Explore Oahu

One of Oahu's Most Historic Hotels: The Grand Dame of Waikiki

The Moana Surfrider enjoys a storied history

The ghost of Jane Stanford still haunts the second floor of the Moana Surfrider, where the Stanford University co-founder was allegedly poisoned with strychnine and died from it in 1905. For the past decade, Kehaulani Kam has shared such chicken-skin stories — and others — among the hotel’s guests and employees.

“She has such a wealth of knowledge,” says Montery, Calif., resident Stan DuBose, who was taking Kam’s historical tour of the property with a dozen other visitors. “I’ve been staying at the Surfrider since 1989 and I never knew it had such a great history.”

As the First Lady of Waikīkī celebrates her 118th birthday in March, Kam expects an increase interest in the history of the property, which opened its doors in 1901 with the all the pomp and circumstance befitting of royalty. An orchestra played while well-heeled travelers sauntered through the atrium and rode Hawai‘i’s first-ever electric elevator to the fourth floor.

Kehaulani Kam provides narrated tours of the Moana Surfrider.

“They entered into luxury,” Kam tells attendees, pointing to historical images of the hotel. “Each room had its own bathroom, which was unheard of in those days. There was also a telephone in each room.

“But I don’t think they had the heavenly beds back then,” quips Kam, Starwood Hawai‘i’s director of cultural services and a familiar face at the Starwood Waikīkī properties for the past 45 years. “The rooms did have a shortwave radio but, of course, no television.”

By the early 1900s, with more visitors arriving to the islands by steamship, Walter C. Peacock proposed to build Waikīkī's first true beachfront property. At the time, only bathhouses and bungalows were available in downtown Honolulu and at the San Souci Hotel. When ground broke for what would then be Hawai‘i’s only luxury resort in 1899, Kalākaua Avenue was still named Waikīkī Road and an electric trolley ran parallel along the street, transporting passengers into town.

The Moana Surfrider's porte cochere is one of its defining features.

Built for $150,000, the hotel was designed in the Beaux Arts style with Hawaiian plantation influences. The iconic porte cochère, grand atrium, intricate plaster detailing on the ceiling, arched doors and windows and curving staircases represented a sense of opulence never seen before on the islands. Meaning “broad expanse of ocean,” Moana lived up to its name with the crowning achievement of a rooftop observatory 120 feet off the ground, lit by more than 300 lamps. It accommodated Great Gatsby-like receptions while offering 360-degree views of Waikīkī, Diamond Head and the Pacific Ocean.

The hotel’s first guests in 1901 were a group of 114 Shriners who paid a lofty $1.50 per night for their well-appointed rooms, which were furnished with colonial chairs, marble washstands, writing desks and tables. “It was all glitz and glamour,” Kam says. “No expense was spared.”

This aerial view shows the H-shape that Moana is known for among visitors.

Peacock would eventually sell the hotel to Honolulu businessman Alexander Young in 1905. After Young’s death in 1910, his estate continued to operate the Moana, which was expanded in 1918 to include a fifth and sixth floor along with two concrete wings that create the famous “H” shape recognized today. Another prominent feature of the property is the legendary Indian banyan tree, which was the gathering place that prompted the hotel’s slogan “Meet You Beneath the Banyan Tree.”

“No one asked which banyan tree,” Kam says. “It was well known that it was the banyan at the Moana.”

In 1935, Webley Edwards launched “Hawai‘i Calls,” a Hawaiian music radio program that would eventually be heard in 60 different countries. Broadcasted from the courtyard of the Moana, the show would promote the islands with the lure of hula, music and the sound of lapping waves. It went off-air in 1975 after 40 years and 2,083 shows.

Meanwhile, as Matson Navigation Company ferried more wealthy visitors to O‘ahu, its subsidiary, Hawaiian Hotels LTD, bought the Moana for $1.6 million in 1932, five years after it opened the Royal Hawaiian in 1927. The company would later add to its family of hotels with the opening of the Surfrider (today the Diamond Wing) in 1952 and Princess Kaiʻulani in 1955.

Passengers were greeted with lei when they arrived by passenger ship.

By the mid-1920s, visitors began arriving at Aloha Tower aboard Matson passenger ships, leading to what was known as Boat Days. “I remember as a little girl in the late ’50s my mom would get me up and we would drive over the Pali to greet guests who were getting off the ships,” Kam recalls. “We would give them plumeria lei and they would cry because they were so happy to be here.”

However, with the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, all leisure travel ceased. Barbed wire stretched across the beaches to prevent further attacks and blackout restrictions were enforced. Matson’s largest hotel, The Royal Hawaiian, was leased to the U.S. Navy for $17,000 a month and used as a rest-and- relaxation center. The Moana, though, remained open as a guest hotel but it was predominantly occupied by servicemen or defense-related personnel.

Locals would often perform on the beach.

After the WW II, tourism began to boom with the advent of regularly scheduled passenger flights to Hawai‘i, greatly impacting the number of passengers who were boarding Matson’s steamships bound for O‘ahu. In 1958, Matson sold all of its four hotels to Sheraton for $18 million. Sheraton later sold the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian to Japanese industrialist, Kenji Osano and his Kyo-Ya Company, Ltd., in 1974.

“It was a time of change,” Kam explains. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the pillars weren’t here. The owners thought that the pillars and the porte cochère were passé, so they squared off the pillars and put up a green awning over the porte cochère.”  

Guests tanned on the beach fronting the Moana.

Fortunately, in 1989, The First Lady of Waikīkī was restored to her glory after an extensive two-year restoration that saw the return of the pillars and the porte cochère, as well as the addition of a pool. Though the Moana has changed throughout the decades, its architectural features have not been lost and are an important part of Hawaiʻi’s history. Today, the hotel takes its place among America’s leading hotels listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

It also has a place among “ghostbusters” who come with their spectrometers in hopes of resolving the “Mystery at the Moana.” “Mrs. Stanford is still here,” Kam smiles. “Guests have told me that she has tapped them on the shoulder looking for her room. And employees have seen her in the basement and other parts of the hotel, too.”

All images Courtesy Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa