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HONOLULU — The only royal palace in America sits regally in Honolulu, without trumpets and fanfare.
I didn't even know about it on my first two trips to paradise, but the third time, I was charmed by this elegant piece of the past: home to Hawaii's final two monarchs, temporary prison for the deposed queen, then the capitol building for provisional, republic, territorial and state governments. And now, a National Historic Landmark, open to the public.
Built in the late 1880s by King Kalakaua — the first Hawaiian monarch to travel around the world — it blends European and Hawaiian architectural influences. It's touted as the only example of American Florentine, a fusion of Italian Renaissance and Hawaiian styles, and capitalizes on Oahu's temperate climate, affording sweeping vistas from large windows and open-air verandas (lanais) encircling the first and second floors.
Once the royal residence and center of the kingdom's social life, today it's a museum where visitors can explore 7,000 square feet of palace, from the public reception areas on the first floor to the private suites on the second floors. All were restored to their 19th century majesty during extensive renovations in the 1970s. The basement galleries house a treasure trove of crown jewels, medals, ancient regalia, restored kitchen and Chamberlain's Office, as well as historic photographs and information on the $7.5 million restoration project.
The cornerstone for Iolani Palace was laid with full Masonic rites on Dec. 31, 1879. In December 1882, King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani moved into their new home, full of modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and a telephone system. Since the island had no other telephones, the king dialed up his household staff. Gas chandeliers were replaced by electric lights five years later, just seven years after Thomas Edison invented the first practical incandescent bulb.
Kalakaua was Hawaii's last king. Upon his death in 1891, his sister, Princess Liliuokalani, became queen. Her reign was short-lived, with an overthrow of her government and a call for her abdication in 1893. She was placed under house arrest in her primary residence, the nearby Washington Place.
In 1895, she was charged with treason following a failed attempt to restore the monarchy. She abdicated her thrown, and despite denying any knowledge of the counter-revolution, was found guilty, sentenced to five years of hard labor and fined $5,000. Her sentence was commuted to house arrest at Iolani Palace, where she was confined to a palace bedroom with one lady-in-waiting. A year later, she was granted a full pardon, was released from the palace, and died in her own home in 1917.
Visitors to Iolani Palace can see the starkly furnished bedroom known as the Imprisonment Room. Her simple patchwork quilt lies in a glass case.
Iolani Palace wasn't Oahu's first royal residence on this site.
The much smaller — but still grand — Hale Alii (House of the Chief), was built there for a royal princess, then purchased by King Kamehameha III when he moved his capital from Maui to Honolulu in 1845. The plantation-style structure, built of coral block and wood, was used for ceremonial purposes. Since the royal families slept in smaller structures nearby, it had no bedrooms.
Hale Alii became the seat of government for subsequent monarchs in the Kamehameha lineage. In 1863, Kamehameha V renamed it Iolani — royal hawk — in honor of his deceased brother, Kamehameha IV. The structure was demolished in 1874, but the name was kept for the new palace.
Like Kamehameha V, his successor, King Kalakaua, dreamed of building a grand, modern palace befitting a grand, modern monarchy.
Guided- and self-guided tours of the palace are offered Monday through Saturday, and are well worth the modest price of admission.
Grand Hall: The main doors open to a hallway running the width of the palace, leading to a sweeping staircase fashioned from native koa wood. Recessed niches lining the hallway hold vases and statuary from England, France and India, and are topped by portraits of 10 Hawaiian monarchs.
Throne Room: One of the most fascinating rooms on the first floor is the throne room, where royal red dominates the color scheme. Massive upholstered chairs line the walls, leading to the raised seating area holding two thrones. Crowns, scepter and sword are housed in a glass case.
Blue Room: Across the hall lies the Blue Room, used for informal audiences and smaller receptions. Ringed with bright blue chairs and a settee, it also contains a portrait of King Louis Philippe of France, presented to King Kamehameha III by the French government in 1848. Portraits of Hawaii's final reigning monarchs, King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, also hang in this lovely room.
State Dining Room: While the palace is resplendent with wood trims and carvings, the three huge, intricately carved sideboards made in Boston dominate the beauty of the formal dining room. Sliding doors from the Blue Room lead here, where the table is set with china, colorful crystal and silver.
Private Suites: The second floor offers glimpses to how the royalty lived in good times and under duress.
King's Suite: His bedroom, furnished in blue, features a generous seating area filled with Gothic Revival, Asian and European furnishings, as well as a carved wooden bed frame topped by tall drapes tucked behind the headboard.
King's Library: Adjacent to his bedroom lies the library, featuring a massive table and one of the island's first telephones.
Bathrooms: The palace's indoor plumbing included a tub room with a copper-lined bathtub and showerhead, next to a simple wooden box toilet with an open hole, looking rather like an outdoor toilet moved indoors. Another bathroom has a toilet that looks more like a mini throne, with a hole in the center of a wood-framed box, and a corner sink with a marble top and wooden cabinet.
Queen's Suite: The king's wife, Queen Kapiolani, had a suite adorned in shades of red and magenta, with a full-length mirror between two windows, carved cabinets, a magenta upholstered chaise and a floral bouquet encased in glass atop an ornately carved round pedestal table. The suite included two guest rooms for her sisters, Princess Kekaulike and Princess Poomaikelani.
Gold Room: The royals were musically gifted, and dedicated this room to playing piano, composing and listening to music. Sheet music containing songs they wrote is propped up in a segmented round chair, placed in the center of the room. The deposed queen continued composing music in her room during her confinement. A copy of her best-known piece, the familiar 'Aloha Oe' (Farewell to Thee), is included in the display. Even though she wrote it as a love song in 1878, some 20 years later, she would use it as a farewell to Hawaii's independence.
Imprisonment Room: This is the most stark room in the palace. Sparsely furnished, this is where Queen Liliuokalani spent about a year under house arrest. The patchwork quilt that covered her bed is displayed under glass.
Iolani Palace sits amid lush grounds with green lawns and palm trees. It's a lovely place to stroll, as long as you honor the 'Kapu,' or 'forbidden' areas. Clearly marked as such, these are sacred or consecrated places that require special protocol for entrance.
Four main gates around the grounds bear the kingdom's coat of arms, each with a specific purpose, used for either ceremonial occasions or by tradesmen, servants or the royal family.
Near the palace is the circular Coronation Pavilion built for the 1883 coronation of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. It has been moved from its original location near the King Street Steps and is now used for band concerts and gubernatorial inaugurations.
The fenced-in Sacred Mound contained a royal tomb, built in 1825 for Kamehameha II and his consort, Queen Kamamalu, both of whom died of measles while traveling in England the year before. The tomb and surrounding area were used for royal burials the next 40 years, before construction of the new Royal Mausoleum in Nuuanu Valley.
Hale Koa, the Iolani Barracks, was built in 1871 to house the Royal Guard. Constructed on the site of what is now Hawaii State Capitol across the street, the barracks were dismantled and rebuilt closer to the palace in 1965. It now houses the Palace Shop and visitor center, with a ticket office and video theater.
My friend and I were lucky to just stroll up to the ticket office, purchase our self-guided tour tickets and wander the site without waiting. We were spending a week in Honolulu without an agenda, so stopped here on a lark.
If your time is tight or you're trying to pack in lots of sightseeing, from Pearl Harbor to Waikiki to the Dole Pineapple Plantation, palace tickets can be purchased online at Iolanipalace.org/Visit/ToursAdmission.aspx
A wealth of history is just waiting to be discovered here.
What: Iolani Palace
Where: 364 S. King St., Honolulu, Hawaii
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Admission: Guided tours, $21.75 adults, $6 ages 5 to 12; self-guided audio tours, $14.75 adults, $6 ages 5 to 12; Iolani Barracks ticket office on the palace grounds, (808) 522-0832 or Iolanipalace.org/Visit.aspx
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