The Brancatelli File



October 1, 1989 -- Overbuilt in recent years with nondescript high-rise concrete towers, Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach has reached into the past for a refreshingly old-fashioned antidote: the lavishly renovated Moana Hotel.

Beneficiary of 20 months of exacting restoration at a cost of $50 million, the beaux arts and Italian renaissance Moana might be more compelling today than when it opened in 1901 as Waikiki’s first hotel. Although cramped now by postwar urban sprawl, it is still an oasis. The six-story wooden palace welcomes visitors with a columned porte cochere. Its chandeliered, coffered-ceiling lobbies open to the Pacific. It has porthole windows, a grand central atrium and ocean-view roof gardens.

Sheraton reopened the Moana in the spring as part of its Sheraton Moana Surfrider resort complex, which also includes the old Surfrider Hotel. (Over the years, the Surfrider has been housed in two higher-rise wings, one dating to 1952 and the other to 1969.) It restored the original Moana using old photographs and hotel memorabilia collected through ads in Honolulu newspapers.

The result is a combination of old-style Hawaiian spirit and modern-day amenities. A lobby sofa was once owned by a 19th-century Hawaiian monarch, and there are exquisite replica turn-of-the-century antique tables crafted of rare native koa wood. The hotel’s Historical Room, which is nearing completion, will display nine decades of Moana memorabilia.

As in the past, the guestroom furniture in the Moana’s central section is constructed with a different wood on every floor: Oak, cherry, mahogany, maple or koa. The renovated rooms have Japanese robes, mini-bars and bedside controls for the audio/video and security systems and for summoning the maid. Italian linen floor mats that say Good Morning and Sweet Dreams in Hawaiian are placed beneath each bed.

Sheraton extended the Moana restoration to the Banyan Court, form which the Hawaii Calls radio program was broadcast for 40 years. The centerpiece of the three-tiered court is a 75-foot, 104-year-old banyan tree with a 150-foot spread of branches. Drinks are served on the broad, teak-floored Banyan Veranda. A freshwater pool, snack bar and cocktail area occupy the beach level.

Through December 20, rates at the Sheraton Moana Surfider begin at $170 for a double room. For reservations, call 800-334-8484. Request a room in the Banyan Wing, the section of the resort encompassing the original Moana structure.

The restoration of the Moana is good news. But some other breezes wafting from Waikiki are not as felicitous. Encouraged by the super-strong yen, free-spending Japanese tourists are flocking to Waikiki and merchants have responded by jacking up the price of everything from hotel rooms to snack foods.

Here are some arbitrary but representative examples: The Halekulani, featured in the January issue of Travel & Leisure, charges $190 for its lowest-priced room and $425 for its smallest suite; last year’s rates were $175 and $350, respectively. The Aston Waikiki Beach Tower condo hotel charges $239 for a one-bedroom suites; last year’s price was $199. “Crazy Shirts” T-shirts, $14 last fall, were priced at $15 in the winter catalogue and now cost $16 in the chain’s Hawaii shops. Island Tan charges $10.50 for a half-ounce atomizer of its gardenia-scented cologne. The same item was just $8.50 last year. And Hawaii Country Store, a gourmet shop, now charges $2.99 for 7-ounce bags of Original Maui Kitch’n Cook’d Potato Chips. Last summer it charged $1.99.

“Nothing’s priced for Americans anymore,” one frequent Waikiki visitor was told by a clerk when he protested the $10 increase in the price of Hawaiian shirts. “All the prices are for the Japanese. Cost doesn’t matter to them.”

However infuriating, Waikiki’s skyrocketing prices are understandable. The Hawaii Visitor Bureau says tourist traffic from the U.S. mainland peaked in 1986, dropped 2 percent in 1987 and another 1 percent last year. But the number of visitors from Japan is increasing by 20 percent annually. More to the point, the average Japanese tourist in Waikiki spends about four times more per day than the average American visitor.

“Welcome to the New World,” snapped the bilingual manager of a Waikiki boutique that recently changed its English-language sign to Japanese and junked its stock of $14.99 ukuleles in favor of $95 designer ties. “The Japanese have the money and they spend it on anything with a brand name. And compared to the prices back home, everything here is cheap.”

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.