By Léo Azambuja
I’m not quite sure what was the first Hawaiian word I ever learned. It was either aloha or lu‘au. Or perhaps I learned both at the same time. I just know they stuck in my head since my teen years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Because my dad had a friend named Claudia Ohana, the third Hawaiian word I learned was ‘ohana, which means family.
Growing up in Rio, a lu‘au meant a party at the beach, mostly at night. Sometimes there was a bonfire involved, but there was always food, usually fruits, and some cheap red wine in a gallon-size glass bottle wrapped in wicker passing around. If we were lucky enough, someone would bring a guitar.
On Kaua‘i, as a young adult, I was finally introduced to my first real lu‘au. I’m not talking about a pā‘ina, a feast celebrated with family and friends, but the kind of lu‘au catered to the visitor industry.
It’s easy to overlook and even dismiss the aloha, the hard work and the cultural dedication put into a lu‘au catered to visitors. Sure, there’s nothing cultural in the all-you-can-drink and eat-until-you-drop aspects of a lu‘au. You may surrender to them, and that’s OK. But visitors will also get introductory lessons in Hawaiian foods and culture, and watch hula on a stage for the first — and sometimes last — time.
And truth be told, there is always deep, genuine beauty in hula, regardless if it is performed for a paying or a non-paying audience. Its beauty gets even richer as you start learning the deep layers of stories hidden in every dance.
From all the lu‘au I attended over almost three decades on Kaua‘i — and I love them all for different reasons — I would pick Smith’s Family Garden Luau as my favorite.
The really cool thing to me is that the Smith’s Luau has been a family-owned business operating since 1985; that’s 33 years. If you consider the time when the Smith ‘ohana used to offer a lu‘au onboard their boat tours, you can add 20 years to that number. The boat tour itself, a ride up the river to the Fern Grotto, started even earlier, in 1946. So the family business as a whole is more than 70 years old.
That’s impressive; especially considering many of the other lu‘aus offered on the island are productions backed by large hotels and resorts, often with a high cost. Meanwhile, the origins the Smith’s Family Garden Luau trace back to a tiny boat tour operated by a couple, Walter Smith Sr. and his wife, Emily, in 1946. More than seven decades later and four generations down the line, the business continues to be owned by the same Hawaiian family.
Those running the show, immediate descendants of Smith Sr., could probably hire a few managers and take a step back from all the work. But they are there every night. You can catch Walter “Kamika” Smith III on the lu‘au grounds on a daily basis, greeting guests, explaining cultural practices, chatting with guests, bussing tables and playing the ukulele onstage. Never mind that Kamika also doubles as a general manager for the entire operation.
Kamika’s parents, brothers and several other family members also work for the business. No one is afraid of bussing tables, serving food or drinks when needed, and especially chatting with the guests, making them feel at home.
The lu‘au operates five days a week during the summer, drops to four days in the fall, and three days in the winter. They have a capacity for 500 guests, and it’s common for an entire week to be booked in advance.
Between the lu‘au and the boat tours, the Smith family employs about 140 people, with 10 percent of their payroll being direct descendants of Smith Sr. Because the businesses are catered to visitors, and are owned and operated by local residents, the majority of the money made here comes from abroad and stays on the island.
On an island where large corporations profit heavily from the visitor industry, a family-owned business at this scale is a good reminder that anything is possible when you put aloha in your work. This is exactly — and pretty much literally — what the Smith ‘ohana does on a daily basis.
The fourth Hawaiian word I learned was mahalo. So here goes my mahalo to the Smith ‘ohana for operating a successful lu‘au that for so many years has brought aloha to visitors and helped to put food on the table for so many local families.