Melodies and Memories
When she was growing up, Haunani Kaui found joy serenading visitors with Hawaiian music on her family’s tiny rowboat as they sailed down Wailua River to Fern Grotto. Her grandparents, Emily and Walter Smith Sr., started the Fern Grotto Wailua River cruise in 1947.
“In our era, it was exciting,” she reminisces. “We didn’t care if we were paid, we just wanted to do it and have fun.”
Today, the family business, Smith’s Kauai, has grown to include more than a dozen large vessels that still ferry people to the cave dripping in fern. And while Kaui left her family’s business in 1980 to work as a musician for a cruise line, she fondly remembers the time.
“It just was a musical family; all the aunties and uncles, we’d just have a jam session,” she says.
Kaui is sentimental about her Fern Grotto days. And even though those days of gently floating down the river are gone, she’s still entertaining audiences with her sweet melodies. The multi-talented musician — who plays a number of instruments (all self-taught) including guitar, ukulele, upright bass and piano — loves what she does so much, she books gigs seven days a week.
“Singing is what I do,” says the Kapaa High School graduate who regularly performs at various venues, including Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa.
One of her favorite places to sing is Lihue Airport. “When they (travelers) come through the TSA gate, they’re all mad and I’m like the calm,” she says with a smile.
What makes Kaui’s performances even more special is that she likes to engage her audience. “I love to meet people,” she says.
Because she has a close connection to her Hawaiian ancestry, thanks to her grandmother Emily’s influence, she is inspired to share the culture with others.
“The first time people come here, they don’t know what’s going on and some people don’t want to tell them.
But I do. I love to share,” says Kaui, who mostly plays Hawaiian music but sometimes other genres like reggae.
“Haunani is not just a musician, she is an entertainer; when she plays in front of people she has an incredible ability to engage her audience,” says Mara Melton, Kaui’s manager and friend. “Most nights you will not only get a short history about the songs she is playing, but you also will get a lesson in Hawaiian history along with great music.”
Kaui’s generous spirit extends even beyond music. “If you’re sitting next to me, you’re probably going to get asked if you want some food,” she says. “I love to share. I love to share my culture, my food.”
She loves sharing so much, in fact, that she never says no to a job.
“I love to work. I like to move,” she says. It’s a characteristic she also credits to Emily, who worked for the family business making her famous mai tais until she was 97 years old.
Though Kaui has obviously found the same kind of passion, she wasn’t always so sure what direction she wanted to take in life. At one point, she thought she wanted to be a police officer and attended Kauai Community College in the late 1970s in hope of achieving this goal.
“But, I don’t know, I graduated with a degree and I was ready to go, but I had a different calling,” she says.
Shortly thereafter, she set sail as a Hawaiian music artist with American Hawaii Cruises that had ships that traveled around the Islands, requiring her to live at sea. “When I came back, everybody would ask where I’d been and I’d tell them, ‘The Love Boat,'” she laughs.
In 2002, she continued singing for guests on a different line, Celebrity Cruises, but finally dropped her anchor permanently on Kauai in 2008. “It’s another world out there,” she says.
She still misses that world from time to time, but her lifestyle on the ship often entailed long nights and mornings lost to sleep. These days, she’s excited to get up early in the morning and discover what’s in store for her.
“Life — you never know what’s going to happen,” she says.
Visit haunanikaui.com for more information.