“May there always be warmth in your hale, fish in your net, and aloha in your heart.”
Aloha is a state of mind, and a way to live in peace, harmony, and joy. Perhaps that’s what we love about our visits to the Hawaiian Islands. The food, the almost indescribable natural beauty, and the spirit of its people are simply captivating.
Thankfully for those of us who live or visit San Diego, there are places to experience the aloha spirit without traveling all the way to Hawaii. For here in America’s finest city, aloha is alive and well, and we have places to celebrate the tiki culture, traditions, charm, and allure of Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands.
San Diego’s tiki roots date back to the 1950s. And while other parts of the U.S. grew weary of its kitschy and somewhat outdated vibe, that didn’t happen here. In the last few years, we’ve seen a nationwide resurgence in the culture that adds new life to this Polynesian escapism –with its food, its drinks, and its décor.
Where to Stay and Play Aloha
Catamaran Resort Hotel
A tropical hideaway in Pacific Beach, Catamaran Resort Hotel is situated on stunning Mission Bay. The Polynesian-themed resort exudes a laid-back island atmosphere with lush vegetation, koi ponds, waterfalls, tiki torches, and exotic birds.
Entering the lobby is like being in a Hawaiian resort. Palm trees, ferns, bamboo, orchids, and tropical foliage surround a magnificent waterfall and koi pond, the lobby’s centerpiece. The resort grounds contain more than 1,000 types of trees and plants and more waterfalls and koi ponds filled with fish and colorful ducks. A lovely pool area is somewhat secluded giving guests a respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Don’t be surprised when you’re on the pathway and suddenly hear a squawking voice ask “What’s your name?” or comment “You’re so pretty.” These are the colorful friendly macaws and cockatoos who also call the Catamaran home, and do they ever love people.
Outdoors, there’s a large grassy lawn with beach chairs and umbrellas fronting the sands of Mission Bay. But just a block away, you can carve out your own spot along the ocean at Pacific Beach.
Rooms, studios, and suites at the resort range from garden to bay views with subtle touches of tropical décor. A must-do is dining at Oceana Coastal Kitchen, the resort’s signature restaurant. Views are stunning overlooking Mission Bay and their California cuisine includes a myriad of seafood, sushi, and other culinary delights. At night, tiki torches are lit, setting the perfect mood for staying at this tropical paradise.
Bahia Resort Hotel
Tucked away on a picturesque fourteen-acre peninsula in Mission Bay, the iconic Bahia Resort Hotel is mere steps from the surf and sands of Mission Beach.
Guests of the casual beach-themed resort (sister property to the Catamaran) have access to a quiet and secluded private beach with classic rattan and azure blue-covered cabanas set along the bay. There’s no charge for guests to use Bahia’s cabanas that are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Accommodations at this beachfront oasis include a garden and bayside rooms set among lush winding tropical landscaped gardens that include waterfalls and even a stunning gazebo. A sparkling pool and tropically-themed beach bar set the mood for an ideal laid-back vacation vibe. Nighttime lighting turns the waterfront property into an even more magical island paradise.
One of the resort’s most popular draws is the Seal Pool that houses two rescued seals. Guests can take part in feedings which occur twice daily much to the delight of kids of all ages, both big and small.
One of the best amenities of the resort is experiencing the beauty of Mission Bay on a nighttime boat cruise aboard a turn-of-the-century sternwheeler. Complimentary for hotel guests, the Bahia Belle operates seasonally and cruises between the Bahia and its Catamaran sister property.
Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn
We call it one of San Diego’s “best kept” secrets. One visit here and you’ll understand why.
A hidden waterfront retreat on Shelter Island, Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn has a South Pacific throw-back flavor that is evident the moment we entered the property. Volcanic rock walls draped with colorful flora, flickering torches, and palm trees rustling in the breeze give the resort a true Hawaiian authenticity.
Its soothing waterfalls and vibrant colorful gardens made us feel thousands of miles away from the busy life of San Diego proper. Mexican birds of paradise and tall green bamboo groves sway in almost perfect rhythm to the soft music resonating throughout the grounds, and wandering pathways lined with tiki totems lead to a relaxing pool and spa with ample lounge chairs, umbrellas, and a poolside bar.
Two beautifully colored plumed parrots take time out from their outside jungle play to welcome visitors with a long-drawn-out nasally “hellloooo.” If you don’t answer back, they’ll keep trying!
Rooms and suites are located in tiki-like longhouses scattered throughout the lush tropical landscaped grounds, each with balconies or patios. Simple, laid-back island décor fits the Hawaiian theme to a T. The inn borders the lapping waters of San Diego bay on one side, and a quiet private marina on the other.
Where to Drink and Dine Aloha
Bali Hai Restaurant
Tiki found a home in San Diego in 1954, particularly at the Bali Hai, located on the very tip of Shelter Island. The restaurant was one of several “Christian’s Hut” locations, a spin-off of the original built on California’s Balboa Island for the Hollywood crew filming a remake of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty.
Structured to resemble a massive Hawaiian ceremonial house, Bali Hai treats guests to 180-degree views of the harbor, Coronado’s North Island, and the twinkling lights of the downtown skyline. Views are spectacular from nearly every seat in the restaurant. The famed Tiki Bar, the crown jewel of the eatery, is one of the most beautiful tiki bars in the world.
Wait staff dressed in Hawaiian attire are more than happy to suggest the best cocktails. The Mai Tai is a fixture of the restaurant with over 2.5 million sold, and you’ll see dozens being delivered tableside to the delight of patrons. Word of warning, however, go with the Bali Hai Mai Tai unless you want the straight-up potent boozy traditional which contains not one single drop of tropical juice.
The cuisine here of course is Polynesian-inspired featuring classic pupus like Hawaiian Tuna Poke, Coconut Shrimp, and Island Beef Skewers. Not sure what to order? Go for the Ali’i tasting which includes four different tantalizing appetizers. The remainder of the menu includes Aina (the meat entrees) and Kai (fish selections).
Duke’s La Jolla
An off-shoot of the original in Waikiki, Duke’s La Jolla not only serves up delectable Hawaiian delights but also has incredible oceanfront views overlooking the spectacular La Jolla Cove.
A tribute to Hawaii and Southern California beach styles, the restaurant is named after Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. Not surprisingly, the décor features surfboards and surfing photos scattered throughout the two-tiered teak wood restaurant.
The signature cocktail is Duke’s Mai Tai, a luscious libation made with fresh Hawaiian juices with two types of rum. Mojitos, mules, margaritas, and locally- sourced lavender drinks are also available.
Though the menu isn’t extensive, it’s well-thought-out to satisfy a variety of tastes. Our favorites include the Sautéed Mac Nut & Herb Crusted Fresh Fish, parmesan & panko dusted with lemon caper butter, and herbed jasmine farro rice. The Poke Tacos with fresh ahi, shoyu, Maui onions, avocado, and wasabi aioli, and the Kalua Pork sandwich are big hits as well.
But save room for dessert as the Hula Pie is devilishly decadent. Made with a chocolate cookie crust, macadamia nut ice cream, hot fudge, toasted mac nuts, and whipped cream, this huge delight is ideal for sharing (though you probably won’t want to)! And on birthdays and special occasions, this dessert treat is complimentary.
The Grass Skirt
It’s a speakeasy and island-inspired eatery, but you have to get there through a secret entrance. The Grass Skirt in Pacific Beach is fronted by the casual restaurant Good Time Poké. This nighttime tiki bar features exotic rum punches and smoking volcano bowls with flower leis and fruit garnishes.
Exotic libations here include the Mai Tai (anchor cocktail of the tiki retro culture) along with Pain Killers, Scorpion Bowls, Zombies, Carmen Mirandas, and Grogs. A favorite cocktail is the Fire & Ice, creatively concocted with serrano-infused tequila, high-test Jamaican rum, pineapple, coconut, pomegranate, and topped with a lime rind holding a flaming shot of Bacardi 151.
With its kitschy décor, palapa huts, palm trees, hand-carved idols, and flaming torches, this lovely nighttime hangout offers booth seating, fire pit tables, swings, and plenty of Polynesian-inspired design.
Plates and pupus feature numerous selections of fish, veggies, Bao buns, island-inspired bowls, salads, and larger plates like Pad Thai, Spicy Tuna Tostada, Kimchi Fried Rice, and Vegetable Stir-Fry. And there’s a good amount of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options in this chef-driven eatery.
Miss B’s Coconut Club
Located in Mission Beach, colorful, laid-back Miss B’s Coconut Club is named after a fictitious bathing beauty cover girl. The club celebrates the alluring turn of the 20th century when Mission Beach was largely a “tent city” filled with grassy, Hawaiian-style cabana huts.
The tropical beach town bar and restaurant sports a Cuban, Caribbean, and Hawaiian-inspired décor. Rum is the mixer of choice here with large shareable tropical punches and bowls, along with other tantalizing island-inspired mixed drinks. The Coconut Club Cocktail is Miss B’s local version of the Caribbean Painkiller, while the Rum Cannonball is their house Mai Tai. And there are plenty of other fun twists to its classic libations.
Brunch, lunch, and dinner menu items tantalize the palate with fun Caribbean taco plates, Plantain coconut shrimp, Coconut Club Breakfast Burrito, island salads, and tropical burgers. Though the menu isn’t extensive, there are plenty of goodies to choose from.
Next time you’re needing a little aloha spirit, just know we’ve got plenty of that to share right here in San Diego.
Last Updated on October 8, 2021 by Maria Haase