Up a Lazy River

Smith’s Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise stands the test of time

By: By Dawna L. Robertson

The Details

Smith’s Kauai
Located off Hwy. 56 at the Wailua River State Park
174 Wailua Rd. Kapaa, HI 96746

Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise
Six daily departures for the one-hour and 20-minute cruise
Adults, $20; children 2 to 12, $10

Smith’s Tropical Paradise 
Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adults, $6; children 2 to 12, $3

"Rhythm of Aloha" Smith Family Garden Luau
Monday, Wednesday and Friday through May. Gate opens at 5 p.m., luau begins at 6 p.m.
Adults, $75; Juniors 7 to 13, $30; Children 3 to 6, $19
Show only — 7:30 p.m.
Adults, $15; children 3 to 12, $7.50
Commission: River cruise and show only, 20 percent; Luau, 25 percent

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When Emily and Walter Smith, Sr. launched their family business in 1947, the concept was simple. They geared their small rowboat with a borrowed outboard motor and puttered off to share Kauai’s rich cultural heritage via cruises up the tranquil Wailua River.


Smith’s has a fleet of 12 open-air river boats. // (c) Smith’s Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise
Smith’s has a fleet of 12 open-air river boats. 

More than four Smith generations later — through floods, droughts, hurricanes and a visitor industry often drawn to a wilder recreational beat — Smith’s Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise has shined brightly as a 60-year tradition. From its modest beginnings, the iconic attraction has flourished to a fleet of 12 open-air river boats and a 30-acre botanical and cultural garden hosting a colorful luau.

Some 20 years had passed since I last journeyed with Smith’s, so I decided to revisit Fern Grotto and scope out the changes. In doing so, I discovered the simple secret to the longevity of this family business. It’s all about a natural, authentic Hawaiian experience that’s geared to all ages — nothing fancy and nothing fabricated.

While Smith’s’ scope has broadened over time, the presentation has remained steady.

"I don’t think the experience has changed or that we should change it much," said Kamika Smith, general manager and grandson of Walter and Emily. "Visitors look for Wailua’s history and legends, and that stays the same. They enjoy the opportunity of discovering this through Hawaiian music and dance performed by locals who are a part of the area."

As our eclectic group drifted along a gentle two-mile journey up Hawaii’s only navigable river, we were treated to tunes and tales of ancient Hawaii. Our host, Uncle Kimo, explained that lands along the river were once the sacred capital of ancient Kauai and the birthplace of the island’s alii, or royalty. He also warned that since Wailua merges with the salty ocean, the water becomes brackish at its mouth.

After a 20-minute voyage, we disembarked for a pleasant trail hike through a lush rainforest to the famed Fern Grotto. It was just as beautiful as I recalled. The only difference was that visitors could no longer enter the cave as in the past.

A month of heavy rains and flooding in 2006 forced operations to cease for roughly one year while safety measures were implemented. Viewing is now done from a platform just beyond the cave opening. Despite the alteration, the Fern Grotto remains among Kauai’s most memorable settings. Here, a trio of musicians, who were likely Smith family members, continued to share the Fern Grotto’s magical past. And as a fitting finale, they performed their rendition of the "Hawaiian Wedding Song," a romantic tune immortalized in 1961 through the Elvis Presley film "Blue Hawaii."

During our return, Uncle Kimo and crew teamed up on popular tunes as passengers chimed in. Cousin Piilani danced hula while Uncle Willie strummed his ukulele. Then everyone jumped in on the act as Cousin Piilani staged a quick hula lesson. Swaying much less fluidly than our graceful instructor, our awkward moves generated more laughter than applause.

The Wailua River State Park site is also home to the 30-acre Smith’s Tropical Paradise and Rhythm of Aloha Smith Family Garden Luau with its Polynesian extravaganza.

The buffet-style feast has remained an island favorite for its imu ceremony revealing the kalua pig as it’s removed from the underground oven.

"Ours is a longstanding tradition with a family feel – especially since so many of our family members walk around talking story with the guests," Smith said. "We always insist they try the poi and eat, eat, eat. After all, that’s the real spirit of a luau."