Thursday, December 18, 2003

Hawaii, the Big Island, offers unexpected food finds as well as unforgettable travel opportunities. In what other place can you visit a commercial coffee or cacao plantation or macadamia groves and packing plants or observe the production of sea salt from a 2,000-year-old water source deep within the ocean?

We elected to spend part of our vacation learning about agricultural tourism on this still-growing volcanic island. Hawaii exhibits 11 of the Earth’s 13 generally recognized climatic regions and has a wealth of natural resources.

Our November visit coincided with two food-related festivals: Hawaii’s Big Island Festival, in just its second year, and the 33rd annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival.

The Big Island Festival showcases the island’s cuisine, agricultural products, world-class spas, golf facilities, art and culture. Events take place at eight luxurious resorts on the Kohala Coast, giving visitors a chance to explore places they may want to visit again.

Our food exploration began on a special tour of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, an unexpected source of fish, shellfish and other aquatic delicacies. What began as an ocean thermal-energy project in the 1970s now provides cool seawater from a 2,000-foot-deep pipe and warmer Class AA pure — so defined by the federal Clean Water Act — near-surface water to more than 30 commercial enterprises. The blended water provides an unequaled medium for aquaculture. Abalone, shrimp, lobster, clams, mussels, flounder and seaweed thrive in the nutrient-rich waters.

Taylor Shellfish-Kona is one of the largest U.S. producers of seed clams and oysters. Millions of juvenile mollusks, nurtured in flowing streams of filtered, temperature-controlled water, are shipped year-round to growers in the Pacific Northwest.

Uwajima Fisheries provides superior-quality cold-water flounder to the local sashimi and sushi markets. It also produces several varieties of seaweed for the Japanese market. Hawaii Deep Marine Inc. produces high-quality mineral water for Asian markets by using a reverse-osmosis de-ionizing system to produce 40,000 gallons of fresh water daily. The concentrated saltwater brine byproduct subsequently is evaporated and reduced to coarse and medium salt and fine-grained fleur de sel.

Each evening, the Big Island Festival showcases visiting chefs from the U.S. mainland. We selected a dinner at Donatoni’s in the Hilton Waikoloa Village, prepared by chef Charles Dale of the Renaissance restaurant in Aspen, Colo., named one of America’s best chefs by Food & Wine magazine and the James Beard Foundation. We particularly liked his use of finely crushed Kona coffee beans to coat the seared tuna napped in an Aztec-inspired mole.

The following morning, we joined Wilhelm Pirngruber, executive chef at the Hilton, for his upcountry tour to nearby Waimea. Mr. Pirngruber emphasized that the indigenous people were completely self-sufficient before outsiders arrived. He is a strong supporter of entrepreneurs who work to produce food on the Big Island.

At Kawamata Farms Inc., Garren Kawamata led a tour of the hydroponic tomato greenhouses. Mr. Kawamata represents the third generation of his family agribusiness. The family began growing roses in 1952 but turned to other commodities when roses were no longer lucrative. About six years ago, the enterprise raised tomatoes in soil, with limited success. Three years ago, it turned to hydroponics and now produces several thousand pounds of tomatoes each week.

Robert and Janice Stanga displayed the shiitake mushrooms they grow at Hamakua Mushrooms. “They are completely edible and tender,” Mrs. Stanga told us. Instead of disposing of the tough stem, as is usual with shiitakes, just cut off the tip. The couple sell the container-grown fungi to chefs as well as the local Costco.

Many island visitors are surprised that cattle ranching is big business. We visited the ranch of Rick and Jessica Habein, where they raise grass-fed beef and lamb. Mr. Habein is proud of the gentle and calm method he uses to handle the herd. He said, “If the animals are stressed out, the meat tastes livery and is tough, too.” The Habeins belong to a 40-member cooperative that markets beef under the Kamuela Pride brand in island supermarkets.

The final event of the Big Island Festival was an adventure tasting hosted by chef Keith Famie of television’s “Survivor II” fame. Participants competed under the hot sun on the patio of the Canoe House Restaurant at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. Team members vied to identify various exotic foods, some of which we had tasted during the festival. After the first round, each table selected its best candidate to take a blindfolded taste challenge. The ultimate touch-smell-taste survivors won a day of spa treatments for the entire team.

After this taste challenge, we hurried to observe the results of the Kona Coffee Recipe Contest, an annual event of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. Amateurs, keiki (children) and professionals competed in three categories. Winners for best entree, dessert and beverage — featuring coffee as an ingredient — receive ribbons and bragging rights for their creativity. Those attending get to taste the delicious results.

The next day, we began our exploration of the Kona Coffee Trail at the north end of the Mamalahoa Highway, heading south. The narrow roads wind up and down the volcanic-hillside homes of the coffee farms. Our first stop was Blue Sky Coffee. As Jan Dickerson walked us into the growing area, she explained that the Kona coffee belt is about two miles wide and 20 miles long.

Coffee grows exceptionally well there because of the climate and the fertile volcanic soil. Sunny mornings, cloudy afternoons and sufficient rain combine to form the perfect microclimate. Most of the farms are small and belong to a co-op. Blue Sky is an exception. A true estate, it sells coffee grown only on premises. The coffee is not blended with others, and it is processed through to the roasting at Blue Sky. As we stopped to observe the roaster, Miss Dickerson explained that this step is critical to the final flavor of the coffee. It is roasted precisely to 450 degrees for a medium roast and 465 degrees for a dark roast.

Farther down the road, the Holualoa Kona Coffee Co. offers a self-guided tour of the coffee-handling process. Following yellow footprints, we observed the process from pulping to patio drying. Milling, roasting and packaging complete the process. Free samples of the pure Kona coffee are offered at the end of each tour to help visitors determine which brand or roast to take home.

Along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway, we stopped to see the famous Mac Pie production facility. It is just like pecan pie, but made with macadamia nuts. Located behind a filling station on Route 19 north in Kona, the facility lets visitors watch the preparation of the pies and sample the various flavors. If you’d like a cup of coffee to go along with the pie, amble down the stairway to the retail outlet for the Kona Coffee and Tea Co. Its coffee was judged the winner of the 2003 cupping competition at the coffee festival.

Before our trip, we had heard that we must visit the Hilo Farmers Market on Saturday. We found strawberries, Asian cabbages and mesclun from Waimea. Thai basil, exotic rambutans, longans, the famously foul-smelling durian, papayas and star fruit filled the stalls. There was a profusion of inexpensive tropical flowers, such as anthuriums and orchids, and leis made of plumeria. The market includes crafts, art, clothing, Hawaiian memorabilia, headstones and memorial urns. That’s one-stop shopping.

In Hilo, we spotted a sign at the Toyota dealership announcing, “Huri huri chicken today.” The smoke and aroma caused us to stop and see what that was all about. It’s the local name for whole chickens cooked slowly on a spit over charcoal. The pit master said he would roast 1,200 chickens to raise money for a local church. We bought one and savored it for lunch at the winery down the road.

Before reaching the winery, we discovered the only place that seems to offer a view of macadamia nut processing. The Mauna Loa factory, just outside Hilo, is surrounded by mac orchards. The production line was closed that Saturday, but the large gift shop was open to tempt us with macadamia confections to take home.

At Volcano Winery, the southernmost winery of the United States, the friendly staff welcomes visitors with samples of each of the six wines. The winery specializes in tropical fruit blends and honey wine, although it offers two traditional all-grape wines. The macadamia honey wine, a light dessert wine made from tropical honey gathered from macadamia blossoms, won a bronze medal at the 2003 Riverside International Wine Competition.

What would paradise be without chocolate? If you love chocolate, plan to visit the Kailua Candy Co., family-owned and -operated in the Kailua-Kona area since 1977. Watch as the candies are hand-made, enjoy a few samples and choose from an array of chocolates such as the famous Kona Coffee Swirls and the Chocolate Macadamia Nut Honus — known to mainlanders as “turtles.” Owner Cathy Smoot Barrett’s edible art is almost too beautiful to eat. The dark chocolate is molded into wood blocks of unique Hawaiian designs.

As a grand finale to our foods-from-paradise tour, we visited a cacao farm. Owners Bob and Pam Cooper had been busy harvesting the cacao pods that morning. The entire process from beans to golden-wrapped milk chocolate and dark chocolate bars is completed on the farm, making it the only source of 100 percent U.S. chocolate.

Now we know why the Big Island is known as paradise. It has it all: sunshine, crystal-clear waters, mountain-to-ocean views and all the exotic foods you can pack into one visit.

Delicious luau can’t-miss fun

We had never attended a luau despite several visits to Hawaii. Then, one morning at the Waikoloa Marriott Resort, we watched as the imu, or oven, was prepared for the pig.

The process was intriguing, and when we tasted the kalua pig, we were sold. We became luau aficionados and tried several. We recommend arriving in time to view the imu ceremony, when the pig is removed from the pit.

Each resort offers a variety of traditional foods, such as the succulent kalua pig and, sometimes, turkey. You’ll have a chance to try poi as well as lomi salmon, laulau and chicken luau. There will be plenty of familiar foods and an ample selection of desserts.

Luau prices vary considerably based on the variety of dishes, how many drinks are included, whether a lei costs extra, the entertainment and even the view. Remember that the kalua pig is the star. At each luau we attended, the tender pork, cooked all day in the underground oven, was “ono” — delicious.

There also is entertainment that tells the story of Hawaii in the lovely hula dance and song. The setting of the luau is also very important, and those we attended at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Kona Village Resort, Waikoloa Marriott Resort and King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel did not disappoint.

For more information, call the Big Island Visitors Bureau at 800/648-2441, or visit

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