Sadness. We’ve been wondering what would happen when the 92-year-old owner of the coolest bar in Hawaii passed on. Hopefully someone will buy and preserve the whole wonderful mess the way it is. Owner Annette Nahinu sure has had an interesting life….
Annette L. Nahinu turns 92 on Sept. 22 and has no hesitation in saying the end of her life is near. But she wants her La Mariana yacht club, restaurant and bar — the last in a storied line of O’ahu tiki bars — to continue without her.
After three divorces, Nahinu has no husband and no heirs. So she has put the 51-year-old operation up for sale at an asking price of $3 million, along with a few catches.
“There’s an end to everything,” Nahinu said yesterday, just after methodically signing each of her 28 employees’ twice-monthly paychecks. “I don’t have much longer to live. If I don’t sell it now and I die, it’ll be left up in the air. So it’s better if I get it sold.”
The 5.5-acre property, tucked away on a dirt strip of roadway off Sand Island Access Road, includes a patch of submerged land below Ke’ehi Lagoon, and has only seven years left on its $6,000-a-month lease with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
New owner or not, when the lease expires, it has to be rebid and its terms renegotiated, said Bill Andrews, property manager for DLNR’s division of boating and ocean recreation.
And there’s one other detail to the sale:
Nahinu wants to keep living in the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment over the bar, along with her 5-year-old Maltese dog, Bombay, until she dies.
She plans to donate some of the proceeds of the sale to her alma mater, the University of Connecticut, which she said was the only university that would admit her at the time.
Nahinu has had other opportunities to sell before, particularly back in the heyday of Japanese investment in the Islands, when Nahinu negotiated a $7.8 million cash payment.
When Japan’s financial bubble burst, Nahinu ended up with only the $400,000 down payment.
“I should have sold back then,” Nahinu said yesterday.
But then a generation of La Mariana faithfuls — the name comes from Nahinu’s Italian maiden name, “The Little Sea” — would not get the daily and nightly greetings from Nahinu at their tables.
Her walk is much slower these day, and arthritis in her hands has kept her from the keys of the baby grand piano in the center of the restaurant.
But Nahinu still navigates her way among the tiki, puffer-fish lanterns salvaged from the old Trader Vic’s, lauhala-draped walls and other remembrances of a simpler time in the Islands.
The years have not been always kind to the restaurant.
Duct tape holds together some of the bar bumpers, and the floor is pitted and scarred, while some of the lauhala hangs lazily from their moorings. Portions of the kitschy Christmas lights are dusty, the two fresh-water fish tanks need a good scrubbing and the rattan chairs rescued from Don the Beachcomber’s are weathered and torn.
But regulars, tourists and newcomers love every inch of it.
“It’s the last authentic taste of Hawai’i,” said Kelli Shaw, a scuba instructor who regularly visits from Kailua. “Everything else is too commercial. I’ve been here for birthdays, celebrations, weddings. It’s the absolute, true feel of old Hawai’i.”
Henry Telles runs his own restaurant as a partner in Teddy’s Bigger Burger in Hawai’i Kai, but comes to Sand Island for a taste of La Mariana’s food, brews and famous mai tais.
“It takes you back to a nice slice of Hawai’i,” Telles said over a lunch of light beer and chicken stir fry with fettuccini.
Nahinu’s father was a Brooklyn violinist who performed at silent movie houses. At the age of 16, she married a Hollywood bigwig but revealed little else about him in a 2001 Advertiser interview.
“I’ve had a storybook life,” she said at the time. “I was born very poor and married a very rich man who did everything for me.”
In 1955, she and her second husband, sailor Johnny Campbell, acquired a 30-day permit to build a sailing club out of the muck of Ke’ehi Lagoon, requiring them to haul in 1,008 truckloads of fill.
While the clubhouse and eventual 80-slip marina took shape, Nahinu’s marriage to Campbell began to deteriorate.
“He didn’t like to work,” Nahinu said in the 2001 interview. A third marriage to Lorren Nahinu lasted 12 years and also ended in divorce.
In 1960, an 8.6-magnitude earthquake off the coast of south-central Chile generated a 6-foot wave that covered La Mariana in debris.
Despite divorce and tsunami, the original location continued to operate on a month-to-month lease for 19 years. Then it moved 50 yards to its current location when Nahinu acquired a long-term lease out of a junkyard that she cleaned up and turned into the present La Mariana operation.
The restaurant and bar took on new prominence a decade ago when the much-beloved Tahitian Lanai closed and many of the regulars moved over to La Mariana.
Despite its increased status, the restaurant continued to wrangle with legal and bureaucratic problems, such as sewage spills from a then-antiquated septic system that resulted in a $15,000 fine from the state Department of Health.
In 2003, Nahinu pleaded no contest to a Liquor Commission violation for hosting piano music and sing-alongs and was hit with a $250 fine.
“I have worked very, very hard,” Nahinu told the commission at the time, arguing against the fine. “Since 1992, I have not drawn one penny from that place.”
Yesterday, Nahinu said she never had to pay the fine — and the nightly piano music continues.
Despite its age and condition, Perez, the real estate agent, said the property has value beyond its water-side location and physical structures.
The sale price would include 4,500 units of stock in the La Mariana Sailing Club, all of the historical chachkas and furniture and the rights to the La Mariana name.
So even if a favorable lease cannot be renegotiated for new owners, Perez said they could reopen the bar and restaurant somewhere else on O’ahu, using the historical La Mariana name.
“Is it worth $3 million? I think it’s worth a whole lot more,” Perez said. “It’s the last tiki bar on the island.”
Nahinu insists that she merely wants to keep her legacy alive in the absence of any heirs.
“It’s been here 50 years,” she said yesterday. “I want it to be here 50 more years.”