Before we left on our most recent trip to Oahu, my favorite aunt told me, "This time you have to have a mai tai at the Royal Hawaiian. And don't drive - trust me, take a cab. And only have one! You'll be sorry if you have two!"
She has mentioned the Mai Tai Bar to me before, and I always smiled politely and ignored her advice because I'm just not a mai tai kind of girl. In the soft air of the tropics, I prefer to imbibe Kona lager, or at worst, a cold Coors heavy.
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is easy to miss if you never get off of Kalakaua Avenue. Now owned by Sheraton, the glorious pink landmark has been swallowed by construction that has completely hidden it from the street. New buildings have grown around it to the point that it literally cannot be seen unless you follow the maze of roads that go under, around, and through a conglomerate of parking garages, taxi stands, and designer storefronts. But from the water, or even the water line if you walk far enough down the beach, you can't miss it in all of its pink glory.
Our first morning in Waikiki, I was up early, and set out for the beach with a book so that Chasmo could catch up on his sleep. I read, and wandered, and found myself walking down the beach, past the surf instructors, the giggling cheerleaders tanning themselves for their Pro Bowl appearance on Sunday, and the Waikiki police station. As I rounded the bend of the public snack bar, I saw it. The Pepto-colored hotel was nestled in the sand like an embarrassed relation.
I made my way to the beachfront bar, and despite the fact that is was still morning, I was greeted by a white-jacketed waiter who seemed to think ordering a mai tai at 10am was a perfectly reasonable request. I made it clear to him that I was starting my day, and not ending my evening, and he suggested one of their lighter drinks so that I could keep my head about me for the rest of the day. The draw of the place is undeniable - it is a throwback to Elvis movies, steamer travel, and white gloves. Martin Denny got his start as the house band for the Mai Tai Bar. I would have liked to see him perform here amid the tiki torches and clinking glasses. The beach-facing tables, the palm-covered bar, and the tiki torches all came together in a way that was distinctly not cheesy. I wanted to come back and watch the sun set over a fruity beverage. I spent a pleasant hour sipping and reading before heading back to rouse Chasmo.
The rest of the day was spent catching up with friends, family, and co-workers who were in town for the game, a hectic whirl of bus rides, meet-us-heres, and dips in the ocean. At 5:45, I found myself at the Hard Rock downing Kona lager with a rowdy group of legal secretaries, and realized I was going to miss sunset at the Mai Tai Bar with my honey if I didn't get a move on. I called our hotel and left a frantic message: "SUNSET! MAI TAI BAR ROYAL HAWAIIAN HOTEL! BE THERE!" Click.
I ran out and hopped on the first bus back to Kalakaua. As we bounced down the avenue, me in a semi-panic, I realized he may not check the messages - we have had many misses because neither of us are enamored with modern messaging. I decided to go to the hotel first just in case he didn't notice the blinking light on the phone. I practically flew up to the room and found it empty. Glancing off the lanai, the sun was directly opposite me. I had to hurry.
I hopped into a cab for the half-mile ride to the Royal Hawaiian, then raced to the concierge desk in the lobby for directions. After a frantic race around the hotel lobby reminiscent of a Monkees romp, I finally managed to slip onto a bar stool next to Chasmo as the last bit of sun was slipping below the ocean. "You made it!" he smiled. I panted and pointed to his glass. "Mai tai!" He gestured to the barkeep.
As I was catching my breath, I saw a cocktail unlike any seen outside of Hollywood. It was served in a cored pineapple, bigger than life, huge and frosty, garnished with flowers and an umbrella. "I want what he is having..." I pointed. Now, I don't think that, technically, this was a mai tai. But as I watched the bartender create this wonderful beverage, I didn't care. The pineapple was cored and went into a blender. Other things, including rum, followed. The whole beautiful shake was then poured back into the fruit shell and presented to me with a white-jacketed flourish, as traditional island music wafted from the small stage. Here was a bit of mouthwatering Hawaiiana not seen outside of the movies.
You have to understand, this is not so much about the liquor as it is about the experience - drinking from a giant pineapple in a pink, palm-fronded bar tended by white-jacketed waiters, while the sound of island music kisses the breeze and waves tickle the shore. Are you seeing it? Throw in your favorite person, a mind-numbing sunset, stir and serve. I had tears in my eyes. It was beyond beautiful.
And the drink was sooooo good. My aunt was right. Only have one - or you will be experiencing the magical atmosphere of the Mai Tai Bar from under the table. I don't know how many we had, but suffice it to say that the next morning, we regretted not heeding her advice. So heed mine now: While in Waikiki, you must have a mai tai at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. But only have one. And don't drive!