It was winter on Waikiki a long time ago and Kakuhihewa, ruling chief of Oahu, was playing makahiki games with his warriors on the beach near his home when all of a sudden a rooster appeared and began scratching the ground. Then before anyone could say makahiki twice the rooster disappeared. Kakuhihewa thought this was an omen and ordered that a niu (coconut tree) be planted exactly where the rooster scratched — close to where the Royal Hawaiian Hotel now stands. This one tree multiplied over the years into a grove of more than 10,000 trees.
The history of the Royal Hawaiian — the Pink Palace of the Pacific — is similar to that of the Moana, its beach neighbor. The Royal Hawaiian was owned by the Matson Navigation Company who built their first luxury passenger liner while the Royal Hawaiian was being constructed. The hotel served as an rest and recreation spot for US military during World War II and was closed to tourists until 1947. Matson sold the Royal Hawaiian to Sheraton in 1959 and Sheraton built an enormous hotel next door they called the Sheraton Waikiki. Then Sheraton sold both hotels plus the Moana to Kyo-ya in 1974. Kamehameha Schools (who own the land under the Moana, Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikiki hotels) then built the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center in 1980 and blocked all views of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel from Kalakaua.
Remodeling began on the shopping center in 2005 and in 2008 it was renamed the Royal Hawaiian Center. Some of the buildings in front of the Royal Hawaiian were actually torn down so that one can now get a glimpse of the pink walls behind the palm trees. The Royal Hawaiian Center now consists of three buildings four levels high that stretch for three blocks along Kalakaua Avenue and are connected by bridges. It’s the largest shopping center in Waikiki with more than 110 shops and restaurants and also includes a ten-story parking garage and a Hawaiian culture and heritage room called Helumoa Hale (Chicken Scratch House) after that story of the rooster who scratched the ground long ago.
Starwood Hotels runs both the Royal Hawaiian and the Sheraton Waikiki these days and Kamehameha Schools sold the Royal Hawaiian Center to J P Morgan Assets Management last year. The top hotels in Honolulu offer cultural services to their guestssuch as hula, ukulele and lei-making lessons. These services and more are also offered to all visitors of the Royal Hawaiian Center in and near their Helumoa Hale. On Mondays a master storyteller named Tom Cummings (he calls himself Upunu Tom — “upunu” is Hawaiian for grandfather) uses a table full of props that he calls “stuff” to help tell his stories.
Entertainment including music and hula dancing is scheduled daily in the Royal Grove next to Helumoa Hale. There’s also a theater on the fourth level with a Vegas-style show that pays tribute to Elvis. Kamehameha Schools claim that they remodeled the Royal Hawaiian Center for both visitors and locals. The prices in most of the stores are pretty high, though, and probably scare away a lot of the locals. And I hear that there has been some grumbling about some recent rule changes regarding parking. You used to be able to validate your parking by buying a pack of gum at the local ABC store. Now you need to purchase at least 10 dollars of stuff to obtain free parking for one hour. The rate is $2.00/hour for the next two hours and then they go up. It seemed to us that the locals prefer the Ala Moana Shopping Center across the Ala Wai Canal from Waikiki. The Ala Moana has 290 shops and restaurants.
Forever 21 is probably the most popular store in the Royal Hawaiian Center. It takes up three levels. We went to the Apple Store one day because my wife was having problems with her iPhone and needed to talk to an Apple Genius. There’s even a Ferrarri store for those with extreme transportation needs! The restaurants include Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s Waikiki and Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. We thought we would try the Cheesecake Factory one night but the wait was over an hour and we walked across the street to California Pizza Kitchen instead. The wait there was only 20 minutes.
We enjoyed the landscaping more than anything else when we strolled through the grounds one day and were glad to see benches here and there and signs labeling some of the plants and explaining certain Hawaiian stories such as the Chicken Scratch. We also walked through the lobbies of both hotels to access the beach. To get to the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian you have to pass an arcade full of more shops. I guess the hundred plus stores in the Royal Hawaiian Center aren’t enough!
The Royal Hawaiian A Luxury Collection Resort is rated # 20 of 82 hotels in Waikiki by Trip Advisor. The Sheraton Waikiki comes in as # 41. Both hotels charge rather exorbitant daily resort fees. We stayed at the Hyatt Place which is rated # 26 and was much less expensive than either of these hotels. It also features free in-room wi-fi and no resort fees. It’s two blocks from the beach, though, and has only a handful of stores on its premises — which may be cons to some but pros to others.