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A luau is a traditional Hawaiian party or feast featuring local food, dancing, and music. Luaus have become a popular attraction for tourists visiting Hawaii and are a fun way to experience Hawaiian culture and hospitality.

The Origin of the Luau Tradition in Hawaii

Ancient Hawaiian Celebrations and Feasts

The luau tradition originated from the ancient Hawaiian culture of celebrating important events with festive feasts called ahaʻaina. These feasts brought communities together to mark occasions like victories in battle, abundant harvests, births, weddings, funerals, and more.

Traditional Hawaiian feasts featured food like fresh fish, pork, tropical fruits and vegetables, and poi (made from taro root).

One part of the ancient Hawaiian feast was the pāʻina – where people celebrated by eating, drinking, dancing and singing. The modern luau grew out of this tradition. Back then, communities would gather to honor their chief (aliʻi) by presenting lavish displays of food and events.

For example, they might place a pig in an underground oven called an imu and gift it to the visiting chief.

Modern Luaus Emerge in the 20th Century

In the early 20th century, hotels and restaurants started hosting commercialized luaus for visitors. They wanted tourists to experience a taste of Hawaiian culture and food. These early luaus set the foundation for the festivals we see today at Hawaii hotels and resorts.

So when did these modern luaus actually begin? Sources credit hotelier Matson Navigation Company with hosting the first commercial luau in Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1925. Their oceanfront dinner featured a whole pig from the imu oven, Hawaiian musicians and hula dancers.

The popularization of luaus for tourists continued in the later 1900s. Hotels expanded their luau operations and Polynesian revues. Today, Hawaii welcomes over 9 million visitors yearly who can experience immersive Hawaiian culture at commercial luaus.

Modern luaus may be more glitzy with added production value, but they let people today take part in Hawaii’s history. These celebrations open a doorway to experience the Islands’ heritage of feasting, fun and aloha spirit handed down over generations.

What to Expect at a Luau

Luau Food and Drinks

The food at a Hawaiian luau is a highlight of the experience. Luaus traditionally serve Hawaiian dishes like kalua pork, poke, lomi salmon, poi, haupia (coconut pudding), and mai tais. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Kalua Pork – Pork shoulder roasted in an underground oven called an imu. Smokey and delicious.
  • Poke – Cubed, raw tuna tossed with sesame oil, sea salt, chili pepper, and sometimes onions or scallions. Bright, fresh, and tasty.
  • Lomi Salmon – Fresh salmon, diced and served in a sauce of tomatoes and onions. A Hawaiian staple.
  • Poi – Made from boiled taro root, poi has a unique sweet yet slightly tart flavor. It serves as a starchy side dish. An acquired taste for some!
  • Haupia – Coconut milk pudding, often cut into squares and served as dessert. Sweet and creamy.
  • Mai Tais – Typically made with light and dark rum, orange curaçao, orgeat syrup, and lime juice. Fruity and packed with that Hawaiian spirit 😊👍

The food is traditionally served buffet-style so you can sample different Hawaiian specialties. Most luaus encourage seconds and thirds too. With so many tasty dishes to try, you definitely won’t go home hungry!

Hawaiian Entertainment and Activities

In addition to the meal, luaus showcase Polynesian dance and music. Some of the performances and activities you may see include:

  • Hula – Iconic Hawaiian dance performed by women in grass skirts, leis, and coconut bras. Graceful hand movements tell a story.
  • Fire knife dance – A Samoan dance involving skillful twirling of a flaming knife. Exciting and dangerous!
  • Līma Lama – A fast-paced action dance from Tahiti with slapping rhythms. Showcases amazing coordination.
  • Lei making – Craft a traditional Hawaiian flower garland to take home as a souvenir.
  • Ukulele playing – Have a go plucking this quintessential Hawaiian instrument.

The performances celebrate Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Dances feature swaying hula motions, pulsating drum beats, expressive hand gestures, and elaborate costumes. It’s a vibrant showcase rich in tradition.

Some luaus even invite guests on stage to learn a few hula moves! With all the music, dancing, food, and Hawaiian hospitality, a luau offers an unforgettable island experience.

When and Where Luaus are Typically Held in Hawaii

Luaus in Hawaii are festive gatherings that usually involve a feast of traditional Hawaiian foods and entertainment with hula and music. They are most often held in the late afternoon and early evening hours before sunset.

Types of Luaus in Hawaii

There are several common types of Hawaiian luaus:

  • Hotel or Resort Luaus – These are large commercial luaus held at the major resorts and hotels on the islands. They offer an easy way for visitors to experience a luau, often with bus transport to and from the hotel.
  • Private Luaus – Some resorts and individuals will host private luaus for groups, events, vow renewals, or weddings. These tend to be more intimate and customizable.
  • Kalua Pig Roasts – More casual community gatherings focused around roasting a whole kalua pig in an underground oven called an imu. These feature authentic food but less entertainment.
  • Family Luaus – Local Hawaiian families will often hold backyard luaus bringing extended families together to celebrate birthdays, graduations, or holidays.

Best Islands for Luaus

Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island all offer many luau options. Here’s a comparison:

Island Most Popular Luaus Highlights
Oahu Paradise Cove, Germaine’s, Chief’s Luau at Sea Life Park Most options due to high tourism. Convenient locations near Waikiki.
Maui Old Lahaina Luau, Feast at Lele, Grand Luau at Honua’ula Idyllic beachfront settings. Some of the most authentic Hawaiian entertainment.
Kauai Smith’s Tropical Paradise, Grand Hyatt Kauai Luau Dramatic rainforest and ocean backdrops. Smaller crowds.
Big Island Gathering of the Kings at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, Hilton Waikoloa Sunset Luau Luaus next to flowing lava. More interactive and educational.

The island of Molokai and Lanai have limited luau options due to low tourism, but local family luaus can sometimes be found.


Luaus give visitors a memorable Hawaiian experience featuring traditional dishes, hula dancing, powerful history, and aloha spirit. Attending a luau is a highlight for many travelers in Hawaii and a way to connect with the islands’ culture.

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