LAIE, Hawaii — To an early morning jogger on the quiet, country side of Oahu, the sprawling, black-topped parking lot looks distinctly out of place. By noon, however, the asphalt is largely hidden beneath an accumulation of cars, vans and tour buses, and by evening scarcely a space is left.
The parking lot serves the Polynesian Cultural Center, which opens daily except Sunday before noon, to let visitors stroll through 42 acres of lagoons and authentic villages where they can meet the peoples of Polynesia--natives of Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Maori New Zealand, the Marquesas and, of course, Hawaii. There is also an 1850-era missionary settlement.
At dusk a Polynesian brass band parades through the villages, collecting the day's visitors in a Pied Piper procession to a concert in a gazebo beside the grassy-banked lagoon.
Many visitors stay for a Polynesian buffet served in the center's Gateway restaurant, and, at 7:30 p.m., a rollicking, 90-minute show that, despite all its color, special effects, theatrical excitement and cast of 150, remains more cultural anthropology than just another Waikiki extravaganza.
"The islands as you always hoped they would be" is the center's motto.
Natives and Students
The "inhabitants" of this palm-shaded enclave of thatched-roofed huts are, for the most part, natives of the islands whose cultures and customs they portray and interpret before visitors to the villages.
They are also students at adjacent Brigham Young University's Hawaii Campus. What a way to work through college!
John, who is half Hawaiian and half Polish, is something of a spear carrier by night in "This Is Polynesia," but by day he's a BYU graduate student in aquaculture. Similarly, the stocky Samoan poling a canoe filled with visitors along the village-lined lagoon described himself as "a physical education major with a minor in pole-pushing."
The BYU-Hawaii campus draws 1,900 students, 45% of them foreign, most of them Mormon. Most find work on campus, filling jobs in food service, sales, transportation and janitorial services, or singing, dancing, demonstrating palm-climbing, coconut shucking, fire making, fire eating , fire dancing and other cultural specialties in the center's villages by day or on the Pacific Pavilion stage at night.
Thus has John financed five years at BYU-Hawaii. "If you live up to your commitments," he explained, "you can graduate from here debt-free."
The day's program begins with an "Aloha Festival," a 40-minute welcoming concert and orientation. After that, visitors are free to wander through the seven villages, watching periodic demonstrations in each. While this is the best way to see everything, trams and canoes offer a change of pace and a chance to rest.
Trams shuttle around the perimeter, stopping at each village. Double-hulled canoes make 15-minute tours along the lagoon, their student guides, Polynesian versions of Disneyland's Jungle Cruise narrators, mixing fact and fun in spiels that provide an entertaining and colorful introduction to each of the villages.
At 2:45 p.m. the "Voyages of the Pacific" pageant begins on the waterways, with canoes filled with natives of each of the islands, who perform songs and dances first at their own village, then at others. By staying in one village, a visitor will thus enjoy three different cultural presentations.
At the conclusion, the colorfully costumed performers board their canoes and form a parade along the lagoon, passing each village.
Polynesia's "many islands" are spread within a 16-million-square-mile area in the Pacific, in a triangle that stretches from Hawaii southwest to New Zealand and southeast to Easter Island.
Inhabitants of these islands are thought to have come from Asia or the Americas, possibly from both. Europeans, starting with Spanish explorers in the late 16th Century, discovered that the inhabitants shared similar languages, customs and ways of life. This is what visitors to the Polynesian Cultural Center rediscover.
The center, an activity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is dedicated to helping preserve the cultural heritage of Polynesia, according to its director, Ralph G. Rodgers Jr. (who also wrote, designed, staged and directed "This Is Polynesia"). After all, he said, Mormon missionaries have been active in Hawaii since 1844, and Laie became a Mormon gathering place 21 years later.
BYU-Hawaii's predecessor was the Church College of Hawaii, established in 1955. BYU took over the campus in the 1970s, upgrading the facilities and the curriculum. Because the Church College attracted so many students from the Pacific Basin, Rodgers explained, the Polynesian Cultural Center was founded in 1963, in part to provide jobs and scholarships for the students and the surrounding community of Laie.