Merrie Monarch Festival nominated for USA Today’s top 10 Best Cultural Festivals

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The annual Merrie Monarch Festival is a showcase of everything Hawaiian. It’s a cultural extravaganza of art, music, crafts, food, community and hula.

Ka Lā ʻŌnohi Mai O Haʻehaʻe from Oʻahu was the overall winner at the 60th annual Merrie Monarch hula competition in 2023. (File photo by Cody Yamaguchi/Merrie Monarch Festival)

The weeklong festival, which is now in its 61st year, has become a worldwide phenomenon, seen by hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 150 countries and more than 6,000 cities internationally.

Thousands more from Hawaiʻi and around the globe — including hula dancers, kumu (teachers) and fans — also make the trek to the Big Island community of Hilo each year to attend.

The festival is already the most prestigious hula event in the world, with its three days of individual and group competition at the Edith Kanakaʻole Multi-Purpose Stadium. Now, it could be voted as one of the 10 best cultural affairs in the United States.

As of Saturday afternoon, the Merrie Monarch Festival was still standing strong at No. 1 in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards online vote for Best Cultural Festival.

Voting ends at noon Eastern time (6 a.m. Hawaiʻi time; Daylight Saving Time started early Sunday morning for most of the mainland) March 18. People can vote once per day until then, with the top 10 winners to be announced March 27.


Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu said it was awesome to be among the nominees.

“I was so humbled,” said Kawelu, who has led the festival since 2010 and found out about the recognition when organizers of the Merrie Monarch Royal Parade forwarded a request for a festival photo from USA Today 10Best and that the festival had been nominated. “It’s such an honor to be recognized.”

USA Today 10Best editors narrowed down the list of exceptional festivals throughout the nation to just 20 after receiving nominations from a panel of seven experts.

The panel includes Marla Cimini, an avid globetrotter and guidebook writer who has written about food trends and luxury beachfront resorts in Hawaiʻi. Cimini lives in New Jersey and is a frequent visitor to the islands.

Photo courtesy of the Merrie Monarch Festival

“Cultural festivals celebrate the rich heritages that have shaped the United States, whether through music, visual art, dance, competitions or sumptuous culinary delights,” USA Today 10Best says. “These vibrant festivals bridge generations and broaden horizons, and every one of them delivers something special.”


Hula is truly Hawaiian. The dance was developed in the islands by their original Polynesian settlers and became a way for ancient Hawaiians, who had no written language, to express and chronicle their culture.

Hula and chant were both used to record mythology, genealogy, history, religion and more.

The dance of the Hawaiian people also has stayed essentially the same since its beginnings, steadfastly uninfluenced by dance traditions of other ethnic groups that have since made the islands their home.

“Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people,” said King David Kalākaua, the last king of Hawaiʻi who reigned from Feb. 12, 1874, until his death Jan. 20, 1891.

The Merrie Monarch Festival honors the legacy and is dedicated to the memory of Kalākaua, who was called the “Merrie Monarch” because of his fun-loving and flamboyant nature. He also was a patron of the arts, especially dance and music, and inspired the perpetuation of Hawaiian traditions, language and arts.

An old photograph of former Merrie Monarch Festival Executive Director Dottie Thompson and her daughter, current Merrie Monarch Festival President Luana Kawelu. (File photo courtesy of the Merrie Monarch Festival Facebook page)

The festival began for economic development reasons in 1963 following the devastating 1960 tsunami in Hilo. Kawelu said it was when her mother Dottie Thompson took over as executive director in 1968 that the focus of the festival changed.

“She made it more cultural and hula became the prime focus of the festival,” she said. “The hula is so spiritual to the people of Hawaiʻi. … It’s not just only dancing, there’s a spirituality with it that makes it more special.”

The mission of the Merrie Monarch Festival is to preserve, perpetuate and promote the art of hula and all Hawaiian culture.

Kawelu said the deep dedication the kumu, or teachers, give to the culture of hula is in full display when they and their hālau, or groups, take the Merrie Monarch stage.

“They take it so seriously. It’s not something you just throw together. It has a lot of meaning and it’s deep culturally,” she said. “It means a lot. I have so much admiration for the kumu, what they go through for the 7 minutes on that state. The time, the love for the culture and the dancers, all of that is shown on that stage and that’s why I think we’re so popular around the world.”

Rounding out the top 10 on the USA Today 10Best leaderboard for Best Cultural Festival on Saturday afternoon were:

  • 2. Rougarou Fest in Houma, La.
  • 3. Kutztown Folk Festiva in Kutztown, Pa.
  • 4. Dublin Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio.
  • 5. YéShì Chinatown Night Market in Philadelphia.
  • 6. Greek Agora Festival in Cherry Hill, N.J.
  • 7. San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival & Parade in San Francisco.
  • 8. Aloha Festivals in Hawaiʻi.
  • 9. Bavarian Blast in New Ulm, Minn.
  • 10. Frozen Dead Guy Days in Estes Park, Colo.

Kawelu felt bad because Merrie Monarch and the Aloha Festivals are both nominated. With Aloha Festivals at No. 8 on Saturday though, there’s still the chance both could end up in the top 10. Kawelu said they definitely deserve recognition, too.

Photo courtesy of the Merrie Monarch Festival.

“So proud!!” said Instagram user julianakaleii in reply to a Feb. 19 post by the festival about the nomination to be considered for best cultural festival. “I’m glad our culture is being seen.”

Instagram user linagirl commented on the same post that if Hawaiʻi can help “our bruddah” Iam Tongi become the American Idol, “we can kākoʻo our hula traditions as well.”

The post from the festival said it is grateful to be recognized by USA Today as one of the best cultural festivals in the nation and urged everyone to cast their vote “and help celebrate the language of the heart!”

“The Merrie Monarch Festival is a living testimonial to the resilience and pride of our Hawaiian people and culture,” said Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth. “Merrie Monarch should be awarded the Best Cultural Festival because it lives beyond the borders of the Edith Kanakaʻole stadium. Its spirit is felt every day throughout our community, and we are so honored to have the privilege to host it here in Hilo.”

To vote for the Merrie Monarch Festival, click here. You can check out all the other nominees here.

For more information about USA Today 10Best, including official Readers’ Choice Awards rules and the other experts who selected the nominees, click here.

The 61st annual Merrie Monarch Festival begins on Easter Sunday, March 31, and runs through April 6.

“We’re very excited,” Kawelu said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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