Expectations are bound to be high for a hotel whose Hawaiian name translates to “house befitting heaven.” But Halekulani exceeds expectations in every way.
Since its humble beginnings in 1917, when the Waikiki property accommodated just 40 guests in five bungalows and a two-story beach house, it has received more than 500 awards and earned recognition as one of the world’s finest independent luxury hotels.
It had been many years since my last stay, but when I checked in at the beginning of 2023, I was immediately reminded of Halekulani’s relaxed, intimate ambiance — even with its guestroom count now numbering 453. That casual vibe is due in large part to the hotel’s thoughtful design: On the ground floor, walkways feature natural light and cool breezes; spacious courtyards are carpeted with grass and bordered by greenery; and cozy nooks — some beside little pools and fountains — are perfect for reading and quiet conversation. Clients will never feel like they’re in bustling Waikiki.
I also love that Halekulani exudes elegance with aloha. Beautiful arrangements of bright tropical blooms — all created in-house — invite a closer look. Genial staff in suits tend the front desk, and original paintings and sculptures throughout the property celebrate Hawaii’s history and beauty. When I got to my guestroom, I was delighted to find a platter of fresh fruit and cookies on the dresser (a welcome gift for every room) and to learn that bottled water was continually replenished and shoeshine service was complimentary.
The hotel’s aloha spirit extends to sharing local culture, as evidenced by Halekulani’s “For You, Everything” program, which provides guests with free admission to several of Oahu’s top attractions, such as the Bishop Museum, Iolani Palace and Manoa Heritage Center.
“For You, Everything” Program Highlights
Music lovers will want to reserve time for a Hawaii Symphony Orchestra concert. The hotel partners with the orchestra's Halekulani Masterworks series, which features renowned classical music artists from around the world. The final Masterworks performances this year will be April 16 and May 6 and 7.
My favorite part of my visit to Manoa Heritage Center was Kukaoo Heiau, the only intact and restored ancient Hawaiian temple in Honolulu proper. Long ago, it overlooked taro fields and was dedicated to Lono, the god of agriculture, rain and fertility.
Another must-see is Iolani Palace, the former official residence of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs: King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliuokalani. Here, guests can view many of the royal family’s personal possessions, including jewelry, furniture and tableware.
The Bishop Museum, meanwhile, is the premier natural and cultural history institution in the Pacific. It was founded by Charles Reed Bishop to honor his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha I, who unified the islands of Hawaii in 1810.
Architecture buffs will want to visit Liljestrand House, a superb example of mid-20th-century Hawaiian architecture built by Vladimir Ossipoff. Set high atop Mount Tantalus, it reveals a spectacular view of Honolulu.
Recommend that clients plan a stop at The Honolulu Museum of Art around a tour and/or Family Sunday (on the third Sunday of every month), when activities and entertainment revolve around a theme. The museum’s permanent collection includes 55,000 works from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific and the Americas that span 5,000 years.
Keep the art education going at Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Design. In accordance with her will, Doris Duke’s Hawaii home opened in 2002 as the only museum in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to Islamic art. The only child of tobacco and electric power tycoon James Buchanan Duke, Doris acquired many of the nearly 4,500 pieces in her collection during trips to Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
On-Property Tours and Activities
Halekulani also offers many complimentary on-site activities. During my stay, I attended an hour-long presentation about our relationships to food, which took place in the hotel’s airy, comfortable veranda as part of the Art of Wellbeing series, which happens on the second Saturday of every month. Coming up: The Principles of Feng Shui (April 8), Dream Interpretation (May 13) and Acupuncture for Pain Relief (June 10).
Art aficionados can visit Halekulani’s art gallery, which is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On view through spring are oil paintings by renowned painter and sculptor Satoru Abe, who at age 96, continues to create art every day at his Honolulu home. Exhibitions spotlighting other local artists will be mounted throughout the year.
Few Hawaii hotels can claim Halekulani’s long, colorful history, which is summarized during the 8 a.m. Historical Tour on Fridays. Clients will appreciate their stay much more when they learn about things such as the healing freshwater springs at nearby Gray’s Beach, the ancient on-site fishing shrine and the stately Main Building, which dates back to 1932. Designed by Charles Dickey, who developed an architectural style that capitalized on Hawaii’s balmy climate, it features the distinctive high-pitched “Dickey” roof, which helps keep the interior cool.
My favorite part of the tour focused on the large kiawe tree beside the sea, said to be more than 130 years old. As the story goes, Chang Apana, a Honolulu Police Department detective, regaled novelist Earl Derr Biggers with captivating stories in the shade of that tree. Der Biggers based the fictional character Charlie Chan on Apana and titled the first book in his series about the intrepid Hawaiian crime fighter “The House Without a Key.”
The restaurant that now stands in that spot was named after that book. And there’s no better way to end the day than with music, hula, cocktails and pupu (appetizers) at House Without A Key — with the majestic kiawe tree and a glorious Hawaiian sunset as the backdrop.