The Royal Treatment

A revived Royal Hawaiian Center honors Helumoa’s past

By: By Dawna L. Robertson

Web Exclusive

Read more about Royal Hawaiian's fun for all.

The Details

Royal Hawaiian Center

The center is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Restaurant hours may vary.

At some point between my first vacation in Waikiki and moving there a few years later, the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center had shot up smack dab in the heart of the resort on Kalakaua Avenue.


 The Royal Grove, an open-air garden, lies at the center of the newly renovated RHC. // © Royal Hawaiian Center

Anyone who has been to Waikiki knows the spot. It’s firmly planted on the mauka (mountain) side of the iconic Royal Hawaiian Hotel — a position that spawned considerable grumbling by those who relished the Pink Palace’s presence when strolling or driving along this main thoroughfare.

Thirty years later, while the center still dominates three city blocks, it’s fresh from a dramatic, $115 million revitalization and expansion that finds the Royal Hawaiian viewable from Kalakaua Avenue for the first time in three decades.

Remaining open throughout the three-year process, the 310,000-square-foot center focused on restoring a Hawaiian sense of place to an urban area where “concrete jungle” surroundings often overshadow its rich royal history. In my book, it was done so in a thoughtful, pleasant manner.

Retagged the Royal Hawaiian Center (RHC) to better reflect its varied offerings beyond shopping, the once stark complex has evolved into a lively force in reestablishing Waikiki as a hot spot for visitors and residents alike.

“The center was fatigued and needed to adapt to today’s demands,” said Helen “Sam” Shenkus, marketing director. “The goal was to create a lush, restful gathering place in the heart of Waikiki.”

Rather than replace history, RHC’s revamped design and programs honor, showcase and celebrate it.

RHC sits on Helumoa, a royal retreat that once flourished with a grove of more than 10,000 coconut trees. It’s a revered site where Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop penned the last codicil to her will and testament, bequeathing her lands to her private estate in order to establish the Kamehameha Schools. Today, RHC remains Kamehameha School’s largest real estate asset in generating revenue for education.

Carved into RHC’s spiritual piko (center) is the Royal Grove, the largest open-air garden space in the heart of Waikiki. This centerpiece for entertainment and cultural gatherings features 30,000 square feet of lush ethno-botanical gardens thriving with coconut trees, native and indigenous plants and a bubbling pond reminiscent of Waikiki’s original “spouting waters” springs. A bronze statue of Princess Pauahi greets grove visitors as a reminder of her benevolence.

It was nice to see how RHC’s physical transformation has significantly softened what was once considered a retail fortress. Bulky concrete bridges have been replaced with open breezeways and three elevators have made way for airy escalators.

The new arcade-style design allows for easier viewing of what lies on levels above and below. Now, the center possesses a much friendlier atmosphere where tropical landscaping, island-style motifs and coconut-themed fixtures dominate in place of stodgy structures.

As for RHC’s retail roster, it is a fun and fitting mix where upscale brands like Salvatore Ferragamo stand shoulder-to-shoulder with local and lifestyle retailers like Xcel Hawaii and Harley Davidson. Some 110 options run the range from Fendi, Cartier and Hermes to Crazy Shirts and a 4,400-square-foot ABC Store.

“When you come here, it’s not like every other shopping center,” Shenkus said. “We have the only bookstore [Borders Express] in Waikiki, so you might see people walking in their swimwear for a book to read at the beach or pool.”

RHC is also home to Hawaii’s largest Apple store, the highest-grossing Cheesecake Factory in the U.S. and Hawaii’s only Kate Spade, Tourneau and Senor Frog’s. Other eateries include longtime tenants Restaurant Suntory and Paradiso Seafood and Grille, plus exciting newcomers like P.F. Chang’s, Doraku Sushi, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse and the Paina Lanai food court with its selection of quick-
service restaurants.

Too late for RHC’s daily cultural enrichment programs, I opted to visit Bob’s Ukulele for a quick tip or two. Bob’s conducts free hour-long classes Tuesday through Friday mornings beginning at 10 a.m.

“We encourage people to learn about ukulele at our classes before they decide to buy one,” said store spokesman Waianu Ah Quin. “We’ll help them find the right match and give them some history along the way.”

Complimentary classes are also offered in Hawaiian quilting, hula, lei-making and lomilomi massage. Capping RHC’s cultural focus, the Kaulani Heritage Room welcomes visitors to catch a high-definition look at Hawaiian history through three specially produced video presentations.

With a few gifts in hand and a filling lunch of sushi under my belt, I left RHC with a greater appreciation for how this formerly gray retail complex has become an aloha-infused gathering place breathing fresh energy into Waikiki.