Much of the tiki-themed architecture of the 1950s and 1960s is gone. Some great tiki buildings, such as the Kahiki and the Trade Winds, were torn down. Many have been remodeled beyond recognition. But if you want to immerse yourself in a midcentury tiki atmosphere, there is still a great place to go: San Diego. Book lunch or dinner at Bali Ha’i and walk it off with a Shelter Island tiki tour.
Shelter Island’s tiki architecture also has some nautical flair (excepting the Bali Ha’i’s midcentury modern exterior…which used to have palm frond thatching and an A-frame). It does overlook the bay, after all.
There is a unique reason for the architectural consistency. Shelter Island was originally a sandbar. In 1934, it was built up into a peninsula using material dredged from San Diego Bay. The island was developed in the 1950s*. With a blank slate to work with, developers built in the style of the day – and in a way that complemented the island setting.
By 1964, the city of San Diego was trying to market itself as a closer and cheaper alternative to Hawaii. The campaign continued into the early 1970s.
Today, there is a limited amount of midcentury Tiki left in San Diego. So much of it has been stripped away.
But on Shelter Island, in spite of the newer cars (and light remodels to some of the buildings), it still looks like the golden age of tiki never ended.
(I did this tour during the day to take better pictures, but I hear Shelter Island is absolutely magical after sunset.)
Looking north on Shelter Island Drive. I think that outrigger beam may have been longer back in the day.
The soaring A-frame of the Island Palms resort. Again, I think that outrigger beam may have been longer once.
Backing up a bit to see more of the Island Palms…and those perfect palm trees! A striking example of Shelter Island tiki style.
Outrigger-esque beams on a nearby, newer-looking building. Was this one longer or was it made to match others on the island?
Humphrey’s restaurant gets its own massive A-frame, albeit in a somewhat different style.
Back side of Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn, facing the bay. The views from those rooms must be incredible. We’ll come back to Humphrey’s in a bit.
I have no idea what this place looked like originally (with that wall, I’m not sure what it looks like now…), but that’s definitely an A-frame surrounded by mature palm trees!
Rock wall with bougainvillea. (Fun fact: bougainvillea was introduced to Hawaii by Jean-Augustin Alexis Bachelot, a Catholic priest from France who later served the Church in Los Angeles.)
Even the fence posts along Shelter Island Drive look like minimalist Moai.
A tiki roof if ever there was one.
Another cool A-frame.
Now THESE beams look intact!
Slips available! Wouldn’t it be fun to live on a yacht here (if you can afford it)?
Pearson’s Fuel Dock Deli. (And more bougainvillea!)
A different yacht brokerage. (Forgive the funny angle, but I have a rule about photographing total strangers, and there were several people talking outside in spite of it being an unusually hot day. So I had to shoot around them.)
A slightly better view of the main entrance.
And finally, the most impressive A-frame left on Earth: Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn.
Humphrey’s landscaping. This is even better than the grounds of the old Hanalei Hotel.
Someday, I want a backyard that looks like this.
This stunning Shelter Island tiki icon gives me chills.
Interesting window design that mirrors the A-frame overhang.
Technically not on Shelter Island proper, but still on Shelter Island Drive…
…Trader Mort’s Liquor, about two and a half blocks from where Shelter Island begins.
Pinch me, I’m dreaming.
Original beams (with tikis!), tropical plants, and LOTS of lava rock. I’m in tiki heaven.
“War club” door handle.
Unfortunately, this is really the only good shot I could get of the interior.
The “wine loft” said to house a giant kava bowl seemed to be in use as a storage space…but you can still buy Tiki Farm mugs!
Taking the tour is pretty simple: take Rosecrans to Shelter Island Drive and just follow Shelter Island Drive (it’s the only road on the island). Tikiphiles won’t regret it.
*Besides letting the new land settle, World War II may explain the delay. San Diego IS a Navy town, after all. You can see the Pacific fleet from Shelter Island Drive.