The Vacation Gals’ guest contributor Kim Tracy Prince was treated to a day of fun and festivities at the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. The Polynesian Cultural Center can be a historically and culturally enriching part of Oahu family travel.
Where in the world can you learn to hula, make fire (or at least try to), peel bananas with men wearing skirts, taste exotic foods, learn new things, make your own lei, and say “aloha” about 4,000 times in one day? Only at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. The Polynesian Cultural Center is like the Disneyland of Pacific island culture. Arranged in theme park style with different areas representing each of the island cultures that most influenced Hawaii’s history and population, the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center invites you to spend a day – or several – observing each island’s traditions in hands-on ways. The overall experience is a family-friendly interactive adventure that you can take in at your own pace.
Everyone who works at the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center and represents a certain island culture is actually from that island. In addition to Hawaiian natives, young men and women travel from the islands of Polynesia that are recreated here – Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji, New Zealand, and the Marquesas – either with their families as children or to attend the Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University down the street. In fact, most of the staff at the Polynesian Cultural Center attends school, so the center is only open from noon to five o’clock, giving them the flexible schedule they need to keep up with their classes.
Because native islanders inform the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center, everything in each exhibit is absolutely authentic, from the pattern of the weave in the thatched roofs of the Fijian homes to the traditional dress worn by Samoan men, who do all the cooking while women tend to the home and children. Every facility and all of the equipment are painstakingly maintained – on our writers’ behind-the-scenes tour before the center’s operating hours began, we witnessed the careful grooming of the ample flora on the grounds, as well as minor repairs and cleaning.
The attention to detail and the authentic recreation of native lands are all efforts to make visitors feel like they are getting a true taste of what it is like to visit the actual islands. And while this “theme park” doesn’t have roller coasters, exactly, it does strive to give guests unique experiences suited to each island. For example, in the Samoa area you can witness and help with the preparation of the main family meal. Staff also gives a comic demonstration of the many ways the young men acquire, process, and use coconuts – from climbing up a very tall palm tree to making a fire from two sticks of a hibiscus plant. This is another thing that guests can try, although I can tell you from experience that it takes some serious upper body strength to get a spark flying, something that the staff here seems to have in spades.
At the Hawaiian exhibit our group sat quietly for 45 minutes, learning to make traditional leis using dendrobium orchids, string, and lei needles. We learned that it is common in Hawaii to make a fresh lei as an expression of love. The work was surprisingly soothing and gave this merry band of travelers a moment of rest in an otherwise packed schedule. We even got to keep our leis and wear them to adorn us during our very special hula lesson.
One way to get your lei of the land, so to speak, is to watch the daily canoe parade, in which performers from each island exhibit ride on a flat canoe along the waterways that snake through the park. They stop for guests at different points along the way, each boat performing traditional dances and songs from their respective islands. And the thing is, these performers either grew up learning these songs and dances or eventually learned them from their cultural elders. Every performance was captivating, and with the brilliantly colorful traditional dress and the lush background of the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center property, the entire show is a heady mix of sound and color that will make you want to hop on a plane and go to one of those islands right now. But since you probably can’t, this would be a good time to pick your favorite island and walk a little way to that exhibit to see more.
At the Tahiti exhibit, an islander explains that Tahiti itself is but a small collection of tiny islands within a larger collection of tiny islands that I had never even heard of. Color me the clueless mainlander. In the New Zealand area, the Maori tribespeople of Aotearoa demonstrated a traditional – and very formal – ceremony in which a neighboring tribe visits a village. Later, guests got to play with some really cool sticks.
Guests are often invited into the demonstrations at the island exhibits, and one nice thing I noticed during my visit was that every guest who was made into a volunteer was quite game for whatever the staff threw at them. In the village of Tonga, the three men who were pulled up on stage for the drum show either made for great comedy or some surprisingly pro drumming. Entire tour groups threw their hips into an authentic hula lesson, accompanied by a minstrel with a ukelele. After the lecture in the main hall within the Tahiti exhibit, a man selected from the audience by one of the dancers was – surprise! – pretty skilled at the dance already!
Everywhere you look there is something to investigate. But since there are only 5 operating hours in a day at the Oahu Polynesian Cultural Center, you’ll want to come back later for dinner and a show. After all, these are cultures whose traditions are rich with delicious food and impressive performing talents. The Polynesian Cultural Center puts on a luau every evening in a large fixed structure dining hall of sorts. Since the Polynesian Cultural Center is owned by Brigham Young University, which is a Mormon school, no alcohol is served on the premises – even during the luau. But the kahlua pig is succulent and the long rice chicken noodles – clear noodles that taste just like chicken soup but without the broth – are as captivating as the delightful show. The length of the luau is just right for you to regain some energy after a day of walking around the Center in the Hawaiian sun.
And then there will be “Ha: The Breath of Life,” the Polynesian Cultural Center’s most recent evening show spectacle which opened for nightly performances in 2011. The show is a luau on steroids and without the food. Performed in an outdoor amphitheater with torches lit on the perimeter and a waterfall as the backdrop, “Ha” is a story of one man’s life, woven through his experiences living on each of six Polynesian islands. Birth, death, love, and war are represented in dance and song from each of the cultures and with over 100 performers, who are all incredibly athletic and wonderful. The show’s finale is an elaborate fire-knife dance, during which you are absolutely sure that someone is going to burst into flames at any second.
But they don’t. So you get to leave the show after a happy ending, with all the time in the world to browse through the Polynesian Cultural Center’s shops and carts of goods that are set up in the middle of the plaza for just this kind of thing.
As with visits to other theme parks, you might find it difficult to experience everything at the Polynesian Cultural Center in one visit, especially if you have children with you. But it’s nice to take your time and talk to the staff, experience the interactive offerings like hula lessons and canoe-paddling, and come away with a new appreciation for the way people in other cultures live their lives.
Basic pricing for admission to the Polynesian Cultural Center is $49.95 per adult or $35.95 per child 5-11 for a day pass. Luau, “Ha: the Breath of Life,” and optional tour guides or bus tours of the island are separate, but discounts are available for packages of two or more options. Parking is $8 per day. Dining during the day is found at snack shacks and the main dining hall for lunch. Don’t miss the mango otai sold at a tiny stand in the Tongan exhibit – it’s a little cup of heaven made from mango, coconut cream, water, and crushed ice.
Kim Tracy Prince was hosted on this trip by the Polynesian Cultural Center and Turtle Bay Resort for the purpose of this feature. Kim is a blogger and web producer in Los Angeles who writes about her adventures as a wife and mother at House of Prince.