Published: October 22nd 2011October 19th 2011
In 2006, as documented in "Polynesian Consumers' Co-op
", we visited and I highly over-analyzed the Polynesian Cultural Center in Lā'ie. One of my chief complaints was that I felt rushed and limited by the tour guides we paid extra for, and I wished we could get away from them and explore the PCC on our own. So this year I was determined to make that happen.
But first, since Lā'ie's a bit of a drive from Waimānalo, we wanted to break up the trip and get an errand out of the way with a quick stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation in Wahiawa, from which Greg wanted to send his mother a pineapple. In 2006, we kids (Greg, Barb, Laura, me) made a 15-minute stop here for Dole Whip (a soft-serve pineapple dessert) and didn't really do anything else before heading on to the North Shore. This time, we knew we wanted to let the kids (Joe, Laura, Anne) play in the pineapple maze. A number of other things went unexpectedly once we arrived. The girls fed fish ($0.50 for a handful of fish food from a gumball dispenser) at a big murky fish pond. Those fish are well-trained: the moment I
stepped near the water, they made a beeline for me from all directions. Then Greg wanted to ride the Pineapple Express, a little train that runs out into the fields and provides an overview of Hawai'ian agriculture: pineapples, coffee, mango, lychee, red ti, green ti, even cacao and banana (growable in Hawai'i but I don't think either one is a major crop). The recorded narration is cheesy and uncomfortably worshipful of James Drummond Dole, but the views from the train are spectacular and well-worth the trip. The "pose for a group photo you can purchase on your way out" mafia were represented here on the train platform (as they are all over O'ahu) and we were happy to pick up another kitschy family portrait. By this time, since I hadn't eaten much breakfast back at the house, I was hungry, and the clever marketers at the Plantation Grille were displaying colorful images of delicious menu items on a huge flatscreen TV overhead, so even though it wasn't 11:00 yet, I was powerless to resist the special kalua pork quesadilla and this pushed everyone else in our group to order brunch as well (chili moco and pineapple chili dogs). The quesadilla
Really really pleased with this photo except for the blob of sunscreen in the middle of the lens. Sigh.
was delicious and I went back shortly after for a Dole Whip with shredded coconut. Finally, we let the kids loose in the maze. Left to their own devices, I think they'd've stayed and played in it for another two hours, which hadn't been the plan. In the Dole gift shop, I found and bought the actual magic sunburn elixir that we hadn't quite located yesterday in Waimānalo: Kukui Essential AfterSun Lotion, also made by Oils of Aloha. It says it's clinically proven! And, when Greg inquired about ordering pineapple to be shipped back to the mainland, they handed him a slip of paper with a phone number on it. You can't actually ship pineapples from the Dole plantation. Turns out we'd've been better off ordering them online, which is what he ended up doing.
Since both the pineapple maze and the PCC were meant as fun activities for the kids, I felt like it was legitimate for them to prioritize the maze over PCC if they were having—wait for it—fun. In fact, if we'd been smart, perhaps we'd've stuck with a full day in the $6 maze and skipped the $50 PCC. It isn't quite "the box the
expensive toy came in", but doesn't it feel similar? We did finally leave Dole and set off for Lā'ie, and made it to the PCC much later than planned but still, we figured, with enough time to see things.
I mentioned in 2006 that the Polynesian Cultural Center is definitely geared toward tourists and consumption. Approaching it as a living museum, rather than a "lū'au with benefits", and trying to do it self-guided, instead of purchasing a "package" with extra tickets and features, ironically exposes a lot more of that commercial feeling than I experienced last time.
Here's the deal. Last time, I felt rushed and limited. The guides' sole responsibility seemed to be securing us shaded seats at the Canoe Pageant (which requires getting there 30 minutes early), then hurrying us from one village's mini-stage-show to another's in order to get the best seats, with very occasional activities in between to pass the time. I was certain if we could break away from the guides, we could see all the rest of the educational exhibits and activities the PCC has to offer.
Um, yeah. About that.
We didn't find any.
Not only did we
not find "the rest"... without the tour guides' aggressively-optimized schedule, we didn't see or do even half as much as last time.
We arrived just in time to arrive early to the Canoe Pageant and stake out seats in the shade. Even though the Canoe Pageant isn't all that great, since we were determined to skip the overpriced lū'au and stage dance show, this was the only glimpse we'd get of the islands' different costumes and dances. Plus Anne wanted to see it. Overall, this went badly. I forgot to take into account the movement of the sun in those 30 minutes, so just when the pageant started up, my shady spot wasn't any more. I had a big sunscreen smear on my camera lens, so none of my photos turned out, even the ones I framed and timed nicely. By the end of the half-hour show, we were overheated and exhausted from sitting in the hot sun, and that's when Anne got sunscreen in both her eyes. She was sitting away from me, so by the time we reconnected she'd already been working to clean her eyes with napkins and I suspect had scratched up her corneas and
eyelids from too much rubbing. She looked a lot like I looked that time I accidentally rubbed my face with a towel that had capsaicin on it: entire face red and eyes practically swollen shut. She tried to tough it out, but a few minutes into the Samoa mini-stage-show we had to abandon and find the first aid station. A very nice work-study student came out to meet us and gave Anne several courses of saline eye drops which finally flushed things out enough to be bearable, but she was still hurting. She insisted on soldiering on, and we tried to pick up where we left off. And, I am not kidding, even the medic tried (in a sweet, innocent-seeming way) to upsell us to the lū'au and/or stage dance show and/or special Hallowe'en canoe cruise (yes, it's Hallowe'en here). He seemed genuinely concerned that we would miss all the actual fun stuff, which might have been a clue.
I was really looking forward to the poi balls activity in Aotearoa village and I was sure the girls would enjoy it. It's the sort of thing I've seen Anne dig into and want to do for hours. When we arrived, though, there was a huge guided tour group doing poi balls and blocking our way, so we decided to step into the stage show for a few moments until they moved on.
I'll digress and say this: the stage show was nice, and the performers we saw were not the usual crew of BYU work-study students, but a group of real Maori families in town from New Zealand for that day only. The guy who normally emcees the Aotearoa show got all choked up telling us how special it was; he sounded homesick. We were treated to a spear demo (with lots of ideas for cool taekwondo jeong bong moves when we get home), a pretty love duet by a real husband-and-wife, then a boisterous dance number with a stageful of Maori boys practicing their intimidating faces, and finally a roof-shaking back-and-forth between the Maori families onstage and, presumably, the BYU work-study crew in the back of the building who looked like they might burst with pride themselves at being part of this performance. So that was a great moment.
But now, back to complaining. When we got out of the show, we found Aotearoa village basically deserted. The poi balls were hung back up on their rack, and we didn't find a single work-study student around to show the girls how to use them. All the PCC staff we could see appeared to be tour guides engaged in showing groups around. Worst of all, Anne was indifferent to the entire idea of poi balls; she said she'd done them before. This is mostly unlike her and I suspect she was still feeling lousy. In any case, we trudged off to the next several villages in search of stuff to do and, except in those cases where we caught a mini-stage-show underway and arrived late and sat in the way-back, didn't find much. Hawai'i village hula lessons? Place deserted except for a small tour group tucked into a corner. Fiji? Went into a tiny "family home" exhibit, where a nice older lady told us "this is an exhibit of a family home". Tahiti? Saw some stage show. Tonga? OK! We threw some spears and the girls made little fishies out of palm leaves. None of us had the energy to go demand "service" from PCC staffers or try to crash a tour group, though both of those strategies might have been helpful.
In 2006, I mentioned that Marquesas isn't represented in any of the live shows and the tour guides didn't take us to its village at all, so I was extra-determined to check it out and see what we were missing. Yeah. Marquesas village, shown on the map, was closed: it's surrounded by walls and the entrance was roped off with a pretty lei. ("Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?") Rapa Nui (Easter Island)? Tiny, but not bad: since it isn't intended to be staffed, they actually put up little plaques with information on them, so I learned more here than in the other villages combined. We closed out our visit with the Samoa stage show, and while we were waiting, the kids all got to try a new activity, actually staffed, in which they attempted to climb a coconut palm tree. Anne and Joe didn't get very far but seemed to have a lot of fun. The Samoa stage show is almost exactly the same as in 2006, put on by the same really funny guy. He tells corny tourist jokes, but in between them we learned stuff about Samoa, and Joe was perfectly positioned to get called up onto the stage to drink the coconut water out of the opened coconut (which we knew was coming because we'd seen half of the show earlier). Since it was the last show of the day, we also got to watch the lowering of the Samoan flags (one Samoa and one American Samoa) and hear a pretty anthem performed for us with nice harmonies (since there are two Samoas I don't know if it was one of their anthems or something else) as the sun went down.
I think my conclusion might be: do the full PCC package, or don't do it at all. I'm not quite ready to say "don't do it at all", because we did find stuff we enjoyed both in 2006 and this time, but thinking about how very much it costs to do it the most effective way ($100+ per person), it's seeming less and less worthwhile.
On our way out, we wound our way past crowds of glow-sticked youth queueing for the Hallowe'en canoe cruise. Just as we finished up our potty breaks and were ready to walk out to the van, the skies opened up for a classic tropical downpour. We braved it and arrived at the van utterly soaked, just in time for the rain to stop. I forgot that tropical downpours often don't last long.
Our final plan for the day was to hit up the classic Giovanni's White Shrimp Truck in nearby Kahuku for dinner, which was thwarted by it being closed. Stuff really doesn't stay open after dark on this island, except in Waikīkī. We backtracked to Lā'ie and fulfilled Greg's wish for Hawai'ian Chinese food at a hole-in-the-wall "chop suey" restaurant with delightful staff and a very local feel. After dinner we had wonderful ice cream at the shop next door, and dodged another rain shower on our way back to the van for the long dark drive home. Overall, this heavily-planned day was not at all what we expected; fun enough, though not as much fun as hoped.