Some of the most frequent questions I receive from first time visitors planning a trip to Hawaii are, "What is a luau? Where is the best luau and what happens at one?"
When speaking with travelers in person, I note, however, that while most definitely want to attend a luau, many know very little about what a luau is, aside from what they have seen in Hollywood films, such as Blue Hawaii with Elvis Presley.
I've written a whole feature on my favorite luaus on the various islands, but it's worthwhile for visitors to learn a bit about the history of the luau and something about the types of food and entertainment that they'll find at the various luaus in Hawaii.
Origins of the Luau
In ancient times the Hawaiian people would gather together to celebrate auspicious occasions with a feast.
These celebrations were held for many reasons such as to honor a great victory in war or a noble warrior, to celebrate a bountiful harvest or the birth of a new child.
The Hawaiians believed that it was important to honor their gods and to seek their fellowship, help or pardon. They believed that prosperity should be shared with family and friends. This celebration was called 'aha'aina meaning gathering ('aha) for a meal ('aina). The feast included food, song and hula.
Referring to these celebrations as luaus is first seen in print in the pages of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser in 1856. (Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary, 1986).
The word luau, in Hawaiian, refers to the young edible leaves of the taro plant. These leaves were traditionally used to wrap food that was placed in an imu (underground oven) for the feast.
Today, Hawaiian families still gather together and hold luaus to celebrate special occasions. These luaus are most often private gatherings rarely attended by visitors to the islands. Should, however, you ever be invited to a family luau, it is a special privilege.
As tourism increased to Hawaii following World War II, many hotels, resorts and a number of private companies quickly learned that luaus were very popular with the tourist trade.
On Oahu the two largest companies offering luaus (Germaine's and Paradise Cove) pick up thousands of visitors each week and transport them away from Waikiki to their beachfront locations for an evening of food, drink and island entertainment.
The island's most popular paid visitor attraction, the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie on the North Shore, hosts their Ali'i Luau each evening (except Sunday).
In recent years, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel has offered an oceanfront fine dining dinner and show which they call 'Aha 'Aina, a Royal Celebration, a reminder of the feast's original name.
All Luaus Are Not the Same
All luaus, however, are not the same. Some luaus are geared more for those interested in having a big party with lots of drink and entertainment, where the guests get to participate in many parts of the show.
Other luaus, such as the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui strive to present a more authentic Hawaiian cultural experience.
What Almost All Luaus Offer
Almost all luaus include some form of pre-dinner entertainment. This entertainment can include elaborate pageantry portraying the royalty of the South Pacific or much more subtle demonstrations of Hawaiian arts and crafts.
All of the commercial luaus in Hawaii include an after-dinner show with music and Polynesian dancing.
They offer lots of the traditional dance and music from the islands of Polynesia, including modern Hawaiian hula (hula auana), Tahitian hula, Maori haka and of course, a Samoan fire dancer. Unfortunately, however, many shows include very little of traditional ancient Hawaiian hula (hula kahiko).
Fortunately, in recent years, more shows are striving to present a more authentic show of predominantly Hawaiian hula and music. Be sure to ask the concierge at your hotel or activity provider about the type of entertainment that will be featured at the various luaus with which they work.
Prices also vary depending on several factors, including seating arrangements, whether transportation is included to and from the luau, and whether all drinks are included in the admission price.
It is, however, safe to assume that you will pay between $80 and $120 for each adult in attendance. Most luaus offer special pricing for children.
While the menus at each luau vary somewhat, all offer the same basic traditional foods including pua'a kalua (roasted pig) cooked all day in an underground imu which is opened as part of the evening's entertainment.
Other traditional foods include poke (raw seasoned seafood), lomilomi salmon (salmon with tomatoes and onions), chicken luau (chicken with spinach, onions and garlic), chicken long rice, sweet potato, haupia (coconut pudding), kulolo (taro pudding) and, of course, poi (made from the pounded root of the taro plant).
Common beverages include mai tai's, Blue Hawaii's and numerous non-alcoholic beverages. At most luaus mixed drinks are available for an extra fee.
For more information, check out our feature on Luau Foods and Recipes.
Attire at most luaus is Hawaiian casual. Aloha shirts and slacks are appropriate for men. Casual dresses or aloha wear are suitable for women.
Tips are not generally included in your pre-paid price. A gratuity for your waiter or table host is very much appreciated.
It is likely that a photo of your group will be taken as you enter the luau grounds. At many luaus additional photos are taken throughout the evening. Copies of these photos are generally available for an additional fee as you exit the luau.
Many luaus fill up early. Some are on an open-seating basis, but others are on a first-come, first-served basis. Make your reservations well in advance to get the best seats.
Many luaus offer special seating arrangements for handicapped individuals with advance notice. Likewise, some luaus are able to accommodate those with special dietary requirements. Again, be sure to book well in advance, and be sure to ask about any special arrangements that you may require.
For more information, be sure to visit our guide to Luaus in Hawaii, which includes in-depth reviews and photos of many luaus as well as our collection of luau recipes that you can make at home.