Last stop on our California tiki bar road trip was sunny San Diego.
Sadly, Kemey and I only had one night to enjoy San Diego – a standalone destination worthy of a far longer visit. But I’d say we packed as much into our overnight as possible. And our whistle stop tour was a conch shell blowout as far as the tiki seeking was concerned. Indeed, we even enjoyed a stay at a mid century modern tiki resort, Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn on San Diego’s Shelter Island.
Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn
Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn is a low-rise boutique resort with a relaxed tropical feel. From its jutting A-frame entrance and dozens of tikis placed throughout the grounds to its resident parrots and hibiscus laden pathways, moments into our visit we were lulled into wondering if we’d somehow magically left California to be gently whisked away to some tiny atoll somewhere in the South Pacific. A short (and cheap) Uber ride downtown for an evening of fun brought us back to reality – but what a splendid reality! We had a fine time getting acquainted with this beautiful and friendly city.
The Half Moon is located on Shelter Island, in the Point Loma area of San Diego. Technically, Shelter Island is not an actual island but a sandbank connected to the mainland that was built up for development in the 1950s. It’s home to hotels, restaurants, marinas and parkland. And get this: when it was developed, buildings there had to adhere to a Polynesian theme as per special city overlay zone. So the whole strip of land looks little a secret fantasy tiki enclave. There’s even a tiki themed liquor store (Trader Mort’s) as well as one of California’s most celebrated classic tiki bars – the Bali Hai.
Hardly a saunter away from the Half Moon is the historic Bali Hai. Opened in 1954, this massive “tiki temple” (with bar and restaurant) is a city landmark with its broad roundhouse design and iconic “The Goof” head atop its roof surveying all that surrounds and its Mr Bali Hai tiki set at the entrance with eyes half lidded and a bone through his nose. Inside, the Bali Hai is floor-to-ceiling with carvings, artefacts (real and re-created) and South Seas accoutrements befitting its Shelter Island locale.
Supremely tiki or not, the Bali Hai is a fine place to enjoy a meal or drinks (or ideally both) with gorgeous views of downtown across San Diego Bay – best admired from its top floor open-air bar during sunset and just after when the skyline lights start to twinkle. Despite the emphasis on décor and view, the food is great. Lots of locals reckon the Bali Hai serves some of the best seafood and the best poke in town.
Remember waaay back in this series when I raved about the Smuggler’s Cove bar in San Francisco and how owner Martin Cate was opening another bar – False Idol – down coast in San Diego. The stars aligned in our favour as we arrived in San Diego in time to experience this amazing, ultra-super-over-the-top bar before saying goodbye to California.
False Idol was two days into its launch when we visited (this was mid September), but already the talk of the town – and definitely of the California tiki community (the place was brought up at every tiki venue we had visited en route to San Diego). This was not without good reason. Downtown on the southern edge of Little Italy, the bar is set secretly in the back of Craft & Commerce – an attractive and buzzing venue in its own right but one betraying any notion that there might be something tiki lurking in its shadows.
To access False Idol, you pass through Craft & Commerce’s freezer door (look for the shrunken heads and skulls in storage) to emerge inside a torch-lit (as in real open flames) cave with evocatively illuminated bar. As with most of the tiki bars visited on our tour, this one was decked out to the max with relevant décor. But the torches, heavy-handed display of rather realistic looking skulls on pikes, and its speakeasy in-the-know tone upped the tiki ante to a new level of whoa.
On the drinks front, the Mai Sha Roa Na (blended Jamaican rum, Madeira, banana liqueur, vanilla macadamia cordial, with fresh lemon), was probably my favourite cocktail of the trip. But I’d savour an opportunity to explore that drinks menu in more depth.
Intrigued? You really want to make that reservation now to ensure you get in.
As when Kemey and I met up with close friends for drinks in LA, our stop in San Diego was a chance to catch up with some of my family who live in the area. For our rendezvous, we chose Fairweather. Overlooking Petco Park baseball stadium, this rooftop bar above Rare Form restaurant (owned by the same folks behind Craft & Commerce) was a fantastic venue for our reunion. It was a great place for drinks too. I loved the Fairweather cocktail menu and its focus on honouring the classics while veering playfully off course with signature updates as well.
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
We couldn’t leave San Diego without devouring a few fish tacos. Oscar’s Mexican Seafood to take advantage of the happy hour special: battered fish tacos for 99¢ each. In addition to the yummy fish tacos, a grilled octopus taco with cabbage, onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado and cheese wowed my palate.
That about does it for my California Tiki Tour & More series. I’ll be back to soon with a few final thoughts to wrap things up. Until then, thanks for tagging along! I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip and found inspiration to embark upon your own adventure.
Go to visitcalifornia.co.uk for ideas about designing your own tour of California.