By Léo Azambuja

SONY DSCWhen Capt. James Cook first landed in Waimea in January 1778, it was a town of about 60 thatch huts near the coast and another 40 inland. The town has for sure grown since then – to a certain point.

The Waimea Town Celebration, kicking off mid-February, highlights a town that somehow preserved the charm and simplicity of its sugar plantation days, when several ethnicities contributed to the uniqueness of this thriving Westside community.

“Locals, visitors, kids to kupuna, the whole point is just to bring unity to the community, people coming together once a year,” said Puni Patrick, marketing chair for the Waimea Town Celebration.

The annual festival goes from Feb. 15 to 22. During those eight days, thousands of people will descend on Waimea, “A Walking Town,” to participate in what organizers say is the longest-running festival on Kaua`i – the event is in its 37th edition.

“Our whole drive is unity and community,” said Thomas Nizo, event coordinator.

SONY DSCThe Waimea Town Celebration kicks off with two days of canoe races and other ocean activities. The opening weekend also showcases the legacy of King Kaumuali`i during a special celebration at the Russian Fort Elisabeth, at the town’s entrance.

As the week unfolds, there will be a film festival, hula, storytelling, a rodeo, softball and basketball tournaments, paniolo hat lei, ukulele and ice cream eating contests, cultural demonstrations, a silent auction and a fun run.

The festival culminates with the Heritage of Aloha Ho`olaule`a, a free two-day concert featuring a long list of high-caliber entertainers. All the while, there will be unique local foods, games, rides, craft vendors and a beer garden.

Most of the events, such as the Ho`olaule`a, will take place at the Old Mill, just west of town. Other events will be held in close locations around town, such as the fun run starting at Waimea Plantation Cottages and the Roundup Rodeo at the Friendship Do Ranch at the Old Waimea Dairy.

Nizo has been involved in the festival’s organization for 18 years. He said when he steps on the stage during the last group’s performance on the Ho`olaule`a, and sees how many people in the crowd are enjoying it, that is the satisfaction he gets for all his hard work.

“That’s what drives me every year to come back,” Nizo said.

SONY DSCPatrick said the Ho`olaule`a has a carnival-like atmosphere, with everyone coming together to watch the entertainment.

In its early years, she said, the Waimea Town Celebration was just a fun run, with a carbohydrate-loading party on Friday.

“It just built from that,” Patrick said. The turning point was years ago when the West Kaua`i Business and Professional Association saw the event as an opportunity to help nonprofit organizations, and stepped in to sponsor a larger festival.

Now, Patrick said, the Waimea Town Celebration is probably the biggest fundraiser for many nonprofit organizations on Kaua`i’s Westside.

Kaua`i Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Francisco, who grew up on the Westside, still remember when the event was held mostly near Capt. James Cook statue. As it grew larger, the event’s main location eventually was moved to the Old Mill site.

Francisco said the chamber doesn’t help much with the event’s organization because the local business organization has been doing it for so many years that, despite being a big task, they have it well organized with the help of many people involved.

“I think the big thing is a nice marketing opportunity to highlight the Westside,” said Francisco, who will be cooking malasadas at the event.

SONY DSCAs an example of the monumental task to put all those events together, the Waimea Roundup Rodeo is held over the course of two days. Organizer Charleen Medeiros said last year’s rodeo attracted 182 riders who competed in nearly 800 teams.

Overall, Patrick said, the festival highlights the unique Westside culture brought about from the plantation days, with influences from Polynesians, Asians and Europeans.

“It’s just a time to be nostalgic, to remember what life was like back when the plantations were here, and how everybody was taken care of, every ethnicity was able to contribute something towards the fun,” said Patrick, adding everyone worked hard, but they also played hard.

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