Everything you need to know about a Hawaiian Luau.
General: DIY / How-To
When you live in Hawaii (see Hawaii Living: Getting Started) it's easy to assume anyone coming to the Hawaiian Islands knows what a luau is. But this just isn't the case as one of the most common questions we get is "What is a luau?" and "What will I experience at a luau?" So we'll cover the basics of a Hawaiian luau for you here. Already know what a luau is and just want to find the best one for you? Read our Hawaii Luau Guide.
In ancient Hawaii, men and women did not eat meals together. Various social and religious taboos made it forbidden. Those same laws and rules (or kapu as they're called in Hawaiian) would even forbid certain food from being eaten by women and people who were not royalty. In 1819, King Kamehameha II removed all religious laws and even went as far as sitting down and eating with women. These culinary taboos were now gone and the first luau parties were created.
Over time, these feasts caught on and became a traditional Hawaiian custom that's still intact today. Eventually, the Hawaiian dance known as Hula (see also: Laka - The Goddess Of Hula) became a popular form of entertainment as did Polynesian fire knife dancing. On the 50th birthday of the Merry Monarch (see Merrie Monarch Festival), King Kalakaua hosted one of the biggest luaus of the time with over 1,500 guests. In 1847, King Kamehameha III was said to have outdone Kalakaua's luau with more guests and over 250 roasted pigs, over 3,000 salted fish, over 2,000 coconuts, and over 4,000 taro plants.
The name "luau" actually came from the most popular foods at these events which was chicken cooked in taro leaves and coconut milk. Even today, you'll find that dishes like squid luau or chicken luau are popular in the islands and at some luaus. The main dish at a modern luau is usually Kalua Pig (pork) which is cooked in an imu (underground oven).
The Modern Luau
Today, a luau is really nothing like it was in ancient times. It's a business now and luau operators are here to make a profit just like every other business. While Hawaiian families still have traditional luaus, these are for close friends and family. If you ever manage to get invited to one, consider it an honor.
Many luaus are hosted at resort / hotel properties which makes herding guests to them much easier and thus the overall experience is more profitable. Some luaus, like Germaine's Luau on O'ahu or the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui, are not associated with any resort. Some say these offer a more authentic experience.
Each luau is different from another but they all generally fall into one of two categories (or somewhere in between). On one side you have your party luau. These are more about a fun show, lots of food, and plenty of alcohol. On the other side, you have those that try to be a bit more authentic and give a more culturally rich experience.
For pretty much every Hawaiian luau you can expect a few things. First up is some sort of pre-dinner entertainment. Showing how to open a coconut is a common one. They'll usually have an audience volunteer drink the coconut water and then mention how diarrhea is a common side effect. Hilarity will ensue.
Then you'll be shown to your table which is often large sets of tables where your group will be packed in with other groups. Servers will come by and let you know when your table can go up to the buffet line to start eating. Then a main show will start that will likely consist of Hula dancers and some Polynesian fire knife dancing.
It's an all around good time for the whole family. To find a good one, read our Hawaii Luau Guide.
Every luau is a bit different and most will offer different levels of experiences for different prices. For an adult luau, expect to pay just under $100 per person on the low end and as much as $200 on the higher end. Some packages can cost even more than that. Child prices are usually lower and start around $65-75. Discounts, especially for booking in advance, can often knock $10 or more off the price of each person.
For most visitors, the lower end packages are all you need. Some of the higher end packages may include drink coupons, free photos to take home, or even front row seating for the main performance. Most luaus will have you pose for a quick photo that will often include a female and male performer in their hula outfits. Later they'll print these and try to sell them to you. Gift shops are also common. Again, it's a business and they've full embraced the Disney sales model here.
There is a lot of talk about Tipping at a luau as well. Some say you should, others say you don't need to. If you really liked the service then feel free to drop a few dollars per person like you would at any buffet. If you didn't or feel like your ticket price was enough then don't. But know that even a few dollars really helps the workers offset the high cost of living in Hawaii (see Hawaii Living: The Paradise Tax).
Most luaus are quite casual but that doesn't mean you can show up in a bikini with a cover up on. An aloha shirt and pants or shorts are common. T-shirts are also common. If you have a bright Hawaiian style souvenir dress that you just bought, this is the time to wear it. These are family events so be smart and keep any clothing that is in bad taste at your hotel (and then dispose of it later).
Luau food can be quite good but is often kind of average. But, there should be plenty to fill every belly and plenty of options for even the pickiest eaters. As I mentioned earlier, Kalua Pig (pork) is usually the star of the show. Some luaus will show how they uncover the pig that's been cooking all day as part of the entertainment. It's neat, but the pig they uncover is the one for the show the next night. Your food was cooked the day before and is already on the buffet line.
We can't talk about luau food with talking about Poi. This is a past like substance made from mashed taro plants. It's a Hawaiian staple dating back to ancient times. Back then they ate with their hands (not utensils) so they would name it based on how thick the poi was. Three finger poi would be a little runny, but the really thick stuff would be one finger poi. Go at it with your fingers or use a spoon, we won't tell. As for the taste? Bland. Slightly sweet. Some say like wallpaper glue though I don't know how they know that. Either way, try some!
You'll also find plenty of other items like lomi lomi salmon, chicken luau, chicken long rice, salads, and the always tasty haupia (coconut pudding). On the drink side, most luaus will serve sodas as well as popular adult beverages like Mai Tai's and Blue Hawaiian's.
Ready to enjoy a luau? Then read our Hawaii Luau Guide to find one that's right for you.
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