Sheraton Maui Resort Celebrates 50 Years on Top of Pu’u Keka’a at Ka’anapali

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The Sheraton Maui is one of the island’s oldest resorts. It opened in 1963 with a bang. Ka’anapali was very different back then. The only other resort in the area was the Royal Lahaina, which was built in 1962, and that was north of Black Rock (Pu’u Keka’a).

All this year, the 23-acre Sheraton will be celebrating its traditions that have lasted half a century. In fact, it will be celebrating its bicentennial with a new signature cocktail–the Makana.

“The entire Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa ‘ohana is enthused about celebrating our Golden Anniversary,” says General Manager Tetsuji Yamazaki. “We have associates and guests who have been with us since day one. We are thrilled to commemorate this major milestone all year long. Come and celebrate the legend!”

It all started a few years before Hawaii became a state, before Maui County even had a mayor. In 1956, Pioneer Mill’s board of directors got together for a luau on the beach near Pu’u Keka’a. There, they sketched out the whole Ka’anapali Beach Resort master planning venture.

Seven years later, the grand opening for the Sheraton put Ka’anapali on the map as a resort area and featured celebrities like Bing Crosby, golfer Sam Snead and then-California Governor Pat Brown. It was a ground-breaking place, in more ways than one.

“The visionaries of Sheraton Maui set out to create the jewel of Ka’anapali beach and share its magic with the world,” says Alexis Eaton, Public Relations Manager for Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa. “Among these accomplishments were: being the first hotel build by a major hotel corporation on a neighbor island; first hotel at Ka’anapali Beach Resort; the first planned vacation resort in the island; looked over the first visitor-oriented golf course built on any Hawaiian island; held the islands’ first Celebrity Pro-Tournament, was the first Hawaii hotel to receive an award for architectural enhancement of the natural locale; and brought the first United Airlines DC-8 to fly to Maui delivering the grand opening guests.”

According to Eaton, the resort’s design instantly won it fans everywhere.

“Sheraton Maui’s distinctive architecture was spectacular and romantic, and was applauded throughout the world,” Eaton says. “It was selected for inclusion by New York Museum of Modern Art for Architecture—USA exhibition to tour through Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1960s. Sheraton Maui set the standard for the innovative, luxury, Polynesian resort. Today we share the same vision of being the destination of romantics, families, adventure seekers, and meeting attendees.”

Amazing photographs and footage of the resort’s early years show the golf course going right up to the beach next to the Sheraton, where beach front hotels now stand. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was the resort to visit, and many got there by flying into old Ka’anapali Airport. But one holdover from the first days still goes strong: the Sheraton’s sunset cliff dive ceremony began during their opening and continues to this day.

The ceremony honors Kahekili, Maui’s last ruler before Kamehameha unified the islands. Kahekili lived in Ka’anapali and practiced lele kawa–extreme cliff diving from heights of 300 feet or more into the ocean or pools of fresh water. This sport was not practiced at Pu’u Keka’a, as it was uhane lele, a place where the souls of the ancestors leap into the spirit world. It was believed that if you jumped here, you would enter that world and not return. Kahekeli showed great strength by jumping off this leina a ka’uhane (paths for leaping spirits) and then getting back to shore in one piece.

“By returning unscathed, he gained much respect and admiration by his people and warriors,” says Eaton. “Every night at sunset we recreate and honor this legend. We invite everyone to join us nightly at our Cliff Dive Bar to join in our tradition by watching our cliff diver scale up Pu’u Keka’a, lighting torches as he climbs to honor the souls of the departed. Once at the top of Pu’u Keka’a, the cliff diver recites a blessing and make the legendary leap symbolizing the great chief’s dives.”

Of course, much else at the resort is very different than it was in those first years. In the 1960s, for instance, your poolside luncheon probably included a daily fashion show provided by the resort shops. Visitors were also often astounded that this little island in the Pacific could provide for a resort that included iced cocktails, golf courts and beachside romance–basically all the amenities normally found at any other international resort.

The menu has also changed considerably since the opening. In 1963, Green Turtle Soup with Sherry appeared on the menu for 45 cents, alongside lobster salad for $2.75. Lunch entrees included Pacific Mahimahi Saute, which was described like this: “In other waters a dolphin steak sautéed in butter and served with French fried potatoes and tomato slices.”

In 1963, a domestic beer cost 60 cents, the same as a glass of Hawaiian fruit punch, and imports were 90 cents. To help in their anniversary celebration, The Sheraton has announced a new 50th anniversary cocktail called the Makana that tips its hat to the old days. Makana means ‘gift” in Hawaiian, and uses Okolehao, one of the most unique bottles from the local Haleakala Distillery lineup. Okolehao Liqueur has herbals from the ti plant, paying tribute to the old distilled alcohol made from ti root first created at the end of the 1700s. The drink also has Old Lahaina light rum and rose champagne.

But these changes are nothing compared to the resort’s rooms. Back in 1963, rack rates for rooms and suites ranged from $12.50 to $50.

“It’s amazing to look back on the photos of the guest room décor, where the groovy wallpaper matched the bed spread, drapes and shag carpet,” says Eaton. “Sheraton Maui has undergone numerous room renovations throughout the last 50 years. In fact, in addition to being the first resort at Black Rock in Ka’anapali, we are also the newest resort, as we underwent a full $160 million redevelopment in the mid-’90s, reopening in 1997. While today, we just completed a $6.5 million room renovation project with designer Philpotts & Associates.”

The gorgeous renovation of the resort’s 503 rooms and suites, many perched 85 feet over the beach on the top of Pu’u Keka’a’s cliff top, no doubt will impress visitors, but it’s of no concern to Pu’u Keka’a’s most distinguished and honored guest: the humpback whale. Guests come specifically to enjoy whale watching, along with snorkeling with the honu and the spectacular views of Molokai and Lanai. Celebs staying at the resort in recent years include Jack Nicholas, Tom Watson, Serena Williams and Jennifer Love Hewitt. We can only guess if they relaxed in the 1,600 square foot Ali’i Suite, located on the cliff’s pinnacle.

For their anniversary, Eaton says the resort will host a commemorative luau on Jan. 25.

“It is befitting to kick off of our 50th anniversary celebration with a luau,” Eaton says. “Sheraton Maui’s 50th Anniversary Luau is an opportunity for us to celebrate as a community and share the rich history of this iconic hotel. Our Sheraton Maui ‘ohana is expansive. We have many generations of families who share in our success through the years from repeat guests, to former employees, to owners who have been with us since day one, council members and more. We invite everyone who feels a special connection with Sheraton Maui to join us for our kickoff celebration.”

Another way to celebrate their 50 years is to get in on their special Kama’aina rates, which will be offered all year. They have special rates in resort view, all ocean categories and the ‘ohana suites–a one bedroom room with Murphy bed and ocean views that can hold five people. You also get a $50 credit towards culinary dining on property, a breakfast buffet for two at Black Rock Terrace, two vouchers for the signature Makana and an historic postcard book with photos of the Sheraton through the decades.

For reservations call the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa at 808-661-0031 or 866-716-8109 or visit their website at sheraton-maui.com.

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