A traditional luau is a big party in someone’s backyard, usually celebrating a significant event. Since we didn’t expect to be invited to one of those, we opted for an oceanfront affair offerring lots of food and entertainment and drinks with umbrellas.
The luau line was already forming in the hotel’s lobby when we arrived around half an hour early. At about 6:00, a grass-skirted, non-shirted male hula dancer welcomed us by placing orchid leis around our necks. We accepted small mai tais; the Royal Hawaiian invented the tropically dark, slightly sweet drink.
As we sipped our high-octane drinks, the hula dancing began on stage. The hula is like an island version of ballet; it’s a dance that tells a story. Contrary to the image created by Elvis Presley movies, it wasn’t originally the hip-shaking dance that most mainlanders picture. That dance actually comes from Tahiti, a group of islands about 2,000 miles south of Hawai’i, and a leading contender for my next big vacation.
The dancers performed a hukilau hula. This popular version of the dance depicts fishermen hauling in their catch; to me, it also symbolizes the island gift for celebrating living, even at its most mundane. I was born on the north shore of Massachusetts and lived in that maritime area through the first quarter of ninth grade, and I never heard of anybody choreographing a dance that celebrated reeling in fish.
We also witnessed a lesser-known hula–one glorifying the Royal Hawaiian. Now a Sheraton property, the “Pink Palace” opened in 1927 and is the oldest hotel in Waikiki. Its history and elegance exude a charm that partially balances the crude self-backpatting and, coupled with some frustrations with the Hilton, puts the hotel in first place on the potential lodging list for my next trip to Honolulu.
The MC invited guests to join the dancers on stage and learn a few hula steps ourselves. My travel companion and I, and most of the crowd, enjoyed this part of the event as spectators. One of the younger hula students was clearly not enjoying himself; the little boy walked off the dance line, sat at the edge of the stage, and started reading a book. A child after my own heart, he provided one of the most entertaining moments of the night.
The main dish at any luau is the kalua pig–pork pulled from a pig cooked whole in an underground oven, called an ‘imu. Unearthing the pig is a major part of a luau–except in Waikiki, where zoning laws prohibit the use of ‘imus. We did, however, get to see the gutted pig, roasted snouty face and all, lying on a buffet table.
Pulled pork is one of my favorite meals, and the moist and tender kalua pig did not disappoint. Lau-lau, another traditional dish, more than disappointed; it shocked. One thing that backyard luaus probably don’t feature is someone describing every dish. Fortunately, ours did. Lau-lau, the MC explained, is ti leaves, wrapped around taro leaves, wrapped around meat or fish and steamed. Not a steamed fish eater, and not much of a leaf eater either, I was happy when he said that pork was at the center of our luau’s lau-lau. I was less happy when I tasted it–although getting there was fun. Ti leaves are inedible, so one must untie their stems and gently shake the interior leaves and meat out, the way you’d separate static-stuck clothes from each other. I shook and shook, deposited my ti leaves on a tray, and bit into the leaf-wrapped pork. Which tasted just like fish. And not even steamed fish–raw fish. At first I thought some tragic mistake had been made in the Royal kitchen and a piece of raw fish had invaded my pork lau-lau. Upon reflection, and a later try at pork lau-lau elsewhere, I think that the taro leaves taste a lot like fish, and that I had bitten into a piece of pork fat that absorbed the fishy flavor and made lau-lau a no-no.
Taro is also the root ingredient in poi. Often described as a paste, the purple dish actually has more the consistency of sauce. It’s the main starch in the Hawaiian diet. Fortunately, it doesn’t taste anything like lau-lau. In fact, its bland flavor doesn’t taste like much of anything; I thought it was just so-so.
Overall, it was a good dinner, and I’m glad I sampled Hawaiian food, though I still prefer my pulled pork with barbeque sauce, cole slaw, and hush puppies.
Another thing that probably isn’t featured at private luaus is somebody hawking pictures of guests, in paper frames, with PR photos of the luau venue. Still, the Royal photographer took a very nice picture of my friend me, and we shelled out for the pair of photos, although we did think that including the photo with the high price of the luau would have been less tacky. We’d been in Hawai’i for barely 30 hours, but we’d already discovered that getting nickel-and-dimed was commonplace, and that’s unfortunate, because the Thenardier treatment undermines the feeling of pampering that vacationers seek from fine hotels.
The luau wrapped up fairly early, around 8:30, fine with us, as that’s 2:30 in Virginia. We walked the roughly one mile back to the Hilton and crashed–planning to arise at 4:00 for the next main visit on our agenda–Pearl Harbor.