Haupia and Hula

Luau guests sample the spirit and soul of Hawaii, along with some kalua pig, laulau and lomi salmon

By: Marty Wentzel

Restaurants may come and go, but the luau holds forth as Hawaii’s most famous dining experience, giving clients a taste of island history and culture, while serving agents with a reliable source of commissions.

“Guests book our luau up to one year in advance,” said Jamie DeBrunner, sales director for Old Lahaina Luau on Maui. “Many make their luau reservations before booking their accommodations.” Old Lahaina Luau has been doing steady business since 1986, as host to 400 guests per night, seven nights a week, on a two-acre oceanfront estate.

Clients have luau options on all the major islands, with some more elaborate than others. “A luau guest gets a sense of place, the taste of Polynesian food and songs and dances, leading them through the history of the islands,” said Laurence Mountcastle, Kona Village Resort sales and marketing director. Big Island’s longest-running luau, Kona Village’s version, started as a casual beach gathering in 1967. Now it’s an elaborate production in an open-air structure; it attracted nearly 16,000 people last year.

Most luaus are interactive, with demonstrations of Hawaiian crafts. Guests try tropical cocktails and foods such as kalua pig (smoked in an underground lava-rock oven), poi (pounded taro root), laulau (pork and fish steamed in ti leaves), lomi salmon (salted salmon, tomatoes and onion) and haupia (coconut pudding). Entertainment usually includes songs and dances of Polynesia, but each luau has distinctive touches. For instance, the 700-seat oceanfront luau at Wailea Marriott Resort on Maui boasts a performance by the reigning world-champion fire-knife dancer. The Island Breeze Luau at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel on Big Island re-enacts the landing of Hawaii’s first monarch and his court in a double-hull canoe.

“If a luau is the only cultural thing visitors do while they’re here, they can leave knowing they learned a little bit about the place and its history,” said Delsa Moe, cultural presentations director for Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center, whose luau drew 177,000 people last year. Launched in 1989, the center’s luau recently moved to the renovated Hale Aloha Theater, featuring tiered seating for 700.

On Kauai, Smith’s Garden Luau has been operating for 18 years and was host to 50,000 visitors in 2002. “Ours is the only luau on Kauai, owned and managed by a local Hawaiian family,” said Kamika Smith. After dining in an open-air structure, guests stroll to an adjacent theater for the show. “We’ve had visitors return again and again, bringing friends and families with them,” Smith said. “There are always new experiences to try in the islands, but I feel the luau will remain the must-do dining and cultural event for vacationers in Hawaii.”

Dozens of commissionable luau options are available in Hawaii. Here are details on those mentioned in the story:

Island Breeze Luau, King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, Big Island. $57 per adult, $22 for ages 6-12. 808-326-4969; www.kona beachhotel.com.

Kona Village Resort Luau, Big Island. $76 per adult, $46 for ages 6-12, $22 for ages 2-5. 800-367-5290; www.konavillage.com.

Old Lahaina Luau & Feast at Lele, Maui. $79 per adult, $49 for ages 12 and younger. 800-248-5828; www.oldlahainaluau.com.

Polynesian Cultural Center Luau, Oahu. $75 per adult, $51 for ages 3-11. Rates include admission to the center’s villages, tours and IMAX movie. 800-367-7060; www.polynesia.com.

Smith’s Garden Luau, Kauai. $58 per adult, $28.50 for ages 7-13, $18.75 for ages 3-6. 808-821-6895; www.smiths kauai.com.

Wailea’s Finest Luau, Wailea Marriott, an Outrigger Resort, Maui. $70 per adult, $32 for ages 6-12. 808-874-7831; www.wailea marriott.com.