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The last place I expected to find magic was in a crackerbox strip of a store on West Sunrise Boulevard. You know the kind: bars on the windows, an empty side lot littered with straws and Materva bottles, a skinny egret picking its way along the store's chainlink fence.
This mystic botánica is a world away from the ivy-covered cottages found in fairy books, but the place still swells with ready magic. Candles stacked on shelves promise celestial doorways to saints like Santa Barbara or the almond-eyed prankster Elegua. Two skinny dollars, a match, and a prayer could bring me quick cash, true love, or lip-smacking vengeance.
I pluck a red Santa Barbara candle from the ranks. A santero once told me that this saint favored me, that she would protect me from those who'd wish me harm if I offered her red carnations or a candle every now and then. Couldn't hurt. I decide to opt for a revenge candle as well. You never know when a little retribution might come in handy.
Deeper into the store, I find powders with names like Jinx Removal and Fast Luck housed in silver tins and red and black vodou dolls spilling from a cardboard box. Sage incense smolders from burnished pots placed haphazardly across the floor, and finger-shape smoke curls into the air. A crude altar in the back pays homage with pennies, wine, and feathers to Danbala, who's a ringer for Saint Patrick, Moses, or sometimes a green-bodied snake. The owner must love Danbala, because there are sequined vodou flags and spirit bottles bearing his likeness everywhere I look.
A small clutch of men draw stools up to the counter and begin their daily barter between work and talk. One of them pops a tape into a beat-up boom box, and drums and chanting now blend with the lilt of their voices, their Creole rising and falling like another rhythm. Above them, a row of ceramic saints waits for new homes and new disciples to protect or torment. I pay for my candles. The incense now fills the store with its green scent, and I linger by the doorway; it's hard to leave a place where you could get what you wish for.
Saint Pierre Botanica Shop and Spiritual Store, 405 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-767-6251.
I came to South Florida expecting tropical. What I didn't expect was South Seas tropical. But much to my surprise, right here in the middle of the urban jungle that's Broward County, there's a little Polynesian oasis called Mai-Kai. Just a few feet away from the maniacs on Federal Highway, I stepped into another world, and it's the real thing.
That palm-thatch roof I saw from Federal is made from real South Florida palms. And by real South Floridians. Manager Kern Mattei told me that local Seminole Indians are brought in to replace it when it wears out. Inside I found a cavernous A-frame main room with a stage where real Polynesian dancers and drummers perform nightly. Branching off that main room are seven dining rooms, each named after a different Pacific island, lots of genuine bamboo railings and monkey pot wood tables with varnish about an inch thick.
But the real kicker is that each room is decorated with items from its namesake island. The primitive tools and eerie ceremonial masks on the walls of the New Guinea room, for example, really are from New Guinea. It seems the original Mai-Kai owner was something of a traveler, and in the '40s and '50s he accumulated the massive collection on display throughout the restaurant and bar with many items dating back to the turn of the 19th Century. I spot a preserved blowfish hanging in one room, and everywhere there are beautiful hand-made fishing traps dangling from the ceiling, many outfitted with soft lights that transform them into exotic lanterns.
The place has something like three dozen original tiki masks, from the tiny to the titanic, both inside the restaurant-bar and outside in the gardens (but mostly inside -- the South Florida climate tends to take its toll). In one little grotto area just off the trail that winds through the gardens, there's the mother of all tikis, a scarred wooden monster from the '40s that's maybe 12 to 15 feet tall. Mattei tells me the poor fellow once sported an enormous erection, until prudish patrons complained and he was emasculated.
The gardens themselves are quite something. Countless ferns and palms, stands of willowy bamboo. Waterfalls and pools. Orchids bred especially for Mai-Kai by an employee. In one corner there's a strange little structure that turns out to be an outside kitchen. But instead of ordinary grills, it houses huge chimney ovens modeled after the ones used for cooking and heating in ancient Mongolian homes. They burn on Australian oak and are used for virtually all Mai-Kai's meats, which are impaled on hooks and hung on metal rods inside the smoky chimneys.
The whole complex was designed by a Japanese architect named George Nakashima and built in 1956. He used a Thai theme for the ladies' room and the gift shop. For the men's room and the bar, he went nautical. The bar, in particular, is meant to make you feel as if you're on a lower deck of a ship. (The wooden entry bridge from the parking lot to the front door was intentionally designed to be creaky, the better to provide sound effects for patrons inside the bar.) A nice place to sip a mai tai and reflect on the unique design of the Mai-Kai.