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How I Accidentally Retraced My Family’s Roots to a Tiki Bar in Madrid

By Nicole Antonio 

May 30, 2018

From the July/August 2018 issue

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A view of the Plaza de España in Barcelona

Photo by Paolo Nicolello

A view of the Plaza de España in Barcelona

A young woman ventures to Spain for the first time with her mother, and discovers that sometimes, the apple really does not fall far from the tree.

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The instinct to wander might be genetic: My great-grandmother emigrated from Spain to Hawaii by boat, my grandma ventured to China in the tumultuous late ’80s, and my mom was a travel agent for nearly a decade. I recently found myself in Spain for the first time, and while my mom-slash-travel-buddy was open to visiting the major sites (she’d already seen most of them on previous trips), I opted to meander on foot—and off the beaten path—instead.

During our week in Barcelona, we covered about 10 miles a day as we ogled the beautifully chaotic graffiti on storefronts and got lost in the city’s infinite alleyways. It was a two-pronged effort to experience less touristy areas and to walk off our latest indulgences. One day we would eat chorizo-stuffed potato balls at La Cova Fumada and fresh prawns at La Paradeta before washing it all down with cocktails at Marcopolo’s, and the next day we would work up a sweat hiking the mountain at the end of Nou de la Rambla to reach Montjuïc Castle.  

At Mauna Loa, a tiki bar in Madrid
Following a similar strategy for three days in Toledo, Spain’s ancient walled city, led to sore legs and a slight sunburn as we navigated the hilly cobblestone streets in 85-degree weather. By the time we reached Madrid, we wanted to slow down. A cross-city stroll from the Temple of Debod to El Retiro Park was still in order, but on our second night there, we learned of a tiki bar down the street from our Airbnb. My mom and I agreed: Why not? We used to live on Oahu, so the choice seemed right. We found an awning that read Bar Hawaiano (the actual name was Mauna Loa) and strolled into what looked like a 1970s sea cave. A host handed us flimsy plastic leis that we donned without hesitation. The music—alternating tracks of glam rock and Hawaiian falsetto—matched the kitschy volcano fountain and the dangling lights shaped like puffer fish. We tipped too much, but we didn’t care; it was worth the fun we were having.


We laughed at ourselves for wanting to sip tiki drinks in the heart of tapas country. Once we were seated, my mom realized she had been in the same bar her first time in Spain, 40 years earlier with her mom. At first, we joked about the coincidence (Take a selfie for Grandma and see if she remembers), but the longer we nursed our rum concoctions through three-foot-long straws, the more it seemed like we were supposed to be there. The women in my family have all been wanderers, perpetually fascinated by the concept of elsewhere. We’re bound to retrace each other’s footsteps now and again.

>>Next: How the Eternal City Brought My Mom Back to Life

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