The hula -- the hypnotic, hip-shaking dance that serves as the centerpiece of every tourist-filled luau -- might be the most visible aspect of Hawaii's rich, multi-faceted culture. But spectators rarely see this artistic display for what it is: one of the world's most unique storytelling techniques.

With every wave of their arms and turn of their heads, Hawaiian hula dancers express the sorrow and joy of more than 1,500 years of civilization. The oldest form of the dance, hula kahiko, also can serve as a solemn prayer to nature and the ancient gods thought to rule land, sea and air.

The history of the hula, like many of the islands' ancient customs, can be traced back to Polynesian influences. Hawaii's cuisine features root vegetables like taro -- the foundation of Hawaii's favorite sticky pudding, poi -- and the tasty fish that inhabit this region. European colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries introduced a number of new species, including European pigs. Few destinations serve pork as delectable as Hawaii's version, in which a pig is placed in an imu, or underground oven, to cook until tender.

Music is another important aspect of Hawaiian life. The instrument most often linked to the islands, the ukulele, was actually introduced by Portuguese sailors in the 19th century; the tiny guitar is now a fixture of concerts featuring traditional Hawaiian tunes. Tribal drums and slack-key guitars also are common here.

A luau, the floor show of choice for a majority of Hawaiian hotels and resorts, offers a great introduction to local customs. An evening of music, dance and flavorful food provides visitors with a warm welcome to the islands.

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