Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
With a stately porte-cochere, wooden rocking chairs on the front porch, a brass elevator and ornately carved wooden columns in the lobby, the Moana (pronounced mo-awna) Surfrider exudes the kind of grandeur and elegance you might expect on a Virginia plantation. The glass vases of orchids, birds of paradise, and torch ginger throughout the lobby are the only details giving away its tropical setting -- oh, and its location in the dead center of Waikiki.
Built in the late 19th century and opened in 1901, the "First Lady of Waikiki" was designed by Oliver Traphagen and was the first large hotel to open in town, beating the Royal Hawaiian by more than 25 years. The original 75-room hotel underwent several extensive renovations and expansions since then, and now encompasses 795 rooms. The property's storied history is shared during hourlong, thrice-weekly historical tours.
Although it sits on a rare stretch of Waikiki oceanfront, don't expect peace, quiet, or seclusion -- it's packed. Even the sections the hotel cordons off for its guests get crowded quickly. In fact, the hotel itself can get filled with non-guests dropping in for drinks under the courtyard's popular sweeping, 75-foot banyan tree. (One complaint heard from several guests is that they felt anyone could hang at the Moana -- ostensibly booking a budget room elsewhere and heading here for pool time or drinks without getting caught.)
Much of the relaxed, unassuming charm revolves around the banyan tree, which once hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, and now spans 150 feet. Afternoon tea is served on the veranda from 1 to 3 p.m., and live Hawaiian music and hula dancing (and the occasional acoustic singer-songwriter playing stuck-in-your-head cover songs like James Taylor's "Fire and Rain,") competes with the sound of waves in the evenings. You'll likely hear as much Japanese as English spoken -- between five and seven Japanese weddings take place here each day, and many of the hotel's staff members speak Japanese.
Well staffed and friendly, if occasionally sluggish
Service is warm -- and ubiquitous -- but sometimes a little slow. The platoon of bellmen and valets beneath the porte-cochere goes out of its way to welcome guests with an aloha, an orchid lei, and a glass of lemongrass tea at the front desk (though I was somehow overlooked for this ritual). It took 40 minutes for a repairman to show up to investigate a leak in my room, and 15 minutes for security to let me into my room after losing my key, though I was told they'd be "right up."
Clean, elegant, and small
You're not paying for size at the Moana Surfrider, you're paying for the overall elegance and cachet of staying at the oldest hotel in Waikiki. Rooms are split between three wings: the Banyan, Diamond, and Tower. The Banyan is the original, thus older, of the three wings and rooms have more charm, but they're also the smallest -- between 210 and 264 square feet -- and few have balconies. Rooms in the Diamond wing are slightly larger and usually come with balconies, but they don't have comparable views or as much space as the newer, but usually more expensive, 21-story Tower wing, where rooms average 324 square feet. An upgrade from the standard Banyan wing room to one in the Tower wing is worth it, and you'll likely get a better view.
Lots of top-shelf, luxury facilities
The Moana Surfrider has features that stand above its competition -- including a huge fitness center, the only oceanfront spa in Waikiki, the Moana Lani Spa, and elegant restaurants. But the packed pool here is bested by the more elaborate one festooned with boulders at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Directly on Waikiki Beach, fronting buzzing Kalakaua Avenue
Walter C. Peacock planted his flag for what was then called the Moana Hotel in 1901, and he chose one of the choices pieces of real estate in Waikiki. With an entrance on the south side of Kalakaua and a backside on the sand, you're in the heart of it all. This section of Waikiki Beach gets rather crowded however, even in the areas roped off for Moana guests. The Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach is immediately next door and the Hyatt Regency is kitty-corner.
Kalakaua Avenue, a touristy, milelong stretch of shops, restaurants, and high-rise hotels that runs along Waikiki Beach on Oahu's southeast coast, offers a curious blend of mainland creature comforts and local flavor. On the sidewalks, Japanese tourists intermingle with tanned locals, surfboards under their arms, on their way to the beach to catch a few waves after work. On both sides of the street, high-end retailers -- Tiffany, Cartier, and yes, even an Apple store -- are interspersed with indoor malls and streetside vendors hawking cheap seashell jewelry and T-shirts. Seemingly every mid-market chain restaurant can be found here -- Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, Tony Roma's -- along with more than a handful of Starbucks and fast-food joints. And towering above it all: 40-story, thousand-room hotels dotting the landscape like pins in a cushion.
Sits on one of the most famous beaches in the world, in the heart of Waikiki
The Moana Surfrider is located on arguably one of the nicest stretches of Waikiki Beach -- it's sandy and relatively clean, but it's packed. Really packed. The hotel is one of a handful of hotels with a small area of the beach to cordon off and call its own. Chairs are crammed in shoulder to shoulder, but the white rope does keep out some of the riffraff from the public beach just beyond. Guests reserve free towels, chairs, and umbrellas at the pool desk on a first-come-first-served basis.
Loosely speaking, the entire 1.5-mile stretch of sand alongside Kalakaua Avenue is known as Waikiki Beach. In reality, it's more like three separate beaches, the borders of which vary depending on whom you ask. The Moana Surfrider is on a section of Queen's Beach, which is the part you see on postcards of Waikiki: manicured, palm tree-dotted lawns leading to a sunny white-sand beach. Children splash about in the shallow water near the shore, while surfers and stand-up paddle-boarders (the rad new thing to do) patrol the outer waters.
To summarize Queen's Beach in one word: packed. Packed with energy, packed with activity, packed -- most significantly -- with people. Towels carpet the sand like blankets at a sold-out concert. Families with small children, honeymooning couples, even locals taking lunch breaks -- they all merge here, sunning, swimming, and sandcastle-building, all the while doing their best not to kick sand in each other's faces.
A massive, impressive beachfront spa
The enormous, full-service Moana Lani Spa opened in September 2008 as the only oceanfront spa in Waikiki, and is by far one of the best in town. While other comparable spas can be found at the Kahala and next door at the Royal Hawaiian, neither are as big.
Family-friendly enough, but incomparable to the nearby Sheraton Waikiki
With pools, dedicated beach area, and kids menus, it's family-friendly in nature, but small rooms take away from an ideal family getaway. Rooms in the Banyan wing start at a tiny 210 square feet, leaving no room for a rollaway and not much for a crib -- both offered free of charge. Thus, families are best served by booking the Tower wing, where standard rooms run 324 square feet and come with a king or two doubles; rooms bump up to 800 square feet in a significantly more expensive suite. A better all-around option for families is the nearby Sheraton Waikiki -- same beachfront location with bigger rooms, a bigger pool with fountains and slides, and a kids' camp where every counselor is bilingual and has a teaching degree.
Aside from the usual problem areas -- mildew in the shower and a few stains on the room carpet -- the hotel is immaculate and well maintained. There are no stray towels, room service trays or other debris anywhere.
Pricey food in a romantic beachfront setting
A beautiful, historic hotel with great food and a convenient, if crowded, location in Waikiki
As Waikiki's first hotel, the 1901 plantation-style oceanfront Moana Surfrider offers a dose of historic charm on one of the nicest -- albeit most congested -- stretches of Waikiki Beach. Small rooms are offset by impressive public spaces, including an outdoor courtyard with live nightly music beneath a sweeping banyan tree, and an enormous spa and fitness center.