Merrie Monarch Festival voted No. 1 in USA Today readers’ poll


The Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo has been named the top cultural festival in the United States by the readers of USA Today.

A panel of travel experts assembled a list of 20 nominees nationwide. Readers voted for the top 10, and the Merrie Monarch prevailed, finishing No. 1 in the readers’ poll.


“I’m so humbled. Oh, my goodness,” Luana Kawelu, the Merrie Monarch Festival president, said Thursday. “I so appreciate everybody who voted for us and supported us being No. 1. I want to thank them for their love of hula and their support of Merrie Monarch.”

Mayor Mitch Roth said it’s “very exciting to see that Merrie Monarch is being recognized.”

“It’s something that everybody in Hawaii should be proud of — not just Hilo, not just the Big Island, but the entire state. It’s our way of sharing our culture to the world,” Roth said.

The Aloha Festivals, which is a statewide event, finished No. 9 in the national polling.

The weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival is held yearly, starting on Easter Sunday. It is dedicated to the memory of King David Kalakaua (1836-1891), who was known as the Merrie Monarch.

Kalakaua, a dedicated patron of the arts, revived the hula, which had been driven underground with an 1830 ban by Queen Ka‘ahumanu at the urging of Christian missionaries in Hawaii.

Hula takes center stage during the festival with the free Ho‘olaule‘a starting at 9 a.m. Sunday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.

Free Hawaiian music and hula performances happen daily next week at the Grand Naniloa and Hilo Hawaiian hotels, with hula and Hawaiian lectures taking place at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, and the Merrie Monarch Hawaiian Arts and Crafts Fair next Wednesday through Saturday at the civic.

There’s also the Ho‘ike, an exhibition of hula and Pacific Rim dance on Wednesday evening at the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium. It’s free this year, although the festival organizers will be accepting donations for Maui relief for the devastating wildfires that killed at least 100 people in August.

Also free is the Royal Parade next Saturday, which winds its way through downtown Hilo starting at 10:30 a.m.

But the festival’s crown jewel is the three-day hula competition, which starts in the evening Thursday, with 13 wahine dancers between the ages of 18 and 25 vying for Miss Aloha Hula, the most coveted title a solo hula contestant can earn. On Friday it’s the group Hula Kahiko (ancient hula) competition, with group Hula ‘Auana and the awards ceremonies next Saturday.

Those three nights are televised live statewide on K5, channels 6 and 1006 on Spectrum and Hawaiian Telcom cable. It’s also livestreamed globally at

“I don’t want to brag, but I’m so humbled and so thrilled because this recognition shines the light on the hula and all the hard work that the kumu and the ‘olapa (dancers) do,” Kawelu said. “I’m so proud of them and the light should be shone on them. The Merrie Monarch is only the vessel that brings them all together to showcase them.”

Roth noted that Hilo also is in the running for Top 10 Coastal Towns in another USA readers’ poll, which is still ongoing, but will end soon. He said Kawelu, her daughter Kathy and their family deserve the recognition USA Today’s readers’ poll brings.

“A lot of people think Merrie Monarch comes just one time of the year, but they work the year around to make the festival happen. Aunty Luana’s mother (the late Dorothy Thompson) started the hula competition, and through their tireless efforts and the amazing work that they do, they have made the festival what it is today.”

Roth then paraphrased a famous quote by the Merrie Monarch, himself.

“Hula is the heartbeat of Hawaii, and Hilo is the heartbeat of the Merrie Monarch,” the mayor said.

Email John Burnett at

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