By Lena Katz
South Pacific fire dancers spinning flaming batons around their bodies faster than the eye can see. Plates piled high with roast pork from the imu oven and fresh island catch. Girls in grass skirts and coconut shell tops swishing their hips hypnotically. Countless rum punches turning the evening to a pleasant blur. These are all critical elements in a typical Hawaiian luau today, and a Hawaii vacation isn’t complete till you experience one … if not all. But a lot of visitors wonder: What exactly is a luau and is it a real tradition or something cheesy just for tourists? Most important: Are all luaus created equal?
A luau, a feast to mark an important celebratory occasion, is culturally rooted, festive and all about food, fun and family. Luaus have been part of Hawaiian culture since long before Westerners arrived to the islands. Up until about 150 years ago, Polynesians called their big celebratory feasts ‘aha ‘aina. These events were usually somewhat formal, with more ceremony and not such a party-down atmosphere. Just as the colloquial name gradually shifted to “luau”(which is actually the Polynesian word for taro leaf, an ubiquitous ingredient in traditional Polynesian cooking), the concept evolved to be more of an any-occasion celebration.
All luaus are created completely … differently. Hawaiians hold casual, intimate luaus in their backyard for friends and family to celebrate birthdays or graduations; in parks to commemorate sporting events; and in community centers to mark local holidays.
While commercial luaus may all share certain elements, like receiving a lei upon arrival, sipping a and eating enough roast pig to feed a small village, the productions are more story-driven and diverse with every passing year. Luaus showcase local talent, recount Hawaiian legends and bring great food, drink, art and song together under one roof.
Oahu truly celebrates
Among today’s crop, the standouts on Oahu are the classic Ali’i Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center and the brand new ‘Aha ‘Aina (recognize the name?) at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki. If you attend the former, be aware it requires a full-day commitment because the Polynesian Cultural Center is on the north side of the island-about an hour’s drive away from Waikiki, and enough of an attraction in its own right to warrant a full-day stay. As for the latter, it’s a “royal celebration” that comprises a feast and three-part dinner show that plays against Ocean Lawn. Occurring just once weekly on Monday nights for now, this is Waikiki’s only oceanfront dinner show.
Speaking of unique settings, the Hilton Hawaiian Village recently debuted its own Waikiki Starlight Luau on the rooftop of the on-site conference center, and is a fun and festive show that’s family friendly and great for small groups as well. An emcee provides a bit of comedy and a lot of crowd participation to spice up the traditional song and dance elements.
Best Fests on Maui
Over on Maui, the Feast at Lele continues to take the cake (traditional haupia coconut, of course) as the unofficial “best of the best”… though no one can agree whether this is due to its spectacular setting on the beach, its sit-down dinner service (no standing in lines at this party-not ever); or its free-flowing and varied liquor and wine selection. While the Feast at Lele touts its multi-cultural program, which supposedly represents the cuisine and the dances of several different Polynesian cultures, closer study reveals that the same dancers perform all numbers (except the fire dance and the special hula solo at the end), and that the corps dancers fall more into the “looks amazing in a coconut shell top” category than the “300 pounds but wow, she knows how to hula” group. Nonetheless, the food excels compared to most luaus, and by the final fire dance, the mood is so elevated, it’s not unusual to see some of the audience head off to do a little hip-shaking themselves.
Hawaiian History on the Big Island
The Big Island points people to Kona Village for a show that offers equal parts spectacle and historic relevance. Wednesday’s Hula Mana is the tried-and-true show that’s been playing for years; Friday’s Sava’i, Origins of Polynesia features a newer and more eclectic program that even includes some Maori music and dance from New Zealand’s indigenous people.
If you can only go to one luau this year, the statewide pick would probably be the stunning Luau Kalamaku at Kilohana Plantation. Staged in an open-air theater in the round that seats more than 800 people and features a giant old-growth tree reaching through the ceiling, this luau creates a spectacle from the minute you arrive. As dusk settles, flaming torches create a magical glowing fire outside the sheltering pavilion. After the traditional pre-dinner activities, like the removal of the roast pig from the imu oven, people find their seats and then are served table-by-table while others drift back and forth to the bar. It’s all very leisurely, as this is a multi-hour affair.
While pre-show entertainment is good, it’s nothing to compare with the nearly hour-long live post-dinner show. Produced by Don Ho’s niece, Huanani “Nani” Asing Marston, the show is based on the legend of the first voyage to Hawaii from Tahiti. Its cast comprises more than 50 people, including some from as far as Tahiti and New York. For the most part though, it employs local talent for everything from the backing band to the leads. Expect beautiful original music, dramatic theatrics and jaw-dropping dance. This show is less than two years old and has flown under the radar thus far, but won’t for long as TV crews have started to discover it. See it every Tuesday and Friday at Kilohana.
Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.