But standing in the midst of them -- incongruously, proudly, maybe a bit defiantly -- is a coral-pink throwback to the Jazz Age, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
This is the Pink Palace of the Pacific, a landmark on this beach for 77
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It still has its coconut palm trees, a remnant of the royal Helumoa grove that occupied this spot in the 16th century. It has lush gardens of hibiscus, ginger, plumeria and monkey pod -- a rare oasis in Waikiki's concrete jungle. And it has an absolutely enviable location, poised on a stretch of beach looking toward the iconic symbol of Hawaii's scenic beauty, Diamond Head.
To get a sense of this period, enter through the hotel's porte-cochere, ascend the front staircase into the lobby, and turn your head to the right. A grand hallway leads to a tall, arched opening that frames the brilliant sunshine, the blue sky and the turquoise sea beyond. Now as then, a magnet for both the eyes and the footsteps.
The Royal, as it is affectionately called, opened grandly on Feb. 1, 1927 -- though its design and decor were a bit muddled, with Hawaiian themes nowhere in evidence. The architecture was Spanish-Moorish because the silent films of Rudolph Valentino were all the rage at the time. There were some California Mission touches thrown in -- bell towers, cupolas and such. The ballroom offered a taste of Egypt, with murals of barges floating the Nile. There was a Persian Room, with waiters dressed in turbans and shoes with curled-up toes. In the lobby, bellhops were attired in traditional Chinese dress. And throughout the hotel were elaborate rugs from Czechoslovakia, Holland, Persia and Tunisia.
The orientation of the hotel was toward what is now Kalakaua Avenue, then a tropical expanse dotted with private homes. Subsequent developers would face everything in the opposite direction, prostrating to that ocean view.
The Royal Hawaiian was destined to have a star-crossed history. The stock market crashed 2 1/2 years after it opened, and the people most affected by the collapse also made up the hotel's target market.
Just after it got back on its feet in the late 1930s, Japanese bombs fell nearby on Pearl Harbor. Barbed wire was strung along Waikiki Beach to foil an anticipated invasion, and with tourist travel entirely pinched off, the hotel became a rest-and-relaxation retreat for Navy submarine crewmen.
The Royal bounced back with the mainstream tourist boom that followed, however, and even built its own modern tower and a swimming pool in the 1960s to keep pace with evolving demand.
The hotel's multilayered history is honored at every turn. Display cases in the lobby exhibit such artifacts as a dress worn by one of the guests on opening night (distinctly in the flapper style), china and silver service from that dinner, an original room key and a hotel bill from 1954 -- when a buffet meal could be had for $1.54.
A rich store of archival photos, meanwhile, is displayed on the walls of the Beach Club Cafe, next to the pool. Here are pictures of surfers riding their massive boards straight in to shore (angling across the wave and making slashing turns would come later). Women are seen in period bathing garb, venturing into the water in full-length skirts and stockings (ugh!). There are shots of the Royal's famous early visitors: Shirley Temple, Doris Duke, Peter Lawford as a young boy.
Some of the photos are numbered, with an explanatory panel nearby, but others could use cards providing information about who is depicted and when.
You can also find some memorabilia in unexpected places. In the lobby restrooms, I came across framed vintage sheet music from the early days of Hawaii tourism -- songs like "My Hula-Hula Love" ' from 1911, for which the island girl on the cover looks more Arabic than Polynesian (it was published in New York; the artist likely never set foot here).
A historical walking tour is offered to guests of the Royal every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2 p.m., but we concluded that this is not an essential undertaking. Our guide, a volunteer from the Waikiki Community Center, frequently rambled onto tangents and at times could offer no better illumination than to read aloud from info cards in the historic display cases.
Another tour offered by the hotel is a self-guided walk through the gardens, and it is superb. A glossy brochure (available at the concierge desk) directs you on an ambling stroll -- past dozens of tropical plants and beneath massive monkey pod, banyan and coconut palm trees. The flora flourishes in this climate: fuzzy purple chenille, brilliant red hibiscus, fragrant plumeria and bird of paradise with white, daggerlike blossoms easily 6 inches in length.
The walk also takes in an herb garden used by the Royal's chefs and skirts the hotel's own plant nursery. That nursery abuts the hotel's Abahasa Spa, which has cabana treatment rooms in a small courtyard (get the kinks worked out amid tropical greenery, sung to by twittering birds).
The garden walk provides an intriguing perspective on the hotel's once-grand front entrance, which presided over Kalakaua Avenue until the 1970s, when a ghastly brown block of a shopping center was plopped down at the edge of the garden.
But the requirements of the traveler changed with the passage of the years, and the Royal probably would have been reduced to a pink elephant had it not at least tried to keep up.
The Egyptian and Persian flourishes are long gone, along with the bellhop costumes.
Last year, $8.2 million was spent to renovate the hotel's modern tower. Rooms there now have light colors and gleaming granite in the bathrooms. All the rooms face the ocean and have lanais for outdoor lounging, whereas there isn't so much as an accessible balcony in the 1927 part of the hotel.
The original building, however, does have such elegant touches as elaborately carved guest room doors (handcrafted, no two alike), polished koa-wood floors in some suites and antique public phones with cloth insulation over the wiring (and they work!).
"Some people want to stay in the historic wing," ' said hotel spokeswoman Cynthia Rankin. "They just like that traditional, historic feel and the Queen Anne furniture. Others want the tower -- the views, the contemporary Hawaii. It" s a fresher feel.''
But the latter still have easy access to a step back in time. It's a delight, for example, just to walk along the curving, open-air colonnade that links the old building with the new.
The shopping along here and in other lobby areas is first-rate. Guests will find plenty of beach-boutique items -- clothing, hats, straw bags -- in the event they packed insufficiently. Other highlights include basket purses and koa-carved boxes at Lamont's, colorful needlework at the Hawaiian Quilt Collection, vivid oil paintings of tropical landscapes at Gallery Lau Chun, a positively rakish selection of Panama hats at Newt ...
And all things pink at Making Waves. The color has become a Royal Hawaiian signature down through the years -- to the extent that there's no escaping it. In our room, pink was used for the bedspread, top sheet, blanket, towels, robes, bath mats, soap, shampoo and the pen by the note pad. At Making Waves are pink T-shirts, beach cover-ups, towels, polo shirts, shower clogs.
At the beachside Mai Tai Bar, they even serve a tropical cocktail aptly christened the Pink Palace -- a tall, frothy indulgence of rum, Grand Marnier, pineapple, coconut, banana and grenadine (the latter to provide the distinctive hue).
With one of those or something more traditional, this bar is a pleasant place to wind down the afternoon, all the more so with the live Hawaiian music presented here daily.
For a more comprehensive entertainment program, be sure to get a ticket to the Royal Luau, held every Monday night on the adjacent Ocean Lawn.
This is the rare Hawaiian luau held smack along the beach at Waikiki, and it's one lavish production: long tables of food, free-flowing mai tais (though of decidedly low octane), good service and a terrific Polynesian show. The music and dancing roams from Hawaii to Tahiti to Samoa, with numerous costume changes, thunderous drums and of course the obligatory fire dance.
The buffet tables hold such traditional items as kalua pig, cooked in ti leaves with spinachlike taro leaves. (Be forewarned, though, about the authenticity of the preparation: I came across what I thought was a dumpling, only to learn -- too late -- that it was a substantial globule of pork fat.) There is also lau lau (pulled pork), chicken long rice (similar to spaghetti noodles), teriyaki steak, mahimahi filets and such salads as Hawaiian octopus and lomi salmon. Oh -- and of course two great, gray bowls of poi.
As the sun sets and the lights of the tiki torches dance, you'll likely be impressed with the Royal Hawaiian's greatest asset of all: location. The crescent of Waikiki Beach curves away to the left. Diamond Head looms in the distance. Lights twinkle on the water.
No wonder the other hotel builders so relentlessly pressed in on the Royal.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, Aug. 22
For a look at other Classic Hotels that have been featured in the series, visit www.greatescapes.com
If you go
WHERE: 2259 Kalakaua Ave., Honolulu.
RATES: Promotional "escape" ' rates, from $239, are available on the hotel's Web site throughout much of the year. Published rates from $380.
INFORMATION: (808) 923-7311; www.royal-hawaiian.com/index.htm
RESERVATIONS: (888) 488-3535.