Tourism is the lava that keeps Hawaii molten, but a traditional “road trip” is impractical. The rest of the world can’t drive to it, and the island chain refuses to be joined by tunnels. There are no billboards (by law) or reptile ranches (snakes forbidden!), but Hawaii does have one massive, classic roadside attraction. On Oahu, Hawaii’s most populous and commercial landmass, many visitors make the hour-plus pilgrimage from Honolulu to the northeast shore’s Polynesian Cultural Center.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is made up of eight replica “villages” that showcase the separate strains of island peoples and culture from the Pacific Ocean region known as the Polynesian Triangle.
Every day (closed Sundays) each village repeats a routine of arts and crafts demonstrations, acrobatic feats and musical performances specific to their regions — a concentrated dose of costumed culture, perhaps not as unfamiliar as before Survivor.
Some Village activities are more kinetic and interactive –- fire walking, spear throwing, a guy in bare feet climbing a tree in three seconds. There are regular performances of Tongan drumming. Other programs may have the feel of a class lecture, an excuse to sit down for 20 minutes. Sprinkled among the villages are static exhibits – original outriggers, a Rapa Nui line of moai statues.
Simulated Polynesia is brought to life by something like 1,300 employees. The characters in native dress are often students attending college at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, which owns the 42-acre living museum (and is connected with the LDS Church, long-standing missionaries). The PCC has been in operation since 1963 and has been Hawaii’s number one paid admission attraction since 1977.
Admission isn’t cheap for any of the activity packages, but for first-time Oahu visitors a Cultural Center package is often part of the family fun budget (One time- and money-saving tactic is to spend the day driving around the island, arriving at the Cultural Center at 5 pm for a discounted package. This provides just enough time to see a village or two, feast at the luau, and settle in for the spectacular evening show).
For the full-day experience, the PCC offers scheduled events and demonstrations in each village — tiki carving, coconut husking, simulated pig hunting — all the essentials. Villages connect by winding paths through a tropical landscape. A map aids in distinguishing one subtle Polynesian flavor from the next – learn to not confuse a Fijian spirit house with a Tongan royal summer palace. Large canoes maneuver up and down the central waterway, filled with tourists, and propelled by jovial guides who ask where you’re from or repeat well-worn canoe jokes.
Like any good tourist attraction, the Polynesian Cultural Center doesn’t miss opportunities to sell things – souvenirs, gift items, pieces of art. Pretty much anything with a tiki on it is available.
Because large bus tour groups fill the park, carefully executed luau logistics guarantee that everyone gets their fair share of roasted pig and purple taro rolls. Visitors enter their authentic luau assembly area, stopping to pose for a photo (later available for purchase). Several dining areas seat hundreds at a time; each presents a dancing show while the audience enjoys their buffet feast.
After the luau, park visitors assemble for the nighttime spectacle over at the Horizons amphitheater. The music and dance extravaganza during our visit was “Ha – Breath of Life.” The warrior coming-of-age tale features an original music score, sophisticated lighting and effects, choreographed with its masses of young men and maidens.
The show is as extras-crowded as any Latter Day Passion Play (and a lot more lively), and mixes the décor, dress and customs you’ve been looking at all day in the Villages. Throughout your entire PCC experience you’ll gaze on plenty of rippled male abs, but no females in true attire (a traditional Hawaiian hula dancer would wear only a lei and a tapa skirt. Actually, you probably won’t see that anywhere in Hawaii). “Ha” is more Orlando Disney than Vegas Cirque du Soleil, entirely family appropriate.
“Ha’s” nightly crowd pleaser is the legendary fire knife dance. The “knife” is set on fire at both ends and twirled in elaborate shows of acrobatics. The experts flawlessly sustain the pyrotechnic act for long stretches. It’s the Hawaiian equivalent of a fireworks finale.