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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.

Doris Duke’s Shangri-La

Shangri La

Why not have a living room outside? If you’re one of the richest people in the world, you can live any way you want. Doris Duke wanted to live in Hawaii so she built this five-acre estate near Diamond Head on Oahu. Not just a vacation hide-away for the wealthy, Shangri La is a labor of love.

Duke had fallen in love with Islamic art and architecture on her honeymoon world tour, commissioning a marble bed and bathroom suite inspired by a visit to the Taj Mahal. Hawaii was the final stop on the tour; a stop that turned into a four-month stay convincing Duke to combine her passions. She had the suite shipped to Hawaii and built the house around it. Beginning in 1936, Duke continued to craft the home over the next 60 years. It opened for tours after her death.

The estate presents a plain white wall to the street; a carved wood door flanked by camels leads inside. Behind the wall are public and private rooms, manicured grounds, a pool, the Playhouse and water garden. It is difficult to describe the beauty without becoming as ornate as its tile work. Photos are available online but they cannot convey the sense of peace and tranquility that abides. Duke loved this place and it returned the favor, sustaining and restoring her to the end.

Tours are operated through the Honolulu Academy of Arts. You MUST arrive on an academy shuttle bus or you will be turned away. Tours are three times a day Wednesday through Saturday (the estate closes each September for conservation work).

Insider tip: keep an eye on the “cultural programs” section of the website for upcoming events. They sell out almost immediately so click quickly if there will be one during your visit.

Cindy Scheopner lives in Hawaii. Find her on Twitter as @scheopner. That’s her photo of the Duke estate, above.

The Obama Family Vacation

The Original Shave Ice

Original Shave Ice by Kila via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Our man in the White House was Hawaii born and raised, so it makes perfect sense that during the winter break, he packs up the family, the fabulous Michelle and his lovely girls, Sasha and Malia, to head to Oahu for a little down time. Now that the holidays are over, seemingly everyone is back at work, including the President of the United States — but the Obama family vacation continues to make news, some absurd, some political, some just kind of amusing.

I love to read coverage of the Obama’s visits to the islands because I’m curious — as a person who’s tries to explore the local angle — about where that oh so attractive family of four (and who knows how many secret service people) choose to spend their time. I’m not so interested in the family’s accommodation of choice, they’ve got a budget I couldn’t hope to replicate, though there is a certain voyeuristic appeal in seeing what gorgeous view property they’ve rented this time. I’m more interested in where the Obamas go to eat, which beaches they choose, what they’re doing when they’re being, as best they can, an American family on vacation in Hawaii.

The Christian Science Monitor tells me Barack Obama got shave ice (no “d”, people) but doesn’t say where. You’ve got to go to the New York Times to learn it’s Island Snow. That same article says the President took his girls to the Honolulu Zoo, via motorcade. (I’d recommend walking, it’s pretty close to your Waikiki hotel.) ABC News says they visited Pyramid Rock Beach — on the grounds of the Marine base, where he also played golf.  CBS News says the family ate at Alan Wong’s and snokeled at Hanauma Bay on the day when it’s closed to the general public, meaning they don’t have to blow by it because the parking lot is full. As a person who likes a little off the beaten path exploration, I find the Obama itinerary a little lackluster, but I suppose there are some limitations when you’re traveling with a party of 24 staffers and a bunch of bodyguards.

According to the The Telegraph the Obama family vacation cost about 1.5 million dollars. As a person who’d budget about 175USD a day for a Hawaii vacation (hotel, rental car, meals, everything… ), reviewing the Obama itineraries is a little unsatisfying. Where are the private snorkel boats? The chefs brought in to prepare seafood caught that day? I’m sure that as mere outsiders, we don’t get to see what’s on the dinner table, we don’t get to know if they’re paying a guy to go to the fish auction at 5am to get the best blue fin for that night’s dinner.

It would be fun to review the Obama vacation and think, “So THAT’s how a local does it!” Instead, adjusting for a flashy budget and security, the Obama’s look a lot like just another family.

Obama Family Stops:

The Kukui Nut

Kukui, or candlenuts, at the Amy Greenwell Garden south of Captain Cook, HI

Kukui Nuts, Amy Greenwell Garden

While there’s nothing quite like being draped in the smell of plumeria, kukui net leis last indefinitely and travel a lot better. I have two kukui nut leis, both gifts — one from Michael, the smiling guy behind Tiki’s Grill and Bar in Waikiki, given to me on my first tourism sponsored trip to the islands, the other from Julie, the embodiment of aloha and the woman behind the Moloka’i Visitor’s Association. There’s a third one bundled with the husband’s aloha wear, kukui nut and ti leaf, from our wedding on the beach in Maui.

The kukui nut  is rich in oil and was used as a light source by the early Hawaiians. Skewered in a stack on the tough spine of a coconut frond, each nut would burn for about 15 minutes — that’s why they earned the name candle nuts. The kukui tree  was imported by the Polyneisians who used it not only for light, but for medicinal purposes, for dying tapa, for preserving fishing nets, and more.

To make a lei, the nut is shelled of its tough green hull and polished to a smooth finish, then drilled and strung on a ribbon. Mostly, you’ll see them in dark brown or black, though they do sometimes come in a rare pale color. Some sources say the kukui nut is associated with Lono, the god of peace and prosperity. Because of its practical use as a light source, it’s also become associated with education. When someone drapes a kukui nut lei around your neck they are passing along the gift of peace and light.

It can be hard to keep the significance of the kukui nut in mind — you’ll find stands full of kukui nut leis everywhere, your hotel lobby, probably, the ABC store, the farmer’s markets,the airport. As likely as not they’ll be bearing “made in the Philippines” tags. But the kukui nut is more than a shiny brown seed, it holds light and the spirit of Lono. That makes for a lei that’s more than just a souvenir.

It’s About More than Coffee

Coffee Trees arrived in Hawaii in the early 1800’s. The British warship H.M.S. Blonde brought coffee trees, to Hawaii, from Brazil in 1825. Chief Boki, Governor of Oahu, had acquired coffee trees in Rio de Janeiro, on his way back from London.

The coffee was planted in Manoa Valley on Oahu, and from a small field, trees were introduced to other areas of Oahu and neighbor islands. Reverend Samuel Ruggles moved trees to Captain Cook, Kona in 1828. Hanalei Valley on the North Shore of Kauai was home to the first coffee plantation. Coffee was established in the valley in 1842, but was wiped out in 1858 by coffee blight, a scale insect.

In the late 1800s efforts to establish coffee plantations were defeated by economics. Small farms averaging less than 5-acres in size replaced the Kona coffee plantations.

By the 1930s there were more than 1,000 farms and as late as the 1950’s there where 6,000 acres of coffee in Kona. At the turn of the last century there was coffee on all the major Hawaii islands, and now 100 years later, there is once again coffee on all the major islands.– Hawaii Coffee Association

On the Kona side of the island of Hawaii, the Coffee Festival is a highly visible event — it’s in the tourist heartland, after all, in Kona Village. There’s live music, a pageant, a parade, dancing, food, contests, crafts, and, of course, plenty of coffee tasting. There’s lots of interesting history related to coffee in Hawaii and odds are high that you can find someone to tell you about their family’s history with the crop. Some years back, I met a woman who told me that her grandfather jumped ship because he was fed up with being mistreated as a sailor and decided the life of a coffee plantation worker was a better way to go.

The spring cousin of the Kona Festival, on the other side of the island, has all this too, but it’s easy to miss unless you know where you’re going — it’s in the little town of Pahala, mauka (inland – learn it, use it!) from the main highway. The Kona Festival is a weekend street fair, the Ka’u festival feels more like a small town agricultural event. And yes, it’s got its pageants and contests, but it’s also got the mellow vibe of a windward town. You might find yourself sharing a bench with the plantation boss who went from coffee to sugar to coffee again, or the guy who runs the local radio station, or one of the biggest names in Hawaiian music. You can spend as much time as you like talking coffee, but you can also eat a giant serving of fish BBQ and then shop for cute totes made from repurposed coffee bags while listening to local boys tear it up on the ukulele.

There are lots of plantations to visit so you can see the crop grow — there’s the well known Ueshima Coffee Estate in Holualoa, but it’s also fun to drop in at the grower stands around Ka’u — call ahead if you want to take a tour. I visited Aikane and got to see the pulper in action — I understand a lot more about the crop now. On Moloka’i and Kaua’i there are visitors centers right on the edge of the plantations — you can get your latte, pick up some beans, and learn about the crop all at once.

On a final, personal note, as a Seattle-ite, I’m kind of snobby about coffee, I like it a certain way. My favorite coffee on the Hilo side of the big island came from Sharky’s at a tiny espresso counter just off Kamehameha. Blink, you’ll miss it. Stop for coffee, you’ll be eyes wide open all day. Yum.

Lantern Floating, Memorial Day, 2010

Hawaii Pop

For underexposed mainlanders, Hawaiian music is mellow slack key guitar, or traditional falsetto with lots of guitar and ukulele, or maybe it’s the older hapa-haole songs — Little Grass Shack and Ukulele Lady. All that stuff has its place in the history of Hawaii’s sound, but there’s a new generation. The golden boy of the ukulele gets lots of play and it’s well deserved; Jake Shimabukuro is a remarkable musician and modest and charming in person. But even he’s not the only sound that pours out of the speakers on your rental car.

Henry Kapono is creating new rock and roll in the Hawaiian language. Nesian 9 is making reggae beat backed sweet soul with wow, those are great harmonies. And Anuhea, well, she’s kind of a big deal, it turns out, taking home two Na Hoku (Hawaiian Academy of Recording Arts) awards for her accomplishments in Hawaiian music.

If you want to get a preview of what’s making air time on the islands, here’s a guide to Hawaii’s radio dial, by island. Click through — lots of the stations are wired so you can listen to the live broadcast from wherever you are. It’s not quite the same as listening while  sitting on the H1 in traffic, but you’ll get a sense of  that new Hawaiian sound, sweet voices, reggae beats, political rhymes… it’s all there and it’s all Hawaiian.  Tiny Bubbles need not apply.

Book ‘im, Dano

Changes in Hawaii, Observed

Fresh Paint by love♡janine via Flickr

Fresh Paint by love♡janine via Flickr

Not everything happening in the state of Hawaii has been change for the better. But some things — a revival of local food and a real solution to health care — have put Hawaii out in front on quality of life issues. And there’s Hawaiian culture, still in revival, still growing in strength.

Thirty or so years ago, a Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance got under way as Native Hawaiians, joined by others, made a bid to reclaim their culture and take pride in it. Fruits of this movement are now evident. Once, the number of people who spoke the Hawaiian language was in steady decline and extinction of native speakers was a genuine fear. Now, the number of people who speak Hawaiian is actually growing.

Read more of this Hawaii expat’s thoughts on changes to his former home on Crosscut.

The Island Wants You

Aloha: Welcome to Hawaii via MPD01605 on Flickr

Aloha: Welcome to Hawaii via MPD01605 on Flickr

When we first arrived many people said to us, “Well, if you got here the island must want you.”  “If things work out easily once you’re here, like finding a car easily, you’ll know the island wants you.”  “If the island doesn’t want you here, you’ll know- stuff will happen to you and you’ll leave.”–The Little Travelers