Elvis Presley’s Abandoned Tiki Paradise

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23rd Jan, 2014

Coco Palms

The moment Elvis Presley floated down the lagoon at the Coco Palms Resort with Hawaiian flowers around his neck, serenading his new island bride in 1960s panavision technicolor, the hotel had solidified its place as one of the most desirable couples’ destinations on the planet. It would forever be the setting of the classic mid-century American film Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis Presley and the resort’s famous grounds, which included a 17-acre coconut grove. But fast-forward to present day and it would appear that Elvis has definitely left the building…

Lead image (c) Mindy Seyler

Above: Elvis checking in to the Coco Palms; Below: the resort today. 


Image (c) Sunshine 

Images (c) Mindy Seyler 

Coco Palms

The Coco Palms Resort opened in January 1953 on Kauaʻi, Hawaii with a collection of 24 rooms, four employees and just two guest reservations on the books. But business wouldn’t take long to pick up. By the mid-1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had already marked it as a paradise hotspot when the studio filmed Miss Sadie Thompson there, starring Rita Hayworth, and the guest list quickly began to fill up with familiar names including royalty and rock stars alike. And then came Elvis…

 

Paramount pictures scouted the Coco Palms to host the on-screen wedding of Elvis Presley and his co-star Joan Blackman for Blue Hawaii, which hit cinema screens in 1961, becoming an instant classic, along with the soundtrack which featured Elvis’s hit song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. Most of the last 20 minutes of the movie was shot on and near the grounds of the Coco Palms resort, where Elvis himself stayed during filming in cottage number 56, which still stands on the property today.

After the runaway success of the film, the hotel became the go-to vacation destination for couples, either to tie the knot, floating down the resort’s iconic lagoon and recreating the famous finale of Blue Hawaii, or for honeymooners seeking a piece of Presley’s paradise.

For decades, the luxury resort benefited from the film’s success, and right up until its closure, the Coco Palms was the location for a whopping 500 weddings a year on average.

View the film’s wedding finale below:

YouTube Preview Image

More Coco Palms

Image (c) Mindy Seyler

Even through the economic slump of the 70s and 80s which significantly slowed down tourism for the Hawaiian islands, Coco Palms held its place as the premier resort of Kauaʻi, offering the same quality of service (and Elvis nostalgia), even after an ownership change in the 1980s. But there was one final storm the resort wouldn’t be able to weather and Presley’s legacy wouldn’t be able to save it from…

Elvis pictures at Coco Palms with Priscilla 

In 1992, hurricane Iniki hit the island. Nearly 9,000 homes were either completely destroyed or all but flattened. The damages amounted to the equivalent to $3 billion in modern day currency. The Coco Palms resort had been no exception to the storm’s wrath and the repairs needed were monumental.

Countless insurance companies went bankrupt in the aftermath of the storm which sent the island into recession. While Coco Palms and other hotels battled in court for their much-needed repair costs, the resort remained in tatters.

Image (c) Ger and Audrey

Over the next twenty years, the Coco Palms would become an entirely different place from the paradise resort pictured in the postcards and brochures of its heyday. Tour groups visited for all the wrong reasons, curious to see the eerily decaying 1950s landmark in ruins. Announcements of redevelopments failed one after another and the false promise of new investors began to sound like a broken record player (perhaps playing an Elvis song), as the grounds continued to deteriorate and fall victim to vandalism and theft. Elvis’ cottage number 56 was regularly raided.

Coco Palms Resort, Lihue, Kauai

(c) Swell maps 

The Coco Palms-lobby

Above: What’s left of the bar (c) M SeylerBelow: the old tropical cocktail menu.

Coco Palms Resort, Wailua Beach

Coco Palms

Above: Buffet/ chef’s area of the dining room (c) J Boldman ; Below: the luncheon menu circa 1960.

Coco Palms

Fish Lagoon (Queen's Cottages on left and Dining Room on right)

Image (c) Bob and Jo 

Above: Elvis and Priscilla at the Coco Palms dining room; Below: The dinner menu circa 1960 that they likely would have been ordering from.

Coco Palms

Image (c) JBoldman 

Coco Palms

Image (c) JBoldman 

shellsink

Image (c) Ingrid Rowe 

kings_cottage_giant_shell_basin_coco_palms_resort_hotel

Image (c) Chaffneue 

Until now, much of the proposed and failed redevelopment plans have been rather ambitious investments that involved massive renovations and the installation of extravagant condos, spas and additional facilities on the property which had once been the ancestral home of Kauaʻi’s last reigning queen, Queen Deborah Kapule, until the mid-19th century.

Coco Palms Resort, Kauai, Hawaii

Image (c) Sheila Place 

One of the more promising but sadly ineffective redevelopment plans was supported by none other than South Park creator Trey Parker, whose parents had honeymooned at the resort. A part-time resident of the island, Parker gave a substantial donation to the group Friends of Coco Palms, which intended to preserve and respect the cultural heritage in their efforts to revive the iconic hotel.

Trey Parker even went as far as writing the Coco Palms resort into the storyline of one of South Park‘s episodes…

While the future of Coco Palms resort is still very uncertain, new permits are being sought out by a Honolulu-based group, Coco Palms Hui LLC, which has already taken steps to clear the debree from the property, some twenty years after Iniki. Although progress is slow, the developer intends to keep the spirit of the Coco Palms Elvis days by keeping costly modifications to a minimum.

We hope that Coco Palms becomes the true place of aloha that it was prior to Hurricane Iniki, there’s quite a bit to do. It’s a full renovation job. We’ll be peeling the buildings back to the studs, but all the structures that exist today will stay as they are.”

If Elvis isn’t hiding out somewhere in Las Vegas and is indeed in paradise, maybe he’s still in the building (or watching over it) and there’s hope for the Coco Palms yet…

Further interest links:

Save the Coco Palms in Kauai Facebook page / More images from a visit to the resort in 2013 / Website for tours of the historic Coco Palms / Website with updates, photos and memorabilia

via Sometimes Interesting

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