April 21, 2018: The Strangest Bar You’ll Ever See
After a wonderful day in Helena, I headed back to my hotel in Great Falls. The most popular steakhouse was booked up for the night, but I was able to find good burgers at the Roundhouse Diner. My order was the Winchester burger, named after the gun manufacturer.
I then made my way to Great Falls’ biggest attraction: the world famous Sip N’ Dip Lounge. Located on the second floor of a nondescript motel, the Sip N’ Dip has been around for over 55 years. Apparently when the bar was founded in 1962, tiki bars were a big thing. To distinguish itself from other tiki bars, the Sip N’ Dip features live “mermaids” aka women (and one man) who wear mermaid costumes and entertain guests from the pool behind the bar. There is also piano entertainment from “Piano Pat”, an octogenarian and great grandmother. In 2003, GQ Magazine ranked the Sip N Dip the #1 bar in the world worth flying for (I haven’t found the article yet, but this statement is very well publicized by the bar and anyone writing about the bar).
With high expectations, I walked to the second floor of the O’Haire Motor Inn and was shocked to see the bar packed. It was so busy, I had to wait a few minutes in line to get in. Once inside, my eye immediately was drawn to the glass wall behind the bar. There, I saw the mermaids- they were very real and far more entertaining that I was expecting.
The mermaids wore goggles and would dive down in the costumes to interact with the guests at the bar. Despite the cumbersome costumes, the mermaids were able to convincingly move around. The mermaids were also quite flirty and would stare and blow kisses at guests. They also would bring toys such as light-up balls and rubber fish. I stared at the mermaids (there were two) for 30 minutes until I was able to find a seat at the bar.
I then ordered the Sip N Dip’s signature drink: the fishbowl which has 10 shots of various types of liquor masked in a blue fruit punch. The drink was designed for 4-6 people but by the time I realized this it was too late and my credit card had been charged the $29.
Drink in hand, I finally found space at the bar- in between a cowboy in town for a cattle auction and a lady here for a statewide bowling tournament.
I slowly drank my fishbowl and chatted with the people nearby. Because of the bar’s worldwide popularity, people were generally not that surprised that I was here from California.
I learned that because driving distances are very long in Montana, people have no problem going hours away for something most city-folks would consider a minor task. The cattle rancher lives about 3 hours away, but regularly comes to Great Falls (at least once a week) for Walmart, larger car/tractor repairs, and to see friends.
A few barstools down, another lady also was drinking a fishbowl on her own. I soon learned that this was her second fishbowl. Insane! Around 10pm, an older lady asked to take a sip of my drink. I gave her one of the many straws, she took a large sip and then walked away without thanking me. I laughed too hard to be mad.
Eventually, one of the mermaids left the pool. A few minutes later, I noticed a younger woman with wet hair standing by the bar. I figured she must be the off-duty mermaid! We ended up chatting with some of the bar staff nearby.
She goes by the moniker of Alice (apparently all the mermaids have a mermaid name). As a professional mermaid, she swims about 4-5 days a week depending on whether or not there is a weekend brunch.
While Alice says she loves her job, she said it is not easy. The mermaid suit weighs about 40 pounds, so it heavily affects one’s ability to swim. “It’s like swimming with a lot of clothes on” she said. While the swimming appears effortless, it takes a lot of cardio and stamina. Occasionally, the bar will host “swim with the mermaid” events. The events are supposed to last 30 minutes, but most guests tire out after 5-10 minutes. A typical mermaid shift is 6 hours! Being a mermaid also requires lung capacity. Alice can hold her breath for well over a minute.
While warm “tropical” weather only comes to Montana for a few months a year, the bar is open all year. The pool is heated year-round to a comfortable temperature. However, the area above the pool, while inside, is not well-insulated. In the winter, getting in/out of the pool is probably not very fun. Alice said sometimes her hair will freeze in the short time it takes to get out of the pool and inside.
In addition to the taxing physical demands, acting skills are also required to be a mermaid- as the mermaids’ interactions with the bar patrons are what make it special. She is always coming up with new tricks or finding new props to keep patrons during the shift.
One of the more recent additions to the Sip N’ Dip is the merman who swims on Tuesdays aka Ladies Night.
While the Sip N’ Dip is the most famous mermaid bar in the country, it is not the only one! There are also mermaid bars in Sacramento and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Alice said that the mermaids at all the bars are connected through Facebook- which creates a sort of mermaid community. While Alice has not yet visited the other mermaid bars, she hopes to one day.
By midnight, I had finally finished the fishbowl. The lady a few seats down appeared to have passed out midway through her second. At that point, I was ready to head home. The bar was still busy. I bid farewell to everyone and walked across the street to my hotel.
GQ Magazine was right, the Sip N Dip is fantastic! While I think the bar would do well in pretty much any town in America, the Montana setting is really what makes it special. The dichotomy of tiki and Montana is truly unique. Hopefully someday soon, I will be back in Great Falls to catch up with my new friends, but in the meantime the Sacramento mermaid bar will have to suffice. If you’re thinking of going to the Treasure State, I would consider the Sip N’ Dip a must-have experience.