This week, I got the chance to take a vacation in Hawaii and lucky for you (or maybe not), a laptop joined our trip at the last minute. So here is my quick and extremely subjective impression of drinking here on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Drinking in Hawaii
Bars in Hawaii are pretty similar to mainland bars, except maybe for the gorgeous sea views and general lack of walls. I get the impression that locals primarily drink beer. While a lot of rum is on sale in the local stores, I think most of that gets poured into Coke. Visitors appear to want one or more of the following: whatever they have at home, something luxurious to celebrate being in Hawaii, and/or something tropical. And by tropical, I mean rum and fruit. Of the ‘burgeoning cocktail culture’, there were no traces to be found. But then again, the Big Island is not where I would look if I was serious about finding it. The big city- Honolulu, on Oahu- would be much more likely to reflect mainland trends.
Don the Beachcomber
Before leaving home, I checked with my tiki sources (OK, TraderTiki and critiki) and turned up nothing of tiki interest to visit on the Big Island. So imagine my heart-warming surprise (and dread) when finding a listing in a guide book for Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Kona Resort! Having honeymooned at the Royal Kona some years ago, I knew where this was, and also knew that any bar would be better than what had been there. Rum and sour mix Mai Tai, anyone? Donn Beach himself was clearly not involved in this new endeavor, having died in 1989. We had to see and drink for ourselves.
We got there before sunset and snagged two house Mai Tais, which turned out to be pretty decent. The “Don’s Original Mai Tai” was made with Bacardi 8 rum, orgeat, curacao, mystery fruit juice and a float of Whaler’s dark rum. The menu claimed the fruit included lime, but it tasted primarily of pineapple. They repeatedly claim on their logo and advertising that Donn Beach invented the original Mai Tai. I thought that the controversy over who invented the Mai Tai had been settled in Trader Vic’s favor, but it lives on, at least on the internet and here.
We flagged down a manager and asked for the story. Turns outs that a bunch of resort manager types had been walking around their Lahaina property and passed one of the old, boarded-up Don the Beachcomber restaurants. They decided to revive the legend and bought the rights to use the name. They redecorated the existing bar and restaurant at the Royal Kona Resort, which both have gorgeous wide open surfside views of the sunset over Kailua Bay. For you tiki-philes, yes, they have gone ahead with full tiki décor. There are Hawaiian style tiki heads placed around the bar, a trio of floor-to-ceiling concrete tiki idols in the center of the main grill room there, and a plethora of tiki torches lighting up the surf around the lanai. I apologize for the lack of photos; my digital camera is one casualty of this trip.
Moving through the menu, we tried the Don’s Plantation Mai Tai and the Tiki Tai. The Plantation had orgeat, apricot brandy, a potent blend of dark and light rums (Bacardi white, Whaler’s Dark, and two other unidentified rums) and fresh squeezed lime juice. (Hand squeezed from the garnish wedges for some reason). The Tiki Tai was very similar to the Original, but used a big dollop of very fine shaved ice. The rest of the menu features about 6 Mai Tais, as well as Navy Grog and a Scorpion. After that it veers into such crowd-pleasers as a Chocolate Martini and a Ginger Mango Martini. The fact that happy hour prices coincide with a glorious Hawaiian sunset makes these forgivable. And Don the Beachcomber has a much better Mai Tai than I expected to find on this Big Island vacation.