Know Before You Go: Attending a Hawaiian Luau
Attending a luau is a quintessential part of experiencing Hawaii, especially if it’s your first time on the islands. Besides entertaining audiences with beautiful music and dance, luaus teach people important stories about the islands and showcase long-standing traditions of Hawaiian culture. Here’s everything you need to know before you go about attending a traditional Hawaiian luau.
A history of the luau
Historically, Hawaiians have held celebratory gatherings since ancient times. These gatherings featured ono (delicious) food, dancing, chanting, and more.
“I grew up in a home knowing that when the imu (underground oven) was being prepared, it was time for a celebration,” said Kalei Uwekoolani, Cultural Programming Manager and Leadership Educator for the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort on Maui. “My grandmother used to refer to what we see today as a luau as ahaaina, a gathering meal. Culturally, this was a more formal event focused on the traditions and ceremonies being performed.”
Before 1819, an ancient ruling code called the kapu system set restrictions for certain parts of society. This system affected these types of gatherings.
“In certain cases, commoners were forbidden to consume certain foods at these types of feasts,” said Uwekoolani. “A pū (conch shell) was blown to announce the beginning of the ceremony or act as an accompaniment to oli, a traditional Hawaiian chant. Royals, dignitaries, and guests would traditionally sit on the floor on mats made of various leaves from different trees and eat with their hands. Attendees had a dress code that was very different than that seen [in luaus] today.”
Once King Kamehameha II ended the kapu system, celebrations became open to all, slowly forming the luaus we know and love today.
As tourism to the islands grew, ahaaina became known by the name of a commonly served Hawaiian dish: luau. This dish, a stew made up of chicken or squid baked until tender in coconut milk and taro, began to represent the gatherings. These days, the luau celebrations are more focused on entertainment but still offer people a chance to experience Hawaiian culture.
What to expect at a luau
When you attend a luau on your trip to Hawaii, get ready for an evening of entertainment and education. Here’s what to expect, although it may vary by luau:
Arrival: When you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a lei made of shells, kukui nuts, or flowers. If you are pregnant, you are expected to refuse a lei as it’s believed to bring bad luck.
Cultural activities: Stations are set up for Hawaiian craft or game demonstrations, such as lei-making or lauhala weaving.
Food preparation: There’ll likely be an imu (underground oven) ceremony, for cooking a whole pig.
Layout: Most luaus have community seating so you can get to know your fellow guests; however, some offer private tables.
Music and dance: Musical entertainment tells the stories of how Polynesians reached the Hawaiian islands and the legends of the gods and goddesses. Dancers will take the stage to showcase these stories.
Participation: At some point, guests may have the opportunity to stand up and learn some hula moves, which represent storytelling.
Pyrotechnics: Besides song and dance, there will likely be a Polynesian fire dancer.
What's on the menu at a luau
While the menu isn’t the same at every luau, there are some common staples that you’ll likely come across. Come hungry!
Kalua pig: Shredded roasted pig.
Haupia: Custard made from coconut milk and sugar.
Poke: Marinated cubed raw tuna with seaweed.
Poi: A fundamental starch for the Hawaiian diet, poi is mashed cooked taro.
Lomi lomi salmon: A cold dish of chopped salmon, sea salt, tomatoes, and onion.
Squid luau: Squid stew made with taro leaves and coconut milk, for which the event is named.
As far as drinks, most luaus offer wine, beer, and other spirits, as well as popular tropical cocktails such as mai tais and piña coladas.
What to wear to a luau
As with most events in Hawaii, casual attire is acceptable. Most luaus take place outdoors, so wear comfortable and weather-appropriate clothing and shoes. Hawaiian shirts are also welcome. Although most Hawaiian evenings are warm and balmy, you might want to take along a light jacket or sweater during the winter months.
What make a good luau
When booking your luau, Uwekoolani suggests doing your research. Find out what the ticket includes. Does it have an open bar or buffet-style food? “When booking a lūʻau, my suggestion to keep in mind is what amenities come with the show, such as pre-dinner entertainment or demonstrations, on-stage participation, and dinner entertainment—as well as location,” she said.
But most importantly, make sure that the luau authentically represents Hawaiian culture. When you’re attending a luau, you’re investing money in a company that promotes Hawaiian culture, so you want to make sure it treats its employees well and aims to educate guests on Hawaiian history and culture.
“In my opinion, a good luau tells a story, from the entertainment to the food down to the garments the dancers wear,” said Uwekoolani. “The food is traditional Hawaiian food, and the night is complemented by live Hawaiian musicians. The pre-festivities are engaging, complement the show, and are culturally appropriate to the luau.”
Related: A Sustainable Travel Guide to Hawaii