The History of Hawaiian Luaus

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Luaus are celebrations honoring births, graduations, weddings and several other life-events in modern-day Hawaii. However, when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find the history of Hawaiian luaus is quite different from the delightful, breezy events of today.

It’s important to understand the history of Hawaiian luaus, not only as a responsible traveler engaging with local culture, but also as a way of connecting with local Hawaiians by learning about their backstory, understanding the context of the celebration and respecting cultural values.

What is the story behind Hawaiian Luaus?

Dating back hundreds of years, luaus were originally called ‘aha’aina (aha meaning ‘gathering,’ and aina meaning ‘meal’). These events were traditionally focused on religious ceremonies and special achievements like victories in battle, ample harvests and honoring Hawaiian gods. Luaus were reserved for men and royalty as part of the ancient Hawaiian kapu system. Kapu, meaning ‘forbidden' or ‘set aside as sacred,’ was a system of laws that restricted certain actions in society. One such law forbade men from eating with women and lower class individuals. The laws also excluded women from eating certain Hawaiian delicacies like reef fish, pork and bananas. The focus of these ancient gatherings were more about ceremonial events and tradition, rather than the entertainment value of modern luaus.

Why are luaus important to Hawaii?

Ancient Hawaii was one of the first societies to dedicate time for getting together and feasting. A lot has changed in 200 years, but the emphasis on family and friends gathering to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate momentous occasions remains as important as ever in Hawaiian culture.

When was the first Hawaiian luau?

It wasn’t until 1819, when King Kamehameha II united all the islands under one rule and began allowing women and men to dine together, thereby shattering the kapu system, and allowing these ceremonial gatherings to take new shape. Luaus at that time were well-attended, epic events with copious amounts of what has become traditional Hawaiian food and games.

What makes a luau special?

An astonishing number of Hawaiian dishes served at the first luau are still on the menu today, like kalua pig (slow roasted in an underground oven), laulau (pork or fish wrapped in ti leaves), poi (taro) and haupia (coconut custard dessert). Luaus showcase a dazzling display of traditional entertainment like hula dancing, traditional music and chanting, as well as Polynesian knife and fire spinning. The combination of food and cultural practices are delivered with aloha, the warm and genuine greetings that are a fundamental mainstay of Hawaiian hospitality.

Vacation tip: Learning about the importance of hula before going to a luau can make all of the difference, as that is the vehicle for the story that is being told.  Papa Hula at the Shops at Wailea on Fridays from 4:00-5:00 p.m. is an excellent way to learn about the instruments, the art, and the moves and is a quick activity we think can't be missed. 

Are luaus in Maui worth it?

A resounding, YES! Luaus are one of the best things to do in Maui. For around $100 you can sample Polynesian cuisine and watch exciting, colorful performances that you’re unlikely to find at a resort.

What is the best luau on Maui?

Our favorite luau is the Feast at Lele. Located in Lahaina against the stunning backdrop of the West Maui sunsets, the Feast at Lele offers a five-course meal fit for royalty. Unlike the buffet and open family-style seating of most luaus on Maui, Feast at Lele offers private table dining and private sit-down service for just you and your party. Award winning executive chef, James McDonald, owns a farm on Maui where all the ingredients used on the menu are fresh and locally grown. The luau’s entertainment consists of hula dancers and knife and fire spinners that highlight the different islands of Polynesia. The entertainment is as diverse as the menu, representing 4 island groups that will truly enrapture you in the cuisine and Hawaiian culture.

Check out our list of 2023's best luaus to find the one best suited for your vacation. 

6 Things to Know Before Going to a Luau

  1. As guests arrive, they’re typically greeted with leis made of flowers or kukui nuts.
  2. Seating can be on large traditional floor mats, or long community-style tables.
  3. Aside from traditional Hawaiian cuisine, you can enjoy tropical drinks like Blue Hawaiians and Mai Tais.
  4. Entertainment usually consists of ukelele music, fire knife dancing and hula.
  5. Many luaus encourage audience participation and will invite guests on stage to learn some hula dancing.
  6. The whole experience lasts 2-3 hours at sunset.flip

How should I dress for a luau?

Bright colors are your friend! One can wear aloha shirts (aka Hawaiian shirts) and khaki shorts, or flowing, flowery frocks and dresses. Comfy sandals and flip flops are the footwear of choice, but feel free to kick them off and go island-style in your bare feet. Keep in mind evening temperatures tend to drop, so you may want to carry a light jacket or sarong to cover up as the night goes on.

Definitely consider a luau regardless of how many days you're visiting Maui, as it will be an experience you soon won't forget. If you've been and have a favorite, tell us in the comments below. 

After many years of nomadically bouncing around the world as a yoga instructor (From Nebraska to DC to London to Chicago to New York to Thailand to Maldives to Martha’s Vineyard to Abu Dhabi), I landed in Hawaii 7 years ago. I spent my first two years on Lana’i, but I knew my heart belonged in Maui, so we moved in early 2018 before the birth of our son to lay our official roots. I love the year-round tropical weather and unparalleled aloha spirit from my friends and neighbors. In my free time you can find me practicing yoga near the ocean, spending time with my family on the beach and submerging in the icy cold waters of Iao Valley. Maui is a culturally rich island with beauty at every turn, which makes living and raising my child here an honor.

Becca Coren