A Hawaiian resort that once hosted stars like Elvis Presley, Rita Hayworth, and Frank Sinatra now sits abandoned and dilapidated on the island of Kuai — with no current plans to return it to its former glory.
The Coco Palms Hotel opened on January 25, 1953 and quickly became a Hollywood destination, appearing in movies like Elvis’ Blue Hawaii and entertaining big-name guests including royalty — but extensive damage caused by Hurricane Iniki forced it to close in 1992, and it’s been left uninhabited ever since.
Disasters like fires and burglaries continued to push the property into further disrepair, and despite numerous proposals to invest and rebuild, it continues to sit empty, crumbling, and in many places, reclaimed by nature.
The remains of the Coco Palms reside in the middle of a coconut grove that was planted in 1896, and sit near sites sacred to Native Hawaiians, a royal birthing site and the former home of a queen of Kuai.
In 1952, the land was home to a struggling 24-room lodge, with its owner — Veda Hills, the widowed wife of late hotelier Alfred Hills — barely able to fill the rooms.
When Hills decided to sell it, it was leased by Lyle ‘Gus’ Guslander, who had prior hotel experience at the Moana Hotel and had a vision for creating his own Kauaian utopia. Gus re-opened the lodge as the Coco Palms Hotel on January 25, 1953, and would turn it into a landmark for 40 years.
Gus soon hired Grace Buscher to manage the hotel, and she helped grow it to over 400 rooms and transform it into the ‘authentic’ hideaway that became such one of the most popular resorts in the state of Hawaii.
According to Hawaii Magazine, Buscher turned to Hawaii’s history to inspire her vision for the hotel, and introduced activities and traditions to the Coco Palms that payed homage to its roots.
There was torch-lighting ceremony; a pageant for the birthday of Kapule, the Queen of the Kauaʻi; a Hawaiian flag-raising ceremony; and a tree-planting ceremony.
Celebrities including Duke Kahanamoku, Gene Autry, Liberace, James A. Michener, and hula performer Iolani Luahine took part in planting trees over the years, and all in all, 127 trees were planted between 1955 and 1980.
The resort also attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including with Rita Hayworth, who filmed her 1953 movie Miss Sadie Thompson there.
Columbia Pictures donated the wedding chapel used in that film to the Coco Palms, where it would be used in later movies and become a landmark.
Other movies to film there included Voodo Island with Boris Karloff, 1951’s Bird of Paradise with Debra Paget and Louis Jourdan, and 1950’s Pagan Love Song with Esther Williams, Howard Keel, and Rita Moreno.
Most famously, Elvis Presley came calling to film 1961’s Blue Hawaii, which also featured Joan Blackman and Angela Lansbury.
The final moments of the film show Elvis serenading his co-star on the way to the Coco Palms wedding chapel in a double-hulled canoe.
Following this, the resort was catapulted into stardom —and enjoyed visits from guests including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, to name a few.
In 1967, the cast of the film South Pacific visited, including Mitzi Gaynor and Rosanno Brazzi — who were photographed there at a mock cocktail party for a shoot for Life magazine.
Even the Prince and Princess of Japan were said to have enjoyed their stay at the iconic hotel.
Sadly, Gus Guslander passed away in 1984 and soon after, Grace retired, at which point the resort was sold to Wailua Associates.
But disaster struck on September 11, 1992, when the property was struck by category 4 hurricane Iniki, which battered the hotel with 145 mph winds and did terrible damage.
The resort was sadly forced to close, and has sat abandoned for decades. Over that time, it was further destroyed, even catching on fire twice. Thieves stole sinks, doors, and copper, leaving noting of value left.
Photos show the former hotspot in abysmal shape, with plants growing inside the buildings and around still-standing structures.
There is extensive flooding and water damage, with roofs caving in, debris littered about, and a layer of dirt over everything. An old bridge has fallen into the water, greenery grows unchecked, decorative wall mosaics are falling apart, and stairs have caved in.
According to Beat of Hawaii, there is even livestock roaming the premises, and there is a problem with drug sales and other illegal activity.
The sad, decrepit property is certainly a far cry from what Elvis, Sinatra, and the gang saw when they experienced it all those years ago.
And unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it will be back in working order any time soon — though not for lack of trying.
In 2014, developer Coco Palms Hui and Hyatt Hotels Corp. announced plans to rebuild, with a goal to reopen in reopen in 2020 with 273 rooms, 77 suites, three restaurants, a cultural center, and 12,000 square feet of retail.
But the plan has fallen through due to several issues, including legal disputes. Native Hawaiians who claim to be King Kaumualii’s descendants have moved onto the property, and courts have ruled that they can stay.
Kauai Council Member Felicia Cowden has said that the land should be ‘set aside for a future community wilderness or cultural park. Those prime, historically significant lands should not be attached to the problematic private pieces to help move a distressed asset.’
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