‘Iolani Palace’s New Tour Provides a Behind-the-Ropes Look at Rooms and Collection You Won’t See on Display
Hands on history.
As I stand at the edge of the dining table in ‘Iolani Palace, I should be marveling at the 150-year-old Parisian porcelain dinnerware inlaid with the royal coat of arms; soaking in palace historian Zita Cup Choy’s stories. Instead, the fact that I have passed through the stanchions that kept visitors at a distance for decades fills my head with barely suppressed exclamations of glee.
It’s a rather puerile reaction to the sophisticatedly named White Glove Tour, which launched earlier this year. But the opportunity to walk into previously off-limits areas is likely to leave any history aficionado in childish delight. The first 45 minutes is spent walking through the dining and throne rooms before ascending the koa staircase to peek into the bedrooms on the second floor. On this tour, however, Choy releases the velvet ropes four times, allowing us to step up to the replica thrones and chairs, lean over Kalākaua’s poker table in the king’s bedroom and peruse the books in the library.
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Still, the most intriguing part of this specialty experience begins in an elevator. A short ride to the third floor and a small set of metal steps lead you to the collection rooms and palace collection manager Leona Hamano. Hamano selects the four to five pieces that are laid out on white-paper covered tables for each tour. The white gloves of the title are not just a gimmick; guests must don them before picking up the artifacts. A Royal Order from Alexander III of Russia proves hefty, with 609 diamonds weighing in at 16.5 carats, glinting, we imagine, almost as brightly as when it arrived in Hawai‘i in 1884, one year after Curtis Iaukea presented the czar the Royal Order of Kamehameha I. We lift Iaukea’s sword, examine a broken candelabra that was discovered in the trash, and read a letter Queen Lili‘uokalani wrote to a friend in 1899. Seeing her handwritten words is deeply moving.
This portion of the tour is supposed to last 45 minutes but, as Choy and Hamano note, it always goes longer. With rooms of kahili and calabashes, lei hulu manu, textiles and even one bullet-struck goblet to gaze upon, we are no exception. When we head back to our cars, the gloves are off and now I’m wondering: What hidden treasures will the next group get to hold? With thousands of items held out of public view, that mystery is enough to bring me back.