Going to Hawaii?

view of beach on Hawaii's big island

While spending nine glorious days on the Big Island of Hawaii last month, I made it a point to check out what was new in interior design at the major resorts. We try to get there every two years, and between relaxing on white—or black or green—sand beaches and photographing molten rock spewing out of the earth’s crust, it’s always fun to go to dinner at the newest beach resorts.

Or, should we say, the newest renovations of our favorite resorts recently purchased by another big hospitality company?

The vast majority of “new” properties in Honolulu and on Maui are actually renovations. The 1990s marked a huge building boom in Hawaii’s resort markets. Then came the recession. There has been no major resort built on the Big Island since the late 1990s. In fact, some room inventory has been taken out of service during remodeling.

The Hawaiian resort industry, on a decline for the past ten years, has not yet entered recovery. It is, however, adapting. Timeshare units have been a saving grace, and it makes sense. Those visitors who are either owners in Hawaii, or have traded for a unit there, only pay room tax of a few dollars a day. That frees up vacation funds for entertainment, adventure tours, dining out and shopping.

Waikiki is so built up that the only major resort hotel opened in 2016 on Oahu was the Ritz-Carlton Residences, Waikiki Beach. It’s luxurious, but it’s a high-rise within walking distance of the beach, not on the beach. Oahu’s resort building on acreage has now moved east and west of Honolulu.

hotel suite in Hawaii showing bed bench and large window
Suite at Four Seasons Lanaii

The Four Seasons Lanaii seems to be engaged in a “billionaires vs. millionaires” struggle for exclusivitiy. Billionaire Larry Ellison bought the entire island and renovated everything. The number of guest suites was reduced by well over a third, in favor of increasing room size and luxurious amenities. There are also 51 new suites, including a detached one that will set you back $21,000 a night.

Back on the Big Island, the Four Seasons Hualalai, after going through a major renovation in 2009, suffered damage from the 2011 earthquake. It affected pools and patios mostly, but some guest suites were damaged. Some villa owners rent out their units by the week or month, but vacationers beware: renters of private residences aren’t done paying when they send the owner a check. Upon arrival, they will find “non-resident” use fees for the amenities of the Four Seasons can total $1,000.00 a week for a family of four. And, even after shelling that out, you probably can’t score a chaise longue by the pool. As a non-owner, you are relegated to a lower resort caste, just as nieces of owners pay more use fees than daughters. Yes, there’s a chart for which type of relative pays what as a use fee. Not related at all? Welcome to the bottom of the heap and top of the fee structure. Even if you stay in the hotel itself, only one tee-time per day at the golf course is made available to guests, at a cost of $400.00.

Kona Village Resort, our favorite spot for enjoying a more traditional luau with great entertainment, was all but destroyed with the 2011 tsunami, when 20 beach bungalows were knocked off their foundations and seven feet of water flowed through the restaurant. Its restoration was announced last year and should be completed in 2019.

Residential Design Trends

view of room and outdoor scenery in Hawaii
Beautiful seamless indoor-outdoor transition by Ownby Design

A fair amount of residential work exists for both large custom homes and vacation villas at the resorts. Residents like to hire designers who are local or regularly work in the islands, not just because the indoor-outdoor lifestyle is unique, but also to have access to the work of talented local artisans versed in island style, which can vary great deal. There’s coastal island, contemporary island, territorial (think plantation) and upcountry, found in the inland area that includes Waimea. With its eastern Colorado feel, it’s the home of one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the U.S.

The lines are blurred between indoor and outdoor living, with designs providing a seamless transition via window walls.   Many homes have an outdoor shower as part of the master bath, either indoor/outdoor or completely outdoors.  

Hospitality Design Trends

Design work for timeshare entities is strong, as they need to upgrade interiors to keep their projects fresh. You’ll still find modern design and the requisite accent fabric scarf laid across the width of the bed. But the colors are warmer, island colors. Rooms are not all the same, though—one may feature spa greens with modern furniture in dark stained woods, and another reds and golds with unstained indigenous woods.

view of suite and outdoors in Hawaii
Mauna Lani Bungalow with window wall

Suites, especially, have some variation in style, and higher quality furnishings. And the baths are spa style and getting larger year by year, akin to high-end residences on the mainland.

What a huge contrast between the newer resort bathrooms and the 100-year-old Volcano House Lodge on the rim of Kilauea in Volcano National Park, where we spent our final two nights this year. If you’ve stayed in the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon—another of the grand old park lodges—you’ll know their baths are totally utilitarian: a small, tiled shower, single wall-mount sink, toilet, and window for ventilation. Oh, and television? No. The same for Wi-Fi. Deal with it, kids—go outside and get some fresh air mixed with sulfur.

There was only one major announcement of a new resort in our 50th state in 2016. But it’s a big one: the U.S. is finally getting an Atlantis Resort. A Chinese financial firm bought the property for $200 million and has partnered with Kerzner International Holdings, Ltd., to develop Atlantis Ko Olina. Its initial 400 rooms and 400 residences, marina (already adjacent to the-site, but sure to be renovated), and water park will rise from the western shore of Oahu. This is just east of the Aulani Disney Resort & Spa that opened in 2011, one of the newest on Oahu.

Atlantis resorts are about the complete vacation experience. One source said this one could be the most expensive resort ever built, with a price tag of more than $2 billion. There will be a mix of hotel, condo and—yes—timeshare units, à la Disney’s Aulani.

Focusing on Polynesian/Hawaiian history, the experience at the new Atlantis will immerse guests in the culture of the Polynesian South Pacific islands. Despite the grand scale of the resort, this is in keeping with the trend over the past decade to educate visitors instead of just feeding and entertaining them–to get them closer to an authentic experience of all things Hawaiian. Many of the local resorts have hired native Hawaiians versed in history, local ecosystems, to share their knowledge of traditional arts, crafts and music, plus the culinary delights of island life, with guests. While some native Hawaiians consider these employees to have “sold out” to the tourism industry, others recognize that with most employment opportunities being resort-related already, it might be good to provide visitors with a more authentic, one-on-one experience and the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Hawaii’s lifestyle, history, and modern-day challenges.

Atlantis Hotel Bahamas
Atlantis -Paradise Island, Bahamas

One of the most fun long weekends ever was in 2006 at the Atlantis on Paradise Island, Bahamas. There were multiple underwater viewing areas from the lower lobbies into vast lagoon aquaria filled with schools of shimmering tropical fish, twelve-foot manta rays, jellyfish, seahorses and sharks; a casino; a variety of restaurants (yes, shark was on the menu); retail shops; a water park with a clear tube slide that shot you through a lagoon of sharks; and endless walkways winding through the grounds that included an underwater tube through a lagoon full of tropical fish and…yes…sharks.

One interior lagoon beach on the grounds accessed via a rope bridge had a small, understated sign: “Dangerous Animals: No Wading.” As we walked along the water’s edge, a huge hammer-head shark swam up, so close its snout was about ankle-deep. Hopefully, parents paid attention to the sign.

We swam with dolphins at nearby Blue Lagoon Island, interacting with them in the water one-on-one. You need only to give them a hug and look in their eyes to experience the level of understanding—and tolerance—they have of people. They just couldn’t wait to get humans involved in their kind of fun, especially the “Footpush,” where two dolphins pressed their bottle noses against the soles of my feet and pushed me across the lagoon at about fifteen mph! Releasing me at the far end, they came out of the water and laughed as hard as I did. I felt like child playing with friends.

Ecotourism and Sustainable Resorts

Some older resorts are enjoying a resurgence. Many guests would rather experience “old Hawaii,” rather than an air-conditioned room accessed by elevator. Add to that the increased interest in ecotourism, and smaller resorts that were sustainably built to begin with are now also sustainably operated and cared for. They’re popping up in “Top 10 Resorts” lists. Some are on coffee plantations and there’s even one on the far northwestern tip of the Big Island, near Kapaau. It’s a perfect place for group retreats focusing on refreshing mind and body. 

spa retreat on Hawaii - Kapaau
Day Spa at Hawaiian Island Retreat – Kapaau

Rooms in the sustainable resorts feature more natural materials, whether contemporary or territorial style with four-posters or carved wood furniture, where your bath might be drawn in a Victorian enameled tub in your room, by a window looking out on tropical plants lining a solar-lamp lighted natural path leading to the ocean cliffs.

Paradise Found: You Had Me at Sea Breezes

When we bought our timeshare, it was after several presentations of Scottsdale properties that touted: “…and you can trade it for Hawaii.” So, we just bought one IN Hawaii instead, and we’ve only traded three times in twenty-three years. Last year we began looking for a cooler location to retire, somewhere like San Diego, with mild year-round temperatures. Somewhere like Hawaii. Suddenly it hit us: why seek somewhere LIKE Hawaii? We’re now on the three-year plan for permanent island living. North Kohala near Kapaau or Hawi sounds about right.

A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at


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