June 15, 2009


david ellis

YOU wouldn't think there'd be too much interest in getting married at a hotel that's been boarded-up and derelict for seventeen years, but in Hawaii couples are lining up for just such an opportunity.

And it's all because of two people: Elvis Presley who was married at this now-decaying place in the 1961 hit-movie Blue Hawaii, and a passionate Hawaiian historian, entertainer and cultural enthusiast, Larry Rivera who has been associated with the hotel for an amazing 58 years.

The Coco Palms Resort was opened on the island of Kauai in the early 1950s. It started with a mere 24 rooms, but like Topsy, just growed and growed to eventually by the 1980s embracing close-on 400 rooms, suites and thatch bungalows.

Legendary hotelier Grace Guslander was the first to put the place on the map when she and husband Lyle took it over in the mid-1950s, introducing such novelties as having doormen welcome arriving guests with a blast on a huge conch shell, and picking bare-chested male staff with perfect physiques to run through the grounds at 7.30pm each night lighting scores of oil flares – a "Call to Feast" that let guests know that dinner was served.

And with a reputation for embellishing history and never allowing the facts to spoil a good story, Grace soon earned Coco Palms a more exalted position than it deserved in Hawaii's royal history. This included declaring a plantation of 2000 coconut palms to be the "royal grove" of Queen Deborah Kapule, Kauai's last reigning queen who once lived on the site – even though the grove was not planted until 1896, forty-three years after the Queen's death.

To give further importance to this "royal grove" Grace Guslander invited film stars, sporting personalities and royalty to plant new coconuts that would be named in their honour, the invitations being enthusiastically taken-up by, amongst others, Bing Crosby, the von Trapp Family Singers, Hawaii's famed Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, and the Prince and Princess of Japan.

During the Guslander's time running the resort, a young local, Larry Rivera got his first job there, working in the cocktail bar and dining room in 1951, but leaving for a while to serve with the Army during the Korean War.

On his return in 1954, the Guslander's gave him his job back and Larry worked there until Hawaii's most ferocious hurricane, Iniki swept across Kauai in 1992 with winds of 300kmh, including one gust of 365kmh (227 miles per hour;) the resort was trashed and despite numerous proposals has never re-opened.

Larry Rivera, however, has a special love of the place, and today as well as still being one of Kauai's most-popular entertainers with his singing, ukulele and guitar playing in various venues around Kauai and on radio and TV, this near-octogenarian organises weddings and renewals of vows ceremonies in the grounds of the old resort.

These include the couple being serenaded as they travel on a circa 2009 replica of the same double-canoe and on the same lagoon as that which Elvis Presley (Chad Gates) married sweetheart Maile Duval (played by Joan Blackman) in Blue Hawaii back in 1961.

And whether the simplest service or the most spectacular with the replica Presley canoe, Larry treats each with the same care and "feeling of aloha" as he would if it were for one of his own daughters or granddaughters… and while the buildings may be trashed, the maintained tropical gardens around the lagoon are still to those who marry there, "the last paradise,"

Simple ceremonies start from US$600 and range up to the spectacular "Blue Hawaii Wedding" that costs US$2500 plus tax and includes a non-denominational minister, the replica Blue Hawaii double outrigger canoe massed with tropical flowers, two canoe paddlers, a conch shell blower, Larry serenading as the canoe slides down the lagoon and during the service… all culminating with his spine-tingling Hawaiian Wedding Song.

The couple also receive an album of thirty-six 5X5 colour photos, two enlargements, a DVD, two orchid leis, a Haku plant headband for the bride, and a wedding certificate.

For more details of weddings and renewals of vows at Coco Palms, airfares to Hawaii, accommodation and sightseeing there, phone Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays on 1300 79 49 59, or email sales@canada-alaska.com.au


[] LARRY Rivera serenades a local couple as they make their way to their  Renewal of Vows on the replica Elvis Presley Blue Hawaii outrigger canoe.

[] A COUPLE married in the grounds of the Coca Palms Resort enjoys Larry's spine-tingling Hawaiian Wedding Song.

[] ELVIS slept here during the making of Blue Hawaii, choosing the last bungalow on the left so he could come and go without being seen by other guests.

[] THE still boarded-up remains of the Resort trashed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 – the lush tropical gardens along the lagoon are maintained for weddings and vow renewals organised by Larry Rivera.

  Photos Dexter Olivas/David Ellis

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