The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Coco Palms Hotel
How a Kauai resort and the vision of one woman created a dream many hope will be recaptured
A doorman takes a deep breath and blows into a conch shell as guests enter the lobby of the Coco Palms hotel into a sea of pandemonium. It’s 1957 and the cast of “South Pacific”—178 actors and crewmembers—has taken over the hotel, along with press from around the world, with many guests having to bunk four to six to a room. Amid the chaos, a Life magazine cameraman is setting up his large, boxy press-camera on a tripod, while others decorate the space for a mock cocktail party so he can capture one timeless image to be used for their next issue. The stars of the movie, Mitzi Gaynor and Rosanno Brazzi, are in the center of the spectacle, readying themselves for the photo shoot.
This isn’t the first time Hollywood celebrities have stayed at the Coco Palms. “Pagan Love Song,” starring Esther Williams and Howard Keel; “Miss Sadie Thompson,” starring Rita Hayworth; and “Voodoo Island,” starring Boris Karloff, all wrapped production at the hotel in 1950, ’53 and ’56, respectively, with the property’s lagoons, lobby and 2,000 coconut tree grove making guest appearances. And while the big-budget movie, “South Pacific,” was being filmed at Hanalei Bay, not at the resort itself, the amount of press and hoopla it was bringing the hotel is much greater than before.
With the flash of a bulb, the faux party commences, while hotel guests begin to turn away to gather outside near the lagoons. It’s time for the Coco Palms’ nightly torch-lighting ceremony—a tradition that started here and would become a standard for Hawaii hotels. Hawaiian men wearing malo (loincloths) run through the coconut tree grove, swinging their fiery torches methodically in circles—every downswing igniting kerosene-doused coconut husks lining the paths. People stand silently watching the men during the ceremony, while a woman’s voice is heard telling tales of ancient Hawaii.
The woman’s name is Grace Buscher and, without her, the Coco Palms would not have become the legendary place people fondly remember—a Hawaiiana resort on the tropical island of Kauai, steeped in Hawaiian culture and exuding aloha spirit.
In 1950s Kauai, the tourism industry was just beginning to take off. There were no direct flights to the island, but visitors could now travel eight hours from Los Angeles to Honolulu by plane—a lot faster than the other option, a four-and-a-half-day cruise. The popular Smith’s Kauai Fern Grotto tours up Wailua River (next door to the Coco Palms) had recently gotten an upgrade, going from a four-passenger rowboat with an outboard motor to an eight-passenger motorboat named Lady Jane. In 1953, the two notable hotels on the island were the Kauai Inn in Lihue near Nawiliwili Bay, and a 24-room derelict property then called the Coco Palm Lodge. It had five employees, two hotel guests, no cook and a pesky Lihue Sugar Plantation train that drew constant complaints because of its 3 a.m. wake-up call, when it made its way past the hotel from the plantation to the mill with an overflowing load of sugarcane.
In 1953, at the age of 43, Buscher arrived on Kaua‘i to take the reigns of the Coco Palm Lodge, not really knowing how bad a state the property was in, at the request of Island Holidays Ltd. hotel manager Lyle “Gus” Guslander, whom she later marries in 1969. Armed with some managerial experience from a hotel in Pennsylvania, bookkeeping skills and a love for Hawaiian history, Buscher finds a chef, cleans the place up, focuses the lodge’s marketing efforts on the lagoons and coconut grove (rather than the beach across the highway), and turns the Coco Palm Lodge into the Coco Palms. The atmosphere she created was reputed to be the most authentic Hawaiian hotel in Hawai‘i, from the hotel’s Hawaiian-influenced furnishings to the ceremonies on the grounds honoring Hawaiian traditions.
Much of Buscher’s inspiration for the hotel came from the land’s history, which was situated near heiau (traditional Native Hawaiian places of worship), a royal birthing site and, in the 19th century, was home to one of Kauai’s former queens. The hotel sits at the mouth of Wailua River where Deborah Kapule once lived. She was the favorite wife of Kauai’s King Kaumualii, prior to Kamehameha the Great taking control of the island during the creation of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kapule raised fish in two fishponds (now the hotel’s lagoons) and welcomed visitors to her hale (home) who were going to or coming from the north side of the island. In some ways, due to her hospitality, she had created a kind of hotel of her own.
Buscher included these bits of history in many of her programs at the hotel: She introduced the torch-lighting ceremony, created a pageant celebrating Kapule’s birthday, added a Hawaiian flag-raising ceremony and had the hotel lobby rebuilt to mimic a Hawaiian thatched halau (long house) with a Hawaiian oracle tower standing tall beside it. She also initiated a tree-planting tradition, meant to honor the importance of sustainability in Native Hawaiian culture. The latter began in 1955 with the first planting by “Hawaii Calls” producer and radio personality, Webley Edwards, and lasted until 1980 with the 127th tree planting by architect and founder of Allerton Garden, John Gregg Allerton. Other invited celebrities over the course of the years who took part in the tree-planting ceremony include Duke Kahanamoku, Gene Autry, Liberace, James A. Michener, noted hula teacher and performer Iolani Luahine and the Kawananakoa family (a dynastic line important in the Islands).
Though Guslander sold the Island Holidays chain of hotels, including the Coco Palms, in 1969, to Amfac, Buscher remained at the helm of the Coco Palms until her retirement in 1981. On her exit, the hotel had grown from its humble beginnings to a fully grown 416-room resort, had built a strong following around the world, hosted many notable guests and celebrities, and appeared on TV numerous times. It’s perhaps best known from the 1962 Elvis Presley motion-picture musical, “Blue Hawaii,” when Elvis serenades his bride in a double-hulled canoe on the way to the resort’s wedding chapel.
Amfac later sold the hotel to Wailua Associates in 1985. Many of the longtime staff members started to retire as well and the hotel was beginning to lose its luster. On Sept. 11, 1992, a devastating Category 4 hurricane, Iniki, hit Kauai with winds at a strength of 145 miles per hour. And, though Buscher had seen the place safely through multiple floods, tidal waves, and Hurricanes Iwa and Dot during her tenure, the immense damage done by Iniki closed the Coco Palms for good.
For more than 20 years, the once proud hotel sat there, changed hands and sat there some more. It was abandoned, neglected and even caught on fire twice. Thieves targeted the hotel, taking anything left of value, including copper, ornaments, four handcarved solid koa wood doors, and the guestrooms’ giant clamshell sinks. There, off Kuhio Highway across from Wailua Bay, it was deteriorating for all to see, including Buscher, who passed away in 1999. Many potential investors tried to figure out a way to bring the hotel back to life, and, each time, were unsuccessful for various reasons, including the large sum of money and permits necessary to get it up and running again.
But, now, there’s new hope for the Coco Palms, thanks to its current owner and developer, Coco Palms Hui, and hotel operator, Hyatt Hotels Corp. In 2014, they announced plans to bring the hotel back to its glory days in a modern-day fashion and, in 2015, were given the green light by state and county officials to begin selective demolition on the property. This means not all of the buildings will be torn down; many will be rebuilt, with some raised above the ground to prevent flooding (a common occurrence in Buscher’s time). The chapel made famous by Elvis and the thousands of wedding couples who married there will be renovated; the trees and the lagoons will stay; and, one day, the torch-lighting ceremony shall return, in mid-2018 when Coco Palms Hui and Hyatt plan to reopen the resort. Time will tell how close the reimagined hotel will come to the legendary Kauai hotel Buscher created in its heyday, but its storied past will continue to be told, just the same, for many years to come.