Is the Polynesian Cultural Center a tourist trap?
Let me explain first what it is, in the words of the PCC themselves: “The purpose of the Polynesian Cultural Center is three-fold: 1) to protect and promote the beautiful cultures of Polynesia; 2) to support our student workers as they gain a degree that will assist them and their home nations to progress and thrive; and 3) to share the spirit of aloha with the world.” It has been run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints since 1963. Brigham Young University – Hawaii is next to the PCC.
Simply put, there are six Polynesian “islands” to move through in the afternoon, a buffet dinner or a luau, and an evening show. The villages are Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fiji, and Hawai’i. There are also tourist shops, food trucks, and restaurants in the front.
The first village we visited was Samoa. We watched a funny guy splitting coconuts (he had a lot of good jokes), another shimmying up a palm tree lickety-split for said coconuts, and another making a dish out of green bananas and coconut milk. It would be like mashed potatoes, he said. It had to cook over a fire. We didn’t get back to Samoa for a sample.
Each island has a presentation, either on the hour or half hour. You can wander around in between, but you really get a feel for everything by attending as many island presentations as possible. When I started paying attention to the schedule, it was easier to figure out what to do.
In another island we watched a “villager” make poi out of taro. Taro is still a staple on the islands and it is a root vegetable comparable to potatoes. Poi is baked taro pounded to a paste. I had a sample and it’s pretty bland.
On the island of Hawai’i, there were young male hula dancers to watch. As explained, their dance was pre-European contact, which meant no ukeleles. They were accompanied by vigorous drumming.
Also on Hawaii, we looked at the Iosepa (Joseph). It is a 57 foot double hulled sailing canoe, made for the open sean, which was built by two master carvers with assistance by Brigham Young students. The voyage to Hawai’i by ancient Polynesians was 2,400 miles long and was accomplished by canoes such as this, called a wa’a kaulua. The canoe is navigated only by the stars and has been out to sea. It was huge, and I couldn’t stand anywhere to get a picture of the whole thing.
We walked by a chief’s hut and stopped in:
On the wall were pictures of past Hawai’ian kings and the queen:
We hopped on a “canoe” for a ride through the islands.
In Tahiti, we attended a wedding ceremony and renewed our vows. Our own tradition in weddings is to say “Yes, I will take you to be my spouse”. In Tahiti the question is “Will you ever leave this woman you love?” and the answer is “No!” We were in the back of the crowd, so there are no pictures, but I did get one of the band, and the priest after the ceremony.
Tonga is the only island out of the six that was never colonized by any other country. We listened to drumming there, although I was a little disappointed that they used mostly audience participation for their presentation.
We looked at some native Tonga crafts:
We had purchased a package which included entrance to the islands, a buffet dinner, and the evening show. Another option was to attend a luau. We passed on the luau not only because it was so expensive, but also because we were planning to go to a luau elsewhere. I later heard, though, that the PCC’s luau is the one in all the islands that is most culturally authentic. Maybe another time.
I have no idea what was on my buffet plate. I tried everything that I was unfamiliar with along with some macaroni and cheese in case the native foods didn’t pan out. As it happened, I was too full to eat the mac and cheese. I tried some different types of poke. By Merriam Webster’s definition, poke is a Hawaiian salad made typically from cubed pieces of raw seafood (such as tuna) marinated with soy sauce and sesame oil and mixed with onions or other ingredients. I had a fish poke, and a shrimp poke. Along with that, there was some ahi sashimi (raw tuna), a guava roll, and a whole lot of other stuff that I don’t remember the names of. It was all delicious.
The evening show as called “Ha (line over the a) – Breath of Life”. There were no pictures allowed so I have uploaded a picture of the program. The story line of the show follows a young boy from birth through his life. Each stage of life is on one of the six islands. It was a great show. The dancing, songs, and special effects were beautiful. There were fire dancers, fire eaters, and an act where they were jumping and sitting on fire, putting the fires out. How did they do that? The boy was in Tahiti when he married, so there was the Tahitian wedding ceremony. There was hula dancing, of course. 400 different costumes are worn nightly.
Back to my original question: is the PCC a tourist trap? When I was looking for more detail on it, I read just a few negative reviews on Trip Advisor that called it that. Most reviews were overwhelmingly positive. It’s not an inexpensive day, but the buffet and show are, in my opinion, top quality and great entertainment. If you just skim the surface of the various islands, or visit the shops at the front of the complex, you might think it is. I learned a lot, though, and appreciated both the professionalism and the effort to keep these cultures alive in an authentic way. Plus, it was just a lot of fun!
Next time: Diamond Head