Ships’ passengers have new show in town

From a modest show for crowds of 200, to a state-of-the-art extravaganza for 900, the lu‘au at Kilohana Plantations in Puhi has seen some changes lately.

The twice-weekly show and dinner once open to the public has been expanded into a theatrical lu‘au now reserved three times a week for Norwegian Cruise Line passengers. In fact, the expansion was proposed and funded in large part by the cruise ship’s parent company, NCL America, to entertain passengers stopped overnight on Kaua‘i.

After fours months of construction, the once-cozy carriage house now opens to a 20,000-square-foot tented ballroom. More than 90 tables seating 10 or more fill the space, which has four corner stages, a round stage on wheels in the middle of the room and a $350,000 sound and lighting system.

“It really doesn’t matter where you sit in the room, you’ve got a pretty good seat,” Atkins said.

The evening’s entertainment, now called Lu‘au Kalamaku, has also grown to include a 45-minute theatrical performance with a storyline after the traditional lu‘au dinner show. Atkins said the cast has almost doubled to 45.

Prior to the main event, guests have time to peruse the estate grounds, visit with local artisans and crafters, play Hawaiian games, purchase local wares or ride the Kaua‘i Plantation Railway.

According to Fred Atkins of Kaua‘i Kilohana Partners, NCL has a long-term contract to use the space regularly. He said in past years, Kilohana hosted events for 700 or more people about once a quarter.

But the decision to go big, while largely based on NCL’s idea and promised business, has not meant the end of a Kaua‘i-made production. One of Atkins’ two stipulations before proceeding with the project was that the show’s entire cast is from Kaua‘i.

“Fred (Atkins) really made Kaua‘i a big part of this,” said Russell Talvi, president of Gaylord’s at Kilohana.

Atkins said it was important for the show to draw from the local talent.

“They’re just as good as anyone in the state,” he said.

Moreover, all construction was completed by a 100 percent local crew, and only the tent and fire alarm system were brought in from elsewhere.

Talvi noted that he was nervous at first about increasing the catering staff from 20 to more than 40, considering Kaua‘i’s small workforce, but ended up with more applications than jobs and a mature and qualified culinary and serving staff.

As for Atkins’ second stipulation, he requested that a massive mango tree on the grounds remain untouched. Construction took place around it and the tree exits the tent through a large opening. Atkins said there are some issues with the rain, but that’s the price paid to preserve it. Even a large branch that was removed has been recycled and incorporated into the display. Local artist Fred Zollinger carved a traditional canoe from a 12-foot-long piece of wood, and it now hangs from the tree.

The larger venue and more elaborate show opened for cruise guests April 5, with a grand opening for the public on April 25. Atkins said he thought they had gotten it right after a standing ovation from cruise ship passengers the first night. But when community members also rose to their feet last Friday, he said he knew they got it right.

“She’s hit the most important market for us,” Atkins said of Haunani Asing Marston, the show’s producer.

Marston’s company, NH Productions, won the bid to produce the show. While not required, Marston decided to hire the old show’s cast members for the new act.

While the new show and facility are a joint venture with NCL, Atkins said there are plans to open it up to the public once traffic issues are resolved. NCL provides eight buses that shuttle the cruise passengers back and forth, posing very little traffic concerns. Events for the general public, however, can bring hundreds of cars to the estate and cause problems as drivers try to exit onto Kaumuali‘i Highway without the help of a stop light.

Atkins said until one is installed, large shows for the community will be on hold. But the venue is available for booking by outside groups and organizations, and on May 11, Kilohana will host the Expedia.com Kaua‘i World Challenge paddlers.

NCL brings the overwhelming majority of cruise passengers to the island, and is the only line that makes overnight stops on Kaua‘i.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism reported 41,637 visitors to Kaua‘i by cruise ship in March alone. And of the 19 scheduled passenger and cruise vessels that arrived at Nawiliwili Harbor that month, 14 were NCL ships that stayed overnight. While the Kilohana facility was not up and running for those passengers in March, there is a similar number of voyages scheduled for the coming months.

Denise Hayashi, director of community relations for NCL America, said the 800 to 1,000 people expected to partake in the lu‘au comprise half of the ship’s passengers.

With 2,000 to 3,000 cruise passengers leaving the Kalapaki area each week for dinner and entertainment at Kilohana, it is unclear what effect, if any, this will have on businesses near the port.

The Garden Island attempted to contact owners and managers of seven area eateries, but calls were not returned by press time.

• Blake Jones, business writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com.

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