Luaus are touristy, but if you think about them as Hawaii’s version of a Broadway performance (that the locals will never attend), you’ll probably enjoy a luau or two. I attended three, and while there wasn’t a direct diminishing return on the luau experience–the first one was good, the second great, the last awful–I was satisfied after one, but could have gone every night just to watch my toddler break out her hula. So the following review will be biased in the following ways: I gave extra credit to luaus with space so that Harper could dance (there was only one), I gave props to performers who made me laugh (there was only one), and I despised those who served food on cafeteria trays, making much of their meal taste no better than the poi, (which is a trite joke that I’m making here, but will reproach later on. Oh, and there was only one luau to do such a thing).
I’m also not going to discuss the performances in any great detail. They all had girls doing the hula in beautiful dress and nutty fire dancers attempting the insane: eating the flame, balancing the flame on the soles of the feet, dragging the flame across their genitals (or damn close enough). But if something wowed me or had the opposite effect, I’ll praise and gripe below.
Without any further ado, I bring to you Three Random Luaus on the Hawaiian Islands.
A Luau By Any Other Name…
For our Monday night luau, we visited the iconically pink Royal Hawaiian on the beachfront of Waikiki. As we waited for the show to start, the views of Diamond Head, standing hazy and dark in the heat at dusk, and the blue waters dotted with surfers–weeks later it would be dotted with turds–were beautiful. And when the festivities commenced and while the dancers were captivating, it was hard not to notice all of the onlookers peeking over the back of the stage and the freeloaders enjoying the performance from the Mai Tai bar.
I ordered another one of the included mai tais, but couldn’t stomach the drink after having had an incredible libation at the Royal Hawaiian’s legitimate Mai Tai Bar. At the luau the mai tais were just bad rum and over-sweetened pineapple juice. The Royal Hawaiian had a serious question to ponder: why would visitors pay all this money for all-you-can-drink crap, when they could get the same show for free and invest many less dollars on quality mai tais at the Mai Tai Bar?
Sure there’s the food, which, of all the luaus, was definitely best. But was the meal covering the rest of the cost of the ticket. The did serve varieties of sashimi and offered the only food at any of the luaus that my wife seemed to enjoy: galbi short ribs. The only real turn-off was the “above-ground kalua pig.” Err… above-ground? (For twenty bucks, I know a guy who can dig a hole, and keep things a little more traditional.)
While I’ll give the choreographer credit for planning a unique story about the history of the islands, watching dances that depict colonization didn’t really go with dessert and hearing songs about the “Boogey Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” messed up my daughter’s rhythm. However, the large stretch of lawn, allowing Harper to dance all night, was great for parents with kids.
Round Two of Luaus in Hawaii
I was not looking forward to my second luau at the Westin Maui Resort in Kaanapali, especially when I walked in to find blue drinks and a souvenir stand that felt like a compulsory visit. (And I lost my dinner a little bit when I heard a son tell his father that they could purchase the family photo they forced you to take for $30 or two for $50, pictures that would certainly embarrass the son a decade from now.)
But when the show started, in a much more secretive and secluded setting, I was hooked. The emcee introduced himself, offering up an 80-syllable name, translating it as “Jim” and then informed the crowd that “Luau in English means bathroom.” He gave those who had no further interest in luaus a comedy show dinner with exceptional dancing as a bonus. He surveyed the crowd for everyone’s biography and when he polled an audience member from Japan, he said “They always here,” having a bit more fun with the Japanese man when it was time to bash a coconut with rock. “How do you say rock?… How?… Eat shit… And coconut?…. Yeah shit.” He asked the crowd to practice our new vocabulary.
Maybe it was purely the work of the emcee, but I enjoyed everything about the performance so much more than previous show. Or perhaps it was the fact that they had five fire dancers instead of one, and featured them catching said fire as they ascended palm trees.
When the Luau Breaks
There was nothing royal about the Royal Kona Resort’s luau. Maybe the views, which offered up the Pacific–in fact, we opted to miss the start of the luau to sit on the rock wall and watch the sun dip into the ocean–gave the event some prestige. I did enjoy watching the men unearth the pig from the underground oven. But otherwise, everything else was lackluster. We sat at catawampus picnic tables, cramped together like garbage in a closed compactor. Then we lined up for food that tasted much like my previous analogy, slopping it onto plastic cafeteria trays replete with a half dozen sections to keep one bad-tasting food from touching the next. Even the Sprite was watered down.
Even if the emcee at the Westin was a tough act to follow, the man on the microphone would have had trouble going on stage after a banana slug. He was goofy and spoke as if he was getting paid per word. If you’re a tourist in Hawaii, you learn pretty quickly that poi jokes are the preferred cliche, but after five minutes of listening to this man, even a luau rookie would have considered poi puns overused at this act.