HOTELIER Lyle “Gus” Guslander raised eyebrows back in the 1950s when deciding he needed a GM to help him run a resort on Hawaii’s Garden Island of Kauai, he offered the job to the sister of a mate who’d brought her over from Pennsylvania to help out with a bit of baby-sitting.
The reason for eyebrows-up was that in those days few women were offered executive roles, the sister was a “haole” (a non-Hawaiian,) she had no knowledge of Hawaiian culture considered so important in the hotel industry – and worse, at 43 years of age she had never even worked in an hotel.
But in appointing Grace Buscher as his new GM, Gus Guslander had played a brilliant hand. For he had seen from their first meeting that the enormously energetic Grace had charm, a disarming smile that put people instantly at ease, and had taken passionately to the culture of the people of Kauai, who in turn connected equally as passionately with her.
COCO Palms before its trashing by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
A long-time hotel man, Gus had long dreamed of owning his own Utopian island resort, and as part of that dream had leased, and later bought, the 24-room Coco Palms Lodge in late 1952. He re-named it the Coco Palms Resort – on opening-night January 25th 1953 he, Grace and four employees welcoming all of two guests.
And he soon recognised what a true power-house Grace would prove to be, earning Coco Palms a reputation for the best dining experiences on Kauai, quality entertainment and a dedication to the culture of the people of the island.
THE original 1950s style lobby will be re-created in the new-look Coco Palms Resort to open in 2017.
An avid reader and raconteur, Grace took with a passion to the legends of Kauai, and soon began holding regular story-telling sessions for guests, she herself relating the island’s myths, legends and history at gatherings in the resort’s lounges… and being anything than backwards, adding a little embellishment if it could mean for a better yarn.
She was particularly fascinated with the Resort’s connection with Kauai’s one-time royalty that dated back to the 13th century, and read all she could about Queen Deborah Kekaiha’akulou who was the island’s last reigning monarch, and who had once owned the land on which the Resort now stood.
ONE of the original 32 Garden Bungalows that will be renovated to their former glory.
Learning that the Queen had died on that land on August 26th 1853, Grace initiated an annual celebration on that date of Queen Deborah’s life, engaging resort guests enthusiastically in the events.
And knowing that a 2000-tree coconut plantation on the resort had been planted as early as 1896 and had since lost many of its palms, she invited guests to plant new ones both as a living memory of their visit and for plantation replenishment – amongst the scores taking up the practice including Liberace, Gene Autry, James A Michener, the Shah of Iran and Prince and Princess Hitachi of Japan…
Grace also turned what was seen as an arduous evening chore of lighting scores of flares along the resort’s pathways into a fun, must-photograph event: muscly Hawaiian “warriors” armed with Olympic-like flaming torches ran or canoed to ignite flare after flare, accompanied by a broadcast narration of the history of this so-called “Historic Call to Feast” ceremony – which Grace, of course, had entirely made up.
GRACE and Gus Guslander being escorted to one of their flamboyant dinners at Coco Palms Resort in 1973.
The event was held at 7.30pm nightly for 40 years until Coco Palms was trashed and closed by a hurricane in 1992.
Grace also initiated outdoor barbecue nights for those who wished to dine under the stars… ham on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, turkey on Wednesdays, seafoods Fridays, prime rib Saturdays and whole pigs Sundays.
Gus and Grace ultimately married in 1969 and grew Coco Palms from 24 rooms to nearly 300 – including 32 garden bungalows that featured clam-shell wash basins in bathrooms, and lamps made from coconuts.
Gus died in 1984 aged 69 and Grace sixteen years later at 76; they had already sold Coco Palms some years earlier, but stayed-on as managers…
SORRY sight now: the Resort has lain empty since 1992, but work starts soon on a US$100m renovation.
In 1992 Hurricane Iniki trashed the place and while empty since, plans have just been announced to totally renovate and reopen it in 2017… interestingly under a new Kauai County Bill allowing “legally non-conforming structures to be reconstructed to their condition prior to Hurricane Iniki.”
Which means that uniquely Coco Palms can be largely restored to its quaint yester-year glory of a half- century ago.
Written by: David Ellis