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A Classic Hawaiian Luau on Maui

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This past summer, during the TPG interns’ summer trip to Maui, TPG Intern Danielle Truglio and her fellow interns attended a traditional Hawaiian luau — and here’s a look at her first experience of this festive cultural event.

What’s a trip to Hawaii without a proper luau, the traditional Polynesian feast that includes a kalua pig, music and hula dancing? There are plenty of opportunities for Maui tourists to attend a luau, but it took a little research to find one that’s beloved by tourists and considered authentic by locals. The one our group chose is Old Lahaina Luau, in the western Maui town of Lahaina.

We arrived at Old Lahaina Luau about an hour before sunset and were immediately greeted with beautiful orchid leis and fruity beverages. This popular luau generally draws a large crowd, and this one was no exception. Our waiter directed our group to the assigned seats where we’d spend much of the evening.

The kalua pig is unveiled in front of a crowded at the luau.
The kalua pig is unveiled in front of a crowd at the luau.

While awaiting the feast, though, we had the chance to wander the oceanside luau grounds, which includes a wide, lovely view over the water and a large center stage for the hula show. Soon, the wait staff called all the attendees over to a huge, sandy smoke pit to see the unveiling of the kalua pig. Kalua is Hawaiian for “to cook in an underground oven,” and at Old Lahaina Luau, a kalua pig is slow-cooked beneath a mound of sand for roughly a day before it’s dug up by a couple of shirtless young guys in kukui nut leis and Polynesian-print sarongs. Once freed from the sand, the resulting pork is transferred to a huge tray and becomes one of the luau’s star attractions.

We were all directed back to our seats in preparation for the fest to come. In case you avoid pork, rest assured that there are several other buffet options, including chicken, beef and a lot of vegetables. Guests are directed to the buffet based on their seat assignments, and luckily, we were among the first group to go. If you have the misfortune of being at the end of the line, though, there’s a strong possibility you’ll be waiting for quite a while.

The good news is by the time you’ve filled your plate and taken your seat again, you’re done with lines for the evening. Once the main dinner is winding down, each table is served a plate of assorted desserts with a bit of island flavor: passionfruit cake, lavender-lemon shortbread cookies, Hawaiian chocolate-chili pepper brownies and a traditional coconut-milk pudding called haupia.

The sunset at the Old Lahaina Luau.
The sunset at the Old Lahaina Luau.

We took a break from stuffing ourselves silly to watch the sun set over the Pacific, and must have taken 50 photos between us. If you’re looking to take the perfect postcard-worthy shot of a Hawaiian sunset, you can snap it here without ever leaving your table. 

Just as the sun finished setting, tiki torches were lit and we turned our chairs toward the center stage to watch a roughly half-hour performance of hula, a series of graceful dance movements accompanied by swaying Polynesian drum and guitar music.

The Luau performance begins at the end of dinner.
The Luau performance begins at the end of dinner.

Modern hula dancers often perform in grass skirts, but the Old Lahaina Luau dancers dress in more traditional skirts made of palm leaves and play hollowed-out gourd instruments called ipu. At Old Lahaina, these dance numbers are designed to share stories from Hawaii’s history and the important role of the luau in Hawaiian society and culture — and it succeeds on both levels.

The Old Lahaina Luau is essentially a well-rehearsed musical show paired with a huge dinner that could give a Vegas buffet a run for its money, but I had a great time and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Maui — or even Hawaii in general — for the first time. It’s educational, tasty and fun.

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