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Hawaiians often speak about the spirit of aloha, a kind of traditional belief system that embodies native island culture.

When the word "aloha" appeared in the salutations of e-mails from people helping me plan a trip to the Big Island, I thought of it as the local version of the habitual "have a nice day." But aloha - the local greeting that has a multitude of meanings, including love, grace and compassion - is also the symbol of Hawaiian heritage. And after exploring the culture with native Hawaiians, it was the rich, spiritual side of island life that stayed with me.

Kilohana Domingo, a master lei maker, chants a blessing to the ancients as we hike through the scrubby forest near his guest house, searching for plants to make braided haku leis. It's a stark, blackened landscape of old lava beds, but if you look closely, you see beauty - spiky red Pua lehua flowers, sword ferns and tiny succulent plants pushing up through the cracks.

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"For me, leis are about sharing, an expression of your aloha," Domingo says as we sit on his shady porch, weaving the leaves and flowers into the kind of anklets and headpieces he wore as a competitive hula dancer.

"I made leis because of hula - we had to make our own for hula school," he explains, pointing to a wall displaying colourful necklaces made with feathers, shells or fat black kukui (candle nuts). "Historically, it was flowers or leaves, but seaweed ... went into the leis when we were dancing about the sea and if the chant is about bird catchers, we wore feathers."

Domingo has a degree in Hawaiian studies and received a Smithsonian fellowship for his feather work, while his mother, Lehua, is an accomplished weaver. Lei making and weaving are intimately connected to hula, the dance that is central to the Hawaiian tradition of storytelling through music, chanting and hand movements.

Although hula is at the core of Hawaiian identity, it was banned in the early 1800s by zealous missionaries, offended by the idea of men and women dancing together to honour ancient gods. By the mid-1950s, hula had been appropriated for hotel luaus and Hollywood movies, the ancient and traditional hula kahiko replaced by a kind of modern hula dancing and music designed for pure entertainment, immortalized in jiggling hula lamps and dashboard figurines.

Today, traditional hula is part of a Hawaiian renaissance, offering a fascinating initiation into island history and culture.

Domingo offers language classes and cultural workshops from his home near South Point, a sacred part of the island where the first Polynesians arrived nearly 2,000 years ago. It's a windswept spot, near the famous Green Sand Beach, where you can find sacred burial mounds dedicated to elders.

"When I was growing up, my parents weren't allowed to speak Hawaiian in public," says Domingo, offering a traditional chant to show respect as we move along a windy cliff to a cairn topped with coral, whales carved in wood and pukka shell leis.

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While some sacred Hawaiian sites are public - such as the spectacular Place of Refuge and Puako Petroglyph Archeological Preserve, where thousands of ancient petroglyphs are etched into a sea of lava - visitors should treat these places with respect.

Our introduction to the traditional hula - danced in long ti-leaf skirts at the edge of the Kilauea crater, with the ancient chants and thumping of fat gourd drums called ipu - was the religious experience it was meant to be, powerful and meaningful.

While it may be impossible for an outsider to follow the poetic stories, told in the Hawaiian language, the power of the ancient dance is palpable.

Hula is a strict discipline, practised by men and women, and taught by revered hula masters. The expressive hand movements, stomping feet and songs were originally designed to honour high chiefs and powerful spirits, such as the goddesses Laka and Pele, while passing on the historical sagas and legends to their mortal audiences.

And for the past 40 years, the dances and stories have been performed for visitors at the Super Bowl of hula competitions, the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in the Big Island's largest city, Hilo. The week-long festival is so popular, tickets to events can sell out months in advance.

Held each year the week after Easter (this year from March 30 to April 5), the festival brings together hundreds of the best hula dancers from around the world. Performers from more than 30 hula groups, or halau, compete onstage in the Hilo stadium and hula classes for beginners are taught by experts at local hotels. The week-long festival includes a Merrie Monarch parade and a Miss Aloha Hula competition.

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Hula dancers not only study with masters for many years to learn the language and stories, they also create their own costumes, natural braided haku leis and headdresses to accompany each dance. Both kinds of hula are showcased at the Merrie Monarch festival: the ancient hula kahiko, designed to honour elders or commemorate important events, and the lively auana hula, set to modern ukulele and slack-key guitar music, for pure entertainment.

Dedicated to King David Kalakaua, the monarch who resurrected traditional hula at his coronation in 1883, the hula festival has been a catalyst for the rebirth of Hawaiian traditions.

It's a full week of activities and celebrations and the place to see authentic Hawaiian culture in action, men and women performing and competing in an art form that is both exciting and sacred.

And it's the best place to get in touch with that magical Hawaiian spirit of aloha.

Pack your lei

Getting there

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You can fly direct to Kona on the Big Island with WestJet and Air Canada; several airlines offer connecting routes.

Where to stay

Kalaekilohana Bed and Breakfast 808-939-8052; . Kilohana Domingo and Kenny Joyce offer a complete immersion in Hawaiian life in their contemporary guest house. Set in the countryside near the southern tip of Ka Lae island, where the first Polynesians landed and settled, suites range from $139 to $159.

Hilo Hawaiian Hotel 1-800-367-5004; . The city's luxury hotel, overlooking Coconut Island in the bay and featuring the excellent Queen's Court restaurant. Site of several Merrie Monarch festival events.

Fairmont Orchid 1-800-257-7544; . On the opposite side of the island from Hilo, this is a spectacular place to stay that is near the airport and great restaurants in Waimea. The beach is one of the best places to snorkel with green sea turtles, and dinner on the beachside terrace is magical. The hotel also offers a Broadway-style dinner show/luau celebrating Polynesian history and culture.

What to do

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The Merrie Monarch Hula Festival Held each spring in the Kanakaole Stadium in Hilo, on the Big Island. It's a popular festival, so be sure to order in advance for tickets to events, which cost about $15 to $25 each. Proceeds support local educational scholarships, workshops and cultural symposiums. .

More hula You can also see authentic hula in regular performances at the Volcano Art Center ( ) and at the Kupuna Hula Festival held in September for elders ( ).

Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park A peninsula of black lava jutting out into the sea where traditional Hawaiian lifestyle is preserved. ( ).

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