Big Island, big flavour 

There's plenty to sip and savour in Kona and Hilo

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Akaka Falls
   

As much as Hawaii is associated with its bountiful beaches and everlasting warmth, its cuisine scene should certainly be a draw when considering a stay there.

My soon-to-be-fiancée Kerilee and I chose the Big Island for our November rain-escape, landing and staying a night just outside Kona before renting a car and heading to Hilo the next day.

Our food deluge began almost immediately. Our accommodation for that first evening, the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook, maybe wasn't the fanciest place to spend the night, but it housed Hawaii's oldest restaurant and it's famous for its pork chops. (According to Ke Ola Magazine, the cast-iron skillet used to fry the pork chops was specially made for the restaurant.) The meat itself is tender and sweet, while the rich gravy and onions were the ideal complement to the meal.

Next door to the Manago is Kona Chips, which specializes in kettle potato chips. I made sure to stock up, grabbing not only a bag of regular potato chips, but also a package of their Sumo Style Shrimp Chips (which were delicious, a little sweet, but not overwhelmingly shrimpy) and a jar of Ugly Cookies, which were beautiful chocolate chip cookies with chip crumbs baked in to satisfy both sweet and salty cravings.

We had our first taste of Uber to go get our rental car, and we lucked into a friendly and chatty driver named Ivan who, of course, had a food tip for us — malasadas. Since we were heading to Hilo, he recommended a scenic detour into Honokaa to pop into Tex Drive-In. Kerilee and I thought we were ordering a regular burger combo when we asked for the Hamburger Loco Platter, but it was a delicious surprise of burger patties covered in gravy with rice, scrambled eggs and a heapin' helpin' of macaroni salad. After finishing maybe half the lunch portion (it's filling, to say the least), we ventured back inside to order a half-dozen hot-and-fresh malasadas. With the classic "we're-on-holiday" justification, we split one in the car right then and there and then shared the other gooey, creamy, sweet treats as part of a balanced breakfast for the rest of our trip. Filling flavours included: coconut, chocolate, mango, lychee and apple.

As Kerilee and I ate breakfast and slugged Kona coffee on the lanai of the Flower Hill Hawaii vacation rental in Pepeekeo (just north of Hilo), we had a stunning view of the ocean, palm trees and a nearby waterfall. We also had visitors, as a number of day geckos were attracted by anything sweet.

Venturing into town, the Hilo Farmers' Market had a wide array of fresh produce, intriguing accompaniments and of course, Kona coffee. I snagged a small bag of fresh papaya to munch on and Kerilee and I taste-tested some flavoured balsamic vinegars, eventually purchasing the mango and passionfruit varieties.

Hilo also offered its own array of tasty restaurants, particularly Jackie Rey's Ohana Grill (where the guava BBQ glazed baby back ribs were a true winner) and the Suisan Fish Market, where you can score yourself a massive container of the island's best poke — enough for two to share. The market itself is kitty-corner to the Liliuokalani Park and Gardens with breathtaking views of Hilo Bay to drink in.

Our trip wasn't entirely sitting and gorging ourselves — we got in some adventure, too! One wild experience was at Akaka Falls, where the parking lot was hot and sunny, but after stepping a couple hundred metres into the rainforest, there was an urgent but pleasant downpour. As we drove back toward town, we spotted a booth on the side of the road with fresh coconuts. The proprietor cut one open so we could drink the milk inside, and when we were done, he hacked up the fruit with a machete and stored it in a Ziploc bag. (We then blended it to our pina coladas back at the vacation rental.)

Another day, as part of a trip to the beautiful Volcanoes National Park (where you can clamber through the Thurston Lava Tubes and feel the heat of the Steam Vents), we checked out Volcano Winery just north of the park. The premium flight costs just $8 and includes samples of all nine wines. While Kerilee was partial to the traditional pinot noir, I leaned toward the sweeter offerings and particularly enjoyed the Hawaiian Guava-Grape, which had a surprisingly nutty flavour. We picked up a bottle of both and received a tip from the staff to mix the guava-grape wine with a sparkling wine, which proved to be a delicious combination. The Macadamia Nut Honey Wine and Infusion Tea Wine were also creative surprises.

The Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory is also worth popping into if you're on the east side of the island. The drive from the highway takes you right through the heart of the plantation, while the self-guided tour also allows you to peer in on the production. Unfortunately, the chocolate-covering machine wasn't in use the day we went, but the access to free samples like the Kona Coffee Glazed and Honey Sriracha varieties made up for it.

The most engaging stop on our trip was at the Ueshima Coffee Company just outside Kona in Holualoa. While a number of coffee farms in the region offered tours, UCC was the only one we found that also gave visitors the chance to roast their own beans. We took a quick look at the coffee plants, where our guide showed us the different states of the beans and noting UCC uses the reddest beans to minimize bitter flavours in the coffee. It was then time to go back inside and get roasting. Our guide took our picture and allowed us to select a design for our coffee bag. She then fired up the roaster and discussed our roasting options. Our guide corrected the common misconception that the darker the coffee, the greater the caffeine jolt, since it's actually the opposite. With this in mind, Kerilee opted for the medium roast and I went with a slightly darker city roast.

We were shown how to properly pour the beans into the spinning roaster and when it came time to check on the progress, how to safely slip a wooden spoon in and out to get a closer look at the beans. When they were ready, we pulled the roaster toward us and dumped the brown beauties onto a sifter, which we then placed over a fan blowing straight up. We then used our spoons to shift the beans around the sifter to cool them quickly. By this time, our packages were ready and we then filled our pouches with our smooth sensations.

It was tough to leave the Big Island when the time came, but we'll plan to go back to the home of the Ironman World Championships with our iron stomachs again in tow.

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