It’s 9 p.m. in Maalaea Harbor, on Maui’s southern coastline, the sky is as dark as a sleek black dress and everybody is barefoot.
You’d never expect this group of people was here to enter a nightclub, yet here we are, gathered in the harbor, listening to waves crash against the rocks as the Southern Cross twinkles high above the outline of Molokini Crater.
I haven’t been to Maalaea Harbor since the days when I worked on a catamaran cruise taking visitors snorkeling and sailing. In those days, the harbor would teem with tourists in the hour just before sunrise, but tonight it’s actually possible to find parking, the snorkelers have long since left and the festive cluster of people around me is obviously ready to party.
Standing in front of Slip 56 and the Alii Nui catamaran, a deep bass line booms from the cabin of the luxurious, 65-foot boat. Colorful lasers dance in the rigging, illuminating the mast, and, after I’m given my neon necklace and check my shoes at the door, I step aboard one of Maui’s hottest new nightclubs, ready to sail out to sea.
The brainchild of DJ Clarity—one of Maui’s top DJs—Club Alii Nui combines the magic of sailing beneath moonlight with the pulse of a thumping, upscale club that slings premium drinks at the bar.
Something most visitors don’t know about Maui is that dancing is actually illegal at many of the island’s most popular bars. Unless a venue has a dedicated dance floor and extra staff to watch it, dancing is forbidden and the bar can be fined if patrons groove to the beat.
The result is a surprising lack of clubs for an island with over 2 million visitors a year, but Club Alii Nui is fully licensed for promoting itself as a dance hall. The club can accommodate 50 people, the boat is wide and stable, and the party gets wilder, funkier and louder than any Maui cruise.
“If you’re from Maui,” DJ Clarity chimes in over the mic, “you already know you aren’t allowed to dance with a drink in your hand. But we do have these poles right here if you want to get a little bit crazy on the dance floor!”
Sure enough, two metal poles running deck to ceiling are smack in the center of the dance floor, surrounded by a velvet rope monitored by the crew.
Before we’ve even cast off the lines to sail into the inky black darkness, the vibe, like the house beat, has reached a crescendo, in anticipation of the bar opening up once we leave the harbor. I get the feeling a couple of people might end up three sheets to the wind, but, considering round-trip transportation is included from most of the island’s hotels, a crowd is forming around the bar like snorkelers who’ve just found a turtle.
“Feel free to express yourself,” Clarity says, as the lines are cast from the docks. “You’re on Maui, you’re on a boat and you’re probably never going to see these people again.”
Rather than shouldering up to the bar and taking a turn on the pole, I take a lap on the upper deck to drink in the moment of sailing beneath a brilliant canopy of stars. Despite the fact that it’s totally dark, the crew has decided to hoist the mainsail to harness a westerly breeze, and we’re sailing along at 6 knots across seas we can’t even see.
Though the party is raging down in the cabin, I scope out the tucked-away spots where couples can steal a kiss in the moonlight. There’s the aft deck, with its cushioned benches, tables and flickering candles, and the foredeck, where you can channel Jack and Rose while sipping a Jack and Coke.
The whiskey, actually, is Maker’s Mark, which is mixed with lime and ginger ale as part of “The Sailors Ale.” The vodka is Stoli, there’s Bacardi Rum and 1800 Tequila rounds out the selection of premium liquor. Unlike a budget, resort-area “booze cruise,” the drink selection isn’t watered down (yet it’s still an open bar) and the menu of beers has seven different options—four from Maui Brewing Co. There are champagne flutes for sparkling wine, emblazoned with the company’s logo, and rather than having salt on your glass, it wafts on the cooling breeze.
One of the couples I talk to on board are out here as part of a date night; they live on Maui, but, as is the case with most island locals, don’t regularly schedule evenings to dance beneath the stars.
By this point, it’s not the stars, however, that are adding a dash of magic, but the full moon slowly rising behind Haleakala Crater. Almost as if the DJ had slowly turned up one of his spotlights, the eastern sky is illuminated to the point where the mountain’s massive, undulating ridgeline is backlit against the sky.
Noticing the natural lighting outside, couples suddenly flock from the floor in an effort to capture the moonrise—an intoxicating, natural sight with which no disco ball can compare.
Club Alii Nui
Club Alii Nui sails on Friday nights from 9 to 11 p.m. The $99 cover includes transportation and drinks. For more information, call (808) 875-0333 or visit clubaliinui.com.
This article originally appeared in our July/August print issue, Our 50 Favorite Hotels.
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