Few will argue that Kona Farmers Market – found just off of Kamehameha Avenue along the city’s waterfront of windswept, colorful shops – is the best spot on Big Island to sample the tropical cornucopia of strange new fruit that Hawaii has to offer. It is the premiere stop on the island’s ubiquitous, informal “fruit tour”, where bug-eyed visitors wander down open-air market aisles of plastic folding tables piled up to impossible heights with colorful pyramids of fruit, stopping to sample alien-looking morsels of jackfruit, rambutan, longan berry, dragonfruit, sapote and mangosteen – often for the first time in their lives.
Where Hilo’s market succeeds in its variety and quality of fresh fruit, produce, coconuts, and other assorted farm goodies like honey, macadamia nuts and coffee, it falls short of an equally diverse clothing, handicraft and souvenir section catering to visitors hunting for something to take home to remember their trip by, or to give as gifts to friends and family members. Farther down Kamehameha Avenue, there are plenty of high-end souvenir and fine-art stores selling everything from volcano-themed fused glass pieces to handmade pottery to watercolor landscape paintings, but they are often being sold here for “gallery” prices.
So, budget-minded Big Island visitors looking for a place to pick up souvenirs with more of a craft fair vibe, and without spending a stack of money, should check out Kona Farmers’ Market. It’s located off of Ali’i Drive near the looping seaside commercial road’s northern end, where it intersects Hualalai Road across the street from Hale Halawai Park, and is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 7:00am to 4:00pm.
The market inhabits an oceanfront parking lot full of white pop-up tents, found beyond a long shoulder-high wall of mortared black lava rocks running parallel to Ali’i Drive for a few blocks. Laid out on plastic folding tables beneath the tent eaves is a little bit of everything: hand-carved tiki statuettes, feathered wooden masks, shell necklaces, aloha shirts, fine jewelery, as well as mats, baskets, boxes, belts and hats made from wicker and woven palm leaves. Some locally made goods are strikingly inexpensive: five dollars for a hand-woven sliding gift box made of palm straw; just a few dollars more for a zippered sunglass case of the same material.
Hanging from the corner of one stall’s tent is a collection of “Ikaika Warrior Helmets” – feathered and beaded carved coconut shells in colors of turquoise, auburn and gold. The shells are lacquered and glisten in the sunlight, bringing out their deep brown colors and fine, smooth grains. Another shop is selling carved wooden turtles and dolphins piled in small plastic cups, interspersed with necklaces and bracelets featuring similar wooden carvings of the island’s iconic sea life. Then there are the flower leis – both plastic and real – hanging on display racks in bunches, featuring the many different colors of the legendary hibiscus flower, along with strings of smaller, sweet smelling flowers like plumeria and “puakenikeni”.
The lei stands give way to the flower sellers, whose elegant arrangements feature blood-red heart-shaped anthuriums, aromatic torches of white ginger flowers, heliconias, orchids and much more. Some stands have combined together displays of flowers, fruits and veggies, with the produce laid out on tables and the flowers below in five-gallon plastic buckets of loose stems grouped together on the pavement.
And to Kona Farmers’ Market’s credit, its sprawling oceanfront parking lot market space of several dozen white pop-up tents does feature a handful of stalls selling fresh tropical fruit. Their folding tables are strewn with similar neatly stacked pyramids of perfectly ripe produce as those found in Hilo, just in much less abundance and sometimes crowded out by the ranks of trinket sellers. At the sometimes hard-to-find produce table, there are usually several different West Hawaii specialties being offered up like Kona-grown mangoes, jumbo avocados the size of softballs, and multiple varieties of papayas, as well as Kona and Ka’u coffee, macadamia nuts and small-batch honey in its many different enticing golden hues.
But there are also noticeable absences when compared to its more farmer-oriented East-side counterpart: Kona’s market doesn’t have a regular full-service coconut seller, meaning visitors won’t get the opportunity to snap a video of a burly local swinging a machete cutting away the nut’s husk and dropping in a straw before serving it to a delighted customer. There also aren’t as many of the staple crops which make up traditional Hawaiian cuisine available, either, such as the bulky, starchy roots of the taro plant known as “corms,” the soft golden-brown globes of sweet-smelling breadfruit, or the leaves and roots of the much-beloved purple sweet potato. Nevertheless, occasionally these types of crops do make their way onto the assorted folding tables found along Ali’i Drive, and some foodie visitors do get lucky in being able to plan a night of traditional Hawaiian cooking around what’s available at the market just down the street. But in general, Hilo’s cornucopia of staple crops is much more varied, reliable and easy-to-find.
A One-Of-A-Kind Gift, and A Show Of Support For Big Island-Based Craftspeople
Many of the locals on Big Island, whether native Hawaiian or not, are talented craftsmen and craftswomen who make supplemental income selling their wares at informal community markets. Wages on the island are famously low, so residents tend to get creative and sometimes have several different side-hustles going at once, often including staffing tables at farmer’s markets to hawk their wares. Everyone seems to be involved part-time with growing or making something in some small-scale enterprise, whether it’s keeping bees or tending fishponds, growing fruit or weaving palm fronds, collecting coconuts or searching for shells. In the case of the foraged coconuts, drawing on some ingenuity and skill they turn these cast-off items into handsomely polished feathered helmets, bought up by the suitcase load along Ali’i Drive as fond memories of Hawaii for fifteen dollars a piece.
In their spare time, other locals specialize in wood carving, basket weaving, lei making and shell and flower arrangements, taking advantage of the abundance of colorful wild and farm-grown flora and natural materials like hardwood, lava rock and collected shells. All of this makes the handmade items for sale at Kona Farmers’ Market more than just a material gift – it’s a piece of Big Island handiwork that often times shares a long history of traditional Hawaiian craftsmanship, and that goes to support the livelihoods of real local artisans.
So, visitors can feel good about spending their money here, and will often be surprised at how far it goes. It would be easy to find thoughtful gifts for parents, siblings, spouses, children – even assorted uncles and aunts – at Kona Farmers’ Market and make it out of the parking lot having spent less than one hundred dollars. This makes it a great one-stop-shop for loading up on mementos before heading to the airport, or for finding that exceptional piece of handiwork to decorate the office, car, living room or dorm room. The market’s vendors are notoriously non-pushy, most acting more or less disinterested in customers unless asked a question about a specific item. This makes for a very laid-back, no-stress trinket shopping experience with plenty of curious exotic fruits to snack on while you browse.
How To Get There
Kona Farmers’ Market is located just off of the town’s main coastal commercial thoroughfare known as “Ali’i Drive”, which winds down the coast southward to the small beach resort and golf course town of Keauhou. The market is located near the northern terminus of Ali’i Drive, across the street from a well-manicured waterfront park and green space known as Hale Halawai Park, which abuts the calm, inviting turquoise waters of Oneo Bay.
It’s found on the same city block as the Kailua-Kona Public Library, at the corner of Ali’i Drive and Hualalai Street, within a stones throw of several excellent restaurants, shopping centers and places to stay. Neighboring the market along that same northern stretch of Kona’s tourist row is the Kona Inn Shopping Village, Kona Islander Inn, Kailua Village Condos, Kamana Kitchen Indian Cuisine, Papa Kona Restaurant and Bar, Kai Eats and Drinks, Pa’akai Poke and Deli and many others. There’s even bicycle, snorkel, beach and board rentals found one block away at the rental shop called Boss Frog’s.
In the end, its central location makes Kona Farmers’ Market an ideal jumping off point for an afternoon of sunny beaches, breezy bike rides and casual shopping around Kona Town, and a great morning stop to pick up fresh fruit before a day trip of jungle hikes or excursions to the island’s many far-flung idyllic beaches. If visitors looking for trinkets and fruit happen to unluckily find themselves in Kona Town on a Monday or Tuesday when the market is closed, have no fear! A quick drive over Saddle Road will bring you to Hilo’s market, located in a hard-to-miss spot along its iconic bayfront and open every day of the week from 7:00am to 3:00pm.