Off the Beaten Path: First Lady of Waikiki

January 3, 2014 | By Allison Schaefers

The wings at each end of the Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort and Spa, are sagging.

No, I didn’t have too many mai tais. The alcoves began sloping following a 1918 renovation when they were used to store the heavy cast iron claw-foot tubs and other bathroom fixtures.

“All the weight caused the wings to sink,” says Kehaulani Kam, director of cultural services at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Waikiki. “To this day, we still can’t completely close the windows.”

Contractors immediately tried but failed to remedy the situation. Another opportunity for a fix presented itself in 1989 when the resort underwent a massive $50 million renovation, but the drunken slant has remained.

“They fortified the wings, but they weren’t able to raise them up because it would have affected the central building of the hotel,” Kam says. “You know if they had messed with it too much, it might have fallen down since the resort was built before the Ala Wai was dredged. It sits on sand and coral.”

Aside from this structural oddity, the hotel sits soundly on its grounds in the center of Waikiki where it has been a fixture since 1901. People often joke that the Indian Banyan Tree that was planted in 1904 by Jared Smith now holds everything up since it’s about 75 feet tall and stretches 150 feet across the hotel’s grounds.

Regardless of the reason, this imperfection is part of the charm of the “First Lady of Waikiki.” Known as The Moana Hotel when she opened, the resort catered to the most glamorous people of the day. They arrived by steamer with massive trunks that held enough goods to support stays that spanned months to years.

“Their trunks were so large that they often left them in the hallway outside of their rooms,” Kam says. “I haven’t heard any stories about people stealing, but you know we did have a murder.”

On Feb. 28, 1905, the untimely death of Jane Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University, made headlines everywhere. Stanford, who was vacationing in Hawai’i following a strychnine-poisoning attempt on her life, died in her room.

“People came in by ship for the inquest,” Kam says.

No doubt the investigators and journalists enjoyed their stay at the resort, which when it opened was the height of modern luxury. The hotel, which cost just over $140,000 to construct, had the first electric-powered elevator in the Territory (Hawai’i didn’t become a state until 1959). Her guest rooms also had private baths and telephones. This was really something, considering that super long-range phone service had not been invented.

Over the years, the amenities kept pace with the times and were luxurious enough to attract local stars like Hilo Hattie, Andy Cummings, Alfred Apaka and Sterling Mossman, and visiting celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Amelia Earhart. Her spectacular beach frontage was also a playground for Hawaiian Olympian Duke Kahanamoku and other renowned swimmers such as Ford Kono, Dick Cleveland, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.

According to some staff members, the ghost of Stanford still frequents the hotel, whose beautiful ocean vistas brought her short-lived peace.

“Some security people have said that they’ve seen her walking at night trying to find her room,” Kam says. “She may be confused because the room number was changed during one of our renovations.”

Why am I not surprised? Doesn’t it always seem like crooked alcoves lead to haunted hallways?

A three-time national award winning reporter, Allison Schaefers serves as the Waikiki Bureau Chief for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Based in Waikiki, she covers Hawai’i tourism and Waikiki issues. Contact her at

Did you know?

The circumstances of Jane Stanford’s untimely death at the age of 76 still remain a mystery. Honolulu doctors in attendance concluded that she had been poisoned; however, Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, who escorted her body back to the mainland, claimed that she died of heart failure.