Sheraton Maui turns 50

For nearly 50 years, Roy Takahashi has been a fixture in Sheraton Maui’s Financial Department. He knew all the names of the hotel employees and remembers ordering calculators and typewriters, not computers and Internet devices, for the hotel’s offices and departments.

When he first started in 1964 – a year after the hotel opened – the area’s golf course fee was just $5 and a hotel stay at the Sheraton cost $15 per night.

Also, Sheraton’s multistory hotel tower stood alone along Kaanapali Beach, dwarfing a few of its hotel bungalows, which are now gone.

The Sheraton was affectionately known then as the “upside-down hotel,” Takahashi said.

The lobby was on top of the landmark, Pu’u Keka’a, or Black Rock, the lava flow that juts out into the ocean next to the resort.

“Instead of going up to your room, you would go down to your room. That was something unique at the time,” Takahashi recalled last week.

Asked what he thought of the hotel’s award-winning architecture and the modern features at the time, Takahashi, who was hired at 22, replied with a laugh: “To me, it didn’t make any difference. I was too young.”

The 71-year-old purchasing director and one of the hotel’s longtime employees recalled memories of his workplace prior to the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa kicking off its 50th anniversary this year.

An anniversary luau was held Friday night that featured the history and culture of Maui and Kaanapali through song and dance of Maui and the Pacific.

Special anniversary packages, including promotional rates for family-friendly ‘Ohana suites, are part of the yearlong celebration.

The hotel opened in January 1963 and welcomed guests including singer and actor Bing Crosby, comedian Bob Hope and golfing great Sam Snead. All are now deceased. The first Mainland commercial flight to Maui flew in the dignitaries aboard a United Airlines DC-8.

The hotel had 212 rooms at its inception. Now, it has 508.

Amfac Inc. designed the Kaanapali Beach Resort, one of the first resort destinations, and the Sheraton was its first hotel. Amfac, formerly American Factors, was one of the so-called “Big Five” companies in the territory of Hawaii.

When Sheraton moved to Maui, it marked the first time a Mainland hotel chain had moved to a Neighbor Island, the hotel said. In 1974, Kyo-ya Hotels & Resorts, a company based in Japan, purchased the Sheraton on Maui, along with two other hotels on Oahu. The Sheraton Maui is managed by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

“The opening of Sheraton-Maui Hotel in 1963 was a huge event for the entire island. It put Maui on the map for tourism,” said Tetsuji Yamazaki, the resort’s general manager, in an email. “With the world-class Kaanapali Golf Course and the Sheraton-Maui Hotel at Black Rock, this became the dream luxury vacation for people all over the globe.”

Wayne Hedani, general manager of the Kaanapali Operations Association, which now handles the administrative duties of Kaanapali Beach Resort, also commended the hotel and its longevity.

“It was a pretty spectacular hotel then. It is still a pretty spectacular hotel today,” he said.

Hedani noted that the hotel has a scenic location with long beach frontage.

“I think (the hotel turning 50 is) significant in that its hasn’t been converted into a time share. It survived all these years basically,” Hedani added, alluding to the hotel weathering the economic ups and downs.

Maui Visitors Bureau Executive Director Terryl Vencl called the hotel turning 50 “marvelous” and added that it “speaks to the caliber of property and service they offer.”

“I think it is truly amazing the people/planners had the vision of a planned resort with Sheraton as its anchor and worked to make it all come to fruition. I admire such visionaries,” Vencl said in a email.

In 1968, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau designated Sheraton-Maui Hotel as one of the leaders in the development of Maui, particularly Lahaina-Kaanapali, as a major tourist destination resort.

Hedani, who also worked for Amfac in the 1970s, said that the Sheraton was built on property occupied by brush and cattle pens, according to old area photographs.

Also nearby were oil tanks that were set up for the ships that docked in the area.

In the Kaanapali Beach Resort’s beginnings, it had only three employees who were from the Pioneer Mill, a subsidiary of Amfac. But now the resort has 5,000 employees at its various resorts and businesses, Hedani said.

The Sheraton no longer stands alone. Several big chain resorts such as Hyatt and the Westin line the Kaanapali beachfront, along with smaller hotels. Nightly room rates at some of the larger hotels, including the Sheraton, range in the upper $300s and more in March, according to the hotels’ websites, a far cry from the $15 rates that Sheraton began with.

Back when plans were coming together to develop the resort, Hedani said that a private sewage treatment plant was built for the resort on the mauka side of Honoapiilani Highway. Developers did not want to follow the practice at the time, which was to dump sewage into the ocean, Hedani said.

“It was a state-of-the-art, secondary treatment plant back in the 1950s,” he said.

Hedani said that the creator of the system was so confident that he drank the treated water to show “how clean it was.”

Now the hotels are connected with the county wastewater system.

While he was a student at the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management in the 1970s, Hedani studied the Sheraton and its design of its cliffside tower. He said he was impressed with the beautiful landscaping and the way architects blended the hotel in with its environment near Black Rock.

The New York Museum of Modern Art for Architecture selected the Sheraton’s design for placement in an American exhibition to tour through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1960s, the hotel said. The Sheraton Maui was the first Hawaii hotel to receive an award for architecture enhancement of the natural locale.

Although the hotel was known for its architecture and design, it underwent a $160 million redevelopment from 1995 to 1997.

Vencl called the work a “beautiful transformation.”

Vencl, who began with the Maui Hotel Association in 1990, remembers the Sheraton being torn down and feeling the sadness of that happening.

“But the brand new property soon appeared with beautiful rooms and meeting space,” she said. “They brought back many of the old employees and suddenly it became ‘The Sheraton Maui’ again.”

While its physical appearance, rates and amenities have changed over the years, one thing that has remained constant at the Sheraton is the tradition of the nightly cliff-dive ceremony off of Black Rock that dates back to the days of Hawaiian royalty and Maui Chief Kahekili.

Takahashi said that the hotel has the “best location in Kaanapali,” because of its proximity to Black Rock and the beach below.

“A lot of people want to go to Black Rock,” he added.

Fresh out of the Army, Takahashi said he figured he’d try for a job in the travel industry.

“I came to the hotel, they said ‘OK, you’re hired.’ That’s how I got started,” he said.

Through the years, Takahashi worked his way up from revenue auditor to general cashier then to paymaster (where he took care of employees’ paychecks and knew all employees by name). Then, he was promoted to purchasing director, a job he has held for the past several decades.

Takahashi said he remembers that in the 1960s he knew exactly when the late actor and entertainer Red Skelton was at the hotel because that’s when Takahashi saw $1,000 bills popping up when he was the general cashier.

“Whenever he was in the house, he would change thousand-dollar bills,” he said.

Over the years, the hotel has also seen a number of other celebrities, including singer and performer Elton John, actor Harrison Ford and tennis great Serena Williams, the hotel noted.

As for his job, Takahashi joked that it “must be good cause I’m still here.”

“They have been pretty good to me as far as workwise,” he said.

Over the years, Takahashi has traveled to Japan, China, New Zealand, Okinawa and Molokai to help sister hotels with their openings.

Although the hotel has changed over the years, one of the features Takahashi cherishes is the view from Black Rock. His favorite part of the hotel was “from the top of the hill,” the former location of a dining room, bar and lobby. Now the hill is occupied by suites.

“It’s pretty nice for the people who can afford to go up there,” Takahashi said.

He still goes up to the top of Black Rock to admire the view from time to time.

Over the years, Takahashi said, there has been a good relationship among the employees, and they care very much for their guests.

“Everyone has the aloha spirit when they work here. Everyone belongs like an ohana. Everyone gets along pretty good here,” he said.

Takahashi credits the hotel’s longevity to its prime location and the staff’s hospitality.

“Our staff all get aloha. The guests like that,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at