Vintage Vacation: Rum Roaming at The Hukilau, the World’s Most Authentic Tiki Event

by S.J. Chambers101x54fb77e2
Contributing Writer

The 14th annual Hukilau shimmies and shakes this June 10-14, in Fort Lauderdale, FL, promising to be bigger and grander with new digs at the historic Hyatt Regency Pier 66. This vintage venue is celebrating its 50th anniversary as one of South Florida’s iconic hotels and features a groovy retro-tastic space-age design and rotating cocktail lounge. Last year was nearly the premier Polynesian Pop Fest’s swan song, but, Tiki fans, you are in luck! Two of the festival’s long-time attendees and lovers of the luau lifestyle refused to let the festival set sail into the great beyond, so they did what any business gentleman would do – they revived the revival and are giving means to the festival, allowing it to grow bigger and more diverse, which can be seen in this year’s highlights, listed below: 1) Shipwrecked with Mary Ann. This year’s special guest is Dawn Wells of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, who will host a three-hour South Seas-styled cruise aboard the Lady Windridge Yacht on the waterways of Fort Lauderdale’s historic Pier 66. 2) Lounge Luau-Style! The Tiki Tower Takeover will kick happy hour up 17 notches as Tiki’s best barmen— Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29, New Orleans) [See ATLRetro’s Happy Hour & Supper Club feature on Berry here], Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco), Paul McGee (Lost Lake, Chicago) and Brian Miller (Tiki Mondays With Miller, New York City) — will be pouring signature drinks to loungers enjoying the rotating view over the Fort Lauderdale sky and shorelines. 3) Tiki University. Six symposiums include Disney artists Kevin & Jody (Kevin Kidney and Jody Daily), Oscar-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong, author Domenic Priore, author Jeff Chenault, Jon Bortles and Tiki Gardener, as well as thirst-quenching explorations with guest bartenders: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Brian Miller, Martin Cate, Paul McGee, Dean Hurst, and the Straw Hat Barmen. 4) Surf ‘n’ Tiki Tunes. Musical guests and performers: Alika Lyman Group, The Intoxicators!, Gold Dust Lounge, Pablus, Slip and the Spinouts, Kinky Waikiki, Skinny Jimmy and the Stingrays, King Kukulele, Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Lila Starlet, DJ James Brown’s Sweat. Special ATLRetro correspondent S. J. Chambers attended last year’s Hukilau (June 11-15, 2014) with publisher Anya Martin, and the following dispatches give a tantalizing tropical glimpse into what fest-goers can expect from this year’s Tiki haven!

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For five days, “Tikiheads” from all over the U.S., and even as far as Japan and Belgium, gathered in Ft. Lauderdale, FL at the Bahia Mar Resort for the 13th annual Hukilau which served up sunshine, camaraderie, music, symposiums and the ever-tempting Tiki cocktail. Tagged as “The World’s Most Authentic Tiki Event” and founded by Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White, Hukilau has been keeping this retro culture of Polynesian kitsch and tropical libations alive and kicking since 2002, when it sprang to life at Atlanta’s own Trader Vic’s.

The Disasternauts and a very green lady friend.

The Disasternauts and a very green lady friend.

The event ventured South in 2003, to honor the Mai Kai Restaurant. One of the last remaining original Tiki establishments, the Mai Kai serves Don the Beachcomber’s original recipes while entertaining diners with an authentic Luau floor show. Each year has always outdone the last, bringing out performers such as Robert Drasnin and Los Straitjackets, renowned artists like Swag and Bosko, and the foremost Tiki gurus like Sven Kirsten and Duda Leite. Last year’s event was no different, and of course, it was impossible to experience it all. However, our correspondents tried their darndest, so come take a peek at what they pulled from this vast Tiki sea!

We ran into artist Derek Yaniger, who designed ATLRetro's logo, in the vendors' bazaar.

We ran into artist Derek Yaniger, who designed ATLRetro’s logo, in the vendors’ bazaar.

Music and Performers While surf was king with shreds by Florida bands The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, and Skinny Jimmy & the Stingrays, there was also an air of jazz fusion, punk and Ska coming from Miami-based Gold Dust Lounge and Atlanta’s own Grinder Nova. Les Baxter would have been proud of Belgium’s Left Arm of Buddah, who gave a heck of an exotic show that featured multiple dancers performing Arabian and Asian-influenced moves. The early days of the cocktail were represented as well by Japan’s The Sweet Hollywaiians, whose 20s and 30s-inspired sets gave Hukilau-goers a relaxing atmosphere to really deconstruct the Mai Kai Mai Tai.

angiepontani

The presence of Burlesque and Go-Go dancers kept the crowd moving.

One favored moment was seeing Angie Pontani perform. Her fun Go-Go vibe melded perfectly with the Hukilau, and her movements and demeanor reminded me of later bombshells like Bridget Bardot and Sophia Loren. She did this one thing with a scarf was reminiscent of the Marilyn Monroe photography session with Bert Stern that just completely put Salomé and her whole seven scarf shtick on notice. Seminars Alas, we did not arrive at the Hukilau in time to catch Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s symposium,  “Tiki’s Dark Ages,” which he gave at the legendary Mai Kai Restaurant, but we heard from the general chatter that the sold-out event was remarkable, and we will make sure to catch it next round. We did get our books signed by the “Beachbum” at the Cocktail Kingdom table, and got to meet Steven Yamada, co-manager and head bartender of the Beachbum’s new New Orleans Tiki restaurant Latitude 29.

Grinder Nova

Grinder Nova

I was able to catch two symposiums, Philip Greene’s “To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion,” based on his book of the same name, and “RetroRenovation.com presents: Create Your Own Suburban Savage Paradise!” Greene’s presentation began with an interesting question: Was Hemingway a Tiki guy? Sort of. He definitely shaped the associations we have between drinks and lifestyle; so much that he was one of the inspirations for the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World. Why? Like Don the Beachcomber, Papa traveled the world and brought back food and cocktail recipes as souvenirs for the rest of us. He also was close friends with rumrunner Joe Russell, who was also the owner of Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, and who inspired TO HAVE AND HAVE ANOTHER. Perhaps most important to the cocktail crafting debate, he dabbled in recipe-making so much that he ruined Floridita’s Constante Daiquiri perfection—depending on who you ask—by adding another shot and cutting the sugar for what is known as the “Papa Doble.”

band

The Sweet Hollywaiians.

Greene was witty, and his slideshow presentation was filled with jewels, like a manuscript from a nine-year-old Hemingway, who even then had the mission statement of wanting to grow up to write and travel. Greene also served the audience two drinks from his book, the “Josie Russell Cocktail”, which Greene uncovered from Hemingway’s fishing log, and the infamous “Papa Doble”—both served with Papa’s Pillar Rum, a new libation from Tampa blessed by the Hemingway estate and for whom Greene is now a spokesman. “RetroRenovation.com presents: Create Your Own Suburban Savage Paradise!” was also a very fun symposium and a historical benchmark for the Hukilau. Hand-picked by Tiki Kiliki, the panel was comprised of Tiki Designer Deities Bamboo Ben, Danny Gallardo a.k.a. Tiki Diablo, U. K.’s Jamie Wilson & Anjy Cameron of Cheeky Tiki, and David Wolfe a.k.a. Basement Kahuna.

Tiki treasures abounded in the vendors' bazaar.

Tiki treasures abounded in the vendors’ bazaar.

RetroRenovation.com’s authors, Pam and Kate, were moderators of the panel, and they led the audience through beautiful examples of the various styles of Tiki (from Swiss Family Robinson to Asian-fusion) from restaurants like Mahiki by Cheekytiki to private residential dens done by RetroRenovation.com readers. To attest for the growing rise in commercial Tiki design, Anjy Cameron remarked that Cheeky Tiki has designed 21 bars in eight years, and that “the crowd is young, and they are enjoying it and it’s like going on holiday.”   The Jungle Queen Cruise On Friday, attendees wishing to take a break from the hotel were able to do so via The Jungle Queen cruise. This antique riverboat is a tourist staple at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, and is considered one of the oldest roadside attractions in Florida. It definitely maintains that bit of kitsch, with snarky commentary on the landmark homes dotting the canal. Normally, a three-hour dinner cruise, it was truncated to an hour and half and was transformed by The Straw Men serving up welcome cocktails including Josie Russells and Witch Finders (maybe my first complex punch I’ve ever had with spices like nutmeg), and the funny ditties by King Kukulele and Crazy Al TikiMania on the coconuts. Mai KaiThe Mai Kai and Luau The centerpiece of the Hukilau is the Mai Kai Restaurant, which opened its doors in 1956 and is one of the few remaining, original Tiki restaurants. There were parties every night with bands in every room, symposiums, and of course the Saturday night dinner show featuring an authentic Luau. It really is something to be experienced. With its main window-waterfalls, nautical decor, and Polynesian artifacts, the bar felt like you were below-deck in ship quarters. gardenThere is also an impressive tropical garden with orchids and lush palm fronds flanked by flaming torches and various wooden Tiki totems. It is very easy to feel separated from the busy highway beyond the fauna. I let myself get lost, to just sip meditatively on my grog and listen to some hidden ukulele player, when I came across a group of elegant older women standing on the lagoon bridge. They were dressed in sarongs and wore blooming, dewy tropical flowers in their hair. They were talking amongst themselves, but every once in a while, they would break away, as if summoned, to dip their hands into the water. When I later learned that they were retired mermaids from the Weeki Wachee golden age, and guests of the “Cocktails and Fishtails: The Untold Story of the Porthole Cocktail Lounge” event by Vintage Roadside and Marina the Fire-Eating Mermaid, their inability to resist the water made sense and became a metaphor for the entire Hukilau experience. The word “Hukilau” refers to the traditional Hawaiian fishing festival where the community would gather to cast large nets into the sea that would ensnare a variety of fish. The celebration and feast that would follow not only nourished the community but also brought the villagers together to celebrate kinship. That is what the Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale has accomplished over its thirteen year run. It has brought together all the tiny villages from Polynesian Pop–the mermaids, the bartenders and scholars, the performers, and the collectors–to celebrate, collaborate, and corroborate on the continuation of the grand Tiki tradition.

Mai Kai Floor Show

Mai Kai Floor Show

For more information about Hyatt Pier 66 and the Hukilau (including schedule and tickets), check out the official site here. S. J. Chambers is a writer from Tallahassee, FL. When not found drafting pool-side, she is sublimity-seeking on the road, or in the air, and sometimes in a glass. She blogs irregularly atwww.selenachambers.wordpress.com. ATLRetro Managing Editor Melanie Crew also contributed to this article.

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