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Luaus are feasts that Native Hawaiians have been holding for hundreds of years to celebrate significant events—while in the past it may have been for moments like warriors returning from a mission, today families gather for feasts like birthdays, weddings or graduations.

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These days, you’ll typically find organized luaus for the public at hotels, though there are others operated independently. Typical dishes include highlights like the kalua pig (a whole pig that gets roasted in an underground oven), poi (boiled taro roots), poke (seasoned raw fish), and tropical fruit. And once you’re stuffed, there’s some form of musical entertainment offered—from drumming to fire dancing to various forms of hula, and often, all of the above. So whether you are backpacking or staying at Hawaii villa rentals, here are some of the top luaus that you won’t want to miss:

Old Lahaina Luau, Maui
Ranked as one of Maui’s best, this luau offers a traditional experience. When you arrive you’ll be “lei’d” (a fragrant wreath of tropical flowers sported around your neck) and given a Maui mai tai cocktail. The first event of the night is the imu ceremony—you’ll actually get to watch the kalua pig being unearthed from the underground oven. Afterwards, it’s time to eat and on the buffet are dishes like chicken marinated in guava sauce, pulehu tenderloin steak, taro salad, and lilikoi mousse. Once you’re comfortably full, the show begins. Expect an exploration into Hawaiian culture and history that delves into the various forms of the hula dance.

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Alii Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Centre, Oahu
The Polynesian Cultural Centre is 42-acre theme park celebrating the Pacific cultures of Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Aotearoa, Tahiti and Tonga. Wander the grounds during the day, and then stay for luau dinner in the Alii Luau in the Hale Aloha Theatre. Seats are first come, first serve, so you may want to line up early, though the approximate 700 seats all boast decent views. On the menu are luau favorites such as steamed island fish, roasted pig and coconut cake offered buffet-style, but fussy eaters will enjoy the teriyaki chicken and the salad bar, and kids can also get hot dogs and potato wedges. What’s fun is the addition of the “royal” court, while the entertainment showcases live Hawaiian music and dancers. For a truly memorable night, get tickets to the evening show Ha: Breath of Life for a Broadway-like production of Hawaiian dancers and dramatic fire scenes presented on a 60-foot-tall stage. Keep in mind: There is no alcohol served here.

The Feast at Lele, Maui
This experience is a bit different than your average Hawaiian luau. You still start the night off with a lei greeting, but afterwards, instead of eating at communal tables en masse, you are seated at a table that fits the size of your group (yes, even a table for two!). There’s no buffet line here—you’ll be served by a full wait staff. Executive Chef James McDonald and his team serve up a Polynesian-inspired five course gourmet meal, so you’ll get to try dishes like moi, a rare steamed fish that was once only enjoyed by local royalty, an octopus, lobster and ogo salad, and Sea Bean duck salad with poha berry dressing. The entertainment comes served between each course and includes live music, hula and a fire knife dance.

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Smith’s Garden Luau, Kauai
When you arrive at this family-run luau, you’re greeted with a lei made of shells. Next, you’re invited to tour their 30 acres of lush gardens near the Wailua River—choose either a guided tram tour, or to wander the grounds privately. At 6 pm, take in the imu ceremony before enjoying all the staples like kalua pig, lomi salmon, poi, and tropical cocktails, all to the soundtrack of Hawaiian songs. Afterwards, the Rhythm of Aloha show in their torch-lit Pele Amphitheater features acts from Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, and Japan. Kids will like the theater’s erupting volcano.

Island Breeze Luau at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, The Big Island
What makes this traditional luau special is its setting on the grounds of King Kamehameha’s (the first conqueror of the Hawaiian islands) former estate—it also sits beachside, overlooking white sand and the lights of Kona. On the 22-dish buffet expect to find classics like kalua pig and Hawaiian sweet potato, alongside local favorites such as macaroni salad, Kona-style poke, “catch of the day” and cinnamon-spiced bananas. Along with a show featuring traditional Polynesian dancing, music and acts of fire, you’ll have a chance to learn the hula and to check out Hawaiian arts and crafts. Tip: Upgraded tickets (an extra $15) gives you seats closer to the stage and puts you at the head of the line for food and drinks.


By Laura Pellerine