THE heart of Waikiki has long been a hodgepodge of high-end boutiques and crummy shops, luxury resorts and low-rent hotels, its main drag dominated by a boxy stone shopping mall with the aesthetic appeal of a medieval keep.
But now the tourist zone is undergoing changes that local tourism boosters call nothing less than a renaissance. And that's not just hype.
Besides new and renovated hotels and restaurants, the projects include new public spaces designed to bring light, trees and Hawaiian entertainment into what had become a warren of narrow streets and concrete blocks.
The price tag? More than half a billion dollars -- and growing.
It's possibly the most sweeping development ever done at once in the former playground of Hawaiian royalty, said Jay Talwar, senior vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. "I don't know that it's ever happened en masse as it's happening now," he said.
Although some changes, including re-branding the landmark Sheraton Moana Surfrider as a Westin hotel, are months away, a few big projects have been completed this month.
Leading the charge is Outrigger Enterprises Group. The hotelier has spent years razing, renovating and rebuilding properties on 7.9 acres in a once-grubby area of Waikiki. The result is the Waikiki Beach Walk, a $535-million hotel, condominium and retail project opening in phases in the next two to three years.
In some ways, the Beach Walk simply means more of the same in Waikiki. Retail tenants include a new location of the neighborhood's ubiquitous ABC Stores, a Crazy Shirts T-shirt store and Ruth's Chris Steak House.
But it also brings real improvements, including an open-air arcade and grassy outdoor stage on Lewers Street, which previously was a crevasse straddled by ratty concrete towers.
"You'd walk down Lewers, and basically you had to look straight up to see the sky," said Nancy Daniels, an Outrigger spokeswoman. "To open this space up is just tremendous."
The first shops opened this month. Local celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi plans to open a new location of his fusion cuisine restaurant, Roy's, here in February.
The Beach Walk project also brings new hotels. Outrigger is taking reservations at its new Embassy Suites Hotel-Waikiki Beach Walk, a two-tower, 421-suite property one block from the ocean between Lewers and Beachwalk streets, which opened Dec. 18. The hotel has introductory rates starting at $269.
Outrigger also has opened the Wyndham Waikiki Beach Walk, a time-share property managed by Wyndham Vacation Resorts.
Around the corner from the Beach Walk, Halekulani Corp. is putting finishing touches on a renovation of its Waikiki Parc hotel. The company is positioning the Parc as the hip sister of its elegant Halekulani on the beach across the street. Room rates begin at $275 a night.
Kamehameha Schools, a major Waikiki landowner, hopes to restore a Hawaiian sense of place to the heart of Waikiki with an $84-million redesign of its Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, a three-block-long building that is home to luxury retailers.
A massive concrete pedestrian bridge will be replaced with a wooden trestle that looks like a treehouse. The focal point of the more open center will be the Royal Grove, a garden of coconut palms and amphitheaters with free hula shows, ukulele demonstrations and other entertainment. There also will be a series of six botanical gardens showing varieties of native plants.
"What we're really trying to do is relate to the land," Todani said, "open up to the environment, open up to the people."
The grove and gardens will link Kalakaua Avenue to the park-like grounds of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the 1920s Spanish-style "Pink Palace of the Pacific" on the beach at Waikiki.
The Royal Hawaiian's owner, Kyo-ya Co., is planning upgrades to the hotel's pool, beach and restaurants as the hotel becomes more accessible from Kalakaua Avenue. Also, as part of a reflagging of the historic Sheraton Moana Surfrider as a Westin, Kyo-ya plans a renovation of the lobby. And early in 2007, the company will finish renovations of its Sheraton Waikiki.
More projects are on the drawing board. By the end of 2007, Outrigger hopes to introduce another new operator to Waikiki to rejuvenate the budget Ohana Islander Waikiki property, said Daniels, the Outrigger spokeswoman.
And there's the Trump International Hotel & Tower, a condo-hotel that is part of the Beach Walk project and is scheduled to be completed by early 2009.
"Certainly the Beach Walk is the first major project, and the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center is right on its heels," said the visitor bureau's Talwar. "But there's really much more to come, and it's going to be happening over the next three years."
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The hotel connection
Embassy Suites Hotel-Waikiki Beach Walk
Ohana Islander Waikiki
Royal Hawaiian Hotel
Sheraton Moana Surfrider
Waikiki Parc Hotel
Wyndham Waikiki Beach Walk
-- Stewart Yerton