I love all things Hawaiian. The warm climate, the sweet taste of fresh tropical fruits, the aloha attire and laid-back attitude to life. Being originally from Hawai’i, I occasionally dream of escaping the fast-paced city life and traveling back into a warm tropical oasis, especially one with an old-time Hawaiian feel. Luckily, the East Bay is a treasure trove of tiki bars, which aren’t truly Hawaiian, but evoke the islands with its decor and cozy, welcoming vibe. They manage to magically transport me to a place that reminds me of home. These carefully crafted, kitschy worlds of tropical escapism include the long-standing Trader Vic’s in Emeryville and the Magnum P.I.-obsessed Kona Club on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, which each showcase its own version of a retro Polynesian hideaway. But for me, Forbidden Island is my go-to East Bay tiki spot. Opened in 2006 on a real island (Alameda!), Forbidden Island invites young and old patrons to intermingle, sit back and treat themselves to lively drinks and Hawaiian hospitality. Enter Forbidden Island.
On the outside, a tropical foliage mural and tiki sign paints a pretty picture of what lies inside. Upon entering, your eyes will need a second to adjust to the dimly lit space, where dollar bills and tiny tiki torches hang from the bar’s ceiling, shedding light on its “99+ bottles of rum on the wall,” antique tchotchkes and a lone television silently playing classic films. The grass-shack roof frames the elongated bar and a line of antique swivel barstools with curved backrests adds a maritime feel.
The bartenders are dressed in Hawaiian retro attire with a splash of East Bay rockabilly. Their bartending skills are spot-on, measuring out the many ingredients that make up a perfectly balanced tiki drink.
It may take some time to take in all the nuances that make this place so unique, but its extensive drink menu of fresh juices and well preserved tiki recipes are a good start.
Forbidden Island’s menu is categorized by traditional tiki drinks, house specials, classic cocktails, famous tiki bar tributes, premium rums and pools of paradise. It can be overwhelming to choose a drink, so I started with a classic and worked my way into the house specialties.
My first drink was the Mai Tai. The origin story of the Mai Tai is a blurred one, with two tiki bar founders, Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. (Trader Vic’s in 1934) and Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (Don’s Beachcomber Café in 1933), claiming to be the inventor of this famous concoction of Jamaican rum, fresh lime juice with subtle hints of orange, almonds and fresh mint. At Forbidden Island, they serve two versions — the Classic Mai Tai and the Island Mai Tai. A side-by-side comparison between the two allowed me to take note of how much sweeter the Island version was thanks to the added pineapple juice and dark rum. While the Classic Mai Tai emphasizes the rum flavor and tastes like a luxury resort, the Island Mai Tai is reminiscent of a Hawaiian sunset — sweet, colorful and picturesque!
Next, I tried one of the house specials named after the bar itself, the Forbidden Island. Made of lime, pineapple and a secret recipe of rare spices and liqueurs, it comes in a take-home Kapu tiki mug. If you aren’t looking to bring home a souvenir, you can opt out of buying the mug and just enjoy what’s inside — a refreshing, subtly boozy cocktail that will leave a grin on your face, similar to the one pictured on the tiki mug.
The next drink made heads turn at the bar. The Chamborlada is a slushy, fruity concoction that comes in a 20-oz goblet. This classical tiki cocktail is best enjoyed as a dessert. Made with light rum, pineapple and coconut juice blended and served with black raspberry Chambord, this frozen drink will certainly chill you out on a warm day and satisfy your sweet tooth cravings.
For the grand finale, I ordered one of the show-stopping pools of paradise. The Scorpion Bowl is a sweet mix of juices, rum, brandy and sparkling wine served in a large ornate bowl, lit with a floating flame. It’s recommended to dive right into this pool to quickly take your retreat to another level! If you want to go a notch up from the Scorpion Bowl, try the Virgin Sacrifice, another fire-lit drink that requires a chant to the tiki Gods of Forbidden Island before you drink up.
For those who are serious or just curious rum drinkers, Forbidden Island offers a large selection of more than 150 premium rums from around the world, including bottles from the original rum makers of the Caribbean, the oldest existing rum distillery in Barbados and regional rum from Martinique. Forbidden Island customers who sip 99 or more of Forbidden Island’s premium rums (hopefully over time, and not on one visit), will become a member of the Kill Devil Club, honored with a personalized plaque on the bar of fame and a lifetime of VIP discounts. Cheers to that, 99 times!
So as the night comes to a close, I am feeling the benefits of what a quick getaway can do to relax the mind and body. Forbidden Island is truly a step away from reality and hits close to home for me, as the vibes here are always warm and friendly.
Cheers to another memorable evening where cold and delicious tropical drinks are served, and people come from all walks of life unwind and have a good time. Until we meet again, aloha and mahalo, Forbidden Island.