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Hawaii: Oahu, Maui, Big Island

Local Inn Spots

Quiet charm of Hawaii's 19th century hotels is worth a detour for the history

March 01, 1998|KAUI PHILPOTTS | Philpotts is a Maui-based freelance writer

HILO, Hawaii — The sleepy town of Hilo is glorious after an early morning rain. The sun shines on green lawns as the storefronts along Waianuenue Avenue begin opening their doors for another day of business.

I head up the street past the place where my grandmother's family house stood for 90 years, to be replaced, in the 1950s, by a Dairy Queen. On Kaiulani Street I wait on one side of the old wooden bridge that connects segments of the river-laced town. Only one car can pass at a time, and a man in a car on the other side has stopped to talk to a neighbor. But I am more patient than usual because I am mind traveling into my childhood, growing up among these palms and breezes and slower, more relaxing times.

Across the bridge, I wind through an old neighborhood of some of the finest homes in Hilo. The yards are a tangle of tropical foliage: royal palms, hibiscus hedges and moss-covered curbs. The air outside my air-conditioned rental car is warm and moist and smells of ginger and plumeria. I catch my first glimpse of Shipman House Bed & Breakfast.

Friends had originally told me of the restored Shipman House, one of a handful of small inns that are housed in renovated 19th and early 20th century buildings and popular with the local people. They are aslo gaining followers among tourists from the mainland. Such places are unusual for Hawaii, where there really isn't a strong preservation movement. The lodging mentality has been that new is better, and on the beach is best. Over the past few years I've stayed in perhaps eight restored inns and loved most of them. Recently, I decided to revisit four of my favorites: Shipman House Bed & Breakfast on the Big Island, the Lahaina Inn and the Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono, both on Maui, and the Manoa Valley Inn on Oahu. I was delighted by what I found.

Shipman House sits elegantly perched on a gently sloping hill above the street. Royal palms line the U-shaped driveway that sweeps up to a wooden porte-cochere. You can see fruit trees on the back side of the hill that melts into dense jungle behind the inn.

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Just a few blocks from downtown Hilo, Shipman House is a 1899 Victorian mansion. Willie Shipman, a successful cattle rancher and the son of Christian missionaries, bought the three-story house in 1901 for his beautiful part-Hawaiian wife, Mary.

Mary came from a long line of Hawaiian royalty and the house was frequented by Honolulu society. Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani, who was Mary's friend, came often for lunch and gossip. In the 1920s, Jack London and his wife, Charmian, stayed in a bedroom that opened up to a wide veranda that embraces the house.

The Shipmans' great-granddaughter, Barbara Ann Andersen, and her husband, Gary, have painstakingly restored the structure. Barbara Ann, who spent childhood summers visiting her aunts here, remembers riding wheelbarrows down those sloping lawns, making plum jam from fruit trees in the yard and bathing in the claw-foot tubs.

The Andersen's located and reinstated a good selection of original family furniture, much of it fashioned from koa, the beautiful red-hued Hawaiian hardwood.

The guest rooms in the main house are named for Barbara Ann's aunts Flossie, Clara and Carrie (there are three rooms in the main house and two rooms in the guest house next door). Most rooms have private baths, small refrigerators and queen-size beds, and cotton kimonos hang in the bedroom closets. The flowers are freshly cut from the garden and views through the windows of wavy 19th century glass are spectacular.

One of the most alluring aspects of Shipman House is its island breakfast of homemade macadamia nut granola, local fruits in season, baked bananas, taro hash browns (like purple-hued hash brown potatoes) and freshly brewed Kona coffee, grown and processed on the other side of the island.

In the afternoon, cold lemonade is served on the veranda. You can cozy up in the library with a good book or play on the family's 1912 Steinway concert grand piano.

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Not all Hawaiian inns recall gracious living. The Lahaina Inn, in the middle of Maui's 19th century whaling port of Lahaina, was once so seedy it rented by the hour. Now it is an oasis financed by Hawaiian multimillionaire Rick Ralston, founder of Crazy Shirts, a chain of T-shirt shops.

Guest rooms at the Lahaina Inn are tucked above storefronts along Lahainaluna Road and Front Street. (Although the area is noisy, I found the inn to be quiet.) Ralston had the inn restored in 24 months and filled it with turn-of-the-century antiques from his private collection. He replaced all of the wiring and plumbing and installed air-conditioning. The inn reopened in 1989.

Nineteen rooms in the original Lahainaluna Hotel were transformed into nine rooms and three suites. There are no televisions in any of the rooms, and the lighting, high on romance, can sometimes be impossible to read by.

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