Lei away

As I write this it's Jan. 2, another "millennium" celebration is behind us, another, smaller, less enthusiastic bout of wondering whether this was the year the rapture finally would come and all those cars sporting the bumper stickers would be "unmanned." (Ever notice that you never see one of those stickers on a Jaguar or a Porsche?)

Anyway, Armageddon failed to occur again, a real disappointment as it definitely would have spiced up the routine. Having to swat demons off the porch with a broom would beat going to work, but the only sign of biblical plagues this year has been in Hawaii, which has been invaded by alien Caribbean tree frogs, probably brought in, according to an Associated Press story, in produce or potted plants. There are up to 8,000 of them per acre in some areas, they have no natural predators, and they have an ear-splitting chirp said to be as loud as a lawn mower.

Hawaii has long been on my list of Top 10 Places I'm Going to Run Away to One of These Days Dammit, but at the moment, at least, it seems like the real thing isn't as desirable as the knock-off version. It happens.

Authenticity counts for a lot, but once in a while you get an imitation that will do for now. Isn't it better, for example, to go through a phony shark attack at Universal Studios than to actually get your head bitten off?

Discovery channels

The Mai Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale proved to be a "Twilight Zone"-doorway combination of fake Hawaii and authentic olden-days Florida. Reports of the Mai Kai began eking in a few weeks ago, with friends reporting something that, on the hipster front, was the archeological equivalent of finding those bog mummies: a genuine tiki bar, built in 1956 and unchanged ever since except for some additions. With the buzz having taken 45 years to travel this far north, the Mai Kai beckoned like a star shining in the South.

The first signs of that beloved retro dilapidation were the big patches of thatch missing from the giant slanted roof, not to mention gaping holes in some of the outdoor walkway ceiling areas, which were covered up with what appeared to be -- perhaps genuine, perhaps not -- Japanese newspapers. This is one of those places that, if you are at all interested in the touristy Florida of old -- especially the "old" Florida masquerading as the "old" Hawaii -- you might want to get to visiting like a rich 1,000-year-old aunt.

Although if the New Year's Eve crowd was any indication, the Mai Kai will be around when "Microsoft" sounds like "Atari." There was a huge crowd for all three shows that night, which included island dances with men spinning fire batons (and dropping them once, leaving us to think, "This place has been here for 45 years, and the night we come it's gonna burn") and women who can rotate their lower halves at the same circumference as Venus going around the sun. They hula so well it almost seems they can unhinge their hips. They can definitely unhinge the more rapt audience members.

There is even more eye candy wherever you turn. Every corner of this space, from the meandering gardens to the gift shop, is a tsunami of detail: hundreds of lanterns, velvety paintings of naked wahinis, fish, flowers and tikis -- giant-sized to hand-held -- featuring more scary and varied facial expressions than Jim Carrey. Even the gift shop looks as if it could be a member of an old Bangkok temple. Nowhere, however, is the atmosphere more evocative than at the bar -- and that's with the liquor not even being visible.

Hawaiian punch

What the bar evokes is that feeling of being on the ride "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," only loaded. The short ceilings, nautical theme and water pouring down over the windows when it was a perfect, bright day outside (one of our party mused that the urinals were probably upstairs, but this was not the case) definitely caused a feeling of being captive, if not on a boat than on Gilligan's Island in a big storm. Trapped! Trapped like rats! With a full bar, an authentic Hawaiian band playing slinky slide guitar and pin-up girl waitresses in bikinis! Oh, the humanity!

There were a couple of minor setbacks -- New Year's Eve is definitely a tourist-heavy time for the Mai Kai, so the crowd and a few others things, like the menu, seemed to change accordingly. But all in all, if you were in the mood for a little authentic island atmos without the authentic bulbous airfare, the several-hour plane ride and the screeching tree frogs, this could be the short-cut answer you're looking for. A little authenticity -- say about 46 years' worth in the same location -- can sometimes take you about a thousand miles away.