Issue 9.4: August/September 2006

Like a Kiss

story by Curt Sanburn

Volcano House
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.


Courtesy Halekulani hotel

“Such beneficence is real,” he argues in his introduction, “and although many of its aspects may be elusive and even intangible, they can be expressed architecturally.

“At their best,” he writes, “the islands’ resorts are like a kiss, or to use the words of the author Tom Robbins, they are ‘a concretized expression of an emotional state,’ an affirmation of utopia…”

This is Hibbard’s celebratory theme, and for 200 pages, through historical and architectural analysis, he investigates how the hotel in Hawai‘i became the most expressive—and the most seductive—building form of all. Because, as a travel-industry observer once pointed out, a hotel must strive like no other building to make sure that its guests return.

“It’s pretty impressive, the scope of Hawai‘i’s impact on resort architecture, on the whole concept of the destination resort in a tropical climate,” Hibbard says while discussing how he came to write Designing Paradise. After nineteen years as the state’s architectural historian, he was in the middle of compiling a list of Hawai‘i’s significant buildings for another book project when it occurred to him that in the post-war period, “hotels have been the most outstanding architecture in the state.”

And it’s not just the influential hotels, Hibbard says, but also the very idea of fully integrated, manicured, golf-course-laden, destination resorts.

“I’m fairly certain,” Hibbard says, “that the Ka‘anapali resort [on Maui] was very much a pioneer with the concept of a town built specifically for visitors. Ka‘anapali’s master planning had a profound influence on how people vacationed in the late twentieth century,” he asserts. “Name a major destination resort anywhere, and, chances are, it’s post-Ka‘anapali.”

With its mile-long beach, its multiple hotels, condos, golf courses, shopping centers, and other amenities; with its controlled and thoroughly scripted environment; and with its profitability, Ka‘anapali revolutionized the travel industry by reminding developers that hotel construction jacks up the value of adjacent real estate—so much so that, as Hibbard points out in Designing Paradise, a modern resort hotel’s primary value for developers arises not from the buildings that house its guests but from the lands surrounding it.

By the mid-twentieth century, Hawai‘i’s relatively mature visitor industry was already influencing the rest of the world’s tropical dream machine … even as the Islands struggled to keep up with their own wildly successful post-World War II paradise packaging—a marketing campaign that saw visitor counts rise from 170,000 in 1958 to 1.7 million in 1970 and to more than 7 million in 2005.

This boom was fueled in great part by the near simultaneous 1959 arrival of statehood, Sheraton Hotels and Boeing 707 jetliners. With airlines complaining that they were turning away passengers for lack of enough hotel rooms, Waikiki Beach began its rapid transformation from a languorous refuge for the rich into a democratic beehive of relatively inexpensive hotel rooms, souvenir shops and ersatz Hawaiian culture.

Meanwhile, influential Honolulu architect Pete Wimberly worked to convince tourist industry executives that new hotels should convey an authentic sense of place, that they should have “a positive effect not only on guests, but on their surroundings; and that the globe’s cultural diversity needed to be appreciated and reflected in a resort’s architecture.”

Working with sculpted concrete and lava rock, Wimberly integrated his theories into several landmark buildings, including the Sheraton Maui at Ka‘anapali and the dramatic, bone-white Kona Hilton, which commands its point of land on Kona Harbor with all the authority of an ancient fortress or temple. Hibbard writes that the hotel’s blend of primitive and modern forms “further elaborated Wimberly’s efforts to embody a Hawaiian sense of place—the romantic tropics—within the multistory context of modern architecture.”


Sheraton Maui at Ka‘anapali
Courtesy Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo

In subsequent years, Wimberly’s firm designed several of Hawai‘i’s most successful and expressive hotels, including the 1,700-room Sheraton Waikiki (1971), the Hyatt Regency Maui (1980) and the Hyatt Regency Kaua‘i (1990). Based in Honolulu with offices in Los Angeles, Newport Beach, Seattle, Orlando, London and Singapore, the firm of Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo is now one of the world’s leading resort design firms.

“Underappreciated,” Hibbard says about the work of California architect Edward Killingsworth, to whom he devotes an entire chapter in Designing Paradise. The architect and his staff produced four of the state’s most polished hotels: the elegant Kahala Hilton Hotel on O‘ahu (1965), the low-key Kapalua Bay Hotel on Maui (1978), the serene Halekulani hotel in Waikiki (1983) and the stark Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on the Big Island (1983).

Killingsworth’s hotels “invigorated Hawai‘i’s resort architecture with the sophisticated simplicity of modern design at its best,” Hibbard writes. He supports his hyperbole by noting the amazing fact that in 1990 Condé Nast Traveler magazine ranked Killingsworth’s four Hawai‘i projects as the top four tropical resort hotels in the world.

In the last chapter of Designing Paradise, Hibbard documents the 1996 opening of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Big Island, a hotel evidently built to prove the point that, in the blessed Hawai‘i environment, less is definitely more. After praising its planning and scale, Hibbard mentions that the subdued yet expensive hotel was touted in the press as “the end of an era in Hawai‘i hotel development … the last resort in Hawai‘i.”

This is no startling revelation: Beach frontage in paradise is scarce and now fiercely protected; residential land prices are through the roof. The state’s official tourism plan for the years 2005 through 2015 declares in its vision statement a consensus to “move toward a sustainable and responsible tourism”—the added emphasis on “sustainable” and “responsible” being all theirs. The era of grand new resorts on virgin shores is over; the focus these days is on treating visitors well and having them return rather than seeking to lure ever-greater numbers of new travelers to the Islands. From here on out, it seems, it’s going to be a question of renovation, rebuilding and saving what remains of Hawai‘i’s pristine landscape.

In a sign of things to come, on April 7, 2006, Edward Killingsworth’s Kapalua Bay Hotel, low-slung on West Maui’s gorgeous Kapalua cove beach, shuttered its entrance for good after twenty-eight years. The hotel is slated for demolition and will be replaced by a time-share complex and private residences, starting at $4 million according to the New York Times, which marked the occasion with a fond eulogy-with-pictures.

And the conversion trend is worldwide: In New York, the princely accommodations at the Plaza and the Stanhope hotels are both slated to be sold off as exclusive residences.

Hibbard concludes that Hawai‘i’s great resorts, “built in an era of optimistic energy,” may be things of the past, but he insists that “their elegant embodiment and relaxed perpetuation of a buoyant vision of enchanted isles” will always cast a spell. That’s why he wrote such an appreciative book about them, to document history and contemplate meaning beyond profit and occupancy rate—to establish, in other words, a golden age of Hawaiian architecture, when homegrown hospitality cushioned the spectacle and poured concrete framed the sublime. HH