A refresh for Waikiki's 'First Lady'

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The Kalakaua Avenue entrance of the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa, which is celebrating its 115th anniversary.
The Kalakaua Avenue entrance of the Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa, which is celebrating its 115th anniversary.
Sometimes when I look through old photos of Waikiki, those black-and-white images of the destination captured decades before high-rises towered over its shoreline, I feel like I'm being conned.


As a nearly 14-year Honolulu resident, the only Waikiki I've known has been dominated by soaring hotel buildings, sidewalks bustling with visitors and beaches pulsing with happy sunbathers.

Those old shots of Hawaii's most popular tourism district, where Diamond Head is by far the tallest object in the frame or the beaches are lined with trees instead of buildings, almost seem like cleverly conjured Photoshop creations.

I know better, of course, and much of that understanding comes from having spent time in places in Waikiki where there's an unmistakable old Hawaii feel, a vibe seemingly poured right out of those historical pictures. The Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa, located right on the beach, is certainly one of those spots.

Waikiki's oldest hotel, the Moana is celebrating its 115th anniversary this year, and despite being neighbored today by luxury shopping malls and imposing multistory buildings, some belonging to the property itself and home to modern guestrooms, the "First Lady of Waikiki" still exudes a singular ambience, one that can be hard to describe but is awfully tough to miss.

A photo of the resort, nicknamed the “First Lady of Waikiki,” from 1910.
A photo of the resort, nicknamed the “First Lady of Waikiki,” from 1910.

"It just has a different feel," said Kirk Dalrymple, a Hawaii specialist working for Yankee Clipper Travel in San Francisco. "It's something you definitely notice when you pass through the Moana's entrance, leaving busy Kalakaua Avenue to all of a sudden take in this gorgeous view of the ocean and the beach."

After more than a century, the stately columns and open-air ocean views of the Moana's porte cochere and lobby area remain largely unchanged, and that remarkable entry experience is often a standout Hawaii memory for visitors. In fact, hotel manager Tom Kermabon said it's a wonderful reaction he's witnessed on many sales site inspections.

"You really see it when you introduce someone to the hotel for the first time," he said. "Of course, the porte cochere is extraordinary and iconic, and as you come up the steps into the beautiful lobby space [and] you step out onto the veranda, you can just see it happen. You can see, as someone looks at the banyan tree and out through the courtyard to the beach and the ocean, that moment right there on the veranda is just very special."

Waikiki has seen a great deal of change in recent years, from the introduction of high-end shopping and restaurants to the opening of a Ritz-Carlton property earlier this summer. But the enduring elegance and rich history of the Moana remain important and distinguishing selling points.

"I love it," said Regina Tait, owner of the TravelCom Travel Agency in Huntington Beach, Calif. "It just has an old Hawaiian flair, and it's a beautiful historic building [and] the history absolutely intrigues people. It's always a part of my story, and that gets them to buy."

Waikiki beachgoers relax near the Moana Surfrider, around 1925.
Waikiki beachgoers relax near the Moana Surfrider, around 1925.

A marsh with matchless beachfront

First opened in March 1901, the Moana Surfrider was built by then-owner Walter Peacock to offer a growing number of Oahu visitors, who arrived by steamship and generally stayed in Honolulu hotels, a chance to overnight much closer to the already popular beaches of Waikiki.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Waikiki was largely a marshland, home to taro fields, duck ponds and seasonal homes for Hawaiian royalty, but Oahu visitors of the time were already enamored with the region's sandy shores. Peacock figured a hotel fronting one of those beaches might be a hit and constructed one of Oahu's largest and most sophisticated buildings at the time. The nightly room rate for the first Moana guests was $1.50.

As both Oahu and the hotel's popularity grew, expansions ensued. By 1918, Hawaii was welcoming about 8,000 visitors a year, and the Moana had become a major draw in the heart of the destination's most popular attraction. Although annual arrivals totals are up — the Aloha State welcomed more than 8 million visitors in 2015 — the hotel is just one of a handful that actually sit on the beach in Waikiki today. While there have been some major additions, including multistory guestroom towers, the hotel's original wing clearly retains much of that 115-year-old charm.

"After I talk with people about the history, some ask me, 'Well, is the hotel in disrepair? Is it clean?' And I tell them, 'Oh my goodness, it's immaculate,'" Dalrymple said. "I think it's the most beautiful hotel on all of the islands, [and] it still looks like what I would expect Hawaii to have looked like back in the day before everything got so built up."

A Banyan Classic Ocean Club Room at the Moana Surfrider. Renovations to the hotel’s Banyan Wing were completed this year.
A Banyan Classic Ocean Club Room at the Moana Surfrider. Renovations to the hotel’s Banyan Wing were completed this year.

The Moana Surfrider has undergone substantial improvements in recent years, including a $20 million renovation to the 500-plus guestrooms in its Diamond and Tower wings. And according to Kermabon, work on upgrades to the property's historical Banyan Wing finished earlier this year.

"Improvements in the guestrooms included new marble, furnishings, soundproofing," he said. "It was pretty extensive work in the Banyan Wing."

The hotel also added a Beach Club amenity, featuring abreakfast buffet, snacks throughout the day, evening appetizers and unlimited soft drinks, beer and wine for guests who've booked the club-level access as part of their room package.

"It sort of gives the hotel an all-inclusive twist that you don't really get in Hawaii," Tait said. "I think it's really a good value, particularly if you have kids. People aren't going to do all of their dining in there, but it's great to have breakfast taken care of, then snacks in the afternoon and pupuus and drinks in the evening. For families that's a huge benefit."

Go to www.moana-surfrider.com.

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