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The Search for an “Authentic” Hawaiian Luau

Strapping Lads with the Meat for the "Imu"

The search for an authentic Hawaiian luau begins in your head.

Even before I moved to Hawaii, I considered luaus to be tourist traps. Moving here did nothing to change that opinion; most locals seem to have the same idea. I probably still would not have attended one, except for mainland visitors who seem to think they haven’t seen Hawaii unless they’ve been to a luau. BUT, they also have an idea that luaus are touristy, so they always say, “But I want to go to an AUTHENTIC luau.”

And the trouble begins.

I have asked local travel agents what they tell customers who want an “authentic” luau. One said, “I tell them to find a Baby’s First Birthday Luau.” You see, locals DO attend luaus all the time — they look a lot like a backyard cook-out or family reunions on the mainland. Every blessed weekend Magic Island and Ala Moana Beach Park are filled with family gatherings: someone is cooking, someone may be fishing, someone is yelling at the kids, everyone is talking, eating and playing games. That’s what a luau looks like in Hawaii today.
Is that what you had in mind? For most people, the answer is “no.” They want to come back and tell friends about the fire dancers and hula and poi (wrinkle your nose as you say it).

That’s why another travel agent says she steers people away from local luaus that try to be “authentic” according to Hawaii standards. There are games for the kids, an imu (underground oven) and feasting — all the traditional luau components, but none of the show biz sizzle. Clients who go are disappointed. That’s not what they thought an “authentic luau” would be. It was just like something they could have attended on the mainland. They secretly want fire dancers.

My own experience is similar. A recent visitor insisted on an authentic luau experience and suggested the Polynesian Culture Center. PCC is a visual extravaganza, a well-produced, well-manufactured experience. As my daughter said, “All it’s missing is a roller coaster and it’s Six Flags.” But, she also enjoyed it precisely because it is aimed at tourists. It provides a Cliff’s Notes version of Hawaii history that is educational and entertaining. What’s not to like? In my great local wisdom, I suggested instead Germaines, where we shared a picnic table on the sand with others bussed out from Waikiki. There was an imu ceremony, great food, a stage show and interactive entertainment for the whole family. My guest hated it. I think she envisioned being invited to the grass hut of a local family that still lives in the 18th century and welcomes visitors who are not tourists but “travelers” to their quaint island ritual.


Ironically, one of the least “authentic” luaus I know of provided a perfectly wonderful experience for other visitors. Hilton Hawaiian Village has a luau that is advertised as “under the stars.” True that – -it is on the roof of a building in Waikiki. The stars are overhead (and so is the rain), and there is a distant view of the ocean. But my guests enjoyed the stage show, the buffet that was just exotic enough but not too much so, and the activities. It also fit with their schedule. PCC is closed on Sundays and Germaines and Paradise Cove are a bus ride away. We were able to include the HHV luau in the evening after a morning of snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and still allow for an afternoon nap.

I, too, actually enjoyed the HHV luau. We were seated across the table from a family that spoke no English. Because of that, I’m guessing they were from Japan but who knows? I do know that the two women are sisters, just like my sister and I. We managed to figure that out with a lot of gestures, smiling and nodding. Fortunately, the “I’ll take your picture” finger click is a universal sign language expression. It broke the ice and we had a wonderful time. My guests loved the demonstrations of how to tie a sarong and posing for photos with the wonderfully willing dancers (male and female). I loved spending the time with them and the family across the table and the euphoric sense of “OMG I’M IN HAWAII” exuded by everyone at the many tables. I have never seen so many smiles in one place at one time.

So what is the moral of this story? There are three.
1) Every commercial luau in Hawaii is a re-creation of some sort. It’s ok, everyone knows it. They each have a slightly different focus, though.
2) Every luau is “authentic” in that it is a gathering of people who want to enjoy food, fun and one another.
3) The best luau is the one that fits your schedule and your expectations. And so,

The search for a perfect luau ends in your head.

Cindy Scheopner lives in Hawaii. Find her on Twitter as @scheopner. Photo by Cindy Scheopner.

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