Beyond Clichés: Lū'aus, Hula, Surfing And Other Aspects Of Hawaiian Life

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Media, movies and series such as Hawaii 5-0 (which I LOVE) portray Hawai'i as pure paradise with happy people, beautiful humans with flawless bodies, pristine beaches and lush greenery. Hawaiian feasts with sexy hula dancers and pool parties. While a few of these assumptions are true, such as the portrayal of the friendship, camaradery, love and support for others, Hawai'i is being stigmatized and made into an attraction. It is important to remember and respect the traditions and roots of the Hawaiian culture and their true meaning. Let's venture past clichés and explore true Hawaiian life.



Hello everybody, welcome to the Science of Travel Blog – the blog that combines all things Earth, landscapes and travel destinations with Earth Science! 

Thank you so much for being here! The blog article that you're about to read is taken out of the free online course about Hawai'i which is available on the online course platform EarthyUniversity. It is called the MĀLAMA (care for) Hawai'i Pre-Travel Course and the perfect introduction to the Hawaiian culture, history and language which equips you with the basic knowledge you need to start to form a strong connection to the Hawaiian people, so that you can travel sustainably and consciously and give back to the Hawaiian people. You can find more information here.

But without further ado, let’s dive into today’s article: Beyond Clichés: Luaus, Hula, Surfing and other aspects of Hawaiian Life.

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea oftentimes is translated as “white mountain”. However, in Hawaiian culture and prayers, this mountain is also called “Mauna a Wakea” which means: "The Mountain of Wakea”. Obviously, this has a totally different meaning. As you’ve learned in the previous lesson, Wakea is the Sky Father in the Hawaiians' story of creation. His wife is Papahānaumoku, Earth Mother. Their eldest child is represented by the Island of Hawai’i. And Mauna Kea is this child’s navel, or piko in Hawaiian. You can see, there is a very strong bond between the Hawaiians and Mauna Kea. It is their connection to their ancestors. In fact, Mauna Kea is considered a kupuna, an ancestor. Mauna Kea is a very sacred mountain.

Thirty Meter Telescope

On this sacred mountain, an extremely large telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, is planned to be built. It would have a 30m-diameter mirror and would also be the largest telescope in the world. The large size will allow astronomers to gaze deeper into space and observe cosmic objects with great sensitivity and high resolution. As you can imagine, the Hawaiians are not pleased and view this as an attack on their religion and culture and are still trying to prevent the construction at all costs, demonstrating at the road leading to the peak of Mauna Kea. The telescope will be used to do research and to learn more on the formation of the first stars, the planets, other galaxies in our universe, dark matter and black holes. By the time of this recording, it’s still not decided if it will be erected here or at the backup site in the Canary Islands.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau

The Place of Refuge National Historical Park, or Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, is located in the west of the Big Island. It was a place of refuge for all people who broke one of the kapu laws.

The kapu was a system of strict and severe laws or taboos in early Hawai'i. here are some examples:

  1. If the shadow of a man fell upon the house of a taboo chief […] or upon anything that belonged to the chief, that man must be put to death.

or another one

  1. Women were not allowed to eat certain types of food such as pork, coconuts, bananas and red fish and is was a taboo for men and women to eat together.

When a person broke the law, usually death was the sentence. However, if they reached a place of refuge, they were able to escape execution. The Pu’uhonua protected the delinquents and was their only chance of survival. Wooden sculptures, called ki’i, surround the Hale O Keawe temple. Within this temple, the bones of the chiefs infuse the Pu’uhonua with mana.

There were other Pu’uhonuas in the Hawaiian Island, but upon the abolishment of the kapu system by Kamehameha II in 1819 and the start of Christianity, the Hawaiians natural religion and their worship was suffocated. Queen Ka’ahumanu who had converted to Christianity commanded to destroy all religious sites that were linked to the kapu system. The ruin of Pu’uhonua O Honaunau is the last remaining preserved historical site.


Hawaiian fishponds are remnants of ancient Hawaiian aquaculture. They are sophisticated ponds that served sustainable fishing. These ponds are made from lava rock and coral: the walls had small holes and let water and small fish flow inside the semicircular structure. The fish then were fed up and grew bigger. They then were trapped inside the pond, as they were too large to exit. They were trapped! A very clever way of catching fish. 😊

Many of those fishponds are found along the south shore of Moloka’i, most of them being 700-800 years old and well-preserved, for example the ‘Ualapu’e Fishpond. In Kaua'i, the Alekoko fishpond is a popular site.


Is the perhaps most iconic symbol of Hawai'i: the Hula Dance. King David Kalākaua once said: “Hula is the Language of the Heart. Therefore the Heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” This sentence underlines the importance of Hula and its meaning to the Hawaiian people and culture.

Hula is not just a dance. With hula, Hawaiian history and culture are expressed and preserved and stories are told through dance and chants. Hula is a way of living. This was especially important during a time when there was no written language in Hawai'i. Hula is foundation to the Hawaiian people and a bridge to their past. Hula is also not only danced by women, but men as well, who tell warrior stories.

The stories tell the formation of earth and life, of gods and humanity, the history and genealogy of Hawai'i, of relationships and the circle of life. The dancer’s movements express all this. The dancers have a deep knowledge of the stories they tell and embody them.

Hula is also a way to show appreciation and gratitude for life, the land and all other gifts life gives us.

The process of learning hula is teaching the student to discipline his or her mind and body.

Hula teachers are called kumu. Hula students are called haumana and hula schools are called halau.

Unfortunately, after the arrival of the Europeans, hula was danced less and less and even banned some time later. The missionaries didn’t like hula, as they found it distracting and alluring, but didn’t have the power to enforce a law. But Queen Ka’ahumanu who converted to Christianity supported them and passed a law that banned public hula shows in 1830.  Hula was kept private and hidden until King Kalākaua reigned. During his coronation in 1883 and during a jubilee celebration in 1886 hula performances were shown.

The Merrie Monarch Festival

As a sign of appreciation for his protection of the hula dance, the annual hula festival was given the name “The Merrie Monarch Festival”. Merrie as the King was perceived as joyful and happy.

The Merrie Monarch Festival is an annual one-week long festival taking place in Hilo. It starts on Easter Sunday. Originally founded by business men, it was meant to lure more tourists to Hawai'i during the low season.

At the beginning of the 20th century Hawai'i had been discovered more and more by tourists and filmmakers. It was altered and changed to fit their purposes and phantasies. Nowadays, hula is a spectacle, not the private artform it used to be.


When dancing hula, dancers are adorned with leis. Leis can be worn as bracelets, anklets, wreaths or necklaces. These are wreaths or garlands made out of flowers, leaves, feathers, shells or other materials. Many leis are made from plumeria flowers, pikake flowers, orchids, 'ōhi'a lehua flowers or maile leaves.

Leis are not only used in hula but can be given to a person as a symbol of appreciation or affection. They can also be given to welcome somebody or to say goodbye, or at special events such as weddings, births, graduations or birthdays.


Lū’aus are Hawaiian feasts where people gather and enjoy tasty foods. Commercially offered lū’aus are a great way to try local and native Hawaiian meals.

At lū’aus, you can try kalua pig which is prepared overnight or early in the morning in an underground-oven called imu. You can also try poi which is mush made from the taro plant’s corm. As a dessert, haupia is served. It is a sweet pudding made from coconut. After dinner, you will join a hula show. However, the hula danced here is neither traditional nor spiritual. It literally is a show with fast hip movements and fire fountains.

Where did lū’aus originate? In the early Hawai'i, men and women were not allowed to eat together, as stated in the kapu system. In 1819, Kamehameha II repealed this law. He started eating when women were present. The lū’au was born. However, the word ’au is quite modern and was only given by accident by some reporter in the 19th century. Lū’au is actually the name for taro tops which is a common ingredient in traditional Hawaiian cuisine.


Okay, I am pretty sure you already knew this! Hawai'i is famous for surfing. Surfing has been a sport everybody enjoyed and practiced, even in early Hawaiian days. Kings, ali’is (that means chiefs) and “normal” citizens. Men, women and children. Surfing has always been considered national pastime.

Surfing originated in the Polynesian Ocean, south of Hawai'i, and therefore is a sport the Hawaiians invented. But it was in Hawai'i when surfing was first observed by Europeans, who documented it. And in Hawai'i, surfing has developed and advanced the most. Hence, it were Hawaiians who coined he’e nalu or board surfing. Surfboards were made from koa wood, ulu wood or wiliwili wood.

However, as many other parts of Hawaiian traditions and culture, surfing suffered from the settlement of Europeans and Americans. Due to introduced diseases, almost 90% of the Hawaiian population had died by the end of 19th century and missionaries also found surfing silly and a waste of time. At the end of the Hawaiian Kingdom and after the annexation by the United States at the end of the 19th century, surfing had almost gone extinct.

A statue of Duke Kahanamoku at Waikīkī Beach reminds of his important role to spread surfing across the world. Duke won a few Olympic gold medals in swimming. In December 1914, he brought surfing to Australia. George Freeth shared surfing with California in 1907. A third men, Alexander Hume Ford, also contributed in making surfing popular and accepted again.

Outrigger canoe surfing has also been favored by Hawaiians. Outrigger canoes are canoes with a buoyant float at one side, stabilizing the boat.

Wave Formation

Generally, waves are built by wind that blows upon the surface, passing its energy onto water and creating wave crests. These waves then transmit the energy across the surface, potentially across an entire ocean basin. The stronger the wind, the larger the waves. When these waves move close to land and into shallower water, they slow down and some energy is lost due to contact with the sea floor. As they slow down, they have to shorten their wave length and heighten their amplitude. This means they will grow taller. Depending on the slope of the sea floor, the wave will slow down fast or slow: The steeper the slope, the faster the wave height will increase and vice versa: the more gently sloping, the slower the wave height will increase. The bottom of the wave decreases speed first, and the highest point of the wave may overtake the base, causing it to break and crash onto the shore.

Reefs play an important role as well: 

  1. They serve as beach and shoreline shields as they prevent large waves from crashing directly onto the beach or the coast.
  2. They serve as wave breakers due to the rapid change in water depth they cause, sending the approaching wave upwards quickly. They block the wave from rolling forward at the same speed, starting from its base. The hinge of the wave still rolls on, overtaking its base quickly, leaning towards the shore and eventually breaking.  Some waves are hollow when breaking, forming so called tunnels, tubes or barrels.

The islands are hit by north pacific wind and swells. But swells come from the south as well, which means that the islands get waves from all directions and offers surf spots for all surf levels. During the winter months, waves are higher.

The best surf spots, however, with the largest waves, lie at the north shores. The North Shore of O’ahu is a world-renown surf location, it is a 11km or 7mile stretch, hence called the Seven Mile Miracle. Many great surf spots are concentrated along this stretch, for example the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Hale'iwa Beach Park and Backdoor.

On Kaua’i, Hanalei and Tunnels Beach are known spots.

In Maui, Pe'ahi or also called Jaws and Honolua Bay are popular.

Please keep in mind that all the surf spots I mentioned are challenging and waves are surfed by very skilled surfers. For beginners, other beaches are more suitable!

Hawaiian Traditions

Here are some other Hawaiian traditions:

  1. As a greeting, native Hawaiians touched each other’s noses to exchange breath, scents and to portray closeness. This greeting is called honi ihu. Today, people hug and kiss each other on the cheek.
  2. Malama 'āina means to take care of the land. Hawaiian residents respect and take care of their land and they expect visitors to do the same. Please don‘t take rocks, sand and coral from the beach or lava rocks from a volcano etc.
  3. Shaka is a hand symbol. It says hang loose, take it easy, chill, be laid back , things are great, thank you, or hello and goodbye. You can make this symbol by folding the index, middle and ring finger loosely inside the palm of your hand. This way, the thumb and pinky stick out. Now, just shake the hand. Shaka!
  4. Taking off your slippers when entering somebody‘s home is considered polite.
  5. Humility is more appreciated than showing off belongings or financial worth. Stay humble and kind.
  6. And one tip from me: Have some shave ice and enjoy yourself! Do what you want as long as you are happy and as long as you don’t hurt anybody else! 😊


This is it! Click here to read the article Hawaiian History in a Coconut Shell 😊


Be kind and love nature, 


PS: You can have all this information as video online classes with animated slides and beautiful photographs for free. Learn more about Hawaiian life in the MĀLAMA (care for) Hawai'i Pre-Travel Class. 😊



About the author

Daniela is convinced that by gaining deep insights into planet Earth and travel destinations you’ll create meaningful, grounding and memorable life and travel experiences. She explains fundamental geological processes that form and shape landscapes and combines these insights with philosophical and philanthropical views in her online courses, articles, and newsletter. She holds two bachelor's degrees in geosciences (B.Sc.) and business administration with tourism (B.A.). She is the owner and founder of EarthyMe, EarthyUniversity and the Science of Travel blog and the Stories of Earth newsletter.




Image Credit: Kevin Doran on Unsplash


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