Luaus are a window into Polynesian culture, but not all are created equal
Luaus are the oldest and most rocking of all Hawaiian parties. They’ve got singing, dancing, storytelling and, of course, great food, such as kalua pig cooked in an earth oven (named an imu), coconut pudding (called haupia), and poi (starch from the taro plant). The parties have been this way for hundreds and hundreds of years.
In the old days, these bashes were reserved exclusively for the islands’ elite. Today, just about anyone – locals and visitors alike – can experience luaus at multiple spots on most of the Hawaiian Islands. The best islands for these shindigs: Maui, Hawaii, and Oahu. During a recent holiday on Oahu, my family crammed three luaus into two weeks.
Without question, our favorite of the bunch was the Alii Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), in the town of Laie on the island’s North Shore. The PCC bills this dinner theater as Hawaii’s “most authentic” luau, and it certainly was comprehensive. The dancing portion of the night included a variety of numbers from Hawaiian lore, as well as dances from Tahiti, Samoa, and other cultures of the South Pacific. We also witnessed a “Royal Court,” a special ceremony that involves colorful outfits fashioned of flowers and leaves. (My daughters, ages 2 and 4, liked that part best.)
Viewfinder Tip: Go hungry to most luaus; in order to get the most from your purchase, you'll need to hit the buffet two or three times.
When the show was over, we headed for the buffet – a smorgasbord of kalua pig, sashimi, poi, and other regional treats. My wife and I devoured the lomi lomi, island-style pico de gallo with tiny cubes of smoked salmon. The girls gravitated toward the sweet purple taro rolls, largely because, well, they were purple.
It’s worth mentioning that the PCC itself is worth exploring; the place is a giant theme park devoted to the exploration of Polynesian culture. We arrived early and managed to see a short film about volcanoes. The girls also learned how to play Maori stick games and tried their hands at making leis.
Later in the visit, during a few days at Disney’s Aulani in the Ko Olina resort area, we checked out the Paradise Cove Luau and Hawaiian Revue. Here, before the formal luau began, the girls sat on grass mats and wove baskets with Hawaiian basket-weavers. I also participated in a hukilau, a traditional ceremony during which a bunch of grown-ups pulled fishing nets from the sea.
The highlight of this luau definitely was the view: The festival grounds sit right on 12 acres of pristine (and, in contrast to Waikiki, uncrowded) beach. Sunset turned the clouds into cotton-candy colors of pink, orange, and purple; after that, we ate and marveled at dancing under a night sky teeming with stars.
For our third and final luau during our recent visit to Oahu, we braved the crowds in Honolulu and hit Aha’Aina, the luau at the pink (and circa-1927) Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
This was by far the longest of the trio – in all, the experience was almost four hours. The luau also was the most informative; because the hotel sits on a legendary playground for Hawaiian royalty, post-dinner stories, and dance routines were filled with fascinating and colorful anecdotes about the past.
I admit, by the end of the night our daughters got a little bored. My wife, on the other hand, a professional archaeologist and anthropologist, left with a newfound appreciation of local history. Every luau should have such an impact.
What do you look for from cultural experiences when you travel?
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