Fun Nights in Hawaii for Pop Culture Fans

2 years ago

Hear the term “Hawaiian entertainment” and some stereotypical images probably come to mind. Tiki bars. Hula dancing. Fruity cocktails with a wedge of pineapple speared through with a small paper umbrella. Kind of cute, kind of kitschy.

This version of Hawaii that resides in our collective imaginations started decades ago. We’re amazingly lucky that Hawaii is part of the USA (the fiftieth state, in fact, achieving statehood in 1959).  The jet age followed in the 1960s, leading to a tourist boom that cemented that mid-century, idealized, and appropriated version of the islands in our pop culture narrative of Hawaii, an image reinforced through the media and through real-life tourist attractions. 


The ever-graceful Kanoe Miller at House Without a Key. Image: Gillian G. Gaar

On top of the novelty factor, Hawaii’s stunning landscape has been used to give shows like Hawaii 5-O and Magnum, P.I. a tropic twist — cop shows amongst the palm trees!  Films and TV shows from South Pacific to Gilligan’s Island to Jurassic Park to Lost to The Hunger Games have all been filmed on the islands (the lack of urban development making it easy to make think you’re in a timeless, far-off jungle), so it’s no wonder it often feels like you’re on a movie set when you’re there. 

But not every place is drenched in Hawaiiana, even in tourist central, Waikiki. Hawaiian entertainment outings for visitors have evolved immensely from the '50s,  weaving the past and the present, and the traditional and the cosmopolitan, into fun, new offerings.   It’s time to take an updated look so our perceptions do as well.

It’s easy, too. If you are from the States, you can visit an island paradise without even needing a passport; you can get all the delights of the tropics while still being in America. If you live on the West Coast, it can take less time to fly to Hawaii than it does to New York City. Guess which locale I choose?

 Here are some nightlife picks for an updated Hawaii experience from my recent trip there: 

CabaRAE: Random Acts of Entertainment 


Acrobatic acts at CabaRAE. Image: Gillian G. Gaar

You’ll find this Cirque du Soleil-esque show at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel. There are stylish props to pose with for the photo that’s snapped as you enter the venue, and a richly colored, European-flavored lounge to hang out in, partaking of pre-show cocktails like the “Lizatina” (Absolut Citron, Combier Liqueur, D’orange, and Sweet N Sour). Audience participation starts while you’re waiting in line, as the cast members frolic around you, performing tricks — and if you’re not keen on such stuff, then by all means, don’t sit in the front row (since much of the show takes place above your head, sitting a few rows back gives you a better vantage point as well). There are acrobats, fire eaters, contortionists, and appearances by such personalities as “Molly Parton,” comedy, with nary a grass skirt in sight. And, you get the chance to party with the friendly cast in the lounge afterwards.

Fourever Fab 


Fourever Fab during the Mop Top era. Image: Gillian G. Gaar

This Beatles tribute show, held at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotel opens with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and goes on to hit all the high marks of the Fab Four’s catalogue — “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Yesterday,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Hey Jude,” and “Something,” among others, along with the appropriate costume changes (and the band gets extra points for having a Paul that can play left-handed). Singing along and dancing are encouraged, and it’s worth paying extra to sit up front. If you’re not getting the dinner package, buy a drink from the downstairs bar to take in with you; tell the bartender you’re seeing Fourever Fab and you’ll get a discount. Be sure to stick around to get your picture taken with the cast after the show. 


The stellar cast of Rock a Hula. Image: Gillian G. Gaar

There is a Hawaiian element to this tribute show, put on by impersonator specialists Legends in Concert. With Elvis as one of the tribute artists it could hardly be otherwise; the King made three movies in the islands, and his “Aloha From Hawaii” concert in 1973 was one of the first worldwide satellite broadcasts. Thus, hula and fire knife dancing is mixed in with numbers by Elvis (Johnny Fortuno), Lady Gaga (Tierney Allen), and Michael Jackson (J. Lucas). They’re all strong performers, and are backed by a great troupe of dancers (watch out for the zombies that prowl through the audience during “Thriller”). The “Legendary Cocktail Show” package is the cheapest, but consider springing for the “Terrace Luau Buffet & Show” package, which serves up a terrific (and tasty) buffet, and gets you a better seat in the theater (there are two VIP packages as well, offering stage side seating). Don’t forget to check out the memorabilia in the theater, as you mix and mingle with the cast in lobby post-performance. You’ll find the theater on the top floor of the Royal Hawaiian Center (which has everything from the very wonderful convenience shop ABC Store to Cartier to The Cheesecake Factory to the Royal Hawaiian Shooting Club gun range). My favorite show in Waikiki.


The entertainment is swellegant at the Star of Honolulu’s five star dinner. Image: Gillian G. Gaar

There’s nothing like seeing Waikiki from an excellent vantage point — like off the coastline. The Star of Honolulu is docked at Aloha Tower (once the tallest building in the islands), with dancers waiting dockside to welcome you aboard as you arrive. I jumped at the chance to enjoy the Five Star Sunset Dining & Jazz package, a good option if you want to splurge on a fancy night out. It starts with canapés on the top deck as you meet the captain, then continues with a delicious array of courses; vichyssoise; a light salad of tomato, mozzarella and greens; lobster; sorbet (to cleanse the palate); beef tenderloin with a clever potato “tower”; and not just one, but two desserts, a rich chocolate pavé and vanilla bean anglaise (the menu changes during the year). A pianist and a jazz singer provide the elegant entertainment, and it’s easy to slip outside on deck to take in the sunset. There are cheaper dining packages as well, and Friday night cruises offer a bonus; you’ll also get to see the fireworks display hosted by the Hilton Hawaiian Village each week. There are special event-themed cruises throughout the year as well (for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, New Year’s Eve, etc.).


The ever-graceful Kanoe Miller at House Without a Key. Image: Gillian G. Gaar

And finally, your recipe for a mix-and-match hula/non-hula night out. House Without a Key is a restaurant at the tony Halekulani hotel, and it’s my very favorite place to see a sunset hula show. Seating begins at 5 pm; ask for cocktail seating, and you’ll be taken to the outdoor patio, underneath a 100-year-old kiawe tree, with spectacular views of Diamond Head and the sunset. At 5:30 pm, a Hawaiian trio begins the first of three sets, with a former Miss Hawaii performing a few hula numbers during each set; Kanoe Miller, who’s performed at Halekulani for a number of years, draws an especially appreciative audience. Try the “Hale Tai,” House Without a Key’s spin on the traditional mai tai. The entertainment ends at 8:30 pm, and if you’re still in the mood for more, just cross the courtyard to Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge, a cocktail lounge with subdued lighting and live jazz nightly. It’s the perfect place to wind down at the end of the day. I recommend the Lost Passion, a “sophisticated blend of tequila, Cointreau and fresh juices, topped with Champagne.”
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