Choosing a luau

With planning for our trip to Maui well underway I learned that, in her many trips to the islands, my wife has never been to a luau. A luau is now a "must," but choosing one proved to be a challenge!

During my first trip to Hawaii in 1987, my companion and I attended two luaus: one at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu’s north shore, and another at the hotel at which we stayed on Kauai. I recall the Kauai event as being smaller, more intimate, less kitchy and, it seemed to me, more authentic.

“Authentic” is the type of experience I want us to have this time around.

You might think that, as a travel writer who is active with social media, I would turn to a few social media web sites and quickly make my decision. Several luaus on Maui have been consistently described as “authentic” so that seemed to be the easy part. However, the other things that are important to me aren’t the things most contributors to Yelp!, TripAdvisor, ChowHound or Google Reviews choose to focus upon.

Well-rated luaus on several social media sites include the Old Lahaina Luau (OLL), the Wailele Polynesian luau at the Westin Hotel in Lahaina, and the Feast at Lele. While there are others, those seemed to me to be the top three.

On, then, to my preferred criteria.

I prefer to attend an event that is smaller and more intimate. An OLL representative told me they host about 480 people each night, while a concierge at the Westin said its luau accommodates about 300 people. When I called the Feast at Lele, which is the ancient name for Lahaina, I was told that it is the smallest luau on the island, with a maximum capacity of 190.


Seating is another area where the luaus differ. OLL and Westin seat guests at tables of about eight guests, which is more appealing to us than large communal tables, while Lele assigns parties private tables based on the number of guests in the party.

Tables for eight are very common in such settings, and that can add to or detract from the experience; it depends on the people with whom you’re seated. If you’re a couple, like we are, and are seated with a family of six who talk only amongst themselves, you could wind up feeling quite isolated. On the other hand, if four couples are seated together, there’s a pretty good chance of some good conversation (before the show starts, of course!).

I prefer table service over buffets, and that proved the tougher macadamia nut to crack. Both OLL and the Westin offer buffet service for dinner; only Lele offers table service for its meals. All offer table service for beverages.

The least important consideration was the price. Not that “money is no object,” but the prices are all pretty close.

Old Lahaina Luau is $110 per adult (as of May 2016), plus tax, for seating at tables of eight to nine guests. “Traditional seating” is also offered. It is closer to the front and guests sit “cross-legged on cushions at low tables,” according to OLL’s web site, though price is the same for either style of seating. The Feast at Lele is $135 per adult, plus  tax. Guests who book online have the option of prepaying a gratuity. Gratuities are not required for parties of fewer than 10, which is a fairly standard practice. The Westin luau is $135, plus tax, for premium seating (in the first three rows, and entry 15 minutes before other guests), and $125 for standard seating.

OLL assigns seats based on the date they’re purchased, so the earlier you purchase, the closer to the front you’ll be. Guests who choose the Westin’s premium seating gain access to the luau grounds 15 minutes earlier than those who opt for standard seating, which the Westin describes as “open seating, row four and back.” That description conjures up an image of a mad rush for the best seats rather than leisurely finding your assigned seats.

All three luaus have open bars and promote their “signature” island drinks, including Mai Tais, Blue Hawaiis, and other similar offerings as well as beer, wine, and soft drinks. Lele also offers wine pairings with each course of the five-course meal.

After considering all the things that are important to us, I chose to book our luau at the Feast at Lele. And while I will not be able to “compare and contrast,” I will report on our experience at Lele.


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Photos by Carl Dombek
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