Last updated: 5th February 2023
After visiting Orlando we continued on our Florida road trip, to our next stop Fort Lauderdale. We booked an airBnB for a couple of nights so we could experience having some fun at the famous tiki bars in Fort Lauderdale that we’d read about. In this post we’ll explain what tiki culture is all about and where to find the best tiki bars in Fort Lauderdale.
Table of Contents
About Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Most people come here for a relaxing and sophisticated beach stay. Fort Lauderdale has 23 miles of beaches, so plenty to choose from. It’s is also described as the ‘Venice of America’ because of all the different waterways.
We thought Fort Lauderdale reminded us a lot of Los Angeles. It has an affluent vibe, LGBT friendly and it’s very hot! (it averaged 31ºC when we visited at the end of April) The roads are big and wide and everyone drives to get anywhere, we didn’t see anyone walking on the streets apart from at the beach promenades.
America’s Kitsch Tiki Heritage
So what is tiki culture? well it was a popular-culture craze created in California in the 1930s. It’s heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s when tiki bars opened up all across America. Glamourised by Hollywood and popularised by Elvis in the 1960s with his Hawaiian themed movies. Tiki bars are defined by their exotically decorated interiors. These romantic and fantasy themes are based around tropical Polynesian islands like Tahiti and Hawaii. Places most Americans could only dream of visiting, so going to a tiki bar was an escape to paradise with exotic cocktails and live music.
In 1959 when Hawaii became a US state, advances in aviation meant tourism took off and Americans were now able to actually visit the South Pacific and tiki culture flourished even more. However by the early 1980s tiki bars and the craze was over and considered old hat.
In Florida, tiki bars took on even brighter colours and some were open-air. They also lay claim to have invented the ‘Rum Runner’. We’ve not yet been to Hawaii or Bora Bora, so for now we had to make do with escaping to a couple of Fort Lauderdale’s oldest tiki bars.
The Best Tiki Bars in Fort Lauderdale
The Wreck Bar
We discovered the fabulously kitsch Wreck Bar after chatting to a local couple about tiki culture. It’s an original tiki bar from the 1950s located at The B-Ocean Resort hotel. It’s exotically decorated with a nautical theme. The best thing about this place are the live mermaid shows on Friday and Saturday nights, they are a must see.
The historic Wreck Bar is made to look like a ship wreck – a Spanish Galleon on the bottom of the sea. Look up to see holes and cracks in the wooden ceiling which all adds to the illusion. It first opened in 1956 with original features like the stained glass mermaid windows which have been preserved. It might look familiar because it featured in the 1999 movie ‘Analyze This’ starring Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal.
Grab a seat at the bar if you can and watch the mermaids seductively swim and dance underwater through the ship’s windows, it’s just amazing! There’s a choice of family friendly or late night burlesque shows, there is also a kids friendly version on some afternoons – imagine that as a child, meeting a real life mermaid! We just wish would could have taken our friend’s children Flossie and Winnie. They would have been in heaven, especially as you can have your photo taken with a mermaid afterwards.
Adults Only Mermaids Aqua Burlesque Show
We opted for the Aqua Burlesque Show which is amazing! It’s strictly adults only (21+ in the USA) on Friday and Saturday nights. Arrive early to get a seat at the bar for the perfect view, also its easier to catch the bar tenders eye when you want another cocktail! The lights went down and the pumping disco music started, then our first mermaid swam by and there were gasps of delight from the whole room. We watched in awe at the skills of our six mermaids, you would believe they were totally breathing underwater, well they were weren’t they 😉? They really connected with us playfully waving, winking and blowing kisses, all while dancing and swimming underwater, it’s incredible! Their kicking tails moved them across the windows as their golden locks floated arround their faces. Before we arrived we were expecting this show to be over quickly, after all how many different things can you do underwater? Well the show lasted arround 30 minutes and every second was awesome and the time just whizzed by.
If you like kitsch and a bit of theatre, go see this show you as won’t see anything else like this anywhere in the world, we promise. The show is tasteful and choreographed by Medusirena who also produces the Sirens & Sailors show on Wednesdays and the Aquamen Boylesque Show on Thursday nights.
The mermaid show is free, but you must spend at least $30 on food or drink and make a reservation. They ‘pass the hat’ (or pirates treasure chest – obviously!) for the mermaids once the show has finished, well worth a good tip. We also loved all the fab cocktails served in tiki mugs and decorated with fresh fruit. This show was definitely our highlight of Fort Lauderdale.
The next night we had our pre-booked dinner at the legendary Mai-Kai Restaurant. This place opened in 1956 and is another little slice of Tiki history. It’s even on America’s National Register of Historic Places. As our Uber driver pulled up outside we could tell from the exterior this is was going to be fun! We were welcomed into an exotic world of thatch roofed bamboo huts, tiki idols and masks dimly lit by nautical lanterns. OMG we loved it! suddenly we were whisked off to some exotic island in the South Pacific. It’s touristy, but super fun!
Tropical cocktails are served in tiki mugs or pineapples, we worked our way through the fabulous names on the cocktail menu. We tried their iconic Barrel O’ Rum (which is enormous!) Mai Tai, Mara Amu, Scorpion and Zombie. What’s great about ordering a Mara Amu cocktail, for an extra $4 you can keep the mug, what brilliant souvenirs. We ordered 2! apparently tiki mugs are modern day vintage collectibles.
We were sat in the main dining room, which is crowded, loud and full of parties. The place is obviously popular with locals for birthday parties as the cakes kept coming out. The food here is good too, the menu at Mai-Kai is Asian and Chinese themed, they even do one of Garth’s favourites Singapore Chilli Crab. We ordered the Pupu Platter to start.
After dinner it’s showtime! as everyone’s iPhones come out and start recording. From dancing hula girls in grass skirts to fire eating Samoan dancers, Mai Kai takes you around the islands of the South Pacific. The entertainment is exotic and set to Polynesian themed music from the live band. Before each dance the host talks you through the style of dance and the origin. Including a Samoan fire knife dance and a Hawaiian wedding song.
We were sat at the side of the stage, which is ok but not the best view. Book a table that looks head on to the front of the stage because it has been lit for that view, not the sides. The show lasts for around 45 minutes. It’s entertaining and fast moving ending on various fire dances. They’ve been performing this show for decades, apparently it does change each year. They proudly boast they are home to the longest running Polynesian show in the USA including Hawaii.
Mai-Kai’s Outdoor Tiki Garden
When you’re done with dinner and the show, go and walk around the Tiki Garden. Tropical flowers, waterfalls and lots of wooden tiki masks and statues make for great backdrops and fun photo opportunities.
The faces carved onto masks and totem poles is ‘Tiki’ who is considered to be the first person on earth in Polynesian culture, he’s also worshipped as a god.
On the way out ‘The Mai-Kai Trading Post’ is also worth a quick stop to look through the books for sale. The photos and postcards show what Mai-Kai used looked like in the 1960s (not much difference!) Oh and if you love Hawaiian shirts, they are off the scale!
Our Verdict On Fort Lauderdale Tiki Bars
We are both now tiki loving converts, we absolutely loved this slice of Americana. Yes it’s novelty, yes its tacky and yes it’s kitsch but that’s the point! we love tiki! Now where did we leave our cocktail umbrellas?!
Our Fort Lauderdale AirBnB
We stayed for a few nights in Wilton Manors, the LGBT neighbourhood of Fort Lauderdale. We picked an amazing AirBnB cottage where hosts Harv, Bill and Michael served up amazing breakfasts and gave us use of their pool to cool down. We also went to some lovely bars and restaurants in Wilton Manors including the must do Rosies Bar and Grill its noisy and fun. We also had a drag show brunch at Alibi’s on our last day.
Fort Lauderdale Practical Information
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Fort Lauderdale Tips
- Tip #1: Happy hour in Mai Kai’s Molokai tiki bar runs from 5pm – 7pm.
- Tip #2: Use Uber to get around. There’s loads of drivers, it’s super easy with very short wait times.
- Tip #3: Take a photo of the cocktail menu and buy a tiki mug. Remake the cocktail when you get home.
- Tip #4: Tip 20% for normal good service. Sitting at the bar tip $1 per drink.
- Tip #5: Take a day-trip from Fort Lauderdale to The Everglades National Park. The airboat rides are wild!
Pin our Fort Lauderdale Tiki Guide for later