Tiki 101: A New Villager at the Hukilau

In June, I attended the Hukilau as a new villager to Tiki Culture. It is Florida’s annual tiki convention held at the mid-century marvel, the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Ft. Lauderdale.

Prior to attending, I visualized a Tiki Convention as a parallel of a Parrothead Party. Growing up on the Gulf Coast, I was familiar with these soirees: middle aged folks swaying along to “Son of a Sailor,” that appear to be dancing but in reality, are just trying to stand up after an overconsumption of Parrot Bay. I was mistaken, as the Tiki Cult is authentic, and dare not to drink from a plastic pineapple cup.

So, what is Tiki Culture? Also known as Poly-Pop, it is the American interpretation of Polynesian culture dating back to the WWII era. A fusion of Indo-Pacific art, cuisine, libations and music muddled with mid-century America. Imagine you took Rockabilly, added hipsters sporting vintage aloha shirts sipping high end rum cocktails, and you get a glimpse of the radness of Tiki.

In attending the Hukilau, I identified critical components of what makes one a Poly-Popper {a term I literally just made up} to assist other new villagers:

1. A Passion for Crafted Cocktails

At the event, I took a “Pineapple Paradise” cocktail class with celebrity bartender Daniele Dalla Pola. He is the genius behind Nu Lounge Bar in Bolagna, Italy. I learned a cocktail is an alchemy of spirits, juices, bitters and a garnish. Under Daniele’s amazing tutelage at the Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy, I learned to craft a true Tiki drink and became pretty tipsy {albeit, I’m a lightweight}. Between the tartness of every piña potation, and Daniele’s charming expertise to surprise me with ingredients like butter mixed with rum, I had to consume every single sip.

2. Collection of Kitsch

I made my way to the Tiki Treasures Craft Bazaar. A Poly-Popper likely has a slight obsession with the cocktail mugs. Most Tiki Bars or Bartenders have a signature mug to adorn their cocktails. Daniele was generous to give me his signature mug which is proudly displayed amongst my growing collection of tiki chachkis. I snapped a pic of his colorful sugar skull mug crafted to serve his tequila cocktail in, “El Ikilero”.

If you aren’t lucky enough to score a sweet mug like me by rubbing elbows with a celebrity bartender, you can start your supply by visiting Ooga-Mooga.com, a site dedicated to buying, selling and trading tiki mugs. Other kitsch is also celebrated: tiki carvings, vinyl records, and surf nostalgia.

3. Vintage Fashion

As I mentioned, there is a deep appreciation for vintage wear among the Tiki Cult. The Craft Bazaar had a surplus of vintage Hawaiian shirts. I scored a few Wonderland Honolulu shirts for $20 each. I went crazy over the array of aloha print, as I’m a deep appreciator of palm covered anything. When I strolled outside to the High Tide Pool Party, I was surprised that the retro vibe was very alive poolside. If the women weren’t covered in tattoos, I could have been convinced they were dropped off at the Hyatt via time machine from 1945. The ladies rocked modest bathing suits, with conservative cuts on the thigh and high waists. Their perfect pin curled hair with massive flowers behind their ears survived splashes as they sipped libations.  The men obviously rocked their Hawaiian print shirts, and many adorned homemade palm frond hats that we had made in a workshop in the morning.

4. A Keen Eye for a Tiki Bar

Growing up in Florida, I thought a Tiki bar only required a thatched roof and Jimmy Buffet music. I was way off mark, as a proper Tiki bar must have a selection of crafted cocktails, signature mugs, mid-century décor, and bonus points if there is live entertainment. If you are confused if your local tiki bar fits the criteria, you can go to Critiki.com to check its rank. It’s an entire site dedicated to evaluating and scoring the authenticity of Tiki attractions. Luckily, I live close to the Mai Kai, a true classic tiki establishment dating back to 1956 The Mai Kai is also on the national register of Historic places, and I was fortunate to hear the original Mai Kai girls speak at the Hukilau and their run ins with famous patrons like Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason. It’s establishment was celebrated throughout the Hukilau, with a culmination of Tiki friends every evening at the Mai Kai.

I could literally write an entire blog on Poly-Pop. This is only my first installment of Tiki 101 as I plan to share cocktail recipes, a palm frond hat tutorial, and share my visit to the Mai Kai. In the meantime, throw on a Hawaiian shirt, sip a cocktail and Tiki on, my friends!