Your First Hawaiian Luau – What To Expect
by Mark L., January 4, 2019
Are you wondering what to expect at your first Hawaiian luau? Luaus may be one of the best-known traditions to come from Hawaiian islands. Yet, what happens at a Hawaiian luau is far from common knowledge.
Most people know enough to expect a festive gathering with music and hula dancing. And it wouldn’t be a luau without a delicious meal with a pig roasted underground. But there’s more to a luau than just the elements that Hollywood has popularized over the years.
You’ve seen Hawaiian luaus portrayed on television and in the movies, but how do they compare to the real thing?
If you will be attending one soon, you may be curious about what to expect at a luau. Keep reading to see what may await you at your first luau.
What to Expect When You Arrive
Check-in: Your first stop will be the check-in desk. Here you will receive your seating assignment and drink tickets or wristbands. Expect to wait in line before and/or after check-in regardless of venue.Usually, luaus have different tiered seating packages available. Each tier often has additional perks. Sometimes guests in the more expensive packages enter first, but this is not always the case. Likewise, some venues pre-assign seating, while others are first-come-first-serve within your tier. Getting in line early may be in your best interests, but not always.
Find out what your venue’s seating policy is before arrival if you want to reduce your wait time.
Leis: Once in the venue, someone will likely greet you with a lei. The lei is a traditional symbol of love and friendship across Polynesia. They are often made of fresh flowers. Occasionally, you’ll see leis made of shells or painted kukui nuts, but the meaning doesn’t change. The type of lei may vary with the seating package you purchased. Also, be aware that not every luau gives out leis.
Photos: Next, the venue’s photographer will ask you to pose with costumed performers. All luaus offer professional photographs for an extra charge. Prices vary by venue, and there is no obligation to buy. Attendants will typically seek you out later in the evening to show you the photos. If not, there will be a booth set up somewhere on the luau grounds where you can view and buy your photos. (Nutridge Luau does not sell or provide professional photography).
Mai Tais: After your photo session, it’s not uncommon to be greeted with a Mai Tai. The bar will also be open if you would like something else, though lines can be long. Most luaus serve a variety of tropical cocktails and mixed drinks. A limited selection of beer, wine, soft drinks, and other non-alcoholic options will be on hand as well. Complimentary drinks are included with admission. But, there is usually an upcharge for blended tropical drinks and craft cocktails. Many luaus serve cocktails in fresh pineapples or souvenir glasses for an extra charge too. (The Polynesian Cultural Center is the exception, they do not serve alcohol).
Cultural Activities & Imu Ceremony
Cultural Activities: All luaus have some sort of pre-dinner activity for guests. However, the time allotted and the range of activities can vary greatly. Some venues only offer a few activities. Temporary Polynesian tattoos and headband weaving, mostly geared toward children, are common activities. Other luaus, however, will provide a much broader selection of activities. Toa Luau, for example, provides five or six pre-dinner cultural activities. They also provide enough space and time so that every guest can take part. Guests can try coconut husking, poi ball twirling, and even preparing food for the imu (underground oven) if they wish.
Imu Ceremony: Firstly, not every luau has an imu oven on their luau grounds. Secondly, most luaus are not allowed to serve you food cooked in it even if they have one. Every commercial luau is subject to health department regulations. (Cooking food in the ground and serving it to paying customers is a big no-no!) Still, luaus that have an imu onsite will cook in it for demonstration purposes only. Most luaus will explain this during their demonstration. But, a few luaus still pretend that the slow-roasted Kalua pork on the buffet came from their imu. Consider this part of the entertainment.
The Imu Ceremony is a short ritual unveiling the slow-roasted pork in the imu. Attendants remove layers of leaves and cloth, before removing the pig. Often there is a short blessing at this time as well. Usually, this ritual happens right before the meal service begins.
The Luau Feast
Most luaus serve a buffet dinner, except Toa Luau which has table service. What foods should you expect at a luau buffet? Slow-roasted Kalua pork is the star, but you’ll also find BBQ chicken and baked fish entrees as well.
Traditional Hawaiian foods like Lomi Lomi Salmon, Poi, Haupia, and Lau Lau are often on the menu as well. Meanwhile, sides usually include local favorites like macaroni salad, stir-fry vegetables, and lo-mein. You’ll also find the basics like a mixed greens salad, fresh fruit, rolls, and steamed white rice.
Some luaus offer extra options for kids too. Vegans and vegetarians should find plenty of plant-based options available, though some venues will have more than others. And if you have dietary restrictions or a special request, don’t worry. Most venues will try to accommodate your dietary needs if you give them enough notice. All luau menus are available online, although they are subject to change without notice.
Venues with tiered seating packages usually let guests with the upgraded packages eat first. However, the buffet lines usually move quickly and efficiently, and rarely does the food run out. Most luaus are all-you-care-to-eat, so you are welcome to make as many trips to the buffet as you’d like!
Signature Luau Entertainment
What to expect at a luau performance?
No matter how good the food is, the highlight of the night is always the evening performance. Local performers take to the stage to take you on a journey through the Polynesian Islands.
You’ll be treated to an array of performances featuring the traditional costumes, dances, rhythms, and cultures of each island nation. Of course, there will be Hawaiian hula, but you may also see Tahitian Ori, Samoan Fa’ataupati (Slap Dance), Tongan Lakalaka, or a haka from Aotearoa (New Zealand).
As great as these performances are, it is the Siva Afi, or Samoan fire-knife dancing, that always brings the house down and the show to a heart-stopping finale!
What Should You Wear to a Hawaiian Luau?
A luau is not a formal affair. While luaus usually 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). Don’t be a schlub!
You could opt for a traditional Hawaiian (Aloha) shirt. You know the kind. You’ll see it everywhere in Hawaii. It’s a festive choice, especially when paired with khakis. There are also aloha-print sundresses and blouses, making it easy for couples to match. But don’t feel like you must spring for matching Aloha-wear outfits for the whole family. A cute maxi dress or a brightly colored polo shirt will do just fine.
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, that’s it!