Beyond the Beaches and Volcanos: Do-It-yourself culinary tours of Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii

The Big Island's Onomea Tea Company

For all of you with Hawaii on your minds for this fall or winter...Here's a leg up on some off-the-beaten path culinary finds to wet your appetite the next time time you're ready to go exploring.

I'll start with the Big Island and an update of a story I did recently for Virtuoso Life Magazine, then follow next week with a post on Upcountry Maui.

The Big Island

Ceiling fans spin above tables covered with mint-green cloths as we settle in for lunch and a farm tour at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in the tropical rainforest town of Paauilo, an hour's drive from the sunny Kohala Coast on Hawaii's Big Island. 

Jelly jars filled with vanilla-scented iced tea and lemonade arrive along with vanilla-infused sauteed shrimp, grilled chicken in a bourbon-vanilla citrus marinade and a salad tossed with a vanilla-spiked raspberry vinaigrette.

Any regrets about leaving the beach behind to explore the agricultural side of an island normally associated with volcanoes and fields of black lava rock, disappear as quickly as the vanilla ice cream topped with a passion fruit curd.

Lunch at Hawaiian Vanilla Company

In business since 2000, Hawaiian Vanilla is among a handful of micro-farms and culinary entrepreneurs welcoming in visitors for a look behind the scenes.

In 1988 when Peter Merriman, one of Hawaii's best-known chefs and founder of the Hawaii regional cuisine movement, opened his first restaurant in the inland ranching town of Waimea,  "the vast majority of agriculture was intended for export, and it was mainly cattle, pineapple and sugar."  Like the rest of the state, the Big Island imported much of what it needed from the mainland.

"There weren't enough people in Hawaii, and the tourism industry wasn't yet big enough yet to develop supplies for the local market. We literally had to run an ad in the newspaper saying 'hey we want to buy stuff that's locally grown.' ''

Sugar disappeared, lost to countries with lower production costs, but the island's diverse mix of microclimates and rich, volcanic soil meant almost anything could grow well.
Today, the menu at Merriman's country-manor style restaurant in Waimea reads like a locavore's Who's Who. From the "dirt farm'' salads composed of tomatoes, roasted beets and papayas to the roasted mushrooms and naturally-raised lamb, 90 percent of what's served comes from the island. 

Taking time out to visit a few of these new-age purveyors, Merriman says, and  "you'll get close to the heart and pulse of the real Hawaii.''

Shorelines strewn with lava rock give way to rolling hills and forests as my husband and steer our rental car onto Highway 19, the paved, two-lane belt road that circles the island. It's just a   12 mile drive from the white-sand beaches on the South Kohala Coast to Waimea, elevation of 2,600 feet. 

First stop, the Rare Hawaiian Honey Co. Without a GPS or good directions, it would be easy to miss the warehouse that doubles as a tasting room for an organic white honey as precious as fine perfume.

Beekeepers Michael Domeier, a marine scientist, and his wife, Amy Grace, a jewelry designer, bought the company in December, 2012, taking over from long-time Volcano Island Honey owner Richard Spiegel.

Produced by bees harvesting nectar from a single grove of kiawe trees, a type of mesquite often used for fire wood, the honey is put through a natural crystallization process. The result is a creamy texture, more like butter than traditional honey.

The company hopes to start tours soon. For now, tastings are free, and visitors are invited to sample several varieties including honey infused with ginger and passion fruit.

Rare Hawaiian Honey Co., 66-1250 Lalamilo Farm Rd. Waimea. Tasting room open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. 4 p.m. Phone 808-775-1000.

Thirteen miles east of Waimea, a landscape lush with tropical foliage flanks the highway as we approach the rainy Hamakua coast, the start of a scenic 45-mile drive ending in Hilo, jumping off point for visits to the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano, the highest point in the U.S.  

Coffee, cultivated today mainly on the dry Kona side of the island, thrived here too before sugarcane became the major crop.

Leading a coffee-growing revival are a small group of artisan producers. Among them is Wendell Branco, a crusty mule breeder who founded the Long Ears Coffee Co. with coffee from trees growing wild on his estate in the foothills of Mauna Kea.

Wendell and Netta Branco

Wendell and his wife, Netta, both 71, greet visitors with handshakes and hugs, and offer samples around a picnic table in a tasting room decorated with vintage coffee pots. 

Explaining the challenges of small-scale production, Wendell points to a hand-cranked pulping machine he bought for $500, and laughs at how he tried to dry his first batch of beans in a clothes dryer.

The Brancos have since improved their equipment and techniques, but still do everything themselves by hand, from picking the bright red coffee "cherries'' from their trees to drying, aging and roasting the beans. 

Long Ears Coffee Co., 46-3689 Waipahi, Honokaa. Call ahead for drop-in visits or tours ($35). Information: 808-775-0385.

Leaving Long Ears, we drive a few more miles southeast on Highway 19, then detour onto a steep backroad and across a one-lane bridge to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in the hills overlooking the Pacific.

Convinced by an orchid enthusiast that vanilla (the fruit of the planifolia orchid) could grow in Hawaii, Jim and Tracy Reddekopp planted two acres on newly-purchased, high-elevation ranch, and in 2000, became the first to grow the spice commercially in the U.S.

Working in an abandoned coffee mill and slaughterhouse they converted into a kitchen and country store, they and some of their five children cook for visitors, and tweak a repertoire of more than 80 vanilla-inspired products for sale that includes soaps, cookies, pie spices and body mists.

The Hawaiian Vanilla Company

Jim appears wearing a backwards ball cap, shorts, t-shirt, tennis shoes and an apron as his son, Ian, gives a short demo on how to make home-brewed extract using vanilla beans and Costco vodka. Lunch is followed by a walk to the farm where vines grow under black shade cloths to buffer the sun. 

Growing and harvesting vanilla on a small scale is a labor intensive business. Blossoms appear just one day a year for four hours, and must be hand-pollinated in that brief window of time - one reason why a single bean sells for $11.

The Hawaiian Vanilla Co., 43-2007 Paauilo Mauka Rd. Paauilo.Tastings, lunches, tours, teas ($25-$39) by reservation. Information: 808-776-1771

Our last stop is the Onomea Tea Company, a 30-mile drive south along the coast's most scenic stretch.

Rob Nunally and Mike Longo were sipping a cup of Earl Grey in 2003, thinking about a crop that would fit the agricultural history of the former sugarcane fields they bought overlooking the Onomea Bay, just north of Hilo.

They found out that tea, part of the camellia family, grew in Hawaii in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tours start with a walk through the fields where citrus and banana trees surround 2,500 tea plants spread out on land above rocky sea cliffs. Rob shows visitors how to pick the tea by plucking the stem and top one or two leaves, and explains the different processing methods that results in organic green, oolong or black varieties that sell for $15-$20 per ounce. 

Warm cranberry scones appear on antique Japanese plates as Mike begins a relaxed Chinese-style tea ceremony on their outdoor deck. Filling a thimble-shaped  "aroma'' cup, then covering it with a larger sipping cup, he demonstrates how to quickly invert the two so as not to spill any liquid. We follow his lead, tilting the aroma cup to inhale a fragrant mist. Then we slurp the tea, letting it hit the back of the throat as we savor yet another taste of Hawaii. 

The Onomea Tea Company, 27-604 Alakahi Place, Papaikou. Tours/tastings, $30 by reservation. Information: 808-964-3283. 

Our day ends at Merriman's in Waimea where guests waiting for tables can kill time wandering through a garden filled with dozens of examples of vegetables and herbs that can be grown locally. There's no view, no beach, just a dining room filled by 6 p.m. every night with diners ignoring the sunset as they focus on their dirt farm salads and roasted lamb. 

Merriman's Restaurant, 65-1227 Opelo Rd, Waimea. Reservations required. Call 808- 885-6822 

Next week: Upcountry Maui 

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