The smoky perfume of island barbecue wafts into Big Island summer skies like a smoke signal, drawing crowds to Pahala’s grassy community park not far from restless Kilauea Volcano. I’m ready for a midday pick-me-up on this action-packed weekend trip from O‘ahu, and find myself perfectly positioned here, alongside a few hundred others, at the unassuming Ka‘ū Coffee Festival. Families perch at long wooden tables, sipping coffee and digging into tangy teriyaki plate lunches made from locally-ranched meats. A broad tent shields guests from passing showers that stir up the scent of red, fertile earth. And booths lined with colorful jam jars and vibrant coffee farm logos emblazon the park’s borders with a spectrum of color.

View of Pahala, Hawai‘i Island, by CT

My taster cup of one of Ka‘ū’s smooth signature brews perks me up just as this take-you-back-in-time neighborhood transports me to a slower, cozier Hawai‘i—one where everyone seems to know each other and nearly the entire neighborhood has descended to support this two-year-old festival and celebrate their prize crop. I sip it black—farmers seem to be offended when anyone asks for milk—and stroll leisurely from booth to booth, melding into the relaxed pace. While soaking up the comforting twang of ‘ukulele from the entertainment stage, I evaluate different coffees and talk story, as we locals call it, with farmers and craftspeople.

The soft-spoken Thomas “Bull” Kailaiwa, raised in Pahala, has just sold out of his and his wife’s notable brew when I stop by, so I tuck under the nearby, unforgettably named Manila Extract tent and snap up a chic handbag made from repurposed burlap coffee sacks by the adorable owner Tanya Kearns. Here and there I spy the colorful yellow aloha shirt of Chef Alan Wong, one of Hawai‘i’s premier chefs and early promoter of Ka‘ū Coffee. He serves a handful of Ka‘ū coffees at his eponymous O‘ahu restaurant Alan Wong’s, and isn’t the only one— Ka‘ū coffee was also served at President Obama’s Inaugural Gala.

But when I finally wander inside the Community Center and glimpse row upon row of Chemex beakers perched atop long tables, I see that this part of the festival is taken more seriously. Volunteer connoisseurs, consultants and experts brew local coffees for consistent tasting and to entice purchase, and the room hums with opinions about top farms—from current SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) international coffee of the year award-winners Rusty’s Hawaiian and Will & Grace Rising Sun, to up-and-comers Kailiawa Farms and Kehau’s. A simultaneous Ka‘ū Coffee recipe competition garners a lot of crowd focus, not only for the opportunity to sample the delectable results, but because celebrity Chef Wong is one of the judges. A rush of people vying for a slice of competing pastries to accompany their coffee almost drowns out the winners announcement.

As the festival winds down, my friends and I head out to Aikane Plantation, near our vacation rental, to see how this area’s beans are grown, pulped, dried and roasted. Their coffee, served by the hospitable owners Merle and Phil Becker from shiny purple bags, made it into my take-home pile, along with Lorie Obra’s Rusty’s Hawaiian. I not only ended my day with excellent coffee, but a genuine sense of connection to the area and its people that will endure well into the future.

Cultural Festivities

Like many Hawai‘i festivals, the Ka‘ū Coffee Festival (808-925-9950; kaucoffeefest.com), which kicked off its third year May 14 with coffee tastings, recipe contests, farm tours, a new online coffee auction and visiting mainland coffee traders, is all about local dignity and cultural delights. Hawai‘i people have long valued any opportunity to gather with friends and family, whether through kanikapila, playing music together, talking story, or supporting a community fundraiser or cause. Festivals often start from these humble roots and grow to become important fixtures, and most of the hundred-plus festivals that now unfold each year throughout the Islands are supported by residents who are fiercely loyal to the culture, traditions, arts, people, places and food they revere.

Across the state, “there are on average 30-40 events per island, of all different sizes,” says David Uchiyama, Vice President of Branding for the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, which promotes existing and helps launch new festivals to foster its goal of sustainable tourism. They see festivals as allowing deeper access to Hawaiian culture and also reinforcing that just one visit doesn’t reveal all of Hawai‘i’s many charms. “They showcase the cultural richness we have and really differentiate us from other destinations,” says Uchiyama. “There are things very specific to our unique host culture: hula, music, the language, the food and also surfing. Bringing these distinct differences to the forefront helps attract more visitors to our Islands.”

One of Hawai‘i’s oldest festivals is the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, which celebrated its 48th year this April in Hilo. Launched to boost island tourism after the devastating 1960 Big Island tidal wave, it was partly inspired by Maui’s raucous Lahaina Whaling Spree celebration. After a series of disconnected events, in 1968 the festival connected to its roots and set out to honor King David Kalākaua—familiarly called the merrie monarch—by bringing the state’s best hula dancers to perform and share their hula in Hilo. The competition was added in 1971 and in the following years the festival has grown to become, as my hula studio calls it, the “Olympics” of hula. In many ways, the Merrie Monarch has put Hilo on the map and become a magnet for hula dancers and aficionados worldwide, while perpetuating an ancient community and cultural tradition beloved by all.

In addition to presenting opportunities to explore aspects of Hawai‘i people particularly love, festivals also enrich and reflect the character of island communities. Nalani Brun, Kaua‘i’s economic development specialist in tourism, sees them as both island “‘ohana (family) builders” and economic supplements, supporting nonprofits and even local entertainers. Above all, Hawai‘i’s best festivals provide visitors intimate access to authentic Hawai‘i, inviting them into places where the locals hang out, to do and eat like the locals, while hearing some of Hawai‘i’s treasured musicians in a relaxed, personal setting.

Whether global gatherings or small neighborhood galas, here are some of the year’s best on each of the four major islands. I really enjoy attending festivals, especially outside my hometown on O‘ahu, because in one afternoon I really experience the flavor, and dare I say obsessions, of a community and industry. And of course, an afternoon of great food and music is for me, like all local people, one of the best ways to spend any Hawai‘i day.

Hawai‘i Island

On the largest and youngest Hawaiian island, ranching and agricultural traditions remain paramount, with culture and history dancing just behind. Attending the islands two coffee festivals reveals the new and intriguing rivalry subtly percolating between supporters of Ka‘ū Coffee, which burst onto the scene with surprise SCAA international speciality coffee recognition in 2007, and world-renowned, gran cru Kona Coffee from the West side, an economic mainstay for nearly 200 years. Not only do the two coffees stand in tense but friendly opposition—after all, they both claim superior beans with distinctive terroir—but so do their festivals.

In contrast to the freshman, grassroots style Ka‘ū Coffee Festival, the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (konacoffeefest.com) enters its 41st year November 4-13 and is Hawai‘i’s oldest food festival. Begun as an informal weekend in 1970, Kona’s grand festival now welcomes thousands to ten official days of nearly 50 events spread throughout the verdant Kona Coffee Belt. Farmers, residents and visitors mingle at its sun-drenched coffee cherry picking competitions, professional farm tours, tastings and contests, topped by the Gevalia Cupping Competition. Quiet hours of slurping and evaluating blind entries from small and established farmers lights up Keauhou Beach Resort’s view-studded lanai, where winners earn bragging rights and Gevalia guarantees purchase of 3000 pounds (around $36,000 worth) of beans from the Crown winner for its customers. That exposure, some Kona Festival-goers brag, is something “that other festival” can’t claim, and I attest it lends excitement and gravitas to the entire event.

Beyond coffee, the island also boasts popular microbrews from Kona Brewing Company, which launched the now popular nonprofit fundraiser Kona Brewers Festival (808-331-3033;konabrewersfestival.com) 16 years ago. Events began March 10 with a beer and food pairing dinner at breezy Keauhou Beach Resort, followed by a charity golf open, a Run for Hops benefitting creation of island bike paths, and a homebrew competition. Saturday’s often sold-out event extends 70 craft beer tastings from 35 local and mainland breweries not usually available in state, and what festival director Kate Jacobson calls “outrageously good cuisine” from 25 Hawai‘i chefs. “One of the reasons it’s such a charming festival is it’s a real authentic way for island visitors to interact with the local culture and community,” says Jacobson. “You have a different experience here because it’s so intimate, and you meet people doing good deeds to maintain Hawai‘i’s beautiful resources.” Tickets for this insider gathering include eight four-ounce brew tastings, unlimited food samples and a seaside Kona afternoon of local music.

One spectacular occasion I anticipate each year is the aforementioned Merrie Monarch Hula Festival (808-935-9168; merriemonarch.com), which marked its 48th anniversary this April in Hilo. Most art exhibits, craft fairs and performances are free—I know people who attend only these—but tickets are essential for the intense, three-day hula competition featuring men’s and women’s kahiko (ancient) and ‘auana (modern). Dancers practice months to years for this competition and handcraft their attire, a much discussed spectacle in addition to dancers’ prowess. The event inspires thousands in Hawai‘i and throughout the world with insights into Hawaiian history and ancient relationships with nature and environment revealed through evocative chant and song.

King Kamehameha

Another important Hawaiian figure is honored at the King Kamehameha Festival @font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section (808-884-5168) June 10, set in the North Kohala birthplace of the monarch who brought the islands under one rule by 1810. The all-day commemoration includes a floral parade, hula performances, food booths, music, and the highlight—draping the King’s statue in fragrant lei. The same day, Hilo’s Kamehameha Festival (808-989-4844; kamehamehafestival.org) hosts top Hawaiian recording artists, hula halau, a chant competition and warrior exhibition, and the next morning in Kailua-Kona, the Kamehameha Day Parade enchants with colorful pā‘u horse riders adorned with flowers representing each island.

Looking toward the future, Taste of the Hawaiian Range (808-987-3432; tasteofthehawaiianrange.com) exposes local chefs and residents to island-raised beef and other meats, and in turn helps grow Hawai‘i’s ranching and agriculture industry. More than 30 chefs prepare scrumptious tastes of local beef, wild boar, curious Kohala Mountain “oysters” and more, alongside island fruits and vegetables. “Local chefs have become more adventurous and are much more willing to prepare locally raised livestock,” says festival organizer Leomi Bergknut. “Now these products are much more readily accessible for us to enjoy from supermarkets, farmers markets and restaurants.” Graze the stations, visit vendors of local honey, vanilla, chocolate and taro, and meet the people who grow your food.

O‘ahu

There’s always something happening on Hawai‘i’s most populated and my home island, which offers often large, elaborate festivals spanning the spectrum of food, music, culture and arts.

O‘ahu’s only food and wine event, the Kahala Food and Wine Classic (808-739-8360; kahalaresort.com), pours first-class experiences with celebrity chefs and boutique wineries over two days at the southeast shore’s secluded Kahala Resort. This year’s festival blended Napa with Hawai‘i April 22-23, starting with Mustards Grill and television personality Chef Cindy Pawlcyn’s cooking class, joining her style, thinking and cuisine with local ingredients. Later, top-rated Napa vintners from Pride Mountain Vineyards offered wine pairings and a “wineology” seminar, and Davidoff Cigars of Geneva present a cigar lesson and late-night smoking occasion under the stars. “We really focus on making sure the food and wine pairings are matched up well, rather than other events where they’re presented as separate,” says Hoku’s Executive Chef Wayne Hirabayashi of this polished and pleasurable way to enjoy a stunning Pacific panorama.

Who would think that SPAM®, invented in 1937, could shut down Waikīkī’s main strip each April for an animated street festival? Though some argue if it’s really “food,” only in Hawai‘i does the Waikiki SPAM JAM® (808-255-5927; spamjamhawaii.com) passionately say otherwise about this traditional local ingredient, featured in treats like fried rice or SPAM® musubi rolls. Benefitting the Hawai‘i Foodbank, last year’s free event saw 24,000 people delight in two entertainment stages, a dozen restaurants cooking up inventive SPAM® dishes, and themed crafts for sale. This year’s April 30 family-friendly day again echoed the ingredients of this inimitable fest.

Lantern Floating Festival

Striking an equally unique but more thoughtful note, the 13th annual Lantern Floating Hawai‘i festival (lanternfloatinghawaii.com) draws on the Asian spiritual practice of floating lanterns to extend prayers for victims of war, natural and man-made disasters, accidents, famine, disease, and departed friends and family. Last year, more than 2000 lanterns symbolizing peaceful coexistence illuminated the Pacific, and on May 31, you can add your personal wishes at this atmospheric ceremony attended by over 40,000 people from across the globe.

As an ‘ukulele player, one of my summer favorites is Roy Sakuma’s ‘Ukulele Festival Hawai‘i (ukulelefestivalhawaii.org), hosted at seaside Kapi‘olani Park since 1971. Even when short on time, I enjoy stopping by to sit in the grass and marvel at those who play much better than I could ever hope. But you don’t have to play the uke to appreciate this energetic musical bonanza under shady, expansive Monkey Pod trees with views of iconic Diamond Head. On July 17, stroll around the bandstand or picnic while ‘ukulele players take the stage—including an 800-student orchestra, celebrities and virtuosos—and enjoy a classic summer Hawai‘i day.

Later in the year, the country’s largest “east meets west” festival, and last major film festival before the Oscars, hits Honolulu to local and international moviegoer delight. The 11-day, 31st annual Hawai‘i International Film Festival (808-792-1577; hiff.org) opens this October (tentatively Oct. 13-23), continuing its focus on niche Asian films, which often start here, and those made in Hawai‘i, Pacific Rim, Europe and South America. “Why show Hollywood films that are going to open in a month?” says festival director Chuck Boller, who’d rather parade more than 200 movies you might not see elsewhere, including many world and national premiers like former unknowns Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Piano and Y Tu Mama Tambien that went on to become huge hits.

Maui

Maui’s Whale Festival makes a splash

Beyond imposing volcanoes and valleys, Maui is also known for famed agricultural products, its ancient past and a present filled with contemporary stars. The over four-month long Maui Whale Festival (808-249-8811; mauiwhalefestival.org) ran through May 11, celebrating the season when Humpback Whales are easily spotted offshore. Last year, more than 25,000 people attended a spree of whale-themed events, and this year’s 31st anniversary again features such favorites as the Run for the Whales (February 5), Whale Day, (February 19), viewing and information stations, and lectures on understanding and saving whales. Most events concentrate in February, but the magnificent kohola can still be seen throughout March and April.

Sometimes tiny staples make the biggest impact, like culturally significant kalo (taro) root, honored at the 19th annual East Maui Taro Festival (808-264-1553; tarofestival.org) at Hana Ball Park. April 30th showcased music and hula performances, 45 arts and crafts booths, a farmer’s market and 20 food booths incorporating taro into dishes (think taro burgers and taro chowder), all while guests and experts pound poi, make stone pounders and other traditional crafts. May 1st began with a taro pancake breakfast and expands to two cultural excursions to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, home to the largest Hawaiian stone temple, and Kapahu Living Farm to pull or plant taro.

The state’s longest running food and wine event, Kapalua Food and Wine Festival (kapalua.com), turns 30 this year, and Maui’s own Chef Peter Merriman, a pioneer of Hawai‘i Regional cuisine, will host a Sunday luncheon that organizers believe will be the highlight of this June 9-12 weekend of seminars and tastings. Other favorites are Friday’s Maui-Grown Gala tasting evening, showcasing local culinary stars and more than 200 global wines; and Sunday’s Seafood Festival, where island restaurants compete for the best seafood dish.

Topping my Valley Isle go-to list is the star-studded Maui Film Festival (808-579-9996; mauifilmfestival.com) June 15-19. Prior years have seen such luminaries as Clint Eastwood, Owen Wilson, Zooey Deschanel and Helen Hunt in attendance, but the real treat is open-air and beachfront screenings that place exclusively enlightening, life-affirming films in paradise. “People come for the films, and for the celebratory aspect of the experience,” says director Barry Rivers, who calls their Celestial Cinema, a dramatic outdoor venue with a 50-foot screen, their Nike swoosh. “It’s under the stars and lit by the moon, and literally powered with solar power,” says Rivers. “It’s raved about as one of the best theatrical movie-going experiences anywhere.” In addition to screening more than 50 narrative, documentary and international feature films to audiences of 20,000 or more, it’s also about culinary arts, with six food and wine events to soothe palate and soul.

Kaua‘i

Prince Jonah Kuhio

Most Garden Isle festivals erupt in larger town parks, so keep watch for local events as you’re passing by. Many visitors and kama‘aina build trips around the week long Prince Kuhio Celebration (808-240-6369; princekuhio.wetpaint.com) at Koloa’s Prince Kuhio Park and the south shore’s Grand Hyatt Resort and Spa. Honoring the birthday and birthplace of Hawai‘i’s beloved monarch, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, this affair perpetuates traditional Hawaiian practices he fought to maintain. “It offers an intimacy with the culture on every level including food, music and history,” says festival director Stella Burgess.

Events include canoe races, salt making, weaving, men’s hula performances, taiko drummers, “talk-story” gatherings with kupuna, a royal feast and musical entertainment, like popular slack key guitarist Ledward Kaapana’s performance on Saturday, the biggest day. “We don’t put on a showy festival—we put on a come and learn festival,” says Burgess. “No one walks away without learning and taking something home.”

The sugar plantation era is another integral aspect of Hawaiian history, and one of the most enjoyable ways to learn about it is the south shore’s nine-day Koloa Plantation Days (808-652-3217; koloaplantationdays.com). “While Kaua‘i closed its last sugar plantation in 2009, there are still many community residents who grew up in the camps or worked in the sugar plantations today and can remember the unique combination of cultures, languages, foods, music, dance, games and culture which comprised camp life,” says event coordinator Melissa McFerrin. Residents and visitors unite July 23-31, exploring the area’s archaeology, ecology and multicultural history alongside diverse culinary treats and cultural activities.

October welcomes two homegrown Kaua‘i celebrations. The two-day Coconut Festival (808-651-3273; kbakauai.org) rocks the east side’s coconut coast October 1-2 with coconut-themed Polynesian entertainment, historical and culture exhibits, 80 craft vendors, cooking by top island chefs, and demonstrations of coconut husking, milk-making, tree climbing and more. The next weekend, October 8, the 22nd Emalani Hula Festival (kokee.org) gathers hundreds of hula dancers in Koke‘e State Park’s Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow. Hawaiian music, cultural demonstrations and outdoor exhibits are presented alongside hula performed in a natural setting, as intended.

No matter what festival you decide to attend, this year or next, you’re sure to get close and personal with local communities, experiencing Hawai‘i’s myriad textures and pleasures through the eyes of those who live here. Maybe I’ll see you there.

By Christine Thomas
Originally appeared in Alaska Airlines Magazine, March 2011

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