Off The Beaten Path Sandsational!

January 9, 2015 | By Allison Schaefers

Sheraton Waikiki welcomes guests with stunning sand sculptures.

I’m standing in the Sheraton Waikiki lobby looking out toward the beautiful blue ocean when my iPhone alerts on a text message.

My sister Ruth Anne, who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has just sent her first holiday video of the season. Scores of snowflakes are piling up into an impassible mound that goes halfway up her garage door. “Wish you were here,” she says.

It’s beautiful. But with one glance at the chilly scene, I know that the warmth of Honolulu is where I want to find my holiday cheer. Who needs snow? We’ve got snowy, white sand sculptures sparkling with their own brand of holiday dust. The latest holiday sand sculpture display at the Sheraton Waikiki reminds me of locals like to say, “Lucky we live Hawai‘i.”

Back for its seventh year, the display by Florida-based Sandsational is bigger and better than ever. Sand-sculpture artists Jill Harris and her husband, 2010 World Sand Sculpting Champion Thomas Koet, have taken their creativity to new heights. At the entrance to the hotel, a tropical Santa drives a retro wood-trimmed convertible filled with presents, a tree and, of course, his surf-board. The sculpture, which is made out of 24 tons of Hawai‘i sand, is 20-feet long by 8-feet tall. Only water and the engineering genius of its creators holds it and its sister sculpture together.

Inside the lobby of the hotel, there’s an 8-ton sand sculpture of Santa, who stands ready to distribute his gifts in front of a bountiful tree. After fulfilling every child’s dream, this Santa will hit the surf, where he’ll discover for himself that one of the isle’s best holiday gifts are those big, giant winter waves.

“We wanted to tell the story of what would happen to Santa if he were to come to Waikiki Beach,” says Koet, who was an engineer before a sand-sculpting competition and Harris, an enthusiastic sand sculpture artist from Florida, captured his attention.

Kelly Sanders, area-managing director of Waikiki for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, said the desire to create holiday decorations with a Hawaiian sense of place led to the decision to commission the couple.

“The holidays from Christmas to New Year’s are the 10 busiest days of the year for Waikiki,” Sanders says. “We really wanted to create something special that reflected the uniqueness of the destination for our guests.”

Sanders said the holiday sand sculptures have grown so popular that repeat guests come back year-after-year to take family seasonal portraits.

“Before they leave, one couple always takes their picture in front of one of our sand sculptures and sends it to me with a thank you note,” he said.

Sanders added that pictures of guests in front of the sand sculptures also have become the hotel’s number one posting on social media.

“I think it’s so popular because it brings out the child in everyone,” he says. “It’s about capturing a special time in your life when you went to the beach and made your own sandcastle only most of us never thought that something like they’ve created could ever be possible.”

To be sure, knitting together tiny grains of sand to capture Sandsational’s detail wouldn’t be possible for most. However, the couple has become so proficient that their commissions take them round the world.

“Since opening our business 18 years ago, I’ve never worked harder or been more satisfied,” Harris says. “There’s always that moment when a child walks by and says, ‘Oh, Wow,’ and you know in that moment that you are done.”

Hawai‘i holds a special place in the couple’s heart. However, they’ve traveled around the world to shape sand into everything from a scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence to scenes of Asian laborers, circus people, wagon trains, conquistadors, ancient Romans, the Renaissance, and the Mayan culture. One year, in Belgium, they even worked on a six-story sand sculpture of Neptune.

“The fun of this is that the longer you do it, the more that you improve and the greater freedom that you have,” Koet says. “We are only limited by our imagination.”

His words are as beautiful as his sculpture. This sentiment holds true for all of us, whether we are sand artists, or journalists or families on a holiday. The magic of big dreams is that they can turn even the tiniest grain of sand into works of art.

No matter the season, my wish for all of us is that we find a way to turn our own passion into more than we ever thought it could be.

DID YOU KNOW? It doesn’t have to be the holidays to see a sand sculpture at the Sheraton Waikiki. The hotel commissiond Sandsational to build sculptures in January, June and November. If you are lucky, you might even get to see the award-winning couple at work.

A three-time national award winning reporter, Allison Schaefers serves as the Waikiki Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Based in Waikiki, she covers Hawai‘i tourism and Waikiki issues. Contact her at