On Location from the Big Island, Part 2
After our first few days on the sunny and dry side of the island, it was time to go east. Kona had been great - beaches were wonderful and the drinks just as good - but we were both looking forward to some quiet time hiking rainforests and the volcano, and staying in our rental above Honoli'i Beach.
Day 4: Snorkeling, Original Hawaiian Chocolate, Waimea, and Hilo
The hotel we stayed at in Kona was perfectly situated for snorkeling. King Kamehameha had had a protective wall built around this beach, creating a gentle pool protected by a breakwater. The reef that grew out of it is full of fish, turtles and eels, with plenty of urchin and corals to see too. We got up early on our last day and headed downstairs for a quick breakfast and a swim. I'd only been snorkeling once before and had a bit of a time getting into the water, but once I was in I realized I could have stayed in all day. The water was warm, the fish abundant. Our masks were leaky, which ultimately got us out of the water, but it was worth the nostrils full of saltwater. We took a disposable waterproof camera with us and the pictures aren't great, but that didn't really matter to us.
There was one more stop I wanted to make in Kona, and it was at the Original Hawaiian Chocolate factory. I'd read about them before we arrived and I was hoping for a little shopping and learning, but we missed the tour by an hour (snorkeling, no doubt) and they didn't do another until after we left the island. I called anyway, hoping I could buy some chocolate, and they were gracious enough to let us in after they'd closed, gave us a quick tour, and then let us taste and buy all we wanted. Turns out the Big Island is the highest equitorial latitude you can reach that can still produce cocoa, and this plantation was growing Forestero cocoa, but they also had a local Criollo plantation supplying them too. I had learned about cocoa production while I was in pastry school, but to see the beans in the pods on the trees was something else.
We left town with a brick of 100% Criollo, a couple of boxes of nibs, and a handful of Edible Hawaii issues that the store packed with our goods. That was a surprise too, and made for great reading the rest of the trip.
Waimea was our next stop, and we were headed to Merriman's for lunch. We'd heard about Merriman's from our friend Mara, and we'd also seen the segment about it on Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie from a couple years ago. I had a terrific Kailua pork sandwich, and Todd had Merriman's signature short ribs, both really juicy and full of flavor. We shared a lilikoi mousse for dessert, and we continued on our journey to Hilo. If we'd had more time, I'm certain we would have gone back to Merriman's. It was carefully prepared food, focused on local ingredients, and deeply satisfying. And we got to eat in flip flops, always a plus.
Hilo was only an hour away, but moving from the dry side of the island to the wet side made it feel like another world. We were back in the landscape of Kauai, full of ferns and philodendrons, rainbows and daily showers. We rented a small apartment that was attached to a larger house sitting on the cliff overlooking Honoli'i Beach, a black sand surf beach. When we got to town, we settled in quickly and went for a drive in downtown Hilo. I wanted to see where the farmers market was (because it started at 7am the next day) and also scope out Two Ladies Kitchen, a locally owned mochi joint famous for their strawberry mochi.
After walking a bit in the historic part of town, we wandered over to the Wailoa River State Recreation Area, a giant park that borders Hilo Bay to the southeast. The park was created after a couple of tsunamis wiped out Hilo. The town finally realized that rebuilding right along the watefront would be a losing proposition - Hilo is situated so that tsunamis are more of a matter of when, not if. The whole bay is protected by a seawall a few hundred yards away, but it's clear that it wouldn't do much if a big swell came
to town. This park is a result of that realization. We walked beneath giant banyan trees to Coconut Island, accessible by a small footbridge. This is perhaps the most noticeable place that we saw showing evidence of pre-tsunami buildings. Only bits and pieces of foundations and stairwells were left, and a park had been built up around it. Off this tiny island were swimming areas great for kids, and a platform that we saw older kids jumping from into the bay.
Tired from the long day, we skipped dinner and hung out at the house listening to the roar of the waves beneath us. We'd bought enough fruit in Kona that we still had plenty to eat, and would only be adding more after a trip to the market in the morning.
Day 5: Hilo Farmers Market, Akaka Falls, and Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden
We started early the next day. Our first stop was at Suisan Fish Market for their fish auction, the last live auction on the islands. It wasn't much to see - a couple of guys unloading and weighing fish - but we did get to see fresh mahi mahi on the carts. We split after a few minutes, heading to the Farmers Market just a few streets away.
Now, I'm proud of our farmers markets here in Seattle, and I've had the great fortune of living in cities that promote locally raised food. New York's Union Square Greenmarket was a great place to go on the weekends, and San Francisco wouldn't be the same without the Ferry Building. I'm a big fan of all the markets on the Peninsula that gave me an excuse to visit places like Draeger's too. And what can I say about our own U-District and Ballard markets here in Seattle? Life wouldn't be the same without them. But for all of the gourmet/heirloom/local variety those markets share, there are some things about the Hilo Farmers Market that blows them all away. Due to some ridiculous agriculture restrictions, those of us who live on the mainland will never know the bounty of Hawaii in our own markets. There are nearly 200 varieties of avocados on the islands. How many do we get stateside? A couple, tops - but only if you live in places like Miami. Most of the rest of us get Haas from California (if we're lucky) or from somewhere else in South America, and that's it. If California has an avocado crop failure, too bad. We can't get them from Hawaii. What else are we missing? Guavas. Lilikoi (passionfruit). Hearts of palm. Apple bananas. All of these are abundant in Hawaii, but we don't see any of them because of agriculture restrictions. We can get them from S. America, but that's it. Next time you wonder why passionfruit puree is so expensive (or doesn't taste like what you had in Hawaii), think about this.
We bought about as much as we could carry, knowing we'd have to eat it all before we left.
Having a few hours to kill before Two Ladies Kitchen opened at 10am, we headed to Blane's Drive In for breakfast. I saw a lot of drive-ins in Hilo, and they must be a local phenom. Cars can't actually drive up, and you order from a window and sit at picnic tables to eat. Plate lunches were the norm here, classic Hawaiian comfort food. Todd had spam on rice with over-easy eggs, covered with gravy and a side of macaroni salad. Classic.
The day before we drove past Two Ladies Kitchen, I'd seen the sign outside that they had sold out of their srawberry mochi, so I was determined to get there early enough to have one of my own. Besides, they're only open Wednesday - Saturday, so if I didn't get one that morning, I'd be out of luck on this trip. We arrived a few minutes before they opened and not seeing anyone conspicuous waiting, decided to walk down the street to check out a Buddhist temple we'd seen. We were back by 10:05, and the line was 7 people deep, with more folks walking in with call-in orders. In the back, I could see the family working feverishly to fill the day's strawberry mochi orders, boxes coming out as soon as orders were filled. Although I only wanted to try 1, the minimum purchase was 6 - so I bought a box and another assortment and waited for our precious to be made. Fifteen minutes later we were on our way back to the apartment to unload our booty for the day. Waiting for the big moment to eat a strawberry mochi was pointless. We had half a dozen to finish before the trip ended, and those suckers were big. We plunged right in.
Sated, we hopped in the car and went north to Akaka Falls State Park. It was an easy walk to see the falls, clearly designed with tour buses in mind. But it was here that we started to get a sense of just how big the rainforest was, and how gigantic its plants were. Elephant ears and philodendrons have pretty big leaves. We saw tree trunks covered with both, climbing up like ivy scales our walls here at home. Only the trees were 3 or 4 times as tall as our house, and even its 'ivy' looked small.
After wandering through a little glass shop called Glass from the Past in Honomu, we stopped for a snack before heading into the botanical garden. Todd hadn't had his fill of spam yet, so he grabbed a spam musubi while I ate a bowl of buttery rich coconut ice cream. We were in the middle of a typical midday rainshower, which made sitting by the old highway even more perfect.
The Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is just off Old Mamalahoa Highway, near Onomea Bay. As far as botanical gardens go, it's pretty typical with its diverse flora from all over the world - orchids, ginger, ferns, and palms. But there's more of that sense of scale in this place, especially when you're standing next to a fern thats fronds are as big as our car. Worth the price of admission, it was the one place on the island where we really needed insect repellant, but that didn't help us from walking through countless spiderwebs. Just sayin'.
As you can imagine, we had plenty of fruits and veggies from the market, and decided to grab a few sushi rolls and poke to add to our dinner. It was a mish-mash of ahi, lilikoi, bananas, pineapple, avocado, peppers, hearts of palm, cucumbers, and something we hadn't seen before called warabi, which I blanched and served with some soy sauce. It had the texture of okra with the flavor of artichokes, but was a little funky to eat. When I looked it up online, I discovered it was a brackish fern that is apparently rather carcinogenic when eaten in quantities. Oh well. At least we tried it.
Follow us as we make our way to Kilauea and back home to Seattle in part 3!