Sun-kissed strands, azure seas, emerald cliffs crashing to thundering surf –there are more reasons to visit Kauai than there are shells on the beach.
But before I visited last month, I never knew one of them was its hip and happening food and agriculture.
Today, instead of spending all your time stand-up paddling or building a Baywatch tan, you can join a food tour and visit fascinating specialty farms where they grow everything from chocolate and vanilla to organic veggies, frits, spices, nuts, coconut, palm, taro and medicinal plants, spices and herbs.
In between tours, you’ll dive into the freshest food you’ve ever tasted at a slew of new restaurants, cafes and food stands showcasing the island’s edible bounty.
You could visit some of the farms on your own -- Kauai is only 33 miles long and 25 miles wide and encompasses just 552 square miles – just a little smaller than Houston. But many of the farms are tucked in the hills and mountains beyond a maze of unmarked dirt roads, cell phone service can be sketchy and hey, you could get stranded.
A far more fun, safe and efficient way to see the best farms and restaurants in Kauai is to take a food tour with Tasting Kauai Food Tours (www.TastingKauai.com). Owners Marta Lane, a freelance food writer and author of Tasting Kauai Restaurants; An Insider’s Guide to Eating Well on the Garden Island, and her husband, Daniel Lane, a leading freelance food photographer, know everyone associated with food, restaurants, farming and growing on the island and will introduce you to people and places you’d never find on your own.
The calorie onslaught begins
We were six hungry women on a mission: to eat anything and everything Kauai put in our path. Our first stop was the luxurious Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, a clifftop resort overlooking the ocean and mountains on Kauai’s wet, lush North Shore, where we’d spend three nights. Each bungalow had a balcony, kitchen and laundry room – perfect for folks who didn’t want to blow their whole budget on eating out and planned on getting down-and-dirty. The resort also had a beautiful n indoor/outdoor restaurant, café, fitness center, spa, lawns with pavilions where you could gaze over the sea, and a large pool complex. I saw a snarky-looking, overgrown trail snaking down to a long, silky beach but was later advised it was dangerous and to take the free shuttle instead.
Over by one of the pools, savory-smelling smoke was spiraling from several BBQs and a table was set in linens for an elegant starlight dinner.
Marta and Daniel were there, as were a few of the local farmers, and as we dug into a feast of barbecued fish, chicken, pork and beef, scrumptious salads and homemade bread, they told us our basic schedule for the following week. We’d visit several of North Shore Kauai’s top farms, growers, restaurants, food stands, bakeries and nature preserves, with free time for outdoor recreation like kayaking, surfing and hiking – to ensure we didn’t go home looking like bowling balls.
An intro to what grows in Hawaii
The next morning we rose early, polished off the hotel’s elegant breakfast buffet (a mistake I wouldn’t make again given the sheer volume of food we were fed) and vanned to Limahuli National Tropical Botanical & Preserve, tucked at the foot of mossy, Xanadu-like peaks.
Our trail spiraled up past archeological ruins and a hale (a traditional Hawaiian thatched-roof hut), and over kissing bridges past “canoe gardens” -- plants that floated in on the long-distance voyaging canoes of the ancient Polynesians and took root here.
We tiptoed carefully around a garden of endangered plants and passed many familiar (and some unfamiliar faces), including sweet potatoes, bananas, coconuts, turmeric, sugar cane, palm, mangos, ginseng, breadfruit and the almighty kava, an ancient medicinal plant that the ancients (and many moderns) chew or sip to reduce pain and stress.
The Zen of poi
Then it was off to a picnic table lunch at Hanalei Taro & Juice Company, located in the charmingly historic town of Hanalei, and run by a sixth-generation Kauai family who also ran a 30-acre taro farm down the road.
The patio was packed with locals busy wolfing down pulled pork, chicken, salmon or lamb, and they all seemed to have a runny-looking clump of something mysterious on their plates. It was poi, a traditional part of native Hawaiian cuisine made by baking or steaming the corm of the taro plant until it became a highly viscous fluid. It looked revolting – like a cement-colored mixture of glutinous gravy and glue, and I wondered if I had the moral fiber to taste it.
When my Kalua Pig Plate arrived, there it was right alongside my pulled pork and rice. I poked it with my fork, took a tiny taste – bleh! -- and immediately spit it out. Poi was obviously an acquired taste.
As I was polishing off my pork and lump of plain, unadorned rice, the food truck owners, Brad and Lyndsey, sat down next to us to announce we’d be vanning to their taro farm tour immediately after lunch. (Damn! And I’d been planning to sneak down the street for a burrito!)
Lyndsey chattered on, explaining that because of its high protein content, they tried to slip poi into every dish they sold --taro smoothies, hummus, burgers, taro mac salad and kululo, a traditional dessert made with taro and coconut. I took a nibble of the cake but the glutinous texture was still there. Before getting up, she said her entire family ate poi daily, that a batch could be kept for several days, and that poi became tarter with each passing day, a flavor many Hawaiians preferred over the fresh stuff.
Totas las tapas
Back at the resort, I did some Pilates to calm myself (was all the food going to be like this?) and then got ready for our “just the girls” dinner at Restaurant Bar Acuda. The minute we walked in, I had my answer. Nearly every seat was taken in the swank, candle-lit tapas bar. The eatery is run by Chef Jim Moffat, named by Food & Wine magazine in 1996 as one of America’s best new chefs.
We ogled the menu and every tapa sounded so tempting we decided to order them all to share. From the Hawaiian Mahi-Mahi with roasted mushrooms and brown butter/ginger vinaigrette to the Grilled Lamb Riblettes with roasted cherry tomatoes, curry oil and French feta cheese, each one was a surprising and delightful burst of flavor and texture.
We peeked at the dessert menu reluctantly--could we afford to eat dessert on a tour that already threatened to turn us into beached whales? “What the hell, let’s go for it!” said one of my comrades, so we ordered all the desserts as well. I tried not to hog the Chocolate Pot de Crème and the Triple Chocolate Cheese Cake, but it was a challenge.
Paradise on earth
“I’m never going to eat again!” wailed one of the women in our group. But the next night, after a day of sea kayaking and snorkeling found the six of at Waipa Foundation facing an elegant al fresco “farm dinner” which bore no semblance to any farm dinner I’ve ever had.
The fish was utterly fresh and fork-tender, the potatoes were buttery fragrant and the green beans and salad tasted like they had just been plucked from the garden. Which, in fact, they had.
Not a restaurant per se, the 1,600- acre Waipa Foundation is a drop-dead-gorgeous community center with its own organic farm, orchard and mountain preserve. Green fields rolled up to even greener mountains, there were lots of farm animals to visit, and every Thursday, locals and tourists come for its Tuesday (farmers) Market.
The secret garden
By Friday we were all ready for a palate cleanser, and to our luck, it came in the form of The Kauai Farmacy, a lush, 4-acre farm/medicinal garden set in the shadow of a sacred mountain.
It’s owned by Doug and Genna Wolkon, who ditched their corporate jobs in Connecticut (Genna remains an artist) and moved to the farm in 2007 after the birth of the first of their three children. Stressed out, burned out and overweight, they sensed there had to be a healthier and happier way to live and found the island in general and the farm in particular, which rolls up to a sacred mountain, has empowered them with the ability to self-heal.
Since then, the couple and their staff of gardeners have taught themselves how to hand-harvest their crops, cure plants with solar dehydrators, and chop and blend everything into tea, culinary spices, superfood elixir powders, salves, and hydrosol sprays.
As we chatted, it became clear that Doug and Genna didn’t view plants and herbs as mere food or a source of income, but as sentient beings worthy of respect. They and their staff not only talk to the plants daily but and ask them for permission before harvesting them.
And in fact, the gardens did seem special – as if they were lit from within. Everything from the lettuce and spinach to the cinnamon and catnip looked more colorful, vibrant and was much larger than any produce I’d encountered at my local Vons.
Today, the farm produces a line of medicinal herbs, loose-leaf teas, herbal tea powders, healing salves and seasonal hydrosol sprays sold at the farm, in local shops and at their stand at th3 Saturday Anaina Hou Farmers Market in Kilauea.
The dry side of Kauai
From the farm, we drove south clear across the island to Poipu Beach on the South Shore. Were we still on Kauai? The air was dry, the sky was cloudless, palm trees swayed in the breeze and the vistas were endless -- it was as if someone had flipped a switch and we had landed in SoCal.
Our home for the next two night was the Sheraton Kauai Resort, a luxury high-rise located a few yards steps from the sea and a long silky beach.
From my eighth floor balcony, I could see whitecaps toss and roll across a vast expanse of sea before thundering into the rocky coves below and explode in spray.
That night, we enjoyed another memorable meal at the hotel’s oceanfront RumFire Restaurant, feasting on seared Wasabi Pea-Crusted Ahi Tuna, Boneless Short Ribs on Yukon Mashed Potatoes and creative sides like Fried Brussel sprouts, Coconut Lemongrass Soup and Bacon and Beets Salad.
Per our custom, we ordered all of the desserts to share, and I waited eagerly for the Brûléed Cheesecake and the Flourless Dark Chocolate Torte to makes it way around the table to me again.
Where the chocolate and vanilla grow
On our final day, we followed a maze of dirt roads into the hills to the 8-acre Steelgrass Chocolate Farm, owned by the Lydgate family since 1867. Our lively guide led us down a short, steep path, pointing out orchids, vanilla and peppercorn vines and dozens of plants I’d never heard of before stopping at a picnic table covered with samples. We started with the chocolate pod. Its lush seeds were covered in a sweet, but it was no match for a Hershey’s Kiss. Then she passed around some of the strangest-looking fruits I’d ever seen. Some of them actually looked like alien from outer space when in fact they only grow here.
It was another short walk to a shaded tasting tent where we sat down to sample 10 different types of chocolate and attempted to match them up with 10 countries listed on a sheet.
I was astonished that chocolate could taste so different – from mouth-puckering sweet to nutty, fruity, bitter, sawdust-y and even like they’d be rolled in the dirt.
The last supper
We donned our best duds for the plantation-style Merriman’s Fish House, located in a ritzy outdoor shopping mall near the hotel and overseen by Peter Merriman, a pioneer in the “farm-to-table” movement.
Elegant, modern, airy and sun-filled, it turned out to be my favorite restaurant of the trip, not just because of the incredible food and views but because the restaurant completely eliminated the agony factor of ordering.
As my husband has often observed, I have a hard time deciding what to get and a special knack for ordering the wrong thing, spending the rest of the meal coveting my neighbors’ plates. Merriman lets customers order two half-portions of everything – from appetizers, salads and entrees to desserts, which doubled my chances of actually ending up with a meal I loved.
As usual, I told the waiter to take my order last, inspected the menu with x-ray vision and chose what I sensed would be some sure-fire winners. For appetizers, I order a Kona Lobster and Crab Cake, and the Sautéed Kauai Shrimp; for salads, Peter’s Original Caesar, and Warm Cheese, Arugula, Onion and Strawberries and for my entrees and sides, chose the Macadamia Nut Crusted Kampachi and Wok-Charred Ahi with Green Beans and Roasted Eggplant, and Sweet Corn–Jalapeño Whipped Potatoes. Per our custom, we’d order all the desserts and pass them around.
It was still a lot of food, and while I was hardly able to clean my plate, I finally winded up with a meal where I loved everything.
As the waiter served us coffee (“You can have an entire decaf cappuccino,” he teased me). I gazed out the large windows overlooking the breathtaking plantation and suddenly everything seemed all right with the world -- although it would probably take me a month to get back into my skinny jeans.
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