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  From The Orange County Register, October 8, 2000:

Goodbye, and maybe hello, to the famed Hawaiian hotel
By Gary A. Warner

Aloha means goodbye. Aloha means hello.

For the Coco Palms resort, both variations of the Hawaiian word are in order.

The Kauai hotel that captured the romance of the islands for two generations of vacationers is to be razed after eight years as a darkened wreck on the highway between the airport and Wailua.

The Coco Palms is best-known as the place Elvis Presley filmed much of "Blue Hawaii" in 1961. The film caught the hotel in its heyday - a 47-acre tropical playground of lagoons and more than 2,000 swaying palms.

"The Coco Palms had an atmosphere of a Polynesian paradise that other hotels aspired to, but could never achieve," writes David Cisan of Kapaa, Kauai, on his hotel fan site, www.coco-palms.com

The arrival of new guests in those days was heralded by a conch-blowing doorman. Rooms featured huge, seashell-shaped washbasins.

Across the road, the hotel's beachfront Seashell Restaurant was a popular hangout for sun-blissed tourists. At sunset, the palm grove was the scene of a tiki-torch lighting ceremony that was quickly copied by hotels all over the islands.

Much of the romance and hoopla was created by Grace Buscher Guslander, the hotel's longtime manager. The lady transplanted from College ville, Pa., became a tourism legend - creating an ambience that wasn't so much Hawaiian as people's fantasies of what Hawaii should be.

Guslander won't see the end of her beloved hotel. She died this past spring, weeks after the Kauai Planning Commission approved the plan to bulldoze the Coco Palms' carcass. Yet she endured the long agony of the property over the past decade.

The location of the resort -- one of the earliest on the island -- near busy Lihue and across a noisy highway from a mediocre beach, made it less attractive to the sun-and-fun crowd as 'resorts sprouted in the '70s and '80s. Guslander sold the hotel in 1985. By the early '90s, the hotel and its reputation had deteriorated.

The deathblow came on Sept. 11, 1992, when Hurricane Iniki slammed into the island, devastating the Coco Palms and other hotels. One by one the others reopened, but the Coco Palms, mired in insurance tangles and other squabbles, remained shuttered, its famed palm orchard sprouting "No Trespassing!" signs.

On the face of it, the Coco Palms' demise is part of sad trend of recent years. The tourists' Hawaii of the 1950s and early '60s tried to create a Polynesian fantasyland: low-slung, laid-back, with copious gardens. These picture postcards of the Hawaiian dream are disappearing, replaced by overblown mega resorts and characterless condo developments.

The high-density tourist hotels and chain restaurants that dot Hawaii today could be in any sunsoaked spot in the world - Mexico, Southern California or Spain. Their only nod to the Hawaiian spirit is a few tikis in the lobby, some rattan by the elevator and busboys in flowered shirts.

The once lovely Waikikian-at-the-Beach hotel and the Tahitian Lanai restaurant in Honolulu, with their tiki torches and thatched roofs, were allowed to fall into disrepair, then bulldozed in the late 1990s. They were out of step with a Waikiki bent on becoming a concrete jungle of skyscrapers competing to blot out the famous views.

A few hotels retain a distinct Hawaiian flavor: Waimea Plantation Cottages on Kauai, the Hotel Lanai on Lanai, the Hotel Hana-Maui and Old Wailuku Inn on Maui, the budget Manago Hotel and Kona Village on the Big Island.

In Honolulu, the big but beautiful Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider hotels, both now operated by Sheraton, soldier on with old island charm despite being pinched in and overshadowed by the swarm of neighboring concrete high-rises.

Best of all is the Manoa Valley Inn, a rambling turn-of-the- century house built in a tropical arts-and-crafts style and filled with Hawaiian antiques.

Aloha means goodbye. But it also means hello.

There's hope for a happy ending to the Coco Palms story. The property has been purchased by the Lincoln Consulting Group of Newport Beach. James R. Reed, the group's director, says the plan is to create a property that will recall the Polynesian charm of the original.

"Our strong desire is to redevelop a luxury resort that re-creates all that was magical about Coco Palms and recapture that Hawaiiana feeling," Reed said.

The lagoons will remain. The palm orchard, once part of a coconut plantation, will be retained. The cottage where Elvis stayed during the filming of "Blue Hawaii" will stay and a museum built to tell the story of the area and the hotel.

The Seashell Restaurant will be renovated and reopened. And yes, new units will incorporate the seashell washbasins that can be salvaged.

The 396-room main hotel will be demolished and in its place will rise a new development with luxury cottages and a complex with time-share units and hotel rooms.

New amenities, such as a modern swimming pool, and a pedestrian bridge or tunnel to Wailua Beach, would make the resort more attractive to new generations of visitors. Reed is working with architects who designed the Coco Palms.

Resurrection of the Coco Palms isn't a slam-dunk. Reed, the former owners and the local government continue to negotiate on money and development plans. The entire property must be raised up to 15 feet because of new laws enacted since the original hotel was built requiring extra height to offset hurricane-whipped waves.

Those of us hoping Reed succeeds can only be encouraged by what happened on Oahu with the venerable Willows Restaurant.

Famous for its bamboo-walled ambience, koi pond and strolling Hawaiian musicians, the eatery closed in 1993. The Willows wasn't trendy enough - Pacific Rim cuisine was in and its out-of-the-way location in a decidedly untrendy McCullyneighborhood above Waikiki didn't help. For six years it sat dark on Hausten Street. Plans to tear down The Willows or convert it into a retirement center came and went.

The final result surprised everyone. The Willows returned in August 1999. It has been drawing old friends and new fans, mostly through word of mouth. It's operating as a buffet, and reviews have been mixed. But food was always secondary at The Willows. Friends who have been there say what remains is the beautiful courtyard setting, the beamed roof, and a dining area that's been opened up at the expense of some of the bamboo.

Its gardens recently won a top design award. When you are at The Willows, you can't be anywhere else but Hawaii.

I haven't had a chance to visit the new Willows but hope to by year's end. And when the new Coco Palms opens, I plan to be there, too.

The past can't be brought back.

But it can be recalled. Even if the new versions of the Coco Palms and The Willows don't completely replicate their heydays, we should all say mahalo (thank you) for the attempt.

Both embrace what's best about Hawaii, a welcome development in a place that often seems hell-bent on bulldozing its unique charms.

All original material © 2001 Cisan Online Ventures/Cisan.Com