Magnificent Mai Tai at House Without A Key

Magnificent Mai Tai at House Without A Key (Photo by Gillian G. Gaar)

Step over the threshold, and you feel like you’re entering a realm of tranquility. Such is the experience when you arrive at Halekulani (“House befitting heaven”), tucked away at the very end of Kalia Road in Waikiki, Hawaii. There’s been a hotel on the site since 1907, then called the Hau Tree; it became Halekulani in 1917. There’s an air of serenity as you stroll around the quiet grounds, perhaps admiring the swimming pool, with its mosaic of a Cattleya orchid made from 1.2 million tiles, or taking in the ocean views.

It’s also a good place to do a little bar hopping, with four establishments offering an array of different settings for imbibing, some of them newly refurbished; Halekulani shut down entirely for most of the pandemic, taking the time to do some renovations that have added some new spins to old favorites.

House Without A Key has both full-service restaurant dining and an outside patio, which gives you the best experience of the nightly music and hula, so make sure to request “cocktail seating” for this. Walking to your outside table is like being escorted onto a movie set, with its stunning view of Diamond Head to the east. The stage is set so the musicians and dancers have their backs to the ocean, giving the audience a perfect backdrop of sea and sky as they watch the performance (my favorite dancer is Kanoe Miller).

I’ve previously written about the mai tais at House Without A Key; in my view, it’s the best mai tai on Oahu. Whereas other mai tais can be overly sweet, with too many different kinds of juices, the only juice in the House Without A Key mai tai is lime. Though if you do prefer a sweeter drink, consider the Hale Tai, which uses coconut rum and lilikoi (passionfruit) in addition to lime juice. Another frequent complaint about tropical drinks is that they’re watered down with too much juice. No such worries with the Tropical Itch; a shot of bourbon is added to the mixture of rum, orange curacao, and lilikoi.

The outside area has been newly expanded to incorporate a bar called Earl’s, after Earl Derr Biggers, author of the eponymous 1925 Charlie Chan detective novel from which the restaurant takes its name. Just after my last visit, Earl’s launched a new cocktail menu, including such offerings as a spirit-free avocado-based cocktail called the Sweet Persea, which I look forward to sampling on my next visit. And don’t neglect the light bites available for cocktail seating and at the bar; I’m especially fond of the kapakahi fries, made with furikake, green onion, garlic, and tobiko, and served with kabayaki sauce.

L’Aperitif Cocktail Bar is the intimate venue at Halekulani’s five-star restaurant La Mer. “This is one of the best bars that you’ll ever come to,” says head bartender Henry Kawaiaea modestly, and it is indeed a superlative experience, elegant yet relaxed, especially around sunset, with the open windows offering a good view of Diamond Head as the warm breezes carry in the sounds of music wafting up from House Without A Key.

Kawaiaea, who’s been at Halekulani since 1983, has created a few of the cocktails on the menu, such as the Henry’s Wallbanger, inspired by a bottle of Don Julio 1942 tequila that looked like a Galliano bottle. “I was thinking, ‘What if I could combine these two? What’s a cocktail that uses Galliano?’” he explains, a train of thought that led to him substitute tequila for the vodka in a traditional Harvey Wallbanger. A request to create a gluten-free cocktail resulted in the Compassion, made with Chopin Vodka, coconut water, lilikoi juice, and topped with champagne. “I added champagne to give a little more effervescence to it; the ladies, especially, they want something that’s sparkling.”

He’s right in my case. My favorite drink at L’Aperitif has been the Miss Bonde, a raspberry-infused vodka “caressed with champagne.” On my most recent trip, I also experienced the “Mai Tini,” a mai tai served in a martini glass. L’Aperitif has a different mai tai recipe from House Without A Key, using lemon juice with a squeeze of lime, a mai mix of simple syrup, orgeat, triple sec, and rum; no dark rum, as there isn’t a float. And shaken with ice but not served with it, save for a single cube emblazoned with Halekulani’s logo (the Cattleya orchid). Kawaiaea notes that the lemon juice, which gives this mai tai a zestier flavor, was in Halekulani’s original recipe for the drink. But he draws the line at other juices. “We’ve made mai tais, and guests will come in and say, ‘Oh, can you add pineapple juice?’ No, that’s not a mai tai!”

And my new favorite is his latest creation, the 5G; yes, a name inspired by the fifth-generation mobile network. It starts with a “healthy measure” of gin, grenadine for color, and ginger liqueur.

Then, he notes, “most cocktails need some kind of citrus, so I added grapefruit juice. And the last is ginger beer, for the effervescence.”

Ginger is the strongest flavor in this delightful drink, mixing surprisingly well with the gin. It brought me back to L’Aperitif on more than one occasion to experience it again.

In the later evening, there’s no better place to unwind than Lewers Lounge. The lights are low, which befits a sophisticated jazz club. Maggie Herron, award-winning vocalist, and pianist (whose most recent album, My Story in Song, has a wonderful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), provides the entertainment on most nights. My go-to beverage here is the Lost Passion, a delectable concoction of Hornitos Reposado tequila, triple sec, and lilikoi juice, topped with prosecco and served in a sugar-rimmed glass. Smooth and sweet, it’s been years since I’ve had any other drink at this bar.

One place I didn’t get to visit was Cattleya Wine Bar, set up in the Orchids restaurant. Pre-pandemic, I attended a wine tasting at the communal table set up in the wine bar area, but it was closed during my last trip. The new wine menu offers 3, 5, and 8 oz. glass servings, allowing you to set up a little wine tasting of your own. Next time!

Whether it’s to have a classic like the mai tai or to discover new offerings, Halekulani’s bars and lounges are a must-visit for those who like to enjoy their cocktails in a refined setting.