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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Richard Bell has been lighting the tiki toches of The Ilikai for 50 years.

Photo: Olivier Koning


One can find some of this in today’s Ilikai. In fact, one employee in particular has been keeping a Hawaiian feel alive at the Ilikai every night for the past 50 years. Richard Bell, long retired from his day job with the Gas Co., drives in from Hawaii Kai, dons a red malo, lights the torches on the property and blows the same conch shell he’s been blowing for decades to welcome the night.

He’s an accidental torch lighter, it turns out. His wife, Alma Kanani, was a hula dancer at the Royal’s Monarch Room. Bell would go to pick her up after her show, hanging out with the other waiting boyfriends and husbands, when entertainer Haunani Kahalewai drafted some of the men into a big Christmas show. “It was $25 a week,” he recalls. That led to a luau gig in 1960.

“Auntie told me, ‘You better get a conch shell!’” he says, laughing. (His is from, of all places, Disneyland, where he bought it for $32.) When the Ilikai opened, relatives of his worked in entertainment and brought him aboard. He was about 26.

“It isn’t hard to learn,” he says of the conch shell. His sunset performance is a ritual of his own devising, not too long, on purpose. “There’s such a thing as too much conch shell!” he says.

Crowds gather to watch him, snap photos. People who took his picture on their honeymoon take pictures of him with their grandkids. Sometimes they share the old photos with him, “when they were young, and I was young.” (If you’d like to look as good as Bell at 76, know that he paddles three times a week.)

He seems more amused than mournful about the passing of time. That’s the best way to be, since things do change.

The Pacific Ballroom is long gone. In the 1980s, the Ilikai seemed to lose some shine, when three clubs, like The Power Station and the Playboy Club, would let out at 2 a.m. and patrons would get into fights.

Two buildings Chinn Ho added later to the Ilikai remain physically attached, but spiritually sundered. The Marina Tower still boasts The Chart House Restaurant on the ground floor (born in 1969, Chart House claims to be “the longest running, singly owned-and-operated restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii”), though a Red Lobster and an Outback Steakhouse occupy the space that was once the Royal Marina Twin movie theaters.

Chinn Ho sold the Ilikai in 1974 to Marriott International, the first of several ownership changes, and passed away in 1987. Over the years, the Ilikai started to show its age. Troll through TripAdvisor or other online travel reviews and you’ll find visitors still raving about the views but complaining that the aging units were rundown or shabby.

And there have been other bumps in the road in recent years. Brian Anderson, through his Anekona Development Group, acquired 343 hotel rooms in the Ilikai and another 360 in the adjoining Yacht Harbor Tower for $218 million in 2006. He sold the latter—the Yacht Harbor Tower is now The Modern, where Morimoto Waikiki serves up piscine minimalism and bartenders craft cocktails at the pool bar.

By August 2009, lender iStar Financial foreclosed on Anekona and it seemed the hotel would close for good. It hasn’t; the hotel portion is now managed by Honolulu-based Aqua Hotels & Resorts and soldiers on, though last July union members of Unite Here Local 5 protested over the steady loss of hotel work at the Ilikai over the years, down to 63 from a high of 750.

The current owner, iStar, is now remodeling three floors of hotel rooms to high-end units. “The hotel rooms are currently going through extensive renovation throughout 2014,” says Ilikai hotel manager Terry Dowsett. “The interior designer is Philpotts and Associates who utilized a design theme recognizing the iconic ’60s in the hotel’s early years, blended with a modern appeal.” Having seen one of the model units, it’s true—the prevailing luxury aesthetic of retro modernism, all straight lines and natural materials, feel right at home here.

Some condo owners in the Ilikai are less than pleased with this. In March 2013, they filed a lawsuit alleging that a vote to approve this renovation plan was improper and aspects of that challenge are still pending at this writing. One of their concerns? “It is believed that iStar will market its units as stand-alone condominiums, rather than as a unified hotel operation,” explains their attorney, Gregory W. Kugle.  

If so, the Ilikai may finally become, after 50 years, what two sets of developers tried and failed to sell in the beginning—an apartment building.

Still, the Ilikai remains the Ilikai. It even appears in the opening credits of the new Five-0, though in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frenetic edit.

Go on a Friday night to the Ilikai Bar & Grill, take in Bell’s torch-lighting ceremony and live music performed by Kawika Trask and Friends. Get a Hawaiian plate. What the heck, order a tropical drink with an umbrella in it.

At 7:45 p.m., the Hilton’s fireworks show will go off like an air raid. A couple of hundred people fill the courtyard for it, eyes skyward. When the show ends, the crowd cheers, takes seats and the Hawaiian music starts up again.

Hey, I’m down for another 50 years of that. How about you?

Happy birthday, Ilikai.
 

Below: historical photos of the Ilikai Hotel.

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