Polynesian Cultural Center -- it's the real thing


HONOLULU -- You won't find Las Vegas-style hula shows served up with neon "grass" skirts and coconut-shell tops at the Polynesian Cultural Center -- and that's the point.

The center, 40 years old in 2003 and billed as the No. 1 paid visitor attraction in Hawaii, strives to create a more authentic glimpse into the lives and history of the Polynesian islands than those old stereotypes, while at the same time offering island dancing, colorful costumes and even a traditional luau.

The center, known to locals as the PCC, represents seven island destinations in all -- the Hawaiian Islands; Fiji; New Zealand; the Marquesas; Samoa; Tahiti; and Tonga -- complete with re-created villages, native plants and a man-made lagoon.

New this year is an Easter Island exhibit, known as Rapa Nui, where master rock carvers are on hand to demonstrate authentic methods of Maori carving to visitors.

But while the PCC experience is worthy and educational, is it also fun enough to tempt families with children? That's what I aimed to discover as I set out with my 10-year-old daughter during a recent visit.

Somewhat daunted by the center's size -- there are 42 acres and not a water slide in sight -- we studied the layout and made a plan of attack designed to offer fun and relaxation with a minimum of crankiness and sore feet.

We discovered at the outset that the PCC was nowhere near our Waikiki hotel. In fact, it's on Oahu's North Shore, located, depending upon traffic, at least an hour away.

Packaged tours to the PCC abound, however, and motorcoach transportation is available from Waikiki for $11 per person.

Another option is to drive, which we did, taking time to hug the coast and picnic at some of the island's most beautiful beaches along the way.

Upon arrival, we found that parking is free and plentiful, and the newly refurbished entrance resembles that of a well-run theme park with a Polynesian decor.

Because the center is so large and because each village offers attractions we didn't want to miss, we began with a 15-minute guided canoe ride, which starts near the main entrance and drops you at the Islands of the Marquesas village, the farthest point away.

On the way back to the canoe landing, we explored activities at the various villages, taking special note of the children's, or keiki's, programs offered for junior visitors.

In the Fiji village, for example, children can play i cibi, a traditional game of marbles and shuffleboard. In New Zealand, kids can decorate their faces with ta moko facial tattoos like Maori warriors; in Hawaii, they can play ulu maika, a kind of bowling with stone disks; and in Samoa they can learn to make fire by rubbing two sticks together with coconut fibers for tinder.

Tahitian fishing, Tonga juggling and Marquesas-style weaving round out the children's offerings -- more than you could do in one day.

Our plan was to head back to the canoe ride entrance by 2:30 p.m. to see the Rainbows of Paradise Canoe Pageant parade in all its glory. The trick is to find some shade -- it pays to get there early and stake out your spot. Once we'd done so, we found that the pageant gave us a chance to see the performers from each village as they, in essence, came to us.

The way it works is that each village is represented by a float on which dancers in traditional costume dance, accompanied by a live band.

To get out of the sun, we then ducked into the Imax theater, Hawaii's first, for a film called "Dolphins," which follows the lives and work of two marine biologists and their underwater dolphin friends.

We followed this up with a shaved ice, which newcomers to Hawaii would probably find similar to a snow cone -- but with more exotic flavorings.

Tell clients to stay for the new Ali'i Lu'au, which features cultural demonstrations, a predinner hula show and a buffet with traditional Hawaiian foods. Don't expect anything gourmet here, but the food is plentiful and kid-friendly.

A highlight was the "Horizons" night show in the Pacific Theater amphitheater, complete with dancing, music, narration and fire-knife dancers with show-stopping antics. More than 100 performers take part, wearing 600 or so costumes created with an eye to the authentic garb of each island.

The PCC is a nonprofit venture established by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and employs about 70% of its staff from Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

Polynesian Cultural Center
55-370 Kamehameha Highway, La'ie, Hawaii
Phone: (800) 367-7060
E-mail:[email protected]

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