Island Classics

Historic hotels offer visitors timeless elegance and a glimpse into Hawaii's storied past

By: Marty Wentzel

Hawaii’s tourism industry was born over a century ago, but just a small percentage of its lodgings boast that kind of longevity. Still, clients looking for historical hotels can find them in the islands. Following are a few examples.

Sheraton Moana-Surfrider

When Waikiki’s 75-room Moana Hotel opened in 1901, it boasted such innovations as Hawaii’s first electric-powered elevator, and telephones and private baths in the guestrooms. Around 1920, the beach fronting the Moana launched a new trend in swimwear, according to Sheraton spokeswoman Cynthia Rankin. “Women used to wear big, bulky dresses to swim in,” said Rankin. “One day, some rebellious gals jumped in the ocean in men’s wool swimsuits. Other women saw them and decided it was a great idea.” In 1989, a $50-million restoration combined the original Moana with the more modern, adjacent Surfrider hotels. Today, as the Sheraton Moana-Surfrider, the resort pays tribute to the past, from displays of hotel memorabilia in its historic room, to stylish tea service on the veranda overlooking a banyan tree planted in 1904.

The Royal Hawaiian

This 1927 Waikiki landmark has drawn many famous guests during its history, but movie star Shirley Temple might have attracted the most attention. “Temple visited the Royal in the mid-1930s,” said Rankin. “She awed local and visiting children with her talented singing and ukulele strumming.” The hotel ushered in a new era of luxurious resort living in Waikiki, and its Spanish-Moorish architecture and pink paint job turned heads. Guests arrived by luxury liner, bringing their steamer trunks and servants. From 1942-1945, the hotel was leased to the Navy as a place wartime sailors could go for some R&R. Today, clients need only step into the lobby, with its sparkling chandeliers and elaborate sprays of orchids, to get a sense of the Royal’s place in Waikiki history.

Shipman House Bed & Breakfast

Barbara Andersen, who owns this 1899 Victorian mansion on the Big Island, likes to tell stories about her great-grandmother, Mary Shipman, whose husband bought the place in 1901. “Hawaii’s last queen, Liliuokalani, was a friend of Mary’s, and visited from time to time,” said Andersen. “Being quite the composer, Her Majesty would play the Shipmans’ grand piano while smoking her cigar. We still have the piano, and our guests are welcome to play it.” Every room of the Hilo home has memories of the past, from the claw-foot tubs, four-poster beds, polished floors, antique rugs and original light fixtures, to the room where author Jack London and his wife slept during their five-week visit in 1907. Andersen and her husband, Gary, invite clients to “sleep, eat and walk where history took place,” she said. “We love sharing it all with our guests.”

Waimea Plantation Cottages

West Kauai’s sugar plantation era meets Hawaii’s visitor industry at this 53-unit retreat in a 27-acre coconut grove. Guests stay in cottages built in the early 1900s to house families of plantation workers. Some dwellings come from neighboring camps, like the property’s recent addition, the Kruse House. The home of a plantation engineer, it was saved from demolition and moved from the town of Kekaha, right down to its original hardwood pillars. While they are models of plantation architecture, the cottages provide modern amenities like televisions, telephones and full kitchens. “This is a unique resort because it honors history and culture,” said Liz Hahn, Waimea Plantation Cottages spokeswoman. “Visitors can experience plantation-period Hawaii in a contemporary context.”

Hotel Hana-Maui

In the 1940s, San Francisco businessman Paul Fagan opened a six-room inn in remote East Maui, surrounded by a 14,000-acre cattle ranch. Over time the hotel grew in size and reputation, and its rural elegance attracted the likes of Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Today, the 66-unit property features decor and furnishings reflecting its past, thanks to a recent $14 million restoration. “The look of the resort offers an updated feeling while telling a story about old Hawaii,” said Hotel Hana-Maui sales and marketing director Bea Wolfe. For instance, floor mats are made of woven lauhala (pandanus leaf), and rooms feature works by local artists. The menu in the Paniolo (cowboy) Bar tells the history of Hana Ranch, and the resort’s Hawaiian show features three generations of dancers. “How wonderful it is for guests to stroll outside in the peacefulness of the evening and hear cattle in the surrounding hillsides, or to wake up in the morning and see horses grazing in the front pastures,” said Wolfe.

Hotel Lanai

When James Dole bought the island of Lanai in 1922 and transformed it into the world’s largest pineapple plantation, he figured he better build a place for visiting plantation executives to stay. Thus was born Hotel Lanai, constructed in 1923 and the only hotel on the island until 1990. Today the 11-room lodge maintains a simple, country inn atmosphere. “Guests looking for Old Hawaii will surely find it here,” said Divina Costales, Hotel Lanai manager. “Hotel Lanai is all about relaxation, great food and warm smiles, much like memories of staying at Grandma’s.” Accommoda-tions preserve the hotel’s original decor with country quilts, hardwood floors and pedestal sinks. As a nod to contemporary needs, each room has a ceiling fan, phone, bathroom with shower, and iron and ironing board.