In this post, we will review Paradise Cove Luau, and compare it to other luau options in Oahu, Hawaii. We’ll share photos from our experience, discuss whether we think the luau offered good value for money, and provide some other tips and thoughts about attending a ‘traditional’ Hawaiian luau in Oahu.
If you’re like us, the first thing you probably should know is the price. Most luau in Oahu range in price from just under $100 per person to over $200 per person depending upon which luau and package you choose. These high prices might make a luau a total non-starter. (We can relate–we didn’t bite the bullet and do a luau until our third trip to Hawaii as adults.)
Next, let’s turn to choosing which luau is right for you. If you’re spending that much money, you no doubt want the “best” one in Oahu. The only options with which I have personal experience are Paradise Cove and Polynesian Cultural Center, but I’ve done plenty of research on other luaus on Oahu, Hawaii. Here’s what I’ve found…
In addition to the aforementioned Oahu luaus, there’s also the Royal Luau at The Royal Hawaiian, Ka Wa’a Luau at Disney’s Aulani Resort, Chief’s Luau, Waikiki Starlight Luau at Hilton Hawaiian Village, and Te Moana Nui at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel. Of these, the ones you’ll hear by far the most about are Paradise Cove and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
When it comes to choosing a luau, one word you’ll see in the marketing for all of them is authentic. Each pitches itself as this, likely because the pendulum of Hawaii’s tourists have swung from wanting a kitschy, tiki-inspired experience to something real. Personally, I think this is a great thing; while I enjoy tiki culture, I much prefer authentic culture, especially in such a culturally-rich place like Hawaii.
The “problem,” if you want to call it that, is that most people attending luaus (myself included) are not capable of commenting on authenticity. I have no clue whether to take each luau’s claim about authenticity at face value, or question whether they have savvily determined what tourists most want to see, and then just labeled that as authentic, knowing those same tourists wouldn’t know any better. (Google is no help in answering this question, as most results lead back to the luaus’ own marketing claims.)
I’m inclined to believe the Polynesian Cultural Center is the most authentic luau on Oahu (or perhaps their marketing has just worked on me!). This is given the amount of other offerings they have to supplement the main luau. I remember attending the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center when I was younger, and really enjoying it. I don’t remember all of the particulars, but I recalled there being a lot of stuff before and in addition to the main luau.
Additionally, I attended the Starlit Hui at Disney’s Aulani Resort when that was offered, prior to their offering of a full-scale luau, Ka Wa’a (which is new as of the last year). Based upon my experience at Starlit Hui, a really beautiful show, Ka Wa’a was actually our first choice for a luau. Unfortunately, the only night it was being shown when we were in Oahu was our arrival day, which didn’t work. (Currently, Ka Wa’a only 2 nights per week.)
Based upon my experience at Starlit Hui, the commitment to cultural authenticity at Aulani, and Disney’s overall production quality, I’m just as inclined to recommend Ka Wa’a sight-unseen as I am any of the other luaus. Of course, I have not experienced it myself–so I don’t really know.
Overall, as a tourist without much insight into authentic Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, I think you’re going to have a difficult time ascertaining what is and is not authentic (if that mattered to you in the first place), and will probably have an enjoyable time at any of Oahu’s luaus.
Polynesian Cultural Center is probably going to offer the most bang for your buck (assuming you want to explore its villages and other offerings), making that a good pick. All of them have pretty positive reviews, so if you’re only concerned about the dinner show, choosing the one that is most convenient to you might make the most sense.
Paradise Cove Review & Tips
We were spending the day at Disney’s Aulani Resort, so choosing Paradise Cove on the basis of convenience (it’s a 5-minute walk from Aulani) made the most sense to us. I’m satisfied with the experience, as we spent nearly 4 hours at Paradise Cove, and had an enjoyable experience.
Let’s start the review with the grounds at Paradise Cove. The venue felt a bit to me like something out of the 1970s. From the design-style to the font used, it just had that type of look. This look is common throughout Hawaii, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. For a luau, it’s better than an ultra-modern design.
It also didn’t really matter, given that it’s a mostly open-air, beach-front location where the emphasis is on the ocean as a backdrop. The upside to this is obviously the beautiful views of the ocean and sunset. The downside, as compared to something like the Polynesian Cultural Center, is that the substance beyond the luau is sparse. Pretty much the only public buildings here are a gift shop, restrooms, and a bar-window.
If you’re staying in Waikiki without a rental car, Paradise Cove experience starts with being picked up at your hotel around 4 p.m. We didn’t use the shuttle, but we saw guests coming in by the busload as we arrived–guests staying in Waikiki clearly make up a good portion (the majority, probably) of Paradise Cove’s attendance.
The experience itself starts around 5 p.m., with the Aloha Mai Tai Greeting, arrival photos, live Hawaiian music & dancers, Hawaiian games, arts & crafts, Pareo demonstration, a shower of flowers, Hukilau on the water, Imu ceremony, and prayer.
All of this was a nice pre-show of sorts, and had a convivial atmosphere that felt almost like being at a backyard luau among friends. This vibe coupled with the sunset on the ocean in the background made for a really enjoyable experience.
After this, the feast begins! As with most luau in Hawaii, the dinner component at Paradise Cove is a buffet. There isn’t a ton of variety on the buffet, but you have some salads, salmon, mahi mahi, chicken breast, vegetables, poi, and desserts. Poi is a must-try, if only to say you’ve had it.
If I’m being generous, I’d say I thought the food was mediocre (and I’m normally pretty forgiving with buffet-food), with one exception: the kalua pork. Since part of the luau experience is the imu (underground oven) where a pig is cooked, kalua prok is probably the main dish at every luau in Hawaii.
As such, it’s probably generally going to be the best dish, and what you should focus on if you like pork, at any luau. The kalua pork at Paradise Cove was fantastic (we had delicious kalua pork throughout Hawaii–it’s a great dish) so I focused on that and the fresh pineapple. After my first small plate sampling everything, my second plate was piled-high with nothing but pork and pineapple.
Food is put away prior to the start of the main show, so I stockpiled pork at the last minute to enjoy during the show. So long as you like pork, it can be a great meal. (By the end of the night, my mouth actually burned a bit from the acidity of the pineapple.)
At 8 p.m., the main show lasting 45 minutes begins. It’s essentially a Hawaiian revue, separated into a number of segments. We had purchased the cheapest package possible, and had seats along the side wing as a result. These were perfectly fine for seeing the show; it’s large but sufficiently intimate that you aren’t having to squint from the cheap sets.
This location was terrible for photos–for all of the photos in this post, I stood behind the preferred seating area in the back of the house for a centered view. This turned out to be a great spot, and was right in front of an elevated terrace (called the “Royal Box”) with a perfectly-centered view. I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view behind me (they were elevated), and I stood in this spot for about half the show without anyone saying anything–and numerous staff members passed me, so clearly they did not care. I’d recommend this if you want photos but cheap out on seats like we did.
As for the main show, it was incredibly enjoyable. Very high energy and the performers were quite talented. My guess is that there were around 20 performers, who alternated on stage based upon the act. The pacing is excellent, with a mix of fast-paced Tahitian fast hip dances and romantic hula. And, of course, fire dancers, which are about the coolest thing ever.
If I had kids, I might be concerned that they’d lose steam by the main show (especially considering that at the main show’s start time, it’s after midnight Eastern…), but nothing wakes you up like some good ole fashioned fire dancing. Plus, the show moves quickly-enough that it remains very engaging throughout.
As for the authenticity, again, that’s beyond my expertise. I found the shows to be captivating, impressive, and the production quality was high. I’d like to think it was an authentic slice of Hawaiian culture, but I don’t really know.
Part of the package we booked included preloaded cards with $12 in value on them, which most people use for drinks. We did not, but not wanting that money to go to waste, we raced to the gift shop on the way out (as did many, many others) to use the cards. Everything in there was way overpriced, so we ended up with a surplus of reusable shopping bags, which were $3 each. (Not really germane to the review, but an “idea” for a way to use those gift cards if you don’t spend them on drinks.)
Overall, we had a great evening at Paradise Cove, and I’m glad we opted to experience it. On previous trips to Hawaii the last couple of years, we elected not to do any luau, instead doing Aulani’s (free) Starlit Hui. While I still think that was a great, free alternative, there is definitely something to be said for a fleshed-out luau. We still balked at the price this time, and almost did not do it, but I ultimately found the experience to offer reasonable value for money. (Sarah would go a step further and call it “really good value,” but I would not.) These luau seem to be a quintessential experience for tourists to Hawaii, and if you’re visiting–particularly if it’s a bucket list trip–you probably should spend the money and do one of them.
If you’re planning a visit to the Big Island or Oahu, please check out my other posts about Hawaii for ideas of things to do. There are a ton of incredible, under-the-radar experiences in Hawaii, and I highly recommend the Oahu Revealed Guide. It’s written by a Hawaii resident, and is far better than other books we’ve read.
Have you done any of the luau in Oahu? If so, which one(s)? Would you recommend them? If you’re a local, is there any one of them you’d recommend as being more authentic than the others? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Please feel free to ask any questions you might have or share additional thoughts in the comments!