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Inside: Don’t waste your time or money on a mediocre mai tai in paradise. Here are the 5 best mai tais in Waikiki that are pure Polynesian perfection.
It was on one of my first visits to Hawaii (many, many years ago) that I learned a valuable lesson about work/life balance.
And mai tais.
You see, in my other life, I work in television sports production. And on this particular trip, I was on the island to cover a game at Oahu’s Aloha Stadium.
It was late afternoon with plenty of work remaining to prepare for the next day’s game when my producer suddenly declared it was time to wrap for the day.
When I started to protest, he looked me in the eye and said (dead seriously),
“Jenny, the mai tais aren’t going to drink themselves.”
How can you argue with that? It is literally a fact.
So, I didn’t.
And 30 minutes later our crew was back at the Sheraton Waikiki enjoying sunset mai tais at RumFire.
Sidebar: Looking back, I now realize that while RumFire is a terrific bar and a lovely place to watch the sunset, mai tais aren’t really their specialty (Tip: try the Stubborn Mule).
The moral of this story?
Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses (or in this case the plumeria) in life. And for goodness sake, don’t waste your precious moments in Hawaii sipping a mediocre mai tai.
Waikiki Beach, present day
So if you’re in Hawaii now (or headed here soon), there’s simply no better way to taste the aloha spirit than with this tropical treasure that has truly become synonymous with the Hawaiian Islands.
Most visitors to Waikiki will try a mai tai at least once. But I’m a firm believer that you won’t know if you really like them unless you actually try a GOOD one.
And I’ve got some pretty great ones on this list.
But before I tell you where to find the BEST mai tai in Waikiki, let’s quickly cover the history of this delightful Polynesian concoction.
Where was the Mai Tai invented?
Though most people assume the mai tai was invented in Hawaii, surprisingly it wasn’t.
In fact, the cocktail’s true origin story is up for debate. Two different California restaurateurs claim to have created the original mai tai – Earnest Raymond Gantt (of Don the Beachcomber fame) and Victor Jules Bergeron, aka “Trader Vic.”
While we may never know the truth, the Trader Vic’s version is pretty convincing. Here’s the full story straight from Trader Vic’s website:
In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year-old Jamaican J. Wray Nephew rum, added fresh lime, some Orange Curaçao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color, I stuck in a branch of fresh mint, and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, “Mai Tai – Roa Ae”. In Tahitian, this means “Out of this World – The Best”. Well, that was that. I named the drink “Mai Tai”.– Victor Bergeron
When did the Mai Tai come to Hawaii?
Trader Vic’s mai tai made its Hawaiian debut in 1953 when Bergeron traveled to the Hawaiian Islands at the invitation of Matson Steamship Lines, owners of the Royal Hawaiian and the Surfrider hotels.
He was tasked with creating Polynesian-inspired drinks for the hotel’s bars. To create a more tourist-friendly cocktail, he switched up his original mai tai recipe by adding a blend of pineapple juice and other fruit juices.
The “Hawaiian” version of the popular tiki cocktail quickly became a hit and the rest is history.
But enough preamble, let’s get down to business.
Where to Find the Best Mai Tai in Waikiki
You’ll find Hawaii’s signature cocktail on the menu at nearly all restaurants and bars in Hawaii. But not all Hawaiian mai tais are created equal.
And while I could talk for days about the best mai tais in Honolulu and around the island of Oahu as a whole, for the purposes of this post, I’m narrowing my focus to just the Waikiki area.
Trust me, you’re going to want to be able to walk back to your hotel after tying a few of these!
So, if you’re looking for the best mai tai experience in Waikiki, here are 5 places that won’t let you down.
1. Duke’s Waikiki – Because you just have to
Named for the legendary Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanamoku, Duke’s Waikiki is a rite of passage for any first-time visitor to Oahu. Heck, I live here and I still go on a fairly regular basis.
The vibe at Duke’s is surfer casual in the Barefoot Tiki Bar where they serve up great food and a flavorful mai tai with a great ocean view.
Personal Note: When I finish the Honolulu Marathon, Duke’s is always my first stop for a celebratory mai tai (after an ice bath and a long shower, of course).
What’s in a Duke’s Mai Tai?
Gold and dark rum, orgeat syrup, orange curacao, POG juice, garnished with pineapple, lime, and a parasol served in a tiki head glass (which is adorable).
Why You’ll Love It
The traditional mai tai at Duke’s is known to pack a punch, let’s call it “spirit-forward.”
But the star here is the “POG” juice which you’ll see everywhere in Waikiki. It’s a heavenly blend of passionfruit, orange, and guava (POG) juice and it deliciously masks the bite of the rum.
Pro Tip: POG juice also pairs quite nicely with vodka or sparkling wine. You can find all three and more at your nearest ABC Store. Just sayin’.
How much? $16 and sadly, no, you don’t get to keep the cute tiki glass for a souvenir. You can, however, buy a set of 2 for $24 at the shop (note: these are currently sold out).
2. The Mai Tai Bar at The Royal Hawaiian – Because it’s a Waikiki icon
No matter who created the mai tai, there’s no doubt it was Trader Vic who brought the iconic Polynesian beverage to Hawaii.
As the birthplace of the Hawaiian mai tai in 1953, the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian is a must while in Waikiki. It’s also consistently voted the best mai tai in Hawaii by the readers of Hawaii Magazine (though #3 on this list gets my vote).
What’s in a Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai?
The Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai preserves the recipe created by Trader Vic during his time in Hawaii, adding fresh pineapple and orange juice into the mix of orange curacao, orgeat, and local rums from Old Lahaina distillery on Maui.
Why You’ll Love It
For the past 70 years, people from around the world have gathered in this very spot to sip the quintessential cocktail of the Hawaiian islands. All the while soaking in the stunning views of Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach.
It’s not just a fruity beverage, my friends, it’s an experience.
The signature Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai is the classic choice here and definitely one of the best mai tais in Hawaii. But the mai tai menu also features variations like the Vic’s 44 and the uber-pricey Ali’i Mai Tai (a spin on the classic mai tai featuring special reserve rum and topped with a coco-loco foam).
This one also wins the prize for “best-accessorized mai tai” on the beach with its pretty pink parasol to match the historic Pink Palace where it is served.
Pro Tip: Go on a Monday or Thursday around 6:00pm and you can catch the show from the Royal Hawaiian Luau next door on the lawn (be sure to pick a table with a view of the stage).
How Much? Prices range from $18 for the Vic’s 44 all the way up to $40 for the Ali’i Mai Tai (the signature Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai is $21).
3. The Monkeypod Mai Tai, Monkeypod Kitchen – The BEST Mai Tai in Hawaii
OK, now that I’ve covered two of the most popular places to go for a mai tai, let’s get to the BEST one. It’s called the Monkeypod Mai Tai.
Merriman is one of Hawaii’s top culinary pioneers and the founder of what’s known as “Hawaii Regional Cuisine.”
All three of his restaurants feature the Monkeypod Mai Tai but, until recently, it wasn’t technically available in Waikiki. (Moku Kitchen, in the trendy Honolulu neighborhood of Kaka’ako, was the best spot downtown to try one.)
But thankfully, Monkeypod Kitchen Waikiki is now open in Waikiki’s recently renovated Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort. (I plan to be a regular here now that there is finally a location walking distance from home!)
The restaurant’s oceanfront location is stunning, so close to the water you can literally hear the waves crashing while you dine.
That’s reason enough to come here but it gets better. Let’s talk mai tais.
If I’m being brutally honest, I didn’t even like mai tais until I tried this one. Sure, I’d order the obligatory mai tai at least once on every visit to Hawaii over the years. Because you have to, right?
But truth be told, I’m more of a vodka girl (see POG tip above).
However, when a friend and former Oahu resident shared that the Monkeypod Mai Tai was her favorite cocktail on the island, I couldn’t resist giving it a try.
And let’s just say it was a game changer.
What’s in the Monkeypod Mai Tai?
Kula organic silver and dark rums, mac nut orgeat, curacao, lime, topped with their signature honey-lilikoi foam.
Why You’ll Love It
Three words: HONEY. LILIKOI. FOAM.
Since moving to Hawaii, I have become mildly obsessed with all things lilikoi (passionfruit), it’s simply divine. I also get a child-like amount of joy from the word “pupus” (appetizers) but that’s neither here nor there.
The honey-lilikoi foam topping on the signature Monkeypod Mai Tai elevates this classic cocktail to the next level.
The other change-up here is the house-made macadamia nut orgeat in place of the typical almond-flavored orgeat. Like everything at Monkeypod Kitchen, the ingredients are fresh and locally sourced resulting in a refreshing mai tai with a uniquely luscious tart flavor.
You won’t find a mai tai like this one anywhere else in Waikiki (or the rest of Hawaii for that matter). It truly is the best of the best and I firmly believe you should not leave the Hawaiian Islands without trying one.
Even better? Come to Monkeypod Kitchen for breakfast and try the delicious Monkeypod Mai Tai Flapjacks.
How Much? At Monkeypod Kitchen, it’s $18 ($4 off during happy hour). At Moku Kitchen, it’s $14 ($2 off during happy hour – a steal in these parts).
Pro Tip: Go during Happy Hour and pair that magical mai tai with half-price pupus! At Monkeypod Kitchen that’s 3:30pm – 5:00pm. At Moku Kitchen it’s 2:00pm-5:30pm.
Where: Monkeypod Kitchen Waikiki, 2169 Kalia Road, Honolulu, HI 96815 or Moku Kitchen, 660 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96813
4. Earl’s at House Without a Key – Waikiki’s most sophisticated Mai Tai
While I think I’ve been clear about my total adoration for the Monkeypod Mai Tai, when we have friends and family visit us on the island, House Without a Key is where I take them for the “Classic Mai Tai Experience.”
What’s in the House Without a Key Mai Tai?
The Halekulani Signature Mai Tai recipe is Bacardi Gold Rum, Bacardi Select, orange curacao, Orgeat syrup, fresh lime juice, and a Lemon Hart 151 float.
Why You’ll Love It
Dating back to 1983, the secret to the Halekulani signature mai tai recipe is the unique blend of three rums and freshly squeezed lime juice to balance the sweet orgeat syrup.
The first layer simulates the sunshine of their beachfront location with a blend of golden Bacardi rum and orange curacao. It’s topped with a Bacardi 151 dark rum float, for an instant punch of flavor with the first sip.
Cocktail hour at House Without a Key is like stepping back into old Hawaii. Gentle ocean breezes, soft jazz music, and killer Diamond Head views. It’s chic Hawaiian elegance with a sophisticated flair.
And it’s definitely my favorite mai tai bar overall.
Their entire cocktail menu is a work of art but the signature Mai Tai is worth the trip alone, easily winning the beauty prize on this list. It’s exquisitely topped with a sprig of fresh mint, a lime, a sugar cane stick, and a delicate orchid.
It’s almost too beautiful to drink. Almost.
How Much? $22
Where: Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu, HI 96815
5. The Beach Bar at the Moana Surfrider
Located at the historic Moana Surfrider hotel, The Beach Bar offers a classic mai tai in a relaxed beachfront setting.
What’s in the Moana Surfrider Mai Tai?
Moana Sunset Mai Tai (my favorite choice here) – Maui’s kula organic rum infused with hibiscus and handcrafted with lime, passionfruit, fresh pineapple, orgeat, and orange cordial. Topped with a float of kula dark rum to depict the beautiful Moana sunset in a souvenir cup for you to keep. (Note: They’ve been out of the souvenir cup for months but they do discount the price to make up for it.)
1944 Mai Tai – Plantation white rum, kula dark rum, dry curacao, orgeat, and fresh lime.
Why You’ll Love It
There’s nothing fancy about this one, it’s just a good quality cocktail in yet another spectacular beachfront setting. You can stroll in right off the beach and have a great lunch at this bar and restaurant with superb views of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head.
How much? Moana Sunset Mai Tai – $21 ($19 without the souvenir cup), 1944 Mai Tai – $19. They also offer a basic “Tropical Classic” Mai Tai for $18.
Where: The Moana Surfrider Hotel, 2365 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
That’s a wrap on the best mai tais in Waikiki!
Are you thirsty yet? I sure am.
From iconic beachfront bars to my own favorite local gem, this treasure trove of Waikiki’s best mai tais is sure to satisfy both locals and visitors alike.
So, whether you’re a seasoned mai tai connoisseur or a first-time visitor to Hawaii seeking the perfect taste of paradise, I hope this list leads you to your very own tiki treasure in Waikiki.
But you don’t have to take my word for it, why not embark on a mai tai tasting adventure of your own around Waikiki?
Because one fact remains…the mai tais aren’t going to drink themselves.