Less Than Wowed By The Luau

I’ve been to…. probably 6 or 7 luau (feasts) in the more than 20 years that I’ve been going to Hawaii. The first time I ever went was in 86 or so… it was a travel agent fam and amongst all the salesy-markety stuff events that were arranged for us was at least one luau. I’ve always had a good time and had a good experience, although some luau productions and settings are better than others.

I’ve never walked out of a luau feeling depressed and sad for the performers until now. David and I just got back from an evening at the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, taking in the “Island Breeze” luau.

Don’t get me wrong, during the Polynesian revue, I whooped and hollered and clapped. The dancers were good, worked hard, and gave a good show. It was pretty enjoyable, once the lights went down and you couldn’t see how run-down the luau grounds were, or see how tacky the little buildings were.

The following review is a pretty accurate statement, as are some of the other less flattering reviews on the same page. We had decided to book this luau because we were at the end of our trip and there weren’t many choices for either a Thursday or a Friday. In retrospect, we should have popped for the Kona Village Resort’s more expensive luau – it’s reportedly the best on the Big Island, in beautiful grounds.

Kailua-Kona: Island Breeze Luau – Traveler Reviews – Just another touristy luau – TripAdvisor

We selected this luau because the description seemed to indicate a bit more pagentry – wrong. The ‘royal’ court did not arrive by canoe as advertised, but walked down the sidewalk from the hotel. For the price, you should be expected to pay extra for a cheap lei. The food was okay, but nothing extra. Wife enjoyed it which is the only thing that counts.

First of all, the King Kam (as it’s locally known) is sadly run down. It’s supposed to be undergoing a big renovation, but they’re starting in the hotel rooms tower by tower, and the public areas (including the scarily empty lobby) won’t be scheduled for an update until at least April of this year. I’ve been walking into Hawaiian hotels for 2 decades now, sometimes as a guest and sometimes as a travel agent on an inspection tour. I’ve never gotten the creeps just by walking into a lobby before… the interior spaces are huge, but devoid of plants, fountains, and the kind of indoor-outdoor landscaping that the better island hostelries install in order to give the arriving guest that “wow!” moment. There are portraits of Hawaiian royalty lining the walls – some of them badly faded and a couple hanging seriously askew. Gigantic record-breaking marlin are proudly displayed – looking quite fake, actually. And all the little curio, jewelry, and Alohawear shops are completely empty. Maybe that’s a function of the impending remodel, but it gives a very uncomfortable impression of neglect and failure.

You enter the luau grounds through the lobby because the initial check-in is at a concierge desk across from the hotel’s front desk. The royal standards are displayed there (two large yellow cylinders made of satin and feathers) which are probably grabbed before the “royal procession” and put to use.

Though billed in the “Hawaii Revealed” guidebook as an arrival by canoe, the “royal procession” assembled at the same door we had come through to walk through the grounds. Maybe there was a leak in the canoe, maybe there was some other reason why they no longer use it for the big arrival.

Meanwhile, before the procession, David and I had a few disconcerting experiences.

I did manage to get the “travel agent discount” that has become so rare in the industry… only in Hawaii, apparently, does it still mean something to say “I’m a travel agent” and get a deal. Since I’d gotten the discount when I booked by phone yesterday, I’d talked David into upgrading for an extra $15 bucks each, which meant we could arrive later, have premium seating, and first crack at the buffet line. So I felt like it was worth it (and it was).

But when we arrived, we pulled into the hotel parking lot and were greeted with “Aloha-are-you-going-to-the-luau-here-is-your-parking-ticket-which-you-will-need-to-get-validated-at-checkin-so-your-parking-fee-will-be-$5-if-you-do-not-get-the-validation-your-parking-fee-will-be-MORE-Mahalo.”

Okay, so we went with it because we’d gotten stuck in traffic and didn’t want to pull out of the line and find a free spot. So we went in to the checkin-desk and got validated, then got handed a coupon for $5 off our commemorative photo (an expected perk at luaus, I usually don’t go for the photo). And off we went through the vast, echoing 70’s era spaces of the lobby and the corridor leading to the luau grounds (which was wide enough to host a decent-sized trade show and probably had in its heydey).

We get to the grounds and there’s a big long line, but we’d been told to go around to the right, so we did. And there was a sign that indicated “Hanohano Guests” all right (premium seating). The welcoming guy waved us over, indicated a pile of plumeria lei and kukui nut necklaces, and said something to David like, “you-wanna-buy-a-lei-for-your-lovely-wife, right? Right?”

Well, truth be told, I did want a lei, so I nodded and smiled.

“$7” he said. And then added “you-wanna-necklace-for-your-hubby, right?” Damn, not wishing to look like pikers in front of a long line of people who were waiting to check in while the host guy messed with us, I nodded dumbly, and the guy smiled and said “Okay, that’s another six dollah, so $13. Here, lady, you hold the change for him, lots of other things to buy.”

We smiled for the camera, the photog checked his digital display (caveat: David’s camera was better than his) and we sailed in to meet the luau manager, who would escort us to our table. I muttered to David that I’d never been so efficiently stripped of cash. It was kind of like being encountering a very genial and well-spoken mugger.

We were seated. A few minutes later, a nice lady named Kim sat down across from us, and we started chatting; she had just arrived from Switzerland, her son was a performer in the show. We were just starting to warm up to her when the luau manager came up to her and said, very genially, “I’m sorry, I need two seats here. May I see your Hanohano bracelet?” And that was that, as he turfed her gently out to the cheap seats after seating a very nice Australian couple across from us. It turns out that Kim hadn’t known that she needed to pay extra to get a good seat to see her son perform… I was astounded as I’d assumed either that she’d been comped as a family member, or she’d upgraded like we had (but of course I didn’t check for the blue party bracelet, either). Still, it’s odd that she didn’t wait to be seated by the guy, as we were all told to do on entry.

She was escorted back to another table where there was an odd number of patrons. As someone who’s attended a luau before as a singleton, I sympathized – usually they stick all the odd-numbered parties together, and the singletons all end up in a bunch at the same table when they don’t have an open seat elsewhere. I didn’t see her later in the evening to catch up with her. I’m still stumped as to why she wasn’t comped a premium seat. Jeez.

Speaking of Jesus, He was everywhere.

It took a long time for the show to get started, as first everyone had to be taught a simple Hawaiian craft, the Hukilau hula, or shown how to open a coconut. David and I didn’t want to stay at the premium tables for this, so we wandered back to the “ohana” activities area out by the imu (pit oven).

Soon enough, I was learning how to make a little angelfish on a fishing pole. It will make an admirable cat toy for about two seconds if it makes it home.

The guy doing the demo was funny, but he was wearing a lava-lava (male version of the sarong) with a Christian verse on it – one of the “tract” ones that’s specifically for evangelizing. Later on, we noticed another performer also had a Bible verse on his lava-lava. And one of the dancers (probably Kim’s son) had “Christ is Lord” tattooed on his inner arm. And when we were formally welcomed, we were told there would be a prayer, in Hawaiian, but of course it was in the name of Iesu Cristo. And then there was the history of the Hawaiian islands told in song and dance, with the dancers playing the “click-clack” sticks rhythmically… and at the end they formed crosses with the sticks to illustrate the coming of Christianity to the islands… after a long story about the first Hawaiian convert to Christianity, who apparently went to Yale but died before he could return and evangelize, though his friends all came in his place… and after that the song host kind of preached the power of Aloha and the power of mana at us and enjoined us to go out and spread aloha to the world… and… and then there was the “Freedom’s Never Free” country song performed in ASL that was all about crosses at the military cemetery, during which I thought of men and women of the US Military who were not Christian and who still fought and died, but they didn’t count enough for their religious symbols to be mentioned in the stupid song… and there was some pointing to the sky when the male dancers concluded anything really strenuous, and more crosses formed with flaming torches… and… and… and.

Yeah. It wasn’t overt, but it sure wasn’t covert.

Meanwhile, we turned down the photo when we saw that it was overexposed, and I had a highly visible bruise on my arm from hauling luggage around, and we wouldn’t be able to get the digital file and “fix it in post.” So we passed on that, but meanwhile there was other crap they were trying to sell in the “gift hut,” like painted ukuleles (not a one was used in the performance, it was all electric guitar, bass, and miked singers). Also, they had twirling batons that had “flames” printed on the soft fabric covers, plus DVDs and CDs, which they were also pushing during the musical portion of the show.

It lasted for about 2 hours or more, all told. There were only about 7 or 8 dancers and for each costume change, the song leader guy had to do some patter and sing something, or the band would play (they also sang) so there was a real start-and-stop feel to the action. The food itself was pretty good – better than the buffet we had up at Volcano House anyway, but there were some glaring differences in quality as to how everything was presented – food, music, Hawaiian culture – compared to other luaus David and I have attended.

I think I had premium seating at a couple of other luaus before, though not necessarily with David, and I think they had a separate person or checkin desk, so that premium people wouldn’t hold up the entire line.

Imu ceremony: the pit area consisted of several lava-stone and concrete pits, with 7 or 8 weathered pieces of plywood laid over the top or lying in front, covering up unused pits. There was a corrugated tin roof, much battered and rusty. All in all, not picturesque. Three guys from the hotel kitchen were introduced, wearing aprons, hats, and industrial grade latex gloves. The “imu ceremony” consisted of them throwing some coco-fiber mats and ti leaves aside, uncovering the wire basket holding the roast pig, and holding it for a couple of minutes while people took pictures. Then they placed it in a big stainless steel tray.

Compare that mental image (I didn’t bother to take a picture, neither did David) to these guys, from the Maui Marriot luau we attended in 2005:

Luau Boys

These guys actually made it ceremonial, plus they were extremely decorative. Not like kitchen guys at all. This is generally how other luaus do the imu ceremony; the guys are big locals in lava-lavas, not little guys in dingy kitchen whites. And they actually make it seem like a solemn occasion… before posing for pictures.

Firedance: David took pictures of the firedancer at the last luau we went to on Maui... that would have been in September 2007 at the Sheraton Ka’anapali. They had a big stage and plenty of room, and it was spectacular.

At the King Kam/Island Breezes luau, it’s a very small, rather shabby stage, and they raise (as noted in the linked reviews) a big thick safety net in front of the stage on a rope-and-pulley affair that’s really distracting and really makes it hard to see (and photograph) the firedance. Which was really a shame, as the guy worked his ‘okole off, getting the crowd riled up so he’d dance some more. But with that big net in the way it was harder to see him perform… that tiny stage probably forced them to do it or lose their insurance coverage.

Music: Not what we’ve come to expect from a luau band. Although slightly cheesy, Vegas-y singers are almost de rigeur, the songlist doesn’t usually start out with wheezers like “Tiny Bubbles” and “hapa haole” stuff like “Little Grass Shack.” The guitarist seemed to really be off his game, although the drummers were outstanding. I’d never heard some of the other songs before at any other luau, and I’ve heard a LOT of Hawaiian music in my time. There wasn’t anything more contemporary than the country music song that was more of a flag-waver than anything, and a rehash of an Iz Kamakawiwo’ole song that was played at a faster tempo for the dancers. Man, we’re spoiled by all the great slack-key guitar players and singers we’ve heard. too. It got better when the program changed to the full-on Polynesian show for the after-dinner entertainment. Before and during dinner, it’s music-only and didn’t really get my juices flowing, so to speak.

Dancing: Very good, some great looking people, and some funny characters, too. I did like the performers a lot (although the singing host, not so much). Not a big enough troupe to cover things like costume changes, though. It was almost always all for one, not one or two for all.

Costumes: Not bad, but halfway between totally modern artificial materials and totally authentic natural materials. Up close as we were, you could see how worn and faded some of the fabrics were.

Drinks: they had either watery Mai Tais in a canoe-shaped service thing, or hand-poured Mai Tais in the “Tiny Bubbles” hut, with a more generous “pour.” Always go for the hand-poured when you can… but at other luaus, Lava Flows, Chi-Chis, and Blue Hawaii foo-foo type drinks are also available (sometimes free, sometimes cash bar). Again, not an impressive showing against Old Lahaina, Feast at Lele, Sheraton Kaanapali, Maui Wailea Beach Marriott, or Maui Prince luaus. I also went to something called Paradise Cove on Oahu 20 years ago, but don’t think I had more than one drink.

Table setting and presentation: Yuck. Worn red tablecloths, worn yellow napkins, and plastic buckets on the tables that had originally held the napkin-wrapped tableware and additional paper napkins that looked… previously used. No centerpieces or candles or flower arrangements of any kind, just salt, pepper, and those ratty little buckets. The buffet line was nothing special – no floral arrangements or other decoration, just arranged on a permanent counter with steam pans, and at one side there were stacks of plastic “fake wood” platters with compartments for us guests to use.

Production, lights, sound: “Front of house” needed some work, as already noted. The stage was small, the musical performers were crammed into a tiny hut leaving an area smaller than the typical grade-school auditorium stage for the dancers. Lighting consisted of a couple of arrays hanging from palm trees that were adjusted with a stick. The first half, none of the red lights were working, and the second-string singer was quite a lizardy shade of green. They somehow got that figured out for the Polynesian revue, thank goodness. The sound was fine, if a little over-loud. It wasn’t that big a crowd, so they didn’t need to have it cranked up to eleven. But they did.

So. I enjoyed the show, but was totally turned off by the shabby grounds, nickel-and-dime extras we ended up paying for or being graciously manipulated into buying, and the general air of neglect at the King Kam itself. I walked out feeling sad and not a little depressed about how the whole production is trying really hard to live up to the hotel’s glory days of the 70’s.

I really hope that the renovation includes the luau grounds, although there may be some issue with the National Historic Site designation of the adjacent heiau, where Kamehameha I spent his final years. It really needs a serious makeover and attractive landscaping to be a truly great luau spot, as the historic setting is undeniably significant. Island Breezes also needs to get on the stick and freshen up their production, because the tacky little huts and unattractive table settings, added to the tired costumes and the religious injections add up to a turnoff for many repeat guests. I was glad of the travel agent’s discount, because it reminds of the good old days of the industry when vendors and agents built relationships and bookings on the goodwill gained by giving the traditional “agent rate.”

But now I wish we’d made plans much farther in advance so we could book one of the better quality, more expensive luaus. Sorry, King Kam/Island Breeze, that’s how I felt when the lights went off: sad, disappointed, and not a little depressed. I hope you get your acts together.

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5 thoughts on “Less Than Wowed By The Luau

  1. I’m sorry to hear that the King Kam is run down. I used to stay there during Ironman in the early 90s. I guess it wasn’t a showpiece even back then, but it was the place to be during the race. I haven’t been back to Kona since 93, but I’m planning another visit. I have good memories of Ali’i Drive and want to stay again. I’m thinking of staying in a condo this time.

  2. Although I didn’t see evidence of I going renovation, the rooms may be fine. Lobby may. be torn up starting in April. Try another luau on Ali’i, though. Aloha!

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