In recent years I've grown very fond of Hawaii Island, especially Hilo and the towns that dot the Hamakua Coast. The mellow pace, sweeping pastures and cozy snuggle weather remind me of New Zealand, albeit with less sheep. While the harsh reality of volcanic destruction continues in one corner of Puna, there hasn't been a better time to explore the Big Island.
People there need our help. As national headlines continue to feed the wrong impression that the whole island is in crisis, businesses big and small are hurting. I'm here to say that Hawaii Island is open and safe to visit. For my short trip last weekend I came prepared with a dust mask, but tradewinds kept the air clear as I drove to Kau on Highway 11. The crystal clear views up the slopes of Mauna Loa were ethereal – landscapes that are truly breathtaking, no pun intended.
If a trip isn't in the cards for you, here's where to find dozens of online Big Island retailers with everything from island-grown coffee, vanilla and honey to island-made fashion. And if you're lucky enough to go, here's what I saw, did and ate.
Twisty scenic routes, one-lane bridges and vistas of waterfalls flowing with mana are just some of the things I opted to live in the moment for. But I did snap a few photos of the ono grindz I ate along the way.
Nori's Saimin & Snacks
Comfort to the max, Nori's on Kinoole Street is the perfect first stop. Umamilicious shrimp and kombu dashi-based saimin broth sets the mood for a lazy Friday night. Add a dab of hot mustard on your char sui (sic) and slurp away. For an old school saimin shop, the menu is extensive, but don't be led astray – the $10.95 saimin burger combo is my go-to. Just don't forget to grab some omiyage li hing gummy bears ($1.95) and a loaf of chocolate mochi ($9) on your way out.
Nori's Saimin & Snacks • 688 Kinoole St. Ste. 124 • Hilo • 935-9133
The lines at okazuya or Japanese takeout lunch shops in Hilo are like family reunions. Waiting to pick our your nori chicken and musubi, you're bound to run into your braddah's ex's half-uncle that came to your high school grad party like 20 years ago. At least that's what it felt like standing in line at Kawamoto Store before my big drive to Kau. Formalities are limited to how big your box is gonna be, quantity of said boxes and your rice/musubi choices. From there you can pile on the hash patties, nishime, tempura and fried chicken. They pack 'em up good so when you unbox your lunch, it's like Christmas all over again. A plate like mine runs about $8.
Kawamoto Store • 784 Kilauea Ave. • Hilo • 935-8209
Kau Coffee Mill
During the long drive up and over Volcanoes National Park, you're greeted with incredible views of the slopes of Mauna Loa, the largest volcano in the world. Just over the crest near 5,000 feet above sea level, you'll enter the district of Kau, the southernmost district of Hawaii Island and home to some of the best coffee in the world. As a caffeine addict, a trip to Kau wouldn't be complete without a stop in Pahala at the Kau Coffee Mill, a beautiful estate that's home to thousands of coffee trees. The visitor center offers free tastings of all their estate-grown coffees, including different washes and flavors, but I found their award-winning natural dark coffee to be the best with its rich malty cocoa base layered with a hint of cherry and strawberry. At $44 a pound, this is defintely a luxe treat, but I cannot resist.
Kau Coffee Mill Estate • 96-2694 Wood Valley Rd. • Pahala • 928-0550
Two Ladies Kitchen
Perhaps the most famous omiyage from Hilo aside from a Sig Zane aloha shirt is a box of Two Ladies mochi. I'm not partial to their famous strawberry daifuk. I lean more towards their juicy seasonal treats like Saturn peach, poha berry, pear and grape. On this visit, I fell in love with the spicy ginger mochi and the sweet peanut butter-stuffed mochi and ended up bringing back about $50 worth of the stuff.
Two Ladies Kitchen • 274 Kilauea Ave. • Hilo • 961-4766
6th Annual Hilo Brewfest
On a whim, I decided to attend the Hilo Brewfest and that turned out to be a very good idea. For six years, the Rotary Club of Hilo has put on a beer-y solid program of local and domestic craft brewers alongside Hilo eateries at the Wainaku Experience Center fronting Hilo Bay. Although most of the food was wiped out by the time I got there, I managed to snag a decent share of beer from the likes of Kailua, Oahu's Lanikai Brewing, Kona's Ola Brew Co and Waimea's Big Island Brewhaus, which was my favorite tent that afternoon. After eight beers and a few bites, I was ready for moi moi under the palm trees.
Hilo Brewfest ∙ Late June
Moon & Turtle
If there's a special occasion restaurant in every town, Moon & Turtle is Hilo's. Far from stuffy or fancy, this downtown spot made the trip even better by delivering on solid shared plates with a little bit of Hilo flair. From the plump heart of palm gyoza ($7), deep-fried and drizzled with a spicy crema, to the crispy chow fun ($24) with shredded beef gravy, I couldn't stop loading up. The smokey sashimi ($14), a signature item, is strangely reminiscent of a smoked brisket and stays on the brain. Chef-owner Mark Pomaski worked at Roy's in Waikiki and Nobu in New York, primarily as a sushi chef, before settling back in his native Hilo to open Moon & Turtle. His talents reach far and Hilo is rewarded with yet another gem. The menu changes frequently so repeat visits are encouraged.
Moon & Turtle • 51 Kalakaua St. • Hilo • 961-0599
Conscious Culture Cafe
One of the tents at the Hilo Brewfest belonged to Big Island Booch and their associated cafe, Conscious Culture. From the name you'd assume they were a vegan restaurant, and you're right, but they happened to be serving some of the best beef burgers I've had on the Big Island and I was hooked. On the way to the airport, I decided to check out the cafe since it had nitro cold brew coffee on tap ($5), but since I was hungry, the tempeh tacos with avocado ($14) were tempting. The full plate with brown rice and savory black beans was more food than I bargained for, but the tacos hit the spot – the tempeh, seasoned like chorizo, lacked the spice I was looking for but offered a good alternative to the not-so-healthy food I had been eating all weekend. The cortido kraut added a nice acidic punch to the creamy avocado and crunchy sprouts for a well-rounded bite. I just wish I could have brought back some garlic sauerkraut, that stuff was incredible!
Conscious Culture Cafe • 110 Keawe St. • Hilo • 498-4779