Visitors taking in one of Hawaii's many excellent luaus generally enjoy a colorful evening of Polynesian-inspired pageantry, dance and songs borrowed from many different cultures throughout the Pacific.
The folks at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, however, have decided to take their story in a distinctly different direction. In fact, they're not even calling the property's weekly show a luau anymore.
"Before luaus there were aha aina: feasts of food, mele [song] and hula," said Kelly Hoen, general manager of the Royal Hawaiian, a member property of Starwood Hotels & Resorts' Luxury Collection. "We have created a modern, yet timeless aha aina to honor [Waikiki's] majestic history through food, song, stories, hula and culture."
Hoen grew up on Oahu, and her family's history in the state spans four generations, so when it came time to revamp the Royal Hawaiian's luau during the property's seven-month, $110 million renovation in 2008, she and her team developed a performance that told a primarily Hawaiian story.
"It was really important to me that we continue to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture," Hoen said. "And at the same time, we really wanted to focus on the history of this location."
Beginning with a look back at the Waikiki of centuries past, the Royal's Aha Aina opens with several arts-and-crafts stations where guests can learn about steaming and pounding poi from taro roots, making and dying kappa -- cloth fashioned from mulberry bark -- and na lawaia, the Hawaiian art of fishing.
From there, guests enjoy an intimate, full-service, four-course meal accompanied by all sorts of Waikiki tales woven by the evening's master storyteller. Starters, featuring fresh fish, poi and island-grown vegetables, are followed by a local lobster entree. Shortly after dessert (a collection of chocolates, pineapple and tropically flavored creme brulee), the stage show begins.
From King Kamehameha's late-18th century warriors and the exquisitely costumed, Victorian-era alii, or royalty, to a swinging, World War II-era dance routine and the flirtatious Beach Boy review, the entire Tihati Productions' performance is a snapshot of Waikiki's history, covering the better part of two centuries.
"In talking with different guests who've gone, it's clear they identify with different aspects of the show, and so I love that it really is cross-generational," Hoen said. "Young kids love it because it's just lots of fun and excitement, and people of different ages really seem to identify with different things, and that's been really fun to see."
The Royal Hawaiian's Aha Aina is held every Monday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. before the property's iconic backdrop of Waikiki Beach and Diamondhead. The event is priced at $175 for adults and $75 for children ages 5 to 12.