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The annual Festivals of Aloha celebration welcomes everyone to experience the true meaning of "aloha"

You’ve probably heard the remark while on your flight here to Maui. Or perhaps you have seen the gesture in a lei greeting to a loved one. Many people hear or see the word expressed, but few understand its true meaning. A term so endearing, its definition spans meanings from a simple “hello” to an expression of love. This word, often practiced by those living in Hawaii, is known as “aloha.”

In an effort to express what many locals call the “aloha spirit,” the Festivals of Aloha —an over half-a-century-old celebration of Hawaii’s culture for those visiting during the islands’ “off-season”—will take place during September and October.

©Barton Hrast

As the Maui County coordinator for the Festivals of Aloha, Wailuku native, Yuki Lei Sugimura, found her role to be a natural fit, experiencing the feeling of “aloha” when she returned to her home island of Maui.

“I lived on the mainland for six years and when I was gone I never realized how beautiful (Maui) is,” says Sugimura. “It’s more than the beaches and the gorgeous Haleakala, it’s the people in Maui who make it so special.”

The people, she says, along with the tight-knit bond of communities within Maui, make the Festival of Aloha events possible. And the planning process helps create a connection of unity among participants.

Starting in Wailuku, the Festivals of Aloha will kick off on Friday, Sept. 5 with a lively First Friday street festival, followed by a month filled with entertainment, local culinary vendors, artisans and crafters, and an annual falsetto competition hosted by legendary musician Richard Ho‘opi‘i.

©Lisa Villarimo

Culminating the Festivals of Aloha will be a weeklong extravaganza in the quiet, close-knit town of Hana.

“I’m looking forward to my poke plate,” laughs Neil Hasegawa, a consultant for the Festivals of Aloha in Hana, as he describes his favorite part of the event. “Eating is a big part of the culture in Maui. If you haven’t tried any local food, this is the time and place to do it.”

From a parade, live entertainment and makahiki games to a fishing tournament and a talent show competition, thousands will gather, says Hasegawa, for the Festivals of Aloha event because of their need to feel and be a part of the community.

“The Festivals of Aloha is about coming together and celebrating each other’s culture,” Hasegawa says. “It’s about inviting people in and sharing our aloha. That’s what it truly is about.”