Low-key Glamour in Oahu

Ditte Isager

A sleepy, chic enclave off Oahu’s southeast shore, Kahala has long attracted stars and politicians, but you’d never know it.

“I remember Jackie serving my brother breakfast in bed,” recalls Stanton Johnston, as he stands on the lawn of the home of his late mother, the beloved Cecily Johnston. The 4,050-square-foot house sits in the residential enclave of Kahala, approximately four miles from Waikiki’s center and overlooking the Pacific Ocean on Oahu’s southeast shore. Even though Mrs. Kennedy and her children stayed one house down the beach from the Johnstons’ during the summer of 1966, it was the Johnston household that was a constant draw for Kahala regulars like Clark Gable and Clare Boothe Luce, as Cecily was the consummate hostess. “I don’t even know all the people who visited,” Johnston says. “As a kid growing up here, we just sort of took our houseguests for granted.” Like so many others who grew up in Kahala in the fifties, Johnston recalls a kind of barefoot paradise—one where children and families all knew each other, front doors were left unlocked, and after-school playdates meant coursing the length of the one-and-a-half-mile beach into the wild naupaka hedges for hours on end.

Hawaii, with its perfect beaches and perfect climate, has always conjured idyllic images of escape, so memorably captured in James Michener’s Hawaii and on the silver screen in From Here to Eternity—parts of which, incidentally, were shot in Kahala. Of Hawaii’s eight main islands, it’s Oahu that lures the biggest crowds, most notably to tourist-laden Waikiki, where megahotels line the beach and create a kind of manufactured tropical Eden. East of Diamond Head, the tiny area of Kahala, with its mere 9,400 residents, manages to feel far removed from the tourist crush. Since the early 20th century Kahala has been known for its hushed sophistication, and today it happens to have some of the most expensive and sought-after real estate in the Honolulu area, if not all of Hawaii.

First worth noting: There are few restaurants here and no nightclubs. In fact, there’s nary a vestige of tourism at all, save for the legendary Kahala Hotel & Resort, which opened in 1964 and feels a lot more like a chic country club (though there’s one of those, too) than it does a 338-room hotel. Locals host dinner parties and celebrate milestones on the six-and-a-half-acre property. And while the neighborhood purports discretion, the names of its glamorous residents and visitors tell a different story: Elizabeth Taylor, Ted Kennedy, Elton John, Henry Kissinger, Queen Elizabeth, Joan Didion. And the list goes on.

It should come as no surprise that homes in Kahala—twenties-style, one-story bungalows with densely planted gardens, as well as largely renovated gated estates—are just as chic as the visitors who come here. Houses of varying sizes line Kahala Avenue, forming the stylish neighborhood—Honolulu’s answer to Los Angeles’s Beverly Hills—where the view from the road is shaded by lush vegetation. “In Kahala many of the older houses were simple shingled-roof beach houses,” notes Mary Philpotts-McGrath, one of the island’s best interior designers. “They were on big, relaxed pieces of property where owners entertained outdoors.” And while all the beaches in Kahala, as on the rest of the island, are public, there’s a respectfulness among everyone who lives and visits here. Cecily Johnston’s one-and-a-half-acre estate, currently on the market for $28 million, is a particularly good example of Kahala’s laid-back ease; the original one-story, shingled-roof construction is accented with dripping bougainvillea and royal poinciana trees to create a kind of Hawaii moderne. “I love Cecily’s house more than any other in Kahala,” says Philpotts-McGrath, who worked closely with Johnston on the interiors of her four-bedroom home. “I’m particularly fond of the courtyard and its openness.”

But since Cecily’s husband built their home in 1939, much has changed, as the region has gained in popularity. “Nowadays homeowners are building up to the lot lines, or lots are getting broken up,” says Philpotts-McGrath, who has a charming thirties home in Nuuanu Valley, about nine miles away. It was, in fact, not until the twenties that Kahala went from the rural community of pig farms and fishing enclaves it had been since the late 1700s to an area characterized by modest bungalow-style houses.

Kahala and its surroundings also captivated the notoriously private Doris Duke, who first fell in love with the place in 1935, on the last stop of her around-the-world honeymoon with James Cromwell. Over the next few years she oversaw the construction of a five-acre, $1.4 million oceanfront sanctuary fittingly called Shangri La. Palm Beach architect Marion Sims Wyeth and a team of about 150 workmen completed the project. After Duke’s death in 1993, the house was taken over by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which works to maintain and preserve its grounds. Visits to the estate are by appointment only, Wednesday through Saturday, and the number of guests is limited to 72 each day. The simple elegance of the house’s plaster façade is pure Kahala theater, concealing the treasures within: the white marble bedroom as well as a bath inlaid with semiprecious stones, inspired by Duke’s trip to the Taj Mahal; the Iranian tiles, which she painstakingly cleaned herself with Q-tips before they were used in the inner courtyard; and her vast Islamic art collection. Duke was also able to build her own dock and lava-rock seawall for added privacy and security—a structural feat that would be nearly impossible today given the stringent guidelines from Hawaii’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.

Another famous estate that has been enhanced as much as it has been restored is the former home of the journalist and playwright Clare Boothe Luce. In 1966 Luce bought the beautifully sited two-acre oceanfront property on Kahala Avenue—it has “the biggest lawn in Honolulu,” she claimed—with her husband, Henry R. Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines. But architect Vladimir Ossipoff had a difficult time designing the place because of Luce’s staunch frugality. The house, known as Halenai’a, or House of the Dolphins, was purportedly the first on Kahala Avenue to have a name, and Luce herself was among the first to usher in a new era of formal entertaining. And entertain she did. Luce was well known for her lavish dinner parties, with guests like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, as evidenced today by the industrial walk-in freezers that remain in the house. (Dinner guests were encouraged to stay late but not overnight.)

In the eighties the Luce estate was sold to a buyer, and then, in 1999, to Houston investment manager Fayez Sarofim, who originally purchased it as an interim residence while his family built a home on another side of Oahu. After spending time at Halenai’a, Sarofim decided to make things permanent, noting that “the energy was just too good,” says interior designer David Lindal, who worked on updating the house with Eric Subert, both of David James Design. Over the last ten years, they have added eight master bedrooms, done up in a neutral palette of Mexican shellstone, travertine, and bleached koa wood. The property is elegantly appointed with Hawaiian antiques and furniture, and there’s a plantation-style guest cottage on the back lawn.

“The spirit of aloha really does exist here,” says Lindal, as he describes the spell that Kahala casts on those who end up spending time in this charmed enclave, where nature and design align. Perhaps local newspaper columnist Cobey Black—who famously interviewed a number of movie stars and politicians who visited the island—sums it up best: “I physically fell in love with the place,” she says of the area’s irresistible allure. “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning.”

Hidden Hawaii

Although often thought of as a stopover en route to more pristine Hawaiian locales, today Honolulu returns to its glory days as classic spots are reinvigorated and new boutiques and galleries move in.

Staying Put

Halekulani On a five-acre stretch of Waikiki beachfront, this hotel recently got a grand makeover, but its 453 rooms and suites still manage to feel intimate. Of the three over-the-top suites, the newest is the Orchid Suite, opened in December. The 2,365-square-foot space has a steam shower, cold plunge tub, and private garden for spa treatments. From $425 to $7,000. At 2199 Kalia Rd.; 808-923-2311; halekulani.com.

Kahala Hotel & Resort On the east end of Kahala, the historic property recently underwent a $50 million–plus renovation. Of its 338 rooms, each of the 32 suites includes a four-poster bed, ipe-wood floors, and dhurrie rugs; the best are in the hotel’s Koko Head wing, which overlooks the dolphin lagoon and 800 feet of white-sand beach. From $475 to $8,900. At 5000 Kahala Ave.; 808-739-8888; kahalaresort.com.

Royal Hawaiian With the six-month, $60 million redo of the 563-room property, local interior designer Mary Philpotts-McGrath shows off her whimsical side. Bold, playful patterns in a rich palette of bright pinks, greens, and dark browns mark the decor, notably in the lobby and water-view junior suites. From $560 to $5,500. At 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-923-7311; royal-hawaiian.com.

Seaside Shops

David James Design A former antiques and art dealer, designer Lindal runs an appointment-only gallery about ten minutes from downtown Waikiki. A well-curated selection of decorative objects includes 19th-century calabashes carved from kou wood (from $15,000), and a local red-and-brown feather cape purchased at a Sotheby’s auction—only one of two such capes to come on the market in the last decade and now priced at $450,000. At 2828 Kapiolani Blvd.; 808-735-9723.

Place Interior designer Philpotts-McGrath brings her island aesthetic to the chic enclave of Nuuanu. Pacific Rim furnishings like an Indonesian reclaimed teak table (from $800) and woven leather-and-wicker armchairs from the Philippines (from $200) are mixed with handmade ceramic lamps (from $60) and vases from Asia and Hawaii (from $15). At 40 S. School St.; 808-275-3075; placehawaii.com.

At Table

Alan Wong’s Even 14 years after this restaurant opened, Wong’s creative take on farm-influenced regional cuisine is still going strong. Fish specialties like onaga (red snapper) or opakapaka (pink snapper) are the things to order, whatever the preparation might be. Dinner, $55. At 1857 S. King St.; 808-949-2526; alanwongs.com.

Azure Jon Matsubara, the chef at this new island-inflected fine dining spot at the Royal Hawaiian, hits Honolulu’s fish auction every day at 5 a.m. His best dishes are also his most straightforward, like flaky white local fish simply roasted with white wine, Meyer lemon, and herbs. Dinner, $70. At 2259 Kalakaua Ave.; 808-921-4600; royal-hawaiian.com.

Side Street Inn What this nondescript restaurant lacks in atmosphere—it has neon signs, plastic-coated menus—it makes up for in authentic fare, namely pupus (Hawaiian tapas), like the heaping servings of pan-fried pork chops. Dinner, $40. At 1225 Hopaka St.; 808-591-0253.

Culture Fix

Honolulu Academy of Arts Known for its Asian art collection, this space is home to 50,000-plus works, among them pieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Francis Bacon. From September 23 to January 3, Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic series of 36 woodblock prints of Mount Fuji will be on view for the first time in a decade. At 900 S. Beretania St.; 808-532-8701; honoluluacademy.org.

Shangri La Doris Duke’s home, inspired by her travels to India and the Middle East, is now a center for Islamic studies. The dining room’s blue-striped woven fabric on the walls and an ornate Baccarat chandelier give the feel of an Indian wedding tent; the walls of another room are lined with Syrian carved and painted wood panels. Book a tour (offered Wednesday to Saturday) a month in advance. Admission, $25. At 4055 Papu Circle; 866-385-3849.