It was the evening before the full moon when I met Bitsy Kelley
along the shoreline fronting Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach
Most beach umbrellas and chaise lounges had been put away for the night, but a few kids still dragged their colorful inflatables in and out of the water. Some couples sat on beach towels, soaking up every last ray of sun. Farther off-shore, surfers caught a few waves. The evening crowd started to emerge—couples dressed for dinner waiting for the sunset. Speaking of the sun, it was low in the sky, throwing long shadows and casting the luscious light that photographers love.
The tide’s long fingers were tickling the shoreline in one direction, so Bitsy and I headed east, toward Diamond Head and a wider stretch of beach. She carried her sandals and cell phone. I held a notebook and digital voice recorder and balanced a camera bag hanging off my body.
I really just had a few questions for Bitsy,
granddaughter of Estelle and Roy Kelley, founders of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts
, but she made chatting easy. If you Google Myers-Briggs, you’d probably find Bitsy’s photo under the personality type, “extrovert.” We managed to cover a range of topics during our walk, starting with the obvious.
“Oh, it’s the water. The blue-green water,” she said when I asked her what she thought made Waikiki so special. “I travel to the mainland a lot, and the water just doesn’t look the same there. Hawaii water is absolutely gorgeous. That’s why people like these beachfront rooms. They sit on their lanai and look at the water. And hear it. Then, they’re always surprised by how warm it is.”
In fact, the water in front of this spot, where the original Outrigger Canoe Club once stood and gave rise to the company’s name, is the go-to spot for beginning surf lessons, stand-up paddling, canoe and catamaran rides. During the day, the place bustles with activity. There were no catamarans when we swung our feet through the warm sand--because the sunset tours had departed. Their sails dotted the ocean horizon and, no doubt, the mai tais were already flowing.
When I asked whether Bitsy, now 50, surfed here growing up
, we jumped into one of the topics I wanted to discuss: Bitsy’s childhood. It was during this time, the early 1970s, that her father, Dr. Richard Kelley, had taken the helm of the family business, building several new hotels in Waikiki.
Many writers might want to know the business details of that high-growth era. What I really wondered was whether Bitsy’s life was like that of the famed literary heroine Eloise. You know the precocious Eloise, right? She grew up in the Plaza Hotel in New York, helping maids make beds, pestering switchboard operators, spying on guests, attending weddings, and, generally, seeking adventure.
Bitsy did surf in Waikiki, and she did pretty much all the same things Eloise did.
“You know,” Bitsy said. “I just walked through the Outrigger Waikiki, and because my dad’s office was here, I grew up playing in this hotel. There used to be an underground bar with a window into the pool. We’d dive in and wave at everyone at the bar. There also used to be a luau, and I’d get up and dance. Waikiki is my backyard, absolutely, and Outrigger Waikiki was our second home.”
But, in addition to playing, Bitsy, her three sisters and brother worked hard, too.
“We all started in housekeeping, folding towels; we washed dishes in the restaurant; we filed—the amount of filing was astronomical in those days. I have climbed through air conditioning ducts. I have scraped carpeting off hallway floors. I have scrubbed toilets. We did it all. And we loved it. It wasn’t a chore, at all. We liked helping out at the hotels.”
I’m not sure Eloise got her hands that dirty.
At some point, Bitsy’s phone beeped, but she ignored it. We angled our path to avoid walking into someone’s photo. We dodged a surfboard or two, and as we neared Kuhio Beach Park, another childhood memory tugged at Bitsy’s mind. “See the protected swimming area there?” she asked and pointed at a configuration of narrow concrete walls that stretched about 50 yards into the ocean and created a natural saltwater swimming pool.
“When there was a big swell, we’d snuggle up against the inside of the wall, and the waves would tube over us. We used to do that all day long when the waves were up.”
If that sounded daring, I wasn’t surprised. I’d heard stories of Bitsy’s mother, Jane, a commercial pilot, and I was curious what it was like growing up with such pioneering women as mentors. Her mother was the first female pilot hired by Hawaiian Airlines. Her maternal grandmother was a nurse. And, of course, her paternal grandmother, Estelle, ran the company business alongside her husband, Roy.
“She was licensed in everything,” Bitsy said about her mother. “Single engine, multi-engine, helicopter, seaplane, jets. Her passion was aerobatics, and she was an aerobatics flight instructor. In my family, we never felt that just because you were female, you couldn’t do things. There was never a distinction in our family between male and female. We just all did.”
But Bitsy’s mother Jane never did get to fly commercial jets for Hawaiian Airlines. Unfortunately, she died of a virulent strain of influenza while on the mainland where she was judging an international aerobatics competition. Bitsy was 15 years old.
In talking to Bitsy, two things stood out. The first: education.
“I have grandmothers on both sides who were full career woman. And my own mother had a career in aviation. In fact, education is a requirement to work in the family business. An undergraduate degree is good but a master’s is better, Bitsy said, who herself has an undergraduate degree in business and a Masters in Business Administration.
The other thing I realized about Bitsy is just how important family is to her.
After 10 years away, Bitsy recently moved back to Hawaii. When I asked her why, she said, “First and foremost, the grandchildren.” Bitsy has two young granddaughters in Hawaii. “But there was also a need in the family business, especially during this time of the company’s global push.”
The company’s newest property--Outrigger Mauritius Resort and Spa--will open at the end of this month and will join existing properties in Hawaii, Australia, Thailand, Guam, Fiji, Bali, and Thailand, as well as, more on the way in Vietnam and China.
And, now, Bitsy is once again running through the halls of Outrigger hotels,
this time as Vice President of Corporate Communications.
As our walk returned to its starting point outside Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, strains of live music made its way to us, even over the variable winds coming out of the south--sparking an additional memory for Bitsy.
“Another interesting thing about Waikiki,” she said. “At night, you can walk the beach and there’s hardly anyone around. Most people are eating dinner. But there’s all this Hawaiian music wafting out of the hotels and restaurants, so as you walk the beach, you hear all this gorgeous music. It’s really calm, and you’ve got Diamond Head glowing in the moonlight. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches and most romantic places I’ve seen at night.”
And you know what? It’s true. She’s right.
“I think that’s Waikiki’s best kept secret,” Bitsy said.
This kicks off a series I’m calling Waikiki Beach Walk-and-Talks, in which I walk on Waikiki Beach with a variety of people—from Bitsy to surf professionals to Hawaiian musicians to marine biologists to kumu hula to chefs. One of the things I hope to accomplish in writing this series is to see a familiar place in a new way through someone else’s eyes. In fact, if you want to give me the name of someone to invite along for a walk, please add it to the comments section below.