Eat Like a Local: Waimea Farmers’ Markets

The beautiful green hills of Hawai‘i Island’s “upcountry” town of Waimea provide a striking visual contrast to the rocky landscape of the Kohala Coast below. Headquarters of sprawling Parker Ranch and several observatories atop Maunakea, the small town is also the ideal place to indulge your senses of taste, smell and sound, too, thanks to four weekly farmers’ markets.

Although there’s a cornucopia of local produce, fresh seafood and ranch-raised meat, these farmers’ markets also offer plenty of prepared food to enjoy on the spot, in some cases with live entertainment, plus packaged delicacies, artworks and homespun crafts that make thoughtful gifts and souvenirs.

Here are highlights from Waimea’s three Saturday markets — all within a 10-minute drive of each other — and its Wednesday market. Don’t forget to bring a jacket — it’s cooler, breezier and often misty in Waimea — and a bag to carry the goodies you’ll find.

Waimea Midweek Market

Held on the grounds of historic Pukalani Stables — the home of Parker Ranch’s horse operations for more than 50 years — this market takes place every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Picnic tables under massive jacaranda trees and a bevy of food trucks and vendors making it a popular lunch place for residents and visitors.

Food doesn’t get more “local” — the word used to describe the blend of Hawaiian and plantation-era immigrant cultures — than the plate lunches from the On Top of Mauna Kea food truck. Try an entrée like guava teriyaki chicken or pork teriyaki, accompanied by the traditional scoops of mac salad and rice; you can also take home a bottle of “Auntie Kana‘i’s famous teriyaki sauce,” a marinade for almost any dish. Add a cup of lū‘au stew, if on offer, to savor taro leaves prepared like creamed spinach in a rich coconut broth.

Indian food lovers will appreciate the tropical touches from CuCo Indian Food, where in addition to traditional recipes such as fried samosa, butter chicken and red or green dal you can order vegan pineapple turmeric noodles and lilikoi lassi, a refreshing mix of sweet-tart passionfruit (liliko‘i in Hawaiian) juice and yogurt. The juicy local mango that comes with sticky rice also is tempting. Similarly, at the Ta’ameya & Baladi Egyptian food stand, you can get vegan falafel and pita with an only-in-Hawai‘i macadamia nut tzatziki.

Need a pick-me-up? Order a cup of cold or hot coffee from Kurt’s Cold Brew, which uses 100 percent Kā‘ū coffee beans from family-owned Boar Coffee, grown in the volcanic soil of Mauna Loa in the district south of Kona. If you like what you taste, you can take home a bag of hand-harvested, freshly roasted beans along with preparation tips.

Another great Hawai‘i Island omiyage – the Japanese and island tradition of bringing edible gifts home from travel — comes from the adjacent vendor, Kona Sea Salt. Its pure Hawaiian sea salt is hand-harvested from a current of cold, deep water that flows near the Kona airport. Its crisp flakes have a distinctive taste but you can also buy blends with chile, kiawe (mesquite) or alaea (red clay), as well as magnesium drops that are a byproduct of the harvesting process.

If you’re feeling a little guilty for leaving Fido at home, stop by Pawniolo Pets. This mom-and-pop operation supports local ranchers by creating a wide variety of “nose to tail” treats from grass-fed cattle and pigs. You can even take home antlers for chew toys and know that you’re helping reduce the invasive deer population.

people working at a stand
woman working at the market
food truck sign

Kamuela Farmers Market

Also held on the well-shaded grounds of Pukalani Stables, this farmers market takes place from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Fun fact: Since there’s also a Waimea on Kaua‘i, mailing addresses here use Kamuela — the Hawaiian version of Samuel — instead, in honor of Parker Ranch founder Samuel Parker.

While many of the same vendors from the Wednesday market return on Saturday, there are some notable additions. Since Hawai‘i state law forbids the sell of sunscreen with certain chemicals, and Hawai‘i County (the Big Island’s local government) will ban all chemical sunscreens as of Dec. 1, 2022, stopping by Little Hands Hawai‘i to stock up on mineral-only sunscreen is a great idea. Created by an island-born couple, the sunscreen line is suitable for sensitive skins and includes tinted and non-tinted versions that are a far cry from the pasty titanium oxide of old. The packaging is also plastic-free and sustainably sourced. Bonus: Turn in a container of chemical sunscreen and you’ll get a discount on your purchase.

Hawaiian seafood is justly famous, but the cold waters off the Kona airport are also an ideal site for aquaculture of species such as lobster and abalone. Big Island Abalone has a 10-acre, solar-powered aquatic farm in Kona that raises Japan’s most prized abalone strain, Ezo. If you don’t have time to tour the farm, come sample its wares in one of the best bargains at the market: four grilled abalones topped with a choice of sauces for just $10. They’re made to order and take about 8 minutes to prepare.

Housed in a stylish black-and-white Airstream camper, State of Grace Pies offers freshly baked and frozen pot pies with sweet or savory fillings and a flaky, buttery crust. Some favorites include the combination of spinach, feta and Hamakua mushroom; the classic chicken with local veggies in white wine and thyme; and the lobster pie, featuring the locally raised lobster in a rich potato bisque.

Watercolor artist Candace Lee showcases the island’s beautiful and distinctive flora and fauna in her work, which appears in a delightful assortment of forms and sizes at her farmers market stand. You can take home a giclee print starting at $50 for an 11×14 print or a small refrigerator magnet for just $10. Pillboxes, card holders, masks, heat- and water-proof tiles, and even pillowcases provide other colorful choices for a keepsake or a mahalo (thank-you) gift.

A bonus of both the Wednesday and Saturday markets at Pukalani Stables: You can visit the Paniolo Heritage Center, which has displays of vintage saddles and other paniolo (cowboy) history. Another fun fact: The first cowboys in Hawai‘i came from Spain-governed California, and were named for the Hawaiianized version of español, or Spanish. The Paniolo Heritage Center also sells a wide range of gifts and souvenirs, many of them cowboy-themed.

Waimea Town Market

Also on Saturdays, this market takes place on the grounds of the private Parker School, with most of its stands encircling a large grass lawn. Local musicians perform in the center of the lawn, with a few picnic tables for sit-down eating. (Tip: If tables are full, you can also drive a few minutes to the nearby Ulu La‘au/Waimea Nature Park, which offers tables overlooking Waikoloa Stream and native ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees.)

You’ll see long lines for the tasty scones, sourdough bread and other baked goods from Sandwich Isle Bread Company, whose Waimea storefront is only open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. Pair an almond scone with a cup of 100 percent Kona coffee from Downes Grounds, which grows its beans in Holualoa, and splurge by taking home a pound of beans for later. Another breakfast/brunch option comes from Mai Bacon, which serves BLTs and scrambles with the house-cured bacon of veteran island chef Allen Hess, who also runs nearby FORC restaurant.

A trip to this farmers market also lets you sample some of the best wares of the rainier Hilo and Hamakua districts. Family-run Ahualoa Farms specializes in 100 percent Hawaiian grown macadamia nuts (many larger vendors actually source their nuts from Australia) and Hamakua coffee, while Akaka Falls Farms sells a dizzying array of fruit jams, jellies, preserves and butters using fruit grown by farmer Steve Stefanko in Honomū, near the famous waterfall. It’s tough to make a decision what to buy, but fortunately you can sample a few of his confections first.

Hawai‘i is known for its many endemic plants, meaning they’re found nowhere else. The native acacia, koa, is perhaps the most beautiful of the tropical hardwoods found in the islands, woodworker Baron Von App fashions into beautiful trays, jewelry boxes and larger pieces. For cutting boards, he’ll use a rainbow of richly hued woods, including mango and mahogany. His woodworking studio is in South Kona, conveniently next to a sprawling avocado farm, so you can also pick up deliciously buttery Sharwil or other avocados in season at his stand while you admire his handiwork.

Dog lovers will find friendly conversation from Da Kine Dog Treats owner Susan Edwards along with her affordable take-home treats (starting at $5 a box) and tropical-print pet bandannas. A cheery gift for yourself or a friend can be found nearby at Kona Coffee Totes; owner Kerry Colvin uses authentic burlap bags from coffee farms on the slopes of Hualālai to create sturdy totes lined with bright aloha-print fabrics.

Kuhio Hale Farmers Market

This Saturday market runs from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the parking lot and covered pavilion of the Hawaiian Homesteads community center just a few miles east of “downtown” Waimea. Although its selection of vendors is fewer, most are Native Hawaiian and the clientele is predominantly local, too, giving you a greater taste of rural Waimea life.

Even if you don’t have a kitchen, visit Sonny’s Fine Vine Tomatoes stand to “talk story” with Sonny and buy some of his incredibly sweet cherry and grape tomatoes to pop right in your mouth. Other stands offer sweet pickles, banana bread, locally sourced honey, billowy leafy greens and other organic vegetables.

You’ll want to place your order early at the huli chicken stand, which sells the local version of rotisserie chicken using a savory-sweet marinade; the smoky chicken falls off the bone. You can get a half or whole chicken, or as part of a plate lunch; “smoke eat” (barbecued pork) is another tasty option. As a sweet finish to your day’s explorations, add on a package of butter mochi, the chewy treat made with mochiko rice flour and, yes, lots of butter.

people walking through the market

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