Return to Paradise, Part 1

Plumeria in paradise

On Thursday, September 13th, Laurel and I flew to the Big Island of Hawaii, just a month shy of five years after we left the island and moved to San Diego. It was a trip full of joy and remembrance. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you know that when you step off your plane and feel the air and smell the blossoms, you’ve arrived in a special place. And Thursday felt just like that.

We picked up our rental car and phoned our hosts, Cecilia and Neil Paulsen, who run a VRBO up the beginning of Kona’s mountain, Mt. Hualalai, which stretches up behind the town some 8,271 feet. (Two directions that come into play everywhere on the island are mauka and makai. Mauka means up the mountain, and makai means toward the ocean. Wherever you are on the island, those directions are important.)

Banana Hale bedroom

Cecilia and Neil’s place, which they call Banana Hale, is at about a thousand feet mauka Mt. Hualalai. It’s a comfortable home (hale means home) surrounded by, of course, bananas, as well as pineapples, papayas, guavas and all sorts of local fruit and flowering trees. The owners live upstairs, and they play host to a one-bedroom apartment and a studio on the ground level. We stayed in the one-bedroom, and it was a lovely, quiet place to spend the week, except for the early morning symphony of birds.

Around the island, things were unfortunately quiet, too. The recent eruptions of Mt. Kiluaea have scared many would-be visitors away, even though the island is more than 4,000 square miles in size, and the eruptions only affected 3% of the island in the far southeast corner. Friends on the island told us that now that Kiluaea has quieted down, the air is clearer and brighter than it has been in more than 30 years.

Sam Choy’s

We drove down to Keauhou, south of Kailua, for our re-introduction to Hawaiian food. Sam Choy’s sits up high on a slope with a view of the Pacific that’s almost as spectacular as the food. We ordered the Local Mix Plate—teriyaki beef, teriyaki chicken and fresh fish of the day, which was opah, also called moonfish, because it looks like a big round flat silver moon. If you’ve never had opah, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s one of the best-tasting fishes in the Islands. The trio also came with a side of potato salad, made with local purple potatoes. We topped it all off with a couple of Castaways, the excellent IPA made by local Kona Brewery. Wow! Welcome home!

Since we had our own small condo unit, we spent part of the afternoon shopping at Safeway, KTA and, of course, Costco, for easy-prep dinners. We decided to save going out for dinner only for a couple of splurges.

Friday is discount evening at the Kona Brewing Company, so we had to head there and fill our growler with the day’s IPA, which was Kua Bay IPA for 20% off. Their slogan is “Liquid Aloha,” which we are in total agreement with. We stopped for dinner and had their terrific bacon cheeseburger pizza. I don’t know why more pizzerias haven’t discovered this taste treat. The chilled lettuce and tomato on top are a nice constrast to the rest of the pizza.

Daniel Inouye highway

On Saturday morning, we hit the holoholo trail, which is the Hawaiian way of saying, “We went for a trip.” We drove across the newly finished belt road named for Hawaii’s famous senator, Daniel Inouye. Forty-nine years in the Senate, Hawaii’s favorite son. The new highway is a major improvement over the curvy old road to Hilo on the east side, the windward side, of the island. Hilo is the largest city in the island, with a population of close to 50,000. It’s also the rainiest city, so it’s not always our cup of tea. But, besides just driving there to see the new road, we have a favorite pond over there where there are always interesting birds, and right nearby is Suisan Fish Market, where we stopped for a nice piece of ono and some of their terrific poke. Ono is known as wahoo in California and Mexico, and it’s a terrific firm whitefish. In fact, “ono” means “delicious” in Hawaiian.

Anthuriums by Laurel Scott

On the way across the island, we drove through a couple of downpours, but when we drove into Hilo, the rain abated, and the sun actually came out for a while, so we attended the weekly farmers’ market and picked up a nice pot of anthuriums for five bucks to liven up our home-away.

We left Hilo and drove north up what’s known as the saddle road, through the Hamakua Forest Reserve and west to Waimea, the island’s cattle country. Home of the paniolos, begun in the 1700’s when Captain George Vancouver brought longhorn cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha. The original paniolos came from old Mexico and taught the Hawaiians how to be cowboys, pre-dating the more famous American cowboy by decades.

Great drinks at Merriman’s

Today, Parker Ranch is the largest and most famous of the ranches in this area, but we had reservations at a restaurant named Merriman’s. We had heard great reviews about Merriman’s, but had never been there. Today, however, we learned that the reviews were all accurate. Located in a simple-looking little house, Merriman’s has some of the best food and drink on the island. I had a Kalua Pig & Sweet Onion Quesadilla, and Laurel ordered Prawns in Kalbi Sauce. The drinks we chose were both inspired—my Manhattan had an infused sauce in it I’ll never be able to describe, and Laurel’s Mai Ttai was topped with lilikoi (passionfruit) foam that was pure delight.

Valley Farm by Harry Wishard

One of our favorite places on the island is the tiny town of Hawi, tucked in the far northwest corner of the Kohala range. It’s a few blocks of art galleries, coffee houses and shops and is easy to check out in an afternoon. About an hour northwest of Waimea, it seemed like a good spot to go before driving home to Kona down the west side. We had a nice chat with Wendy Williams (not the Wendy Williams, but a woman worth talking to). She was host at the Wishard Gallery, an eclectic collection of paintings, photographs, sculpture, jewelry, and just about anything that’s artistic or interesting. Harry Wishard, the owner, is an inveterate collector as well as an excellent painter. Born and raised on the Big Island, he fills his gallery with all manner of fine art.

We left Hawi and drove south, back to Kona, pleased with a holoholo well done.

—to be continued—

 

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