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Eden: A Guided Tour | Back to Nature in Hawaii

A culinary explorer on Hawaii's big island signs up for three agritourism adventures and bites into her first jaboticaba.

"if you go hungry out here, it's because you're not paying attention," declares Kristi Clay of Wailea Agricultural Group, as she pilots her battered yellow Gator truck past stands of palms and of huge heliconias laden with waxy scarlet blooms. Clay wears several hats at the farm; today she's playing tour guide. "Here!" she hollers, tossing a small tree into my lap. "Have some lychees!" Well, call me deprived, but I've never eaten an entire branch of my favorite prohibitively expensive fruit before. Nor, for that matter, have I bitten into a freshly shucked heart of palm, tasted an a'a banana or picked a Sexy Pink, but all this and more I am about to experience in a sampling of three wildly contrasting versions of the fiftieth state's next big thing: agritourism.

Here on the Big Island (which its residents invariably refer to as Paradise), agritourism does not mean shoveling manure at dawn or throwing your back out with a hoe. No, it's about getting a privileged glimpse of Hawaii's agricultural revolution, and then cooking with—or simply feasting on—its products. And, in every sense, the Big Island's products are growing.

Case in point: Kristi Clay located the lychees in Wailea's mixed-fruit orchards. Not mixed peach and apple and pear; mixed longan, lemon, lime and durian, as well as the spiny vermilion egglike thing that Clay next hands me. (And I thought by now I'd seen every fruit.) It's a pulasan—a softer, juicier, tarter, bigger lychee—and it's absolutely delicious. Much of the produce here, Clay says, including pulasans, goes wholesale to local distributors because it's too difficult to market on the mainland, where it would fetch a higher price. But Wailea has found a mainland market for fresh hearts of palm, its most novel product. Wailea has sold them very successfully ever since owners Michael Crowell and Lesley Hill first harvested them from the peach palms they'd grown from seeds that they'd brought back from Latin America. "We still have to get seeds from abroad," Clay explains, piloting the Gator through next year's crop, "because we don't have the pollinator here on the Big Island. Nobody knows what it is!"

Peach palms are not a fraction as flashy as Wailea's other big crop: cut flowers, including spectacular yellow caribaeas, torch ginger, tea leaf and the drooping, foot-long Sexy Pinks. But they're still a fascinating food. After hand harvesting, workers strip off the fronds (leaving them in the fields for mulch), revealing the stalk, from which they remove the lily white sheath (it looks exactly like plastic pipe from Home Depot), then peel off a few more layers, like lemongrass—and there's the heart. It feels silky, like sandblasted glass, has an intricate cross section, like marrowbone, and is crunchy, sweet and infinitely delicate.

"In our culinary classes," says Michele Gamble, "we cook the base like bamboo shoot, or skillet-fry the heart with breakfast sausage, or grill it in the sheath, which steams it." Michele and her husband, John, own the Palms Cliff House, a year-old deluxe inn on the island's Hamakua (east) Coast; it's one of Michele's culinary farm-tour weekends, offered once a month, that I'm sampling today. (Wailea is a site her tour guests get to know well—it's not otherwise open to the public.) The Palms Cliff's cooking classes, taught by three local women—a Cuban, a Californian and a Kona native (they all emphasize Pacific Rim dishes, but they're willing to branch out on request)—are one of their weekends' best features. These lessons are so informal that they resemble the kind of parties where everyone congregates in the kitchen—and it's some kitchen. The Gambles fell in love-at-first-sight with the house only two years ago, as vacationing Denverites. A rambling white Hawaiian-plantation-style Victorian, it seems to float on the cliff edge, giving the large lanai, or veranda, where most meals are served, a trillion-dollar view of Pohakumano Bay—especially in whale season. "Some days you hear rumbling," Michele says, "and it's whales rubbing along the rocks. They birth here too. A female will lie there in the water and flap her tail, and then out flops a baby."

The Gambles have a mini farm of their own in gardens rampant with orchids, citrus, starfruit, Haden mangoes ("like footballs," Michele says), three types of avocado and several of banana, including the a'a, an albino variety once reserved for Hawaiian royalty. The inn's eight suites are easily as luxurious as those in the fanciest of the famous resorts on the opposite, Kohala (west), coast: DVD players, giant showers, fireplaces, private lanais with hot tubs, custom-made lace sheets from a 300-year-old family business near Venice and, in one room, a teak opium bed with a black-and-red silk-brocade cover that Michele made herself. Her multiple skills have fashioned a rare, inviting home, without froufrou, a richly peaceful embodiment of elusive Old Hawaii—the opposite of a resort.

The contrast could not be greater at my next stop, 90 miles away by car: Hilton Waikoloa Village, the largest of the Kohala Coast resorts. By large I mean that there's not only a tram to shuttle guests from the 1,240 rooms around the resort's 62 acres, there's also a canal with boat buses; there are not only tennis and water-sports centers and two golf courses, there are also resident dolphins, swans and flamingos and a protected colony of the endangered state bird, the nene. Plus there's a mile-long walkway crammed, thrillingly, with notable Pacific Rim art. And for the past nine years, Austrian-born Wilhelm Pirngruber, known on the Big Island as Chef Willie, has been overseeing 5,000 meals a day in the resort's four posh and five casual restaurants. Now Chef Willie is putting all the experience he's gained working with local suppliers to use in special farm-visiting, cooking-lesson weekends—or, as he calls them, "ecotourism with room service."

"When I got here, the local produce wasn't really much use at all," Pirngruber remembers. He tells how an early-'90s hydroponic-baby-lettuce craze gave way to conventional ground growing, which led gradually to today's diversity. A turning point came in the mid-'90s, when lower production costs on the mainland brought about the collapse of the sugarcane business, till then the island's major agricultural industry. One Big Islander told me how the cane fields "used to look like the wheat fields of Kansas—the sugarcane was so tall you couldn't see the ocean." Pirngruber laments that many of those fields have been lost to eucalyptus, grown mostly for paper pulp. But newer farms like Wailea are cropping up all over, utilizing land that might otherwise go to nonfood crops. Since all those farms want Pirngruber's business, he now has the happy task of picking the best produce from the new Hawaiian cornucopia. Just about everything he uses is local.

Waikoloa's agritour includes one of Pirngruber's favorite suppliers: the Habein Cattle Ranch at Waimea, a half hour's drive away. (Leaving the man-made waterfall, lagoon, mall and spa of Waikoloa Village and heading upcountry is quite an adventure, not least because paniolo, or cowboy, territory is so elevated that it's temperate, green and often rainy—the Big Island, after all, harbors nearly all of the world's 13 microclimates.) Here cattle and lamb are raised (without antibiotics or growth hormones) alongside such fine small-batch crops as sweet corn, asparagus, strawberries, celery and every kind of cabbage and pepper. A cookout and a visit to nearby Parker Ranch—one of the largest ranches in the United States owned by an individual—rounds out day one of the Waikoloa agritour. On day two, before Chef Willie starts his cooking demos in a nicely air-conditioned ballroom, he leads guests through Waikoloa Village's significant backstage arena—the butcher's shop, the bakery (with 18 bakers) and the garde-manger (cold prep), banquet and satellite kitchens. The Pacific Rim—style dishes he prepares, such as Asian-spiced double lamb chops, use local produce, including what tour guests have seen growing the day before, as well as Wailea's palm hearts and various Hawaiian fish.

When Waikoloa's pastry chef, David Brown, is leading the tour, guests stop at Kailua Candy Company, where they watch a demonstration by the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory, makers of the world's only all-Hawaiian, estate-grown, single-bean chocolate. Pirngruber plans to include it in his future tours, too, since he's fascinated by Bob and Pam Cooper's Keauhou operation: an orchard of 1,300 cacao trees and a microprocessing factory. "It's all so compact," he says. "There's not much distance between growing, fermenting, drying and making. And it's excellent chocolate."

For the third of my agritours, I head to the smallest property of the three by far, yet one where cacao is about the only tree missing. Diane and Bill Shriner's Lions' Gate Bed and Breakfast is the closest thing to an Italian agriturismo I've seen yet, since guests stay (and are welcome to work) on the farm itself. On their 10 acres near the Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, the Shriners grow the famous Kona coffee and the famous Big Island macadamias—or mac nuts, as they say here. For years now, the Shriners have been replacing every mac nut tree that dies, or gets blown over, with a fruit tree; thus, among their two major crops are also hidden papaya, pineapple, plum, dorset apple, lilikoi (passion fruit), coconut, avocado, many citrus and (now I realize I may never know all fruit) the grapelike jaboticaba. Guests at Lions' Gate (there are only four rooms, which can be combined into two family-size, homey suites) can join in any of the farm tasks that interest them, but, Diane says, "very few people want to pick coffee once they see it's very, very hard work." Recently, however, they did have one shear-crazy guest. "We got some great ornamental pruning on the coffee," Bill laughs. "His wife got a little angry—she wanted to go sightseeing."

Here there are no cooking classes (unless you count Bill's ornamental-pineapple-carving lessons), but Honaunau, the island's best snorkeling beach, is nearby, as are fine places for hiking, horseback riding and kayaking. This stretch off the Hawaii Belt Road, south of Kailua-Kona, is also prime territory for mom-and-pop dining. (Keei Café, "a hole-in-the-wall with plastic chairs," is the Shriners' favorite.) Lions' Gate's lanai has koa-wood rockers and a sweeping view of the bay, where, come December, humpback whales breach and spout (there's a telescope for observing) and where I saw a very rare, native io hawk make a guest appearance. Lacking heavy equipment, the Shriners send out their nuts for shelling—it takes 300 pounds per square inch to crack a mac—but then Diane roasts them in her own oven, perhaps while brewing her jaboticaba-lilikoi-and-coconut pancake syrup on the range. Her breakfasts of coffee, nuts, fruits and breads are paragons of home production.

And now, after my intensive agricultural discovery tours, I can safely say: I have paid attention. I have not gone hungry.

Published November 2002
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