I have always been soothed by the presence of tikis, drawn to the artificial jungles of Polynesian restaurants and bars. Although I appreciate actual sand and water, and temperate, plumeria-scented air, I prefer my paradise condensed into tropical grottos with Naugahyde booths. In my quest for the best, I've sipped Scorpions at Trader Vic's from the District of Columbia to British Columbia, sampled Don the Beachcomber's Mai Tais from Malibu to Maui. But, for ambience and decor, nothing beat the Kon Tiki in the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.
The summer I attended the University of Hawaii, my fiancé flew out to Honolulu for a visit. That evening, I poured myself into a vintage Dorothy Lamour sarong, tucked a frangipani blossom behind my ear, and waited to give him his big Aloha at the gate.
When he arrived, I draped a red carnation lei around his neck and kissed him with lips painted the same shade.
"Aloha," I whispered.
"Do I have to wear this?" he asked.
Who could blame him? A carnation lei around your neck is like wearing a life preserver made of boutonnieres.
To introduce him to my Hawaii, we drove straight to Kon Tiki with the luggage in the trunk. Together we rode the glass and rattan elevator that ascended one flight to the restaurant, looking onto a lush atrium. During the short ride, we listened to piped-in steel guitar, watched colored light play on a lava rock waterfall, and leered back at angry tikis, two stories tall.
The ceiling of Kon Tiki is domed like a cavern, painted black as a kukui nut. From it hang dozens of colored glass floats, caught in fishnets and lit from within. Incandescent blue water cascades over the curled lips of mammoth clams. Illuminated blowfish swim suspended over a waterfall. And everywhere, tiki gods loom. Carved totems tower over diners' heads, inferring silent war chants and curses.
Before dinner, my love and I shared a Kava Bowl: a large, coconut-shaped ceramic vessel, flanked by four menahunes – mythic Hawaiian elves. Pungent gardenias floated upon a pond of vodka-tinged punch. The entire concoction oozed a mysterious, icy mist that rolled over the edge of the bowl and onto the table. Like most exotic drinks, the first draw on the two-foot straw tasted like battery acid, but every subsequent sip was pure nectar.
We ate pupus and ordered entrees garnished with shaved coconut. The lei remained around his neck, even as flakes of coconut got caught in it. He rolled his eyes at me from behind the blossoms, but he didn't take it off.
I married the man underneath that lei who shared my love of things Polynesian, so for our honeymoon, we traveled to the source. To the place where Thor Heyerdahl sailed, clinging to a primitive balsa-wood raft he christened Kon Tiki. Friends who had been there assured us, displayed colorful brochures to lure us: the heart of Polynesia was Tahiti.
Traversing the equator, changing planes after a ten hour flight, our small propeller craft made a skittish landing on the island of Moorea. There was a foot of water on the runway, and the subtropical sky was the color of stainless steel. A monsoon was brewing.
Those of us staying at the Bali Hai were ushered into minivans and transported to a series of grass huts on the beach. Each couple was issued a key attached to a piece of driftwood, and offered cups of spiked Hawaiian punch.
The $400-a-night huts were furnished like any clean budget motel, with the addition of a ceiling fan and a can of bug spray. We used both.
At night, a legion of creatures came alive in the thatch of our roof, rustling and calling out to each other, like the effects track of a Tarzan film overdubbed sixteen times. I kept a vigil, bug spray in hand, in case a stray centipede, or worse, fell down on top of us in the dark.
Every island we visited — Moorea, Bora Bora, Tahiti— looked just like the brochures. White sand lapped by turquoise water, curved coconut palms with real coconuts. What we craved was an interior island with colored lights that served drinks in giant clamshells. We looked, but never found our Naugahyde hideaway. Nor a single blowfish lamp.
So we tried to be natural. We wore flowers in our hair, and wrapped ourselves in pareos, gossamer pieces of fabric that could be tied onto the body fifty different ways.
On Bora Bora we snorkeled. Flapping our rubber-finned feet and scraping our bellies on coral, we intruded upon schools of vivid fish. Once, in cloudy water, I encountered one with a mouth the size of my mask. Probably just a grouper, yet it kept me out of the water for days.
On Moorea, we took an outrigger built-for-two out to sea. The tide changed. We had to paddle like natives to keep from being swept to Rangiroa.
Spent from the pressures of paradise, we sat on the sand and drank Tahitian beer, ate hot dogs, and fantasized about being rescued. My husband said finally, "This isn't Polynesia. This is Gilligan's Island."
Our Polynesian paradise, fast becoming extinct, is a place like Kon Tiki. A place to feel nonexistent breezes, to taste gardenias and sway to the pulse of pre-recorded drums. Where ultraviolet waters fluoresce and cascade between tables, and the mood is thermostatically controlled.
But, they've closed Kon Tiki. Never known for its food, the restaurant endured a brief Cantonese incarnation before becoming officially unpopular. Even in Hawaii, everybody just wants pizza.
On a recent visit, nine years later, my husband and I slipped into the empty restaurant. We wanted to take one last look before they dismantled the place.
Only a few mood-diffusing work lights were on. I didn't recall any white light in Kon Tiki, only those saturated with color, deep glows forced through fishnet or rattan.
"They've drained the stream," my husband said.
I looked down. The chalk-white channel was empty beneath the bamboo bridge; I missed the hum of recirculated water. Against the walls, heavily varathaned koa-wood tables and rattan peacock chairs crowded, unused.
Yet something of the restaurant's lurid mood remained, still hung in the air, as if these crouching tikis were imbued with ancient spirits, as if the room were an island inhabited by a hiding tribe, watching us through slats of lashed bamboo.
My husband set up his camera, opened the shutter, and let the dim light of Kon Tiki etch the negative to the full depth of the spectrum. For me, these pictures are more than a flat indication of place. They are an incantation that conjures and stirs. When I look at these pictures, I hear the way time sounds inside the ear of a seashell. Smell the weight of a carnation lei. Feel waves of color lap at my eyes, as I float on an island made of wood and bamboo. It all washes away and comes tumbling back again, in limpid hues of iridescent blue, whispering the word Hawaiians made to say it all.
Aloha, Kon Tiki.
Copyright © Karen Kasaba 1995. This story appeared in slightly different form in the Spring 1995 issue of Hawaii Review. Title graphic: "Gone Tiki" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.