The Royal Hawaiian Still Has Big It-Girl Energy

A playground for the ultra-glam, then and now.

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Welcome to Splurge, where NYLON goes in person to explore luxury experiences around the world. From five-star hotels to spendy treatments, we’ll try it ourselves — and let you know what’s worth the price tag.

While my recent stay at the Royal Hawaiian Resort in Honolulu was full of delightful experiences and thoughtful expressions of its 97-year-long history, one detail that’s stuck with me is what the venerable hotel calls its bather’s elevator, or a semi-private lift that whisks you straight down to the pool and Waikiki Beach. The placard implies that this design feature was intended for discretion, given the relative modesty of the past — and the high-profile guests who’ve stayed there, including Marilyn Monroe, Joan Didion, and Shirley Temple (a literal it girl, if you will).

That faraway glamour showed itself in so many ways when I was recently treated to a visit by HIE, a jewelry brand that creates modern heirlooms based on a gold bracelet Queen Liliʻuokalani wore for much of her life. (They’ve partnered with the Royal on a package that includes an intimate shopping experience when you stay in one of the resort’s Prestige suites.) It might’ve been the sleepless flight from New York, but I was particularly taken with the high-ceilinged, open-air lobby from which you can see, over a green lawn, straight out to the Pacific. And among the Moorish archways and circular ottomans, you could easily imagine movie stars arriving by steamship to vacation for months at a time; I did my part by clicking around in a full skirt and kitten heels.

While rooms in the newer Mailani tower were in high demand, mine located in the 1927-era “pink palace” building overlooked the ocean (and the Mai Tai Bar, which was oddly comforting when I would wake up at 4 a.m. to the sound of waves — and to see staff already setting up for the day). Service throughout was attentive and reflective of the pride the employees clearly take in their work; the porter who brought my bags up, for example, personally made sure I had enough conditioner in my pink Frette robe-equipped bathroom after we talked about the effects of saltwater and sun on Asian hair. And for those who have to work from paradise like I did, yes, the Wi-Fi is fast, even by 2024 standards.

It kind of tickled me to find a KITH around the corner from the resort, but I was there not for the shopping (though there’s plenty nearby), but for the prime beach access. Any chance I could, I’d leave my room, walk a few steps, call the bather’s elevator, and be on the sand in minutes with a to-go mai tai — a newfangled, coconut-foam-topped version of which was my favorite — before taking a pre-lunch/dinner/Zoom dip. (NB: Chair and umbrella setup costs an additional fee, even for guests.) But perhaps the most memorable use I got out of the beach was taking part in a traditional cleansing ceremony. As a few of us sat on pink towels facing the ocean, Kehaulani Kam — the Royal Hawaiian’s director of culture and first female manager — led us in a combination oral-history lesson and meditation before we submerged ourselves in the water as the sun rose. I wasn’t the only one moved to tears.

The Royal’s emphasis on tradition and vintage charm might not be for every traveler, but I’d take warmth, sentiment, and a near-century of good stories over a soulless new build any day. That choice was never more evident to me than one morning as we stood in the lobby. Someone asked why the lawn wasn’t set up with chairs and tables so they could serve more drinks. But then the view of the ocean would be obstructed, I said, and somehow, that felt like the right answer.