Let’s head to Hawaii and sample the beverages, shall we? Blurt’s first annual selective guide to Mai Tai watering holes.
BY GILLIAN G. GAAR / PHOTOS BY GILLIAN G. GAAR
A Hawaiian vacation conjures up visions of breathtaking beaches, hula dancing, and fruity cocktails, preferably featuring a paper umbrella and a wedge of pineapple. And no cocktail says “Hawaii” as much as a Mai Tai. It’s a seemingly simple drink, made of rum and fruit juices, but the combinations and embellishments are endless. In Waikiki, you can find a Mai Tai just about everywhere; even the ABC Stores (the fantastic convenience stores you’ll find in every block — literally) have bottles of readymade Mai Tais for sale (though it’s best to avoid them; they’re overly sweet). A cocktail bar — ideally with a view — is the best place to enjoy them of course. Live music also enhances the experience, and most of these venues have live entertainment each evening. Here’s a look at the kind of Mai Tais you’ll find on offer at various Waikiki locales. But first, a dance, live at the House Without a Key.
Beach Bar: The Beach Bar is at Waikiki’s oldest hotel, the Moana Surfrider, dubbed “The First Lady of Waikiki,” which opened on March 11, 1901. The seating is arranged around a massive banyan tree that’s 75 feet high, its limbs spanning 150 feet; in 1979 it was granted the number one spot on Hawaii’s Rare and Exceptional Tree list. On my last visit I opted for the Surfrider Tai, with Pyrat XO Reserve rum, a float of Old Lahaina dark rum from Maui, and the bar’s “handmade signature mix and fresh lime.” The mix is a bit heavy for my tastes; I prefer a Mai Tai with a lighter juice mix. But alcohol is certainly present and accounted for.
Splash Bar & Bento: You’ll find the Splash Bar poolside at the Princess Kaiulani Hotel, and as it’s not a beachfront resort, it’s easier to get a table, though on my last visit it seemed that there were more tables on the restaurant side and fewer tables by the stage. It’s pleasant sitting outside under the stars, especially when there’s live entertainment. The Mai Tai is made of “Cruzan light rum, tropical juices, and a float of dark rum,” and I’ve always found this drink on the weak side; lots of juice and not much evidence of rum. If you want more bang for the buck, try the Tropical Itch, which is basically a Mai Tai with a shot of bourbon; some places also serve the drink with a wooden backscratcher (to scratch the “itch,” geddit?).
Rock Island Café: You’ll find the Rock Island in King’s Village, a mock Victorian-era mall that was slated for a redevelopment that’s now been put on hold. It’s a ’50s-style diner, complete with soda fountain, and numerous screens throughout the restaurant showing clips of vintage movies and TV shows, as well as rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia for sale. The menu features hamburgers, hot dogs, pizzas, and milk shakes, but there’s no shortage of adult beverages on hand as well; in fact, you’re encouraged to add your favorite spirit to a milk shake (or a “real beer float,” with Bud or Primo instead of root beer). The house Mai Tai features “Tropical juices, layered with light, dark, and coconut rums,” so it’s on the sweet side, but strong enough to bring on a nice mellow mood. There’s also a happy hour and Primo beer on tap, and I can think of no better place to sip a Blue Hawaii than in a booth beneath a movie poster of Elvis’ film Paradise, Hawaiian Style.
Barefoot Bar: This bar is located at the Hale Koa Hotel. The hotel caters to active and retired military personnel (the name “Hale Koa” means “House of the Warrior”), but civilians are able to access the restaurants. The bar is located next to the walkway between the Outrigger Reef on the Beach and the Hilton Hawaiian Village, with a great view of a less crowded section of the beach. There’s not elaboration on the menu: the listing for the Mai Tai simply reads, “Rums mixed with pineapple juice.” A no frills Mai Tai to be sure, but they don’t stint on the rum. The drinks are also cheaper than at other beach front hotels, and there’s an additional discount with military ID.
The Edge: At the other side of the Sheraton Waikiki’s infinity pool is the aptly named The Edge, with a counter immediately adjacent to the pool that offers a great view of Diamond Head (with a convenient ledge where you can place your drink, if you’re actually in the pool). The Classic Mai Tai is exactly that: “A timeless blend of Cruzan Aged Light Rum, pineapple juice, and tropical liqueurs with a dark rum float.” It’s the liqueurs that give this drink an extra punch. I was not as impressed by the Blood Orange Sangria: Skyy Blood Orange Vodka, Malibu Passion Fruit Rum, Pino Grigio, passion fruit juice, “and a splash of cranberry and pineapple juice.” It’s the wine that didn’t blend well with the spirits. But considering the view, it’s forgivable.
RumFire: This is the hippest of the Sheraton Waikiki’s restaurants; they offer an afternoon “Spiked Tea,” which serves up a cocktail and sliders instead of tea and scones, and is packed on weekend evenings. There’s indoor seating, but naturally you’ll want to sit outside, and there are a couple of seats in the ewa — west — section that offer a good view of Diamond Head. The Sunset Mai Tai (Old Lahaina Premium Rum, passion fruit puree, lime and tropical juices) was pleasant and not too sweet, though a bit lacking in pizazz. But there are plenty of other cocktails to explore; I’m partial to Gidget’s Crush: Skyy Infusions Citrus Vodka, Dekuyper Watermelon Liqueur, fresh lime juice, and a splash of sprite.
Barefoot Bar (2): In a place like Hawaii, you’re sure to run into more than one place with the name “Barefoot Bar,” and this particular one is at Duke’s Waikiki, in the Outrigger Waikiki hotel. The bar, and the dining room, are immensely popular; reservations are recommended for the dining room, especially at dinner, while seating in the bar is first come, first served, which can be hard to come by. Both feature Duke’s Mai Tai, their signature cocktail made with two different rums (not specified), fresh Hawaiian juices, and that extra special ingredient, “aloha.” In the dining room, it’s served in a tiki-style glass, which is fun. And they pack a punch too, which is even better. Duke’s also hosts the best party on the beach; most Sundays, a second bar is set up in the pool area just below the restaurant, and guitarist Henry Kapono plays a set from 4 to 6 p.m.
Mai Tai Bar: Where better to get your Mai Tai on than at a spot named after them? The Mai Tai Bar can be found on the grounds of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Waikiki’s second oldest hotel, which opened in 1927, and is known as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific,” due to the light pink paint on what appears to be more a Spanish/Moorish-themed castle than a hotel. On the menu’s first page you’ll find not just one, two, or three different Mai Tais, but a choice of seven Mai Tais to sample. I managed three (not all in one visit). The Royal Mai Tai, with fresh squeezed pineapple and orange juices, orange curacao, orgeat and Old Lahaina rums, is a straight up classic. Being adventurous, I also tried the Choco-Tai (Selva Rey Cacao Infused rum, Kona coffee syrup, Bittermen’s Elemakule Tiki Bitters, pineapple and lemon juices, and a float of Old Lahaina dark rum), but the chocolate-coffee taste definitely wasn’t a good match with fruit juices, at least to my taste. Ah, but the White Wash (below) was a drink I wanted to enjoy again and again. Old Lahaina Silver Rum, Ferrand Dry curacao, orgeat, fresh lime and pineapple juices, and, as the menu boasts, “not one, but two floats!”: Old Lahaina Dark Rum and sweet “coco-loco foam.” I’d like another, please.
House Without a Key: Ah, the crème de la crème, the pièce de résistance. House Without a Key is at the elegant Halekulani hotel. Request cocktail seating, which is outside. If you’re not a hotel guest, there’s a $5 cover charge, but it’s worth it for the view alone, a stunning panoramic sweep from Diamond Head to the east and the sunset in the west; the musicians and dancers also perform with their backs to the ocean, so you get to enjoy the view all night (at the other beachfront properties, the musicians perform with their backs to the hotel, so it’s the hotel you end up looking at). Former Miss Hawaii winners perform hula; I’m partial to Kanoe Miller’s performances (she’s on Friday and Saturdays, and highly popular). The Mai Tai is not only especially attractive (no pineapple or maraschino cherry here; it’s garnished with a slice of lime, a stick of sugar cane, mint, and an orchid), but also very tasty, made of a “blend of fine rums, curacao, lime juice and a hint of almond.” The lime is stronger in this drink, giving it an extra tartness. A waiter here gave me a tip on drinking the Mai Tai; put your straw up in the rum float, so in your first sip the rum hits your tongue straight away, then push the straw down to the bottom of the glass. The Hale Tai is a sweeter variation, made with spiced and coconut rums, and passion fruit and lime juices.