Why This Historic Hawaiian Landmark Is Still Abandoned Today

When the Hawaiian resort Coco Palms opened its doors, it grew from a small hotel to a dreamy oasis in tropical paradise. According to U.S. News & World Report, the property spanned 20 acres, and once hosted celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, and Rita Hayworth. But today, the spot is completely abandoned — and here's why it may never reopen to the public.

In the 1800s, Hawaiian royalty inhabited Wailua, according to Sometimes Interesting. But when Hawaiian Queen Deborah Kapule died in 1853, the land was sold. For some time, coconut oil was created from the abundant coconut trees, and a new owner, William Lindeman, took over some of the property around 1896.

Then, according to "Creating Hawai'i Tourism: A Memoir," a man named Gus Guslander leased this land on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i in 1952. He leased a business lodge near the Wailua River, advertised as being on "former royal land," and renamed it the Coco Palms Lodge. To boost business, Guslander enlisted a creative woman with experience in buyer psychology, Grace Buscher, and the two aimed to create the perfect Hawaiian getaway spot. It first opened on January 25, 1953, though it was a modest start, with 24 rooms and just five employees. Two guests slept in the hotel on opening night. Located on the eastern shore of the island of Kaua'i, Hotel News Resource reports, the location matched the Coco Palms name: The site was amid one of the biggest coconut groves in all of Hawaii.

Famous celebs and glamorous weddings

"Creating Hawai'i Tourism: A Memoir" reports that in the 1950s, Coco Palms started a famous tradition of a torch lighting ceremony. Guests were delighted by the lagoons and fishing spots, and they feasted on meat that was roasted over a fire throughout the day. Grace Buscher took over hotel management, and planned lots of daily activities. 

But just a year after Coco Palms opened its doors, a cargo ship crashed into the rocky coast of Kaua'i during a storm in 1954. While the ship couldn't actually be moved, groups of crew members worked to save the cargo, and the Coco Palms was nearby to house the crew. In a deal with the ship's insurer, Coco Palms became booked to capacity with workers during the slow season. Their quick thinking turned a shipwreck into an opportunity. 

Per Hawaii Magazine, the hotel housed nearly 180 actors during the film shoot for "South Pacific" in 1957. And Hotel News Resource reports that by the 1960s, the Coco Palms began regularly drawing celebrities to the idyllic resort. The Coco Palms' big break came in 1961, when a film titled "Blue Hawaii" was shot there (via Hawaii Magazine). It really boosted the location's popularity, thanks to musician Elvis Presley's starring role in the movie. The hotel rapidly expanded to add hundreds more rooms, eventually reaching 400 rooms total, according to Hotel News Resource.

Popular wedding spot

Sometimes Interesting reports that after the success of "Blue Hawaii," hundreds of couples flocked to marry at the resort, which ended up hosting about 500 weddings per year in its heyday. It continued to thrive well into the 1970s — after all, guests paid $400 per night to stay there, which is the equivalent of nearly $3,000 per night in today's dollars (via Inflation Tool). The hotel's manager and owner, Grace Buscher and Gus Guslander, also got married in 1969, per Star Bulletin.

Grace Buscher tried to be respectful of Hawaiian culture when creating guest activities and curating the hotel's aesthetics (via Sometimes Interesting). The hotel is built on Hawaiian holy grounds, so she reportedly did not add any tikis around the hotel. Tikis are historically carved to depict Hawaiian gods as a form of worship (via To-Hawaii). Buscher also threw Queen Kapule a grand birthday celebration each year, per Sometimes Interesting. But Hawaii Magazine reports that by the 1980s, the resort had begun to lose popularity. The hotel was sold to a different owner, and lots of long-time staff began to leave or retire.

A string of disasters

Disaster struck on September 11, 1992, when a hurricane pounded the hotel, reports Hawaii Magazine. It wasn't the first storm or tidal wave that Coco Palms had been through, but when Hurricane Iniki hurled 145 mile-per-hour winds at the island, the damage was nearly irreparable. The hotel, now under new management from Park Lane Hotels, closed indefinitely in 1992, according to Travel Weekly

Not only was the hotel demolished by the storm, but it was then abandoned for decades, per Hawaii Magazine. Looter took advantage. First, thieves stole lots of the valuables from the hotel rooms, like the colossal signature clamshell sinks, and massive doors that were hand-carved from koa wood. They stripped the hotel of copper, and stole anything else they thought could be valuable.

And there were other issues, too. Because the resort was built on holy grounds, special permits would be needed to rebuild the structure (via Sometimes Interesting). Since lots of Hawaiian buildings had been wrecked in the category-4 storm, business owners had to spend years in court, trying to get insurance payouts to fix and rebuild their tourist destinations.

Plans to rebuild

Sometimes Interesting reports that in 2000, the beloved manager of the Coco Palms, Grace Guslander (formerly Grace Buscher), died. Repairs to the building had been put on hold for years and years, with no end in sight. Some locals objected to the resort ever being rebuilt — they want the land to be used in a more culturally and historically sensitive manner. Kauai council members suggested the land could be used as a park or a community wilderness area, per Daily Mail.

The hotel was so neglected that it actually caught on fire two times (via Hawaii Magazine). The first time, in 2009, was by an arsonist, which damaged the retail portion of the hotel (per Sometimes Interesting). 

Then, when it caught on fire in 2014 for nearly two days straight, according to Star Advertiser, the main lobby was destroyed, as were numerous hotel rooms, causing $600,000 in damages. Hotel News Resource reports that the hotel was supposed to be revamped, with a two-year plan to rebuild the resort. This work was scheduled to start in 2015, and end in 2017.

Will Coco Palms Resort return?

Instead of 400 rooms, the crews would rebuild 331 guest rooms and numerous pools, bungalows, restaurants, lounge spaces, and a community center, according to Hotel News Resource. It didn't happen. Per Honolulu Civil Beat, numerous redevelopers have started this process and then abandoned it. All that is left for many of the rooms is the bare-bones concrete floors and metal beams. Daily Mail reports that in 2017, a group of about 20 royal native Hawaiian descendants announced they were living on the land. Citing the war crimes, illegal occupation, and land theft that their elders had told them about, the group believes they are entitled to the land instead of any corporation.

With such severe neglect, by 2020, Coco Palms was crumbling so badly that developers warned a structural collapse is just a matter of time, per Honolulu Civil Beat. In 2021, Beat of Hawaii reports, the resort went up for sale again, with one lone bidder buying the property in its current condition. The Private Capital Group paid $22 million for the property, but have not yet announced what they will do with the land. With no sure-fire future plans to be found for the Coco Palms Resort, it remains an "awful eyesore and safety hazard" to locals, and a remnant of a glamorous past many decades ago.