Waikiki's Ilikai Hotel and Suites Turns 50

One of Waikiki’s most iconic landmarks celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Here’s the story of how this hotel/condo hybrid came to be.


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The hotel under construction.

Developer Chinn Ho shows off a model of The Ilikai.

Photos: Courtesy The Ilikai Hotel

However, the Ilikai as a co-op apartment building didn’t sell much better for Ho, either. The project was part of what a fretful December 1962 cover story of Hawaii Business and Industry described as a “rash of construction” in Waikiki, an “untimely boom” created artificially by a city ordinance that set height limits for Waikiki and sought to limit overcrowding. The ordinance, at least temporarily, had the opposite effect, as developers rushed to get their projects before the limits set it. (An aerial photo of this overdeveloped Waikiki on the cover now looks astonishingly … undeveloped.)

After moving 300 units out of more than 1,000 at a crawl in this environment, Ho shifted gears and converted the project into a half-and-half condo-hotel. This would mean a complicated system of management to have 1) owner-occupants, 2) owners who rented out their units, 3) owners who put their units into the hotel room market and 4) a hotel operator running half the building. Complicated, but the best way for everyone, from Ho to individual investment buyers, to realize a profit from the building.

So, a hotel it would be, and a fairly luxurious one at that, since the rooms to be rented were as spacious as the apartments they had been designed as, many with full kitchens. To run the hotel operation, Ho brought in Howard Donnelly, then the general manager of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, for his experience with upscale properties.

Elements we now think of as essential to the Ilikai’s identity—the glass elevator, the rooftop restaurant—were added to market the Ilikai as a hotel. And all on the fly. “With construction nearing the half-way point, the engineering changes are rapidly being cranked into the plans to accommodate the new look of the Ilikai,” wrote HB&I.

The Payoff

If that cameo in the Five-0 opening credits helped create the Ilikai’s reputation, it’s worth noting that the place had been open for four years by the time KGMB’s helicopter pilot Capt. Irwin Malzman flew into headwinds to capture Jack Lord standing on a penthouse lanai. The Ilikai made the credits because it was cool and happening from day one.* Local power brokers moved in immediately, such as U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and his wife and infant son, as did Edwin B. Benner Jr., president of Bishop Trust Co. While Boeing jets fueled Waikiki’s explosive growth, William Boeing Jr., son of the company’s founder, snapped up an Ilikai apartment as a part-time retreat.

* The Ilikai was also a friend to the TV show, with Chinn Ho making room on site for Five-0 production offices, according to current Ilikai general manager Terry Dowsett. “Kam Fong’s character, Lt. Chin Ho Kelly, is named after both Chinn Ho and Roy Kelley, of the Outrigger Hotels, both of whom really supported the show,” he says.

The Ilikai, in its early years, sounds like the most glamorous time and place in Waikiki’s postwar era. Bobbie Kane, the Ilikai’s public relations director from 1965 to 1971, remembers every detail with precision and fondness, not least because she met her husband through the job. Alex Kane was a dashing Royal Air Force World War II veteran from New Zealand she had been assigned to look after. “I chased him for eight years before he finally caught me!” she jokes, patting his arm. We caught up with Bobbie and Alex at the Ilikai Bar & Grill on a recent Saturday.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2019
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