A pair of massive mountains in the middle of Hawaii Island divide it into two. Rain-bearing clouds coming in from the open ocean hit the slopes of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and drop their payload as they climb, creating a distinct rain shadow and a dichotomy of climate. That dichotomy of climate leads to one of the best climates on earth for growing produce. Produce offered at the Hilo Farmers Market.
There’s the dry, rugged Kona side with endless black swaths of lavafield and thorny, parched shrubs, along with pastureland of golden grass (and many spectacular beaches, too). And then there’s the Hilo side, eternally green and lush with rushing rivers, towering trees and patches of jungle so thick they’re impassable. These are the two main climate zones on the island, caused by a staggering imbalance of rainfall made possible by its two exceptionally tall mountains.
In terms of agriculture, this makes East Hawaii Island a farmer’s dream: a year-round hot humid climate with plenty of sunshine and dependable, intermittent rainfall. And so much of the produce from the countless farms and gardens strewn across the island’s “wet” side passes through the town of Hilo – Hawai’i Island’s largest city and the second largest in the state.
This means that Hilo Farmers’ Market on the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street in downtown and open everyday is hands-down the best place on the island to sample all the tropical bounty Hawai’i has to offer, all fresh off the produce truck from its countless scattered, rural farms. The market is located in a newly built open-air shelter found along Hilo’s legendary, picturesque bayfront, which features a string of windswept, colorful shops selling everything from homemade candy to ukuleles to volcano art to health food. The market complex basically marks the beginning of the commercial district, which goes on for a handful of blocks where it finally ends at the Wailuku River.
This makes Hilo Farmers’ Market a sort of waypoint into downtown for many visitors, who start their exploration of the iconic boulevard while sipping on a freshly chopped coconut or munching on a bag full of lychee fruit. The quality and variety of the fresh produce stacked up to impossible heights on the rows of plastic folding tables within the shelter is without equal on the island, leading many longtime locals to consider it the best farmers’ market. It’s here that mainlanders can be spotted bug-eyed and euphoric at tasting flavors that they never knew existed; fruits like soursop, mangosteen, rambutan, durian, rollinia, jackfruit and the many different types of sapote.
It’s here that so many visitors experience what locals call the “fruit tour”. Many consider it an indispensable part of coming to East Hawaii Island, which perhaps almost makes up for its supreme lack of beaches compared to the Kona side. Sampling different strange new exotic fruits and trying to describe their flavor is the order of the day: the jackfruit tastes like Juicyfruit Gum, the soursop tastes like Starbursts, the durian tastes like creamy onions.
The tables are worked primarily by local women of different ethnicities, who are often yelling across the noisy market to one another in several different languages at once. They operate as cash-only unless otherwise posted, and usually speak good enough English to answer basic questions about the strange fruits piled on the tables. Their prices are usually reasonable, and are often cheaper than buying the same fruit from the same orchard in one of Hilo’s supermarkets.
Water Coconuts, Staple Crops, Flowers and Strange Fruit
At one end of the market is the solitary coconut vendor, who will let customers pick out their ideal nut and watch it get sliced open before their eyes – just another iconic Hawaiian sight in a town with many others to see. A burly woman confidently swings a machete, slicing away the coconut’s outer husk as the sound of the tool striking against the table adds to the market din. She cracks the inner chamber of sweet, refreshing water with an audible pop, and drops in a straw before handing it to her smiling customer who’s been filming the whole process.
A few tables down are the flower-sellers; women carefully working beneath rainbow-print parasols preparing fresh cut flowers and arranging bouquets. Market-goers’ eyes are immediately drawn to the waxy, blood-red Anthurium flowers interspersed in their elegant arrangements, complimented by various colors of ornamental ginger and even clumps of roses in the back.
Then there are vendors hawking bags of local staple crops, too, like the ubiquitous purple sweet potato and soft, sticky, sweet-smelling orbs of breadfruit. There’s even several tables offering the giant, woody roots of the taro plant – more accurately called “corms”, which seem hardly edible at first. This is the crop which ancient Hawaiians used to make their local staple dish, “poi”. Poi is a lightly fermented paste of pulverized taro root, often paired with a protein source like fish or pork, which is still eaten today in earnest all over the State. Taro is known as a “canoe plant”, referring to the small collection of crucial plants that the original Polynesian settlers brought with them in their outrigger sailing canoes to Hawaii to start their new civilization.
Offering crops like taro makes Hilo Farmers’ Market a great resource for visitors wanting to try a bit of Polynesian cooking during their stay on the island, whether it’s attempting a traditional batch of poi or making something more relatable like breadfruit french fries or coconut yogurt. The vendors in Hilo are friendly and patient, and many are plugged into the East Hawaii agriculture scene, creating an opportunity to ask real farmers questions about the exotic crops they grow – everything from macadamia nuts to cacao to coffee to vanilla.
Other tables are full of more familiar goodies, but in a variety that can make a mainlander’s head spin. Avocados the size of softballs, the many shapes and colors of mangoes, “apple” and “ice-cream” bananas, “white” pineapples and “strawberry” papayas. For foreigners who’ve become used to only finding one variety of banana or pineapple at the supermarket for their entire life, the realization that countless different varieties exist, all with their own distinct, subtle flavors and textures is a truly eye-opening experience.
Lastly, there are many types of fruit in the market that visitors have heard about – or even tasted – but have never seen up close, like dragonfruit, eggfruit, rambutan, passionfruit, sugarcane or pomelo. Although we all know what sugar tastes like, few visitors have ever seen a mound of fat, succulent sections of sugarcane for sale next to oranges, lemons and grapefruit. But to those adventurous enough to try something truly exotic, it’s worth it to buy the sugarcane stalk, break off a piece and happily suck on the sweet, earthy nectar throughout the day.
In the case of sugarcane and so many other exotic Hawaiian delights, doing a little research beforehand about what crops like these look like – and being unafraid to ask questions – will go a long way in making sense of the cornucopia being sold on the street in Hilo.
How To Get There:
Head along Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road, until it intersects with Kamehameha Avenue just south of Banyan Drive. Turn left onto Kamehameha Avenue and follow it for 1.5-miles passing Hilo Bayfront Beach Park and the Russell Carroll Bayfront Soccer Fields on either side of the highway. After passing two gas stations, the Mooheau Bus Station Terminal with its adjacent massive Banyan Tree will come into view on the right side of the avenue. Less than a block up the road on the left, Hilo Farmers’ Market can be spotted in a large, slanted-roof open-air structure with an immense colorful mural painted on the side of its neighboring building.
There is no marked parking lot for the market, so it’s best to park on a side street (no meters in the area) or, for the sake of convenience, to use the sprawling bus station parking lot right across the avenue. Visitors to Hilo usually plan a day around a market stop and its ensuing“fruit tour” in the morning, and take their tropical bounties to nearby sightseeing spots like Coconut Island, Kamehameha The Great Statue, Liliuokalani Gardens or Bayfront Beach Park. A wonderful aspect of Hilo is that all of these destinations are within walking/biking distance of the farmers’ market along a breezy, palm-lined bayfront thoroughfare.
Weekends tend to be busiest at the market, with Saturday afternoon particularly crowded when it’s not uncommon to see the complex packed from wall to wall. But weekday mornings are much more laid back and relaxed, with most vendors arriving before dawn and unveiling their tables of immaculately stacked produce. By around 4pm the sellers are already breaking down, although a few seem to deliberately stay open in order to catch the late-day shoppers.