The Polynesian Cultural Center is one of the most visited attractions in Hawaii. It features exhibits and displays on six different Polynesian island cultures, including Hawaii, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga.
Established in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center is located on the northeast side of the island of Oahu. It was founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a way to preserve Polynesian culture. It also gives students at nearby Brigham Young University – Hawaii a way to earn money. Indeed, most of the employees and performers at the center are students at the adjacent college.
While this is certainly not the most authentic way to learn about Polynesian culture, it is probably the closest most Americans will ever get to experiencing the culture of these islands other than Hawaii.
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Our Experience at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Exploring the Grounds
Located about an hour from Honolulu, the Polynesian Cultural Center is a sprawling campus with almost a Disney-like feel to it.
As we wandered to our first show, the over-manicured grounds and faux rocks and waterfalls felt very much like going to the various countries at Disney World’s EPCOT. Each Polynesian island group had a mock-up of a traditional village.
To rest your feet, you can take a canoe ride down the “river” running through the middle of the park. We were planning on catching the canoe but, as the day went on, the lines got longer. And, honestly, the distances weren’t so far that the walking got to be too much for us.
While the center felt very much like a theme park, save the canoe, there are no rides. Instead, there are shows to enjoy.
Viewing the Shows
There is a show schedule that will have you wandering from one village to the next checking out the various exhibitions. Each show highlighted part of the culture of the particular Polynesian island it represented. It appeared, at least, that all the performers for each show were native to the islands they represented.
Each of the shows was good. We enjoyed the performances and appreciated learning about the various aspects which made these cultures distinctive from each other.
The shows also included quite a bit of audience participation. This was a welcome way to not only get us on our feet but also help us feel like we were part of the show itself.
Other Exhibitions at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Aside from the main shows, each of the village areas has activities and demonstrations which are smaller, more intimate and offer a more nuanced view of the culture and its practices.
We made a point to see the Aotearoan demonstration of how to use one of their war club as well as a demonstration of the Haka, a traditional Maori war dance.
We also found several exhibits at each of the villages on how they built their homes and the significance of various items in their culture. There is even a robust exhibit on how the Polynesians made use of large outrigger-style sailing vessels to travel thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to visit and trade with various islands.
Planning Your Visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center
The center is open from 12:30 p.m.-6 p.m. every day but Sunday and offers several different options for your visit. You can opt for tickets to just see the Polynesian Cultural Center or you can opt to stay later and see the luau show, “HA: Breath of Life.” This show is a mix of dances and performances from across the islands, as opposed to most Hawaiian luaus which focus on Hawaiian culture.
From there, you can decide to add dinner: a buffet of traditional Hawaiian cuisine or a luau dinner, depending on how much you want to spend.
Since we had already done a luau at Experience Nutridge, we opted to just enjoy the grounds of the center. The biggest reasons we chose not to do the luau at the center are: 1) no alcohol served (we do enjoy a cocktail!), 2) It would have made for a very long day, and 3) we didn’t want to drive back to our hotel that late.
That said, we have heard excellent things about the luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center and would certainly consider doing the luau and show in the future.
Pro Tip: Download the app for the Polynesian Cultural Center, which allows you to plan out your visit to the center in advance. Just make sure to double-check the times on the app for shows vs the brochure you get when you arrive.
Where to Eat Lunch Before You Go
Since the center does not open until 12:30, it gives you the opportunity to eat lunch on the North Shore before arriving. While there are restaurants at the center outside in the market area, we found two great options for lunch not far from the center.
The first, Keneke’s Grill at Punaluu, is located about 10 minutes south of the center. Don’t let the hole-in-the-wall appearance fool you! The food is absolutely amazing. We both got the kalua pork plate and it was DELICIOUS! Our biggest regret was not being able to take the leftovers home with us… There was so much food! If you go, be sure to check the patio out back for amazing views of the mountains.
The second recommendation for lunch is Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku, about 10 minutes north of the center. This food truck is famous for its shrimp scampi, with a dozen, large shrimp coated in garlic and olive oil. Bonnie got the scampi, while I got the hot and spicy shrimp. Both were great but the hot and spicy is not for the faint of heart.
Final Thoughts on the Polynesian Cultural Center
The Polynesian Cultural Center is a good way to experience the culture of the Pacific Islands without actually traveling to them.
Can you find better ways to experience and learn about Hawaiian culture while on Oahu? Absolutely. Can you find better ways to experience the other islands highlighted at the center? Not nearly as easily.
Did the Polynesian Cultural Center feel a bit like visiting a theme park? Yes, it did. I know that can be off-putting to some folks but the polish of the exhibits and the excellent attempt to immerse visitors in a village on a far-off island did make for a good experience.
The performers felt genuine and, while it did feel like I was in Polynesian Disney World, I also felt I learned a lot and enjoyed the performances I saw.
Was it worth it? Yes. Would I go back? Perhaps to see the luau and the show but, otherwise, once was enough.
Need more help planning your visit to Hawaii? Check out all of our articles on visiting Oahu and Maui:
- Best Places to Go on Oahu
- Planning the Perfect Oahu Itinerary
- Visiting Pearl Harbor
- A Night at the Experience Nutridge Luau
- Driving the Road to Hana on Maui
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