Feasting on the Big Island's treasures, you quickly feel enriched
Ordinarily, I like to travel deep, not wide. I'll go to one place, preferably a place with a kitchen, then dig my heels in and pretend I live there. But last winter, I found myself stranded between assignments in Hawaii with 24 hours to explore the Big Island, so I challenged myself to cover as much territory as possible, circumnavigating the entire island by car to see as much as I could in one day.
The southernmost and youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii covers 4,038 square miles, more than twice the number of square miles as the rest of the archipelago combined. They don't call it the Big Island for nothing. And while it is possible to drive around the island in about six hours, most guidebooks advise travelers to allow at least four days to explore it. Nobody drives all the way around in one day, I was told. But I plotted my course, threw some swim trunks and a towel in the back seat of the rental car and set out to find some breakfast.
First I would need coffee. There was a Starbucks in the neighborhood of the Royal Kona Resort on the edge of Kailua Kona where I was installed on the island's western shore. But, hey, I thought, this is Kona, the town that means coffee as surely as Milwaukee means beer, and at the Kona Inn Shopping Village, I found a local coffee stand that brewed and sold only 100 percent pure Kona coffee. I ordered a double tall latté, which proved to be the best cup of coffee I've ever had. Across the street, the local farmers market was just opening, and there a vendor shared a fork and a napkin and allowed me to enjoy a fresh, ripe strawberry papaya with lime while I waited for the baker to arrive. The baker insisted I take a free sample of his soft, white Hawaiian Breakfast Bread, a rich, buttery yeast bread, lightly sprinkled with sugar. That would have been more than enough, but I purchased another piece and was ready to roll.
South from Kailua-Kona on Highway 11, the road winds up into the hills where the only commercially grown coffee in the United States is harvested. And when I drove past the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, in the town of Captain Cook, I had to stop. Supported by the Kona Historical Society, the farm features a perfectly preserved seven-acre spread where the Uchida family raised coffee for three generations. A 45-minute walking tour gave me a chance to experience sweet-tasting ripe coffee beans plucked from trees growing in the shade of much larger macadamia nut trees. I also planted my bare feet on the tatami-covered floor of a well-preserved Japanese family farmhouse stocked with the paraphernalia of daily life.
As I made my way back to the car, I had a cup of freshly brewed coffee harvested on site, and took a moment to purchase a pound of dark-roast, whole-bean Kona coffee, making sure I had the brochure that would allow me to order more from home. At $22 a pound, the stuff was not exactly a bargain, but all the money goes to support this incredible living museum, and every sip evokes the tranquil, focused spirit of the Kona highlands.
As the day inched toward lunchtime, I resisted urges to take a morning swim at the tempting beaches of Hookini and Milolii; I was holding out for the black sand beach at Punaluu. Punaluu Beach Park is both a recreation area and a nature preserve where cold, fresh-water springs make the water close to shore quite chilly, but swimmers who brave the cold will thrill to find endangered native hono or sea turtles alongside them.
After swimming with the turtles, I drove into Pahala for a classic plate lunch at the Pahala Plantation Store, teriyaki beef with rice and potato salad. Before leaving, I ordered a couple of the warm Portuguese doughnuts known as malasadas into a bag for an afternoon snack. Next I made a beeline for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for a brief hike around one side of the Kilauea caldera and a sprint through a cold, dark lava tube carved out of the hillside.
As I sunk my chattering teeth into one of the malasadas, I was entering the rainy side of the island and approaching the much-loved town of Hilo, where locals say life is more like it used to be than anywhere else in the state. There, I visited another farmers market, the biggest one in Hawaii, where more than 100 farmers and crafters sell their wares Wednesday through Saturday. A cursory look filled my mind's eye with images of orchids, pineapples and smiling faces; then I was on my way again.
From Hilo, I headed north up the Hamakua Coast, where waterfalls tumble from the steep jungle-covered hills on one side of the road toward the lava-lined shores of the ocean on the other side. I passed the entrance to Akaka Falls State Park and promised myself to come back with my family. Then I wended my way into upcountry cowboy-cultured Waimea, where the 480,000 acres of Parker Ranch constitute the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S. There, I had a dinner reservation at Peter Merriman's eponymous restaurant. Merriman has been nominated at least three times for a James Beard award, and his menu, built on local organic produce, sustainably raised meats and seafood, all harvested from the island, is worthy of any number of accolades.
After dinner, I drove under starry skies along the lava fields of the Kohala Coast back to Kona. And as I settled back into the hotel room it dawned on me that I had gone deep after all. Indeed, over the next few days, as I met with farmers researching stories about fish, goat cheese and bananas, I felt a deeper connection to the place than I ever would have felt if I had stayed in Kona the whole day.
Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at email@example.com.