It’s one of those days in the heart of Hanalei when the surrounding environment is in a mood for asserting its power over everyone’s best-laid plans. A majestic bulwark of mountains heaves rain and wind into the verdant valley, and it’s likely that rainbows and waterfalls will burst forth any moment. Sightseers scurry by, searching for ways to salvage their outings and connect with Hanalei’s staggering beauty. “Hey, folks,” I feel like shouting from my vantage on the lānai of the Tahiti Nui, “what you are looking for is right here!”
I have come back to the Nui because of its sturdiness. When I first got to know the place back in the 1980s, this quality appealed to me even more than the mai tais and the impromptu dance floor between whatever tables we pushed out of the way when the bands got rollicking. Sturdiness was something I felt emanating from the light fixtures caged in fish traps, the thatched walls, the brightly painted coconuts and other décor crafted from materials straight from land and sea. Needless to say, the Tahiti Nui regulars were a sturdy bunch, too, perennially seated at the horse-shoe-shaped bar, opining on local affairs like a Hawai‘i version of a Greek chorus.
I always knew that the pulse of the Nui’s sturdiness beat strongest in the presence of its original proprietor. Back in the 1980s Auntie Louise was easily the most famous woman on Kaua‘i’s north shore. Flamboyant always in her outrageously red mu‘umu‘u, the Tahitian native seemed to embody the sturdiness of her ancestors, the intrepid men and women who sailed thousands of miles in voyaging canoes to Hawai‘i. And this came in handy at her bar, because whatever happened in Hanalei ﬂowed full-force into the Nui. At any moment there could be a huge wedding party, a bunch of punchy drunks or both. The word on the coconut wireless was that Auntie Louise could “handle.” And so could the Nui.
Louise Teupootehereii Hauata Marston, a.k.a. Auntie Louise, hired Julia Whitford as a bartender more than thirty years ago. Auntie Louise passed away in 2003, but Julia is still there. Skidding to a halt between drink deliveries, she tells me how Auntie Louise built a clientele of both locals and visitors from the first day she opened the watering hole in 1963; how she strummed her theme song, “Tahiti Nui” (“big Tahiti”), to welcome music-making and hula-dancing Hawaiian aunties and uncles for Sunday afternoon jams; how she used gentle humor to put Jimmy Carter at ease the time he came calling; how she took everything in stride and treated everyone equally—except for bad drunks, whom she would throw out with a schoolmarmish scolding.
How old school, I think, noting that the Nui’s style, simple as the scrubbed plywood floors beneath our feet, was such a gem it was splashed across the silver screen in the 2011 movie The Descendants. Nui regulars were cast as themselves in a pivotal scene shot in the bar, which also played itself. No makeup or wardrobe was needed to make the regulars—hardy products of the Hanalei elements—look their part.
Julia played the bartender, and she had a speaking part with leading man George Clooney. Now, she says, people come in every day asking her, “What was he like?” So, I ask, what was he like? She gives me the spiel: respectful, curious about Hanalei and considerate enough of her initial nervousness to serenade her with the song“Julia.” Speaking for herself as well as the other extras/regulars (like the retired handyman who comes in every day to enjoy his Budweiser and crossword puzzles), she says they all would have been at the Nui that day anyway. Still, many of the regulars who appeared in the movie, herself included, missed their own movie debut because it’s too far to drive to Kaua‘i’s one movie theater.
I realize that the interesting question is not how the brush with celebrity affected the Nui (it has bolstered business) but how a brush with the Nui has affected celebrities. One answer comes from Christian Marston Sr., son of Auntie Louise and the middle of three Marston generations to own and operate the Nui. Drenched by rain, he ducks into a shelter at Hanalei bay, where he has hauled up his canoe. Tahiti Nui is like a de facto community center swirling out to Hanalei ocean waters, where Tahitian-born Christian has coached outrigger canoe clubs for decades. Last week on these waters Christian led The Descendants costar Beau Bridges and his children on a paddling expedition. Three generations of Marstons and Bridgeses have bonded, starting with Beau’s father, Lloyd Bridges, of TV’s Sea Hunt fame, who met Auntie Louise and was smitten by the hand-sewn, extra-thick Tahitian-style lei she bestowed upon him whenever he arrived or departed. She explained the custom to a young Christian, saying, “People will always remember this and return.”
Christian tells this story to explain why he and his children are committed to perpetuating Auntie Louise’s legacy (except for the labor-intensive lei-making). He says visitors come to Hanalei not only for the scenery but to be among the people who “ask for little and are not afraid to share what they have.” Louise, one of eleven siblings raised on a remote Tahitian island, was rooted in this generosity culturally. But it’s something that also comes naturally to most people in this valley. “It’s the aloha code which keeps Hanalei as Hanalei,” Christian says.
The Nui used to be my umbrella-drink pit stop before attempting the hike into Kalalau Valley, or “11.1 miles in and 30,000 years back,” as my old tie-dyed t-shirt described the wilderness trek (maybe that’s why I never completed the hike). It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the next best thing to seeing Kalalau is the Nui’s Monday night featured musician, Mike Keale. If Kalalau valley could sing, it would sound like him. Members of Mike’s extended family were some of the last Hawaiians to live in Kalalau. They spoke Hawaiian and were fluent in the poetry of lyrics packed with meaning and the understanding that the land and the human body are expressions of the same life. Moments into his set, while introducing a song about the mokihana tree, Mike reveals that he, too, has his Hawaiian family flair for poetry. “This is Kaua‘i’s signature plant, made into lei by gently wrapping and twisting together the leaves as if they are the bodies of two lovers,” he says, summoning to his side his hula dancer wife to perform with him. “My dear sweetheart,” he calls her.
Tuesday night, forget the slow sway. You’ve heard the expression “Got my mojo workin’” Tapuarii Laughlin, better known as Tapu, is onstage and has his toere goin’, striking with propulsive rhythm the hollowed-out log and hitting high-pitched mandolin-like notes on his Tahitian ‘ukulele. It’s the rhythm of life, as Tapu knew it growing up in Tahiti, where “every house has a canoe in the yard and a ‘ukulele in every room.” A recording artist with eight albums to his name, he tells me during his break that he wants to uplift Hawai‘i audiences with Tahitian energy, which he describes in a word as “dynamic.” He credits Auntie Louise—“a real roots Tahitian lady you don’t mess with,” he says—for staging what feels to him like a reunion of Tahitians and Hawaiians, who are like siblings from the same Polynesian parent. And to think she accomplished this not with a canoe, but with music. This explains to me why the homegrown music I’ve long enjoyed at the Nui has felt sturdier than the steel Hanalei Bridge in connecting me with a larger world.
Tahiti Nui general manager Nanea Marston Correa closes down shop weekdays at 10 p.m.—not 2 a.m.—as her grandma Auntie Louise did. Nanea describes her grandma as a “crazy-tough lady” driven to work hard by her passion for sharing her Tahitian roots. But passion may have blinded Louise to caring for herself and to the details of operating a business; in the wake of her unexpected death, the bar she’d built was beset by battles in probate court and a reputation for rowdiness. At its helm since 2011, Nanea has revamped the Nui to fulfill what she believes was Louise’s ultimate dream of operating a family place—make that a Tahitian family place, says Nanea, hinting at something more chaotic and slightly messier than a mainstream family place. “Grandma loved to eat, and she could nibble away at a whole fish with her hands and make it look so delicious,” says Nanea. This explains the origins of the ambrosia-like poisson cru and other Auntie Louise favorites that I order from the revamped Nui menu, which offers trendy fare for foodie palates alongside South Seas staples like banana cooked in coconut milk.
Nanea and her immediate family live in the rambling house in back of the Nui—home to various configurations of the Marstons’ extended family for fifty years. It’s like a family store, where kids roll out of bed and onto the job. As a teen in the lū‘au room, she had on-the-job training as a Tahitian dancer in the Polynesian shows, but on numerous visits to grandma’s village in Tahiti, she also learned the wisdom of making your job something larger than your paycheck. “Music and dance are so integrated into life in Tahiti,” Nanea says. “Every day ends with it. You move with freedom and want to be there always.”
The Nui is going off tonight. It’s standing-room-only, and it feels like the whole cast is here. I’ve got my old Hanalei friends in tow, and someone points out the 94-year-old taro farmer who still works in the field across the road and still comes to the Nui for a pau hana beer or two. We’ve ordered too many of the Nui’s Tiki Man Pizzas, and soon we are passing plates around the bar. We speak Spanish to a Peruvian contingent on our right and coo over cute cell-phone pictures of pets with kids proffered by a Maui couple to our left. They are here celebrating their second honeymoon—or is it their second baby? It’s hard to hear.
Later, the houselights go down. The dinner tables are gone with the dinner crowd. A new bunch files in, motley to the max, running the demographic gamut. The same can be said of their dance style once the band fires up with Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself.” It takes me back to my Jawaiian days at the Nui, when I came here as part of a posse united in the belief that we could change the world for the better with the power of our passion for homegrown music.
In occasional lulls between songs, I am high-fiving strangers and high-fiving the band. The band yields the stage to a young woman who belts out “Aloha ‘Oe,” a song of farewell taught to her by her auntie, she explains. But she sings it her way, with a loping beat, and suddenly we are all slow dancing in a circle—arms raised above our heads—sort of silly, but we mean it.
We might want to know about each other, but it seems we have already broken the ice with so much warmth. It would be redundant to ask, “Where are you from?” I am here in Tahiti Nui doing my part—contributing to a lei of memories helping to hold Hanalei together. We will come back just for the joy of it, because we remember. Right, Auntie Louise? HH