On the east coast of Hawaii’s oldest island, an abandoned hotel is slowly being reclaimed by nature. It was a landmark for 40 years, a success story immortalized in classic American movie culture. The Coco Palms Resort was the result of hard work by the Guslanders, a couple who offered an enjoyable Hawaiian experience on beautiful grounds featuring a coconut grove and lagoon.
The resort enjoyed worldwide fame when it was featured in several mid-century films, most notably the Elvis Presley classic Blue Hawaii. It thrived for decades as a popular hotspot among royalty and stars, but when Hurricane Iniki struck Kauaʻi in 1992 the hotel was critically damaged.
Twenty-plus years later, most businesses and residents in Kauaʻi have moved on. But at the Coco Palms, it’s still 1992: A perfect storm of obstacles has kept the dilapidated structure in a seemingly-inescapable purgatory.
Seven miles north of Lihue on the island of Kauaʻi is the coastal commercial center of Wailua, a small community along the Wailua River and under the shadow of the “Sleeping Giant” mountain.
The area is rich in history. It is home to the Kings Trail, a legendary path by ali’i spirits up the mountainside and around the island. The area also contains several ancient burial sites as well as the Royal Bell Stone, a place of blessing used by Kauaʻi rulers for a thousand years.
Wailua had also been the seat of residence to Kauaʻi royalty dating back to the 13th century. The Wailua River also holds a special significance to the Hawaiian people and is the only navigable river in the state.
Until 1853 the waterfront land along the Wailua coast was home to Kauaʻi’s royal family. The last Kauaʻi monarch was Queen Deborah Kapule (Hawaiian: Kekaiha‘akūlou).
When she passed away on August 26th, 1853, the land surrounding Wailua was sold.
By 1896 the property by the mouth of the Wailua River had been purchased by German businessman William Lindeman. At the time Kauaʻi was enjoying a modest coconut oil boom, and Lindeman saw potential in the property.
He carved a 17-acre parcel from the property and established a coconut grove, importing nuts from Samoa. Over 100 years later, Lindeman’s 2,000-tree coconut grove still flourishes.
New Guidance Under Guslander
In 1952 the 24-room hotel was a struggling enterprise, unable to fill its rooms and searching for suitors to take over the business. It was operated by Veda Hills, the widowed wife of late hotelier Alfred Hills.
Lyle “Gus” Guslander (at left) had prior hotel experience at the Moana Hotel and had a vision for creating his own Kauaian utopia.
A deal was hammered out and the hotel was leased to Guslander, who re-opened it as his Coco Palms Resort on January 25th, 1953. Gus tasked the sister of friend Henry Buscher, Grace, to manage the new business.
It was a bold decision. Women in the 1950s generally did not have opportunity for executive roles. At the time Grace was 43 and had no prior hotel experience. She was a “haole” (non-Hawaiian), originally from Pennsylvania and with no background in Hawaiian culture.
But Grace Buscher had charm and an ability to disarm with her smile. She made guests feel comfortable. She was creative, energetic, and had a natural ability to host. Her qualifications were a chemistry and her passion; she loved the culture and people of Kauaʻi. Grace connected with them, and they accepted her.
When Guslander opened the Coco Palms, he had just four employees. The first night saw all of two guests. But Grace had a plan to focus on cleanliness, entertainment, and a commitment to serving the best food on the island.
It would take time, but her plan would pay off.
The ever-energetic Grace proved to be the engine behind the hotel’s growth and success. She was talented in her abilities to recount amazing tales, and she wasn’t afraid to embellish details if it made for a better story.
Her creativity did its part to build an aura around the resort. When she discovered Queen Deborah Kapule lived on the property, she resurrected the queen’s memory by celebrating Kapule’s birthday every year.
The Coco Palms during its heyday
Grace told tales of how the ancient fish ponds at Coco Palms had roots in Kauaian royalty.
She expanded an interpretation of the Hawaiian practice of “akua” (replenishment), wisely porting the concept to the coconut grove. Visiting guests could plant new coconut trees, adding to their Hawaiian experience whilst also replenishing the grove.
Ms. Buscher also conceived gala cocktail parties and the famous “Call to Feast” torch-lighting ceremony, a tradition observed by Coco Palms every evening at 7:30 p.m. for 40 years.
The ceremony was immensely popular with tourists and is still emulated by other resorts today.
Celebrities & Film
The Coco Palms enjoyed its share of positive publicity in film during the 1950s and 60s, which led to a perennial star-studded guest list. The hotel’s first feature was the 1950 film Pagan Love Song, featuring Esther Williams and Howard Keel (watch the trailer here).
In 1951 the Coco Palms was featured in Bird of Paradise with Debra Paget and Louis Jourdan (watch a clip here). In 1953 Rita Hayworth starred in Miss Sadie Thompson, also filmed at the Coco Palms. Columbia Pictures donated the wedding chapel used in that film to the Coco Palms, where it would be used in later movies and become a landmark.
Scenes from the 1958 film musical South Pacific were shot at Coco Palms, but the hotel’s fame reached new heights in 1961 when Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii. In the final moments of the film (watch clip), Elvis serenades his co-star on the way to the Coco Palms wedding chapel in a double-hulled canoe (above left).
The scene at Coco Palms in Blue Hawaii is considered by some critics to be one of the great moments in classic American cinema, and it was a scene that would be re-enacted thousands of times by couples hoping to re-create their own Blue Hawaii.
Prior to the resort’s close, the Coco Palms hosted over 500 weddings annually.
With endorsements from celebrities such as Rita Hayworth and Elvis Presley, Coco Palms suddenly became a destination for the Hollywood jet-set. Athletes, celebrities, and rock stars were drawn to the Wailua resort.
Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were regular visitors as were the Von Trapp Family Singers. Even the Prince and Princess of Japan were said to have enjoyed their stay at the iconic inn.
Coco Palms postcards
The film boost in the hotel’s early years gave the Coco Palms momentum, and the hotel enjoyed growth into the 1970s. It wasn’t long before the hotel was the most well-known resort property in all of Hawaii and the apogee of Kauaʻi hospitality.
The Coco Palms was able to claim substantial guest retention, and boasted the highest occupancy levels in the state.
Under Guslander leadership the hotel grew to over 400 rooms across the 32-acre property. Now the premier resort of Kauaʻi, the Coco Palms could charge a premium for luxury… And it did with some rooms fetching more than $400/night – in 1970s dollars.
The Guslanders sold their interest in the Coco Palms to the Amfac Group in 1969, but they would continue to serve the resort hands-on in a management role.
New Ownership & Hurricane Iniki
Gus Guslander passed away in 1984 and soon after, Grace retired. Amfac sold their interest in Coco Palms to Wailua Associates in August of the following year.
The new owners were a locally-based real estate development company and had plans to continue Lyle and Grace’s vision for the famed Kauaʻi resort.
However during this time the resort endured a period of stagnation. The economic crisis of the 1970s would drag into the 80s for the cyclically-lagging hotel industry. Hawaiian hotels were especially slow to recover, and the Coco Palms was no exception. Nevertheless, the lodge continued on offering the same Hawaiian hospitality Grace introduced thirty years prior.
Disaster would strike on September 11th, 1992, when Hurricane Iniki battered Kauaʻi. The storm was a category-4 hurricane and would be the most powerful to ever hit the state of Hawaii. Winds up to 145 miles-per-hour battered the small island in the Pacific, killing six.
The storm caused an estimated $1.8 billion dollars in damage (estimated $3B in 2014’s dollars) and left residents without power for up to three months. Over 1,400 homes were completely destroyed while another 7,200 were seriously damaged.
Waves up to 35 feet crashed into the island while storm tides left a high-water mark nearly 18 feet tall. National attention to the stricken island was unfortunately muted, likely due to Hurricane Andrew weeks prior.
Andrew had just leveled South Florida and seemed to exhaust the country’s palate for storm empathy.
When Iniki hit Kauaʻi, the 40 year-old Coco Palms was the oldest operating hotel on the island. But due to its age and location on spiritual Hawaiian ground, repairs to the aging resort were always going to be difficult.
Special permits would be required to comply with then-current building codes, and the cultural backlash of building on and modifying holy Hawaiian ground presented its own set of complications.
Making matters worse, there was a post-Iniki recession which befell Kauaian businesses and landed many insurance companies in bankruptcy. As hotel owners fought lengthy claims battles in court with insurance companies, the buildings languished.
photos courtesy Dennis Fujimoto
Sadly the Coco Palms’ matriarch Grace Guslander would never see her historic inn restored; she passed away on April 5th, 2000, at the age of 89.
For the next twenty years the hotel was abandoned, left to its own devices in the fight against Mother Nature. Roadblock after roadblock deterred progress on repairing or re-developing the property.
Ownership groups battled insurance companies and struggled to procure financing for renovations. Local cultural activists continued to lobby against re-development as a nod to the history of the sacred Hawaiian ground.
The Coco Palms property was sold to Coco Palms Ventures LLC in 2006 for a reported $12.3 million. The new owners were a headed by Maryland-based developer Phillip Ross.
The arrangement called for the new owners to invest $220 million into a project which would oversee a massive renovation.
Ross’ group drew plans to build 200 condos, 104 hotel rooms, and 48 bungalows across the property. Permits were granted for re-development with a 5-year expiration.
In August of 2006, a sales office had opened and took deposits on the condos with an announced expected date of completion in August of 2008. By early 2007 Ross admitted his plans required additional investors, and cooperation on the project from Kauai’s Planning Commission – the island’s building permit authority – had become tenuous.
The plans had halted and no progress was made. Depending on whose version of events you believe, the project failed for different reasons.
Ross’ group alleges the planning commission denied permits to build a full-size spa on the property, stalling the project. Members of the commission pointed to Coco Palms Ventures’ inability to locate additional investors in the face of a weakening housing market.
Rumors spread the property was also below the FEMA flood plane, which was preventing developers from being able to procure mandatory insurance coverage. The truth likely included a bit of both.
With no solution in sight, the project was tabled and the property listed for sale.
photos courtesy Kristin Gregoire
Additional Attempts at Redevelopment
When the Coco Palms Ventures bid for redevelopment started to fail, a committee sponsored by the Kauaʻi Public Land Trust was formed in an effort to rescue the dilapidated hotel.
The Friends of Coco Palms was created in 2007 and intended to “preserve the unique natural features and culture of the property” while still making it available for public use. The group wanted to ensure the project was “culturally based and historically respectful.”
Coincidentally the group’s first donor was South Park creator Trey Parker, himself a part-time resident of Kauaʻi. Parker shared, “My parents honeymooned at the Coco Palms hotel and I have watched in disgust as the site remained neglected and abandoned for so many years.”
With start-up money the group could begin community discussions, apply for larger grants, hire professionals to assess the property, and consider re-development possibilities.
Initially the group appeared to make progress – even earning a state grant in the amount of $234,000 – but the financial collapse in 2008 quickly put a halt to that distribution and ended hopes of saving the Coco Palms.
photos courtesy Primo Kimo
Another player entered the Coco Palms sweepstakes when Shell Vacations, a North American timeshare operator and owner of nearby Kauaʻi Coast Resort, considered a bid on the abandoned hotel.
However after the timeshare operator performed its due diligence, a spokesperson announced the company had decided against action. Hope once again turned into despair.
By the late 2000’s, the resort had begun to disintegrate rapidly. Decades of vandalism and exposure to the elements had already taken their toll on the structures.
A 2009 arson fire heavily damaged the retail annex, the structure which separates the resort from Kuhio Highway.
Despite little visible progress by the developers, the planning commission granted 3-year extensions on the original building permits (which ran through 2010). It was a mild concession in an attempt to give the project life, at least until 2013.
In the interim copper thieves, ornament hunters, and vandals have nearly completely stripped the buildings.
The giant clamshell sinks have been targets of theft, each leaving a large void on the bathroom counter top adorned by broken tiles. Artifacts that could remind of vintage Coco Palms Americana or the Blue Hawaii film have been pilfered as souvenirs.
Coconut scavengers frequently access the property and collect the fallen fruit.
In February of 2013 thieves broke down hotel walls to make off with four of the resort’s original 8-foot tall doors, weighing 200-300 pounds each and hand-carved from solid Koa wood.
The doors were estimated to be worth about $50k each, but to collectors and fans of the Coco Palms they are priceless.
photos courtesy Primo Kimo
Aerial view of the Coco Palms today
Since the more recent theft of the doors, optimism has increased as new investors have stepped forward.
In August of 2013 a group of Hawaiian investors breathed life into Coco Palms rumors when they announced plans to purchase the property.
Honolulu-based Tyler Greene and Chad Waters formed Coco Palms Hui LLC with the intent of restoring the classic resort to its pre-Iniki state. Greene and Waters earned credibility by successfully applying for demolition permits and initiating a clearing of the property (pictured below) – more progress than any group before was able to accomplish on restoring the iconic hotel.
Reconstruction was announced as expected to take between 12-18 months, beginning in 2014.
photos courtesy Reno Craig/Kawakami Builders
Few modifications were proposed, keeping the new resort largely faithful to the original. Aside from the reduction of number of rooms (from 400 to a proposed 350), Greene expected the hotel would look very similar to the pre-Iniki lodge.
Said developer Tyler Greene:
“We hope that Coco Palms becomes the true place of aloha that it was prior to Hurricane Iniki, there’s quite a bit to do. It’s a full renovation job.
We’ll be peeling the buildings back to the studs, but all the structures that exist today will stay as they are.”
Coco Palms Hui also hopes to renovate the original restaurants and restore the popular lagoon.
“It is our hope to have things like weddings and luaus and cultural events there. We just want it to be a welcoming grounds for residents of Kauaʻi as well as visitors from all around the world.”
– Tyler Greene, Developer
By September the group was seeking permits. Specifically, they were seeking permits under an old county ordinance which allowed for “a legally nonconforming structure to be reconstructed to its condition prior to Hurricane Iniki.”
This was a necessary concession to allow the developers to re-build the resort within a reasonable budget and without significantly altering its appearance.
The ordinance also allows for construction below the flood plane. The property actually sits below the adjacent Kuhio highway, which also serves as a barricade against storm surges.
Perhaps the best quote regarding the hotel’s current situation came from author David Penhallow, good friend of Grace Guslander and author of the book The Story of Coco Palms Hotel.
“The Coco Palms wasn’t a place. It was a time, and that time is over.”
This is a great observation. The Coco Palms was a serendipitous confluence of circumstances, driven by a dynamic woman’s energy and her knack for being the island’s ultimate host.
The Coco Palms can be replaced, but when it is rebuilt it will not have Grace Guslander. She is what made the Coco Palms special.
courtesy David Penhallow
Did You Know?
• You can tour the Coco Palms. Bob Jasper runs Coco Palms Tours & Tees, which offers a Monday-thru-Friday tour of the site. For more information visit his website.
• You can still get married (or renew your vows) at the Coco Palms. Local legend, original employee, and resident caretaker Larry Riviera offers Blue Hawaii Weddings. For a lagoon ceremony, send Larry an email: LarryRiviera@hawaiian.net. (Here’s a Wall Street Journal review of his wedding services)
• Hurricane Iniki whacked the insurance industry for nearly $3 billion, which led to a mass retreat by the coverage providers. After Iniki, insurance companies stopped writing and renewing policies in Hawaii.
The state was forced to create the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund, a government-run insurance program launched to keep Hawaii’s post-Iniki real estate industry solvent. Insurance companies later returned to the islands in 2000 and the program was suspended in 2002.
• The storm forced Kauaʻi to adopt tougher building codes. Among the changes: Wood-framed walls must now be reinforced at the roof and foundation with hurricane straps. (pictured at right)
• The first time the name “Iniki” appeared on the United States Social Security Administration’s Baby Names Registry was 1992. That year 35 newborns (28 girls, 7 boys) in the United States were named “Iniki.”
• Kauaʻi had long been a home to underground cock-fighting. Hurricane Iniki blew apart many chicken coops, releasing the chickens and roosters on the island. With no mongooses or other natural predators to hunt them or eat their eggs, the chicken population has exploded.
Visitors can find wild chickens and roosters across the island, descendants of those freed by Iniki over 20 years ago.
• Stephen Spielberg and 130 members of his cast and crew were in Kauaʻi filming Jurassic Park when Hurricane Iniki struck. The team was fortunately able to seek safe refuge in a hotel.
• A 2012 South Park episode “Going Native” featured the Coco Palms. (creator Trey Parker is a part-time resident of Kauaʻi and booster of prior Coco Palms preservation efforts)
• Notice an absence of tikis around the Coco Palms? According to friends of Grace Guslander, she did not feature them out of respect to the Hawaiian culture and sacred grounds on which the hotel was built.
• The centuries-old fish pond on the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. (Believe or not, this was one of the conditions to the developer for a permit extension by the council.)
thanks to coco-palms.com, David Penhallow, Larry Riviera, and our partner photographers