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The return of the Tiki bar

No matter how fine the food and drink, it looks as if this Thanksgiving weather might be cold and dreary in parts of the country. Ben Tracy has an antidote:

Ah, paradise!

The sun, the sand, the palm trees! Who doesn't need to get away from it all?

But if a week in Hawaii isn't in the cards, don't despair - you can taste the tropics on the mainland, with a visit to your local Tiki bar.

From the Tiki Ti in Los Angeles ... to the Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, Tiki bars and restaurants - those shrines to bamboo and umbrella drinks so popular in the '50s and '60's - are back!

And a whole new generation is getting their Polynesian groove on.

What does the word "tiki" actually mean?

"Tiki was the name of a Polynesian demi-god, meaning he was man and god at the same time - he was sort of the Polynesian Adam," said Sven Kirsten, who wrote "The Book of Tiki."

The entrance to his home, he says, "a little bit like Tiki Disneyland!"

"It was pure escapism," he said of Tiki bar culture. "An island in the urban concrete jungle that you could escape to for a little while and make yourself believe you were on some South Seas island."

The Tiki craze was actually born - where else? - in Hollywood in 1934, the brainchild of a former bootlegger and ship's cook named Ernest Gantt - later known as Don the Beachcomber.

Arthur Snyder now owns the L.A.-area restaurant bearing the Beachcomber name.

"Every tropical restaurant in the world tries to derive from Don the Beachcomber," said Snyder.

Two years later, following in the Beachcomber's rum-soaked footsteps, Victor Bergeron opened a restaurant in Oakland, Calif. Trader Vic's quickly became the temple of Tiki.

"My grandfather got a love of rum from being in Cuba, and learning from bartenders there," said Peter Seely.

The Tiki wave crested in the years following WWII, when America fell in love with romanticized tales of GIs and their adventures in the "South Pacific."

Now, 60 years later, at places like Otto's Shrunken Head and PKNY in New York City, the Tiki juices are flowing once more.

As always, the drinks are the draw.

There's the Zombie ... the Scorpion ... the Navy Grog ... the Fog-cutter. But nothing says Tiki like the Mai-Tai, meaning "the very best" in Tahitian.

Trader Vic is thought to have invented the signature drink.

Recipes: "Old Way" Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai cocktails

"What's specific to these drinks that make them Tiki style?" asked Tracy.

"A lot of rum," replied Sven Kirsten. "A lot of dark and tasty rums that have flavors. Then you mix it with all kinds of fruit juices and spices."

So, while a visit to a Tiki bar may not match a twilight swim on a Hawaiian beach, it's a step - and a sip - in the right direction.

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