Letter from Hawaii: Talking Tiki
By Tom Passavant
In the 1960s, when I was in high school, my father had a tiki bar in the basement of our suburban Ohio home. It had a thatched roof, bamboo sides, and bottles of rum with colorful labels. Little did I know that the parties he and my mom threw down there were part of a trend that was sweeping the nation. Although tourist tiki had been around since the 1920s, by the 1950s it was a full-blown craze. Remember Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber, mai tais and zombies? Not to mention pupu platters. Tiki was shorthand for the exotic islands of the Pacific, and especially Hawaii, which was quickly becoming accessible to American travelers with the arrival of the jet age.
Fast forward to 2011, and tiki is back. Hipsters across the country are embracing Polynesian-style drinks (albeit made with artisanal ingredients) and new tiki bars are springing up all over the mainland. Web sites like critiki.com and tikicentral.com have appeared to document the trend.
Not surprinsgly, out here in Honolulu, tiki never really went away. And just to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about the tiki of the ancient Hawaiians. These images of four important Hawaiian gods, Kane, Kanaloa, Ku, and Lono, were created by master wood and stone carvers, and are a part of the Hawaiian spiritual legacy that evokes great respect. Instead, I’m talking about neo-tiki, everything from carvings to cocktail glasses and matchbook covers that signal Paradise in the Pacific.
The first thing a tiki-mad tourist in Honolulu should do is pick up a copy of Philip Roberts’ wonderful new book, Waikiki Tiki (Bess Press; $22.95). The historic photos alone will make you wish you’d been here in the 1950s, and the author offers plenty of places to find tiki on your way to the beach or dinner. The International Marketplace, for example, smack in the middle of Waikiki, still has some colorful tiki carvings that have survived decades of weather and termites. Follow the sound of mallet and chisel tapping against wood over by the International’s food court, and you’ll come upon a handsome young man named Pauli, who along with his father carves new tikis out of a variety of woods, which they sell (and ship) to customers from all over the world.
My favorite Waikiki tiki bar is Tiki’s Grill and Bar, in the Aston Waikiki Beach hotel on Kalakaua Avenue. In addition to tons of great tikis and other memorabilia, there’s good food, good music, and a nice view. But no tiki lover should miss the last original, genuine tiki bar in Honolulu, the La Mariana Sailing Club. Hidden away off Sand Island Road near the airport, La Mariana, which opened in 1957, is the Lourdes of tiki, stuffed to the rafters with wood carvings and panels, chairs, tables, glassware, fishing nets and ceiling lights, and anything else that owner Annette Nahinu (who died two years ago at age 92) could buy up from such classic Honolulu spots as the Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, and the Sheraton’s Kon Tiki Room.
The food is mostly just okay (the fresh ahi spring rolls are delicious) but the perfectly-made mai tais pack a serious punch. On some nights there’s a blind pianist and a blind ukulele player performing; Thursdays feature hula; and surf rock sometimes breaks out on Saturdays. Mom and dad would love it. You will, too.
Tom Passavant is a former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine. Now a freelance travel and food writer based in Colorado and Hawaii, his work has appeared in Aspen Magazine, Gourmet, Four Seasons Magazine, Town & Country Travel, ForbesTraveler.com, Ski, Powder, Luxury Living, and many other places. He is the co-author of “Playboy’s Guide to Ultimate Skiing.” A former president of the New York Travel Writers Association, Passavant has won a Lowell Thomas Award for his travel writing and has served as judge for the James Beard Journalism Awards. See more of Tom’s work at TomPassavant.com.