Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Pieces of the Caribbean

Tips for creating that Montserrat mystique

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Your Mastercard melted somewhere around the 18th Christmas-gift purchase, and your wallet’s thinner than Calista Flockhart. Looks like that midwinter trip to the Caribbean is out.

So why not bring the tropics up to you?

When the snow is swirling and the angry wind whips, having a little patch of paradise in your own home is like insurance against the wintertime blues. There’s nothing like sipping rum from a coconut shell under a palm tree’s canopy to boost you out of your funk, even if it does require a healthy suspension of disbelief.

That sense of escapism is what led Lynne and Dave Stauffer Sr. to turn the lower level of their Montville Township, Ohio, home into a tropical hideaway.

“Makes you smile,” Dave Stauffer said. “I think that’s the thing. Makes you smile when you go down there.”

The Stauffers created the cheerful gathering space for family and friends in their walkout basement, complete with sunny yellow walls, a fake palm tree, a palm-leaf paddle fan and plenty of pictures of tropical scenes. There’s even a beaded curtain that, when closed, creates a palm-framed ocean scene to hide the doors to the furnace room.

The whole room was designed around the wicker bar, which looks like the gondola of a hot-air balloon. The Stauffers, who own Stauffer’s Furniture Village in Sharon Center, Ohio, spotted the bar during a buying trip to the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C., and called from the dealer’s booth to cancel the run-of-the-mill bar they’d already ordered.

Dave Stauffer said he and his wife chose the tropical theme for one simple reason: “because in February you’re so friggin’ sick of gray skies.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Michael Beringer has his own antidote to winter weariness: artificial palms trees and tiki huts created by his company, Custom Made Palm Trees Co. in northeast Akron.

The palm trees are made from real palm trunks, either secured in a pot or cemented in place, and topped with silk palm leaves. They range in size from 24 inches to 15 feet or more, and cost from $55 to upwards of $1,200. He also rents the trees, for times when your tropical tastes are temporary. Beringer recommends putting them indoors, although some customers have had them installed around swimming pools.

Beringer’s bamboo-and-palm-thatch tiki huts can be as simple as a thatch roof over supports or as elaborate as a full-service bar, at prices starting at $2,200. His most popular hut, a 7-by-7-foot model, seats eight to 10 people and has a ceiling fan, lights, an electrical outlet and shelves.

Mostly the tiki huts have been used outside, but Beringer said he knows of three people who are building tiki bars in their basements. In general, he’s seeing increased interest in the kinds of tropical-theme items he sells.

“I think everyone likes the feeling of being on vacation,” he said. That’s why he started the business, he said. “That was my goal, to bring a little bit of the tropics here.”

Even if you don’t have the money for a $4,000 tiki bar, you can still create a tropical feel on the cheap, said interior designer Carolyn Leibowitz of Genesis Interiors in Bath Township, Ohio. “It’s just a matter of creativity and found things,” she said.

Desperation for a break from the winter bleakness doesn’t hurt, either, of course.

Leibowitz came up with a slew of inexpensive ideas for giving a home a taste of the tropics, namely:

• Staple grass skirts to a wall, overlapping them like shingles to re-create the look of thatch. Leibowitz once covered a gazebo roof that way.

• Use the same grass skirts to encircle an inexpensive round side table. Top it with a square table topper and hang shells or other tropical items from the topper’s four points.

• Cut hollow bamboo stalks from the craft store into different lengths, and tie them in an upright bundle with raffia. Insert individual flowers, palm fronds or weeds into the bamboo tubes.

• Set the top of a ping-pong table on concrete blocks, cover it with a cloth and surround it with floor cushions for a luau table. Decorate it by laying pieces of bamboo lengthwise of the table, drilling holes in the bamboo and inserting orchids.

• Get a bunch of potted palms of various sizes from a warehouse club or wholesale florist and set them around the room, not just in the corners. Group the palms in odd numbers for a lush appearance.

• Swap the blades of a ceiling fan with blades that look like palm fronds, or paint the blades tropical colors.

• Buy old wicker furniture from a thrift store, spray-paint it crazy colors and make new seat cushions.

• Hang old guitars or ukuleles — more thrift-store finds — on the wall.

• Cover an old lampshade with grass skirting or silk tropical flowers, glued in place.

• Make a floor cloth from colorful fabric, backed with iron-on interfacing to stiffen it. Use a non-slip rug pad underneath.

Then pour yourself a pina colada, stretch out on your beach chair and imagine the sun’s warmth on your shoulders.

So what if it’s only a 100-watt light bulb? It beats a 17-below windchill.

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