Thank Gods for our Tiki Culture
Gods have a lot on their plate. They’re busy and powerful. People worship them for the good things they may provide while also fearing them for the bad things they may inflict. Nonesuch Gods, the four great Tiki Gods of Hawaiian mythology – Kane, Kanaloa, Ku and Lono – reign with piercing, intense eyes over island people while also ruling an entirely distinct culture on non-island people or perhaps better stated, island wannabes.
According to Hawaiian mythology, Kane, God of Light and Life, created the universe and is the symbol of life and progenitor of life in nature. As the first God, Kane assigned his fellow Gods their area of godly domain. Kanaloa, Guardian of the Seas is symbolized by a squid. Lono, the God of Fertility is identified with rain and plants, music and peace. Ku, Guardian of the Forests is also the Ancient Tiki God of War and the only deity in which human sacrifices were made during rituals. Responsible for all things found on earth, Kane later created the Great Chief, the first man to rule the universe who interestingly fashions similarities to biblical descriptions of Adam.
Since forever, Hawaiian and Polynesian people carved likenesses of the Tiki Gods out of stone and into wood and painted their images in murals. America’s fascination with the Tiki was born in the 1930s when people began travelling to and from Hawaii, bringing back artifacts and stories of Tiki traditions. Soon plays and movies like South Pacific delivered stunning visuals of tropical temptations. In June 1963, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room opened at Disneyland in Anaheim, California engaging guests in Tiki culture. Originally sponsored by United Airlines, the artfully-designed, colorful feathered birds delivered a scripted presentation that, for fifteen minutes, transported you to Polynesia. Clearly, the Tiki culture was building to a crescendo around the time Hawaii became America’s 50th state in 1959.
Today, the Tiki culture in the United States is booming. Just think about it, a Mai Tai is far more festive in a brown ceramic glass carved in Kane’s image with a little umbrella perched on top and a Kalik tastes better at an island bar under a thatched canopy. There was many a time while working in New York that a late-afternoon cocktail at Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant or a late night at the Beaver brothers’ Surf Club took you away to the islands; at least for a few hours. How many people do you know that wore a grass skirt to a Jimmy Buffett concert, or at least thought about it? Flock Rock is a thing; Parrotheads rule the roost. Call it kitschy or campy but the Tiki culture rides the tradewinds to deliver us to a South Seas oasis.
Our Tiki roots in the lower-48 states lead us to California. In 1927, San Francisco’s famed Nob Hill landmark hotel, The Fairmont, installed the “Fairmont Terrace Plunge,” a 75-foot indoor swimming pool frequented by actress Helen Hayes and actor and later President Ronald Reagan. In 1945, MGM’s acclaimed set director Mel Melvin transformed the pool into a lagoon with a floating stage giving way to the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar. The Tonga Room’s tropical South Seas décor including dramatic tribal wall coverings, island libations and Asian cuisine rode the wave in Tiki’s pop culture glory days in the 1940s and 1950s.
After a significant, celebrated renovation, The Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar continues to delight guests with intermittent rainstorms replete with tropical thunder and lightning displays. The lagoon boasts a top-40 band playing under a thatched cover atop a floating barge with a dance floor made from lumber reclaimed from the S.S. Forester, a lumber schooner that sailed frequently between San Francisco and the South Seas Islands.
In 1934, a bar owner and dry goods salesman named Victor J. Bergeron set sail from San Francisco on a life-changing voyage of discovery through the South Sea islands only to return to the Bay area inspired and focused. Upon his arrival he transformed his family bar, Hinky Dinks, into a Polynesian respite displaying the art, treasures and trinkets he collected along his tour of the Tiki tradewinds. He became known as Trader Vic as did his cache of 25 restaurants. Trader Vic’s introduced the world’s first Mai Tai (“maitai” is the Polynesian word for “very best”). Forming a strategic partnership with Hilton Hotels, Trader Vic’s became the quintessential Polynesian dining and drinking venue across the United States and in places around the world for decades.
Not to swirl discourse among the Gods, but in 1934 down along Hollywood way came Donn Gantt, known as Donn Beach, and his Cantonese themed restaurant, Don’s Beachcomber Café. Don the Beachcomber and his Tiki enterprise romanticized Polynesian culture displaying South Seas masks, trinkets and artifacts he and fellow enthusiasts brought back to the States. With a mix of torches, rattan furniture and music infused with African rhythms, jazz, Asian tones and Latin influences Don’s Beachcomber brought the tropical jungle mystique to life. And to this point, to the life of the party with his rum-based concoctions, Tahitian Rum Punch and Navy Grog. Before Elvis thought of Hawaii, Tarzan swung through the jungle and Drew Barrymore fell in love over and over in 50 First Dates, Donn Beach was putting the Pu Pu on the Platter giving way to a Tiki culture.
A revitalized Tiki culture emerged from a “Tiki Renaissance” of sorts in the 1980s where the kitsch value among flibbertigibbets soared leaving even the scowling Gods with a hint of a faint smile. Everyone these days has a Tiki bar story, a favorite Tiki bar. Maybe true TIki has morphed into paradise by the sea rather than only the South Seas but that’s okay. Countless Tiki bars, or haunts, thrive among the land in places not necessarily associated with warm climate and gentle breezes such as Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge in Minneapolis. Don’s closed in April 2018 however we hold fast a faint smile thinking about good times.
We always look forward to stumbling over to the Skull Creek Boathouse and Buoy Bar at Marker 13 on Hilton Head Island. With a countdown clock to sunset, Skull Creek hosts Sunset Reggae Parties on Mondays at 7:00pm in the summer and a “Dive Bar” replete with a raw bar, oysters and sushi. Frozen concoctions keep you hanging on while the seafarer’s favorites are fantastic as is the Seafood Chowder; among the best we’ve found in years.
Shut your eyes and think Key West when you are sitting at The Big Owl Tiki Bar in Grasonville, Maryland. With their “sunny days and strait nights,” The Big Owl is a big scene for a little dock bar. Thirty minutes from Annapolis across the Bay Bridge, The Big Owl features live entertainment to the likes of our favorite Scott Kirby.
Lulu Buffett’s Sunset Grill in Gulf Shores, Alabama is famous for Seafood Gumbo, Fried Oyster Load and Mahi Tacos, oh and make sure to catch the infamous “Bama Breeze.” Lulu’s has grown from a Tiki bar to a Tiki disciple’s destination serving up to 4,000 people a day in the summer. From the Sista Stage national and regional talent entertain people of all ages including families with children. Why else would there be a “Mountain of Youth” featuring a three-story ropes course? Whether you pull up to the marina and stroll to the Sunset Grill or venture by land, Lulu’s is living the dream. Don’t forget to catch Lulu’s two other locations in Myrtle Beach and Destin.
What a better place for 2019’s newest, coolest Tiki bar and Polynesian restaurant than the Edge of America on Folly Beach, South Carolina. Seemingly transformed into a palace of tribute to the four great Tiki Gods, Wiki Wiki Sand Bar rocks the South Seas vibe. A conch shell’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean and replete with a 30-foot suspended octopus sculpture made out of repurposed beach-collected plastic and a thatched canopied bar. There are formidable and inspired menu offerings including Spam Sliders, Coconut Shrimp, perfectly prepared Seared Tuna and a Crab Cake, Avocado and Bacon sandwiches, traditional Hawaiian comfort food entrees and a simple macaroni salad. A wide array of inspired cocktails (Tiki God and Shark ceramic glasses optional) and the enthusiastic, polished staff support the premise that Wiki Wiki Sand Bar is a hot place for cool people. Aloha from The Edge, indeed.