Hawaii is an easy place to shop, and not only because in virtually every oceanside town you’ll find fun beach wear and typical seaside souvenirs. There’s an aura here that honors both tradition and creativity.
I tend to look for slightly more unusual or authentic souvenirs, and on several trips to Hawaii, I found a range of items and prices, from unique hand-painted clothes to traditional jewelry to a trompe l’oeil photograph that now has pride of place on my fireplace mantle. In addition to traditional items — think shell jewelry, ukuleles, anything made of koa, and, of course, Hawaiian shirts — don’t overlook contemporary artists and crafters who often combine traditional themes and materials with a modern aesthetic.
Hawaiian Crafts, Souvenirs, and Clothing
Hawaiian Shirts: Hawaiian shirts have got to be first on the list of any souvenir shopper worth her salt. Hilo Hatties is the is the place to go for Aloha-wear. Shops are found on all of Hawaii’s major islands, and carry a range of Hawaiian-themed gifts, as well as clothing. (Locals also suggest trying the Salvation Army or re-sale shops for bargain-basement prices.)
On the upscale side, shoppers can find Tommy Bahama (and similar designs) in high-end silk (expect to spend about $100) in boutiques in Hawaii luxury hotels such as the Ritz Carlton or the Marriott. Wear the silk ones for evenings and special events; the cotton variety are much cheaper, and more comfortable for everyday tropical beach-combing and hanging out.
Ukuleles: Ukuleles are available in all price ranges, though if you want a Hawaiian made instrument, be prepared to fork over a few hundred dollars; more if it’s made of native Hawaiian koa wood. Don’t be fooled by brand names like “Hilo” — inexpensive ukuleles are imported from China. Some of them can be quite good, but know what you are buying (and if you don’t, ask).
Koa Carvings: Acacia koa is an indigenous Hawaii tree that used to be used for dugout canoes. These days, due in part to cattle ranching, few koa trees grow big enough to have a girth suitable for use as a canoes, but smaller trees provide wood for carvings. Koa is also a so-called tonewood, meaning it has the acoustical properties necessary to be used in instruments such as ukuleles and guitars.
Something with a fish-hook on it. The fish-hook is a Hawaiian symbol of prosperity. You’ll find the symbol on clothing and purses; it’s even used as the logo for Hawaiian Olukai sandals.
Hawaiian Music: The sound of Hawaiian music is instantly recognizable, and music shops and gift shops have recordings of groups ranging from the latest local performers to internatioanal superstars such as the the beloved “Iz”– Israel Kamakawiwoʻole – the sweet-voiced singer who died in 1997 at the age of 38.
Hawaiian Handmade Jewelry
Leis: Flower leis, of course, are the traditional Hawaiian gift. Flower leis don’t keep, but leis made of kikui nut shells do, and cost only a few dollars.
Niihau shell leis and jewelry. If you’ve got a big budget and a taste for shell jewelry, check out the exquisite necklaces made by the people of the private island of Niihau, located just off the south west shore of Kaua’i . Necklaces can have thousands of tiny shells of interweaving colors, (white, beige, red, and brown). But even a simple necklace can run several hundred dollars.
Pearls: Pearls of all colors are sold all over Hawaii, although many of them come from Polynesia and China.
Fish-Hook Pendants.More fishhooks! Simple but striking necklace pendants made of bone carved into the fishhook shape run from a few few dollars to around $60, depending on whether they are hand made in Hawaii, or factory knockoffs made in China. The design is found throughout Oceania.
Hawaii Food and Drink Souvenirs
Jams, Jellies, and Preserves. Hawaii is indeed a garden of Eden, with fruits and vegetables you’ve never seen or even imagined. If you make the drive to to Hana (on the island of Maui), treat yourself to a visit to the organic Hana Farm, off the main road, just a few miles past the village. Farm tours, complete with tasting table, are available, and home-made preserves are for sale. Warning: Jellies, honey, and anything liquid or packed in liquid must go in checked baggage.
Hawaiian Coffee: Hawaiian coffee is famous worldwide; Kona is the best known, but there are lots of boutique local blends. Coffee thrives on mountain slopes with rich volcanic soils, so Hawaii has an ideal environment. The Kona Coffee Museumon the “Big Island” tells the story of Hawaii’s coffee industry, with samples, of course.
Practicalities: Where to Shop in Hawaii
- Finding places to shop isn’t going to be a problem: You’ll find hotel boutiques (upscale), open air markets (bargains), shopping malls (a combination), and tourist towns with everything from galleries to souvenir shops. If you are looking for authentic Hawaiian products, do ask questions, because a lot of what’s for sale in lower-end tourist joints is made in Asia.
- Made-in-Hawaii is an organization that promotes local products, from jams and jellies to crafts to artisan clothing. Look for products marked with a made-in-Hawaii tag, or feel free to ask when you shop. An annual Made-in-Hawaii, held in August in Honolulu, is the place to go to see more than 450 exhibitors from all over the islands selling Hawaiian crafts, gifts, and souvenirs.
- In spring, check out the annual festival at Maui’s Ritz Carlton Kapalua, when, for a weekend, the Ritz goes native and invites local artisans, craftspeople, and artists to strut their best stuff all over the property as part of a huge festival honoring indigenous Hawaiin culture (first-rate luau also available; tickets needed in advance). You can buy directly from the artisans and crafters.
- You’ll find lots of fine shopping malls in tourist areas all over the islands. A particularly nice one is the Kukui Ula Village in Poipu on the south shore of Kaua’i, which has some unique gift shops and artist studios along with some of the island’s top dining.
- Funky little towns such as Hanalei (north shore of Kaua’i) shouldn’t be passed over, either: Here you’ll find more unique handmade gifts and crafts. I scored a hand-painted tie-died shirt that manages to combine beach-side casual with sophisticated design — perfect for both Hawaii and home.