Michael Stutz enjoys a Hawaiian fling in Fort Lauderdale, the proud home of the endless '60s summer.
We haven't been here long but it's already my third drink at the bar, which is crowded from the sea-stained driftwood counter by the door to the life-size ship's rigging at the back. The revellers are in vintage Hawaiian shirts or outfits that look like they might have been the rage in 1962. Most are holding ceramic tiki mugs, tall Collins glasses, or oversized snifters with bright, rum-doused cocktails.
We're in the Molokai Lounge at the Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale's 1956 landmark restaurant and a permanent time warp based on the postwar US idea of exotic Polynesia.
This time, I order a Hukilau, which is Hawaiian for "festival" and is the official cocktail of this annual four-day event. Hukilau is also the name of the festival, which celebrates Fort Lauderdale's Polynesian past.
The Hukilau, in its 10th year, is a top draw for retro tourists, those travellers who aggressively seek the lost attractions and forgotten resorts of a fading eras.
If the whole idea of retro tourism is to sidestep the latest fashionable glitz for a genuine experience in the semi-recent past, I see immediately why Fort Lauderdale makes the hot list. It's a goldmine of mid-century modern landmarks, many of which were captured in Technicolor for the 1960 film Where the Boys Are, as Connie Francis sang in the title theme.
While Connie competes with Katy Perry now, plenty of these mid-century places remain: the Sea Tower is a white, amoebic monument that could be home to the Jetsons; Lester's Diner and countless '60s neons ignite the dusk; and, just like in the movie, you can watch mermaids swim behind porthole windows at the historic Wreck Bar, or get drinks at any hour on the beach at the Elbo Room. Operating since 1938, it's probably the most historic dive bar in Florida and retains the party vibe it had in the early '60s - and even some of the customers. Old-timers mingle with an ever-young clientele in swimsuits and bikinis.
The highlight of the Hukilau each year is an evening at the Mai-Kai but Fort Lauderdale's retro scene happens all year round. Plenty of vintage shops cater to the crowd, there are mermaids always swimming at the Wreck Bar and the Mai-Kai's old-school dinner shows - with the legendary fire dance - happen nightly.
But during the Hukilau in June, everything's pumped up a notch.
That's when Fort Lauderdale gets the vintage-clad crowds, cocktail seminars, tiki vendors galore and a constant soundtrack of retro surf and lounge music. During a recent Hukilau, DJ Lounge - aka Laura Taylor - conjured a bubbly Barbarella world, while the Stolen Idols - fronted by her husband, Drew Farmer - played lush jazz "exotica". My wife, in her tallest go-go boots, stomped and bent to Los Straitjackets' hyperactive renditions of King of the Surf, Sleepwalk and The Magnificent Seven. "You know what this tiki culture is?" a Miami lawyer friend, Al, asks during an introspective moment by the pool. "I think it's like goth for middle-aged people."
I feel instant camaraderie with people who love this era so much that they base elaborate holidays around it. It's not just about imbibing heady libations with names such as Navy Grog, Shark's Tooth and Jet Pilot, or wearing vintage clothing without any irony but there's an open longing for a return to that golden era when Florida was America's "Vacationland", a time when moody lounges of bamboo and exotic tiki carvings lit by glowing fisherman's floats were an authentic escape.
For today's retro tourists, the thought of resurrecting that world - if only for a weekend at a time - is not only part of the escape but is also the glamour. For the big night at the Mai-Kai, I'm wearing a barkcloth Hawaiian shirt under a summer-weight, natural-shoulder sport coat, while my wife's Hawaiian-made party dress is a find from the Mad Men era. We don't use our mobile phones - after all, they haven't been invented yet - but instead have great fun spooling wide ribbons of 120 film into the back of a large camera with detachable flash.
"I've been dressing vintage since the '80s," says Kat, a thirtysomething who came down with her girlfriend for the weekend. She might be a friendly single mum but right now, she's a perfect stand-in for Joan Holloway in her form-fitting wiggle dress, the turquoise of which is a brilliant contrast to her eye-popping, cinnamon-red lips.
Back at the Molokai Lounge, we eventually leave to be seated in the main dining room for the dinner show. The menu has several lobster preparations, from the venerable Cantonese to their specialty of lobster stewed with vanilla beans. Other outstanding dishes include scallops in orange sauce and the steak and duck entrees prepared in wood-fired Chinese ovens, which you can observe up close just beyond the garden lanai. Then, take a footbridge over to the Mai-Kai's elaborate gardens, a camera-ready backdrop of glowing waterfalls, torch-lit jungle paths and, of course, giant tikis. It's a place to get lost in for hours, a Disneyland for adults.
We don't want to leave: drinks are perfect, the air is soft with island lullabies and nothing looks a day past the summer of '62. It's as authentic as it gets.
Qantas has a fare to Fort Lauderdale for about $2830 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax: flying Qantas to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then Dallas (3hr), then Fort Lauderdale (3hr). Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Retro and proud
AFTER years of denigrating mid-century landmarks as "kitsch", many American cities are restoring them and hosting events that cater to retro tourism.
This festival, on June 9-12, has Oceanic art, swanky music and some of Florida's best vintage party spots, including the most elaborate tiki bar in the world, the Mai-Kai. See thehukilau.com.
Miami (about 50 kilometres from Fort Lauderdale) is known for its unique strain of retro design: the bright, flamboyant MiMo (Miami Modern) exemplified by some of its most notable landmarks, including the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels and Seacoast Towers. The city has regular MiMo Madness events that include classic-car shows, performers, patio dining and historic tours. See mimoboulevard.org.
Atomic Crash Parties
As a creative way to raise money and awareness for its mid-century modern preservation efforts — and to help build a community — a group named Atomic Indy hosts Atomic Crash Parties on the premises of restored mid-century houses in the midwest city of Indianapolis, Indiana. See atomicindy.com.
Palm Springs, California, was perhaps the first American city to openly embrace the retro-tourism trend — when other tourist towns let mid-century motels and signage go, to the wrecking ball, Palm Springs carefully restored them. Now its Modernism Week in February is an international draw, packed with films, auctions, tours, talks and, yes, cocktails. See modernismweek.com.
LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails) is a legion of classic-cocktail connoisseurs who host coed cocktail parties and dances in several major American cities. See lupecboston.com.
The original tiki weekender, Tiki Oasis is a laid-back open-air party that takes place at the Crowne Plaza San Diego in southern California, with go-go dancers, burlesque performers, retro bossa nova and lounge music, tiki vendors and rum. See tikioasis.com.