On Oahu, Tropic-Chic for Cheap

At the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet near Waikiki, shoppers can find bargains on pineapples, tropical bags and kitsch.
At the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet near Waikiki, shoppers can find bargains on pineapples, tropical bags and kitsch. (Aloha Stadium Swap Meet)
Sunday, February 19, 2006

WHAT: The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet

WHERE: Aiea, on the island of Oahu

WHY: Hawaii is pricey, but your souvenirs don't have to be.

When many tourists land in Waikiki, one of the first things they do is dash out and shell out 80 bucks for an aloha shirt. You know the one: the loose-fitting top with amply bosomed hula girls and cherry-red hibiscus blooms. The one you relegate to the back of your closet at home, with all of your other ugly, regrettable purchases.

Had you paid $15 for a similar shirt, you'd probably laugh at that point, not kick yourself. But few visitors to Honolulu snag that bargain, because they never escape the souvenir snares of Waikiki. The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is one of the best-kept secrets on Oahu -- and it's just 12 miles or so from Waikiki.

On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, about 600 vendors set up tarps and tables around the Aloha Stadium near Pearl Harbor. For those seeking Polynesian-themed kitsch, vendors hawk everything from garish muu-muus and tiny bikinis to palm-tree-shape magnets and dashboard hula girls. There are exotic goodies to eat, like sour gummy bears rolled in li hing mui powder (a sweet and salty substance made from dried plums), dried papaya slices and guava jam.

There are more practical items, too, like $35 suitcases the size of dorm fridges and such lovely island mementos as pendant earrings cascading in tropical flowers of hand-painted silver.

Instead of being limited to plain Mauna Loa macadamia nuts as you tend to be in Waikiki, at the swap meet you can choose nuts home-roasted with onion and garlic. Five-dollar sarongs cost at least double that downtown. Triple for the $3 children's T-shirts with frolicking dolphins wearing leis.

The term "swap meet" conjures the image of a humongous yard sale, and in this case, that's half right: The inner two circles around the stadium are indeed where Oahu's kama'aina, or locals, hock their old junk. The outer two circles are for new items and are where most tourists seem to stay.

Browsing just the inner or outer rings takes about the same time as walking in and out of shops in Waikiki. But here the vendors are open to limited haggling, something not done in the shops. For a silver necklace and bracelet set, for example, I asked the seller's teenage son if he'd be willing to take less than $20.

"What do you want to pay?" he asked me.

"How about 17?" I said.

"I'll take that," he replied, smiling. "If you had said 15 dollars I would have told you to get lost."

After a while, though, you won't have to do much haggling; the new merchandise all starts to look the same. At that point, if you want to peruse the same used stuff you'd find at any flea market (though with island flair), move to the inner rings -- if you're not scorched, that is.

Even with a ball cap and SPF 45 sunblock on my face and arms, I still got burned. After all, you're walking on an asphalt parking lot with no shade (my friend was smart enough to escape the rays by buying a $5 floral umbrella).

Thankfully, the truck selling Portuguese doughnuts called malasadas also sold icy bottles of water for $1.50. To further cool off, we splurged on a couple of shave ices.

The treat was a relief for us, and the swap meet as a whole a relief for our wallets. My savings, in fact, got tucked away in a 1980s-style Velcro wallet decked out in ultramarine and sunny yellow flowers. It was only $2. How could I resist?

-- Elissa Leibowitz Poma

The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is 50 cents, but look for coupons for free admission in the tourist publications available in hotels and in boxes on the streets. If driving from Waikiki, take H1 west to the Moanalua Freeway, then follow the signs to Aloha Stadium. Public buses also go there from Waikiki, and several shuttles offer service for under $10 round trip per person. Info: 808-486-6704.

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