Hawaii: Waikiki's Royal Hawaiian Hotel is a piece of paradise

Hands up those who knew Joni Mitchell's environmental anthem, Big Yellow Taxi, is about Waikiki? She wrote it in 1970 on her first visit to Hawaii.

As she explained: "I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart ... this blight on paradise."

Mitchell immediately sat down to write the first verse: "They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique/And a swinging hot spot".

That pink hotel was Waikiki's unique Royal Hawaiian Hotel – one of the most distinctive hotels in the world, not least because of the paint colour it has  worn since it opened in 1927.

Clearly Mitchell wasn't staying in the Royal Hawaiian because as I draw back the curtains on my first morning in room 712, all I can see is picture postcard Hawaii: manicured white sand, pounding Pacific surf, traditional wooden canoes,  humans lazing under pink and white umbrellas. Plus, that unforgettable skyline sweeping away towards the volcanic majesty of Diamond Head. Not a parking lot in sight.

Guests who want a guaranteed spectacular Waikiki ocean view might consider the Royal Hawaiian's Mailani Tower wing. The 16-storey pink and cream addition, built in 1969, was reopened in May 2015 after an extensive refit that includes the Mailani Lounge, a kind of members-only place to relax, with  complimentary breakfast, cocktail, wine and beer.

I'm of a certain age, however, so I've chosen to stay in the heritage part of the Royal Hawaiian and somehow I've fluked an upgrade to room 712, which is   barely the length of an Olympic swimming pool away from that celebrated Hawaiian surf.

The Royal Hawaiian isn't the oldest hotel on Waikiki beach. That honour goes to its sister, the Moana Surfrider Hotel, which dates back to 1901. 

But "the Pink Palace of the Pacific" as the Royal Hawaiian is known, is undoubtedly the most famous hotel in Hawaii.

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It has stood up to the test of time remarkably well, mainly due to a $US60 million makeover about 10 years ago, which included the application of about   23,000 litres of pink exterior paint. 

When the Royal Hawaiian was first built, commercial air travel was still a thing of the future. The opulent tourists who arrived in Hawaii in the 1920s did so by custom-built cruise liners  such as the Malolo, built by the Hawaii-based Matson Navigation Co. 

Once in Hawaii, Matson executives knew, these same tourists required a new first-class hotel where they would stay for several weeks at a time – often accompanied by servants. And after enduring the ocean voyage from California (long before 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959), most guests wanted an exotic mountain vista, not more sight of the sea. That explains the unusual shape of the Royal Hawaiian, with so many rooms facing away from the Pacific. 

The unusual Spanish-Moorish design chosen by the New York-based architects, Warren and Wetmore can be blamed on Rudolph Valentino.  His romantic, silent-era movies  brought the architectural style in vogue.

Over the decades, the Pink Palace has hosted a huge variety of celebrities including Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, a honeymooning Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Elizabeth Taylor and President Lyndon B Johnson. Child  actor Shirley Temple had the eponymous non-alcoholic cocktail created for her when she stayed at the Royal Hawaiian in the 1930s.

Many Royal Hawaiian devotees feared the $US60 million renovation might wreck the historic ambience of the hotel. In fact,  the reno has enhanced it. 

Lead architect Rob Iopa peeled back walls that had been added  over the years to expand the lobby and reveal wonderful arches, terraces and porches that had been closed in to create shops and back offices. The famous open-air Mai Tai Bar, featured in so many movies, was completely restyled  however, thankfully, the  cocktails remain the same. Even if you can't afford to stay at the Royal Hawaiian, I would recommend treating yourself to  a drink here. 

Meanwhile, the old Surf Room restaurant has been replaced by an air-conditioned, seafood-influenced, fine-dining restaurant, Azure.  The tables outside have views over Waikiki beach to Diamond Head.

Chef Shaymus Alwin has an exquisite tasting menu (with or without wine) but I went a la carte and can recommend the chilled Kona lobster with coconut vinaigrette, the ruby snapper with crispy skin, and the Koloa rum roasted pineapple.

 It was the guest rooms in the heritage wing, however, which were a major focus of the refurb.  As I Iie back on my king-sized bed – surrounded by custom-designed wallpaper with a pineapple motif, and the sound of crashing waves on Waikiki beach – I'm reminded of Valentino. The Great Lover died in 1926, the year before the Royal Hawaiian opened. He was just 31. Ironically, the silent era, monochrome hero lives on at the technicolour Pink Palace. Joni Mitchell had the word for this hotel. Paradise.

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

MORE

traveller.com.au\hawaii

STAY

Rooms in the Historic wing of the Royal Hawaiian start at $US385 per night plus taxes and a daily resort charge. Ocean-view rooms in the Mailani Tower  start from $520, plus taxes and a daily resort charge. See royal-hawaiian.com

FLY

Qantas, Jetstar and Hawaiian Airlines fly regularly between Australia and Hawaii. See qantas.com  jetstar.com  hawaiianairlines.com

CRUISE

Norwegian Cruise Lines' The Pride of America is the only cruise ship permitted to do a seven-day cruise around Hawaii's four biggest islands. See ncl.com/au/en

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