If there’s one iconic thing to do in Hawaii, it’s got to be going to a luau right? Would you believe I’ve only ever been to one luau before and it was back before my blogging days so I figured my latest trip to Kauai was high time for another one!
Smith Family Luau Review
After doing some research, I decided to attend the Smith Family Luau because it was highly recommended as the best luau in Kauai and I also liked that it’s a family ran business (the Smith Family has been in business since 1946). Also, the luau’s setting (it’s hosted in a 30+ acre tropical garden) looks EXACTLY like Elvis’ Blue Hawaii (it was actually filmed right up the road at the Coco Palms Resort) and I’m not going to lie, that was a major selling point!
Before I get into the details of how the evening progressed, I’ll just tell you that the Smith Family Luau is completely charming. While it’s a modern operation, the setting and atmosphere will have you reminiscing of Hawaii in the 1960s. It feels very vintage, so wear your best aloha attire and get ready to step back in time.
Check the schedule during your trip, but in October the luau was running on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I bought tickets online in advance and we decided to add on a cruise up the Wailua River to see the fern grotto before the luau. Since the Smith Family also runs the river cruises and the marina is right next door to the luau grounds, they recommend taking the last trip of the day because it’s timed to end right before the gardens open for the luau. The last river cruise of the day was scheduled for 3:30 PM so we arrived a little early to park the car and buy our tickets. We parked in the luau parking lot and walked over to the marina so we wouldn’t have to move our car afterwards (it’s right next door).
We boarded our boat right at 3:30 (the whole tour lasts about an hour and twenty minutes). It’s a flat barge type of boat with a roof (seems like they’re always prepared for rain in Kauai!). Pretty much everybody on our boat (maybe 50 people?) looked like they were dressed for the luau and this really is a nice pre-luau activity. There was a band and a couple of hula dancers on the boat and they entertained us (yes, they sang an Elvis song or two) as we cruised up the river.
We docked at the fern grotto and walked up the small trail to the viewing platform. The fern grotto used to be a major attraction on Kauai, but sadly Hurricane Iniki in 1992 did a lot of damage to it and it’s not as impressive as it used to be. It’s still a pretty site and they do a LOT of weddings here. Once everybody had oooed and awwwed and taken their pictures, the band played the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” from Blue Hawaii and we got back on the boat for the trip back.
During the return trip, our captain gave us the lowdown on the river, Kauai, the ancient Hawaiian culture, the local flora and fauna, and a run down on some of the movies filmed on the island.
We were back at the marina at 4:50 just in time to walk over to the luau grounds when it opened at 5:00. We checked in, got our picture taken with the obligatory girl in the coconut bra and man in a grass skirt (sadly I didn’t purchase a copy of it!) and boarded a tram for a tour of the 30 acre garden.
This place is huge! It’s so well landscaped and it’s just downright luscious. The tram tour also helped us get the lay of the land. The meal takes place in a covered pavilion and the theater for the show is nearby. We walked around and snapped some pictures while we were waiting for the Imu Ceremony.
The Imu Ceremony is the unearthing of the pig. There were a few benches around the pit but they were filled up way before the ceremony started. We watched from across a waterway on the lawn of the dining pavilion.
After the Imu Ceremony, cocktails were served and we found our seat. Tables were reserved for large parties but everyone else had to fend for themselves. There were mai tais, and Hawaiian punch pre made as well as an open bar (all you can drink!). We found some seats and a band played while each table waited to be called up to the buffet line.
The meal is all you can eat and boy was I starving! I filled up my plate with salad with guava dressing, macaroni salad, fried rice, mashed potatoes, stir fried veggies, plantains, guava bread, sweet bread, sweet and sour mahi mahi, teriyaki beef, and of course, kalua pork.
Overall I thought the food was pretty good. I showed up hungry, had my fill, and was pretty satisfied. I think you know going into a luau that you’re going to be getting mass-produced food (there were about 400 in attendance) and I thought it was pretty good. There were so many things there to try that I didn’t even get around to trying everything (yes, there was poi!). I felt like there could’ve been a few more dessert options. They only had coconut cake, rice pudding, haupia squares (like coconut Jello bites), and fresh fruit and while it was all good, I could’ve used a bit more variety (I have a major sweet tooth though!). Also, while the “all you can drink mai tais” are super popular, I’m afraid they’re mostly fruit punch.
After we finished eating, they did a bit of a show where they recognized people celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and honeymoons and then called volunteers up on stage and taught them a hula dance. It was cheesy and fun and pretty much a mandatory luau experience.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
After that bit, we were dismissed to go over to the theater to watch the show. We found seats in the middle of the theater (which I recommend because there are a couple of posts towards the sides that can block the view. The show is a pretty nice production with a decent story line, which begins with an erupting volcano (the birth of Hawaii) and the migration of her people to the islands. There were probably a dozen or so numbers including the traditional hula plus dances from Tahiti, China, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, and some other pacific islands and the whole thing was topped off with a fire dance. The show lasted about an hour and it felt just right.
My absolute favorite thing about this show was that this is a family business and it felt very authentic. The majority of luaus in Hawaii feature a couple dozen dancers that all. look. exactly. the. same. While most hula performers in other big productions don’t have an ounce of body fat, these ladies looked like real people. All shapes and sizes were represented and it was easy to see that this is a performance by one family sharing their personal culture with you. There was also a nice age range of dancers (both men and women) and it was so neat to see younger ones out there with their older “cousins” keeping the family tradition alive.
Our entire experience with the Smith Family Luau (including the fern grotto tour) was pretty amazing. Although it was a big crowd, it still felt like a gracious family hosting us for the evening. From the aunties in the kitchen, to the uncles presiding over the ceremony, and the cousins dancing in the show, this truly is a family affair and likely a much different experience than you’ll have at some of the larger luaus on Oahu. If you’re looking for a luau on Kauai, go spend the evening with the Smith Family…you’ll be in good hands!
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Kauai vacation rentals for your trip.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Buy your tickets in advance online to save some money.
- If you’re interested in doing the Wailua River cruise, you’ll need a separate ticket. You can buy a ticket bundle online or buy your tickets until the day of. Plan to show up about 20 minutes before its scheduled departure.
- I would definitely do the river cruise in addition to the luau but I don’t think I would do it by itself. I consider it to be an extension of the luau.
- There are bathrooms at the fern grotto if you need them.
- Check luau dates and times for your trip because they change seasonally. In October, the grounds open at 5:00 and they give you a schedule of events. The tram tours usually run from 5-6. The Imu Ceremony was at 6, cocktails were served at 6:30, dinner started at 7, and the show started at 8:30.
- If you have other plans for dinner, you can buy a reduced price ticket for just the show.
- Hawaii is the land of anything goes but most people dress up a little bit for a luau. And of course, aloha print is super popular!
- The dinner pavilion and the theater are covered (but open air) so they only cancel for severe weather. And they’ll always cancel by noon the day of.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Kauai: my personal Kauai favorites, a breakdown of where to stay on Kauai comparing Princeville vs Poipu, my favorite restaurants in Poipu, the best places to watch sunset on Kauai, 5 day Kauai itinerary, my review of the Grand Hyatt Kauai, everything you need to know about Napali Coast boat tours leaving from Port Allen (south side) and Hanalei (north shore), my best Kauai travel tips, all about hiking the Kalalau trail (Kauai’s best hike), Maui vs Kauai, the best things to do on Kauai and more specifically in Hanalei and Poipu, whether you should see the Napali Coast via boat or helicopter, my best (and specific) condo recommendations on Kauai, everything you need to know about Kauai helicopter tours, Kauai’s best north shore beaches, where to play tennis on Kauai, how many days you should spend on Kauai (plus other FAQs), the best spas on Kauai, and my review of the Smith Family Luau.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!