April 20, 2015

Coco Palms to renew Elvis's Blue Hawaii

David Ellis

WE'VE hinted at it before, and just six months ago even wrote bravely that it would finally happen, but every time our predictions have been stymied by factors as diverse as local government infighting, dithering developers, land rights activists, economic downturns and anti-development dinosaurs.

But now we can tell you that it definitely will happen, because last month the Planning Commission on Hawaii's Garden Island Kauai, together with the now-owners of one of the most famous resorts of all time, and Hyatt Hotels agreed that Hyatt will manage and operate the legendary Coco Palms Resort that's lain in idle decay for 23 years following a trashing by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

Originally opened in the early 1950s with just 24 rooms, Coco Palms had a mere two guests on its first night. But over the years it grew to a sprawling 400 hotel rooms and freestanding bungalows amid over 18 acres (8ha) of coconut groves, gardens of tropical orchids, ferns, shrubs and a lagoon, on a site once owned by Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Deborah Kapule Kekaiha'akulou who died in 1853.

And while it achieved fame through an emphasis on Hawaii's rich culture, history and legendary story-telling – and the creation of such faux-Hawaii "traditions" as the colourful dinner-time "Call to Feast" torch-lighting ceremony that was held every evening for 40 years until Hurricane Iniki – it was management's willingness to have the resort used by Hollywood that cemented its place in the minds of holidaymakers worldwide yearning for the ultimate Pacific island escape…

The first movie made at Coco Palms was Pagan Love Song with Esther Williams and Howard Keel in 1950, followed by Bird of Paradise starring Debra Paget and Louis Jourdan in 1951, Rita Hayworth's Miss Sadie Thompson in 1953, and parts of South Pacific five years later.

But it was Elvis Presley who made the biggest impact of all with the 1961 block-buster Blue Hawaii, and in particular the scenes of he and his sweetheart, played by Joan Blackman, being paddled aboard a double-hulled canoe down the lagoon – Presley crooning the Hawaiian Wedding Song along the way, and their marriage that followed in a picturesque Wedding Chapel.

The film's soundtrack topped American charts for 20 consecutive weeks and 3,000,000 records were sold in the following 12 months.

As well, the resort was inundated with enough of the star-struck to have it scheduling 500 weddings annually for years after Blue Hawaii was released… most in the Wedding Chapel that Paramount Films donated to Coco Palms after Blue Hawaii (and which it had actually built for the earlier Miss Sadie Thompson.)

But everything came to a shuddering halt with Iniki in September 1992: winds gusting around 300kmh – and one an incredible 365kmh (227mph) – ripped every door and window off the resort and flung them with hotel furnishings into the coconut grove and up to a kilometre away. Torrential rain poured through shattered roofs and windows to flood every building, and the once show-piece gardens resembled a mulching depot.

The resort never re-opened and despite numerous owners and plans in the 23 years since, it was not until a local consortium headed by businessmen Chad Waters and Tyler Greene signed last month's agreement with the Kauai Planning Commission and Hyatt Hotels, that something concrete has finally been agreed-upon.

And rather than demolish the shattered remains of the old Coco Palms, plans are to redevelop it largely as it was, including the main block with 331 guest rooms, restaurants, bars, lounges and pools, and with the 32 original bungalows refurbished virtually as they were but with 21st century mod-cons… plus the lagoon, wedding canoe and wedding chapel all resurrected into use as well.

The US$100-million new-look Coco Palms will re-open in early 2017 and already Hyatt's been inundated with enquiries and bookings… in particular for the renovated 2-bedroom bungalow #56 that Elvis Presley shared not with some gorgeous starlet or crew member while making Blue Hawaii, but with a burly body-guard.

And locals have begun lobbying for Hawaii's most famous music historian and their "Living Treasure of Music," a-now 85-years-young Larry Rivera to be given a gig in one of the new-look resort's lounges – where he delighted guests with his ukulele and traditional Hawaiian songs nightly for forty years until Hurricane Iniki.



[] ONCE was Hawaii's most-visited hotel, Coco Palms on The Garden Island of Kauai before the disastrous Hurricane Iniki in 1992. (Hawaiian Life)
[] TODAY a ramshackle mess, but plans have finally been approved to bring the resort back to life – and largely as it was a quarter century ago. (Coco Palms Resort)
[] ELVIS Presley arrives at Coco Palms in 1961 for the filming of Blue Hawaii. (Paramount Pictures)
[] PART of what's said to be Hollywood's most-watched movie wedding ever: Elvis and co-star Joan Blackman being paddled down Coco Palm's lagoon to their wedding chapel. (Paramount Pictures)
[] ELVIS' bungalow #56– it will be restored virtually as it was  when he stayed there, and is already heavily booked for when it re-opens in 2017.   (Coco Palms Resort)
[] LIVING legend: Larry Rivera delighted guests for 40 years with his ukulele and Hawaiian songs until Hurricane Iniki, and although now 85 years young, locals want him back when the resort re-opens in 2 years. (Larry Rivera)

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