Designer of All He Surveys, Hawaii's Chris Hemmeter Leis on the Luxury to Embellish His Visions of Paradise

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Let us consider, if we may, the Taj Mahal. Completed in the 17th century, it is situated in an exotic part of the world, has a reflecting pool and is noted for its stunning architecture.

Ha! Chris Hemmeter's Westin Kauai hotel has the exotic locale, plus a 2.1-acre reflecting pool, plus the stunning architecture, plus 90 outrigger canoes and five beachside Jacuzzis. The pool is home to four black swans and a gigantic fountain with a centerpiece of eight marble horses.

So much for the Taj Mahal.

Okay, let's take the pyramids. Built to last, they have stood their ground for 45 centuries and are considered to be among the wonders of the world. But not one of the pyramids has an elevator, and—a major omission in that climate—none has a swimming pool. The Westin Kauai, on the other hand, has Hawaii's largest swimming pool and 14 elevators, including one inside a 100-foot cliff that leads to a golf-and-racquet club—all overlooking a turquoise bay that would make Gauguin turn green. Take that, Master Builders of Antiquity!

Comparisons with the great edifices of the past do not in any way embarrass Hemmeter, 48, whose penchant for creating mega-resorts has caused him to be dubbed the Walt Disney of the Pacific. "We try to make them so much bigger than real life that they take on a life of their own and endure through time," he says of the four lavish complexes he has built all over Hawaii in the last 11 years. "The men who built the Acropolis were trying to outdo the pharaohs. There's no reason we can't be building the great structures of the 20th century."

The latest great structure of the 20th century, the 580-acre, 850-room Westin Kauai, opened Sept. 19 with a few touches that even the most pampered of ancient despots never enjoyed. Guests arrive by limousine or horse-drawn carriage along a private, bowered mile-and-a-half road that runs directly from Lihue Airport to the hotel. A broad escalator takes them down three levels, where they step off into Hemmeter's version of paradise, Hawaiian-style. The reflecting pool is ringed by a colonnaded gallery and vine-covered facades. The outrigger canoes (soon to be supplemented by eight motor launches) ply a man-made lake, ferrying guests to a pair of high-fashion shopping villages along two miles of shoreline. There is a seaside chapel for weddings and renewals of vows, with a fleet of carriages for those who want to travel in style. All of this costs anywhere from $175 to $1,500 a night.

Even at these prices, the Westin Kauai sold out nearly all its 1988 group accommodations (about 500 rooms) before it ever opened. Hemmeter has another $3 billion in resort construction underway, including a $360 million resort on the big island of Hawaii, as well as projects in California and Florida. None of them is likely to be confused with your local Days Inn. "We build experiences, not hotels," says Hemmeter. "Just to build another hotel in a resort environment would bore me. We could make a lot of money doing that, but what we do is try to create a great masterpiece, a work of art."

Hemmeter's ambition has not gone unchallenged. Among some island environmentalists, his plans for touching up paradise have made him a figure of passionate controversy. Says Nelson S. Ho of the Sierra Club: "On small islands, with very limited means to preserve themselves, Hemmeter has a serious environmental impact." Hemmeter responds by assuring concerned Hawaiian residents that "we're not going to destroy the environment, we're going to enhance it."

Hemmeter treats himself as lavishly as his guests. He and his second wife, Patsy, who have seven children between them from their first marriages, travel to homes in Aspen and California in a customized Boeing 727. They are building a $20 million house on Diamond Head, not far from the spot where Hemmeter slept under an overturned boat the summer he first arrived in Hawaii at age 23.

Born in Washington, D.C., the son of a mechanical engineer, Hemmeter grew up in California. By the age of 10, he was selling Christmas cards door-to-door. In 1959 he dropped out of the University of Colorado and, inspired by a tour of San Francisco's premier hotels, switched to Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. "I was overwhelmed by the elegant people and the beautiful furnishings," he says. After graduation, he took a trainee's job at a hotel in Honolulu, but quit after 11 months. Using borrowed money, he started his own company, a hotel-based restaurant chain. In 1968 he sold out, taking $1.5 million in stock in a travel company. When that stock crashed, he was broke again. "So I just started over," he says. "In a year I made a couple of million dollars."

In 1976 Hemmeter built the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, complete with a two-story waterfall in the atrium. "Whenever we turned off the waterfall to clean it, restaurant business dropped off nearly 80 percent," he says. The lesson was not lost on Hemmeter. From then on, every hotel he designed was more exotic than the one before, with all the trappings sprung from his imagination.

Though he has no formal architectural training, Hemmeter hasn't confined himself to building resorts. In 1982 he designed the $25 million Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, after an architects' competition failed to produce a plan that satisfied the former President. Says Carter of Hemmeter: "I have never known anyone so innovative in his plans or concepts."

One of Hemmeter's concepts has yet to be realized. It calls for the construction of seven pyramids, each bigger than the Great Pyramid at Giza, each sheathed in golden glass and with a 70-story building inside. He tried to sell the notion to Atlantic City, N.J., but says he withdrew because he did not want to be involved with gambling.

That experience has not dimmed Hemmeter's vision. "At night, with the lights on," he says wistfully, "you'd be able to see the pyramids for hundreds of miles."

Oh, yes, that's the other thing the original pyramids didn't have—a good lighting system.

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