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Destination: Waikiki

Personality Places : Service-oriented 'boutique' hotels in the land of mega-chains

June 16, 1996|ED KENNEDY | Kennedy is travel editor of the Honolulu Advertiser

HONOLULU — We were sitting in the shade of 100-year-old hau trees on the beach at Waikiki, listening to the thump of surf mixed with laughter and conversation from noonday diners.

"You know, Robert Louis Stevenson sat beneath these very trees," Steven Boyle said as he motioned with his hand to the leaves above our heads.

Boyle is the general manager of the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel; we were lunching at the hotel's Hau Tree Restaurant, a small, open-air place with pink tablecloths and an owl that makes its home among the hau branches.

The conversation had turned to hotels. When you live in Hawaii, sooner or later, you always get around to hotels. This is because everyone you know eventually decides to visit. "Where's a great place to stay?" they ask. And I never quite know how to answer.

Over the years, I've become fairly familiar with Waikiki hotels. Some are well-known and linked to the history of the islands. The Sheraton Moana Surfrider, built in 1901, was the home for many years of "Hawaii Calls," the Hawaiian music radio program that began at the Moana on July 3, 1935. The Royal Hawaiian became a famous recreation facility for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Then there are the behemoths, such as the 1,700-room Sheraton Waikiki and the 2,500-room Hilton Hawaiian Village.

In a four-block deep, three-mile stretch by Waikiki's crescent beach are crammed more than 120 hotel and vacation condo properties. A large percentage of the islands' visitors pass through them each day. This year, for example, the Hawaii Visitor Bureau is expecting more than 2 million Japanese visitors alone--and almost 95% of them are expected to stay in Waikiki.

This rate of turnover can force a herd experience on guests and make it tough finding something unique, especially for a friend. I was telling this to Boyle when he interrupted and said, "You know, the large hotels are for tourists. The small ones are for travelers. What you're looking for are boutiques."

I had never given boutique hotels much thought, especially in my own backyard of Waikiki, but it turns out there are several here that can provide an alternative to the typical stay. And it seems I'd come to the right man for the message. Boyle claims to have invented the boutique concept back in 1983, when he was doing a management study for the New Otani Hotel chain out of Japan, which was in the process of purchasing the Kaimana at the time.

"I got to thinking about how an innkeeper is--or should be--like a small shop owner. He pays attention to everything that's going on in his shop. He gives it his personal attention and tries to make everything special. That's what a boutique is. I decided I'd try to turn the Kaimana into a kind of 'boutique' for hotel guests . . . . When I got the go-ahead, we began to market the Kaimana along these lines. We called ourselves a boutique."

Boyle's origination claims aside, the concept of boutique hotels began gaining popularity in the 1980s and is now an accepted niche in the hotel market. The idea also caught on in Europe and has become a growing trend in the hotel industry worldwide.

What a boutique hotel aims to do is provide an intimate, elegant feel with over-the-top service. For example, the Kaimana's employee-to-guest ratio is almost three employees to every guest. Usually boutiques are small--less than 150 rooms (Kaimana has 124)--although the boutique concept is now being adopted to the larger 200- and 300-room properties. They cater to upscale travelers looking for special hideaways, businessmen and women tired of Hilton and Sheraton overnighters, honeymooners, and those who, as Boyle succinctly described, think of themselves as travelers rather than tourists.

And boutique rates--at least in Waikiki--are surprisingly reasonable. For example, the 1,232-room Hyatt Regency Waikiki has five floors reserved for its Regency Club guests, who enjoy such "boutique" services as a floor concierge, a lounge and free continental breakfast. Price for an ocean-view room on a Regency Club floor is $430 (about average for big hotels with these special floors). An ocean-view room at the boutique Alana Waikiki, for example, goes for $180.

Today, the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel is one of Waikiki's best spots. Located beneath the slopes of Diamond Head and just across from Waikiki's largest public park, the Kaimana often fills up throughout the year.

A good example of its style is the Hau Tree Restaurant, where we were enjoying a luncheon of mushroom soup and Caesar salad. The restaurant's beach-side location and outstanding menu has made it a staple, not only for hotel guests but for local residents taking their mainland visitors out for a Hawaiian dining experience.

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