cruisin’ to the oldies: pacific whale foundation’s new dance party at sea

Darren LeeDepending upon your age, the term “oldies” can be applied to a multitude of musical eras. If you’re a Baby Boomer such as myself, however, it’s without question that “oldies” means music from two specific decades: the 1950s and ‘60s. In July, Pacific Whale Foundation debuted a new sunset cruise featuring special guest Darren Lee, star of the Elvis tribute show Burn’n Love in Lahaina, and oldies DJ Michael G.

Susan and I hopped aboard the cruise’s maiden voyage to check out this dance party at sea. Crew member Ben greets the eager assemblage waiting outside PWF’s Ocean Store at the Ma‘alaea Harbor Shops, and leads us down the stairs and out to the harbor, where we board “Ocean Voyager,” a 650-foot, high-tech, catamaran. At exactly 6pm, Captain Doug fires up the engines and off we go. DJ Michael G introduces Darren Lee, who calls out, “Are You Ready to Rock?” and the crowd goes wild.

Captain Doug gives a safety briefing, and the evening really gets going when Michael G blasts Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” through the boat’s loudspeakers. “Whoo-ee, whoo-ee baby, won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?” Ben, accompanied by Trent and Colleen, bust out the champagne, while Mikey ably tends bar. It never ceases to amaze me how crew members can remain sure-footed on an undulating boat while balancing multiple beverage glasses!

Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” gets the crowd off its feet and boogieing down on the boat’s bow, which has become an open-air dance floor. “They was a splishin’ and a splashin’, reelin’ with the feelin’, movin’ and a groovin’, rockin’ and a rollin’, yeah!”

While the Beach Boys belt out “Round round get around, I get around,” a pod of dolphins is spotted cavorting off the port side. “Now appearing—for one performance only—The Dolphins!” jokes Captain Doug.

With the evening in full swing, our steadfast crew members break out the food: cheese and crackers; fresh fruit; plump shrimp with zesty cocktail sauce; beef and chicken kebabs; and mac ‘n’ cheese. Captain Doug kindly pulls the boat into a calm spot out of the wind and cuts the engine so we can dine comfortably.

Michael G introduces Elvis tribute artist Darren Lee, who stars in the wildly popular Burn’n Love show at the Maui Theatre in Lahaina. To say this man channels Elvis is a serious understatement. Decked out in black slacks with matching loafers, gold lame jacket, gold rings on every finger, and sporting sideburns and a modern-day pompadour hairstyle, watching Darren Lee perform seems like the closest thing to actually seeing “The King of Rock and Roll.”

Darren begins with a medley that includes “Girls, Girls, Girls” and Viva Las Vegas.” He and his dancer Kimberly exhibit an infectious energy that’s positively contagious. And did I mention Darren’s singing voice? Not only does he look like Elvis, he also sounds remarkably like him. It’s easy to see why, prior to moving to Maui, Darren was the longest-running Elvis tribute artist in the history of Las Vegas.

When Darren shifts into a mellower gear with Elvis’s “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” a couple in the audience captivates with a poignant slow dance and romantic dip at song’s end: “Blue skies of Hawai‘i smile on this, our wedding day.” Nice.

The blazing sun sets between our view of Lana‘i and the West Maui Mountains while Michael G plays “Rockin’ Robin.” A golden hue bathes the mostly brown pali, and the ocean turns cobalt.

I go back inside the cabin where I find Darren taking a break between sets. Originally from Canada (you can detect an accent when he says words like “out” and “about”), he tells me his mother played Elvis’s records from the day he was born. “I was probably three years old when I first heard ‘Hound Dog.’” he says. “I’d never heard anything like it. I would run around the house with a tennis racquet or broomstick ‘mic’ pretending I was the guy on the record.”

Darren’s sixth grade teacher, a Catholic nun, taught him how to play chords on the guitar he needed to know for singing in the choir she’d started up. “I discovered they sounded exactly like ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and that’s was how it all began,” he says. “When I was fifteen, I started performing Elvis’s songs in lounges, and in 1997, I won the world Elvis competition in Nashville, Tennessee.” From there, Darren went on to become the most successful Elvis tribute artist in Las Vegas. “The best part of performing Elvis’s music is meeting people who are big Elvis fans. They love his songs as much as I do. When they tell me, ‘You sound just like Elvis,’ that’s the biggest compliment in the world.”

Speaking of “Blue Suede Shoes,” Darren is spot-on Elvis: “Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, cat, go!” Kimberly, in dainty blue dance shoes, shimmies, twirls, and shakes her skirt, while Darren mimics the suggestive hip movements that were considered positively scandalous back in the 1950s when Elvis first performed “Hound Dog” on TV’s The Milton Berle Show. Next, Darren sings “Bossa Nova Baby, getting down and doing the twist while Kimberly dances the pony.

With evening upon us, Michael G has activated red and green laser lights to give a disco effect. Captain Doug starts up the engines, and we head back to Ma‘alaea Harbor accompanied by “Ride, Sally Ride.”

Darren picks up the mic and suggests we “get in real close with the one you love.” As he croons, “but I can’t help falling in love with you,” the crowd swoons while swaying to the music.

For his finale, Darren initially announces he’s going to perform Celine Dion’s title song from “Titanic” [“Not really,” he says.], but, instead, launches into an energetic “Burning Love”: “I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burning love!” Susan has lost her voice from so much singing along, and her radiant smile lights up the darkness.

Darren invites us all to his Burn’n Love show at the Maui Theatre in Lahaina. “We named it Burn’n Love, because that was one of Elvis’s most recognizable and most-loved songs,” he says. “It also described Elvis’s deep love for the people of Hawai‘i. People may think it was Elvis who gave so much to Hawai‘i, but it really was Hawai‘i that gave so much to Elvis. So we decided to do this show and give back to the people of Hawai‘i. A portion of every ticket price goes to the Maui Food Bank—to people who really need it. I came to Maui in 2007, attended a lu‘au, and vowed that some day I would be in a show here. It’s a dream come true to finally get here to Maui and do this. I want guests to get the feeling not necessarily that they saw Elvis, but that they found out what it would have been like to see Elvis. Hopefully they’ll leave thinking ‘That’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Elvis.’”

–heidi pool


­­WHAT •

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Cruisin’ to the Oldies sunset cruise, featuring special guest Darren Lee, star of Burn’n Love at the Maui Theatre in Lahaina, and oldies DJ Michael G. Cost is $69.95 for adults and $49.95 for keiki. Online discount available.


Departs from Ma‘alaea Harbor.


Every Wednesday evening from 6 to 8pm.


(800) 942-5311 ext. 1;


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