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5 lū‘au experiences that kama‘āina will love

Songs, stories, and hula feature prominently in Paniolo, a Hawaiian Cowboy Lūʻau in Kahuku. Photo courtesy Turtle Bay Resort

One of the best parties I ever attended was a lū‘au that friends threw to celebrate their son’s high school graduation. They set up a tent with seating for 300 in their sprawling West O‘ahu backyard overlooking the ocean. A band played Hawaiian music as guests piled poi, laulau, kālua pig, lomi salmon, chicken long rice, ‘opihi, pipikaula, and more on their plates.

As we ate, the honoree’s ‘ohana—Mom, Dad, siblings, aunties, uncles, and cousins—kicked off their shoes and took the stage, performing hula numbers in groups of as many as 20. All around the tent, guests jumped up and joined in, singing and swaying at their tables.

And so it went until late in the evening: bountiful food, music, dance, “talk story,” and aloha. Waves provided background rhythm, and a full moon and countless stars lit up the sky. In Hawai‘i, kama‘āina observe many such happy occasions with a lū‘au, but it’s a great outing any time. Here are 5 can’t-miss lū‘au experiences on Hawai‘i Island, Kaua‘i, and O‘ahu.

Hawai‘i Island

1. For the history: Island Breeze Lūʻau

Courtyard King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, Kailua-Kona

Island Breeze Lūʻau performers enter on a watercraft

The Island Breeze Lūʻau re-enacts the arrival of King Kamehameha I and his royal court at Kamakahonu. Photo courtesy King Kamehameha Kona Beach Resort


In 1812, 2 years after he united the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha I moved his residence and the kingdom’s capital from Honolulu to Kamakahonu, the area bordering the northern part of Kailua Bay. There, he lived and ruled until his death in 1819.

Kamehameha I’s compound included Ahu‘ena Heiau, his personal place of worship. This scenic and sacred site was also where he conferred with his closest advisors and instructed Liholiho, his firstborn son and heir, on matters of governance.

When the great warrior king died, it is said, his body was prepared for burial on a stone platform near what is now Island Breeze’s stage. His final resting place remains a mystery.

“Our lūʻau is notable for its historically significant location,” Edward Braunlich, the hotel’s general manager, says of Island Breeze Lūʻau. “We honor that by being the only lūʻau that features the re-enactment of the arrival of King Kamehameha I and his royal court at Kamakahonu via outrigger canoe.”

Offered Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays year-round; also summer Wednesdays. Adults, $169; ask about kama‘āina rates.

You may also like: 10 beautiful waterfall hikes in Hawai‘i


2. For the camaraderie: Smith Family Garden Lū‘au


Smith Family Garden

A lush, 30-acre garden is the setting for the Smith Family Garden Lū'au. Photo courtesy Smith's Tropical Paradise

The Smith Family Garden Lū‘au is all about ‘ohana. General Manager Kamika Smith and his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins pitched in to launch the event at Wailua River State Park in 1986.

Today, 4 generations of Smiths help with reservations, entertainment, food service, and care of the lush, 30-acre garden where the lū‘au takes place. From beginning to end, guests feel as if they’re a part of this big, happy Hawaiian family.

“Our show and menu represent other ethnic groups that have become part of our extended family in Hawai‘i,” Smith says. “For example, in addition to kālua pig, poi, and haupia, we serve Chinese fried rice, Filipino chicken adobo, and Japanese namasu and teriyaki beef.”

Offered Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays year-round. Also available Thursdays (February–October) and Tuesdays (June–August). Adults, $140 ($75 for kamaʻāina and their guests). Admission includes a 15-minute tram tour of the garden with its lagoons, taro patch, bamboo and pine forest, and orchards of mango, banana, avocado, and other tropical fruits.

You may also like: Escape to Kaua‘i for family-friendly fun and good food

3. For the visual spectacle: Lū‘au Kalamaku


Lights illuminate Lū‘au Kalamaku performers

Lū‘au Kalamaku's show uses high-tech lighting and audiovisual systems. Photo by Jeremy Metcalf

Lū‘au Kalamaku tells the tale of intrepid voyagers who sailed from Tahiti more than 1,500 years ago to their new home in Hawai‘i. Open on 3 sides, the covered pavilion where it is held was built around a 100-plus-year-old mango tree that once stood 80 feet tall.

Theater-in-the-round staging puts performers on a 24-foot octagonal main stage and 4 satellite stages. “Our approach is nonlinear,” says Haunani Marston, creative director and producer. “Guests don’t just watch the show, they’re immersed in it.”

Birdsong drifts from around the venue, thunder and the whoosh of wind roll through it, and the sound of rain washes from one side to the other. Lighting emulates the glow of the sun, molten lava, and star-filled skies.

Offered Tuesdays and Fridays year-round; also summer Mondays. Adult prices start at $159; kamaʻāina receive a 15% discount. The lū‘au is at Kilohana, originally a sugar plantation. Admission to the grounds and restored 1930s mansion (now housing boutiques, art galleries, and a restaurant) is free.

You may also like: 7 places where you can experience Hawai‘i plantation life


4. For the cultural activities: Aloha Kai Lū‘au

Sea Life Park, Waimānalo

Coconut front headband weaving

Learning how to weave a coconut frond headband at the Aloha Kai Lū'au. Photo courtesy Sea Life Park Hawai'i

Set on a lawn between the ocean and the Ko‘olau Mountains—far from any houses, cooled by trade winds, and with the sky as the ceiling—Aloha Kai is the closest you’ll get to a backyard lū‘au. For hands-on cultural activities, it’s also a hands-down winner.

“Aloha Kai is not just passive entertainment,” says Michelle Malulani Ake, founder and chief executive officer of Malu Productions, which puts on the lū‘au. “Authentic activities provide an important educational component. Firsthand participation gives guests a good idea of the Hawaiian way of life.”

There’s lots to do, all fun: strum an ‘ukulele; throw a fishnet; try ‘ulu maika (bowling); get a temporary tattoo of a turtle, flower, or coconut tree; weave a coconut frond headband and a kupe‘e (wristlet or anklet) from orchids; and play hula instruments: ʻiliʻili (stone castanet), ipu (gourd drum), ʻulīʻulī (gourd rattle), and pūʻili (bamboo rattle).

Offered nightly except Saturdays. Gold, Silver, and Bronze packages are available; Gold and Silver include multiday admission to Sea Life Park. Adult prices start at $119; kamaʻāina receive a 20% discount.

You may also like: Can't-miss food experiences at 4 Hawai‘i hotels

5. For the element of surprise: Paniolo, a Hawaiian Cowboy Lūʻau

Turtle Bay Resort, Kahuku

Toss away your preconceptions of a lūʻau. The theme for this one at Turtle Bay Resort’s stables revolves around paniolo. Tack, hay bales, grazing horses, servers in jeans and palaka shirts, a horse trailer turned bar, and live cowboy music add to the ambience. Meeting the resident ponies, Liliko‘i and Misty, is a highlight for guests.

“Our resort is an hour from Honolulu,” says Tom Donovan, the hotel’s managing director. “We wanted to spotlight our stables’ rustic setting and Hawai‘i’s ranching history and culture in a fun, family-focused experience.”

Turtle Bay Resort smoked beef brisket

Hand-carved smoked beef brisket is on the menu. Photo courtesy Turtle Bay Resort

Roast pig is on the buffet, but poi, laulau, and haupia are not. Instead, guests savor smoked beef brisket, huli huli chicken, fresh catch steamed in banana leaves with green curry–coconut-lime sauce, rolls, potato salad, beans, grilled corn, and s’mores by a firepit.

The show features songs, stories, and hula about Hawaiian cowpokes who were wrangling cattle in the early 1830s, long before Buffalo Bill began taming the Wild West.

Offered Wednesdays. Adults, $195; kama‘āina receive a 15% discount.

One of lūʻau aficionado Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi’s favorite dishes is fresh poi mixed with smoky, salty kālua pig.

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