Stephanie Launiu is a Native Hawaiian lifestyle and cultural writer. She has a degree in Hawaiian Pacific Studies. She lives in Hilo.
Distinctive Island Gifts You'll Love
Nobody can visit Hawai'i and return home empty-handed without gifts or souvenirs. It's just not possible. So before you actually get to Hawai'i, carefully plan your itinerary and where you will go when you hit the islands. If you leave your planning until the last minute or worse yet, don't do any planning at all, you will leave yourself open to tempting displays at stores or the advice of taxicab drivers, tour guides or hotel concierges.
Have a budget for how much you can afford to spend on gifts for yourself and others. Make a list of people you will be buying for while on the islands. Because of the fees that airlines now charge for extra baggage, I've tried to list items that can be packed into your bags without taking up too much space.
There are souvenirs that you may end up buying and taking home with you: Hawaiian calendars, key chains, refrigerator magnets, etc. I haven't included any of those types of souvenirs here.
If you visit the 'neighbor islands'—the Big Island, Maui, Kaua'i, Moloka'i, Lanai—be prepared to be delighted with special mom & pop stores or gift shops you may find there. Stick to your budget, but I would advise against trying to bargain the prices down. That's not normal practice in Hawai'i unless you're at a swap meet or farmers' market. And take cash with you when you shop in rural areas. Not every small shop will accept debit or credit cards.
If most of your shopping will be done in Honolulu, then you've got a lot of places to choose from. To find the best prices and largest assortment, you'll really need to get out of Waikiki. One of the biggest shopping venues is the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. Every tourist should take a few hours and check it out. You'll be amazed at the sheer number of vendors selling everything under the sun.
This hub really isn't about where to go shopping in Honolulu, but rather what types of gifts evoke the spirit of Hawai'i and will keep Hawai'i alive in your heart and home.
And if you're not even in Hawai'i when you read this, there are lots of websites and online shopping venues for you to bring Hawai'i home to you.
Some Items That Should Be on Your Hawaiian Gifts List
- Aloha Wear
- Chinese Seeds
- Coconut Oil
- Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry
- Hawaiian Music
- Hawaiian Quilting
- Hawaiian Sea Salt
- Hawaiiana Books
- Island Jewelry
- Koa Wood items
- Lauhala items
- Macadamia Nuts
1. Aloha Wear
The Aloha Shirt has been around for more than 75 years. The woman’s Hawaiian dress, or mu’umu’u, has origins dating back to the ‘Mother Hubbard’ dresses of the New England missionaries. Aloha Wear has evolved into popular styles made with tropical prints and is available in a wide range of styles and sizes with prices to fit every budget. Family wear is common with matching styles and prints for parents and children. You'll definitely want to buy some Aloha Wear to relax in while in the islands and if you go to a lu'au. Easy to roll up and pack in your bags.
You can buy Aloha Wear in lots of places and in a wide range of prices. Walmart and Target carry Aloha Wear, and I've found amazing bargains on brand new mu'umu'u's at thrift stores too. A few trending brands of Aloha Wear are Hilo Hattie's, Manuheali'i, Papaya Sun, Sig Zane, Kahala and Missing Polynesia.
Perhaps it is the aura of island life that inspires, but there are a lot of extremely talented artisans in Hawai'i. There are a wide variety of very affordable mediums for shoppers to take home with them: posters that roll up, 8 x 10 original oils, and reproductions of classic retro-Hawai'i prints. There is also a plethora of multi-cultural handmade crafts that a shopper will find at craft fairs, flea markets, farmers' markets, and swap meets, and you may even find some hidden gems at garage sales. If the artwork won't lay flat in your bags, you may want to consider mailing it home ahead of your departure. That might cost less than the added airline fees would be for checking it as baggage.
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One of Hawai'i's most unique Hawaiiana artists is Dietrich Varez, who came to Hawai'i as a young child. Known mostly for his block prints, Varez lives in a secluded rain forest near Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. He prints and signs each image that is created in reverse from hand-carved linoleum blocks, refuses to number his prints and keeps his prices incredibly low for today's market. He focuses his art on bringing to life the Hawai'i of old "when spirits were in every tree and rock, and gods walked the earth."
There are just too many wonderful artists to name them all. A few well-known Hawai'i artists include Kathy Long, Herb Kawainui Kane, Diana Hansen Young and Brook Kapukuniahi Parker. There are also numerous art galleries on every island and most of them have websites where you can browse and buy online.
3. Chinese Seeds
The first foreigners brought to work in Hawai'i’s sugar plantations in the 19th century were the Chinese. The culture they brought with them has become an important part of the local culture of Hawai'i today. Chinese seeds are dried and salted fruit seeds that are beloved by local people in Hawai'i. Some shopping centers have ‘seed shops’ that display large glass containers packed full of dried fruit seeds: li hing mui, salt plum, salt lemon, pickled mango, crack seed, and more. They are also sold in grocery stores, drug stores, and even Walmart. Inexpensive and easy to pack, Chinese seeds are a unique taste of Hawai'i.
4. Coconut Oil
Once you’ve cooked with coconut oil, you won’t want to use anything else. Infused with the delicious nutty flavor of the Polynesian staple—coconut—the oil can help to make flaky pie crusts, tastes great drizzled on popcorn, and has a myriad of uses. A thoughtful gift for a vegan friend. Be sure to put it into a zip lock bag and pack in checked luggage. If you put this into a carry-on, you'll get stopped going through security because it's a liquid.
There are also body lotions, body butter, shower gels, sunscreens, hair products and other beauty items that are infused with coconut. The smell of coconut is one scent that immediately transports you back to the islands.
Hawai'i is the only U.S. state where coffee is grown and harvested. The best known Hawaiian coffee is Kona Coffee grown in the Kona district on the Big Island of Hawai'i. But if you're a java fan, you'll be pleased to know that there are more than 700 farms in Hawai'i growing specialty coffees that you might want to try as well. Besides Kona Coffee, the Big Island also produces Ka'u Coffee grown on the slopes of Mauna Loa, Puna Coffee grown in the Puna District, and Hamakua Coffee from the Hamakua District. The Kaua'i Coffee Company sells 100% Kaua'i-grown coffee. There are farms growing Maui Coffee as well as Moloka'i Coffee. Waialua Estate Coffee is grown on the North Shore of O'ahu.
No need to travel to every island to buy these coffees; all are available in specialty stores in Honolulu or you can buy them online as well. Most of the individual coffee farms have websites; you just need to surf the web to find them.
6. Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry
With its origins dating back to Hawai'i’s monarchy, 14K gold jewelry with black enamel inlays are known as “Hawaiian Heirloom Jewelry.” Traditionally, a woman’s Hawaiian name is written in black on gold. Hawaiian bracelets, earrings, and pendants are highly-cherished gifts that every island woman wants in her jewelry box (or under the Christmas tree).
There are several companies that produce Hawaiian heirloom jewelry. Prices can range from under $50 for earrings and pendants, to hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for bracelets and rings. As usual, shop around to get the best price. Warning: I've seen cheaper renditions of Hawaiian jewelry that you can find at swap meets, in discount stores or online. The black enamel that is used to inlay a person's name on gold may peel off in these cheap copies, so beware if prices seem too low.
7. Hawaiian Music CDs
Traditional Hawaiian music is often characterized by unique falsetto voices and ukuleles in the background. “Ki ho’alu” is slack key guitar played with unique Hawaiian tuning. “Jawaiian” is a modern mix of Jamaican reggae and Hawaiian music. There are dozens of well-known Hawaiian music artists on the local island scene. There is now a Grammy Award category for Hawaiian Music. Traditional Hawaiian music is a stress reliever that can bring the mood of the islands into your home. Or into your car on those long work commutes.
8. Hawaiian Quilting
When the New England missionaries came to bring Christianity to the Hawaiians in the 19th century, they brought with them their quilts and comforters to make their newfound homes feel like the homes they were leaving behind.
The Hawaiians were taught how to quilt, and created a unique form of quilting using appliqué motifs based on tropical flowers, plants and island themes. A handmade Hawaiian “kapa” (quilt) can cost thousands of dollars and take months to complete, but there are many smaller examples of Hawaiian quilted gifts that are affordable and easy to pack: placemats, framed pieces, pillow shams, purses, quilt patterns, potholders and more.
9. Hawaiian Sea Salt
Sea salt is harvested from the oceans surrounding Hawai'i. It is sold in its original flavor along with other sea salt varieties that have been mixed with garlic, hot peppers, and other spices. Mild-flavored sea salt is excellent for meat rubs and in marinades. Inexpensive and easy to pack.
Native Hawaiians have traditionally used 'alaea, uniquely red sea salt, in purification ceremonies and to bless places and events.
10. Hawaiiana Books
Books about Hawai'i make a really special gift. Hawaiian history, the Hawaiian monarchy, myths and legends, coffee table books with stunning photos, learning the Hawaiian language, the Hula (Hawaiian dance), Kilauea (the volcano)—they are just a few of the subjects in the Hawaiiana section of any bookstore.
An excellent source of books written by and about Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Peoples, is Na Mea Hawaii, a wonderful little bookstore and giftshop in Honolulu. In Hilo on the Big Island, a well-known bookstore—Basically Books—specializes in Hawaiiana and features book signings and special events. Both stores have websites that you can order from.
11. Island Jewelry
Most island jewelry is either inspired by nature or is a naturally-formed object mounted and worn as jewelry. The Tahitian Pearl has a rare and lustrous gray color. Opihi Shell – the shell of a mollusk – can be made into a large stunning pendant or choker.
The extremely rare and desirable Ni’ihau Shell necklaces or earrings are sold at elite venues. The necklaces are too pricey for most shoppers, usually priced in the thousands of dollars. But Ni'ihau Shell earrings are still affordable for many. Ni’ihau shells are tiny shells that are only found on Ni’ihau, a privately-owned Hawaiian island where no one can go without an invitation from the owners. These shells are so small, it takes thousands to make one necklace.
12. Koa Wood
Koa trees are endemic to Hawai'i; they are not found naturally anywhere else in the world. Koa wood is a prized hardwood and is carved by skilled craftsmen. An item made from koa deserves a place of prominence in home or office. With its beautiful grain, no two koa items are ever identical. Koa gift items include small bowls and plates, writing pens, picture frames, letter openers, flower vases and more.
The hala, or pandanus tree, is known in Hawai'i for its leaves. “Lauhala” means ‘leaves of the hala’. Skilled weavers collect the leaves, remove spiny thorns, soak the leaves, and soften them until the leaves are ready to be woven. Items made from soft woven lauhala are especially treasured in Hawai'i. The smaller the weave the more expensive the item. Gift items include hats, wallets, purses, fans, place mats, area mats, and even custom items like woven blouses.
14. Macadamia Nuts
100% of the macadamia nuts grown in Hawai'i are grown on the Big Island of Hawai'i. These luscious Hawaiian nuts are sold unsalted or salted, dipped in caramel and drenched in milk chocolate, or permeated with other yummy flavors like garlic. There is no shortage of retail outlets that sell macadamia nuts and macadamia nut candy. Nobody should leave Hawai'i’s shores without some macadamia nut goodies tucked in their luggage.
Normally, t-shirts would be considered a cheap souvenir gift when time, money and imagination are in short supply. But T-shirts in Hawai'i are part of the island landscape. Everybody wears them in this land of sunny weather. T-shirts are a celebration of life in Hawai'i. Adults and children should take home at least one.
This four-stringed musical instrument won’t pack into a suitcase, but it is light and easy to carry onto a plane in a hard or soft ukulele case. Made of warm-toned island woods, the sound of an ukulele being strummed will evoke memories of your Hawaiian vacation. You can also mail it home before leaving the islands.
One of the most well-known brands of ukulele are the Kamaka Ukulele, a family business founded by Sam Kamaka Sr. in 1916 when Hawai'i was still a U.S. Territory. Their exquisite craftsmanship in transforming rough koa wood into a superb musical instrument is truly awe-inspiring.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the cost of the Ukulele?
Answer: This article is about the different types of gifts you can buy in Hawaii. We are not selling anything on this website. The Ukulele is a great gift for a loved one or yourself. Depending on where you buy it, the price can often range between $30 for a small student-sized ukulele to several hundred dollars for a high-quality one. Collector ukuleles can be priced at thousands of dollars. This is a good article on how to choose a ukulele. https://thehub.musiciansfriend.com/folk-instrument...
© 2012 Stephanie Launiu