Minimalist Tiki

Hukilau rewind: A whirlwind weekend of tropical delights

* More photos and recaps: Facebook page | Facebook group
* Press coverage: Special audio feature and story from NPR | Broward New Times photos
* More coverage from The Atomic Grog
* Official photos from Go11 Media

The Hukilau

Hundreds of Tikiphiles from around the world gathered in Fort Lauderdale on April 19-22 for the 11th edition of the largest event on the U.S. East Coast dedicated to Polynesian Pop culture. It was a jam-packed four days of informative symposiums, live music, artists and vendors, and – of course – many tropical-themed cocktails.

Here’s a full recap with highlights and first-hand reports. Check back soon for more in-depth features on several of the symposiums, plus a special audio slideshow when all the photos are released.

The party actually started a day early on Wednesday, April 18, when early arrivals migrated to the legendary Mai-Kai restaurant for happy hour and a full evening spent reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. And with the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival holding its Tiki Time event that same evening, there were plenty of cocktail lovers in the house. Rum fest DJ Mike “Jetsetter” Jones provided the tunes in The Molokai bar and a large group enjoyed the authentic Polynesian dinner show, the longest running in the United States.

Modern Caribbean Rum
The crew from New York City's Lani Kai serves a flight of authentic Mai Tais at the the Best Western Oceanside
The crew from New York City's Lani Kai serves a flight of authentic Mai Tais at the the Best Western Oceanside. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Among the VIPs in attendance were Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Hukilau speaker and author), Martin Cate (owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed rum bar Smuggler’s Cove), Joe and Nicole Desmond (rum authorities and proprietors of New York City’s Rhum Rhum Room), plus Brian Miller and his crew from New York City’s Lani Kai. The latter group seemed undaunted that they had a gargantuan task ahead of them the next day serving a flight of authentic Mai Tais to the Hukilau hordes. The pre-party was still raging when we bowed out around midnight.

The action shifted to the host hotel, the Best Western Oceanside, on Thursday, April 19. With most of the out-of-town attendees checked in and ready to party, the opening night festivities officially kicked off at 5 p.m. with the Tiki Treasures Bazaar and poolside performances. This was the first year the Best Western served as host hotel, and by most accounts it made for a more intimate and friendly experience for everyone.

Vendors set up their merchandise booths outside their rooms on the spacious second-floor sun deck, which overlooked the first-floor pool. There were also a few vendors on the third floor, including the vintage wares of Hukilau Vendor Coordinator Dave “Basement Kahuna” Wolfe, and the always hip artwork of Miami’s Harold Golen Gallery. The third floor also offered a great bird’s eye view of all the activities below (see photo below).

The Intoxicators perform poolside at the Best Western during Hukilau 2012
The Intoxicators perform poolside at the Best Western during Hukilau 2012. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Other cool booths included Tiki Diablo, Tiki Tower, Livin a Dream, Buried Treasures, Art & Alligators, Jive-Ass-Tikis, Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge, Tropiki, Remixed Treasure Chest, Neal Valentine Mid Century Interiors, Deco Dermot’s Vintage Clothing, Iggy Medeiros, and Barefoot Barking Tikis. The Hukilau’s official merchandise also was on display with great new mugs by Tiki Diablo, glassware designed by Japanese artist Mookie Sato, and event T-shirts. Click here to purchase these items if you missed them.

The sun deck also served as the central gathering spot, thanks in no small part to the excellent cocktails crafted fresh daily by some of the most talented mixologists around. On Thursday, it was the aforementioned Lani Kai crew (see photo above), who made a flight of Mai Tais that were snatched up by the eager, thirsty crowd. I sampled all three and found them to be top-notch.

Down below on the pool deck, DJs Jack Fetterman and Gina of the Jungle added to the festive vibe with cool tunes while Crazed Mugs frontman Pablus, The Intoxicators, and Angie Pontani provided a wide variety of entertainment. The golden voiced Pablus was a fine counterpoint to the raucous Tallahassee surf band that’s become a fixture at all of the recent Hukilaus (see photo above).

Preston Weber performs a fire dance at the 2012 Hukilau's opening night party
Preston Weber performs a fire dance at the 2012 Hukilau's opening night party. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

A special, unexpected treat was the return to The Hukilau of Preston Weber, the 13-year-old fire dancer from Fort Lauderdale who became a world champion at age 11 during a competition in Hawaii and competed on the TV show America’s Got Talent at age 12. The young man showed no signs of slowing down his development as a budding Polynesian performance star (see photo at right).

Burlesque star Pontani was still dancing up a storm as the crowds began drifting to The Mai-Kai around 9 p.m. for a special late-night bash. The Tampa Bay area’s Cadillac Bombers unfortunately had to cancel their scheduled performance due to illness, but a healthy crowd enjoyed the dark and exotic vibe of The Molokai lounge and the restaurant’s lush outdoor Tiki gardens for the rest of the evening. We ran into locals (such as artist Tom Fowner), our Sunshine State neighbors to the north (George Jenkins and the Brevard Tiki crew), plus many others from out of state (Adam Kolesar and his Big Apple brethren).

The first full day of festivities kicked off early on Friday, April 20, with plenty of free cocktails at high noon at the Best Western. Courtesy of The Hukilau’s mixology symposium coordinator, George Jenkins, St. George’s Punch (inspired by a recipe on the blog A Mountain of Crushed Ice) was a big hit.

Shortly thereafter, the action moved over to The Mai-Kai for the first of the weekend’s many excellent symposiums. “Mai-Kai: History, Mystery & Adventure” by Tim “Swanky” Glazner exceeded all expectations. With painstaking detail and rare inside information, Glazner painted a fascinating picture of the genesis, creation and heyday of the great Polynesian palace. It included rare photos, first-person stories and never-before-seen video. The clip of the Mystery Girl with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show was priceless. And it was touching to see all the former employees in attendance, enjoying the trip down memory lane. The Mai-Kai was so impressed that Glazer was invited back to present a similar symposium at the end of the year during the restaurant’s anniversary festivities. Click here for for more on the symposium and Glazner’s new Mini Mai-Kai Mystery Bowl, a tribute to the classic. See also: Our review of the Mystery Drink.

New York City's PKNY treated The Hukilau to hundreds of cocktails in freshly carved pineapples
New York City's PKNY treated The Hukilau to hundreds of cocktails in freshly carved pineapples. (Photo by Harold Golen)

Immediately following, Tiki godfather Sven Kirsten presented “The Golden Age of Tiki Archeology,” a fun-filled showing of rare slides from the archive of the author of the Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern. With the same tongue-in-cheek yet authoritative tone he uses in his books, Kirsten took us on a journey through an odd assortment of restaurants, apartment complexes and long-gone Tiki sites he’s come across during his travels around the world. Afterward, the line of fans carrying Kirsten’s books to be signed was a sign of his enduring popularity.

Back at the Best Western, Russell Mofsky and Gold Dust Lounge provided an eclectic mix of music, including surf, jazz, spy-fi and spaghetti western. That same creative flair was on full display in the mixology of Richard Boccato and his crew from New York City’s PKNY. They spent most of the day prepping ingredients, including hundreds of fresh pineapples, for an over-the-top presentation of tropical drinks that wowed even the most jaded cocktail purists (see photo above).

Sven Kirsten with Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid and friends
Sven Kirsten with Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid and friends. (From

At 6:30 p.m., the Hukilau faithful packed the nearby Wreck Bar at the Sheraton Beach Hotel for Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid’s Underwater Swim Show. As usual, Marina and her team of mermaids upped the ante for The Hukilau with a special performance (and spectacular costume).

Over the next several hours, some blustery storms moved over the area but it didn’t stop Friday night’s Main Event at the Bahia Cabana Beach Resort. The longtime Hukilau hotel offers a huge outdoor area including pool and covered stage, but Entertainment Coordinator Brian Crum had his hands full with the wet and windy weather. The show went on with the bands moved to a safer, drier area behind the poolside bar.

The diverse lineup included Angie Pontani, longtime South Florida Elvis impersonator Dan Cunningham and Exotik-A-GoGo, a truly authentic exotica band from the unlikely locale of Minneapolis. But the band everyone came to see was The Martian Denny Orchestra, an instrumental surf/spy/space supergroup featuring Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel and a who’s who of top Nashville musicians: Bob Irwin, Jimmy Lester, Jim Hoke and Todd Bradley. The band sounded amazing considering the rainy conditions along with the lack of a PA or sound guy. This video speaks volumes:

And that wasn’t all. The Mai-Kai hosted yet another late-night party, “Dance You Savages!” featuring DJ Heelgrinder. The jungle rhythms perfectly matched the mood and stormy weather, and The Mai-Kai as usual gave the natives a suitable atmosphere to unwind after a long day.

Saturday, April 21, marked last day of the Tiki Treasures Bazaar but also a few more events at the Best Western. “Ta-ta-u: The Mark of Civilization” was a special symposium by Paul Roe. The owner of Britishink Tattoos in Washington, D.C., not only explained the importance of Samoan tattoos, he demonstrated a traditional “tatau” on Hukilau organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White (see photo below).

Christie White receives a traditional 'tatau' from Paul Roe during the 'Mark of Civilization' symposium
Christie White receives a traditional 'tatau' from Paul Roe during the 'Mark of Civilization' symposium. (From Paul Roe via Facebook)

The tribe then began migrating to The Mai-Kai for an early start to a long day and night of mingling at the Tiki mecca with rum cocktails, authentic Polynesian dinner shows, and lots of live music. The fun began at 2 p.m. with “Revenge Of The Zombie: The Tale of Tiki’s Deadliest Drink,” author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s ode to one of the world’s most infamous cocktails. Emerging on stage in zombie garb amid the chaos of a horror movie clip, Berry took the often staid cocktail demonstration and lecture to the next level. He was ably assisted by Steve Remsberg, one of the world’s top rum collectors, who helped mix some classic Zombies and also shared wryly humorous stories of his visits to Don the Beachcomber, where the Zombie was invented. (Click here for more on The Mai-Kai’s Zombie.)

Happy hour started early at 4 p.m., and the crowds packed The Molokai bar, forcing The Mai-Kai to also open the outside Lanai dining area to early revelers enjoying half-price drinks and appetizers. This is perhaps the peak time of The Hukilau, when nearly everyone is gathered together in one giant mixer, mingling amid the excitement of the night to come. It was great to sit with Sven Kirsten and learn more about his days making music videos for MTV.

 Sven Kirsten (left) and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry at The Mai-Kai
Sven Kirsten (left) and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Harold Golen)

Most of the Hukilau guests were seated in the main dining rooms by by 5 p.m. for a special preview of a new documentary on the rise, fall and resurgence of Tiki culture. Plastic Paradise is still in the editing stages but the clips that were shown on a large screen on center stage by the Emmy award winning filmmakers from Common Machine were excellent slices of modern Polynesian Pop. Many of those in attendance were featured in the film, and it was great to see Florida legend Wayne Coombs get a huge cheer from the audience during the segment on the Cocoa Beach carver and artist. I can’t wait to see the final version featuring the work of art director Kevin Kidney. The film was commissioned by PBS with much footage shot at Hukilau 2011 in June. When completed, it’s expected to hit the festival circuit later this year, followed by an airing on PBS affiliates nationwide. Click here to see a clip.

As he has for every previous Hukilau, comedian/actor/ukuleleist King Kukulele served as master of ceremonies – not just for Saturday’s dinner show but over the course of the entire weekend. Denny Moynahan, as he’s known to some, always keeps the party moving and the energy level high with friendly demeanor and mix of comedy and ukelele novelty songs.

The Mai-Kai's Kern Mattei gives King Kukulele a hand with vocals
The Mai-Kai's Kern Mattei gives King Kukulele a hand with vocals. (Photo by Sven Kirsten, from

Things got serious as White thanked her staff, bringing them on stage for special gifts (mugs by Tiki Diablo). And in what’s become a tradition, The Mai-Kai returned its appreciation to White with a gift of authentic, branded dinnerware. In the past she’s received chairs and bar stools to add to her collection of memorabilia. Mai-Kai owner Dave Levy, General Manager Kern Mattei, and Director of Sales and Marketing Pia Dahlquist took their usual bows to an appreciative audience. Mattei especially was in the spirit of the event, joining King Kukulele for a little bit of backing vocals (see photo at right).

Without further adieu, it was time for dinner and The Mai-Kai’s legendary Polynesian Islander Revue, which has been running continuously since 1961 (see photo below). The Mai-Kai is always a time trip, but when you look around the room and see the retro clothes and styles of the Hukilau enthusiasts, it’s almost like you’ve indeed been beamed back to that era.

The Mai-Kai's Polynesian Islander Revue
The Mai-Kai's Polynesian Islander Revue. (Photo by Sven Kirsten, from

The live music started early and continued all night in The Molokai bar. Pablus, Exotik-A-GoGo, and The Intoxicators set the prefect mood, from Hawaiian to exotica to surf music. As The Mai-Kai packed in two more dinner shows, the Hukilau attendees were joined by locals partying into the wee hours. As the night came to a close, festivalgoers headed back to their hotels for one last night of camaraderie and locals bid them farewell until next time.

The Hukilau will return to Fort Lauderdale on June 6-9, 2013. It’s a move back to the event’s previous slot on the calendar, secluded from the busy April events that may have taken some folks away this year. And it will give many of us ample time to recharge our Tiki batteries for another round of tropical delights.

More Hukilau history
Audio slideshow flashbacks
* 2011 contest was a Barrel of fun
* 2010 party features Shag, room crawl
* Los Straitjackets highlight rockin’ 2009

Official sites: The Hukilau | Flickr | YouTube | The Mai-Kai

One Reply to “Hukilau rewind: A whirlwind weekend of tropical delights”

  1. Great recap, HH. It was good to see you and your lovely lady once again, even though I failed to recognize her once (blame the rum punch, please). This was an awesome Hukilau and I enjoyed every minute of it.

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