By CDR Byron (Jug) Varner, U.S. Navy (RET)

Hale Koa - Polynesian words meaning “house of the warrior.”

Waikiki - Polynesian word meaning “sprouting water.”

Polynesian warriors of old could never have imagined using “Hale Koa” to describe “a palace of luxury” in his native land — but here it is centuries later at “Waikiki,” on a site once considered worthless because of its several springs. An Army sentry checking IDs at the front entry drive gives the only clue that this is a military installation.

I am really “picky” when it comes to guest lodging. I've stayed in many good hotels and a few great ones, and in my experience the Hale Koa is at the top of the rating list — because it offers the best combination of quality, comfort, cleanliness, service, food, friendly atmosphere, location, scenery, recreation facilities, and (the big qualifier) reasonable rates. And if you think I'm a tough rater, you ought to travel with my wife. If mama ain't happy, nobody's happy!

Tastefully decorated rooms are large and comfortable, with TV, VTR, iron/board, refreshment cabinets and deck furniture on a covered lanai — along with magnificent views of the sparkling blue ocean, green cloud-rimmed mountains, and the Honolulu skyline day and night. Each floor has a coin-operated laundry and supplies.

Staying here is a special treat for active and retired military personnel and their families. Room rates range from $56 to $157 (no room tax) based on rank and room location. If that sounds expensive, check the eye-popping prices of comparable commercial establishments. Then it sounds like the bargain it is.

As one of the world's top tourist spots, the cost of living is higher in Honolulu than in most other American cities. A great number of commodities are imported. The Hale Koa makes it possible for those who might never afford to stay in a quality resort to enjoy the best one on the beach.

Lower prices also prevail for food, drink, entertainment and shopping everywhere on property. There is a well-stocked military exchange, barber and beauty salon, shops, and an activity center that offers discount prices for area attractions, car rentals, tours of land, harbor and ocean, and others.

Nowhere else will you find such personal rapport with other guests. They greet you at every turn. Everyone has so much in common it is easy to make friends and trade experiences while sitting in the lobby, or enjoying some of the varied in-house activities. The best place to start is at the complimentary orientation breakfast for new arrivals. A cheerful host explains the what, where and how to see the island's attractions, as well as the hotel's own native luaus, Sunday Champagne brunches, magic shows, Polynesian revues, live bands and dancing, local craft displays, hula lessons, swimming lessons and exercises, hiking, snorkeling, “boogie-boarding,” botanical tours, tennis tournaments, fitness center and saunas, holiday parties, concerts in the Banyan courtyard, and the Friday night fireworks.

Chef Rolf Walter, one of the island's best, has created delicious cuisine for patrons here since its inception in 1975. Whether one prefers continental dinners in the Hale Koa Room, island favorites or regular fare at Koko Cafe and Bibas's, or fast food at the snack bars near the beach and pools, or coffee and rolls at a breakfast kiosk in the lobby, the food is excellent. Guests can enjoy sunset cocktails at the Barefoot Bar, or dance the night away at the Warriors Lounge.

The Hale Koa's twin towers are located within the 66 tropical acres of the Armed Forces Recreation Center at Fort DeRussy. It offers the largest and best beach area in Waikiki, with picnic tables and outdoor grills, children's playground, pools for families and for adults only, Battery Randolph Army Museum, chapel services, and many other activities of interest. Unlimited shopping opportunities are within walking distance or a one-dollar bus fare.

The original 416-room hotel opened in October 1975, as an all-rank, all-services accommodation providing first-class services without regard to status. My wife and I stayed here the first time in December 1977. Between that visit and this one, everything changed. They had added a 398-room tower and upgraded the original structure, transforming it into a world-class resort. We hardly recognized the place! Manager John Jeffris said future refurbishment is in the planning stage to make it even better.

The Hale Koa is one of four Armed Forces Recreation Centers around the world. All were built with accumulated non-appropriated recreational activity funds generated by service personnel. Owned and operated by the Department of the Army, each Center is self-sustained by its on-site high-occupancy income. No tax revenues or public funds are involved or required. The other three centers are: Shades of Green, Walt Disney World Resort (Orlando, FL); Dragon Hill Lodge (Seoul, Korea); and, AFRC Europe (Garmisch and Chiemsee, Germany).

Note: Due to heavy demands for occupancy at the Hale Koa, management recommends that you make your reservations well in advance. ENTER THEIR WEBSITE HERE or call toll-free (800) 367-6027.