Dan Mackie: Luaus in Vermont; We Could Step Up Our Game In the Tourism Chase

Whenever I travel, I keep the Upper Valley in my heart, and my recent trip to Hawaii was no exception. We were there for my son’s law school graduation, but I was ever alert for ways to improve local tourism.

Packs of bus-weary seniors staring into Quechee Gorge is all well and good, and the homecoming march of Dartmouth alums helps our business outlook. They need rooms, and meals, and maple sugar candies, and so forth.

But in Waikiki, where surfing meets shopping, it’s so much bigger. Droves of tourists wander around aching to spend money. They buy, buy, buy, everything from Prada to Louis Vuitton, in ultra-swanky stores.

Not far down the street are booths that sell souvenirs so tacky that gentle people avert their gaze. Who knew there were so many sayings that could be affixed to images of the backsides of women in bathing attire, or ways to proclaim that you appreciate beer? Apparently, there is a global frat house economy.

Celebrities are prominent on the streets as well. Elvis, Obama, Jack Lord of the original Hawaii 5-0 — they will live forever in the factories of China and the shops of Waikiki.

This might sound tiring, but the commotion is just a short walk from a beach that is so pleasant — warm water, gentle breezes, blue skies with puffy clouds waving aloha — that New Englanders might be tempted to shed their flannels forever. The weather careens from 81 and sunny to 82 and sunny the next. And, in about the same time it takes to drive from Lebanon to Canaan, you reach nearly empty beaches with pillow white sand, and water that turns from blue to turquoise in a startling manner. I wondered, am I on another planet?

Given such advantages, Hawaii has an edge. And yet, with ingenuity and marketing, there is no reason we could not compete for the tourist dollar.

Surfing wouldn’t be a strength for the Upper Valley, it is true, and that’s a shame. There is something cheering about the sight of hunky young men and athletic young women carrying surfboards about. I couldn’t help but notice the many surfers 50 years old and up, who looked fit, tanned, and far from a cubicle. Was this an option in life that I somehow missed? The only surfing I do is on black ice.

And yet here I am shaking off jet lag — I figure two month’s recovery for every time zone, so with six on this trip I won’t be right until 2014 — and feeling hope.

What do they got, as they say, that we ain’t got? And the answer, beside the aforementioned details, is one word: luau!

In Hawaii, a luau is a dinner party with entertainment. It flourished after 1819, when King Kamehameha II ended the taboo against men and women eating together, which had deprived earlier gatherings of a certain something. I suppose it had been a little like tailgating in male-dominated football stadium lots — meat and liquor, followed by chest thumping, and more meat and liquor.

These days actual luaus are held by authentic people, but they are also put on in big productions for tourists. Pigs are roasted, hulas are danced, fire sticks are twirled, strong drinks are sucked through pink straws. Everyone goes home happy.

Tourists trek by the busloads to staged luaus, where as an opening act a couple guys are often invited on stage to dance a hula wearing coconut bikinis, reprising hijinks from South Pacific. It never fails to get a laugh.

So I say, why not us? What, for example, might a Vermont luau offer?

Dress up a couple gents like Calvin Coolidge and let them compete with clipped, witty sayings. The emcee could ask them, “Lived here all your life?” A free drink would go to whoever answers in the Coolidge spirit: “Not yet.”

I’d look forward to a Dean Scream contest, recalling former Gov. Howard Dean’s unearthly yowl after winning a presidential primary. It unfairly changed his status from front-runner to suspected lunatic in the national media.

A Vermont hula dance in Johnson wool pants would be kind of hot, but not in a good way for the dancers. We might have to abandon buy-local principles for this element.

Hippies and flatlanders could get their moment. A mud season dance has potential, as would a sorrowful ballad to the legendary Saabs and Volvos of yore. Also worth noting: Moonlight in Vermont could easily be retrofitted into Luau in Vermont.

Areas to explore are a maple tapping ceremony, a storyteller’s dramatic explanation of the Byzantine Vermont income tax (Now follow me to line 12!), and perhaps a foliage dance.

Of course, New Hampshire has all this and more, including tolls and state-sponsored liquor. “Live Free or Die’’ isn’t as warm as Aloha, but surround the saying in print with images of swaying white pines and leis made of scratch tickets, and we just might have something.

The only downside to happy tourism is that it may involve denial. Some Hawaiian natives say that about 37,000 out of 39,000 of them petitioned against annexation with the United States in 1897. They also endured a tragic period of smallpox and such brought by the first tourists, many of whom eventually controlled most of the property and wealth.

That the natives’ descendants would now be singing and dancing for our pleasure is one of the quirks of culture. Those who don’t know history are doomed to see it rewritten with a happy face.

The writer can be reached at dmackie@vnews.com.