If You Like Piña Coladas and Getting Caught in The Rain

By Monique A. LeBleu

Sunny days poolside with a fruit adorned cocktail. Lounging under swaying palm trees with sun-kissed skin, cooled by warm breezes. Evenings filled with laughter, music, and the gently lingering scent of piña coladas and sunscreen. For nearly 14 years, an event in a particularly sunny corner of Southern California lends an great spot for that special brand of hedonistic search, embracing that perfect vacation ideal—Tiki Caliente.

From May 4–7, 2023, Caliente Tropics, a mid-century modern Polynesian-inspired motor hotel, and the trio of adjacent restaurants, The Reef, Sancho’s, and the new Le Fern, come together annually as location hosts for the popular event. Spearheaded by restaurateur, Rory J. Snyder, the event brings together an eclectic mix of music, art, mixology, educational symposiums, and that unique ever-evolving cocktail culture centered around exotica kitsch and Tiki culture.

A mixologist himself, Snyder, aka “Wildsville Man”, has blended a love of classic 1950s and 1960s American Tiki, Oceanic Arts appreciation, and Exotica, along with 1970s and 1980s pop culture, and a dash of Yacht Rock. Fresh from a recent Jimmy Buffett concert in Palm Springs, Snyder spoke on his love of Tiki, how he embraces both the classic culture and music, its evolution, and his encouragement through these creative diversions and education to help avoid its direct associations with Polynesian people, their real culture, and any appropriations.

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“Tiki and Polynesian are two different things. You know, Polynesians weren’t drinking rum. That’s a Tiki thing. That’s a very American culture of us doing our version of South Pacific. So it’s tied to history, but it’s been morphed. During Hawaii becoming a 50th state, all those Tikis there [now] were brought in from California to help them with their PR as the 50th state because the Christians destroyed the Tikis in the late 1800s.”

Taking advantage of all the hotel’s charms, while recognizing both its building age and space limitations, the now currently soldout annual event caps attendance between 650 to 700 to preserve the space and keep crowding down. Circa Caliente, a companion event often held in the Fall, has had various incarnations through the years and is smaller still.

“It doesn’t make sense to go any bigger. And there is a bigger event than ours in San Diego,” said Snyder. “[Tiki Caliente is] going into year 14. And this one has legs. Circa Caliente had different names, different years. That’s kind of like my pet project, which I get to do kind of like my fun changes every year. Tiki Caliente is more steadfast. It’s like the band Queen versus a Freddie Mercury solo album.”

Circa Caliente, known previously as “Mod Palm Springs”, “Shag”, and “Goin’ Primitive”, slightly diverts from Tiki Caliente in both its size and themes.

The Fall event, where it was briefly cooled by rain, will take a break this year as Snyder concentrates on the three businesses he currently owns and runs on the property, the recently opened Le Fern Bar and lounge, Sancho’s Mexican restaurant, and The Reef, his own restyling of the original Tiki bar to Caliente Tropics.

The Reef, which is adjacent to and accesses the hotel’s pool and space for each event, hosts the scheduled bands—both inside and out—lending to much dancing, general merrymaking, and pool party pasttimes such as the “boat parade” of pool floatees…and where a certain famous pirate is occasionally spotted.

The Reef, with many classic Tiki bar elements such as puffer fish lanterns and island fishermen motifs, also contains pop culture references to Frank Sinatra, 80s TV shows like Magnum P.I., an islander crossroads direction sign to other Tiki bars in Palm Springs, and other islander decor.

Sancho’s, formerly the location of long-defunct California “Denny’s-like” franchise, Sambo’s, is a Mexican-style Restaurant with an adjacent lounge and “Fern bar”, Le Fern.

Snyder’s “fern bar”, is decorated in cooler greens, contrasting touches of black and white animal printed lamp shades, and collections of Eekum Bookum Tiki mugs—a calming, tucked away cocktail cave sporting exotic liquors and a visual homage or two to actor Ted Lang as “Isaac the Bartender” from the 80s TV show, The Love Boat.

“Fern bars became a thing in the early 1970s when women started having their own jobs, getting divorced and had their own quality of life. They would start going to bars without men for the first time. So [bars] started decorating for women. Instead of nude paintings on the walls, they would have ferns, they would have Tiffany style lamps, and a lot of kitsch on the walls, because they thought that’s what women wanted. And then they stereotyped the drinks back then and made them sweet, such as the Grasshopper, Pink Squirrels, Mudslides, and Hurricanes. They made such places comfortable so women felt comfortable going too.”

Inspired by symposiums he’s enjoyed at the now-closed Oceanic Arts events in previous years, Snyder brings something more specifically to Tiki Caliente with each year. Not just a challenge to entertain fellow Tikiphiles, but as a goal toward increasing awareness of the origins of the culture by sharing the art, stories, music, and urban legends associated with it, as well as actual facts and history.

“With Tiki Caliente, as my crowd and I are getting older, I always like to think of it as like karate. It takes years to get to black belt. Usually, people will come to the event for the first year wearing Tommy Bahama and drinking Malibu rum. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Snyder said. “As time goes by, they go for more vintage shirts [and clothing] …Sandwich Isle jackets…they explore Martinique rums, or funky rums. But as we get older, a lot of us want not just to drink, but we want to fill our time, kind of like we’re learning something.. We try to add a lot of elements that are educational that’ll break up the bodies. A room party will go on the same time as a tasting at The Reef. Le Fern will have a cocktail [perhaps] because we’re celebrating Seersucker Sunday and, at the same time, there’s a symposium, so it never feels overcrowded. There’s more texture to what we do than just showing up to a hotel and getting drunk.”

Tiki Caliente’s inception in 2008 with the previous hotel owner was to be a one-time event. After the real estate crash in 2008, the previous restaurant spaces adjacent to The Reef gained new owners in 2009 and Snyder was approached to return with his event in order to help promote the spaces and businesses. The event returned in 2010, where liquor license issues brought it the following year next door to the Travel Lodge, which is now “V.” After changing owners in 2017, the new owner reached out to Snyder to return the event once again to Caliente Tropics and to help with cross-branding, where the event has since remained. “At some point, he then offered me the bar restaurant to help bring up the brand of the hotel.”

The music at this year’s Tiki Caliente will vary from Exotica to Esquivel-style Surf lounge, from spy-noir surf to Yacht Rock, with bands such as Lushy, Par Avion, Sea Base, and the Dirty Low Downs. “We try to have more bands that are authentic to the scene. Hapahaole, Polynesian, lounge, or exotica. So the music’s a little more on point versus Circa [Caliente] where I kind of could go off on a tangent on anything from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.”

Often, there are unofficial pre-events at other local Tiki bars, such as the Tonga Hut, whose owners also frequently sponsor a room party. Their speak-easy themed room party for last year’s Circa Caliente Room Crawl came complete with a mermaid, MeduSirena Marina, and a secret karaoke room. Such events are typically frequented by the vendors at the Marketplace, as well as attendees— especially if they’ve arrived early.

This year it is expected that as many as 15 room parties may be planned, where sponsors such as the Tonga Hut and Cutwater Spirits are returning. Party attendance is limited by staggered time slots to reduce over-crowding and encourage overall pacing. “I don’t usually allow room parties on the second floor, I’ll allow only a handful. But they have to be at the same time as another room party, just because that building is 1963 Palm Springs and I don’t like seeing [too many] bodies on the outside walkways.”

Brian Eastman of Zen Tiki Lounge Podcast, who goes by the name Sunshine Tiki, schedules and organizes the room parties. He and Mark Riddle, [Marty Lush of Lushy], are rumored to have a potentially spookier, darker, Disneyesque “Enchanted Tiki”-inspired room party planned for this year. The parties are announced on a social media group page to keep the event and party-goers updated regularly as the list of party hosts grows.

This year’s event theme, “Stowaways in Paradise,” is in honor of writer and illustrator Don Blanding who Snyder credits as a precursor to Don the Beachcomber, who Blanding was an inspiring figure to. A mug that Snyder has commissioned from Eekum Bookum by mug designer and creator, John Mulder, features Don Blanding, both in honor of him and for this year’s event as a Tikiphile collectible.

“It looks like Don the Beachcomber [Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt aka Donn Beach] because Don stole his style,” he said. “It kind of bothers me that no one knows who the hell Don Blanding is. But Don Blanding, whom Don the Beachcomber supposedly based himself off of, created Lei Day [in Hawaii] and was a master merchandiser. He really did contribute to not only the Tiki scene—because he was pre-Tiki [culture]—but also contributed to the Hawaiian culture.”

“Kari Handler’s doing [a symposium at the event] on Blanding, and there’s a lot of subtext to him…He wrote, I think, 14 different books. He did illustrations for other people’s books. He did the voice over for Hawaii and their commerce and their Board of Tourism.”

He wrote all these beautiful poems about Hawaii that made people want to go there,” he continued. “So he was endorsing his homeland—what he believed was his homeland, and not cultural appropriating— and people loved that about him. He was the first true beachcomber.”

Although the event is sold out, the Marketplace and grounds, along with bands by the pool and The Reef, are open to the public from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM on Sunday. However, stay tuned with their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/VagabondsLifeLLC as tickets may open with any pending changes or updates, or tiki-caliente.com. For more information on Caliente Tropics visit calientetropics.com.

All photos by Monique A. Lebleu

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