La Mariana Sailing Club: Honolulu's Last Old School Tiki Bar
Tiki doesn’t get more authentic than this out-of-the-way Hawaiian gem.
All photos by Keith Allison.
The bar is bathed in the red and blue glow of glass lights and illuminated puffer fish. Behind the counter, along with the booze, is a cabinet full of vintage tiki mugs. It has the look of a place with a jumble that has grown organically over the years, rather than having been planned or expertly decorated. The bartender is a guy named Uncle Wayne, and he's mixing up a couple of Mai Tais beneath a screen tuned to the University of Hawaii football team's season opener. The drinks are good—strong but balanced. Sitting on the stool to my right is a guy with a hook for a hand.
This is La Mariana Sailing Club.
At first you might think you've taken a wrong turn. Somewhere between the H1 and Nimitz Highway, you must have missed something, because here you are, closer to the airport than the beach at Waikiki, surrounded not by the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider but by dark, sinister-looking warehouses, lights out and shutters down for the evening. Driving slowly down the Sand Island Access Road, your sneaking suspicion that Google Maps steered you wrong grows. Thankfully, there's not much traffic in this industrial part of town after hours. Convinced that you must have missed something, but with your GPS insisting you're close, you double back, even slower this time. Maybe this wasn't a job for modern technology. Maybe you should have relied on a weathered old parchment map.
And then, finally, creeping along, you see a small, unobtrusive sign for La Mariana Sailing Club, pointing you down a pot-holed road that is, at best, partially paved. Perhaps remembering a horror story that begins (or ends) like this, you make the turn, and then, finally, there it is: a gloriously ramshackle old building strung with lights and with a parking lot flanked on either side by signs warning you not to trespass on government property. The surroundings may be grim, but once you're out of your car, there's no mistaking the noise. There's a party going on.
The Legend of La Mariana
Annette La Mariana Nahinu was born in Brooklyn in 1922. By her own telling, she married a famous star of silent film, though she always refused to say who he was. It didn't last, whatever the case, and after their divorce, Annette remarried, this time to a New Zealander named Johnny Campbell. With him, she embarked on a life of leisurely adventure, sailing the Pacific until the two of them ended up on Oahu. Unfortunately for the daring young sailors, they found Honolulu was an expensive place to tie up a boat. So they did what any enterprising young couple smelling of salt and sea air would do: decided to open their own marina, one that would offer inexpensive slips for people like them. In 1955, the two established the La Mariana Sailing Club, along the shores of Keehi Lagoon.
There they moored and, if not exactly prospered, certainly carved out a niche for themselves. La Mariana weathered a typhoon and the eventual dissolution of Annette's marriage, but twenty years after dropping anchor, the ramshackle sailing club was evicted from its longtime location. Annette found a new spot—a recently vacated junkyard just a little ways up the shore—and as she tells it in the Club's official history: "“A herculean effort was expelled and within three days we moved the clubhouse, 20 docks, 30 boats, 83 palm trees, and a monkey pod tree fifteen feet high, a shower tree eighteen feet high, flowering shrubs, plants, hedges, etc., etc.”
Since then, La Mariana's sailing has hardly been smooth, but it's still afloat despite numerous brushes with having to permanently close up shop. But like the underdog it is, it always manages to beat the odds, one way or another. Today, it is an oasis in Honolulu's industrial outskirts, a tiki bar onto whose shores has washed the flotsam of other, bigger, more famous tiki spots as, one by one, they succumb to changing tastes and went out of business. La Mariana's interior is a de facto museum of Hawaiian tiki decor, filled with artifacts: carved tikis from the Sheraton’s Kon Tiki Room, rattan chair from Don the Beachcomber’s, pufferfish lamps from Trader Vic’s.
The gift shop, which they will happily open for you upon request even if the restaurant is busy, is stocked with modern tiki art's finest, including a steady rotation of originals by local tiki mug legend Gecko. "Shortly after Annette had passed away," Gecko says, "I received an email from La Mariana telling me their interests in getting tiki mugs... I've been making them since and was very happy that my favorite tiki bar was getting its own tiki mug… and best of all I got to make it."
Location, age, and attitude have given La Mariana something rare in the world of tiki bars: a gritty, well-earned sense of authenticity. As Gecko tells it, "It's still somewhat of a hidden gem—and it's where I asked my wife to marry me. They have beautiful relics from Hawaii's best tiki bars from da past like da South Seas, Trader Vics, Sheraton's Kon Tiki, Hawaiian Hut, and Don The Beachcomber."
Mai Tais and Memories
Insistent historians will tell you tiki is a California phenomenon. That may be accurate, but it still wouldn't exist without Hawaii, the volcano from which all that aloha shirt-clad, exotica music-listening lava flowed. And while there is still plenty of tiki ephemera, good and bad, strewn across the Hawaiian Islands, La Mariana is Honolulu's last bastion of old school tiki, a dive bar rather than a dive bar themed bar... but still a themed bar. Tiki was always inauthentic, and La Mariana is as authentic as it gets. If none of that makes sense, don't worry. Tiki culture has always been contradictory and paradoxical. Maybe tonight, you're just better off contemplating that Mai Tai and wondering how you're getting home.
The Royal Hawaiian's famed Mai Tai Bar is fine. It's the Sloppy Joe's of Honolulu. It may be touristy, but come on; you gotta do it. Tiki’s Grill & Bar has the money to really trick out their space, but there's something obviously, unsatisfyingly corporate about it. La Mariana Sailing Club, however? That's the real deal. There's a reason an initially skeptical Anthony Bourdain skipped the rest and went to La Mariana for an episode of No Reservations in 2008, and then walked out a believer. Incidentally, his bartender for that episode, ten years ago: Uncle Wayne.
Annette herself passed away in 2011, but her spirit, like the bar, endures. Where else are tiki tourists, local lushes, and one-armed dock workers going to come together for a drink? You might get a more precise Mai Tai from one of Honolulu's crop of new craft cocktail bars, where they balance the precision of of the modern cocktail renaissance with an acknowledgement of past Polynesian potions. But I guarantee you won't get one that tastes more... right... than the ones Uncle Wayne is making at La Mariana. Get there at sunset, snake your way through the waterfront gardens, and watch those brilliant colors splash themselves across that crowded harbor. If that spectacular view doesn't make you forget the industrial buildings behind you, a couple of Uncle Wayne's drinks most assuredly will.