The Luau – A Classic Polynesian Celebration
Many things come to mind when imagining a Hawaiian vacation: sandy beaches, a cold, tropical drink in your hand, and a traditional Hawaiian Lu’au. This feast was originally reserved for family gatherings and special occasions, but today lu’aus are found throughout the islands, are easy to attend, and usually worth the price of entry. Though not exclusive to Hawaiian culture, the lu’au has a long history in Polynesian culture and continues to retain its importance and curiosity to this day.
What’s a Lu’au?
In ancient Hawaii, a feast and gathering was called to celebrate special occasions. Then called a ahaaina-aha, special recipes were prepared to represent specific qualities and events in Hawaiian life. Today, while lu’au is technically a reference to the taro leaf (an important Hawaiian dietary staple), the name has taken a further importance and significance as times and traditions have changed.
Even today, many lu’aus are private affairs, gathering family members and close friends to celebrate graduations, weddings, and birthdays, but public lu’aus are more and more common due to public interest and a tourism industry that began to boom in the 1950s. At these events, you’re likely to see poi, Kalua pig, lualua, haupia, poke, and other cooked or prepared dishes that can easily feed dozens of people.
The History and Significance of the Lu’au
The modern lu’au came to relevance under King Kamehameha II, when the King allowed women to attend the traditional feast for the first time. Until then, religious and societal restrictions forbade females from attending as well as restricting certain food items from being shared between villagers and royalty.
As time wore on, the traditions and limitations common to these feasts changed and adapted. Traditional lu’aus involved sitting upon lauhala mats on the floor with intricate tropical decorations adorning the tables. Food was eaten with your hands, large communal bowls were shared equally between guests, and dancing and music was commonplace entertainment.
Traditional, family-led lu’aus continue to this day, marking the shared importance of life events such as the birth of a child, graduation from high school, marriages, and birthdays. The larger resorts offer a version of these celebrations, used to share culture and aloha with visitors and a chance for relaxation and festivities in a group style setting. Both traditional and public lu’aus are a great oportunity to get friends and family together and celebrate.
What to Expect from Your First Lu’au
Depending on the island, venue, and scale of the lu’au, you may expect to pay between $75-150 per person to attend a lu’au. That’s a hefty ticket but the presentation and value that comes with these public lu’aus is usually well worth the expense.
A buffet dinner, drinks, and live dancing and music are mainstays of a lu’au. At the outset, you’ll typically be greeted with a lei welcoming and cocktail hour. Some lu’aus encourage an open bar; others limit your included price to select mai tai or other tropical drink cocktail recipes.
Some lu’aus display works by local artists and crafts people as well as games or other fun activities like learning to hula dance, before dinner. Then, the imu ceremony begins. An underground oven that cooks pork over hot coals is opened and the pig is unearthed. It’s an interesting demonstration of a unique cooking process not easily found on the mainland.
As diners take their seats following the imu ceremony, music and live entertainment takes place. Seating is communal and conversation between guests at the table is highly encouraged. Buffet-style dining is the norm, with guests lining up to select their meal and returning to their tables.
Once dinner is complete, a dancing show with music, hula and costumes takes place. The dances and costumes usually represent different cultures from around the Polynesian islands and tell stories about Hawaiian life or legends about the Hawaiian gods and Ali’i (chiefs). The grand finale is often a Fire Dancer, but this varies between venues.
Should You Attend a Lu’au
We get this question a lot: “Is it worth it – should I go to a lu’au?” We typically tell people yes, especially if you haven’t been to one before. Sure, they are showy and touristy and not for everyone, but they are a singular event that teaches you so much about the Hawaiian world.
The idea of sharing, with family, friends and strangers is such a part of life here that you start doing it by default and it is very different than most places on the mainland. For those who don’t enjoy dining with others or visiting with strangers, this may not be your favorite thing. For those who do, make sure to bring your aloha spirit and you will have a great time.
Lu’au food is usually just okay and not the highlight of the event, but many of the venues do a decent job and it’s a good opportunity to try some local dishes that you may not otherwise get a chance to. The open bar varies in quality between venues, but what’s not to like about having a few cocktails with some new friends.
The performances are always my favorite part of a lu’au and if you sit back and enjoy the dances I think they will be yours too. The bigger resort lu’aus typically have very skilled dancers who spend many years honing their craft and learning the movements. They are the real stars of the show and are definitely worth watching.