A grassroots push to save the most sacred land on Kauai

Photo of Amy Graff

The Coco Palms Resort was damaged in a 1992 hurricane and has been sitting unrepaired since then. A group of community leaders is working to buy the property to turn it into a public park and cultural center.

The Coco Palms Resort was damaged in a 1992 hurricane and has been sitting unrepaired since then. A group of community leaders is working to buy the property to turn it into a public park and cultural center.

Christine Hitt

A group of community leaders on the Hawaiian island of Kauai wants to stop the redevelopment of the decaying Coco Palms Resort in Wailua and turn the 46-acre property into a public park and cultural center that honors and celebrates the Native Hawaiians who lived on the land hundreds of years ago. 

I Ola Wailuanui hopes to buy the property from the Utah-based developers who plan to replace the resort — which was destroyed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 — with a 350-room hotel. 

“This is one of the most cultural historic religious sites in all of ancient Hawaii,” said Teresa Tico, a local attorney who is part of the effort to return the property to the public. “There are ancient heiau, fishponds, burial grounds. It’s a historic site that should be preserved and protected. What’s more, we don’t have the infrastructure on this island. This island is bursting at the seams. The worst traffic on this island is in front of the Coco Palms.”

I Ola Wailuanui issued a petition last year to stop the hotel development; it received nearly 15,000 signatures. The group more recently launched a fundraising campaign this month, which brought in $200,000 in pledges in a week.

It’s a drop in the bucket, but Gary Hooser, former Hawaii state Senate majority leader, said it’s a start. Hooser said the group also recently met with the developers, and they are “increasingly aware that this property is going to be extremely difficult to develop into a hotel, both due to the location with the traffic and also due to the community climate.”

Set at the mouth of the Wailua River and the base of the velvety green Nounou Mountain, the Coco Palms Resort was built in the 1950s as a Polynesian-themed getaway with torch-lighting ceremonies, hula shows and pig roasts on its grounds, landscaped with hundreds of palm trees. The resort attracted Hollywood celebrities; when the 1957 movie “South Pacific” was filmed at Hanalei Bay, the cast — including Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi — stayed at the Coco Palms, according to Hawaii Magazine. But it was Elvis Presley’s 1961 “Blue Hawaii,” filmed on-site, that made the hotel world famous. 

The Coco Palms Resort was featured in Elvis Presley's

The Coco Palms Resort was featured in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii.” 

Screenshot/Paramount Pictures

Those glory days ended with Hurricane Iniki, which whipped the resort with 145 mph winds and monster waves in 1992. The hotel has been visibly decaying behind a chain-link fence ever since. “It has been sitting like a trash heap for 30 years,” Hooser said.

Since the hurricane, the property has been bought and sold a few times by various developers. Last year, a Utah-based developer purchased the property at a foreclosure auction for $22 million. The property is in the process of being sold again and is in escrow, Hooser said. 

Long before the Coco Palms was built, the Native Hawaiians settled in this area on Kauai’s eastern shore. 

Puali‘ili‘imaikalani Rossi, a professor of Hawaiian studies and anthropology at Kauai Community College, said this land adjacent to the largest navigable river on the island was the center of food production for the Native Hawaiians hundreds of years ago. It was also the site of royal compounds, and Rossi said chiefs wanted their children birthed there.

“I would say this is the most sacred site on Kauai,” she noted.