story by Curt Sanburn
Hawai‘i State Archives
Oddly enough, the first successful “resort” hotel in Hawai‘i was not set on a glamorous strand of golden sand, nor along a placid lagoon beneath dancing coconut trees. Instead, the Volcano House, as it was (and is) named, perched itself amid tree ferns close to the precipitous edge of Kilauea’s volcanic cauldron, miles from any cobalt sea, a cool and rainy 4,000 feet above sea level.
From such rugged remoteness the Hawaiian hotel industry evolved. Sure, it took a century for the world to catch on and usher in what might be called the “golden age” of the Hawaiian resort hotel, but everything starts somewhere.
The Volcano House was a tiny grass hut built expressly for the comfort of tourists in 1846. Expanded several times over the years, the resort sheltered a stream of Victorian travelers passionate about the world’s curiosities. English travel writer Isabella Bird described the volcanic sights and sounds as “gruesome and awful both day and night.” She noted that the hotel’s Chinese cook (who insisted on calling her “sir”) took advantage of the volcanic steam vents right outside the hotel to cook the taro served at dinner.
American journalist Mark Twain checked into Volcano House during an eruption in 1866, just after the original grass shack had been enlarged and improved with wood-frame carpentry.
Awestruck by Pele’s furnace, Twain sniffed that Pompei’s Vesuvius was a “mere toy … a soup kettle,” compared to Kilauea. Even so, he wrote, “The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did.”
The evolution of the modern Hawai‘i resort hotel is a good yarn and the subject of Designing Paradise: The Allure of the Hawaiian Resort, an illustrated, critical history of hotel building in the Islands written by architectural historian Don Hibbard—and cleverly disguised as a colorful coffee-table book.
By looking at Hawai‘i’s most beautiful hotels—and by defining a distinct era in the history of hotel-building in the Islands that, it seems, is just now ending—Hibbard gets right under the hood of Hawai‘i’s economic engine: the well-oiled tourist industry, which, during the last century, was turbo-charged by the nearly universal consensus that the exceedingly temperate Hawaiian archipelago was, indeed, as close to paradise and as far away from chilly reality as any place on Earth.