When I was young, my parents took me to Hawaii. I remember wholesome family fun there, swimming in the ocean and visiting some volcanoes. We checked out both Maui and Oahu, but all in all, we didn't do anything more exotic than drink from a coconut or search for seashells. No Polynesian fire shows, no potent island rum concoctions, no scantily clad hula girls. I didn't even get lei'd. Now that I'm old enough to properly appreciate cultural learning experiences, let's just say Hawaii is a bit out of my reach. It's a pocketbook thing.
When I heard about Hukilau, a Polynesian/Hawaiian culture-based luau spanning four days and consisting of diverse events at hot spots across the Fort Lauderdale area, I figured it is as close to that other, racier Hawaii as I'm going to get — at least until I stop blowing my savings on drinks all over Broward County. Mai-Kai (3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale), the most famous local tiki bar, has been the prime site of the festival since 2003. It was Hukilau's Saturday-night home base, and around 10 p.m., it was packed with more Hawaiian shirts than I'd seen in my life, trip to Hawaii and elementary-school theme parties included.
Ambiance: The first thing I noticed, while darting between people in bright, tropical attire, leis looped around their necks, was that my outfit, regular ol' jeans, heels, and a top, was completely out of place. Everyone else — drinking at the bar, gathered in groups around the dining tables, dancing to that feel-good steel guitar sound of the '50s and '60s surf culture — looked like they were straight off the set of Blue Hawaii. And me without my kukui-nut necklace. My wardrobe consultant is so fired.
Besides being jam-packed and mystifyingly exotic, Mai-Kai is low-lit, furnished with dark wood, and, for such a theme-heavy establishment, way more class than kitsch. Its walls are covered in weather-beaten life preservers, ship miniatures, and topless carved figureheads. Inflated puffer fish, with small lights glowing through their translucent skin, hang lifeless over dining tables packed into the narrow space behind the bar. Colored lanterns and straw thatching hang overhead, and water runs against the windows, creating the illusion that the bar is below the deck of a ship. Between the scantily clad waitresses, the stifling humidity, and the seafaring paraphernalia, Mai-Kai is an exotic, sensual melding of tiki bar and Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
Bartenders: When the sea of colorful, flowery fabric had parted slightly, I was able to procure a little bit of standing area near the bar. The bartenders were a bevy of exotic, raven-haired goddesses, barely covered in floral-print sarongs and matching strapless tops. When Lieu, with her flawless cinnamon skin and alluring almond-shaped eyes, hesitated near me for a second, I grabbed her and pegged her with questions.
"What's going on here?" I asked.
"It's Hukilau," she said. "It's a huge Polynesian convention, and we and other restaurants are all celebrating. This is supposed to be its last year."
"Aw, that's sad," I said. "What a downer."
The organizers of Hukilau, Tiki Kiliki and Amy Eggers, are rumored to have found the annual festival to be an onerous, time-consuming, energy-sapping task they can no longer sustain.
"Yeah, but Hukilau is on the same dates every year," Lieu said. "And this is the oldest tiki bar in the area, so I think we'll probably have people celebrating Hukilau next year, whether it's official or not."
The managers of Mai-Kai are no fools. Give up a cash cow like Hukilau? No way.
Drinks: I ordered "barrel o' rums" for the two friends who had accompanied me, and Lieu brought them faster than you could say mahalo. The fruit-and-rum mixture came in ceramic, barrel-shaped mugs. You could say (as somebody actually did) it tasted like tropical escapism, and, sure enough, a couple of hearty swigs were enough to get my hardboiled buddies floatin' like a couple of butterflies. Nearby, a woman with dark red hair wearing a floral-patterned dress sat solo, periodically bringing her own rum to her crimson lips.
Leaving my friends to fawn over the flat-tummied bartenders and giggle into their barrel o' rums, I sneaked up on the lone lady — Kathryn, from San Antonio, Texas — to get the Hukilau scoop.
"This is my first Hukilau ever," she said. "I'm here with the woman who designed the Hukilau website."
"How do you like it so far?" I asked.
"It's fun to dress up; I love the music and the hula shows and the escapism of it all," she smiled. "Honestly, it's about getting away."
"Plus all the really delicious, very alcoholic drinks, right?" I asked, nodding toward her poison of choice.
"Well, not really that," she said, fingering the glass. "I actually don't even like rum." Oh, the burdens of staying attuned in a diverse culture.
Customers: As the band Wholly Cats played the lazy, catchy tunes straight from Hawaiian surf culture, a woman in a blue dress and Lucille Ball-red lipstick danced with a bearded man in an open aloha shirt and a huge straw hat, the dozen plastic bracelets on her arms clinking wildly. People wore leis and white shell necklaces, and most of the women had their hair done up full of bright orchids to match the patterns of their dresses. Some women wore sarongs and muumuus, some men pulled off Cuban-style cruise hats, and one man had groomed his impressive mustache to curl at its ends.
I approached a thin, bespectacled man in a brown-and-white aloha shirt who kept flashing around his PalmPilot — and in the low lighting of the bar, its glowing screen caught my eye more than once. On closer inspection, I could see that Hanford Lemoore — who'd come all the way from California — also wore a small, island-crafted wooden whistle on a rope around his neck.
"So what brings you to Hukilau?" I asked.
"I love the culture, music, drinks, and craftsmanship — and it's all here," Lemoore said. "I'm also the webmaster of TikiCentral.com, and a lot of the people here met on the forums of my website."
"So, embracing this Polynesian/Hawaiian culture is a huge hobby for you," I surmised. "What's the draw?"
"When you're driving through rush hour after an eight-hour workday and you stop at a tiki bar on the way home, you're immediately in Hawaii," he said, smiling broadly. "All your troubles fade away."
Rum and fruit juice must help on that score, I suggested.
"Oh yeah," he said, grabbing his PalmPilot and holding it in front of my face. "This is a list of all the drinks I've had since Hukilau started on Thursday."
I scanned his list of drinks — most of them containing words like breeze, island, and the names of various tropical fruit. "What's the total so far?"
"Twenty-two," he said proudly.
"Do you remember anything so far?"
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"Well, actually, I had a bit too much to drink last night," he said sheepishly. "I wound up swimming in the ocean at 4 a.m., and I knocked my glasses off." He pointed abruptly to the ones on his face. "Replacements," he said.
The sea of aloha-print shirts ebbed and flowed as other dinner events and hula shows transpired elsewhere, but a solid base of Hukilaugoers remained near the bar at all times, drinking, dancing, and dining. In truth, Hukilaugoers might be even more enthusiastic about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture than Hawaiians are. Shortly after I saw Lemoore ordering drink number 23, I ran into Rick Andolina, the bar manager (or, as his business card puts it, Molokai Captain). In his black suit, he stuck out just as much as I did among the bright outfits with their swirling colors and cheerful flowers.
"Quite a crowd tonight," I said. "I hear this is the last Hukilau ever."
"It was going to be," he said with a smile. "But I think we'll probably do it again next year." Try to stop him.