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'Blue Hawaii' hotel in trouble again

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The long-delayed resurrection of the beloved Coco Palms resort on the Hawaiian island of Kauai has taken another turn for the worse.

The Associated Press reported this past weekend that the latest developer to try to make a go of the property, closed since Hurricane Iniki in 1992, has decided to pull the plug on the project and put the remnants of the hotel up for sale.

A big chunk of the 1961 Elvis Presley movie "Blue Hawaii" was filmed at the Coco Palms. The hotel, on the east coast of the Garden Island, was an early pioneer in tourism of the outer islands, beyond Oahu's famous Waikiki. Kauai's last reigning queen, Queen Deborah Kapule, lived on the land in the middle of the 19th century.

Donna Apisa, the listing agent for the sale of 200 condominiums at the project, told The Associated Press that the developer is going to auction that land later this year. The prospects for the property have risen and fallen with the market for housing and hotels on Kauai.

After Hurricane Iniki, government officials have required changes to the site to prevent future flooding. The location, near the bustling Coconut Coast and across a busy highway from the beach, made the locale less desirable than those of hotels that were built later.

Apisa said the county Planning Commission's rejection of Coco Palms Ventures' plan to build a full-scale fitness spa at the property was one reason for the sale.

This isn't the first time a plan to reopen the historic property has fallen through. The property had been purchased by the Lincoln Consulting Group of Newport Beach. James R. Reed, the group's director, planned to create a property that would recall the Polynesian charm of the original.

Instead, the hotel went back to being a darkened wreck on the highway between the airport and Wailua, and is the last major hotel on Kauai that has not reopened or been razed after the hurricane.

The Coco Palms is best-known as the filming site of "Blue Hawaii." The film caught the hotel in its heyday, when it was 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 Collegeville, Pa., became a tourism legend, creating an ambience that wasn't so much Hawaiian as people's fantasies of what Hawaii should be.

Guslander died in 2000, weeks after the Kauai Planning Commission approved a plan to bulldoze the Coco Palms' carcass. That plan, like so many others, never came to fruition.

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 death blow 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 a 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 generic condo developments.

What remains are the lagoons and the famous palm orchard. The current owners had moved far enough along on their plans to launch a glossy advertising campaign for the residential units it was selling and to plan on reopening a smaller hotel portion by the end of 2008.

Contact the writer: gettingaway@ocregister.com

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