Tiki dreams, lipstick and leis: A look back at Hukilau

Some Tikiphiles were born when, as kids, we were enthralled with the exotic adventures of Gilligan’s Island and the mysterious and few tiki-themed restaurants and roadside attractions that remained during our 1970s childhood. We escaped from Disney’s Magic Kingdom and snuck off to the Polynesian Resort as soon as the grownups turned us loose. Every car trip to the beach was a trans-Pacific flight to Hawaii. Eventually, our island dreams faded into the background as adulthood attempted to clamp down on our existence.


But then the tropical jungles in our imaginations started creeping back as jungles do and we found out about a Fort Lauderdale event called The Hukilau (June 6-9), which bills itself as “the most authentic Tiki experience in the world.” We knew we had to go. Since we just opened a funky little vintage boutique that carries 1950s pin-ups, Tiki Gardens T-shirts and a bunch of other cool stuff, we decided to make it a working vacation and we set up shop in The Hukilau’s Tiki Treasures Bazaar.


The Disasternauts and their fan base stay high and dry Friday night in the Hukilaus Tiki Treasures Bazaar.
  • The Disasternauts and their fan base stay high and dry Friday night in the Hukilau's Tiki Treasures Bazaar.


Minding a booth in the Bazaar is the best place to watch the Polynesian Pop parade of weekend islanders. All activities, including symposiums (“The Wild West Indies” with Beachbum Berry! Cocktails included!) and special appearances (legendary pinup photographer Bunny Yeager!), were contained within the Yankee Clipper Hotel, a 1950s modern masterpiece now known as the Sheraton Beach Hotel. And with this particular weekend’s monsoon, we enjoyed the added bonus of last-minute band relocations out of the elements and into the dry, cozy Yankee Clipper ballrooms containing the Bazaar.


—The Sights: Pure escapism, surrounding oneself in an environment that evokes the lush tropical mystique of a South Seas Island, carved wooden totems, lots of bamboo and a pantheon of tiki mugs for imbibing rum-laced elixirs.


Swedish Exotica band Ixtahuele jazzes it up at Mai Kai, Fort Lauderdale.
  • Swedish Exotica band Ixtahuele jazzes it up at Mai Kai, Fort Lauderdale.


—The Sounds: Sometimes, it's multilayered Exotica (Sweden’s Ixtahuele!), a smooth aural tapestry of cool jazz and hot jungle beats incorporating all manner of mysterious percussion instruments and other times, it's grinding surf guitar buoyed by primal drumming (the Intoxicators!).


Snazzy Hukilau Islanders Robert and Nicole enjoy rum cocktails at Mai Kai, Ft Lauderdale
  • Snazzy Hukilau Islanders Robert and Nicole enjoy rum cocktails at Mai Kai, Ft Lauderdale


—The Sips: Rum. Anything with rum. The molasses overtones, the juicy fruit brightness...Striving to reach the level of original Tiki mixologist Don the Beachcomber’s 1930s “rum rhapsodies.”


Colorful Hukilau Islanders in the Molokai Bar, Mai Kai, Fort Lauderdale.
  • Colorful Hukilau Islanders in the Molokai Bar, Mai Kai, Fort Lauderdale.


—The Threads: This is the best-dressed crowd I’ve ever laid eyes on. All the hottest midcentury looks wrapped up in one gloriously happy riot of color. Bold and cheery mod-tropical prints and blazing red lips on the gals, flowers in their hair, of course — and on the fellas, a botanical wonderland of vintage Hawaiian shirts (and some awe-inspiring handlebar mustaches!).


Mai Kai, home to big nights out and Polynesian shows since 1956, Ft Lauderdale.
  • Mai Kai, home to big nights out and Polynesian shows since 1956, Fort Lauderdale.


—The Jewel in the Crown: Multiple pilgrimages to that Pinnacle of Polynesian Pop Palaces, Ft. Lauderdale’s venerable Mai Kai, built in 1956. I still marvel that a place like this can exist and thrive in the 21st century. Words can’t do it justice. Check it out for yourself some time! MaiKai.com

Hi. My name is Carol and I am a Tikiphile. Until recently, I didn’t know there was a name for this tropical obsession, let alone an entire technicolor subculture devoted to all things Tiki, inspired by the American pop culture phenomenon that lasted from the 1930s through the late 1960s.

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