The Halekulani hotel is a dream destination for its Japanese guests, with just one drawback: it’s in Honolulu. So the owners decided to reproduce its many charms in a paradisal landscape closer to home.
Regular visitors to Honolulu will already be familiar with Halekulani, the legendary hotel whose own story is entwined with the birth and growth of Hawaiian tourism. Tucked among the crowded front row on Waikiki Beach, Halekulani, which translates as “House Befitting Heaven”, opened in 1907 as a residential hotel. In the 1980s it was bought by Japanese property company Mitsui Fudosan, which remodelled the property. Today Halekulani is regularly voted the island’s favourite hotel and 60 per cent of the clientele are Japanese.
Although many holiday-poor Japanese travellers are prepared to fly to the middle of the Pacific for a long weekend, it made sense for Mitsui to offer a second Halekulani experience closer to home – and Okinawa was the obvious location. Due to its subtropical climate, the promise of zero jetlag and easy three-hour flight from Tokyo, this archipelago off Japan’s southern tip appeals to locals.
In 2015, Mitsui Fudosan acquired a prime beach property in Nago, in the north of the main island. “In terms of the view and location, we knew it would work for Halekulani,” says Mitsui’s project manager Yoshiaki Murata, who oversaw the 2019 opening.
The leisurely drive from the city of Naha, which hosts the nearest airport, allows about an hour to adjust to the warmth and pace of the island. The Ryukyu Kingdom, as Okinawa was once known, was proudly independent until Japan annexed it towards the end of the 19th century; it was ceded to the US after the Second World War and only reunited with the rest of Japan in 1972.
Today the culture is a beguiling mix of Okinawan and Japanese, with hints of Chinese and curious remnants of the US occupation, such as a love of spam (not shared by the rest of Japan) and a legacy of mid-century concrete military homes, which have been pleasingly weathered by fierce sun and humidity.
Nago is in pineapple territory. Turn left off Okinawa’s one expressway and the lush vegetation reveals itself. Hotels are dotted around but few can claim such a spectacular perch (Halekulani lies within a national park). Architectural giant Nikken Sekkei designed the building: a long, slender structure that hugs the expansive coastline and gives everyone a sea view (something many Honolulu visitors can only dream of).
The interiors were created by multiple designers: New York studio Champalimaud Design conceived the guest rooms, lobby and two restaurants; LA-based Naoko Horii designed smart French restaurant Shiroux and Japanese restaurant Aomi; Belt Collins Hawaii took care of the landscaping.
“It wasn’t a simple matter of replicating Halekulani in Honolulu,” says Murata. “The point of the architecture and design was to create a new resort hotel for Okinawa while retaining some of the sensibility and atmosphere of the original. We wanted to express ‘Halekulani-ness’ through an Okinawan lens.” The architecture references the location too. “We used Ryukyu limestone in the base of the building and hana blocks [decorative concrete squares] that are a distinctive feature of Okinawa.” The roof is the same brown as in Honolulu but here it was partially made with local kawara clay roof tiles.
The serene guest rooms take their cue from the original Halekulani’s signature seven shades of white; it’s a subtle canvas that offsets the iridescent blues of the ocean and greens of the garden. Some rooms look out on Mount Katsuu and the Motobu Peninsula; others over open sea. There are 360 rooms in total, including five private villas with their own plunge pools and natural hot springs. Beyond this, the hotel has a sizeable spa with a large onsen bath and five treatment rooms. There are also four outdoor pools spread around the hotel (plus one indoor pool) as well as a quiet sandy beach with loungers and a bathing area.
In the evening, diners can choose from four main restaurants and there’s a sea-view bar where guests gather to watch the setting sun. Bar manager Hiroshi Imayasu has crafted a menu of classic and Okinawa-inspired cocktails for the hotel. They include Route 58 (named after the highway that meanders north to south through the island), made with pineapple-infused rum, coconut water, Okinawan shikuwasa citrus, mango purée and vanilla bitters.
In Aomi, the Japanese restaurant, Nago-born sushi chef Hiryoshi Tamaki shows off Okinawa’s seafood. Tamaki, who has returned from stints at some of the top restaurants in Osaka and Tokyo, prepares an outstanding dinner using local fish such as makubu (tuskfish) and mahi-mahi, served with a chilled saké. It’s all rounded off with a sliver of confectionery from Jahana Kippan in Naha, which uses 300-year-old recipes to make sweet treats such as toganzuke (sweetened Okinawan winter melon).
With all this to keep guests entertained and fed, it might seem as if there’s little incentive to leave the grounds. But general manager Jun Yoshie and his team have come up with a programme of excursions. They include a night-kayaking trip to see fireflies (Okinawa is home to half of Japan’s 50 types of fireflies) and an introduction to Okinawan karate. In addition, anyone curious to know how it is that Okinawans have one of the highest life-expectancy rates in the world should enjoy an outing to renowned rural restaurant Café Garamanjaku, which serves the herbs, goya (bitter melon) and other local produce that are thought to be the key to Okinawan longevity.
Occupancy rates at Halekulani have been sky high from the opening day so the hotel has clearly found its audience (so far almost entirely Japanese). “We think that the set-up makes the most of the great location and character of the place,” says Murata. “The detailed service is just as Japanese guests would expect too.”