I recently stayed at two luxury hotels in Waikiki a mere month apart: The Royal Hawaiian and the Halepuna Waikiki. The two hotels, though located mere blocks apart, couldn’t be more different. The Royal Hawaiian, one of the oldest hotels on Waikiki Beach, evokes the elegant past, while the Halepuna, one of the newest hotels in Waikiki, has a contemporary Zen-like vibe. Both provide respite from the bustling sidewalks of Waikiki even though they sit just steps away from the crowds.
I cannot choose between the two as my favorite (the Moana Surfrider also competes) because much depends on my mood. I love the Polynesian decadence of the Royal Hawaiian, but I also love the contemporary décor and serenity of the Halepuna Waikiki. And, of course, neither is perfect.
If You Want to Stay Where Famous People Have: The Royal Hawaiian
Best For Modern Appointments: Halepuna Waikiki
Most Comfortable Bed: The Royal Hawaiian
For a Couples Retreat: Halepuna Waikiki
Best for Families: The Royal Hawaiian
Easiest Beach Access: The Royal Hawaiian
The Royal Hawaiian
The Royal Hawaiian, nicknamed the “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” sits right on Waikiki Beach. Part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, the appointments and amenities compete with the best hotels in Honolulu. The historic hotel is located behind the Royal Hawaiian Center and its stores, buffering it from the noise on Kalakaua Avenue. The park-like grounds on one side and the ocean on the other ensure a traquility not often found in Waikiki. Carved wooden doors outside each guest room line the hallways, evoking Oahu’s Polynesian heritage.
If you want a luxurious hotel right on the beach that feels like you are indeed in Hawaii, then the Royal Hawaiian will probably delight you.
Ocean Front Room
Our third-floor Ocean Front room offered fabulous views of the beach, ocean, and Diamond Head, even if it didn’t have a balcony. Although the room wasn’t huge, it had a king-size bed, a sitting area for two, a desk, a flat screen TV, and chest of drawers.
The king bed rates as one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in. Ever. The hotel supplied coffee in the room and daily bottled water. Unlike most hotels during the time of COVID, the hotel cleaned our room every day without our having to request it. The hotel has not scaled back its services as so many have.
Because, as a historic hotel, the Royal Hawaiian has an older design, our room came with a few annoyances. The bathroom was small, especially for a luxury hotel, and the noisy forced air conditioner blew all the time, never shutting off despite our attempts to change the settings. This last earned a huge ding, despite everything else being close to perfect.
Not surprisingly, the Royal Hawaiian has a traditional elegance. The public spaces feature long, tiled hallways, often open to the outdoors, and lots of pink stucco. But because it’s on the beach, it also has a carefree side. Sip Mai Tais under umbrellas to experience the original Mai Tai bar. Or reserve a pool-side cabana or beach chair. Grab a delicious pastry from the bakery to enjoy while rocking in a chair and looking out to the ocean.
The Royal Hawaiian has its own beach access, although no part of Waikiki Beach is private. For more solitude, you can lounge by the pool.
Always friendly and always helpful, the staff at the Royal Hawaiian met all my expectations. The front desk checked us in efficiently and with a smile. If we had a question, they never made us feel as though we were wasting their time.
Housekeeping did an excellent job of neatening the room and providing enough towels and bottled water for the duration of our stay. No staff member ever passed us without a friendly “aloha.”
The Halepuna Waikiki
The Halepuna Waikiki sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from The Royal Hawaiian with its contemporary, Asian-inspired design. The sister hotel to the super-high-end Halekulani across the street, it offers upscale lodging at a lower, though not insignificant, price. Unlike the Royal Hawaiian, the Halepuna Waikiki does not sit on Waikiki Beach, although beach access is easy and close. Instead, it offers a magnificent infinity pool on the 8th floor that gives you a view of the ocean between high rises.
The Halepuna Waikiki not only has an Asian spa vibe but also a decidedly urban one, even though its location on a side street removes it from any city noise or bustle.
Because the Halepuna is associated with the Halekulani, you may use certain Halekulani services and charge back to your room. If you want an exceptional dining experience and don’t mind the price tag, make your reservation in advance at La Mer. Orchids, while not as spectacular, is also worth a visit.
Ocean View Room
At the time of booking, the Halepuna offered a choice of two amenity upgrades. We chose to upgrade to an Ocean View as one of our options. (We selected a free breakfast as our second.) The upgrade was well worth it. The room was smaller than the one at the Royal Hawaiian, but also much more modern, with a more luxurious bathroom.
Our room had a comfortable king-size bed, a desk facing the ocean, an extra chair, a balcony with two chairs and a small table, a Keurig coffee maker, a hot water kettle for tea, and ample outlets on either side of the bed for charging. The high-tech room also included a light control panel next to one side of the bed and a wall remote control for the shades.
The marble bathroom featured a Toto Washlet toilet and a soaking tub/shower combination. Both marked the hotel as one that caters to Asian, particularly Japanese, guests, although guests of all nationalities will appreciate the appointments. For additional sanitation, all complimentary toiletries were wrapped in cellophane and placed inside a drawer.
I especially liked the complimentary stainless steel water bottles designed to be used at water stations on the 8th floor and next to the lobby elevators.
Unlike the Royal Hawaiian Resort, housekeeping at the Halepuna was only on request.
The public spaces at the Halepuna contribute to the overall serenity. The airy lobby has plenty of social-distanced space for guests without seeming spare. I loved the waterfall glass wall dividing the main entrance from the elevator banks.
On the 8th floor, the Halepuna Waikiki features a spa, a fitness room, a contemplation garden, and a business center. The highlight of the hotel’s amenities is the gorgeous infinity pool and sundeck that overlook the Halekulani and the ocean beyond. At the other end, Honolulu rises up behind the deck.
Anyone entering the Halepuna has to pass by the front desk and the staff behind it. Without fail, they call out a “Good morning!” or “Enjoy your evening!” or “Welcome back!” to add warmth to what otherwise could be described as a cool décor.
Check-in could not have be easier or more welcoming. I have to give a special shout-out to the pool attendant who saw me shivering and brought over an extra towel without my having to ask for one. He also circulated among the guests to offer iced green tea.
If you are going to stay on Oahu and don’t want to rent a car, Waikiki makes the best home base since so much is within walking distance. But despite generally high prices, not all hotels in the area can be described as luxury hotels. The Royal Hawaiian, the Halepuna Waikiki, the Moana Surfrider, and the Halekulani (where I’ve never stayed) rank as the most luxurious hotels on the strip bordering the beach.
If you choose between these two different but equally upscale hotels, you will also be selecting the tone of your visit. The Royal Hawaiian Resort feels more like old Hawaii, with its Polynesian appointments and on-the-beach location. The Halepuna embraces the new Hawaii with its strong Japanese ties and more youthful and contemporary urban vibe. Much will come down to whether you are a beach person (The Royal Hawaiian) or someone seeking a retreat (The Halepuna Waikiki.) You can get both beach and retreat at either property, of course, but the overall atmosphere will be completely different.