When the Merrie Monarch Festival comes to Hilo, the normally sleepy town awakens with the hustle and bustle of adoring hula fans from around the world.
Getting a table at Ken’s Pancake House takes a little longer; Papale and lei become a common sight; and it’s expected you’ll run into an aunty or uncle almost anywhere you go.
Craft fairs, Hawaiian-style fashion shows and free concerts fill the early days of April surrounding the world’s largest hula competition. Television and news crews converge on Hawaii Island, and the town is thrust into the international spotlight for hula.
Traffic becomes a little heavier as the demand for flights, hotel rooms and rental cars increases, bringing a boost to the local economy. Anticipation builds in the days leading up to the three nights of intense competition, and a buzz of excitement seems to hum throughout the town.
"I wish it was every day of the year that we do that," Kahele added.
The who’s who of Hawaiian arts can be found at Merrie Monarch; Award-winning musicians, kumu hula, fashion designers and local celebrities attend the hottest event in town.
On Sunday, the 55th annual Merrie Monarch Festival came to an end. Hawaii Aloha echoed through Edith Kanaka'ole Multi-Purpose Stadium in the wee hours of the morning after halau from across the state and mainland brought their best hula kahiko and ‘auana performances to the stage.
"As much as we are hula practitioners, we are also the greatest fans of the other halau in this competition. We're just in awe of every halau that comes on this stage," Kumu Hula Napua Greig of Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka said.
They won the trophy for highest overall score for combined kahiko and 'auana. The 2018 Miss Aloha Hula, Shalia Kamakaokalani, also hails from Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka.
But aside from the competition, many will say Merrie Monarch is about perpetuating the art of hula, Hawaiian culture and 'olelo Hawai'i.
"Merrie Monarch is that annual reminder to keep us going and remind us what our kulena is to make sure that things like this are around for our keiki and our mo'opuna (grandchildren) and future generations to come," Shaun Kamakea said.
"One of the exciting things to see is hula has moved from the realm of entertainment in to the realm of functionality again," Kamakea said.
After the week-long festivities end, Hilo seems to take a sigh of relief in a way, symbolizing the success of another annual competition.
The residents of Hilo are known for their kind aloha spirit and warm hospitality — which was on display in shops, hotels and every part of Hilo.
"The thing that I love the most is the excitement that it brings. Everyone brings the best of everything: Their personality, their lole, lei — just everything and everyone is just excited for this special time of year," Hawaii Island resident Ku'ehu Mauga said.