At the grand old age of 111 years, the venerable Moana Hotel might seem a bit like a cat with nine lives. The gracious hotel was originally built among one and two-story summer residences and small bungalows on the sands of Waikiki at the turn of the 20th century—the first of its kind geared to the newly-hatched tourist trade. Today it still holds court, dwarfed yet standing shoulder-to-shoulder with rows of towering Honolulu high-rises. Warm tropical breezes still move across its verandas and lobby . . . rustling through the tropical gardens, spreading the fragrance of plumeria, and accompanying the sound of waves crashing on the beach just steps away. It’s all quite magical.
Oahu’s “First Lady of Waikiki” was built in 1901 by wealthy Hawaiian landowner Walter Peacock. At that time, Waikiki was a backwater area, a swampland surrounded by duck ponds and taro fields. But the beach was a beauty. It seemed like an ideal spot for a much needed Honolulu hotel. Peacock hired architect Oliver Traphagen to design the building, which was done in the Beaux-Arts style with Ionic columns, carved woodwork, fancy plaster detailing, and lots of windows. It was constructed by the Lucas Brothers, the same company that earlier built the Iolani Palace in Honolulu for the Hawaiian monarchy.
“Moana” means “open expanse of sea” in Hawaiian. Views from the stately six-story hotel took in the Pacific Ocean to the south, green valleys to the north, the Honolulu harbor to the west, and crouching Diamond Head to the east. An open lobby welcomed guests with the sound of waves and the flower-scented trade wind breezes. In addition to the reception area, the first floor had a saloon, main parlor, library, and billiards room. Each floor had its own woodwork “motif:” the first floor was oak; the second, mahogany; the third, maple; the fourth, koa; and the fifth, cherry. Peacock had his offices on the sixth floor, complete with 360 degree views—and the building was topped by a roof-top observatory. The 75 guest rooms had private baths and telephones—innovations at the time. The Moana also had its own ice plant and electric generators. The Moana’s most notable architectural features were its wide ocean-facing verandas and the grand porte-cochere entrance on Kalakaua Avenue. Other design elements that remain to this day are the extra-wide hallways (originally designed to accommodate steamer trunks), high ceilings, over-the-door transoms, and cross-ventilation windows (used to cool rooms in the days before air conditioning). The hotel’s first guests, a group of local Shriners, paid the hefty room price of $1.50 per night.
Simply put, the hotel was a success. With the 1898 annexation of Hawaii as a U. S. territory and the expansion of the steamship transport business from the West Coast, island tourism grew at brisk rate. By 1918, Hawaii had nearly 8000 visitors annually. That year saw the addition of two Italianate concrete annexes (connected by widow’s walkways) to the original wooden Moana building, more than doubling the number of guest rooms and giving the hotel its characteristic H-shape. The centerpiece of the property became the Banyan Court . . . an open-air, ocean-facing patio that centered around a sprawling banyan tree.
The Matson Navigation Company purchased the Moana in 1932 as part of its business plan to expand tourism to Hawaii. Travel agents could now book land-and-sea vacation packages for guests who sailed aboard Matson’s famous “white ships.” (Earlier in 1927, due to demand for more hotel space, Matson had already built Waikiki’s other iconic luxury hotel, the pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel, located next door.) The aloha-style spirit of the Moana’s hospitality set the standard for all island hotels to come. It gave definition to Hawaii as a tropical and glamorous vacation paradise. The rich and famous flocked to Waikiki—and the Moana was a playground for celebrities.
Guests included Hollywood film stars, Amelia Earhart, and the young Prince of Wales (who would later abdicate the British throne for American socialite, Wallis Simpson). Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian Olympic swimmer credited with popularizing surfing, was a regular at Moana Hotel restaurants and the private beachfront. The latter was also a favorite hang out for the Duke’s famed “Waikiki Beach Boys,” guys who earned a living by instructing visitors on how to surf and canoe.
The December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed by the United States’ entry into World War II, put a temporary end to Hawaiian tourism. Barbed-wire fencing was laid across Waikiki to ward off potential attack. The Moana Hotel weathered the war years, and later became the place to “be seen” by Honolulu society. The prosperity of the post-war years, coupled with the arrival of the Jet Age in 1959 and regularly scheduled flights from the Mainland to the Islands, secured the future of the Moana. Over the years, it would undergo name changes, building additions, poor remodels, a beautiful renovation, and a series of owners (beginning with Matson’s sale of the property to the Sheraton Corporation in 1959). Yet the Moana still remains one of Hawaii’s two most-recognized and architecturally-iconic hotels. The original (Banyan) wing of the hotel is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the old courtyard banyan tree has been designated as Hawaii’s “Millennium Landmark Tree,” joining a select group of one-per-state historic trees that will remain protected in the 21st century. In recent years, the Moana has been renamed . . . it is now the Moana Surfrider, a Westin property.