Find Tiki Culture in Palm Springs
You know you’ve arrived in downtown Palm Springs when you see its expansive collection of mid-century modern homes and commercial buildings — from the Palm Springs Visitors Center to the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. The mid-century modern theme continues in the city’s Design District, where you can browse a range of modern furniture, artwork, and accessories.
But if you look closer, you’ll also see some surprising signs of the tropics — or at least a retro version. Colorfully named bars and boutiques like the Tonga Hut, The Shag Store (named for artist Josh Agle, also known as Shag), and Bootlegger Tiki contrast with the cool modernism to show that tiki culture is flourishing in the desert once again.
TROPICS MEET THE DESERT
In the early 1950s, a version of the popular Don the Beachcomber tiki bar restaurant opened in the heart of Palm Springs. With air travel becoming more common, the fantasy of Polynesian travel became trendy — and suddenly accessible.
As celebrities made Palm Springs a favored vacation spot, they would flock to the city’s Beachcomber outpost (many already knew it from the chain’s first location in Hollywood). It’s said that none other than the legendary Frank Sinatra loved the Navy Grog: a heavy mix of rums with honey syrup and citrus to distract the drinker from its potency.
The tiki trend even influenced Palm Springs’ residential look. Famed mid-century architecture firm Wexler and Harrison designed the Royal Hawaiian Estates, an apartment complex built in 1960. Located near the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium, the 12-building complex balances clean lines with whimsical, tiki-style sculptures.
By the end of the 1960s, tiki mostly went out of style, but never fully lost its appeal. Fast forward to the cocktail revolution of the early 2000s: Old recipes for drinks like the mai tai and the zombie came back in fashion.
Around the same time, Southern California artist Josh “Shag” Agle started to make a name for himself with tiki-style art shows at galleries in Hollywood and New York City. In 2009, Agle opened his own Palm Springs shop on Palm Canyon Drive, offering retro tiki-styled art prints, glassware, beach towels, and other accessories.
When the Tonga Hut, Los Angeles’ oldest tiki bar, looked to expand, Palm Springs proved a natural choice. The Hut’s second location opened in 2014. The Palm Springs version offers all the tiki flourishes, including shared volcano bowls, flaming drinks, and island-inspired decor. The building that housed the original Don the Beachcomber also has returned to its tiki roots: It’s now the site of Ernest Coffee Co. (honoring Ernest Gantt, the birth name of Don the Beachcomber founder Donn Beach), and Bootlegger Tiki, a Polynesian bar serving up riffs on classic tiki cocktails like the mezcal-based Luck Be a Lady and the rum-flavored Trinidadi Issues.
CLASSIC FUN WITH A TWIST
Tiki culture continues to evolve. The bartenders at Tonga Hut and Bootlegger Tiki have updated original drink menus to better align with trends of cocktails being made with small batch spirits, house-made bitters, and fresh fruit.
The new version of the Rum Barrel at Tonga Hut simplifies the original recipe but keeps its punch. The combination of “exotic fruit,” Falernum liqueur, and spice makes for a drink that feels like an October trip to the islands — you know it’s fall at home, but it’s eternal summer on the beach.
At the Bootlegger, the Dr. Oaxaca takes a pair of rums and adds grenadine and celery bitters, the latter a modern mixology twist. But no matter how you decide to sample tiki culture in Palm Springs, it promises to transport you.
WHERE TO STAY
To soak up Palm Springs’ tiki ambiance, reserve a stay at Marriott’s Desert Springs Villas or Marriott’s Shadow Ridge. Tucked among the scenic southern California mountains, these resorts offer a haven from which to absorb the local culture while enjoying on-site golf and like-home amenities. When you’re not out exploring the tiki scene, you can also unwind with a cocktail at your resort. Find tropical refreshing drinks at The Water’s Edge Bar & Grill near the pool at Marriott’s Desert Springs Villas and Chuckwalla Pool Bar & Grill at Marriott’s Shadow Ridge.
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