This is the first in a series of articles about luxury accommodations in the Hawaiian Islands. Our series begins with a story about the very first elegant hotel to be built in Hawaii, the Moana (now the Moana Surfrider a Westin Resort and Spa). It is located on Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu and is aptly nicknamed “The First Lady of Waikiki.”
In the later part of the 19th century, not a single hotel was to be found on beautiful Waikiki Beach. There were however, a number of stately beachfront homes owned by successful families. One such owner, Walter Peacock, theorized that the location of his seaside abode would be the perfect spot to build a hotel that would attract moneyed people from North America.
Committed to his belief, Peacock moved his home and began construction on the Moana Hotel – it would be the first luxury hotel on the most famous stretch of beach in the Pacific.
The 75 guestroom Moana opened its doors to the public on March 11, 1901.
The Moana Hotel was designed to appeal to the rich and famous who could afford to sail to Oahu on steamships. In those days, only the affluent could manage the time for the long sea voyage to reach the paradise that was Hawaii.
Before the advent of the Moana Hotel, the wealthy were obliged to stay with friends or in one of the few minimally acceptable hotels in nearby Honolulu.
Vacationers of independent means sought out Waikiki to enjoy the sandy beach, tropical climate, and stunning vistas of Diamond Head. The new beachfront Moana Hotel suited them perfectly. It was a fashionable structure with élan that fit nicely into a simple tropical setting – a tribute to astute architects and builders.
A pleasant aloha
Sporting tall ionic columns and a fashionable porte-cochère to greet carriages, the Moana was indeed an elegant lady.
The inside of the hotel was every bit as inspiring as the exterior. Arriving guests were welcomed in a spacious lobby that was full of colorful native plants.
Unusual for the time, almost every guestroom in the Moana had a telephone and private bath.
Hawaii’s first electric elevator was put in service in the Moana to lift the hotel’s early lodgers between the lobby and residence floors. The historic elevator is still in use today (see the slideshow).
Be sure to explore the Moana Museum at the top of the magnificent white wooden staircase that greets all visitors in the Banyan Wing of the hotel entrance.
Edward before Wallace
In 1920, the young Edward, Prince of Wales, reaffirmed the hotel’s standard when he stayed at the Moana as part of his world tour. The list of distinguished guests that came before and followed Edward included many other royals and iconic figures from all fields of endeavor – names such as, Amelia Earhart, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Joe Di Maggio, Frank Sinatra – and scores more.
Time and change
After decades of sometimes-dramatic physical changes, the Moana was closed for restoration in July 1987 and reopened in March 1989. The objective of the exercise was to restore the hotel to its original appearance. It took 20 months of painstaking research and care to bring the hotel back to its 1908 glory. The rework also restored the 1918 addition of two elegant wings – what an exquisite revival! It was so successful that we are able to use recent photos when depicting the look of the hotel in earlier times.
In 2007, there was yet another multi-million dollar renewal – this time the hotel re-entered the anxiously awaiting tourist market as the Moana Surfrider a Westin Resort and Spa.
With the increase to 726 guestrooms and suites, and the addition of enhancements and amenities that brought the Moana up to contemporary luxury standards, it is every bit the grand and glorious hotel it was 110 years ago.
The original guests of the Moana Hotel would be envious of what is available to vacationers in the 21st century. Each room is outfitted with premium pillow topped Westin Heavenly Beds, and traditional décor with a relaxed touch of the islands. Of course, each room has a large flat screen TV, fitting bath amenities, and wi-fi access.
The famous Banyan tree
In 1904, a Banyan tree was planted immediately to the rear of the new Moana Hotel. The hope was that the ficus species, native to India, would prosper in the beach soils of Hawaii – and indeed, it did.
The Moana Banyan Court tree has been the centerpiece of hotel and Hawaiian history as so many activities and events have been sheltered by its gigantic 150-foot canopy.
The majestic old Banyan has been an onlooker to two world wars, witnessed the incoming aircraft during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and celebrated generations of weddings and important social events.
The tree also provided the backdrop for the Banyan Court “Hawaii Calls” radio show that aired across America for 40 years from 1935 to 1975. That’s quite a resume for one tree.
World War II
By 1941, the Moana had been joined on the beach by the bigger Royal Hawaiian Hotel built just to the west. The Royal Hawaiian, (the subject of a future article) is often referred to as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific.” During the war, it was leased to the U.S. Navy as a Rest and Recuperation Center for submariners, while the Moana remained a commercial hotel for the duration of the conflict.
During the war, Moana guests wanting to take an ocean plunge had to navigate rows of barbed wire that stretched across all of Waikiki beach. Nevertheless, these were busy and prosperous days for the hotel.
Only oceanfront spa on Waikiki
There are spas, and there are spas, but we have found few that can compare to the 18,000 square foot Moana Lani Spa, at the Moana Surfrider – it is a destination within a destination.
Before being indulged with a Hawaiian style deep massage in a breathtaking ocean view couple’s therapy suite, we took a tour of the fabulous facility.
The tranquil Moana Lani Spa is decorated in pleasing colors and is complete with comfortable post-therapy relaxation rooms that overlook the beach below. What a pristine meditative setting.
Guests are invited to luxuriate in separate male and female state-of-the-art facilities. We concluded that with steam rooms, saunas, soothing whirlpool tubs, and 16 treatment rooms – including two oceanfront couple’s massage rooms with large soaking tubs, this spa would be the ideal place to gather for the morning after a big event, or the perfect spot to just unwind and rebalance.
Each treatment in the Moana Lani Spa is preceded by a beautiful Hawaiian ritual designed to relax the incoming guest. Each spa visitor is invited to leave his or her worries in a ceremonial wooden bowl filled with Alaea salt. The salt remains in the therapy room soaking up cares and woes until the guest departs. It is then collected, and at the end of the day thrown into the ocean so it and the guest’s troubles are simply carried out to sea.
The entire experience will afford you with a quintessential touch of deep relaxation and peaceful indulgence.
Eating at the Moana Surfrider
The period Veranda that spans two sides of the Banyan Court and overlooks the hotel’s freshwater pool is a great place to enjoy breakfast and afternoon tea.
We learned that tea at the Moana is an enduring Hawaiian tradition enjoyed by guests and locals alike. We can add that comfortable seating and relaxing views are enhanced by the refined Victorian setting.
The Beachhouse at the Moana
The Moana has always been a preferred dining spot for locals and vacationers with discriminating palates. Over the years, the hotel’s extensive menu has evolved with the tastes of its patrons, and today the Beachhouse Restaurant serves some of the best regional dishes in Hawaii.
Led by talented Chef de Cuisine, William Chen, the Beachhouse kitchen features both fresh and seasonal ingredients from paradise – true epicurean delights – each with its own unique identity.
Our dinner experience
We stepped across the threshold of time and were seated at a most satisfying table at the end of the familiar veranda that overlooks the Banyan Court and blue Pacific. This is the scene of countless historic photos – and we are happy to report that the exceptional setting was only exceeded by a truly spectacular meal.
Our appetizer consisted of a uniquely prepared Caesar Salad that was immediately followed by a main of tender Moyer Farms Filet Mignon and Wailua Asparagus with citrus hollandaise sauce. D-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s!
The desert was a trio of mini Hawaiian chocolate pot de crème with Chantilly, macadamia crusted carrot cake, and vanilla bean gelato. It was hard to choose between that and the guava cookie crust lemon cheesecake, with roasted pineapple star anise relish, and caramel sauce. OMG!
As we savored desert, we watched the sun slip slowly below the far horizon and listened to the island music and the waves lazily curling along the sand.
It occurred to us that anyone having an opportunity to experience a dinner such as this, in a place so famous and outstanding, was indeed fortunate.
Avoid disappointment – be sure to make a reservation.
Great place for a wedding
During our visit, there was a seemingly endless parade of beautiful brides and handsome grooms walking the wide hallways of the great hotel. It is obvious that wedding planners appreciate the Moana Surfrider as a perfect venue for a never to be forgotten tropical wedding.
Stay at the Moana Surfrider
Originally, the Moana catered only to the very wealthy, but today the Moana Surfrider a Westin Resort and Spa is available to anyone who appreciates fine living.
The Moana Surfrider is the grand dame of Waikiki Beach – just as she was over a century ago. New hotels spring eternal in Hawaii, but none can match the majesty, style, and sophistication of the First Lady of Waikiki. She alone can reflect on the indelible vistas of the once remote white sand beach that rests at her doorstep and under the gaze of the ageless Diamond Head.
To spend even a very small portion of one’s life in one of the guestrooms or suites at the Moana Surfrider is to become part of the legend – and an opportunity to appreciate Victorian elegance meticulously restored and maintained. This is an idyllic hotel for discriminating travelers with a taste for history. On Waikiki Beach, it is simply the place to be.
If you go
The Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort and Spa is located on fashionable Kalakaua Avenue on Waikiki Beach and nine miles from Honolulu International Airport. For more information check out their website *here*.
Want to learn more about the historic Moana? We recommend a short, but informative book by author Stan Cohen entitled, “The First Lady of Waikiki.” The book is available from Amazon.
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You might also enjoy our recent article about Pearl Harbor by clicking *here*.
A special thank you to Marcia Wienert and Diana Su of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Hawaii, without whose knowledge and help this article would not have been possible.
We flew from San Francisco directly to Oahu on Hawaiian Airlines.
© Travels with Wayne and Judy Bayliff
Photos © Wayne and Judy Bayliff - unless otherwise specified
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