La Mariana Sailing Club has survived two tsunamis, a swindler’s attempted takeover and more than
60 years in business. But the waterfront fixture at Keehi Lagoon could be facing its biggest survival test yet.
The restaurant, tiki bar and sailing club with seafaring charm occupies state land near Sand Island under a lease expiring at the end of April.
State officials are considering a one-year extension, but also intend to issue a public request for bids on a new lease for the site that includes the restaurant, a clubhouse, a gift shop, an apartment and about 120 slips for sailboats in what is largely an industrial neighborhood.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources is tasked with deciding whether to grant La Mariana the extra year of occupancy, which would follow a five-year extension to its original 35-year lease.
BLNR deferred decision- making on the issue in February but could take action at its meeting next month.
The impending lease termination in April or next year presents the latest challenge to realizing a desire of La Mariana’s late founder, Annette Nahinu, to have the business last 100 years.
Nahinu, a New York-born adventurous sailor who taught for a time at Kamehameha Schools, founded La Mariana in 1955 with her then-husband close to where the business is today.
According to company lore, Nahinu, who died in 2008 at age 93, named the club after her Italian maiden name referring to the sea. At its inception, the club had 13 members who paid a $2 membership fee and 50 cents a month for slip space.
La Mariana’s current site, a former junkyard converted into what the company describes as a “lush hideaway” and “one of-a-kind oasis” in the middle of Honolulu’s industrial core, was leased from the state in 1978 after Nahinu had to vacate the club’s first location about 50 yards away, according to Nahinu’s company 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 15 feet high, a shower tree eighteen feet high, flowering shrubs, plants, hedges, etc., etc.,” the account reads.
Nahinu in her written account also described how in 1992 at the tail end of the Japanese investment bubble in Hawaii, she accepted a $7.8 million offer for the restaurant from a Japanese company. Though the deal fell through, Nahinu considered it fortunate in a way.
“La Mariana survived,” she wrote.
In 2008, the establishment faced another threat when a company headed by purported businessman and pastor John Mendoza sued Nahinu, claiming she had sold him the business for $1.
Representatives of Nahinu said she was misled and had a diminished mental capacity when she signed a sale agreement. Two months after Mendoza filed his lawsuit, Nahinu died.
A state judge dismissed Mendoza’s lawsuit in 2010, and shortly thereafter Mendoza was sentenced by a federal judge to six years in prison for leading a mortgage fraud scheme involving two homes on Oahu.
Because Nahinu had no heirs, ownership of La Mariana passed to a trust that holds the company’s stock.
Another threat to the business descended in 2011 when ocean surges from a tsunami generated by a deadly Japan earthquake sank boats and wrecked docks at the club. La Mariana, which had survived lesser impacts from a 1960 tsunami that devastated Hilo and caused damage on Oahu, told the state it spent $427,579 on repairs.
Because La Mariana’s lease was set to expire in 2014, BLNR gave La Mariana a five-year extension to help it recoup repair costs.
Now the land board is being asked to provide an extra year of occupancy for the company, which pays $75,600 annually for the land. A Department of Land and Natural Resources staff report describes an additional year as the “most equitable solution.”
The extension technically treats La Mariana as a “holdover” tenant because the five-year extension was the maximum allowed under state law.
Judith Calma, a longtime employee who runs the company for Nahinu’s trust, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Regular customers say they they can’t imagine losing La Mariana, which has artifacts from bygone Honolulu restaurants and tiki bars as part of its decor, which includes pufferfish lanterns, glass fishing floats, tiki posts, Christmas lights, fish tanks, a piano and a waterfall splashing into giant clamshells.
“La Mariana is a living treasure,” said Waikiki tattoo shop owner Winona Martin, who said she’s been a regular customer for more than 40 years. “This is a historical landmark and monument.”
Retired Salt Lake resident Maryann Tilton, who has been visiting La Mariana almost daily for the last two years, said a waitress recently sang “Happy Birthday” to her in Hawaiian.
“Where else can you go that they do that?” she asked, adding that the ambiance is special. “It’s a place that tourists would love to come, but we try not to tell tourists about it.”