Iolani Palace is the quintessential tourist attraction in Honolulu and Hawaii because it’s existence tells the story of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.
Iolani Palace is featured in the currently running feature film Princes Ka’iulani staring Q’orianka Kilcher as the princess. The exterior of the building was also referred to as Five-O headquarters in the original Hawaii Five-Otelevision series.
We left our hotel at 1pm and waited about 10 minutes for the bus at the corner of Walani and Kuhio in front of the Food Pantry in Waikiki. We caught the number 13 bus but we could have caught the 2 or the B express. The bus ride took about 20 minutes. We got off the bus at the stop at Hotel and Richards st in downtown Honolulu. This is the stop after the state capitol building. The bus has a record announcement system that will tell when to get off for what landmark. Just a note: sometimes the bus announcements can get thrown off just know it’s the stop after the state capitol building.
From there it’s a short two minute walk around the corner to armory where you can buy your ticket for
the tour of the Iolani Palace. When we arrived at 1:25 pm there was no one behind the window only a sign that said back in five minutes so we waited. It was a about a two minute wait but then a woman quickly ran around us and into the office and behind the window to process our ticket. We received a ticket and a sticker that you put on your shirt to let the people inside the palace know you are a paying customer. The first available spots were for the 3:10 pm tour. So we had over an hour to wait.
We asked if they had a bath room and she told us it was past the gate in the back of the armory and that there were lockers there too if we wanted to stash our stuff. The little room was dark and empty and there was only one unisex bathroom. There was a sign that said if the door is locked it’s occupied. It was locked so we decided to use one of the lockers for our large bag. It was 25 cents and you get a litte orange key.
We decided to take a walk around the grounds and look at the gazebo then go next door to the state capitol building then around to the back of the Iolani palace to take some pictures. As we came back we heard the sound of conch shells being blown near the entrance of the palace so we went to investigate and we found a small hula group preparing to do a hula presentation in front of the palace. The performed for the waiting tourists and for the palace staff then we watch them going side as visitors. We took some video.
Then we came back to the armory and visited the video theater where they were looping a 15 minute video about the creation of the palace called “Iolani Palace: A King’s Noble Vision.” We watched until 3:00 pm then we walked over to the Palace entrance and waited as our small group gathered. As 3:10pm arrived the previous group for us had still not started so our group was delayed by about 10 minutes. A guy named Norman explained they had fallen slightly behind and apologized for the delay. Soon the group was off on it’s tour and the staff heard us up the white stairs case to collect on little two seat benches on the veranda
They passed out some shoe sole coverings that look like little booties that are made to protect the wood floor and they passed out audio wands programed with the audio tour. They said they have different languages available. They then passed out a one page map with the numbers of the corresponding audio tour for the wand.
The group organizer Norman then advised us about the rules of the tour which were: no cameras,
water bottles, large bags. He said if you have a camera or water bottle you need to hide it before you go inside. He also said there is NO TOUCHING of anything and if you need a drink of water or to go to the bathroom to ask one of them.
They instructed us to start the audio tour as we sat on veranda it then instructed us to move as a group in front of the door and then they opened the door and it was really like stepping back in time.
It became clear that the door we passed through was the back door of the palace as we were greeted by a descending Koa stair case that lead to the basement. The stairs were roped off and the audio instructed usto go around to the front of the main stair case in the Grand Hall(www.grandhall.eu). We stared up the grand stair case as the audio described it’s history. It too was roped off and it kind of remind me of the grand stair case from the movie Titanic because it had little chandelier light fixtures at the bottom being held by roman like bronze statuettes. The grand wooden stairs were a rich dark reddish brown color and possessed a serious shine like the rest of the floor. It ascended up to a landing and split into two smaller star cases going in the opposite direction up to the second floor.
The notches along the walls held the portraits of the all the kings and queens who ruled the kingdom of Hawaii starting from Kamehameha the Great. The great chief who united the Hawaiian islands(https://www.hawaii.com/big-island/ ). There are also large porcelain vases and and busts that fill the hall. There are antique chairs that line the walls but they are roped off but there are a few beaches where you can sit if you get tired and just want to listen to the audio.
The audio tour takes you from room to room and describes what they used the room for and stirs your imagination with a bit of storytelling mixed with sound effects. You can almost see what it might have been like back in the Victorian age as King David Kalakaua entertained nobles and royals from around the world in the State Dining room. According to the video in the armory the style of the building is actually called American Florentine.
All of the ground floors were used for entertaining guests and were decked out in a monochromatic color scheme for example they have a small reception room called the blue room because everything of fabric in it is blue: chairs, drapes and the rug.
One of the interesting thing that strikes you is how the palace was built with technology in mind. It really showed how King Kalakaua who designed the building was a progressive thinker. Kalakaua while on his travels to the continental US met Thomas Edison and when he returned to Hawaii had the palace redone with electric lights. The palace had indoor plumbing with a flushing toilet back in the days when even The White House in Washington D.C. still had an out house and were still using gas lights.
The tour continued on to the thrown room where they had the big chairs and was used for balls and parties. Like in all the rooms except one the main areas are roped off. As we looked at the thrones there was a curious large gold ball shaped object on a stick between them and as we listened to the audio tour there was no explanation as to what it was and there was no one in the room who looked liked they would know. We just scratched our heads and continued up stares where there were the private rooms of the monarchs.
It was interesting how the audio described how after the over throw of the monarchy the furniture and fixtures were auctioned off and how now that they are trying to restore the collection they are finding many original pieces all round the US and the world as far as Europe and Australia. Some people just donate the items back to the palace and they match them up with old photographs of the room.
The one room where you can just walk around in is the room where Queen Liliuokalani was imprisoned for
eight months after she was forced to abdicate the thrown in 1895. One lady in waiting volunteered to be imprisoned with her. During her imprisonment she created an amazing quilt that is on display in a huge case. The panels document events and people in her life including her imprisonment. The humble little room is a sharp contrast to the majestic State Dinning room down stairs. Ironically there is a little empty bird cage on a cabinet that seems symbolic of not just the queen but of the monarchy. The name of the palace has two parts. ‘Io which means Hawk like the bird and Lani which mean heaven or heavenly hence the name Heavenly Hawk or ‘Iolani. Liliuokalani’s story was depicted in the television episode American Experience: Hawaii’s Last Queen
The audio tour ends with the Queen Kapiolani’s bedroom and invites you to take the elevator next to the music room down to the basement. It was already 4:30pm and when we tried to use the elevator it stopped on the first floor and a security person who used a key to take us down stairs. When we reached the basement there was another security guy who asked for the booties back and the audio wades. There were some chairs we sat on to take the covers off our shoes he then lead us to the main display area that were converted storage rooms that showed how the King’s Chamberlain Office was through some glass windows. There are no lights in rooms so it is difficult to see beyond the reflection of the sun through the near by windows.
We then followed from room to room see the King’s diplomatic orders of ribbons, metals and sashes then on to see the queen’s jewelry and then to the room that held the crown jewels. Kalakaua had designed a set of crowns that represented the unifying of the islands under one rule and that was modeled after the royals of Europe.
As we walked around the kitchen and walked to the gallery shop a security guy said they were closing so we didn’t get to the gallery shop and it was already 5:00pm. We headed back to the armory to get our stuff out of the locker but the armory was closed and locked. We got concerned and waved at one of the security guys and he said to try and go around the back. The back was still open so all was good.
Overall it was a very enjoyable and interesting afternoon. The tour is self guided and self paced which is pleasurable. The staff are volunteers and they pretty much leave you alone unless you break a rule I’m sure. The only thing that would have been nice would to have had a guide or person who was knowledgeable around to ask questions if we had some about the artifacts and rooms. There is a tour with a human guide but reservations are required and are restricted to certain times and days and is more expensive. The staff that was following the group gave us the impress that they were there to make sure we didn’t break or touch anything. If they did provide someone who was approachable and knowledgeable it wasn’t obvious and the staff in the beginning didn’t encourage or point out any person in particular. They only encouraged us to ask one of them for help if we needed a drink or to go to the bathroom. In our opinion it would have made the experience a little more interactive and provided a little more aloha as well as added a human touch. The impromptu little hula show was the only thing that gave the attraction warmth. We give the attraction high marks for cleanliness. The grounds, bathroom and interior as well as exterior of the building is spotless.
Iolani Palace is a great experience and very educational those interested in Hawaii and Hawaiian history and culture.
Just a note: we noticed there are no food establishments or vending machines on the grounds or on the whole block so we suggest you eat before you go and if you take a bottle of water you’ll have to hide it or dispose of it before you go in. The closest food places are a block towards downtown on Alakea St.
The bus stop was right across the street towards Punchbowl street and we only had to wait a minute and we caught the B Express which took about 20 minutes to get back to Waikiki.