If you lived in Baltimore from around 2010 on, you probably remember the Tiki Barge. And if you remember the Tiki Barge, chances are you either loved it for the waterfront oasis it provided — tropical drinks and an outdoor pool, all floating in view of the Domino Sugars sign — or hated it for the tacky behavior it drew to a South Baltimore marina.
Wealthy residents and boat owners in the area said the bar brought in the riffraff through the upscale Harborview marina, next to the Ritz-Carlton condominiums. In a petition filed in late 2010, months after Tiki Barge opened, patrons were accused of “simulated sex with a potted palm tree” and urging a woman on a passing boat to reveal her breasts in exchange for beads. Its liquor license was later suspended due to lack of security.
Stephan W. Fogleman was chairman of Baltimore’s liquor board at the time and said that in retrospect, he regrets ever approving the Tiki Barge’s license: “It was too shiny and bright a thing.” He said it became a “must-do” for everyone in the area, to the point that “it turned out to be a disturbance to the community.”
In 2015, the barge’s owners put the property up for sale for $1 million. No one bit. Today, it can be yours for the low, low price of $40,000.
Now abandoned since closing for good in 2019 after years of on-and-off service, the barge at the end of the 500-foot pier looks even more out of place against the million-dollar yachts that dock next door.
Bernard Dehaene, a former chef who lives on a boat in the marina, has made it his mission to get rid of it.
Though he doesn’t own the barge — it belongs to the owners of the marina — he stresses the property’s potential like an eager real estate agent. “It doesn’t have to be a bar,” he said, standing near the wooden planks that cover what was once a swimming pool. “You can sell Christmas trees on it. … You could build your own house with a pool in it. You could jump from the second story into the pool.”
And it could be lucrative, said Dehaene, a Belgian-born former chef who previously owned the now-closed Corner Restaurant and Charcuterie Bar in Hampden and helped launch Octobar in Riverside last year, though he’s not involved with them anymore. He claimed the last summer the Tiki Barge was open, the owners “did a gross of $7 mill[ion].”
At $40,000, the once-hopping hangout is priced to move. But there are a few catches.
One: It’s a hulk, a lump of rusting materials beaten down by the elements and sheer neglect. Weeds grow in the cracks of the floor. The men’s bathroom has no toilets, and it looks like it’s survived several hurricanes. The barge tilts a few feet in one direction.
And two: Those Domino Sugars sign views don’t come with the property. Whoever buys the barge will need to relocate it.
Another floating property is parked nearby in the marina. Dan Naor, who owned the Tiki Barge while it was in operation, had planned to open a seafood restaurant called the Raw Barge. But after all the backlash to the Tiki, the eatery never took off. Now, it’s home to the marina’s offices.
Since listing the barge on Craigslist and other corners of the internet, Dehaene has heard from a slew of interested buyers. Two were Samantha Pikras and her partner James Nave, who took a tour one afternoon last week. Pikras would love to transform the barge into a wellness center for mermaids. (She’s a certified mermaid, she explained. It’s an actual thing.) But Nave has some questions. Why does the barge tilt so much? Could the hull be damaged? Where will it go? How will it get there?
A single tugboat might be able to do the job, said Scott McCabe, who operates three tugboats in Baltimore, including one docked at Harborview, just by the barge. “If the barge is seaworthy, then it would be relatively easy,” he said.
But that’s a big “if.” Old steel boats require regular maintenance — out of the water — to stay afloat, McCabe said. At the superficial level, the Tiki Barge doesn’t look like it’s had much love in the past decade or so. When it comes to boats, he said, the damage you don’t see is what’s most concerning.
Even junking an old barge is no simple matter, said Keith Aschenbach of Smith Brothers, a barge and tugboat rental company based in Curtis Bay. Since the closure of a scrapyard in Sparrows Point, an old barge would likely need to get tugged to Norfolk for scrapping, and there’s no guarantee it could make the long journey, Aschenbach said, though he stressed he hadn’t seen the Tiki Barge in many years and didn’t know its condition.
Back in 2010, Bud Craven got the Tiki Barge going and managed it for three seasons. Before that, he said it had been a pool for marina members. Once transformed into a bar, “it was a big attraction, especially for the younger crowd in Federal Hill,” recalled Craven, who now lives in Ocean City and also opened Tiki Lee’s in Sparrows Point and Lee’s Pint and Shell in Canton.
Was it, as Dehaene said, $7 million successful? No, he chuckled. “It’s not doing $7 million, I can tell you that. Maybe $700,000.”
Craven sees pros and cons to taking over the barge. On the one hand, “That thing was a moneymaker.” On the other hand, the boat “has some serious problems” and would most likely need to be replaced, he said.
“I’m almost surprised it hasn’t sunk.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct when a petition was filed with accusations against the Tiki Barge’s patrons.