The Ninth Island: Las Vegas’ Polynesian experiences aren’t just for Hawaiians
Las Vegas draws thousands of Hawaiian visitors from their tropical paradise every year, some permanently. As a result, there are Polynesian-themed festivals, restaurants, shows and specialty shops throughout the Strip and Las Vegas Valley. Several downtown properties are even preferred by Pacific Islanders, as evidenced by the scenes at their craps tables during optimal hours. The California, in particular, was conceived as dedicated to Hawaiian clientele before it broke ground 40 years ago.
“The Cal” was inspired by casino developer Sam Boyd’s fondness for the eight islands of the 50th state. Boyd (namesake of Sam’s Town, as well as UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium) visited Hawaii many times, sending a culinary team there to soak up its influence before opening The Cal in 1975. The hotel-casino currently boasts banners celebrating its 40-year status as Hawaiians’ go-to destination on the “Ninth Island” of Las Vegas, and outfits its staff in tropical shirts. Its restaurants, however, provide the heart of its Hawaiian-style experience.
Arrive at The Cal’s Market Street Café between 11 p.m. and 9 a.m. for its hallowed oxtail soup. It’s worth substituting for traditional morning comfort food, but the Luau Breakfast Buffet is a hard bargain to pass up. Island short ribs, Hawaiian hamburger steak and traditional saimin soup are among the entrées available all day. The nearby new California Noodle offers poke, while upstairs on The Cal’s retail level Aloha Specialties serves up contemporary cuisine such as loco moco in a more distinct island atmosphere. Nearby, Lappert’s Ice Cream serves up Hawaiian-style shave ice in addition to scoops and cones.
A bridge overpass connects The Cal to Main Street Station, which, along with Fremont Hotel and Casino, also enjoys substantial Hawaiian room occupancy. Main Street’s acclaimed Garden Court Buffet is one reason. Although not island dedicated, its elegant décor creates a pleasurable and social environment for the buffet’s multicultural fare. Hawaiian Host Chocolates can be found seven days a week at ABC stores on Fremont Street as well the Strip.
Honolulu Cookie Company fresh-bakes its natural-ingredient wares at The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian & The Palazzo and Grand Bazaar Shops in front of Bally’s. And while Hawaiian Marketplace across from City Center lacks Polynesian-specific cuisine, it does boast Fukuburger, which advertises burgers with a Japanese twist. And the smothered-and-covered “jazz fries” are devastatingly delicious.
Off-Strip tiki bars are a westward taxi ride away, with Frankie’s Tiki Room on Charleston Avenue and newly opened Golden Tiki on Spring Mountain Road short distances from the Strip. On the Strip, Treasure Island offers Island Heat inside Kahunaville restaurant. The dinner-show luau has won over reviewers with its entertainment-packed combination of Polynesian dance, Tahitian tribal drumming, a dynamic singing siren and a Blue Hawaii-era Elvis tribute along with entrées such as macadamia-crusted mahi mahi.
This Friday (July 17) island reggae group Iration plays Mandalay Bay with New Zealand’s Katchafire, and the KumuKahi Ukulele and Hula Festival takes place Aug. 7-8 at Sam’s Town, the casino-resort named for the man most responsible for Las Vegas’ Ninth Island status.
Watch your tongue: Survival tips for the landlocked Hawaii enthusiast
Kökua (“Koh-COO-ah”) Help or assistance
Mahalo Nui Loa ("Mah-HALL-o New-E LOW-a”) Thank you very much
‘Ohana (“Oh-HAH-nah”) Family
‘Ono (“OH-no”) Delicious
Pau (“Pow”) Finished
Poke (“POH-key”) A salad, usually made with raw yellowfin tuna
Shaka (“SHOCK-a”) Hand gesture where the thumb and pinkie are extended—means friendship