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Reviving the heart
Once considered one of the most elegant resorts in all of Hawaii, the Coco Palms has been boarded up since Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
For at least some native Hawaiians, rebuilding the hotel revives the painful issue of using the former home of the queen of Kauai as a commercial property instead of a cultural treasure.
Tuesday, the Kauai Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on whether to issue a special management area permit to Richard Weiser to rebuild the Coco Palms.
Weiser, a South Carolina developer who lives part-time in Princeville, wants to spend $200 million to rebuild the Coco Palms to look the way it did at the peak of its popularity.
"It won't be absolutely the same. The rooms will be larger than they were in the 1950s," Weiser said in an interview. "But the buildings will look the same, the lobby will be the same, everything will look as much as possible like the original."
The large, open-air Queen's Audience Hall, which once hosted Sunday brunches popular with both tourists and Kauai residents, will be rebuilt. The 2,000-tree coconut grove -- actually the remnants of a failed copra plantation started in 1896 and the largest palm grove anywhere in Hawaii -- will be restored. The lagoons where local fishermen used to bring their children will be restocked with fish. And fishermen will be invited to use them.
THE HOTEL opened Jan. 25, 1953, with 24 rooms, two guests and four employees. At its peak in the mid 1970s, there were 416 rooms.
When Hurricane Iniki struck Sept. 11, 1992, every room in the hotel was booked and the guests were evacuated to Kapaa High School. The hotel never re-opened.
Until 1969, the hotel was owned by Gus and Grace Guslander, but it was clearly run by Grace, who died four years ago.
Grace Guslander is most famous for reviving the ancient torch-lighting ceremony, a nightly practice copied and still conducted by many resorts in Hawaii.
She also was not above making up legends when it served her purpose. In the days before air conditioning, the frogs in the lagoons kept guests awake. Not only did she create an "ancient legend" romanticizing the frogs, she decorated one wing of the hotel in frog motif.
A 1982 travel piece in the Denver Post recounts the story of Grace and the wood ducks.
Grace decided the beautiful water lilies in the lagoons would look even better if colorful wood ducks were swimming around them. So she paid $3,000 for a flock of ducks.
The ducks arrived, were set loose in the lagoons and immediately ate all the water lilies.
Grace then placed a bounty on each duck and paid her guests for every one they caught. They eventually all ended up in the hotel's zoo.
A few weeks ago, Weiser hosted a private luau for all of the former Coco Palms employees who could be located. He laid out his plans to rebuild the resort and asked them to testify for it at Tuesday's hearing.
The plan has the solid endorsement of "Mr. Coco Palms" Larry Rivera, who started at the hotel as a bus boy and eventually became the host and lead singer of the nightly "Larry Rivera's Love and Aloha Show."
Rivera often was the featured entertainer at the 500 weddings a year conducted at the resort when it was in its prime. He still conducts two to three weddings every week on the hotel grounds, ranging from a simple chapel service to full-blown recreations of the ceremony at the end of the movie "Blue Hawaii."
"That place is so historic," Rivera said in an interview. "Coco Palms was like the heart of the island."
Another supporter is David Cisan, who grew up on Kauai and now lives in Japan. Since 1999, Cisan has maintained a noncommercial Web site (coco-palms.com) devoted to the history of the Coco Palms.
On average, the fan site receives 11,000 hits a month.
BUT SOME native Hawaiians are not thrilled about rebuilding the resort.
Avery Yuen, one of Kauai's best-known architects and a former county planning director, has filed a motion to intervene on behalf of himself and all others with Hawaiian blood.
In his petition, Yuen noted that the resort is built on property that historically has been the home of Kauai alii and in the mid-1800s was the home of Kauai's last reigning queen, Deborah Kapule, wife of King Kaumualii.
The resort's famous lagoons originally were the queen's fishponds, Yuen pointed out, recommending the state preserve them as a cultural site.
In addition, Yuen said there are three parcels of state land that are under long-term lease to the resort. He suggested two -- the coconut grove and the one acre at the entrance to the hotel -- be made part of Wailua State Park. The strip of beach fronting the Seashell Restaurant should become a state or county park, he said.
Yuen said he felt a responsibility to file the motion.
"If I don't do it, who will?" he asked.
LIHUE >> Even though the Coco Palms Resort has been closed since it was destroyed by Hurricane Iniki 12 years ago, Elvis never left the building.
Bob Jasper, owner of Hollywood Movie Tours, has been running tours of movie locations on Kauai since 1996. The one place every one of his estimated 100,000 customers has insisted on seeing has been the remains of Coco Palms Resort.
The Coco Palms is where much of Elvis's 1961 movie "Blue Hawaii" was filmed. The last 20 minutes of "Blue Hawaii" comprise one of the most exotic wedding scenes ever filmed, with flower-bedecked Elvis and actress Joan Blackman riding on a platform atop two canoes being paddled through the resort's famous lagoons as Elvis sings "The Hawaiian Wedding Song."
The Coco Palms also is where Elvis and his bride Priscilla came to honeymoon after their lavish 1967 Las Vegas wedding, and where Elvis and Priscilla brought their daughter, Lisa Marie, on vacation.
To Elvis cultists, it's Graceland with palm trees.
It's really the "Blue Hawaii" movie that attracts the Elvis fans, Jasper said.
"It can be an amazing experience to watch them," he said. "They know exactly which scene was filmed on each spot. They know every word of the script. And they can't believe they're really there."
For the uninitiated, "Blue Hawaii" is the story of a young man (Elvis) returning to Hawaii from the Army. He refuses to work for his family's pineapple business and instead works as a guide for a tour agency run by his girlfriend (Blackman).
His first job is to escort a group of high school girls on a tour that begins on Oahu and continues to Kauai. They stay at the Coco Palms in a duplex cottage with Elvis in one room, the girls in the other and a connecting door in between.
The cottage really exists (it's Cottage 56, as every true Elvis fan will tell you) and some of the exterior walls were removed so the interior scenes really were shot in the cottage with the camera and crew just outside.
Richard Weiser, the developer who plans to restore the Coco Palms, has no intention of destroying a shrine. Instead, Cottage 56 will be moved closer to the hotel entrance.
Half the duplex will be decorated so that it looks exactly as it did in the movie. The other half will be a store where visitors can buy Elvis souvenirs.
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