hor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer, set sail from South America to prove that it was possible to have navigated to Polynesia in pre-Columbian times in a raft. The raft made out of tree trunks tied together with hemp rope carried six men and only materials existing or available at the time. Heyerdahl did bring a radio and maps but brushed it off when questioned if this tainted his claim that the trip was at all possible before Columbus set sail in 1492. He merely pointed out that the 1947 trip's main goal was to prove the raft itself could cross the Pacific.
Heyerdahl must have wanted to put all the odds on his side by naming the raft Kon-Tiki, a name for the Incan sun god Viracocha. Legends have Viracocha rising from Lake Titicaca to make the sun, the moon, the stars and mankind by breathing into stones. He was said to have ultimately disappeared over the Pacific by walking on the water. The Kon-Tiki set sail off the shore of Peru for a voyage of over 3700 nautical miles coming to end in French Polynesia.
It has long been contested that it was the sea-faring Polynesians who in actual fact crossed the Pacific bringing Tiki to South America. Stone carvings from both lands have fascinated archeologists and explorers for centuries. Easter Island's statues were compared to similar ones at Lake Titicaca in Peru and chicken bones from Samoa were found in Chile dating as far back as the 1300's.
Today, archeologists don't have to dig too deep to discover the origins of Tiki culture in North America in the 20th century. Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed restaurant first opened in the United States during the Interwar period. The decor included palm trees, bamboo furniture, flaming torches and carved idols. Tiki culture boomed after World War II when soldiers brought back authentic artifacts from the South Pacific. Tiki restaurant chains soon followed with Trader Vic leading the way opening restaurants across three continents.
The menu varied from restaurant to restaurant with Polynesian to Cantonese cuisines with Polynesian named dishes such as Tonga Tabu Pork and Hen Aku Aku. The restaurant bartenders out did themselves naming and concocting drinks. The Mai Tai, Zombie and the Taal refreshed patrons then as they still do now. The Tiki culture reinvented itself affecting home decor, architecture, art and even Elvis. This cultural phenomenon eventually made its way north of the border into Canada.
In 1960, Joseph Crane, a restaurateur and American actor, was granted the right from Heyerdahl to use the name Kon-Tiki and opened a chain of restaurants. Crane partnered with Sheraton Hotels to have them located in their hotels. The first one opened in Montreal followed by Chicago, Cleveland, Portland, Honolulu and Boston.
The awning arch could be seen from Ste Catherine St looking north on Peel Street. It stuck out over the sidewalk in more ways than one. It seemed out of place next to the main door of the Sheraton Hotel with its fake bamboo covering straw and Hawaiian and Polynesian tribal symbols. The eight-foot Tiki warriors with spears guarding both sides of the massive double doors dwarfed the doorman decked in a green uniform with coat tails and navy cap. The foyer entrance held back the anticipation of what was behind the rice and red bark walls and Hawaiian music did its best to cover up the sound of running water. The waterfall in the middle of the dining room flowed across from the bar that was made to look like an ancient cave. The Tamaa and Luau Rooms had Samoan and Hawaiian themes respectfully, with spears, odd shaped lamps, and birdcages hanging from the ceiling. Canoes hung in the Long Hut with Shark's jaws and tropical fish on the walls.
Kon-Tiki restaurant has been called the most unusual and also the most exotic restaurant of Montreal. The cocktails certainly proved to be exotic served in moulds of ice, others in coconuts, and glasses held with both hands. The swizzle sticks and plastic umbrellas became nostalgic souvenirs and today are searched for by serious collectors.
Kon-Tiki Chicken, slice breast chicken with Virginia ham and imported mushrooms went for $3.00. Caponette Tiki Tiki, stuffed with water chestnuts, lotus nuts, minced meat and exotic spices went for $4.25. The menu had something for everyone including Ham and Eggs Hawaiian served with pineapple and banana.
In the 70's the spears were removed from the door-guarding Tiki's and a circular Kon-Tiki sign was added above the hut roof. Inside, nothing changed except for the clientele, which became younger and a night out at the Kon-Tiki was looked upon more like a fad than an extravaganza. High school grads reserved a year in advance to be able to slip in with fake ids and drink Mai Tai's all night and have their picture taken, not forgetting to take home the plastic umbrellas.
The Kon-Tiki shut down in 1986 when the Mount Royal Sheraton closed its doors. The auction that followed netted less than $100,000 on merchandise valued at over a million. The furniture and décor lived on in other local restaurants. Today, you can still be greeted by Tiki warriors at the Jardin Tiki, sit in the same chairs and still hear the waterfall with the canoes hanging from the ceiling. The menu has changed and they don't serve Kon-Tiki Daiquiris but Tiki culture has found a way to survive in Montreal.
Thor Heyerdahl passed away in 2002 and legends have it that he dined at Kon-Tiki at least once having a Meaai Meluna Lui followed by a Mai Tai leaving with a swizzle stick in his pocket and a plastic umbrella in his lapel.
Thor Heyerdahl's raft is displayd at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo.