There's only one place in the world where koa trees grow: Hawaii, where the beautiful, red to chocolate-brown wood has been prized for centuries. Generations of Hawaiians believed that each koa tree was blessed with a special energy, or mana, and tribes reverently selected trees to be made into traditional dugout canoes, paddles, furnishings, and surfboards. Today, expert woodworkers carve bowls, chopsticks, jewelry boxes, knickknacks, furniture, ukuleles, and necklaces out of koa. Due to logging, fires, and overgrazing, Hawaii's supply of the special wood has shrunk in recent years, and prices have skyrocketed. Nearly all of the trees that remain are on the Big Island, which is where you'll find the best value for gorgeous handmade koa souvenirs.
Color, Grain, Feel: Koa trees take 50 or more years to mature, growing upward of 120 feet and six to seven feet in diameter. They sprout out of old lava fields, and the dark, volcanic soil is responsible for the wood's trademark deep tones. The most coveted grain of koa is curly and wavy, which lends a dazzling, almost three-dimensional effect. Koa has a very hard and heavy feel, similar to walnut, and it seasons well without warping or splitting. A well-crafted item will be made of pieces of wood that are alike in color and grain, with sharp edges, strong joints, and no sanding marks. When it's finished, it should have a lustrous, slightly golden hue and a glass-smooth surface.
Farmers Markets: At the Big Island's open-air farmers markets, you'll find dozens of inexpensive koa items to bring home -- chopsticks for $15, small boxes for $40 -- as well as fresh produce, chocolates, nuts, and tropical flowers. Try the Hilo Farmers Market (Wednesday and Saturday), in downtown Hilo, or the Kailua Village Farmers Market (Thursday through Sunday), in the Kona Inn parking lot in Kailua Kona. Haggling isn't customary, but some vendors will give you a deal if you're buying in bulk. Bring cash.
Buying Direct: Most galleries mark up items considerably, and the shops inside the resorts on the northwest Kohala Coast are especially overpriced. The one exception in this part of the Big Island is the Harbor Gallery, where the prices are decent. Buying direct from the woodworker can sometimes save you money, and it's always exciting to meet the artists behind the art. A couple of upcoming events make it easy to do just that. From February 9 to 27, top artists will be showing and selling their works straight to the buyer at the Big Island Wood Show, inside the newly opened Chase Gallery in Hilo. The Big Island Woodturners Show at the Wailoa Center, also in Hilo, features hand-turned bowls and vases, from March 4 to 26. Another option is contacting the Hawaii Wood Guild, which will recommend woodworkers with no referral fees at any time of year. You negotiate prices directly with the artist, you can ask that the work be customized, and many craftsmen will even let you snoop around their workshops.
- Hilo Farmers Market Corner of Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave., hilofarmersmarket.com Kailua Village Farmers Market 75-5744 Alii Dr., Kailua Kona, 808/329-1393 (ask for Lee)
- Harbor Gallery Kawaihae Shopping Center, harborgallery.biz
- Chase Gallery 100 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, chasedesigns.com
- Big Island Woodturners Show Wailoa Center, 200 Piopio St., Hilo, bigislandwoodturners.com
- Hawaii Wood Guild, hawaiiwoodguild.com