Among the most loyal followers of The Mai-Kai are the thousands of guests who flock to Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau, an annual celebration of Polynesian Pop culture that established a foothold in the historic restaurant in 2003 and remains inextricably linked.
The recent announcement of The Mai-Kai’s planned refurbishment and reopening sent joyous shockwaves throughout the Tiki community, but especially among The Hukilau’s longtime “villagers,” as they’re known. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, but we were able to get a taste of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau in September 2021 during a special event in the porte-cochère. It was comforting to sip authentic cocktails and enjoy the musicians performing outside the front entrance, but many still longed to be inside.
When it was announced during the event that a deal had been struck and The Mai-Kai would be reopening, it made the experience even sweeter. Full details were released the following week (see story below), and the rest is history.
While the timeline is not clear on a reopening date, hopes are running high that the 20th anniversary of The Hukilau in 2022 will indeed include at least a partial return to indoor activities. The synergy is guaranteed to continue with the news that one of the investors in the new ownership team is The Hukilau’s head honcho, Richard Oneslager.
Beyond taking in all the activities – from the dinner show featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue to live bands in The Molokai bar – a ritual for many villagers during The Hukilau includes walking the sacred grounds and taking photos of their beloved Mai-Kai.
Below you’ll find a collection of those photos, shared with The Atomic Grog over the years. Many are appearing on the blog for the first time. Let’s enjoy the eye candy and look forward to once again returning in person for the grand reopening.
Established in 1956, The Mai-Kai is a national historic landmark with many iconic features that guests see every time they visit, from the Polynesian Islander Revue, to the distinctive design and decor, to the gracious staff.
But there’s one key element to the experience that you rarely ever see, but almost always taste: The rums of The Mai-Kai. Using tropical drink recipes that can be traced directly back to Don the Beachcomber’s 1930s-era classics, the behind-the-scenes bartenders follow generations-old methods of mixing rum cocktails.
Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog will take guests of The Hukilau 2019 on an virtual journey to the Caribbean to learn about the key rums and styles that have dominated The Mai-Kai’s acclaimed cocktails for more than 60 years. This includes an intimate class for bartenders and enthusiasts at the Pier Sixty-Six hotel, and an interactive symposium on stage at the Polynesian palace in Fort Lauderdale.
Here are the details on both events:
The Rums of The Mai-Kai: The Classic Tiki Template Saturday, June 8, at Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class in the Commodore Room, 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Don the Beachcomber’s groundbreaking use of multiple rums in a single cocktail is crucial to the style that came to be known as Tiki. Nearly 90 years later, that exact same blending of spirits is still practiced today at The Mai-Kai. Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog will guide hands-on lessons on how the flavors from different Caribbean islands are used in concert to create some of the world’s most famous rum rhapsodies. Put these practices to use to make your home bar sing. Special guest “professor” Stephen Remsberg, famed rum historian and collector, will share his knowledge and a few treats from his collection.
Another special treat: Students will shake up cocktails using sponsor rums and actual Mai-Kai ingredients. The restaurant will provide us with ample quantities of several classic drinks, sans rums, for our mixing pleasure. Also, there will be raffles held throughout the class with an assortment of door prizes, including signed books and barware from Cocktail Kingdom’s Beachbum Berry Collection.
All class members are also invited to The Mai-Kai on Sunday for special events that include rare “lost cocktails” from The Mai-Kai’s 1956 menu, plus reserved seats for an on-stage rum presentation by Hurricane Hayward and Matt Pietrek, aka Cocktail Wonk. Select students will participate in the symposium while a group of others will receive an exclusive, private tour of The Mai-Kai’s back bar and historic rum collection. Free shuttle will run betwen The Hukilau hotels and The Mai-Kai from 11:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m.
BUY TICKETS: Class sizes are limited, so act now before this sells out. Tickets for all Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classes cost $49 plus fee, and include a special series of barware (rum sippers, spoons, muddlers, strainers, and a flask) created especially for students by Tiki Diablo. Participants get one item per class, plus the many rum samples, cocktails, and door prizes mentioned above.
The Rums of The Mai-Kai: From the Back Bar to Your Glass Sunday, June 9, at The Mai-Kai The Mai-Kai Grand Finale, noon to 4 p.m., featuring live music in The Molokai bar by Skinny Jimmy Stingray. Symposium in the main dining room at 1:30 p.m.
Take a deep dive into the historic rum collection of the legendary Polynesian restaurant with Jim “Hurricane” Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog and special guest Matt Pietrek, rum expert and author of the award-winning Cocktail Wonk blog. Discover new information on The Mai-Kai’s connection to Tiki cocktail forefather Don the Beachcomber through the rums they have in common. Includes an interactive, multimedia presentation and rare “lost cocktails” from the archives, as we enjoy The Mai-Kai before it opens to the public.
For the fifth year in a row, the signature event at The Hukilau has sold out months in advance. The Tiki Tower Takeover, held every June in the 17th floor rooftop ballroom at Pier Sixty-Six in Fort Lauderdale, will have added significance in 2019.
The festive cocktail party that spotlights some of the world’s top Tiki bartenders will celebrate Women Who Tiki with eight female mixologists serving their own special creations. With the hotel closing for a massive refurbishment immediately after The Hukilau, it will also be the last Takeover in the tower for at least two years.
The Hukilau: Wednesday through Sunday, June 5-9, 2019, at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, B Ocean Resort and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Featuring Tikiyaki Orchestra, Tikiyaki 5-0, Surfer Joe, The Volcanics, The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Gold Dust Lounge, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, The Swingin’ Palms, Slowey and the Boats, King Kukulele, Brother Cleve, Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, and 25 top Tiki bars and bartenders from around the world.
* TheHukilau.com | Facebook: Page and Group | Instagram
In addition to the all-female theme, the 2019 event will feature a significant increase in participants over past years, when no more than five bartenders were included. The Hukilau takes over the Pier Top Lounge from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 6. Prior to boarding the elevators to the tower, villagers can enjoy a welcome drink in the hotel’s ground-floor Windows on the Green.
While individual tickets are no longer available, there’s still one way to gain VIP entry. There are a limited number of South Seas passes available ($399 plus fee) that include exclusive early access at 4 p.m. to the Tiki Tower Takeover plus a custom mug from Tiki Farm. This top-of-the-line pass also gets you admission to all five days of events (not including symposiums and classes). Click here for a rundown on all the ticket options, as well as updates on what’s sold out.
Here’s this year’s all-star lineup of bartenders. All are making their first Tiki Tower Takeover appearance, though two have previously served the welcome drink. No previous events have featured more than five bars, so expect an action-packed (and cocktail-filled) party in the Pier Top Lounge this year.
In honor of the 15th anniversary of The Hukilau, we asked Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White to share her remembrances from her 15 years as co-founder, co-producer and organizer. Starting in 2002 in Atlanta and moving to Fort Lauderdale the next year, the event has experienced plenty of high points for guests and participants. But what does Tiki Kiliki remember most? Video:A look back at The Hukilau’s first 14 years
There were so many highlights, she said, it was tough to narrow down. Here’s a year-by-year look back at a few of the most vivid:
2002 – Two things stick in Tiki Kiliki’s memory from the inaugural event: “The look on the manager’s face when Wayne Coombs began using his industrial stapler to cover the Echo Lounge in Atlanta with reed fencing for The Hukilau party that night.” The other was meeting Sven Kirsten and King Kukulele for the first time, “taking them to antique markets, thrift stores and the Clairmont Lounge.”
2003 – Tiki Kiliki will always remember entering the doors of The Mai-Kai for the first time. “It changed my life forever,” she said. Meeting owner Mireille Thornton and hearing her say that The Hukilau reminded her of the way it used to be was “the ultimate compliment AND memory!” She got an unexpected surprise during the first U.S. appearance of Italian band I Belli Di Waikiki. “They dumped an entire cooler of ice down the back of my dress,” she remembers.
2004 – Nobody will forget Hurricane Jeanne. “It was a terrible thing to go through, but it created some of the best memories,” Tiki Kiliki said. “People slept in The Mai-Kai and I learned a lot about how you always trust your gut. We should have evacuated the day prior.” The other highlight was watching Billy Mure play the music that he loved to play in front of true fans. “He was horribly arthritic, but he always said the only time he wasn’t in pain was when he was playing,” she said. “He was a friend until his passing in 2013 at the age of 97.”
2005 – Robert Drasnin made a historic appearance, performing his classic Voodoo album for the first time since 1959. “It was one of the moments I’m most proud of in my life,” Tiki Kiliki said. “Everyone in the audience was mesmerized.” The performance was so successful and the reception so warm, “he actually began to write Voodoo 2 while in Fort Lauderdale that weekend,” she said.
Marking its 15th anniversary, the East Coast’s largest and oldest Polynesian Pop event promises its biggest party ever in 2016. But before the rum-fueled bash gets into high gear, we’d like to pause and take a look back at the past 14 gatherings of the Tiki tribe. Related: Tiki Kiliki: 15 years of The Hukilau, 15 years of memories
In 2002, a modern Tiki renaissance was in full swing. Inspired by the heyday of Polynesian Pop, which began with groundbreaking efforts of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic in the 1930s and stretched for more than 30 years into the 1960s, a new generation of artists, musicians, mixologists and entrepreneurs had been embracing retro Tiki culture since the 1990s.
As this grassroots movement gained momentum and new devotees discovered the wider world of mid-century pop culture, full-blown events soon followed. In Southern California – the birthplace of Tiki and haven for some of the genre’s most beloved bars, architecture and artists – Tiki Oasis started small in 2001 and quickly became the largest Tiki event in the West by its second installment in 2002.
The Hukilau was envisioned by its founders not only as the East Coast’s answer to Tiki Oasis, but also a celebration of the growing family and community, or ‘ohana, that had become so enamored with the entire underground movement. The name of the event, of course, comes from the traditional Hawaiian festival held in fishing villages in which a large net is cast into the sea to capture fish for the feast that honors the spirit of family and community.
In honor of The Hukilau’s 15th year and the 60th anniversary of The Mai-Kai, event co-founder/organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White has assembled some of the top names in the Tiki revival for special events and symposiums that promise to educate as well as entertain. On March 3, she announced a first-of-its-kind Tiki event, a groundbreaking gathering of some of the biggest names in the modern revival.
Tickets are on sale now for “Raiders of the Lost Tiki Culture”, a freewheeling panel discussion on Saturday, June 11, moderated by yours truly and featuring Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Otto von Stroheim, Humuhumu, Martin Cate, Crazy Al Evans, Shag, and Tiki Kiliki herself. The godfather of the Tiki revival, Sven Kirsten, will participate via Skype. “We would not be celebrating today if it weren’t for these people,” Tiki Kiliki said of her colleagues on the panel.
It’s just $15 for this very special event, which will follow von Stroheim’s “2001: A Tiki Odyssey” symposium at 1 p.m. in the Panorama Ballroom at the Pier 66 hotel. Previously announced symposiums include author and bar owner Berry, Shag, Humuhumu, Tiki historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner, tattoo artist Paul Roe, plus South Florida artists Tom Fowner and Will Anders.
The “Raiders of the Lost Tiki Culture” panel discussion will be divided into two parts: First, Kirsten, Berry and von Stroheim will discuss the early days and evolution of the revival. Then, they’ll be joined by Humuhumu, Cate, Evans, Shag, and Tiki Kiliki to talk about how the revival inspired them to push the boundaries even farther. “I don’t want people to forget how we got here,” Tiki Kiliki said.
You’ll hear the stories of how Tiki became a passion for a select few Californians, and how they revived this lost culture for the rest of the world to enjoy. Learn how they did their research and how they found each other, kicking off a new renaissance that continues to this day. The rest of the panel will talk about their discovery of Tiki, and how they approach their own unique experiences.
I’ll be quizzing the panelists about their place in the Tiki pantheon, and the audience will also have an opportunity to ask questions. A special cocktail is also included in the price of admission. It’s recommend you attend von Stroheim’s symposium beforehand to get the full backstory on how it all started.
After 15 years of planning the East Coast’s premiere Tiki weekender, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White knows a thing or two about giving her guests, affectionately known as “villagers,” what they want. For the 15th anniversary of The Hukilau, scheduled for June 8-12 in Fort Lauderdale, that means assembling the biggest names in the Polynesian Pop revival for an unforgettable experience unlike any other.
“Tiki culture is only growing stronger, and we are trying to provide the best show possible for anyone who wants to join us,” Tiki Kiliki said in an interview this week. She said she wants her guests to feel like “they’ve just stepped back in time into an era where Tiki was ever-present.”
Tickets went on sale Tuesday for an impressive array of symposiums and experiences that will make the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale the epicenter of the 21st century Tiki revival. Special guests and entertainers include some of the scene’s top artists (Shag, Tom Fowner, Will Anders, Jeff Chouinard), cocktail creators (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, Paul McGee, Brian Miller, St. John Frizell), bands and musicians (The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Jason Lee and the R.I.P. Tides, The Intoxicators, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, The Quiet Villagers, The Disasternauts), entertainers (Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Angie Pontani, Kitten de Ville, Lila Starlet), and pop culture historians (Otto von Stroheim, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, Humuhumu, Paul Roe).
“The appearance of Shag has really stirred tons of excitement here on the East Coast,” Tiki Kiliki said. “We don’t see him often enough, so that will be a true treat for everyone.”
This year’s event celebrates not only The Hukilau’s 15th year, but also the 60th anniversary of The Mai-Kai, the legendary Tiki temple that was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Hukilau moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2003 after launching in 2002 in Atlanta, drawn by the restaurant’s legendary reputation that only continues to grow. Last year, it was named best Tiki bar in the world after a tally of ratings by Critiki.com users.
The Hukilau is returning for a second year to Pier 66, another historic property that dates back to 1956 and is beloved for its mid-century architecture and iconic rotating rooftop penthouse lounge. It’s a miraculous turnaround for The Hukilau, which nearly called it adieu in 2014. At the 11th hour, Tiki Kiliki was approached by new partners who have injected new life (and financing) into the event, enabling the move to Pier 66. She has also been able to concentrate on the creative end of things, putting together a perfect Polynesian Pop getaway for guests.
The Hukilau’s villagers last year voted Pier 66 “Best Hotel in The Hukilau’s History,” enamored by its modern amenities and hospitality provided by Hyatt, combined with its history and mid-century design. With only a few available rooms remaining during The Hukilau weekend, Tiki Kiliki urges potential guests to book sooner rather than later.
“The 66 provides a perfect backdrop to the classic era of Tiki with its roots perfectly planted the same year that The Mai-Kai first opened,” Tiki Kiliki said. Pier 66 guests are also the only villagers who will receive special welcome bags full of swag provided by sponsors. When Pier 66 sells out, she hopes to have another nearby hotel lined up for villagers to enjoy.
Sales of 2016 event passes and tickets for special events have been selling at an unprecedented rate after going online in late October, much earlier than in past years. Demand is no doubt driven by the anniversaries and the unique experiences the 2016 event offers.
Tiki Kiliki said many things are driving interest this year. Villagers are “excited about celebrating the past and the future with the anniversaries, and Tiki culture is only growing stronger. … Also, Pier 66 has a lot to do with it too. The event grows ever stronger in the right venue.”
After coming precariously close to saying aloha and goodbye to The Hukilau, the long-running Tiki event she has organized since 2002, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White is sure glad things turned out differently. “For me, it was the best event in the history of The Hukilau,” she said of the five-day festival in June that not only marked the 13th annual gathering of vintage culture devotees from around the world, but also a new beginning.
Just months before she planned to close the books on The Hukilau for good, White was approached by two fans of the event who also happened to be experienced businessmen and event organizers who were eager to strike up a partnership. “I consider myself a very lucky person,” she said of the serendipity of the happenstance that led to The Hukilau not only surviving to see 2015, but becoming poised to thrive and reach new audiences across the country.
I sat down with Tiki Kiliki recently at The Mai-Kai, the beloved 57-year-old Polynesian restaurant that serves as the inspiration for the event, to get the lowdown on what she and her new partners, Richard Oneslager and Mike Zielinski, have in the works for The Hukilau and how their mutually beneficial partnership came about. But first, a look back at that memorable event in June that was expanded to five days in anticipation of a last hurrah. Instead, it turned into a celebration of what’s to come.
“This is going to sound really strange, but sort of like Disney, it was kind of like magic this year,” Tiki Kiliki told me. “You can’t really explain it, but everything just fell into place in a magical way. We talked about it afterwards. We don’t really know what the magic formula was, it just happened.”
The magic started on Wednesday, June 11, when what was formerly an informal night at The Mai-Kai became the Unofficial Official Pre-Party. South Florida roots/rockabilly band Slip and the Spinouts jammed in the sold-out Molokai bar while other attendees enjoyed many of the bar’s 47 classic Tiki cocktails and the restaurant’s extensive appetizer and dinner menu in the more sedate dining rooms. Logistical problems at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper forced the cancellation of Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid’s scheduled midnight swim show, but that just gave some attendees the opportunity to begin their room parties early. Disappointed guests were heartened by the fact that there was much more Marina to come.
The 13th edition of The Hukilau, the East Coast’s largest annual event dedicated to mid-century and Polynesian Pop culture, rolled into Fort Lauderdale last week for five days of “the most authentic Tiki event in the world.” But if you didn’t make it down to the beachside festivities or the historic Mai-Kai restaurant, you still have a limited-time opportunity to pick up some exclusive merchandise. Related:Artists pay tribute to The Mai-Kai with one-of-a-kind mugs
For many, the one piece of merchandise most closely associated with Tiki culture is, of course, the Tiki mug. Every year, The Hukilau has produced one of the most distinctive (and valuable) mugs on the market, designed by noted artists and produced in limited editions by the top mug manufacturers. [Click here to see some of the past designs]
First released only to ticket-holders and registered guests, The Hukilau 2014 Commemorative Mug is available (while supplies last) to the general public. Designed and produced by Oregon’s Eekum Bookum, the mug comes with two different glazes (Lava and Sunset) and features “The Final Aloha” on the back. In production before it was announced that the event will continue next year, this mug is likely to become a collector’s piece. [Check out the value of past mugs]
The Hukilau, the East Coast’s flagship event celebrating mid-century Polynesian Pop culture, delighted its Facebook fans with an announcement Friday that this year’s event will not be its last after all.
In late 2013, The Hukilau’s co-founder and longtime organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White announced that this year’s event would be the “Final Aloha.” The annual gathering of Tiki culture fans began in 2002 in Atlanta and has been based in Fort Lauderdale and the historic Mai-Kai since 2003. But as has happened before, fate (or perhaps the Tiki gods) once again intervened.
“While the Final Aloha was a very difficult decision to make, it was necessary by a series of factors at that time,” White posted on The Hukilau’s official Facebook page. “I’m relieved and thankful that we may be able to overcome them. I’m happy to announce due to recent events that The Hukilau will continue!”
The Hukilau has returned from the brink at least once before, and it has overcome many hurdles. It survived a direct hit from Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, then the potential closing of The Mai-Kai in 2008. That year was thought to be the last, until an 11th-hour announcement that The Mai-Kai has secured loans to repair long-standing damage from the hurricane, ensuring both the survival of the iconic Polynesian restaurant (est. in 1956) and The Hukilau.