By Léo Azambuja
More than 70 years ago, a British immigrant and his Hawaiian wife rode the changing tides of the Islands’ economy by opening a small boating tour for visitors in Wailua River. Over the years, the business would grow and split into four branches, one of which has become one of the most well-known lu‘aus on Kaua‘i.
Today, Smith’s Family Garden Luau draws a full house almost every night; 500 people, to be exact. The guests, mostly visitors, are given a basic introduction to Hawaiian culture and food on the banks of Wailua River, under the view of the iconic Sleeping Giant mountain.
“We were one of the first lu‘aus that happened (on Kaua‘i),” said Walter “Kamika” Smith III, general manager of the Smith’s Family Garden Luau.
Kamika is the third of four generations of the Smith’s family who have worked on the lu‘au. His grandparents, Walter Smith Sr. and Emily, started the family business in 1946 by opening a small boat tour on Wailua River. Today, the family’s businesses include the lu‘au, the boat tours, a tropical garden next to the lu‘au and a light industrial area in Kapahi.
In the 1960s, the Smith ‘ohana (family) started offering lu‘aus on the boat tours, with a show at the Fern Grotto up the river. The Wailua River Cruise boat tours are still operating, but the lu‘aus on the boats ended in 1985, when the Smith’s Family Garden Luau officially opened at its current location.
Guests arrive at the property at 5 p.m., and are taken on a tram ride through Smith’s Tropical Paradise, a 30-acre botanical and cultural garden where chickens, ducks and peacocks roam freely. As the ride comes to an end, guests are treated to a Hawaiian conch-blowing protocol next to an imu pit, or Hawaiian underground oven.
“The lu‘au starts with the imu ceremony. At that point, we introduce the family,” Kamika said. “We explain the whole family history, where my great-grandpa was the one who came over from England, fell in love with a Hawaiian lady, and that’s how we got the name ‘Smith’ for our family.”
Then a whole pig — one of four cooked for the evening — is lifted out of the imu, where it had been cooking since morning.
“We go into the cultural part, explaining the imu,” Kamika said. The imu pit may have been made with modern materials, but the cooking method is pretty close to old Hawaiian ways: heated lava rocks lining the bottom of the pit, banana and ti leaves surrounding the pig, and hot lava rocks inside the pig.
Some people love to watch and learn how Hawaiians used to cook, Kamika said, while others get grossed out seeing a whole cooked pig.
“We explain everything, and a lot of people are interested. They want to learn about the culture,” he said.
Next, everyone is directed to the Lu‘au House, where they enjoy live music, all-inclusive mai tais, beer and wine, and an large selection of local dishes — kalua pork, fresh Hanalei poi, lomi-lomi salmon, Chinese fried rice, teriyaki beef, sweet and sour mahi mahi, chicken adobo, namasu, sweet potatoes, as well as salads and a variety of desserts.
Dinner is eaten on long lu‘au-style tables, where you have no choice but to mingle with fellow guests. Some of the more adventurous guests get up on the stage and try hula under the direction of the entertainers.
After dinner, a short walk to the Lagoon Theater takes guests to the last portion of the evening, an hour-long show portraying Hawaiian hula and other Polynesian dances such as Tahitian, Samoan fire-knife and New Zealand’s Maori. They also celebrate some ethnicities that came to Hawai‘i during the plantation era, by portraying a Japanese dance and a Filipino bamboo dance. The idea of the show is to commemorate the various people who came here to make Hawai‘i their home, Kamika said.
There are many lu‘au shows on Kaua‘i, and each is so unique that it may be unfair to pick any as the best one. But Smith’s Family Garden Luau definitely raises the bar a notch by the starting with Hawaiian Goddess Pele coming out of an erupting volcano crater. The special effects are “splashy,” as Kamika put it, and this initial part of the show tells the story of how the Hawaiian Islands were formed.
“It’s a little kind of like Disney, but then we get back into the culture after that,” he said. “True to the culture is our main thing.”
The roots of the Smith’s Luau go back many decades, not too long after World War II ended in 1945. Before the United States entered the war in 1941, large sugar and pineapple plantations powered the Islands’ economy, and tourism was still mostly for the wealthy. Though the plantations took a hit during the war years, they quickly recovered in the following years. But the shift in the economy was already set in motion during the war, when commerce and building industry boomed to cater to hundreds of thousands of incoming military personnel.
Over the next half-century following the end of WWII, the large plantations would gradually dwindle, while the visitor industry would slowly and steadily gain ground. Smith Sr. himself used to work at the old pineapple cannery in Kapahi, and started his boat tour business only a year after the war.
When Smith Sr. and his wife, Emily, opened the Wailua River boat tours in 1946, they would take guests on a small rowboat powered by a borrowed motor. As the boat tours grew, Smith Sr. designed wide and stable boats fitted with a motor on a separate, smaller floating platform behind the boats, so the passengers would have a smoother ride away from the engine’s fumes. Those are the same style of boats that are still in operation today.
In the late 1960s, the company started offering lu‘aus on the boat tours. Guests were served Hawaiian food, and musicians played along the ride to the Fern Grotto, where lu‘au shows were performed. Several Hawaiian musicians got a head start in their careers by singing and playing on the boat tours.
During those early days of the Wailua River boat tours, a company called Paradise Pacifica offered a Polynesian lu‘au in the garden next to Wailua Marina. In the early 1980s, after Paradise Pacifica shut down, Kamika’s family secured a lease for the property and in 1985 held the first Smith’s Family Garden Luau there.
Kamika said their first lu‘aus were small; only about 30 people would come. The whole event used to be held in the Lu‘au House, where the guests now eat dinner before the show at the Lagoon Theater. Eventually, the show was moved to the theater, and the dinner remained at the Lu‘au House.
Always thinking ahead, Smith Sr. invested on the property where he once worked, the old cannery in Kapahi. Kamika said his grandfather wanted to have a plan B in case the tourism industry faltered. The family still owns the property.
Smith Sr. and his wife have passed away years ago. But his family continues their legacy. Walter Smith Jr., Smith Sr.’s son and Kamika’s father, still works on the lu‘au, though he has slowed down for health reasons. Kamika’s mother, brothers, cousins and many other relatives also work in the family business. Out of approximately 140 employees working for the lu‘au and boat tours, about 10 percent are immediate family, Kamika said. The rest are what he calls extended family.
The lu‘au is catered mostly to visitors, but the Smith’s ‘ohana loves when locals come and experience the show as well. They offer a 50 percent kama‘aina discount for Kaua‘i residents and their entire party, even if they are not Kaua‘i residents — a sweet deal at $48.
“If you have friends or family visiting the island, come to the lu‘au,” Kamika said. “Our price includes cocktails, dinner and show, and you learn about your home island as well. And then you get to meet other people from around the world.”
Kamika says he sees his family as “keepers of the culture,” by offering the lu‘au and the river boat tours. His grandfather wrote a book, now out-of-print, about the legends from Wailua area. His main thing, Kamika said, was to share the rich culture of Wailua. For locals who want to experience the boat tours, it’s free.
“It keeps the culture alive,” he said of his family businesses. “If you stop doing those kinds of things, (our culture) might get lost. It kind of wanes and weaves into other cultures and gets lost.”
Smith’s Family Garden Luau is on the banks of Wailua River. You can get there by entering the road immediately south of Wailua Bridge. Call (808) 821-6895 or visit www.smithskauai.com for more information and reservations.