The Merrie Monarch Festival swoops into town around Easter and turns laid-back Hilo into the place to be. Forget about booking a last-minute room! This sellout three-day hula competition was established in 1964 to honor King David Kalakaua (1836–91), who almost single-handedly revived Hawaiian culture and arts, which had been forbidden by missionaries for 70 years.
Top hula troupes from all the islands vie in kahiko (ancient) and ʻauana (modern) categories. Kahiko performances are strong and serious, accompanied only by chanting. ʻAuana is closer to the mainstream style, with sinuous arm movements, smiling dancers and melodious accompaniment that includes string instruments. The primal chanting, meticulous choreography and traditional costumes are profoundly moving.
The competitions are televised, but to see it live, order tickets by mail on December 1 (no earlier postmarks accepted); follow the detailed website instructions on seating and payment. The 2700 tickets sell out within a month. Book accommodations and organize car rental a year in advance.
Free performances are held earlier in the week at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium.