'Queen of Waikiki' turns 110 in Honolulu: Moana hotel retains charm, elegance

It was less three years after the United States had officially taken over Hawaii and less than eight since a group of American businessmen had toppled the monarchy. The new century was in its first year. The Victorian era ended that January with the death of the British monarch who gave it her name.

A new era. A new century. A new country. Honolulu wanted a new hotel and got it with the Moana, which turns 110 years old this year.

It rose like a wedding cake from the sometimes still swampy stretch of beach known as Waikiki. When it opened in March 1901 it was a sensation.

The 75-room hotel was a gamble, launched amid political upheaval and just a year after bubonic plague killed 70 people in Honolulu, an epidemic that caused local officials to take the controversial action to burn down a swath of Chinatown to clear out the rats.

The Moana brought European and New York-style comforts to the islands, where most hotels of the time resembled something more like guest houses. Rooms had a private bath and a telephone. Downstairs there were billiards and booze in the saloon. The ladies could go to the library. After a day touring the island, guests were happy to have the island's first electric elevator to take them up to their room. In the afternoon, guests gathered on the large front porch, as they do today.

The hotel attracted the wealthy mainlanders who came on steamships from San Francisco and Los Angeles. But it was one of these visitors who plunged the hotel into worldwide notoriety. Jane Stanford, the widow of industrialist (and Stanford University co-founder) Leland Stanford, died under mysterious circumstances while visiting the Moana in 1905. Poison was suspected, though inquiries ruled natural causes. The strange death and questionable investigation received heavy play in the New York Times and other English language newspapers around the world.

For more than two decades, the Moana ruled the beach at Waikiki. In 1927 it was joined - and in many ways, eclipsed - by the Royal Hawaiian, the "Pink Palace of the Pacific." Today, what's called the Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort, sits surrounded by tall concrete-and-glass towers that put it in shadow, but never eclipsed its cultural cachet.

No place did more to export the idea of the islands back to the mainland than the Moana. From 1935 to 1975, the "Hawaii Calls" radio show broadcast from the hotel's famous Banyan Court. In the early days, Webley Edwards served as the master of ceremonies, reading out the air and water temperatures - which often closely matched. For snowbound Americans, it sounded like paradise.

The Moana was considered "old fashioned" within three decades of its opening, and it has endured many modernizations. The room where Jane Stanford died is long gone, now part of an expanded lobby. The need for air conditioning has added lowered ceilings. The official count of nearly 800 rooms includes those in a pair of modern towers that bear its name if not its charm. Make sure to ask for a room in the original Banyan wing. Those are the parts of the hotel that flank the massive banyan tree that shades the courtyard.

Visit soon if you can. The Moana is owned by Kyo-ya, a Japanese firm, which in turn is controlled in turn by Cerberus, a New York investment firm that takes its name from the mythological multi-headed hound that guards the gates of hell. Kyo-ya has renovated three of its four major hotels - the Moana, Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikiki. An overhaul of the nearby Sheraton Princess Kaiulani has been approved, including demolition and construction, which could cause noise and disruption. However, economic and planning issues could delay work. Check with the Moana for a progress report on the work before booking.