Three generations ago, a unique Kauai attraction became a must-see for visitors.
Today, the Fern Grotto cruise is a classic, an understated gem of an activity amid all the modern-day hoopla over ziplines, paragliding and whale-watching.
For visitors interested in a smattering of cultural and natural history, hula and old-time Hawaiian music, a few chuckles and stunning scenery, you can’t go wrong with this old standard. It’s also one of the best deals in Hawaii tourism.
The Smith Family’s Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise started in 1946, when Walter Smith Sr. began taking visitors up the river in a rowboat to show them the fern-festooned cavern known to Hawaiians as Mamaakualono.
And to the rest of the world as the Fern Grotto.
Much of the activity on and around the river has changed over the decades.
A modest boat-launch site has become a small harbor, the Wailua Marina.
The rowboat has been supplanted by a small fleet of covered barges, powered by hydraulically controlled engine modules.
Canoes are still common on the river, but while they were once fishing vessels made of wood, they now tend to be racers made of carbon fiber and candy-colored gelcoat. Fleets of plastic rental kayaks cruise the river’s margins.
Even the grotto itself has changed. Alterations in agricultural patterns on the land above have reduced the water flow, but the kupukupu ferns that gave the place its common name still hang from the rock cliffs.
The whole visitor experience is charmingly retro. Smith’s boat captains and entertainers wear matching aloha attire in the Smith family’s kapa pattern. It’s perhaps the one place in Hawaii where visiting couples don’t look out of place in just-bought matching muumuu and aloha shirts.
Boat captains, using the singsong language of tour guides everywhere, identify vegetation along the river, and tell the stories of the mountains and the river.
Old-timers who remember the muddy, narrow trail to the grotto will be surprised by the concrete docks and paved ADA-compatible pathways leading up to a broad planked landing with a view of the ferny cave.
Everyone who comes on the tour is serenaded by the soaring falsettos of “Ke Kali Nei Au,” better known as “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” (That’s thanks to Elvis and his movie Blue Hawaii, much of which was filmed in the Wailua River area).
In addition, there’s hula, accompanied by a guitar, a couple of ukulele, and jokes about the Hawaiian tradition, as the song ends, of kissing the one you’re with.
The pathways leading to the grotto are densely forested with tropical plants, many ornamental and some edible. Visitors rush to stare in wonder at a banana stalk hanging from its host plant, and papayas hanging from their trees.
There’s ti and bamboo, hau and an array of gingers, ape (a taro-like plant) and guava, breadfruit and noni, kukui and traveler’s palm. And lots more.
One of the highlights of the cruise is the moment when the Smith entertainers get everyone up in the aisles of the boat to try to dance hula.
“Oh, we’re going ... ” (hitchhiking gesture).
“To a hukilau ... ” (pulling-net gesture).
“We’ll throw our nets ... ” (two-handed tossing gesture).
All the while, doing two steps to the right, two steps to the left.
Perhaps it’s a little corny, but for almost everyone on the cruise, it is all just fine. As they walk from the boat, most are grinning, a few practicing their swimming-fish hand gestures.
Smith’s Fern Grotto Wailua River Cruise
Boats depart from the Wailua Marina, 174 Wailua Road, Kapaa, (808) 821-6895, www.smithskauai.com. Tours daily from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., $25 adults/$12.50 children.
This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 print issue of HAWAII Magazine.