An Amazing Luau experience

Luau is a happy occasion. The sound of drums, the smell of jasmine in the air, the dramatic adventures of heroes who lived long ago, the predictable, yet delightful, ending with the good vanquishing the bad creates a deliciously sweet cocktail of wholesome family entertainment. Stories are as old as us humans. Ever since the beginning of time we’ve loved telling and listening to stories. It is one of the most core attributes of humanity and is popular across all lands, culture and people. The Hawaiian Luau takes this to a true art form. Luaus were not new to us. We enormously enjoyed all of our previous Luau experiences so much so that without much research nor hesitation we eagerly signed up for the Old Lahaina Luau. We arrived at the venue about 30 minutes before the event bracing for crazy crowds and impossible parking like we encountered on the Maui beaches. In a very happy contrast to all the exploration we had to do on the Road to Hana, the location was super easy to find – right on Main street, the hub of commercial activity on the island. Cheerful attendants dressed  in Hula attire instructed us to park across the street from the venue, next to Barnes&Noble & OfficeMax. There were plenty of parking spots available so parking was a breeze. A short walk and we arrived at the gates of the Luau. Pretty hula girls adorned us with Lei – a necklace made of threaded red and white plumeria flowers, checked our tickets, then assigned us our attendant for the evening – Mike. Happy and cheerful Mike offered us our first drink of the evening – a perfect glass of Mai Tai for my spouse and a glass of Moscow Mule for me, and then ushered us to our seats.

Perfect glass of Mai Tai welcomes us to the Old Lahaina Luau

Once we were seated, Mike sat beside us and patiently explained the course of the evenings events, asked us where we were from, and stayed with us till we were comfortable in our seats. There are two kinds of seating available at this Luau. One option is to be seated on traditional table&chairs, the second option is for ground seating. When we were booking our reservation, we were informed by the booking agent that the ground seating would place us closest to the main stage so we chose ground seating.  It was all open air seating. While this created a fantastic ambience, we were a little nervous because it had rained intermittently, heavy at times, every day of our Maui visit. Rain could easily upend the entire Luau experience. But the Gods favored us that night.

As expected, we found seats to be right next to the main stage. The only thing between us and the performers on stage was a walkway for the performers that skirted the main stage, and the awesome ocean breeze. There were comfy cushions and floor pillows to sit on and low tables for our food. An artificial turf insulated us well from the ground below and there was no hint of either cold or discomfort. The style reminded us of “Zashiki” – where patrons open their shoes before sitting down on the floor for sushi at traditional Japanese restaurants (a similar style is popular in Middle Eastern restaurants too).

Floor seating right infront of the main stage

We could see the ocean from everywhere. The beach here was mostly rocky but the setting sun was coloring everything in its golden amber hue. A hodgepodge of paintings, handicrafts, photographs and souvenirs were for sale along the beachside promenade. There were lessons for the kids on how to dance the Hula and how to blow conch shells.

Kids engrossed in lessons
A traditional Hawaiian canoe on display

As the crowd trickled in, most checked into their seats briefly before heading straight to the promenade to take in the gorgeous scenery. Celebration was in the air. Couples, arms interlocked, swore eternal love by the setting sun. Teenagers anguished for the perfect selfie. Mothers waffled through the wares on sale, deep in thought, busy picking the perfect trinket to complement the color of their living room sofa.

Now, from our previous Luau experience we knew that cooking a pig is a very big deal in Hawaiian Luaus. The Hawaiian term for it is “Kalua”. The pig is slow cooked in an underground oven for over 24hours. It’s a massively complex undertaking best left to experts. Digging the pig out of the ground is quite a spectacle.  So we head to the pig pit to join the fun. But alas ! we are too late !  Lots of kids have already crowded the pig pit and are in complete awe of the spectacle unfurling before their innocent unbelieving eyes. Their parents stand behind them busy with their cameras and providing ample vocal reassurance to the youngsters.

The pig pit

As the chefs come out with a massive tray to haul the pig, the cacophony drops to hushed tones in total reverence and the air becomes thick with eager anticipation. They chefs lay down the tray, pick up shovels and begin to dig up the pig. Very soon the burlap sack emerges. Then the banana leaves show themselves, and then finally it is time for the pig to come out ! Unfortunately, my spouse is short of height and is not able to see over the heads of the crowd and starts to blame me for being late. Technology comes to the rescue. I whip out my smartphone and record the whole process over minutes. Later, wifey watches the whole recorded event from beginning to end and is not grumpy anymore.

Suddenly there is smoke everywhere as a delicious pink brown hued pig emerges from the bowels of the earth. Soon the pig gets hauled away on the tray but leaves behind the thick aroma of burnt flesh which makes all of us instantly hungry. And as if reading our minds, attendants emerge and request us to return to our seats for the feast to begin. Its chow time folks !

The spread at OLL is huge ! The dinner is laid out in buffet style. There are rows and rows of wonderful Hawaiian food everywhere. There is cabbage, salad, roasted pig (of course!), sauces, various breads, seafood, chicken and various other Epicurean delights. We heap food on our plates and head to our seats. Legs folded we devour the food in delight and soon race back to the spread for seconds and thirds and fourths. By now the venue is almost full. The crowd is thick, well fed and happy. After about 45minutes, we’re sucking on delicious Hawaiian shaved ice and finally, its show time !

The lights dim, the drums start beating, announcers appear on stage and the story begins.  A pair of performers – one male, one female – come on stage and start taking turns to regale the adventures of a Prince who live long ago. Drums and other traditional Hawaiian instruments accentuate the drama and intrigue. Soon the story breaks into a full song and dance routine like a Hollywood musical. The music is slow, rhythmic, sensual like the pleasant Hawaiian evening.

Luau dance

After a few minutes we start noticing an annoying problem. Though the audience is seated in dark, bright overhead lights strung high above the stage illuminate the stage. Unfortunately they shine straight into our eyes. This nearly ruins our evening as we have a hard time concentrating on the performance on stage as we reflexively tilt our heads to avoid the pesky lights. I don’t know if this is a problem for the audience all around the stage or specific to our location but our neighbors are similarly annoyed. A group of them stand up from their seats and head in another direction for better viewing. We persevere but we have a hard time taking pictures throughout the evening as the bright lights ruin many of our otherwise perfectly timed shots.

On stage the characters meander between full fledged prose and more song and dance routines. The performers change their dresses several times. The audience is mesmerized. All eyes are on the stage. The gentle ocean breeze never felt better.

More song and dance

After about an hour or so of this we break for a rest. Everyone heads to the restroom but luckily there are enough of them so the lines are not too bad. Its time to refill our drinks too. Soon the show resumes and the swashbuckling adventures continue in full swing.

Song and dance

Then comes a very nice but unexpected gesture. During a small pause in the show, our attendants demonstrate creating traditional Hawaiian leaf crowns  from coconut leaves.  A lucky few are chosen to wear the fresh made Haku Leis. Our daughter is one of the lucky few and it immediately becomes her happiest moment of the evening. The crown somewhat resembles the crowns worn by ancient Roman emperors – except the Roman crowns were made of olive leaves and the Hawaiian ones are from coconut palm leaves. Makes me wonder if there was a connection between the two cultures situated halfway around the world all those years ago. The main event resumes after the break, there are more songs, more stories and more change of clothes. Just when we think things can get any better the rhythm quickens and the dancers break out into fast dance moves.

The grand finale is near and the deliriously happy crowd erupts in loud clapping. After an epic 4 hours of entertainment, its time to get up from our cozy seats by the beach and head home.

Outstanding performance !

At this point we can’t help but compare our Maui Luau experience with our Kauai Luau experience. We enjoyed the Kauai Luau at the Old Sugar Plantation. There are important differences to note here:

OLL was clearly better in

  • Location – its hard to beat the OLL location by the sea under the skies. The Kauai Luau was semi indoors and there was no sea.
  • Food – the feast was simply outstanding. Great food and great choices. The food in Kauai was average and forgettable.
  • Customer service – Mike, our attendant, epitomized the very essence of customer service. He constantly checked in on us during the course of the evening and accommodated our many requests for extra pillows, a bottle of water, extra silverware and even looked after our kid for a few minutes when we had to go to the restroom etc. He was simply the best. In comparison, we hardly ever saw our attendant at Kauai after he got us seated.
  • Performers – they looked great, danced great, had just the perfect amount of make up on and generally had very high standards of upkeeping. The Kauai performers were great but lacked “polish” in comparison.

However when it came to storytelling, the Kauai Luau was clearly the winner. We had a hard time following the OLL storyline, but we vividly remember the story we were told in Kauai. Kauai’s performers were passionate, their narration was coherent and the storyline was strong. A second aspect was the final fire dance climax of the Kauai Luau. We were spoiled into thinking that every Luau would climax in a fire dance, but we were wrong. It was not OLLs fault, only mistaken expectation on our part, but still a Luau without a fire dance is like shaved ice cream without the ice cream !

As we head out, we see the performers stand near the exits, sweaty and no doubt tired after hours of performing but sporting cheerful demeanors, and offering the departing audience a chance to click the last pictures of the evening by their side. Just as we’re about to leave the venue, its time for another another sweet surprise (pun intended) – we’re handed fresh banana breads to enjoy on our drive home. The walk to our car slowly thaws us of our trance and we come back to the 21st century. It has been an simply amazing evening. For a few hours we were completely transported to an earlier, simpler time when time flowed slowly and the good defeated the bad at the end, after a sufficient dose of drama, betrayal and misfortune. We vowed to ourselves that we would visit a Luau again before long.

Until next time.