Paradise Abandoned: Rediscovering the Coco Palms
The first time we were driving on Hwy 56 through Wailua in Kauai, I noticed the huge, brown eyesore surrounded by thousands of giant palm trees on the makua side of the road.
“What is that?” I asked, fascinated, staring at the abandoned building.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my mother taking me to explore the uninhabited “haunted house” down the street from my great-grandmother’s house in Summit Lake, Wisconsin. Since then, I have had a weird fascination with old or abandoned buildings. However, unlike my mother, I do have some qualms with trespassing on other people’s property so my urban exploring has been sequestered to browsing urban exploration websites, where other people are the ones doing the trespassing.
When we drove back through Wailua later that afternoon, we pulled onto the side street on the south side of the property so I could get a better view of the building. Clearly it had been a hotel at one point. “Coco Palms” was hand painted on some old wood. There was also another sign – “Coco Palms Tours” and a a phone number.
I jumped at the chance to legally explore a deserted Polynesian mid-century hotel, so once we got back to our condo we called and booked a tour for the next afternoon.
The next morning, we arrived at the small gravel parking lot outside of the Coco Palms. Our tour guide, Bob Jasper, took our twenty dollars each (!) and introduced himself. The rest of our group consisted of a retired married couple, and two friends who were dropped off by their husbands who had better things to do (golf). Riley and I were the youngest people there by at least thirty years. We were asked if we knew who Elvis was!
The tour started with Bob talking about Johnny Depp. Filming for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was filmed in the coconut grove surrounding Coco Palms. Next he started telling us about the history of Kauai, in particular the land that Coco Palms was built on. The hotel was built on the home of the last reigning queen of Kauai. He told us about the history of the coconut grove that surrounds Coco Palms (thousands of trees, planted over 100 years ago), and about the first missionaries that came to Kauai. Fun fact – evidently the pious missionaries imported and planted an extremely sharp variety of grass that cut up the feet of anyone who so wasn’t wearing shoes. In other words, the native Hawaiians…
We started to walk through the hot, dense, overgrown coconut grove. Bob started talking about the history of the hotel.
Coco Palms was opened in 1953, but the heyday of the hotel wasn’t really until the 1960’s when the hotel was expanded from two dozen rooms to several hundred rooms, and people like Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby started vacationing there. Coco Palms was glitzy and glamorous, and the who’s who of the jet-setting pack all vacationed at the Coco Palms. In fact, several movies were filmed on location at Coco Palms, including the iconic Blue Hawaii. Even if you don’t know who Elvis is, you’ve heard the iconic song from the movie before!
We eventually made our way to the cottages, which are at the back of the property, secluded from the rest of the hotel. We were led to the “King’s cottage”, where Elvis and Priscilla used to vacation. Imaging two gorgeous jet setters lounging in the mildew-y, ransacked cottage with a tree growing out of the roof was hard to imagine, but the cardboard cutout of Elvis made things a little easier. Bob told us that there used to be an outdoor shower, and that the bathroom’s tiles, which were now smashed up, were finished in gold.
After checking out the cottages, we walked to the property’s wedding chapel, which was used in a Rita Hayworth movie. Riley and I were forced to take a picture together at the alter (clearly a premonition of Riley proposing five months later).
Next we went to the gorgeous fish ponds, which were at one time the fish ponds of Kauai’s royalty. Surprisingly the ponds are still maintained to this day.
Bob talked about the hotel’s manager Grace Gundler, the nightly torch lighting ceremony, and the fabulous everyday life at the hotel.
Afterwards we were lead into the once beautiful, now destroyed, lobby, and wound our way out into the main hotel’s entrance. We entered the main building, but only taken to one room, as most of the structure was dangerous to be in, not to mention it was pitch black since there was no electricity. The carpet was damp, and the air was stifling and hot, and stank of mold. One highlight was seeing one of the few remaining conch shell sinks – the rest had been stolen.
On our way out of the hotel, a small monument was pointed out to us. During the building of Coco Palms, ancient burial grounds were found.
Once we were back outside in the old car park, Bob talked about a change in ownership of the hotel in the 1980’s, and Coco Palm’s declining popularity. With newer resorts opening all over Kauai, in addition to the once quiet road in front of Coco Palms transforming into an official highway, Coco Palms was not the glamorous hotel it once was.
In 1992 Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai, causing damage to the hotel. The owners of the hotel felt that the damage was not worth the cost to renovate, so they left the hotel to rot.
A few years after the hurricane, investors bought the property with plans of renovating (or most likely, completely demolishing and rebuilding) the resort, but the real estate crisis in 2007/2008 caused everything to fall through.
With the grounds being vacant for well over twenty years at this point, and clearly a blemish on the beautiful face of Kauai, many residents are angry and want something, anything, done with the land.
Most recently there has been news that a new development will be opened on the property in 2017, but proper ordinances must be obtained first.
At this point tours are still being held at Coco Palms by Bob. His company even has a website now. I would highly suggest this tour if you are in Kauai, especially if you have an interest in the history of the island, mid-century architecture, or Elvis. With new development potentially on the horizon, your time to get a glimpse of this historic landmark might be running out.
Have you done any urban exploring in Hawaii?