Nostalgia is a powerful concept. We tend to romanticize the past either because we miss the way things used to be or out of necessity to whitewash our own personal histories. But what about getting nostalgic for a past we were never actually a part of? Well, that might occur for the simplest reason of all: time travel.
For five days this past weekend, Fort Lauderdale was the landing spot for a congregation of fun-loving, tropically clothed time travelers. The Hukilau, billed as “The World's Most Authentic Tiki Event,” not only brought people from all over the United States – Ohio, Texas, California – but from far corners of the globe, including Europe and Australia. The event draws close to 1,200 visitors annually and in 2015 celebrated its 14th anniversary.
This year, the Hukilau was headquartered at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 and bookended by opening and closing festivities at the historic Mai-Kai, a beautiful and iconic Polynesian bar and restaurant located in Oakland Park (the “tiki mecca” for many hard-core enthusiasts.) The Hukilau offered a bevy of activities for attendees, including symposiums on drink culture, swim shows by mermaids, a sultry burlesque starring Lila Starlet, and the Tiki Treasures Bazaar, a marketplace dedicated to selling midcentury Americana trinkets, Hawaiian shirts and dresses, beach-inspired jewelry, and original artwork. It was a mishmash of 1950s drive-through aesthetic, Golden Girls wicker furniture, and vintage surf style.
The Hukilau kicked off with a preparty Wednesday night at the Mai-Kai, and although it was a low-key, laid-back affair, it hinted at what the weekend held in store. A quick glance at these gaudily dressed people and an outsider may very well dismiss the Hukilau as kitschy nonsense. However, there is a charm that runs rampant throughout everything surrounding the Hukilau.
First off, the people are all in. There are no reservations, no apprehension about letting loose. Everyone was friendly and just plain happy to be there, casting away all the world's worries. Clad in every color of a South Pacific rainbow, boots that Nancy Sinatra would be proud of, the women with their Mad Men hairdos and the occasional tiger print shirt, one is almost overwhelmed by the visual feast and the camaraderie. It was as if an entire community of midcentury middle-class suburbanites was yanked through a kaleidoscope wormhole and painted as exotically as peacocks upon their arrival in the 21st Century.
Then there's the location. Although Pier 66 held many events and is lovely in its own right, the Mai-Kai truly makes an impression. On the inside, it feels like a sunken pirate ship; dark, intimate, and atmospheric, each room, from the bar tucked away near the front entrance to the main dining room where the live Polynesian dancers entertain the hungry, serves to create an ambiance that transports visitors into another realm. In the rear, there's an enchanting garden of palms, waterfalls, bridges, and tiki gods, big and small. It could be the setting of a Quentin Tarantino movie. But thankfully, everyone's too happy and too drunk on fruity cocktails to pull any kind of heist.
The organizers behind the Hukilau extend that tiki vibe into every show and event. Thursday night, the two bands that took the stage at the Panorama Ballroom behind Pier 66 provided the ideal soundtrack to the experience. The master of ceremonies, King Kukulele, introduced each act (and pretty much everything else the remainder of the weekend) wearing a faux grass skirt, a ukulele, and clever yet kooky sense of humor. First up was Kinky Waikiki, an outfit that played traditional, slow dance worthy Hawaiian tunes. The energy picked up with The Intoxicators, a trio of evil Dick Dales blasting punchy and gnarly surf rock. They got butts out of chairs and dancing. The man from Ipanema in his white suit did a little swing dance with the lady in red, while a woman in a tank top and shorts jumped on stage to rumble and jig with the band.
In addition to music, perhaps the largest influence on a festival of this type is pop culture, specifically old TV shows. The Brady Bunch, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Donna Reed Show, and Howdy Doody, they all seem to have had some sort of intrinsic influence on the Hukilau, but there's one show above all that feels like a direct ancestor. Gilligan's Island made many Americans long for a permanent getaway on some distant, sandy shore. And it wasn't because of the coconut radios crafted by the professor. It was Ginger and Mary Ann, two names that conjure up a great deal of excitement in Nick at Nite lovers' hearts.
It's with that appreciation of the classic sitcom that a handful of wannabe skippers and first mates signed up for the “Three Hour Tour” Cruise with Mary Ann herself, Dawn Wells, around Fort Lauderdale's intracoastal waterways. Aboard the spacious and luxurious Lady Windridge of Windridge Yacht Charters, guests enjoyed hors-d'oeuvres, a tricked out buffet, and free cocktails compliments of Kenny Chesney's rum line, Blue Chair Bay. Wells spent the afternoon signing autographs and judging a Gilligan's Island costume contest, which featured a sexy Gilligan and a pair of competing Mr. Howells who tried to bribe Wells, smiling all the while. It was a much smoother trip than the one that inspired it.
Saturday and Sunday were filled with much of the same: breezy, leisurely days that morphed into boozy, comical (and in the case of Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, sexy) nights. While the Hukilau may not be the largest event of the year, it was the highlight of spring/summer for many of those in attendance.
Sure, it's a bit of a niche celebration, but the truth is, anyone with a taste for easy-going good times, the ability to not take things too seriously, and a healthy liver waiting to be tested, the Hukilau is well worth the voyage through time, space, and the back of the closet where you've hidden away everything floral print.