What is a Luau?
The first official luau was held in 1819 by Hawaiian King Kamehemeha II, but the practice of aha’aina (“gathering meal”) and its traditions goes back much further. These gatherings were used to unify people and celebrate special occasions, combining feasting with singing, dancing, and storytelling.
Today luaus are still held throughout the islands to mark special occasions such as weddings, graduations, and birthdays. Luaus still serve the same purpose of strengthening community and familial bonds and passing on stories, spiritual traditions, language, and customs to younger generations.
Commercial luaus began to emerge with the introduction of tourism to the islands and the popularization of Polynesian culture in entertainment and advertising. Luaus were a fitting way to welcome visitors to the islands and share a bit of their history and culture, and quickly became one of the most popular activities for visitors.
Today, a Hawaiian luau is a “must do” activity for many visitors.
What Happens at a Luau?
Most luaus start with some form of activity such a game, an imu (earth oven) demonstration, or a hula lesson. A buffet dinner usually follows and often includes many traditional Hawaiian foods. The evening is then capped off with the entertainment, which typically consists of music, storytelling, hula, and fire knife dancing.
There are many luau venues to choose from, and though each venue’s offerings are different, you can be sure to have a fun and festive evening full of music, entertainment, good food, and an introduction to Hawaiian culture and history. However, luau venues can vary greatly in style and presentation (from authentic and educational to 1960’s retro kitsch), so be sure to find the one that best suits you.
How to Choose a Luau
This website was created to make researching and booking luau tickets easy, so please use the tools and information here to help you determine which one is right for you.
Things to consider before booking your luau
- Location & Transportation
- Timing & Availability
- Food & Drinks
- Entertainment vs. Education
Activities and Games
Luaus offer a variety of activities before dinner is served. Guests are often greeted with a lei welcoming ceremony, and then will have free time to explore the venue and learn a bit more about Polynesian traditions and cultures. Most venues offer an array of lessons, demonstrations, and games, which guests can choose to participate in or simply observe.
One highlight for many guests is the preparation or unveiling of the imu, the traditional in ground oven where the kalua pig is slow roasted. Other demonstrations might include wood carving or weaving by local artisans.
Venue Specific Activities
Some venues offer beginner lessons in hula, fire making, lei making, weaving, and even playing the ukulele. Temporary tattoos, souvenir headbands or bracelets, and lawn games like spear throwing or Ulu Maika (bowling) are often part of the pre-dinner fun.
Exploring the luau venue itself can be an activity. There are many options to choose from, including an immersive cultural center, a historic macadamia nut plantation with sweeping views of Honolulu, a sunset dinner cruise, a sea life park, and a Las Vegas style dinner show – just name a few! Nature lovers might enjoy exploring nearby waterfalls or walking down nature trails before dinner, while others might prefer the lively energy that some of the man-made attractions have to offer.
Food and Drink
Seafood, Polynesian Favorites, and More!
Although fish and shellfish are abundant in Hawaii, very few edible plants are indigenous to the islands. Early Polynesian settlers introduced taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, coconuts, bananas, and sugarcane – in addition to bringing pigs and chickens with them when they sailed across the Pacific Ocean. These ingredients quickly became the staples of the Hawaiian diet and are featured on many luau menus.
Some traditional Hawaiian dishes you might find at a luau:
Kalua pork – A whole pig, slow roasted in an underground oven called an imu.
Laulau – Meat or fish wrapped in ti & taro leaves and slow cooked in the imu.
Luau – Taro leaves cooked in coconut milk, often with squid or chicken added
Poi – Hawaii’s staple starch, the taro root is cooked and pounded into a purple sticky, paste. Poi can be served fresh with a slightly sweet taste, or tangy to sour when it is allowed to naturally ferment.
Haupia – A traditional Hawaiian pudding (with a gelatin-like consistency) made from cooking coconut milk and sugar with arrowroot or cornstarch.
Popular Luau Cocktails:
In addition to all the delicious food, you can’t throw a proper feast without also serving some fun, festive beverages. If you’ve always imagined your Hawaiian luau with a fruity, tropical umbrella drink in your hand, then you will not be disappointed.
Mai Tai – The classic Mai Tai has been an island favorite since its introduction in the 1950’s. Though every venue adds their own twist, it typically consists of rum, orange curacao, orgeat (almond syrup), pineapple juice, and may be topped with a grenadine or dark rum float.
Blue Hawaii – Invented in Waikiki in 1957, this bright and refreshing blue or turquoise cocktail made of vodka, rum, blue curacao, and pineapple juice is a Hawaiian favorite.
Blue Hawaiian – A tasty variation of the Blue Hawaii, the Blue Hawaiian is essentially a Pina Colada with the addition of blue curacao liqueur and is often served as a blended drink.
Lava Flow – A delicious, boozy, smoothie made of rum, strawberries, banana, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut. It is blended and layered to mimic flowing lava and looks as impressive as it tastes.
Most venues also offer beer, wine, soft drinks, and other non-alcoholic options. Most, but not every venue serves alcohol, so please keep this in mind when booking. Drinks (or drink tickets) may or may not be included in the price of admission and may be added when making reservations.
Transportation to and from the luau can also be added to your reservation. Why not leave all the driving and parking to someone else?
Fire Knife Dancing
The Highlight of any Luau
The highlight of any luau show is the fire knife dancing show. The dancers will have you on the edge of your seat as they twirl and throw their fiery weapons while performing feats that seem utterly impossible.
The Samoan Siva Afi, or fire knife dance, is based on an ancient tradition where warriors would demonstrate their battle prowess through dance and the art of twirling and throwing their weapons. Much more than just a war dance, storytelling and honoring battles fought also played an integral role. Torches were twirled and swung in remembrance of an important victory against Tongan invaders.
The tradition of fire knife dancing was widely forgotten to many generations of Samoans and nearly lost but experienced a revival in the 1940’s when several Samoan performers began performing for crowds throughout the mainland US and Hawaii.
Since the mid-19th century, fire knife dancing has gained in popularity in many Polynesian nations. It has become a popular competitive sport and exhibitions are held throughout the world. The World Fire Knife Championship is held on Oahu every May and fire knife dancing is often featured in island shows in Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and Tonga, and is the star performance in almost every Hawaiian luau show.
Although today’s fire knife dance routines have been modernized to please an audience and made safer for the dancers (blades are typically not used in performances), it offers a fascinating glimpse at an ancient warrior culture and remains an exciting experience that you will not soon forget.
Hula and Other Entertainment
It simply wouldn’t be a Hawaiian luau without a hula performance.
Hula was created by the Native Hawaiians and has evolved into a complex art form, though the dancers often make it look flawless and easy. Ancient Hawaiians believed that language and dance held spiritual power, so every movement and inflection is precise and intentional. Every hand motion is symbolic of something, such as a wave, breeze, or an emotion. These hand motions must be synchronized with the words being sung or chanted, the dancer’s foot and hip movements, the beat of the music, as well as the other dancers. The stories being told during a hula performance are often about creation, ancient myths, sacred places or honoring the significant people and events in Hawaiian history.
Types of Hula Performances
Today there are several types of Hula and it is performed in different settings for different purposes. Hula can be performed as part of a sacred ritual, a competitive event, or for entertainment purposes. It can be performed by men or women, sitting or standing, chanting or singing, with or without music, accompanied by traditional instruments or with the addition of Westernized melodies and instruments.
Although every luau show will vary by venue, most try to strike the right balance between providing an entertaining evening for their audiences, educating visitors, and honoring the hula tradition. That said, some venues do prefer high energy, modern shows, while others lean more traditional and are more focused on history and storytelling – so be sure to do your research and find the one that you’d prefer. Most shows will feature a lineup of dancers, songs, and traditions from various Polynesian countries, but some shows, like the one at Mele Luau at Coral Crater, (add link here) actually tell a story from start to finish – the way that a traditional hula would.
And there’s always a bit of comedy sprinkled throughout the evening performances and some venues will even recruit dancers from the audience for a bit of fun.
Luau shows can take place anywhere from large outdoor theaters to small, intimate settings. In some cases you may get to choose from different seating options. Length of performance, quality of stage production, and the variety and number of dancers and performers can vary quite a bit as well – also something to consider when choosing a luau venue.