TALES from the UnCLUB

I used think that Lahaina Yacht Club took the cake as the most kicked-back, casual and colorful members-only Maui social organization.

But on a recent luncheon visit to Maui Country Club in Spreckelsville, the walls “started talking” and some old tales and new ones were visited that gave the yacht club’s stories a run for its money.

“It’s like ‘Cheers,’ ” says Luana Pa’ahana, Maui Country Clubs membership marketing manager. “This is the place to take off your professional hat, let your hair down, socialize, exercise, enjoy and relax.”

Founded in 1925, MCC started off as the social getaway for the island’s haole elite. Its members included bankers, doctors, lawyers and plantation owners and managers. These days, members are a rainbow of ethnicities and professions – and more are welcome.

In fact, there’s a membership drive going on, and you may sign on for a two-month temporary trial before you make the big plunge.

MCC has come a long way from its original roots, and you will find everything from yoga classes to a wine club to ballroom dancing in addition to golf, tennis, swimming pool and a private path to Baby Beach. There’s much more, but let’s visit some stories first.

“Back in the old days, there was a men’s-only lounge, complete with a one-way window overlooking the pool,” says General Manager Russell Goshi. “There are probably original members rolling in their graves right now because it was their sanctuary and we changed it.”

A major renovation transpired to the building in 2008 as it wasn’t up to code, and the men’s lounge morphed into the adult lounge – for men and women – so no more secret gawking of bathing-suit-clad women could transpire.

“During the $3.5-million renovation, the ladies in the club said, ‘We have to jump into this century,’ and changed it. So now it’s for card playing. It’s a quiet place where you can read or use your computer,” says Pa’ahana. “Or you can eat a meal there. However, the adult lounge does remain the one place where kids are not allowed.”

MCC continues to let its members dictate what they want, since it’s a nonprofit organization. They prefer it to differ from, say, Oahu Country Club, where you must wear slacks, collared shirts and shoes, even at lunch. This is Maui, after all – it’s more like anything goes. In fact, one member has dubbed it the “Unclub.”

Take actor Woody Harrelson, for instance. He’s known to play golf there barefoot. On one occasion, papparazzi have captured him in pictures online.

Member Barry Rivers, founder and codirector of Maui Film Festival, loves the club because he can get away with wearing shorts and T-shirts.

“It’s like being in someone’s home,” says Goshi. “If you have preconceived thoughts that this is a stuffy country club format, think again.”

Indeed, on my recent visit over an Arnold Palmer and a tomato with walnut-chicken salad, the dining room was a sea of rubber slippers, T-shirts and baseball hats. Members came to our table and chatted, and everyone seemed to know everyone else’s names.

There were four generations of Von Tempskys sitting at a nearby table, the Haywoods, and the Lennys. Some of the other longtime country club members included the Rices and the Haynes.

Many famous ocean enthusiasts also belong to the club, including David Kalama, Robby Naish, Sierra Emory, Pete Carbrina, Kai Lenny and Laird Hamilton – but Hamilton doesn’t come in much since moving to Kauai.

Actor Owen Wilson first frequented MCC as a guest of Realtor Jim Sanders, and every time he dined there, he would order the original Country Club burger.

“He just loved that burger,” a member told me. “But the recipe is at least 50 years old, created back in the day when beef was expensive and bread and other fillers were used. Older members still demand it, but I was surprised he raved about it.”

The famous movie star showed up on another day during the renovation without Sanders, when the kitchen was closed, and said, “What?! No burger?”

He came back again and again, until finally he was served the burger, but was informed that nonmembers couldn’t just come in to dine. So, as the story goes, he “joined for the burger.”

These days, a 100-percent Maui Cattle Co. beef burger was added to the menu. Wilson inadvertently ordered that instead. “OMG, what did you do to the burger?” he moaned. “It’s different!”

Then there was a woman, who parked her car in the shady lot under the banyan trees, for the sole reason to walk the club’s path to Baby Beach. As all members have MCC stickers on their cars, and she didn’t have one, she was ticketed.

She came in the door and said she was tired of being ticketed and wanted to join, but only to use the beach walk. She plunked down her black American Express card and promptly paid the $5,000 membership fee (which is in addition to the monthly fees).

“So I used a search engine to check out who she was,” says Goshi. “It turns out she was a big wig in the search engine’s company.”

For nonmembers, the golf course is open to anyone on Mondays. But that’s the one day of the week the restaurant is closed, except for holidays. Legendary crooner Willie Nelson has been frequently recognized on the course.

“We’re only open here for dinner one night a week every Friday, and if you’re looking for a quiet time, don’t make a res at the club. You’ll end up sitting at this table and that table. I don’t know how the staff keeps up with it all,” says Pa’ahana.

Cocktails include the li-hing-mui Margarita, Baby Beach iced tea, Outer Sprecks with Red Bull, and Country Club Cosmopolitan.

Executive Chef Wayne Turnipseed (yes, that’s his real name) tempts members with appetizers such as calamari steak, half-pound of popcorn shrimp, lettuce wraps, garlic chicken wings, and toasted pine-nut hummus on grilled flat bread.

The steaks are USDA prime New Yorks or rib eyes. Other entrees run the gamut from pan-seared duck on grilled mushroom polenta to half rack of baby-back ribs to vegetarian mushroom-and-roasted-butternut risotto with parmesan cheese.

Many old recipes remain, like the coleslaw, with the ingredient list securely locked in the safe.

“Our chef’s ‘happy joy’ is when he can prepare menus for the wine club,” says Pa’ahana. “Our next one will be a Valentine’s wine event from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 14th.”

“Our wine club has been around for about a year now,” adds Goshi. “It’s every quarter. The one with Spanish wines and tapas was fun. People got a little buzz on, then went up to the ballroom with the dance instructor and did the Merengue.”

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Wacky Wednesdays is a south-of-the-border party with two tacos for $2.50, $7 top-shelf margaritas, and Mexican beers such as Pacifico and Corona for $3.”

“It’s packed,” says Goshi. “The party goes on from 4 to 7 p.m. It’s a big hit, there’s nothing like Mexican food to bring people in.”

The clubhouse restaurant is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for pupu and cocktails from 3 to 6:30 p.m. (except for Mondays, unless it’s a holiday, as stated above). Friday dinners are served from 4 to 8 p.m. and the fourth Friday of every month is a fun themed buffet with entertainment.

Come in early, change in the locker room and hit a few tennis balls, swim, golf, join the book club, take a dance lesson or a somatics class. Soon enough, all the members will know your name – because it’s like the “Cheers” of country clubs.

“When I first started working here,” says Pa’ahana. “I was simply amazed at what a special place this is. It’s got a nice heated pool, world-famous Baby Beach right out the back door, a lot of amenities. Plus, it’s a nice hub from town. So if you live in Haiku or Kula, you can regroup here, play tennis and then head out for a night on the town.”