Hula is the language of the heart. Therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” — King David Kalākaua
It’s the first day of Spring! And that means it’s almost time to make the short drive from Volcano to Hilo, Hawai’i and celebrate the language of the heart, hula! Honoring the legacy of King David Kalākaua, who inspired the perpetuation of Hawaii’s traditions, native language, and arts, the Merrie Monarch Festival celebrates 60 years of existence in 2023. Running from April 9 through April 15, the festival features an internationally acclaimed hula competition, an invitational Hawaiian arts fair, hula shows, a grand parade through Hilo town, and more!
A Big Economic Boost for the Big Island
The year was 1963, and the decline of the Hāmākua Coast’s sugar industry paired with a devastating tsunami left Hawaiʻi Island struggling economically. Hawaiʻi County’s Chairwoman at the time, Helene Hale, was looking to give the Big Island a big economic boost by taking advantage of the promising tourist industry.
As such, Hale commissioned her Promoter of Activities, George Naʻope, and her Administrative Assistant, Gene Wilhelm, to study the Lahaina Whaling Spree and its impact on Maui’s economy. Uncle George and Uncle Gene returned inspired by the lessons they learned. And by 1964, a committee was formed. Out of that grew the inaugural Merrie Monarch Festival, which included events such as a King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest, a re-creation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, a relay race, a barbershop quartet contest, and a Holokū Ball. By 1968, however, interest in the festival was fading.
Fortunately, Dottie Thompson volunteered to serve as the Executive Director of the Merrie Monarch Festival and led a shift in the festival’s objectives. With a new goal of reflecting King Kalākaua’s passion for revitalizing Hawaiian culture, the revamped festival set out to gather the best hula dancers from all the islands for a performance in celebration of Hawai’i and its people.
By 1971, Aunty Dottie, Uncle George, and a handful of talented kumu hula introduced a hula competition to the festival. That year, there was a wahine (women’s) group competition and a Miss Hula coronation. The interest in Merrie Monarch grew exponentially in 1976 when the competition was opened to kāne (men).
In 1980, a third night of competition was added to accommodate the growing number of entrants for the Miss Aloha Hula competition. That same year, the festival sold out for the first time in its history.
As time went on, the requests from hālau who wished to enter the competition skyrocketed, as did the spectators who wished to attend, driving the Merrie Monarch Festival to become the sensation it is today! In fact, since tickets for the 2023 festival went on sale in December 2022, Merrie Monarch has received over 2,300 competition requests from around the world!
For a full week, the hoolaulea (celebration) takes over Hilo. And if you’re visiting Hawai’i Island that week, we fully encourage you to get caught up in the festivities! Here are some of the events you can look forward to:
The following events and activities are free to the public. Even so, be sure to plan ahead to get the best seat:
The primer for the main event, Hoolaulea kicks off the Merrie Monarch Festival. Taking place on Sunday, April 9 at 9 am, the event showcases Hawaiian ceremonies, traditions, and performances by local hula halau (hula schools) at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.
A fan favorite, these performances begin at 6 pm on Wednesday, April 12. Watch folk dancers and hula halau from across the Pacific put on their own exhibition in the heart of the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium.
Hawaiian Arts Fair
Focused on the arts, this fair runs from the middle of Merrie Monarch week all the way to the end of the festival. Housed in the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, discover the talents of local artisans, crafters, and live entertainment from April 12 through April 15.
Merrie Monarch Royal Parade
It doesn’t get any grander than the Merrie Monarch Royal Parade on April 15, which brings the entire town together, from pau horseback riders and high school bands to local musicians and performers who will parade through Hilo.
The following events are ticketed.
Miss Aloha Hula
Holding the title of Miss Aloha Hula is the ultimate dream of many a hula dancer. And on the night of Thursday, April 13, it will become a reality for Hawaii’s best female dancer. After being judged on their hula kahiko (traditional dance), hula ‘auana (modern dance), and oli (chant), as well as their proficiency in olelo Hawai’i and overall presentation, Miss Aloha Hula will be officially crowned at 6 pm in the Edith Kanakaole Stadium.
On Friday, April 14 at 6 pm , the competing hālau are split into wahine (women) and kane (men) divisions. Using hula to shine a light on Hawaii’s legends and stories, dancers perform the hula in its ancient style, often accompanied by traditional instruments, at the Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium.
Hula ‘Auana and Awards
To close the Merrie Monarch Festival, the hula ‘auana competition presents a more modern hula performance to the audience on Saturday, April 15 at 6:00 pm. Hula ‘auana is structured much like the hula kahiko, with halau splitting into male and female divisions. Held at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium, competitors often wear colorful lei, elaborate costumes, and dance accompanied by modern stringed instruments.
An awards presentation for all group winners of the hula kahiko and hula ‘auana competitions follows the performance. It’s the perfect way to wrap up the cultural and iconic event that is the Merrie Monarch Festival!
Although the Merrie Monarch Festival began as an initiative to boost Hawaiʻi Island’s economy, the event now possesses a much greater purpose: To perpetuate Hawaiian culture. Just as Kalākaua endeavored to strengthen the Hawaiian people through the revitalization of cultural practices, the festival seeks to ensure the vibrancy of Hawaii’s culture for generations to come.
With so much to see and do during festival week, Volcano Heritage Cottages is the perfect place to stay. Tutu’s Place and the Ola’a House are conveniently located 26 miles from Hilo. From Volcano, you can easily get to Merrie Monarch for all the festivities. And when you’re ready to relax, you can escape the hustle and bustle of Hilo in one of our charming cottages. Book your stay today!