Visiting Hawaii’s Polynesian Cultural Center

Our recent trip to Hawaii (Oahu) was memorable, made all the more so by a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center on the island’s North Shore. Given all there is to do in Hawaii, it’s easy to overlook the PCC – but DON’T; it’s well worth the trip.

We were staying in Waikiki and traveling to the PCC is not a short hop away. Driving is quicker than public transportation. But we chose a guided tour and our bus driver picked us up right outside our hotel. One of the positive aspects of booking a tour is that it is so easy to do (I booked online long before we arrived in Hawaii using the PCC’s very informative website). A tour is also good because it saves the hassle of driving the distance to the Center and the bus ride is replete with a guide that provided lots of information about the Center and Hawaii in general – something that made the lengthy drive seem shorter. Did you know a nearby Hawaiian valley was the filming location where the original Jurassic Park movies were filmed?

Credit: The Writin’ CowboyStudent-Operated

A little known factoid about the PCC is that it is run by Brigham Young University and most of the people working there are students at the nearby BYU Hawaii campus. All the tour guides are students – and a very enthusiastic group they are. Our guide, “Stop” Khemthorn, comes from Thailand. His name, he says, was given because he was an only child and so satisfied were his parents they said ‘stop’ after he was born, forswearing any more children. Hard to tell if some of this is true but it quickly broke the ice in terms of getting acquainted. “Stop” kept reminding us that we in his group were all now “Ohana” – Hawaiian for family. The students are very enthusiastic – at times too much so. But they work hard – three days a week plus classes – with their wages going to pay some of their tuition.

Credit: The Writin’ CowboyThe PCC is particularly beautiful and well kept, but the five-hour guided tour can be difficult given the warmth and humidity typical for Hawaii (in addition to the tour we opted for staying for the evening stage show, “HA: The Breath of Life.” So, our bus ride back to our hotel meant our day ended at 11 p.m. Whew!) This is something to consider when you are planning your visit. It’s also important to remember to bring water with you or stock up at the snack bars around the park. Dehydration is easy in this humidity and will drain you quickly. We learned our lesson the hard way – having to sit through a couple of activities later in the day because we failed to drink enough and found ourselves out of energy.

The PCC can also be very commercial (although it’s officially a non-profit). At every turn and at every opportunity there is something being sold, some trinket, or some extra item. Even the picture taking gets out of hand – of course you have to pay to get a print of the photo (such as standing with students dressed in native regalia). But these irritations aside the Center, the tour and the evening stage show are quite amazing. It is a very interesting place and worth visiting.

Cost of Tours

As we entered the PCC we were quickly met by Center guides who took us quickly through the process of getting name tags, signing up for additional perks – such as the stage show, for those who hadn’t already done so online – etc. and then we were off and running with ‘Stop’ on our tour of the Center. The package tour we chose was comprehensive. It includes lunch and dinner and quick access to many of the sites, complete with informational sessions with guides and experts. For many visitors their preference is a self-guided tour for which you can pick and choose which sites of the park you want to visit. Which tour experience you choose may depend on the amount of time you have and the cost. For example, the most costly and the most comprehensive tour package is the Super Ambassador Package which costs $200 for adults and $160 for children and includes a personal tour guide, prime rib buffet, front row seats at the “HA: Breath of Life show» and more. There are four other tour packages that are less costly plus several self-guided tour packages. To enter the park on your own for a general admission ticket it will cost you about $50 for adults and $40 for children. Whichever tours you select expect to shell out more for the various gift shops, food options, etc. Also, there is a discount of 10 percent for booking early.

The tour is separated into six main sites, each representing an “island” or culture that helped make Hawaii what it is today. These include Samoa, Aotearoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga and Hawaii.

Our tour stopped at all the villages where we saw exhibitions of weaving, fire knife twirling, got an impromptu hula lesson and took a canoe ride through the river that meanders through the area. We also find out about how the various cultures spent their day and their living conditions (there’s always a hierarchy starting with a king and proceeding from there to the queen – or in some cases multiple wives – children, servants, etc. If you are looking for equal rights in these societies guess again).

Canoe Parade of Cultures

Credit: The Writin’ CowboyBy noon we are more than ready for our lunch and we are provided with a well-laid out buffet. Make no mistake about it, the tour is exhausting and food and drink is required if you hope to make it through the complete tour. We quickly re-gather after our meal and proceed to several more of the villages. By mid-afternoon we are ready for one of the main events – the parade of cultures. Seated along the banks of the river we watch as canoe or barges of ‘villagers’ – each representing one of the cultures – sail down the river with dancers and performers on each showing the different dress and costumes and music of their culture.

There are several more performance sites scheduled for the afternoon: a stage show that is more Vegas act than native demonstration – with audience participation that is quite funny, as long as its not me that is one of the participants, I think; and a ‘coming of age’ demonstration of how young men are brought into the full blossom of their culture.

Credit: The Writin’ CowboyBy late afternoon, exhausted from our day’s travels, we say goodbye to “Stop” and proceed to dinner. Again we are very pleased at the selections and are also entertained by a stage show of popular music and dance, again with audience participation. This is a show that has a backstory of how Hawaiian culture evolved. Afterward we walk across the park to the Hawaiian Journey Theatre to watch a 14-minute film on how the islands were formed. It’s a scenic travelogue showing the beauty of the islands along with historical information. We are seated in a cavernous theatre – arrived at via a simulated lava cavern – for the show, a welcome change from all the walking we’ve done throughout the day.

Finally, we conclude our visit with the “HA: Breath of Life” show in the large PCC amphitheater. The show is a full-length production that tells the story of a newborn child as he grows and eventually becomes a man, taking his place in the world, but always remembering his roots even as he makes a life of his own. It’s quite spectacular with a combination of music, special effects, and some amazing dancers and fire-twirlers. It’s a great show and many people come to the Center for the show alone. I found it much more meaningful having learned about many of the cultures earlier in the day.

It’s past 10 p.m. when the show ends and we scurry to our buses for the trip back to Waikiki. By 11 p.m. these two exhausted travelers fall into bed. It was a full day, but a great experience.