A sea change on Oahu

A sea change on Oahu
Before visitors are allowed into Hanauma Bay State Beach Park, they must watch a film on its ecology. (Gail Fisher / LAT)
THE editorial cartoon pictures two tourists being ejected from Hanauma Bay State Beach Park, one of Hawaii's most beautiful strips of sea and sand. One tourist dejectedly tells the other, "I didn't know about the test."

The illustration plays off a year-old get-tough policy that requires all visitors to watch a nine-minute educational film before they're allowed on the beach. There isn't actually a test, but woe to the tourist who ignores the film and feeds the fish, drops cigarette butts on the beach or walks on the delicate reef.

"This is a nature preserve," park manager Alan Hong said when I visited in August. "People who are looking for a beach where they can play Frisbee are going to find this isn't it."

There's change afoot on Oahu, from the stunning reefs of Hanauma Bay to the strip of tourist hotels lining Waikiki Beach, where, it's hoped, an infusion of $1 billion will revitalize an area that was showing its age.

At Hanauma Bay, about 10 miles southeast of Waikiki, change has meant a cleaner beach and clearer water. Empty plastic bread bags no longer litter the area — jetsam once left by tourists who were handed loaves of bread to feed the fish as they exited tour buses.

The mandatory film is one several measures to protect Hanauma Bay — often listed as one of America's top 10 beaches — from visitors who were loving it to death. Tour buses no longer can enter; they're allowed to stop on a bluff overlooking the park so passengers can take a quick look from afar. And only 300 cars are allowed into the parking lot each morning, so if you don't arrive before 8 or 8:30 a.m. on busy summer days, you may be out of luck. If you do find a place to park, you'll be charged $5 to visit the beach. (Kids and local residents are admitted free.)

I hadn't been to Hanauma for a dozen years or more. On my last visit, people were parked helter-skelter, but this time, Times photographer Gail Fisher and I arrived at 8:10 a.m. and parked in an orderly fashion in one of the last spaces in the lot. The gate closed shortly thereafter.

"We used to get 3 million visitors a year on the beach," Hong told us. "We've reduced that to 1 million. People look at it as very poor customer service, but we do what we have to do to protect this resource."

We watched the film — which explains that the reef is a fragile, living thing — and saw beautiful footage of the creatures we would encounter if we went snorkeling: yellow tangs, black-and-white Moorish idols, bright green sea turtles. "Look but don't touch," the film cautioned viewers. Cleared as beachgoers, we were allowed to ride a tram down to the crescent-shaped bay in the crater of a long-extinct volcano. The water was a brilliant turquoise, with a labyrinth of coral fingers stretching from the reef almost to the shoreline.

Visitors could rent snorkel gear for $6, but there were no food stands on the beach. "Cuts down on trash," Hong said. "It's in keeping with the way a nature preserve should look."

Changing its image

While Hanauma Bay is improving its appearance by limiting visitors, Waikiki is improving itself in hopes of increasing visitors. They'll find new upscale shopping centers and broad landscaped walkways. Aging hotels have been renovated, and the shrinking beach is being widened.

"We needed to change the perception of Waikiki as a mature, aging resort area," said Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Assn.

"There's no denying the product was slipping. Everybody knew it, but no one did anything about it. Honolulu was a cash cow. All the business community had to do was manage the cash registers. There were decades of neglect."

The bubble burst when the Japanese economy crashed in the 1990s.

"We were being held afloat by Japanese tourism," Egged said. "People realized we needed to do something so we wouldn't be so dependent."

Other changes weren't helping. New resorts were being built on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, and airlines were increasingly bypassing Oahu and delivering visitors directly to the other islands.

A revitalization project, which got underway in the late '90s, gained momentum after Sept. 11. Nearly half a billion dollars has been pumped into Waikiki. Another half a billion has been committed to future projects.

The investment shows. As we walked along Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki's main thoroughfare, we saw that the street had been narrowed to create wide, inviting pedestrian walkways. Sidewalks were newly tiled, flowers spilled out of lamppost baskets and waterfalls splashed. Members of the Aloha Patrol, a security and information service, were standing watch and answering tourists' questions.

At Kalakaua Avenue and Kalaimoku Street, we saw a graceful new three-story shopping complex, 2100 Kalakaua, housing Tiffany, Gucci, Chanel and other top-end retailers. The $140-million project replaced a jumble of faded souvenir storefronts. A 7-foot bronze sculpture of a female Hawaiian storyteller held court under a canopy of trees.

Dramatic new Hawaiian art can be seen throughout the district, from murals and paintings to bronzes. Among them are larger-than-life statues of Hawaiian royalty, such as Prince Kuhio and Queen Kapiolani, and a 15-foot-tall trio of dancers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village at the west end of Waikiki.

It's a theme common to the changes in Waikiki, and it plays a role in another priority project: luring the kamaaina (Hawaii residents) back to the district, which they had largely abandoned to tourists.

"After Sept. 11, when international visitors dropped off, we realized we needed to bring the residents back into Waikiki," said Malcolm Tom, deputy managing director of the city and county of Honolulu.

Checking out face-lifts

The revitalization of Waikiki has involved government and private sectors, with about 71% of the cost being borne by the region's hoteliers. That doesn't mean everything is shiny and new. There are still unsightly, aging high-rises in the district. But change is visible almost everywhere. Last year, the Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki Hotel kicked off the current round of improvements with a 15-month, $27-million update of its guest rooms, lobby and entryway. (Brochure rates start at $300.)

Gail and I took a mini-tour through hotels that made major changes this year. Our first stop was across from Prince Kuhio Beach at the Aston Waikiki Beach (formerly the Hawaiian Waikiki Beach Hotel), which had a $30-million face-lift keyed to a hip Hawaiiana theme. (Brochure rates start at $212, including breakfast.)

We crossed the street and entered the three-story open-air lobby of the new Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort (formerly the Hawaiian Regent), where bright floral prints, coconut palms, tree ferns and tumbling waterfalls greeted us. The hotel is putting the finishing touches on a $65-million renovation. Its two high-rise towers have 1,310 rooms; 85% have ocean views. (Brochure rates start at $159.) We peeked in a couple and saw tropical greens and yellows and elegant island-style décor complemented by stunning views of the coast. It's no surprise this chunk of land once was a summer home for Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last reigning monarch. That was more than a century ago, before hotels packed the single square mile of land that is today's Waikiki. Despite its diminutive size, Waikiki has 32,000 hotel rooms and hosts about 4 million guests annually. Even with increased competition from the other islands, Waikiki still generates half the money spent by visitors in the state.

Gail and I walked west on Kalakaua to the lovely old pink palace, the Royal Hawaiian, built in 1927 and now dwarfed by the high-rises that surround it. It is one of four Sheraton hotels in Waikiki, totaling 3,400 rooms. We strolled through the hotel's extensive garden and had tea — they call it royal tea ($22 each) — on the shady Coconut Grove Lanai. It was a pleasant interlude, reminiscent of the era when Clark Gable, Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks lolled under umbrellas on the hotel's private beach. We checked the Royal's Tower Wing, where $8.2 million in pretty room upgrades — the amenities are coral pink — are being completed. (Brochure rates start at $380.)

Our next stop was steps away at another venerable Sheraton, the Moana Surfrider, the first hotel on Waikiki Beach. When it opened in 1901, rooms rented for $1.50 a night; now they start at $270. Although the classy beachfront hotel has aged gracefully, it's renovating its 386 tower rooms and upgrading the baths. Soft beige, ecru and white contrast with dark, richly textured woods. The price tag is $16.7 million.

The huge Sheraton Waikiki, a 1,852-room convention hotel, is scheduled for renovation late next year.

One more Waikiki Beach classic beckoned. The Halekulani, which opened to guests in 1917, is consistently ranked among the world's best hotels by Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler magazines. It is the picture of understated elegance, with white-on-white furnishings and lush gardens.

The hotel's $21-million renovation included décor, room furnishings and a spa. Views of the water were magnificent. (Brochure rates start at $325.)

By this time, I'd looked out so many hotel windows at so many beautiful coastline scenes that I started to feel as though I were watching TV. I needed a salty jolt of the Pacific.

We found it in front of the Moana Surfrider, where three large catamarans were pulled up onshore. The going price for an hourlong rollicking ride to Diamond Head and back was $15. We chose the Na Hoku II, whose captain, John Savio, told us he charged $12 if you said you were a repeat customer. ("I know they're not all repeat customers," he said. "It's just my way of charging $12.")

We skimmed across turquoise water until we reached the edge of the ocean shelf, where darker waters signaled a deepening of the sea. The wind was picking up, and whitecaps ruffled the water. Spray pelted the boat as we bounded up and down. Cheap thrills. Cheap booze too, with mai tais priced at $1. We tacked and came about, the familiar Waikiki skyline and towering Koolau Mountains now in front of us.

We returned to our hotel, the mammoth Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort, where Gail and I stayed in city view rooms ($199 each per night).

Earlier this month, the hotel reopened one of its towers: the $95-million, 25-floor Kalia Tower. The Kalia, which replaced the Hilton Dome, opened in 2001, the first hotel built in Waikiki in 10 years.

But it closed a year later when mold was discovered in guest rooms. About $55 million more was spent before the tower could reopen.

The Kalia Tower is one of six high-rises at the Hilton, a miniature city with 3,386 rooms, 90 shops, 22 bars and restaurants and 22 acres of prime land.

The morning we left, Egged joined us for a drive through Waikiki, pointing out other projects that are on the drawing board for the rapidly changing area:

•  Outrigger Hotels & Resorts plans a $300-million retail and entertainment development on a dreary section of Lewers Street at Saratoga and Kalia roads.

•  A $100-million makeover is planned for the International Marketplace on Kalakaua. The banyan and monkeypod trees will remain, and new shops and restaurants will be low-rise.

•  Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center on Kalakaua is expected to be remodeled in a $30-million to $60-million project that may begin next year.

"There's a lot more to do, but we're making progress all the time," Egged said. "That's the important thing."



Beyond the orchids and outriggers


From LAX, nonstop service to Honolulu is available on United, American, Northwest, Delta, Hawaiian, Continental and ATA. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $330.


Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa, 2424 Kalakaua Ave.; (800) 223-1234, fax (808) 923-7839, . A three-story waterfall sets off the lobby of this oceanfront hotel. Centrally located with attractively furnished, oversized rooms. Wonderful views from rooms and from the two-story, 10,000-square-foot spa. Doubles from $265.

Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort, 2552 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 922-6611, fax (808) 921-5255, . Some money-saving packages are available at this freshly renovated oceanfront hotel. Excellent location. Doubles from $159.

Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road; (800) 367-2343, fax (808) 926-8004, . Luxury beachfront resort is considered one of the leading hotels in the world. Doubles from $325.


Singha Thai, 1910 Ala Moana Blvd.; (808) 941-2898, . Across from Hilton Hawaiian Village. Fresh orchids and Thai art decorate this restaurant, considered by many locals to have the best Thai food in Honolulu. Dancers perform 7 to 9 p.m. daily. Entrees from $11.95.

Duke's Canoe Club, 2335 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 922-2268, . On the beach at the Outrigger Waikiki. If you're looking for vintage Hawaii, you'll find it at this casual indoor-outdoor restaurant named for Olympic champion swimmer and legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku. Fresh fish prepared several ways. Hula pie (ice cream and chocolate fudge pie). Lunch entrees from $6.95; dinner from $14.95.

Tiki's, 2570 Kalakaua Ave.; (808) 923-8454, . On the pool deck level of the Aston Waikiki. Retro Hawaiian décor greets visitors to this new restaurant overlooking Prince Kuhio Beach Park. Nicely prepared Pacific Rim-style cuisine. Entrees from $7.95 (lunch) or $10.95 (dinner). Late afternoon and evening entertainment.


Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2270 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 801, Honolulu, HI 96815; (800) GO-HAWAII (464-2924), fax (808) 924-0290, .

— Rosemary McClure