Your First Hawaiian Luau – What To Expect

What's that I hear? You're going to a luau? Hooray!

What’s that I hear? You’re going to a luau? Hooray!

You’ve seen how Hawaiian luaus are portrayed on television and in the movies, but how do they compare to the real thing? You’re ready to book your first luau, but you want to know what exactly you’re getting into.

Well, you came to the right place, because we’re the experts on all the details of a customary Hawaiian luau! Whether you’re on Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, or Oahu, these parties are pretty similar overall, with a few variations here and there. From the food to the entertainment to how you should dress, these are the traditional elements that you’re sure to find regardless of which luau you choose.

Welcome to Your First Luau!

Traditional shell lei greeting

Welcome to the party!

No matter how many times you attend a Hawaiian luau, there’s nothing like the magic you feel when you arrive. It’s like you’re being welcomed into a fantasy version of the islands, but it’s all very real. It starts with a lei, a symbol of friendship that bonds you with your hosts and the other guests. Lei can be made from fresh local flowers, kukui nuts, or even shells. Since they are given to you in a friendly gesture of welcome, it’s considered rude not to wear it and even worse to throw it out. There’s a little-known Hawaiian goddess whose sole job is to harass tourists who disrespect their lei, so watch it (OK, probably not, but be polite just in case).

Luaus can feel like an over-the-top vision of the Spirit of Hawaii, but at the same time there is something entirely real and genuine about it. From start to finish, the luau is a show. Even though a part of you knows it’s mainly fantasy, do yourself a favor and let yourself be immersed in the atmosphere and welcoming nature of the whole experience. You’re here to have fun!

The Traditional Food

Kalua pig hot out of the imu

Here comes dinner!

A big part of the luau experience is the food, and depending on the luau you attend, you’ll be offered either a lavish buffet or a plated dinner. Generally, a buffet gives you a bigger variety to choose from, but the food can be of a higher quality with the set dinner.

While some items vary between luaus, you can bet that there will be some island staples. That means a good chance of some form of teriyaki chicken, fresh salmon and/or white fish, and the star of the show: the kalua pig. Cooked in an underground oven called an imu, kalua pig is a slow-roasted, tender and juicy pulled pork dish that most people go crazy for. Many luaus even turn the unearthing of the pig into an elaborate ceremony before dinner is served.

Other traditional dishes you’ll find laid out in front of you include taro rolls, poi (taro root pounded into a thick paste), and lomi lomi salmon, a very refreshing dish made with tomato and salmon.

For dessert, if you remembered to leave room for it, expect haupia (a coconut-milk pudding), pineapple cake, and lots of fresh, locally-sourced fruits.

Signature Luau Entertainment

We weren't kidding about the dudes with flaming blades

We weren’t kidding about the dudes with flaming blades

If a luau just involved eating and calling it a night, it would already be a terrific affair; but after you’ve satisfied your appetite, it’s time for the best entertainment you could ask for. This is what makes a Hawaiian luau an experience you won’t soon forget.

In terms of entertainment, there are two types: interactive and performances. Even before sitting down to eat, many luaus offer guests the opportunity to participate in lei-making lessons, ukulele lessons, and a chance to learn a few steps of hula dancing.

Speaking of hula, it’s a well known type of dance and it’s always part of the evening show, but it’s not the only stage performance you’ll find at a Hawaiian luau. Polynesian fire knife dancing is a thrilling, heart-pounding performance that is exactly as what it sounds like: dudes twirling flaming objects! The fire knife dance features expert performers moving to a pounding rhythm while doing all sorts of crazy moves with a set of flame-engulfed blades. This is definitely one of those “don’t try this at home” things.

What Should You Wear?

Elvis Presley in an aloha shirt

You can’t go wrong when you dress like Elvis

A luau is an open-air party where you get to gorge on delicious food and watch a mesmerizing production of swaying dancers and flaming cutlery. But it’s not exactly a formal affair. While luaus don’t have a set dress code, guests are expected to wear clothing appropriate for the occasion. To get into the spirit of the party, you may not want to show up in a band t-shirt, cargo shorts, and slippahs (flip flops to you).

Spring for a traditional Hawaiian (or Aloha) shirt. You know the kind. You’ll wear it in Hawaii and—everyone does!—and then feel too dorky to don it again once you’re back on the mainland. It’s such a festive choice, especially when paired with khakis. Don’t be a schlub. There are also aloha-print sundresses and blouses, making it easy for couples to match. But don’t feel like you must.

Most Importantly…

Have fun! Sometimes when people try things for the first time, they’re too preoccupied anticipating what’s going to happen next. A Hawaiian luau is simple: there’s food, there’s fun, and there’s a big show to cap off the evening.

Relax, mingle with other guests, tuck into a big plate of food, and let yourself get swept up in the Hawaiian spirit.

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