The popular restaurant that overlooked Kauai’s largest navigable river is planning to close today, ending another chapter of Wailua’s fascinating history.
The Wailua Marina Restaurant was a favorite of locals and visitors for years. Now it will be just another memory people think of when they reminisce about Wailua’s “good ole days.”
Located on Kauai’s Eastside, Wailua is unique, rich in culture and steeped in history. Once considered the undisputed jewel in Kauai’s visitor industry crown, it now teems with a host of diverse ventures and activities spawned to support that industry.
The Wailua ahupua’a (or ancient land division) runs from Mt. Waialeale to Wailua Bay. It was at one time one of Kauai’s two royal centers frequented by alii (chiefs) and their entourages (Waimea on the Westside was the other).
Queen Deborah Kapule was the favorite wife of Kauai’s last king, Kaumualii, until their life together came to an end when he was taken to Oahu as part of a power struggle and became a prisoner of state of Liholiho, Kamehameha II.
During the following years, Deborah converted to Christianity during her colorful life. At one point she became part of an effort to establish a church on the future site of Coco Palms Hotel, which would become a major attraction for visitors and draw moviemakers to the island for years.
The hotel was near the Wailua River, one of Kauai’s five navigable rivers and the only one that could be used by boats larger than a kayak.
A complex of four Wailua heiau and other sites near and along the river were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and incorporated into the Wailua River State Park. Wailua River also provided the only access to the beautiful Fern Grotto.
Seventy years or so ago, Walter Smith started a family tour boat service with a small rowboat and a borrowed motor, and parlayed the fledgling venture into a thriving tour business. Flat-bottomed boats — powered by a unique rear engine system reportedly invented by Smith — transport tourists to the Fern Grotto regularly. Music and hula are part of the trip. Once at the Fern Grotto, which is covered with ferns growing upside down, visitors can tour the cavern and enjoy more entertainment before returning to the Wailua Marina, built to accommodate the increased activity on the river.
Over the years, many people, including locals and visitors, were married at the Fern Grotto in weddings orchestrated, planned and conducted by the Smith family, which also established Smith’s Tropical Paradise on the banks of the river.
The Wailua Marina restaurant became known for its reasonable prices, good food, salad bar and desserts. You could either choose to sit in the restaurant or in the adjacent area that overlooked the river.
Anniversaries, company Christmas parties, birthday luaus, reunions were all held at the Wailua Marina.
A gift shop run by Big Save Inc. also occupied space in the marina, catering to visitors from all over the world, there to experience the Smith’s Boat Tours and visit the Fern Grotto.
My family lived in Wailua for 10 years. We loved the boat tours, and swam at Wailua Beach. My brother was married at the Fern Grotto. We have enjoyed many dinners at Wailua Marina Restaurant and will miss their Stuffed Pork Chops most of all.
Wailua will always be special to everyone who water skis, kayaks, fishes, hikes or catches crabs. And its many business will never be forgotten by those of us who grew up in Wailua and learned to love her.
Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.