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REVIEW: Westin Moana Surfrider

While I spent most of my childhood as a Navy brat in locations across Japan, my family did actually spend a little bit of time in the good ole US of A. One of the two locations I lived in the US during my childhood was Hawaii on the island of Oahu, just outside of Honolulu in a suburb filled with other Navy brats. It was, generally speaking, a great life. You're in Hawaii - even when things are bad life's pretty good!

With so many positive memories of my life in Hawaii, I make it a point to return to the islands from time to time. With it's beautiful landscapes, endless stretches of sandy beaches, and some pretty awesome food options, it's not exactly a difficult internal negotiation process. It's probably harder to talk me into walking the two blocks from my house to the neighborhood Walgreen's when I run out of toilet paper than it is to talk me into spending some time in Hawaii. But that's probably the same for all of you reading this. Because it's Hawaii.

One of the things I remember quite vividly from my childhood was the "First Lady of Waikiki" - now known as Westin's Moana Surfrider. The first hotel built on the now famous stretch of beach called Waikiki, the Moana's Greek-influenced architecture makes it a striking and unique feature on the Honolulu skyline.

Along with Singapore, London, and Paris, I find Honolulu to be one of the most difficult hotel markets in the world from a cost perspective. If I'm looking for a hotel (vs. Airbnb or a hostel), it's always key that I stay under a certain amount of money per night and those cities always seem to have extremely high rates, even for what would be considered a pretty crappy hotel in other corners of the world. So imagine my surprise when I saw that the Moana Surfrider was pricing itself at under $150 for two nights of my trip to Honolulu. Emphasis on TWO night. The other nights of my trip were pricing out at well over $300/night, so I definitely didn't see myself staying there the whole trip.

The Moana has held a place of reverence in my mind since my childhood and I've dreamed of staying there my entire life, so I made the decision to book the two nights that were pricing affordably (my last nights in Honolulu) to finally fulfill a childhood dream. The nightly charge was on the upper threshold of what I normally would consider for a hotel stay, but I decided to bite the bullet due to the history and nostalgia that the property stirred in my mind.

I arrived at the Moana with very little fanfare as my friend Ginny dropped me off in her trusty minivan after our day of exploring the isle. There's a full contingent of staff serving as bellman at the front of the hotel and one of them approached me immediately to offer me assistance with my luggage. I travel with a small suitcase on most of my trips, so unless I'm feeling particularly delicate and in need of pampering I just lug my own junk around. Which is exactly what I did that night, politely declining the offer to help with my luggage.

The Moana has some of the greatest, if not the greatest, curb appeal of any hotel in Waikiki. With its Ionic columns and rows of wide white windows, you'd think it would look out of place in Hawaii. Yet somehow the perfect plumes of palm trees spaced evenly across the front of the wide lanai and the proud fluttering of the Hawaiian flag at the top of the building just feel right.

With my trusty blue Delsey luggage rolling behind me, I made my way through the front door and glanced to my right, where the check-in desks were tucked away. It's not uncommon for hotels to keep the desks a little off to the side, and it was pretty clear the Moana was using this option to showcase the historical beauty of the space by keeping the administrative "ugliness" out of immediate view when you entered the lobby.

A grand staircase sits about 20 feet back from the door, looking like it was plucked straight out Downton Abbey or Gone With the Wind. Over the course of my stay I found many brides and wedding parties posed on those elegant steps having photos taken. The floors and the fixtures were a dark, tropical wood while white paint covered the majority of the walls and columns. Vibrant green carpets created walking paths along the floor while varying shades of white and green fabrics covered much of the furniture.

Bundles of fresh tropical flowers and plants dotted the lobby while a few faux candles in wrought iron glass cases dangled from the ceiling. It wasn't the most beautiful hotel lobby I've ever set foot in, but it was likely one of the most homey. They did a great job of making the space feel unique - a nod to the past with the elegant, almost colonial finishes while the open air environment, tropical wood, and flowers called to the flora of the island all around.

Check-in was a breeze luckily, though the agent helping me out seemed to be giving out some of the "Waikiki" aloha spirit, which is to say maniacally friendly but also a bit fake. I would have really preferred if she had just been normal with me rather than the hyped up, overselling of friendliness that seems to be rampant in Waikiki. On the other thand, there must be tons of research that prove people really do like this, otherwise they probably wouldn't do it, so maybe I'm off the mark here?

The agent notified me that I'd been assigned a room in the historic wing of the hotel, which was surprising to me since I was expecting to be allocated to a hovel in some random danky corner of the modern tower addition with the rate I had paid.

The check-in agent then produced a kukui nut lei that she placed over my head. Other people were checking in to their rooms nearby and I saw that men were provided with the kukui nut lei while women received hibiscus flower leis. It was a nice touch though the whole experience reminded me of a Disneyfied version of Hawaiian aloha vs. the real deal.

The necklace giving completed, I was given my key card and sent on my way with a mildly manic smile.

The main building isn't too tall so if you, like me, are allocated a room on one of the higher floors, you can always take the staircase and make your way up through the building on foot. If you're willing to battle your way through a battalion of bridesmaids that is. If not - you can take the elevators which are located right next to the check-in desks.

The hardwood floors disappeared once I was upstairs, replaced by a "tropical fern meets octopus" carpeting that was present in the lobby but seemed much more visible in the narrower hallways. I was surprised as I continued down the hallway to my room to learn that I had been given an upgrade to a corner room overlooking the beach. Or, at least in my mind, what I considered to be an upgrade. Not all of the rooms at the Moana overlook the ocean, with quite a few overlooking the main street running along Waikiki. Maybe that front desk agent really was that happy to see me?

While the room did have multiple windows overlooking the beautiful stretch of beach running behind the Moana as well as the atrium behind the hotel, it was a pretty tiny space. Immediately upon entering you could see everything there was in the main room - a queen sized bed, a large wardrobe, a long bench with a cushioned top, a desk, and a cabinet with a mini-bar fridge located inside of it.

The bed had a high-back headboard jutting up toward the ceiling, linens in all white from pillows down to the sheets below. I know white is pretty common for hotel sheets but I don't like them to be honest - if they aren't set out perfectly they always just look slightly disheveled to me, which was the case here. Still, since the Moana is a Westin property, they feature Starwood's signature "Heavenly Bed" which I've discussed in depth in multiple hotel reviews on this website. It lives up to its name and is my favorite thing about the Starwood brand. I'm very hopeful that once the take over by Marriott is complete, these beds stick around and perhaps will proliferate into Marriott's properties as well.

A white robe was laid out on top of the bed and a small, non-descript end table sat next to the bed between the door and the headboard with a lamp and telephone on top.

The wardrobe had a few hangers inside, though in typical hotel fashion the number provided seemed to indicate the property anticipated having most guests stay for a limited amount of time as there was really only enough to hang a few day's worth of clothes. Mine was used to hang my trench coat as I was getting zero use out of it for obvious reasons. There was also a safe and an ironing board inside.

The wardrobe also contained a stand for luggage but I used the permanent low shelf under the window by the bench. The bench is where I spent the majority of my time while I was in the room. It was ideally situated next to a window that overlooked the atrium, and for a good portion of the late afternoon and evening bands would play down there. So I could post up on that cushioned bench reading a book after a long day at the beach and listen to live music while an ocean breeze wafted in and out of the room. The cushion was adequate though after an hour or so you'd really want to get up and shift about a bit. Definitely not the most high quality cushion for a lounging option, but ... adequate.

The television was wall-mounted above the mini-fridge. A small, long mirror sat above a relatively tiny desk with a wicker chair. A small coffee/tea maker was placed in the corner of the desk, though I never felt compelled to use it due to the lackluster coffee and tea options it offered.

Directly to the right of the desk was the entrance to the bathroom, proportionally just as small as the main room. Still, it was sufficient to handle my needs for the stay. Directly in front of the entrance was a small vanity with a variety of towels and a large mirror above. The bath products on offer were the standard Westin scent - white tea aloe.

The limited space meant the bathroom could only fit an enclosed shower stall, no bathtub in this room. The toilet was squished into the corner. All perfectly adequate for my needs, though over the two days of my stay I noted that the shower stall wasn't sealed very well along the bottom so water would leak out whenever I showered. I laid out extra towels to combat this, but the small space inside the bathroom also meant that any time you went to use the toilet you had to stand or place your feet in a soggy pile of towels. So a big ole "mehhhh" to the bathroom overall.

While the room was rather small and overall left a bit to be desired, the views were pretty great. The window by the bed overlooked the beach and Pacific Ocean, a clear line of view all the way down the Moana's real estate and up to another iconic hotel on Waikiki - the distinct, hot pink Royal Hawaiian.

The windows by the bench overlooked the atrium behind the hotel where, as mentioned above, music played in the later half of the day. This is something I enjoyed though others may want to take note of if they are averse to live music or outside noise entering their room.

While it looks like there are multiple trees in the atrium, that's actually just one big ass tree.

The real fireworks came at sunset though, where my room was perfectly positioned to view the sun slowly sink into the depths of the ocean.

That's about it for this hotel review. The breakfast options were quite expensive, as were the other dining options, so I ended up eating entirely off the property. Also, while the private beach access was nice it was always very crowded, so I spent all of my beach time further out along Waikiki during this stay, finding quite little areas below shady trees. The only other experience I had with the property was a massage appointment I made with the in-house spa, the Moana Lani, which I will detail in a separate post.

So, with years of anticipation, how did I feel about my stay at the historic Moana Surfrider?

It was pretty good, but like most legends it didn't live up to expectations.

The aesthetic of the entire hotel really worked well for me. If you've read other reviews of hotels I've stayed at, you'll now that I revel in hotels that do a good job of incorporating history and local flair. The Moana excels at both of these elements with its warm tropical woods and vibrant, colorful flowers. While the service wasn't exactly in the style I prefer, I cannot fault anyone I interacted with at the Moana for being anything less than professional and helpful. The room was small but that kind of added to the cozy charm of the whole experience. Plus, as a historic hotel (it's on the National Register of Historic Places), the rooms are bound to be a little smaller. If room size is an issue for you, just make sure you book a room that's in the newer tower where the modern construction is a bit more spacious.

Still, the furnishings and finishes in the room itself seemed quite outdated and even a bit cheap. The lack of proper sealing on the shower stall, the mediocre cushion on the lounging bench, and the bare bones decor inside the room reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than the fabled Moana of Hawaii's history.

All in all, with the right price I would still consider staying at this property again. The element of nostalgia is strong in each person, and this hotel still holds a special place in my heart. While there are things I think could definitely be improved to really up the comfort level in the room and overall customer experience, it was still a good hotel and by far the nicest facility I've stayed at on Oahu in my time as an adult.

So if you're looking for a property with a lot of history and charm, this might be the place for you. Sadly though I would have to say that if you're looking for a truly luxurious five star experience on the shores of Waikiki, you'd probably find a better location elsewhere on the strip or on another part of the island.


Country Count: 70/193

Hello! I'm David - world traveler, food aficionado, gay dude, and storyteller.  This is where I share amazing sights, delicious dishes, LGBT travel advice, & my favorite stories!


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