Culinary discoveries await on Maui, Hawaii's Upcountry backroads

Lunch at the O'o Farm on Maui

Mornings in Maui generally demand nothing more strenuous than pulling on a pair of shorts and sandals and heading for the beach. So what am I doing in long pants, hiking shoes and a jacket?

No swimming or snorkeling today. Instead, a dozen of us have signed up for a tour at the O'o Farm in upcountry Maui, 3,500 feet above the ocean on the slopes of Haleakala volcano.

We compose a you-pick salad with snippets of wild anise, garlic chives and mustard greens; sample espresso made from farm-grown coffee beans; and sit down to a farm-to-table feast prepared by a gourmet chef.

Spread out on platters near an outdoor kitchen are chunks of yellow pineapple, bright red strawberries and cherimoya, a melt-in-your mouth fruit as smooth as pudding. And those are just the appetizers.

Upcountry Maui is a region of lush vegetation and winding, two-lane mountain roads. Most visitors know the area as the slice of old Hawaii they drive through on the way up to the summit of 10,023-foot Haleakala. A half-dozen microclimates and rich, volcanic soil make growing conditions ideal on the volcano's lower slopes.

Now young farmers, many connected to local chefs, are reclaiming patches of land that native Hawaiians once planted with sweet potatoes and taro. Their aim: to "re-localize" food production and showcase native ingredients.

For visitors to Maui with time to explore the back roads, culinary discoveries await at out-of-the-way restaurants and boutique farms cultivating everything from wine grapes to exotic herbs. Here's an update on a story I did a while back when I was the travel writer for The Seattle Times

Lunch on the farm

Long before Oprah Winfrey discovered the potential for farming in Upcountry Maui - She recently started an  organic farm on part of her 60-acre farmhouse estate - the  owners of the Pacific'O and I'O restaurants in beachfront Lahaina bought land that had ben claimed by a hippie commune of squatters. About 80 percent of the food on the island flown in from the outside, so they began experimenting with new and traditional crops, with a goal of supplying their restaurants with locally grown produce.

With dinner entrees in the $30-$45 range at Pacific'O Lahaina restaurant, $58 each for a tour  of the 8.5-acre organic farm and lunch is a bargain.

The morning begins with with samples of sweet, red coffee berries. Then tour goers are invited to wander through the kitchen garden, picking their own salad mix while the chefs work on lunch.

On the menu is fresh local fruit, tofu with oven roasted vegetables and herbs from the garden; Kaffir lime fresh fish; wood oven-roasted organic rosemary chicken; greens with lemon vinaigrette; and herbed focaccia bread.

Sitting at a long wooden table shaded by trees, guests linger until early afternoon, finishing the meal with chocolates infused with house-made espresso and lively conversation among new friends.

O'o Farm, 651 Waipoli Rd., Kula. Tours and lunches Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. by reservation. The farm also offers a "Seed to Cup” coffee tour for $50 per person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Call 808-667-4341 for reservations.

Tea and lavender

Nearby is a spot many locals describe as one of the most peaceful places on Maui — the Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm. With 45 varieties of lavender and native gardens filled with tropical flowers, macadamia and olive trees, something is blooming year-round.

Samples of lavender tea and scones are offered on the porch overlooking the sugarcane fields, and the farm's backstory is learned on a 30-40-minute guided walking tour.
Most everything was cultivated by Chinese-Hawaiian farmer Ali'i Chang. Chang bought the land in 1992 after selling a nursery he owned near Hana.

Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm
He was given a single lavender plant by well-known Hawaiian singer Emma Veary, and what began as an experiment (lavender is not native to Hawaii) grew into a nearly 20-year labor of love until he died last spring. For sale are lavender products made by island entrepreneurs.

Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, 1100 Waipoli Rd., Kula. Free admission. Guided tours are $12, with $2 discount for booking in advance. The farm also offers twice-daily, one-hour guided cart tours for $25. Call 808-878-3004.

Pineapple sparklers

A stop at the Tedeschi Vineyards off Highway 37 in Keokea is a treat, especially for drivers returning from the long drive to Hana on the rough road skirting the back side of Haleakala.
Get elk burgers at the old-time general store, or take a tour and sample wines at the Tedeschi winery on the grounds of the Ulupalakua Ranch, a favorite cool-climate getaway for Hawaiian King Kalakaua in 1874.

Tastings at Tedeschi
The ranch has been in paniolo or "cowboy" country for more than 160 years. The current owners raise elk, grow grapes and cultivate strawberries, onions and potatoes for local chefs. Pineapple wine comes from fruit grown in lower elevations, then crushed at the winery in an Italian grape press. Cattle eat the leftovers.

Twice-daily free tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. include samples of a chilled pineapple sparkler served inside the king's former guest cottage. 

Tedeschi Vineyards at the Ulupalakua Ranch, Highway 37, Keokea. Tastings and tours daily.Call 877-878-6058.

Cheese and chores

Island-grown ingredients end up in many of the 30 goat cheeses made by Eva and Thomas Kafsack, the German owners of the solar-powered Surfing Goat Dairy in the lower Kula area. A flavor called "Purple Rain" contains a mix of local lavenders. "Rolling Green" is flecked with fresh garlic chives.

Feeding the livestock at Surfing goat dairy

The Kafsacks run one of only two goat dairies in Hawaii, an expensive undertaking given the costs of turning dry brush land into irrigated pastures. "You can't survive just selling cheese to restaurants and hotels," says Thomas Kafsack. So they invite the public in for cheese-making classes and tours.

Popular with families is the Monday-Saturday "Evening Chores and Milking tour," a 45-minute walk ($12 for kids, $15 for adults, reservation only) through the pastures at feeding time, capped with a hands-on lesson in how to milk goats. The dairy also offers daily no-reservation casual tours ($7 for kids, $10 for adults) and Saturday, two-hour tours that includes cheese samples ($25).

Surfing Goat Dairy, 3651 Omaopio Rd., Kula. Call  808-878-2870.



Upcountry Maui begins about 1,600 feet above the island's beaches on the west-facing slopes of Mount Haleakala. Get there via the Kula Highway (State Route 37), about a 1.5-hour drive from the beaches.


Grandma's Maui Coffee, Highway 37, Keokea. Breakfast, lunch and coffee roasted on site by fourth-generation owners. You might have an Oprah-sighting here. 

Grandma's Maui Coffee: Oprah sometimes stops by

Hali'imaile General Store, 900 Hali'imaile Road, Hali'imaile. Beth Gannon, one of the founders of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, serves crab pizza and other local specialties in a historic general store surrounded by pineapple fields. 

Ulupalakua Ranch Store and Grill, Highway 37, Old-time store near the Tedeschi Winery. Elk burgers, salads and sandwiches.

Kula Lodge, Breakfast, lunch and dinner in a rustic dining room overlooking Maui's central valley. 


  1. The BEST restaurant upcountry is the Kula Bistro in Kula. A very nice menu and a substantial plate, it also offers FABULOUS deserts!

  2. This kind of places are so worth a visit, having good food while being on tours is the thing that everyone wants and i personally think of fort lauderdale to melbourne so that it can stay well mostly for us.