Besides spending the day at the Bishop Museum, a luau is the best way to experience Hawaiian culture while on vacation. As the state’s most-visited island, Oahu has a variety of quality luaus to choose from—more so than any other island. Selecting the right luau can depend on where you’ll be staying, your budget, and your needs.
The history of luaus in Hawaii dates back to 1819 when King Kamehameha II put an end to the traditional practice of Hawaiians eating their meals while separated by gender. After generations of men and women not feasting in the same place or even enjoying the same foods, the Hawaiian people were finally able to celebrate together.
Almost every luau will feature a similar menu, typically consisting of a blend of traditional Hawaiian food, Asian-influenced flavors, and more familiar mainland favorites such as salad and roasted vegetables. You will want to try the roasted Hawaiian pork cooked imu-style, fresh local fish, Huli Huli chicken, chicken long rice, lau lau, and poi to get an authentic taste of Hawaii.
With only two shows per week, Aha'Aina on the beach in front of the swanky Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki is nothing if not exclusive. Before the show, guests can enjoy cultural demonstrations on apa-making (a type of cloth made of pounded bark), poi-pounding, and na lawai’a (tending of fishing tools). The show focuses around a storyteller, who explains the ancient history of the island, the significance of feast food as well as the story of Helumoa, the land where the Royal Hawaiian Hotel was built. The feast included several action stations from a poi and poke bar to a kalua pig carving station.
Hosted five nights a week by Chief Sielu Avea, a world-champion fire-knife dancer, and ambassador for Samoan and Hawaiian culture, Chief’s Luau is consistently rated as one of the most entertaining luaus on Oahu. The only thing this Kapolei luau doesn’t have is a beach setting, which may deter some visitors who have already imagined their luau experience complete with sand beneath their toes. With more comedy and talent than perhaps any other show on the island, for what the venue lacks in ambiance, it makes up for with incredible showmanship. Before the show, learn how to crack a coconut, start a fire or weave a grass hat the Polynesian way, enjoy souvenir hunting or sip a tropical cocktail. Fans of fire-dancing won’t want to miss this show, as Chief Sielu is renowned for his fire-knife dancing and has personally trained his staff to perform spectacularly.
The Ali’i Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center is of the most popular luaus on the island, partly because of the ability to pair it with entry into the center. Combining the full package of the admission, luau, and evening show is a full day experience, so be prepared for that. It’s possible to do the luau on its own, but you will have to get to Laie (about 1.5 hours from Waikiki) on your own to do so. Also, be aware that, unlike the other luaus on the island, there is no alcohol allowed at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Often-overlooked by Waikiki tourists due to its location on the other side of the island, the Toa Luau is arguably one of the most authentic and intimate luaus on Oahu. Toa is located inside the beautiful Waimea Valley, an incredible culturally-significant piece of land on Oahu’s North Shore. This luau offers many things that other luaus do not, like an umu demonstration (Samoan above-ground oven) and kava (drink made from the kava root) ceremony. This luau is excellent for children because of the interactivity and great for adults because of the cultural integration and stunning natural backdrop. The price of a ticket also includes admission to the Waimea Valley cultural site, as well as the botanical garden and Waimea Falls.
For those who want an ocean-front luau with a spectacular sunset view and plenty of entertainment, Paradise Cove is bound to deliver. Paradise Cove has one of the best selections of family-friendly cultural activities out of Oahu’s luaus, but the outdoor ambiance attracts couples and singles as well. Enjoy face painting, lei making, canoe paddling, spear throwing, and more before the show begins. There is also a traditional imu ceremony with the unveiling of the underground oven-roasted pig as well as hula and hukilau (net-fishing) demonstrations. There are three different packages to choose from that dictate your seating arrangements and inclusions, with the highest package featuring front-row or royal box seating with table service. The luau is set in Ko’olina, a resort community on the West side of the island.
Located on the grounds of the Waikiki Aquarium within walking distance from most of the resorts and hotels, Diamond Head Luau has something for both kids and adults to enjoy. The luau ticket includes after-dinner admission into the aquarium for luau guests to enjoy 40 minutes of self-guided access. What also sets this luau apart from the rest is the menu, which is the only farm-to-table selection for a luau on the island. They pride themselves on using locally-sourced and fresh island ingredients in their dishes, which range from lychee wood-smoked local marlin dip to Kunoa Cattle Co. bone-in kalbi beef short ribs. Pre-dinner festivities include hula lessons, headband weaving, and ukulele lessons.
The only luau located in East Oahu, Ka Moana overlooks the windward side of the island in all its coastal ambiance. Tickets to the luau include admission to its venue, Sea Life Park, that can be redeemed either the same day or up to seven days after the luau date. The outdoor luau includes cultural activities such as lei making, headband weaving, and hula lessons. At the same time, the show focuses on taking their guests on a metaphorical voyage across ka moana (“the ocean”). There are three different packages available, and transportation from Waikiki is available for an additional fee.
Acclaimed as Hawaii’s first commercial luau, Germaine’s has been around since the 1970s. While the luau has occupied different venues since then, it settled on a location on the West side of the island overlooking the ocean within a grove of tall coconut trees. While the dinner show consists of dances from the islands of Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, and of course, Hawaii, the all-you-can-eat buffet is inherently Hawaiian. Germaine’s was also named America’s Best Luau in “America’s Best 100” and has been featured in shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.”
Waikiki Starlight Luau is located on the rooftop of the Hilton Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki and is highly interactive with group hula lessons and a conch shell blowing contest. The luau begins early in the evening, so views of the ocean from the rooftop can still be enjoyed in the daylight before the sun goes down, and the show festivities begin. The accessibility of this five-night-a-week luau in the heart of bustling Waikiki makes it worth consideration. Guests of the luau receive complimentary valet service or self-parking at the hotel’s parking structure.