In September of 1970, Tom Summers, a surfer from California, arrived on Kauai and landed his first job building a 400-room expansion at the Coco Palms Resort.
The former carpenter, who now owns Summers Realty in Kapaa, would work at the rapidly growing Wailua resort two more times that decade.
“I built the swimming pools, I built the flame room, I built that wing,” said Summers, pointing to a portion of the storied building’s dilapidated remains. “I used to take my son right here to the lagoon to go fishing.”
On Thursday, Summers joined a crowd of more than 100 people gathered around that coconut tree-rimmed lagoon for a ceremonial land blessing. The occasion, a long time coming, is the planned rebirth of the majestic hotel where Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” was filmed and Frank Sinatra stayed and, long before that, where Kauai’s royalty reigned.
The resort has been closed since being ravaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
But on Thursday, the old hotel grounds were lively once again. Conch shells, prayer and song were all a part of a ceremonial land blessing, held exactly 8,434 days since the resort closed for good.
“I’ve been waiting for this ever since the hurricane,” Summers said. “It’s been really sad to see this be the only place that never got rebuilt and see all the attempts that have failed. I’ve been to other parties like this, but it looks like this time it’s really happening.”
Chad Waters of the Honolulu-based redevelopment firm Coco Palms Hui said despite adversity, he and his team are committed to reopening the resort as the Coco Palms Resort by Hyatt, an estimated $135 million project that will pay tribute to the property’s past while bringing it into the future.
Waters said it would be the first time the Hyatt company has allowed a hotel name to precede its brand name — a testament to the importance of the planned resort revitalization.
“We heard all the reasons why the Coco Palms could not be rebuilt — and trust me, we heard them a lot,” Waters said. “Everything from two haole developers from Oahu, that there’s no way this could happen on Kauai. We heard that people would protest up and down the street. We heard that Coco Palms wasn’t on the beach, and how could you build a hotel that’s not on the beach? We heard there’s too much traffic. We heard it’s in poor condition, which, actually, it’s in horrible condition, so that part is true. There’s been no hotel built in 20 years, so how could we build one now? And we heard that nobody cares about Coco Palms, that was a bygone era.”
But Waters said that in the 913 days since he and his partner Tyler Greene took on the project, it has become clear that the rebuilding of the resort has deep community support. The showings of support Waters said he and Greene have witnessed has further cemented their commitment to do what so many people told them would be foolish, if not impossible.
Demolition of the resort’s 25 separate buildings is set to begin in the next four to six weeks, something Waters called the project’s first major milestone.
Mayor Bernard Carvalho, in an impassioned speech, said that this time, it’s really happening.
“I feel strongly that the commitment is here, the team is here,” he said. “I see beyond this overgrowth.”
He added, “Today is the day we are going to step forward, clear this in a pono way, we’re going to have an awesome blessing, we’re going to stay connected, because the spiritual light is going to shine and lead us and guide us and connect us and keep us connected all the way through,” Carvalho said. “This is the piko of Kauai, everybody.”
Before the crowd dispersed for celebratory pupus and drinks at the Bull Shed Restaurant, 85-year-old Larry Rivera strummed on the same guitar he played when he entertained guests for more than half a century in the resort Coco Palms lounge.
“Beautiful Coco Palms shining in the sun,” he crooned.
Carvalho hopped up to the microphone and joined in: “Beautiful Coco Palms, where I want to be.”