Vintage Hawaii: White Ships, a Pink Hotel, and Boat Days

Its kind of like a “six degrees of separation” scenario . . . at least that’s how I see it. From the crazy water temples of San Francisco Bay to the birth of Hawaii tourism . . . from the Filoli country estate down the peninsula to the old and venerable luxury hotels (I am talking about the Moana and the famously-pink Royal Hawaiian, of course) that still preside over Waikiki Beach. But it’s an easy connection.

In 1937, wealthy San Franciscans William and Lurline Roth became the second owners of Filoli in Woodside, California. The link to Hawaii lies in Mrs. Roth’s maiden name, Matson. From the early 1920’s until the 1970’s, cruising from San Francisco to Hawaii aboard one of the Matson Navigation Company’s four famed “white ships” was considered the height of luxury travel.

“Lurline” travel poster. (credit: Matson)

Port arrivals in Honolulu were celebratory events for both passengers and islanders . . . and the need to house and pamper increasing numbers of well-heeled travelers led to the construction of resort hotels along Waikiki Beach. With its luxury ocean liners, Matson essentially threw open the doors to Hawaiian tourism as we know it today.

It all began with Lurline’s father, William Matson (1849-1917). He was a Swede who (with financial backing by former employer and sugar tycoon, Claus Spreckels) founded the Matson Navigation Company in 1882 after sailing his schooner, the Emma Claudina, from San Francisco to Hilo, Hawaii. The ship carried food, supplies, and merchandise for sale in plantation stores and returned with a cargo of sugar for the Mainland. Over time, the success of this commercial venture at both ends of the trans-Pacific route led to interest in developing Hawaii as a tourist destination.

In 1901, the Moana Hotel (now known as “the First Lady of Waikiki” and the first resort hotel to be built on Waikiki Beach) opened to accommodate the early trickle of tourists to Honolulu. The trickle soon became a steady stream . . . and by 1917, the Matson Company had fourteen of the newest, largest, and speediest passenger-freight steamers in the Pacific. The Matson name and the company’s four famous “white ships”–the SS Malolo (later renamed the Matsonia), Mariposa, Monterey, and Lurline (named for his daughter) became synonymous with world-class luxury ocean travel to the South Seas.

Matson’s “Lurline” arrives into port at Honolulu.

Each ship held 600-700 passengers and the crossing from San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands took five days. The time was filled with drinking, dancing, champagne parties in the beautiful lounges, and outdoor activities on deck. Upon arrival, Matson passengers were treated to more luxury and pampering at one of Matson’s Waikiki hotels, beginning with the glamorous Royal Hawaiian Hotel (the famous “Pink Palace”) built in 1927.

Ocean liner arrivals and departures from piers 9 and 10 in the port at Honolulu were festive occasions called “boat days.” Matson liners docked at 8am and sailed at 4pm. On arrival into Honolulu, a Matson ship would give three blasts of the whistle as it passed the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. With the Aloha Tower lighthouse in sight, the ship would be met by two tug boats loaded with friends and family, hula dancers, and photographers. Locals would gather at the pier to greet the passengers, offer flower leis, or dive for coins tossed overboard. There was live Hawaiian music, hula dancing, and the tossing of paper streamers.

The end of this glamourous era in trans-Pacific travel came with the advent of regularly scheduled airline flights between the Mainland and the Islands. By the end of the 1970s, all of the famed Matson luxury liners had all been retired.

(Wonderful vintage film of Waikiki Beach in the  1930’s . . . keep an eye out for Night Hawk the surfing dog!)

If you want to get the definitive idea of what it was like to cruise on a Matson ship like the Lurline to the Islands, look for this wonderful book (sometimes available on Amazon, see below) . . . it’s titled To Honolulu in Five Days and is a fabulous addition to anyone’s collection of Hawaiiana. Other suggestions are also included. Aloha!


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