Monday, August 6, 2012

Cloud-Climbing, Slab Bacon, & Lava: Grande Finale on the Big Island

Landing on Hawaii "The Big Island" courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines
If someone told me that I had been teleported to Mars or some other distant planet that vaguely resembled Earth, it would have somehow seemed far more believable than the reality that I was on one of the fifty United States of America.  Each of the Hawaiian islands we visited were distinctly unique and beautiful in very different ways, but the island of Hawaii is a vast gallery of eye candy that I will never forget.

Larger than all of the other Hawaiian island combined, the island of Hawaii was created from five overlapping shield volcanoes, three of which are still active.  Unlike the other islands, the incline is so gradual on Hawaii at times, you can drive for miles and miles unaware that you are even traveling uphill, only to suddenly look at the horizon and realize that you are at the cloud line.  Driving along this highway in the sky, vast fields unfold, flat, but with giant mounds dotting the landscape, created from the buildup of lava outbreaks over thousands of years.  It is a majestic scene, and driving across the island was one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.

The Waikoloa Marriott Beach Resort & Spa is a sight-seeing destination all on its own, sprawling across fifteen acres facing the Anaeho'omalu Bay Beach and Ancient Fish Ponds, where we saw several exotic fish and giant sea eels.  A generous touch of hospitality, waiting for us on the desk when we arrived in our room, was a traditional pu'olo--a gift basket of fruits and sweets wrapped in ti leaves, welcoming us into our final vacation "home".

The pork chop special at Merriman's, with bacon brussels sprouts, taro mash, and caramelized pineapple.
Soon after checking into our hotel, we set out for one final excellent dinner set up by Urbanspoon, and a wonderful finale to an epicurean's island trip of a lifetime--Merriman's Restaurant in Waimea.  Almost like dining in a private home, Merriman's is an unpretentious, quaint little restaurant tucked away on the side of a volcano.  Unlike so many island restaurant, the decor is unassuming--anything but gimmicky or artificial island, very open and clean, with crisp, chilly mountain air spilling in through screened windows overlooking a lush courtyard and gardens.

Beverage selections range from the expected tropical concoctions, to an impressive selection of specialty drinks including this fragrant, sophisticated "mobeeto", with actual lavender from the courtyard garden, mint, basil, light rum, vodka, and a hint of Honopua Farms beet juice.  My friend, Matt, enjoyed a special wine flight with his dinner, including a fantastic sparkling lambrusco which surprised us.

 Though several appetizers tempted, the PuPu taster won our vote immediately, boasting a broad sampling of five of Merriman's most popular beginnings.  My personal favorite was this house-cured slab bacon, served with a ramekin of kona coffee barbecue sauce for dipping.  The platter also included crispy fried goat cheese medallions with plump strawberries,  Kalua pork and sweet onion quesadillas with mango glaze, ahi sashimi with kimchee and ponzu dipping sauce, and chili pepper Kauai prawns with a charred tomato and grilled lemon vinaigrette.

For the main course, I opted to stay with the sampling mentality, choosing the mixed plate of mahi mahi, wok-charred ahi, and filet mignon, all of which were superb.  Our server's recommendation of the pork special, however, was the most delicious pork dish of our trip (see image and description above).  As a general rule of thumb, it's always best to try the special, as that is the dish about which the chef is the most excited and refreshed.  But almost all recollection of our delicious dinner vanished as soon as we sank our teeth into a banana cheesecake with chocolate cookie crumble crust and caramel, as well as this Hawaiian chocolate purse--a filo parcel filled with molten chocolate cake, Kalua rum coconut sauce, and swett and salty toasted coconut.  Truly a splendid finale to our culinary adventures.

Merriman's Poipu on Urbanspoon

The following morning, we were off at 7AM for our final adventure on the islands--a helicopter tour of the volcanoes taking off from Hilo airport three hours away on the far side of the island.  Sure, we could have caught a chopper near our hotel--for $300 more--so instead we chose to soak in the breathtaking scenery on one final drive for a more affordable flight several miles (and hours) away.  This, of course, meant that we had to plan a pit stop at Tex Drive-In for some Portuguese malasadas, which turned out to be some of the most wonderful stuffed doughnuts, with a huge variety of fillings--from bavarian creme, to raspberry, to chocolate and an array of tropical fruits--the entire warm pastry puff then tossed in sugar... perfect for a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee for the road.

Already bouncy from the sugar overload and caffeine, I knew I also needed something savory for the day.  Tex offers wraps, burgers, and chili dogs on three packed pages of menu, but craving something uniquely Hawaiian, I quite literally devoured this terriyaki beef loco moco.  They serve it with cod, mahi mahi, hamburger, Spam (of course), chicken, and even a garden burger pattie... but the tender, thin terriyaki beef strips with the rich brown gravy and rice, and that gorgeous over easy egg, was the perfect combination of flavors... like a decadent Hawaiian steak and eggs.

My friend, Matt, however, has the most unfathomable sweet tooth on the planet.  The kid has been known to woof down a sleeve of Oreos for lunch with a 2-liter of Sprite (on a somewhat freakishly regular basis), yet a size medium shirt is still baggy on him.  If I could summon his metabolism from him a la Ursula in the Little Mermaid, believe you me, I absolutely would.  And so of course after his sugar-dusted cream-filled doughnut, he opted for the french toast on Hawaiian sweet bread--which although crazy delicious, proved too much for even him to tackle.  The bread is decidedly sweet, and very dense--almost like a cinnamon-dusted pound cake dripping with maple syrup--rendering this a wonderful plate to share, rather than attempt solo.

Tex Drive in on Urbanspoon

Arriving at Hilo Airport, we saw something that we had yet to see in the previous eight days on the island.  Rain clouds.  Like dark gray, ominous, humongous sponges hovering in the sky, waiting to unleash torrents over the volcanoes, as if God had called in his own personal fire squad to extinguish the lava.

Rain storms over the ocean rapidly approaching the island
Heavy rain = no helicopter tours, and sadly, we were turned away... our flight canceled, with no openings available later in the day.  Matt and I hugged one another in condolence, sad to miss a sight we could never see anywhere else, and the one financial "splurge" we had saved until the end of the trip now blown away like the Carrie Underwood song.

Since we were already nearby, and it was already raining, the rainforest somehow seemed to make sense.  And so we drove fifteen minutes back to Akaka Falls, a 422 foot tall waterfall visible from a loop trail that runs through the park.  It's a pathway that takes you down fern-cloaked nooks and crannies, with an overhead canopy of rain-drop-sequined palm fronds and exotic magenta pods that look more extraterrestrial than forest flora.  It was a rather stunning backdrop for the phone call we received from the tour company notifying us that another helicopter had opened up if we could be ready to check-in in fifteen minutes.  Thank goodness there were no cops stationed along that stretch of road!

From the air, you can actually see the fingers of the lava fields where they flow into the ocean...
Be forewarned that a breakfast of loco moco and malasadas with pound cake doused in syrup seems like the ultimate poor choice as you check-in for a helicopter flight, and they hoist you onto a luggage scale to figure out the balance for the helicopter, and even worse, if you'll have to pay a fat fee.  It's all for safety and evenly distributing weight throughout the chopper's six seats, obviously, but nonetheless, as you stand there on display waiting for the blinking red digital game show numbers to announce to the world that you splurged on every meal in Hawaii, you can't help but feel like Veruca Salt just moments before being declared a bad egg--all the while passengers in line behind you try to guess your wait in hushed whispers like carnies on the midway at the county fair.  But the moment your little chopper slowly defies gravity, wobbling into the air like a nervous toddler finding its balance, all of that dissolves into the past.  It's a frightening flight at times, but one that everyone experience at least once. 

Do you see those charred trees, like stubble on the side of the volcano?  That's how massive and powerful these lava fields are.  You can actually see rooftops peeking through the lava crust in some places where whole towns were consumed.  

See the glowing orange lava in the center?  The luminous silver crust is just freshly cooled lava... as seen from hundreds of feet in the air.
Even though it was a low flow day, as we circled, we could see tiny bright orange outcroppings of lava as it broke through the crust to the surface, leaving a whole mountainside of smoke.  As we glided peacefully over this naturally explosive terrain (Kiluhea is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet), you can't help but ponder the earth's creation.  After all, you are still witnessing it here firsthand in the middle of the Pacific.  It's like the planet is some gigantic molten lava cake that has been cooling for centuries, and we are flying over the one remaining piece that is still warm. The lava flow is still building this island, perpetually making it larger.  It's beyond humbling, and magnificent to witness in person.

After an extraordinary day over the volcanoes, we started the three hour journey back to the other side of the island, where we had reservations for a luau at the Marriott in Kona.  Luckily we'd planned ahead, changing clothes in the parking lot as we'd barely made it back in time.  Though some may consider a luau touristy, every local we met suggested that everyone should experience it once.  It's sort of like a 101 course in Hawaiian language, music, and certainly food.  And the dancing, flame-eating, and storytelling is nothing short of beautiful.

Hawaiian music live is almost indescribable... men of stature playing delicate instruments, and singing with unprecedented tenderness in simple harmonies over sweeping melodies that sometimes leap large intervals at a time, their voices gliding gently as if on an slowly rolling ocean.   Though I might recommend this activity as something to do as an introduction toward the beginning of the trip, for us, it was a perfect way to reflect on the whole trip at the end.  It's a time to meet new people, share stories and recommendations, and celebrate the beautiful islands in a uniquely Polynesian manner.

Returning the rental car before a departing flight, finding a gas station can be challenging (you can only put massive tanks of gas in the ground so many places on an island bubbling with lava!)  But a kind surprise was a simply gorgeous Hawaiian woman who tapped my shoulder smiling...  "how was your trip?  Did you get to taste a lot of great food and see the islands?"  Upon removing her sunglasses, I realized it was my flight attendant from the trip from JFK to Honolulu over a week ago.  Hawaiian Airlines is exceptional when it comes to hospitality.  I was genuinely touched she remembered me.

The flight home, though peaceful and reflective, is always sad.  Even though excited to see friends and share stories, Hawaii is a difficult place to leave.  Thank goodness for the food!  We chose again from a selection of fresh fish in soy ginger glaze, crab salad tacos in crispy wontons, giant spinach gnocchi in a tangy marinara sauce, and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with assorted cheeses.

It took a lot of self-control not to ask for the extra dessert involuntarily declined by slumbering neighbors, a Grand Marnier ice cream truffle coated in white chocolate in a pool of creme anglaise.  Chef Chai, once again, did a magnificent job of breaking the barriers of typical airline food--it's a meal I would gladly order again and again on the ground.

From the extreme hospitality and luxurious comforts of Hawaiian Airlines (Alisa Onishi in Marketing set up not only flights, but acted as liaison for all hotel arrangements), to the impeccable world class staff and simply gorgeous accommodations at Marriott (every hotel on the trip was spectacular), to the unbelievable generosity of Urbanspoon (I truly owe them all a lifetime of Christmas presents--I have never been treated so kindly as I was by Laura Williams--the Social Community Manager--who continuously made checked on my comfort and well-being), to the flawless, awe-inspiring people, culture, and landscape of the islands... my island hopper trip to Hawaii was a trip of a lifetime.  Thank you to everyone who made it happen... and to my readers, friends, and family, who believe in me and make this so much fun to share.  I never take my ridiculously incredible journey over the years for granted. A world of gratitude to everyone who touches my life.

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And remember... you still have a few weeks to book a reservation online at Urbanspoon for your chance to win a trip just like mine, including Merriman's mentioned above!  Click here for more info.

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