Kahala Hotel & Resort: Hawaii's hotel that's most famous for hosting US presidents

You need to be a pretty big celebrity to make it onto Hawaii's Kahala hotel's "Wall of Fame".

There have been plenty of royal guests: Queen Elizabeth II, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Plus movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne, Sidney Poitier, Bob Hope and Robin Williams. 

Musicians are well represented too, through Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart (who got his young children to sign a thank you card) and frequent guest Elton John, who wrote a charming note describing the Kahala on a repeat visit as "paradise".

You could spend 30 minutes of your vacation surveying this wall. 

Is that Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the moon? James Michener, the author of Tales of the South Pacific? Anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu? Living God, the Dalai Lama?

But there's one group of celebrities the Kahala is particularly famous for: US Presidents.

Every man (and, so far, they've all been men) who occupied the Oval Office since the Kahala opened in 1964 has stayed here – except one.

Lyndon Baines Johnson ("LBJ") was the first, followed by his nemesis, Richard Nixon (there's a photo of Nixon on the Wall of Fame looking uncomfortable with a floral lei around his neck).

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Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H Bush, Bill Clinton (with and without Hillary), George W Bush and Barak Obama have all spent nights at the Kahala.

Admittedly, Obama stayed overnight when he was a senator, and since he handed over the presidency to Donald Trump. But the first black president did dine at the hotel during his period in the White House.

So, naturally, that leaves Trump – who has visited Hawaii only once during his presidency on the way to the Asian summit in 2017 – as the odd man out. But then, of course, Honolulu has the five-star Trump International hotel in downtown Waikiki.

There are several reasons previous Presidents chose the Kahala. When it opened, the year after JFK was assassinated, it was the most expensive hotel ever built – US$12 million ($17 million). (That's a title now held by Mecca's Abraj Al-Bait, a cluster of seven towers including the Fairmont Hotel in the central clock tower, the fifth tallest freestanding building in the world – though it tends to attract fewer A-list celebrities.)

The Kahala is also well away from the main Waikiki hub, on the south-eastern side of Diamond Head, which makes it easy to secure during a Presidential visit without locking down the entire local tourist industry (though it's just a US$20 ($28) cab ride from the legendary beachcomber watering hole, Duke's Waikiki).

Kahala Hotel & Resort (its full name) was the pet project of the legendary hotel magnate Conrad Hilton who saw it as the jewel in his international crown.

By the time, Hawaii became the 50th state of the union in 1959, Waikiki beach was already lined with hotels, many of them as legendary as the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider.

But Hilton negotiated with the Hawaiian locals who owned the oceanfront land at the undeveloped Waialae/Kahala. 

There was no beach so thousands of tonnes of sand was imported from Mokokai, one of the smaller islands, and two artificial rock promontories were built to create a private bay, its calm waters protected by the reef 600 metres out to sea.

For architects, Hilton chose Killingsworth, Brady and Smith, a Long Beach company which specialised in Californian Modernism. 

The result is that rarest of buildings, a 1960s architectural gem. The main 10-storey towers are elevated on graceful two-storey high concrete pillars, with the main public rooms (high-ceilinged lobby, ballroom, restaurants) in the centre.

When the then-Kahala Hilton opened in January 1964, it made news around the world. Baseball icon Joe DiMaggio was just one of the celebrity guests at the gala, most of them astonished by the lavish interiors exemplified by the custom-built chandeliers (there  are  more than 10,000 pieces of stained glass in the hotel) and the much-photographed "Orchid Wall" (a favourite for wedding snaps).  

Even then, Kahala basked in we what now call "green credentials". It was one of the first hotels in the world to have a man-made saltwater lagoon, which is part of the airconditioning system. (Cold saltwater from deep in the ocean is piped to the hotel, and pumped round the rooms. It exits via an artificial waterfall which refreshes the oxygen levels sufficiently to keep the hotel's famous dolphins and turtles healthy, before being pumped out to sea again.)

What has this got to do with visiting Presidents?

Nothing, really. 

Politicians – like royalty and movie stars – stayed at the Kahala because it is discrete and away from public scrutiny. 

That's why Obama, while in the White House, always stayed at his private home (he was born in Honolulu's main public hospital and was educated at the city's Punahou school) and played his golf at the nearby military army base.

Trump decided otherwise when he visited Hawaii as President last year. You know where this is going, don't you?

When Trump International Waikiki opened in 2009, it was the first new five-star hotel in Waikiki for years. In 2016, while on the campaign trail, Trump claimed to own it. But as Hawaii News Now reported, "that's not true". 

It's actually a condominium hotel, with individuals owning individual rooms. Trump earned 10 per cent of the US$700 million raised when all the apartments sold in a single day, in return for granting the property use of his famous name.

That must have seemed a good idea in 2009. Yet, a decade later, the Trump International doesn't seem so keen to promote the connection.

I was due to stay at the Trump International but when I asked the director of marketing and communications if I could arrange a Trump-related tour during my single day's visit her tone changed immediately.

"I do want to gently and politely let you know that while we are a Trump brand hotel, we would appreciate your understanding that we are not affiliated with the current administration or any political issues," she emailed. Also, suddenly and strangely, my reservation was cancelled.

Surely a "Trump brand hotel" isn't embarrassed to be associated with the 45th President?

So what's it like? 

Surprisingly stylish – more Melania than Donald. 

Obviously I never get to see the guest rooms, but anyone can walk into the hotel and take the lift  to the sixth-floor lobby, overlooking Fort DeRussy Beach Park and views of the ocean.

After a quick stroll past the lap pool (small), I take a late lunch at Wai'olu, persuaded by the 180-minute "Happy Hour". (How Hawaiian is that?).

My meal is both delicious and reasonably priced. "Poke of the day" – tuna in this case – followed by "Seafood Dynamite" (scallops, shrimp, mushroom, zucchini, caramelised onion and 'homemade Dynamite sauce'). 

The waiter warns me it will be hot. Fake news. It isn't even spicy by Australian standards, but at least it isn't a nuclear option, North Korean style.

So where did Donald and Melania actually stay on their one-night Honolulu stopover?

The Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach, the newest five-star apartment-style hotel in downtown Waikiki (where the Presidential motorcade screwed up the traffic for two days, according to my taxi driver).

I'd like to think this was an ethical decision: that Trump didn't want to be accused of promoting his own brands while in office. (Though that didn't stop him entertaining the Chinese President at Mar-a-Lago or playing golf at one of his courses during Senator John McCain's state funeral.)

Donald and Melania stayed in one of the Ritz-Carlton's top-floor four bedrooms (views of the ocean, though the vista is interrupted by the Trump International). 

Since my own one-bedroom apartment at the Ritz-Carlton is vast, I can't believe how big their apartment must have been.

I also can't believe that the next morning after his first Presidential stay in Hawaii, the Commander-in-Chief who promised to "Make America Great Again" took his first visit to Pearl Harbour, scene of the 1942 surprise attack by the Japanese imperial forces.

"I've read about, spoken about, heard about, studied but I've never been," Trump told Hawaii News Now.

His previous visits had been to play golf or attend the beauty pageants he owned.

But let's end on a happier note. 

For anyone old enough to remember the TV series Magnum PI, there's a plaque commemorating "Magnum's Bar" – which featured in most episodes – on the Kahala beachfront. It's now primarily a wedding venue.

And, of course Tom Selleck (who played Magnum) is featured on Kahala's "Wall of Fame".

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America, Kahala Hotel & Resort, and Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach.

STAY

Kahala Hotel & Resort, Honolulu, rooms from $680 ($950) a night, see kahalaresort.com.

Trump International Waikiki, apartments from $676 ($947), see trumphotels.com/waikiki

Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach, rooms from $740 ($1037), see ritzcarlton.com/en/residences/waikiki-beach.

FLY

Qantas, Jetstar and Hawaiian have regular flights to Honolulu.

CRUISE

Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is the only cruise ship which visits four Hawaiian islands in a seven-day cruise (departing and returning every Saturday). See ncl.com

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