History of the Luau
Luaus have long been a favorite activity for tourists to the Hawaiian Islands. Long before the commercial tourism industry boomed, Hawaiian Kings would host visitors and foreign dignitaries by throwing a luau. In fact, the largest luau on modern record was thrown by King Kamehameha III in 1847 and included over 1500 guests, 271 hogs and a bountiful spread of chicken dishes, fish, tropical fruits and desserts.
Luaus were traditionally deeply symbolic and important events in Hawaiian culture. The ceremony, the food and the tradition of the imu (the pit in which the hog is steam cooked underground for 6 to 7 hours) were all necessary components for a true aha ‘aina, or luau. The word luau is actually a fairly modern term, replacing aha ‘aina about 150 years ago. The word luau is derived from the name of a traditional meat dish (usually chicken, pork or beef) cooked in taro leaves and coconut milk. Now the word luau in Hawaii is synonymous with the word party.
While locals traditionally throw luaus (though on a much smaller scale than the commercial ones for tourists) for weddings, graduations, birthdays or any other significant event. Visitors to Hawaii have the benefit of attending a luau without having a real reason to celebrate other than being in a tropical paradise. There are many luaus to choose from on each island, but the general rule of thumb is to always book in advance. While arrangements can usually be made after your arrival in Hawaii, it is smart to book and plan your luau at least a few days beforehand. And what could be a better way to spend an evening than feasting on delicious traditional Hawaiian dishes, drinking Mai Tais and watching island entertainment?
Traditional Luau Food
There are variations in the food and style of luaus, but all provide a similar offering of traditional Hawaiian luau dishes, which are sometimes served in a formal sit down setting, but are usually dished up buffet style. A few of the main luau dishes include:
Kalua Pig: Pork roasted an underground oven called an imu. The morning before a luau, a pit is dug in the sand and embers are covered with rocks and leaves. The pig is then placed on top of the embers and then covered in order to steam cook it over the next 6 to seven hours.
Poke: Different varieties of marinated raw fish.
Lomilomi Salmon: A salad of diced salmon tossed with tomatoes and Maui sweet onions.
Poi: A thick purple paste made from boiled taro root. Poi is a traditional Hawaiian dish and was once a major staple in most Hawaiian diets.
Haupia: coconut custard.
>> More information on Traditional Hawaiian Food
Luaus on Oahu
Paradise Cove Luau: This is one of the largest and most respected luaus in all of Hawaii. It is set on 12 oceanfront acres and offers all of the traditional luau trimmings and quality entertainment.
Polynesian Cultural Center’s Ali’i Luau: This luau has won the coveted Kahili award for preserving Hawaiian culture and is Oahu’s most authentic luau. Participating in the luau requires admission to the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is on a 42-acre site. You can gain admission to the center before the 5:30 beginning of the luau and learn about ancient Hawaiian culture and traditions. There are also over 100 native performers and the luau offers up a buffet of the traditional dishes and beverages.
Royal Hawaiian Luau at Waikiki Beach: If you don’t want to drive out for the luaus on other parts of the island, this one is an option right in Waikiki and offers traditional food and entertainment set amidst a backdrop of the famous and beautiful Waikiki Beach.
Luaus on the Big Island
Island Breeze Luau: This luau is held on the grounds of King Kamehameha’s former estate at the Kona Beach Hotel. It has long been one of the best-rated luaus on the Big Island and includes a Royal Court Ceremony, demonstrations of traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts, Samoan fire knife dancers and a 22-dish buffet.
Luaus on Maui Maui
Old Lahaina Luau: Set among oceanfront gardens with Lanai and Molokai in view in the distance, this luau offers a traditional buffet and an open bar with a Polynesian review. (Official Website)
Hyatt Regency Drums of the Pacific: This nightly luau offers complimentary drinks, a buffet of traditional dishes and knife fire dancers. (Official Website)
>> For a full list, see Best Luaus on Maui
Luaus on Kauai
Luau Kalamaku This luau runs Tuesday and Friday at the Kilohana Carriage House on the estate of an old 35-acre sugar plantation in Lihue. The private setting and traditional dishes away from the larger resorts make this a popular choice for tourists not staying at the bigger hotels and wanting to escape the resort crowd. (Official Website)
Smith’s Tropical Paradise Luau: This is a favorite luau on Kauai and is touted as having a beautiful and unique location as well as local flavor and authenticity. The luau is set in the midst of a beautiful tropical garden on the Waialua River. The garden has lagoons teeming with fish, exotic peacocks and other birds, and 20 types of tropical fruits growing in the trees. If you are interested in touring the gardens before the festivities of traditional food and an international/Polynesian review, you can buy a ticket for a narrated tram tour of the grounds.
Here’s a video clip from Luau Kalamaku on Kauai: