historic wing and in 2010, the 17-story Mailani Tower re-opened, gracefully bridging the sumptuous splendor of the property’s original allure with the conveniences and comforts expected by modern travelers.

CONS & THINGS TO KNOW

The Royal Hawaiian is the best luxury property in Honolulu’s Waikiki beachfront suburb. Its historic charm (blending with modern comforts) is a welcome respite from the high-rise resorts in the area. Rooms are spacious and the facilities are great. Nevertheless, to set your expectations right, you need to know the following before considering a stay here:

  • Albeit charming and romantic, rooms in the historic wing have an old-fashioned and dated look and are definitely in need of a refurbishment. If you prefer a more contemporary decor, rooms in the oceanfront Mailani tower are your best bet.
  • The hotel has a private area on Waikiki beach, but it charges a steep rate when you want to relax here. The fee for a private beach set is $40 per day plus tax, with each beach set including one umbrella and two chaise lounges. I feel a hotel of this standard should offer its guests, at a minimum, complimentary beach lounges (especially since you already have to pay an obligatory resort fee; more on that below).

  • Self parking is not possible anymore at the property. Since April 2017, The Royal Hawaiian has switched to an all-valet parking experience for its guests. The charge for valet is $40 USD, plus tax, per day.
  • Since April 2017, the Royal Hawaiian charges a daily resort fee of $37.70, tax inclusive, per room per day. This is common practise amoing resorts in Hawaii (albeit not done at the Four Seasons properties), but it is still a bitter pill to swallow. The resort fee does includes a lot of extras though, such as WiFi, one day rental of a GoPro Camera, cultural classes, a 15 minute surfing instruction, a bag of baked goods from the Royal Hawaiian bakery, 10% off spa charges, and unlimited local, long distance, and international telephone calls. It doesn’t seem to add up to me though when you still have to pay for beach loungers ($40 per day) and valet parking ($40 per day).
  • You’d better like pink since the pink motif is pervasively present, even in the pancakes that you order at breakfast.
  • Like most resorts in Hawaii, The Royal Hawaiian is a massive property with 500+ rooms, so if you prefer a boutique hotel with an intimate ambience, you’d better look to stay elsewhere (although small-scale luxury hotels are remarkably absent in Hawaii).
  • As said above, the Malulani pool is shockingly small and has the size of a whirlpool spa. Finding available sunbeds here might be mission impossible in high season. However, guests of The Royal Hawaiian also have access to the two larger pools below the tower of the neighboring Sheraton hotel, although that pool area is very crowded and chaotic, as it is understandably very popular with families.

  • If you are staying in the Mailani tower, be prepared for some long (and annoying) waiting time for the slow elevators. There are only 3 elevators serving all 17 guest room floors in the tower.

MY VERDICT
  • Location: 8/10
  • Design: 7/10
  • Pool: 7/10
  • Rooms: 8/10
  • Food: 9/10
  • Breakfast: 8/10
  • Spa: 8/10
  • Service: 8/10
  • Value for money: 8/10
  • Overall experience: very good: 8/10

TIPS FOR FUTURE GUESTS & SAVE MONEY
  • Save money: read my tips for getting the best deal at a luxury hotel like The Royal Hawaiian, whether it’s booking a room at the cheapest price or receiving complimentary VIP perks (e.g. upgrade, breakfast, resort credit, etc …).
  • Save money: enjoy free VIP perks at The Royal Hawaiian when booking via Virtuoso (e.g. room upgrade, daily breakfast, early check-in, late check-out, welcome cocktail, and $100 USD resort credit).
  • Save moneyStarwood Preferred Guests (SPG) with Gold or Platinum status are well treated, with – amongst other benefits – free high-speed WiFi, complementary room upgrade (when available), early check-in or late check-out  (when available), and free breakfast (SPG platinum). Click here to read my review of the SPG program (with pros & cons).
  • Room tip: if you like old world charm, then it’s hard to beat the romance and architectural detailing of accommodations inside the historic wing. If you want a room with a view and balcony (lanai), though, rooms in the oceanfront Mailani tower are your best bet.
  • Read my tips for preparing your trip in time.

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Hawaii’s off-season – when the best rates are available and the islands are less crowded – is spring (April to June) and fall (September to November) – a paradox because these are the best seasons to be in Hawaii, in terms of reliably great weather.  Winter (December to March) can be a surprisingly cloudy and wet affair.


HOW TO GET THERE

The Royal Hawaiian is located 9 miles (15 km) from Honolulu International Airport. Check the Wikipedia page of Honolulu International Airport for an updated list of airlines that offer direct flights to Honolulu.


EXTERIOR OF THE ‘PINK PALACE OF THE PACIFIC’
EXTERIOR OF THE ‘PINK PALACE OF THE PACIFIC’
HOTEL EXTERIOR: OCEAN LAWN
HOTEL EXTERIOR: ENTRANCE
HOTEL EXTERIOR: ENTRANCE
HOTEL EXTERIOR: ENTRANCE
HOTEL EXTERIOR: ENTRANCE
HOTEL EXTERIOR: ENTRANCE
LOBBY
LOBBY
LOBBY: SHOPPING ARCADE
LOBBY: SHOPPING ARCADE
LOBBY: SHOPPING ARCADE
LOBBY: SHOPPING ARCADE
LOBBY: RECEPTION AREA
LOBBY: RECEPTION AREA
LOBBY: RECEPTION AREA
LOBBY: SEMI-OUTDOOR WALKWAY
LOBBY: SEMI-OUTDOOR WALKWAY
LOBBY: SEMI-OUTDOOR WALKWAY
LOBBY: SEMI-OUTDOOR WALKWAY
LOBBY: SEMI-OUTDOOR WALKWAY & BAKERY
LOBBY: SEMI-OUTDOOR WALKWAY & BAKERY
LOBBY
LOBBY
LOBBY
LOBBY (CEILING)
LOBBY: ELEVATORS TO GUEST ROOM FLOORS
GUEST ROOM FLOOR (HISTORIC WING)
GUEST ROOM FLOOR (HISTORIC WING)
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: LIVING ROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: LIVING ROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: LIVING ROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: LIVING ROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: VIEW (FROM LIVING ROOM)
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: VIEW
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: VIEW (FROM LIVING ROOM)
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BEDROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BEDROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BEDROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BEDROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BEDROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: VIEW (FROM BEDROOM)
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BATHROOM
DUKE KAHANAMOKU SUITE: BATHROOM
MALULANI POOL
SHARED POOL WITH SHERATON HOTEL
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL (MAILANI TOWER)
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL (HISTORIC WING)
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL (EARLY MORNING)
WAIKIKI BEACH IN FRONT OF HOTEL (EARLY MORNING)
WAIKIKI BEACH
WAIKIKI BEACH
WAIKIKI BEACH
WAIKIKI BEACH
WAIKIKI BEACH
MAI THAI BAR
MAI THAI BAR AT NIGHT
DINNER AT AZURE RESTAURANT
DINNER AT AZURE RESTAURANT
DINNER AT AZURE RESTAURANT
DINNER AT AZURE RESTAURANT
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI
BREAKFAST AT SURF LANAI

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