The last port of call on our two-month worldwide odyssey was the Hawaiian Isles. I had only been to Honolulu once before, for business, and only for a few days, so this was going to by my first “real” visit to the state, and J2 had never been at all, so this promised to be a welcome treat after a rather gruelling period of travelling.
Flying out of LAX we had our first encounter with the delays that we had heard were going to be plaguing US airports this summer, facing a very long security line as we arrived at the United Airlines terminal. Fortunately, someone at TSA decided to grab a bunch of us at the end of the queue and bring us to the premier security check-in, which sped up our inspection enormously. Also, having taken advantage of the curbside bag check, we avoided the queue inside the terminal (though we were caught a bit off guard when the redcap made a blatant demand for a tip, which I had completely forgotten would be a thing here; with only $5 in my wallet, and checking in three relatively heavy bags, I was virtually certain we would not see them in Honolulu, but that fear was unrealised). This was also the only flight of the 17 that I would be flying on this trip that would charge me for checking a bag; United Airlines only allows us each one checked bag, so the third had to be paid for, at what I thought to be a rather unreasonable rate of $150. For future reference, Southwest allows two checked bags per passenger, at no additional charge. Go Southwest, young man!
Anyway, when we got to Hawaii we were met at the airport by our good friends Naomi and Mike, who always make any visit with them a special treat, whether it’s at their place (I’ve visited them in Beijing, Shanghai and DC before their move back to their base in Honolulu) or at our place in New Zealand. They bestowed leis on us as they greeted us, and took us to their car for the drive back to their house on the southwest side of O’ahu. Since United didn’t feed us during the six-hour flight (that departed at dinnertime…) we made a stop en route at a supermarket to pick up something for dinner, and found that the only thing that looked appealing was a vac-packed thing of cheeses and salami. Welcome to Polynesia! (In hindsight, we should have bought a can of Spam and a loaf of white bread…)
Naomi and Mike had a busy schedule lined up for us during our stay. With a relatively short visit (just three days on O’ahu and three on Maui), and wanting to minimise the impact of traffic on our visit, we made as much use of our mornings as possible, and aimed to return to Kapolei (as their part of O’ahu is called) before evening rush hour began. So on our first day we kicked things off with an early ascent of Diamond Head Crater. Parking at a lot of Honolulu’s attractions seems to be quite limited, and getting places early became a theme of some of our visits. We ended up not able to park at the closest lot to the start of the hike here, but lucked into a spot not too far away. The hike is very easy, though it was rather hot, especially for two Kiwis like us, and with J2 still suffering from the virus that he caught in Virginia, he struggled a bit to make it to the top (though not as badly as a tourist we encountered who was suffering from electrolyte loss and whom we helped out by finding someone to give her some Gatorade–my good deed for the trip!). The view from the top was beautiful–we were very lucky with the weather–and it was very good to get a bit of exercise, especially given what was to follow.
Naomi and Mike both have a taste for the finer things in life (which explains why they befriended us, I suspect) and they know that we appreciate sampling local foods, so for our first proper meal on the islands (I’m not counting the impressive breakfasts that Mike prepared for us, including an outstanding Hawaiian fried rice our first morning, and kalua pig quesadillas on the second) we went to a restaurant called Town in Kaimuki for an early lunch. The food here was beautiful, and my order of octopus with a sort of poi relative called pai’i’a was especially delicious, I thought. (While I’m on the subject, I’ll mention that J2’s dietary issues–an aversion to fish and fresh fruit–made some of our dining choices a bit challenging here; fortunately for me he is always very happy to make do with whatever he can when I indulge in my fish or fruit-eating adventures, though I think Naomi and Mike were a bit concerned that he was being left out. Don’t fret about it, guys!)
When we finished our lunch we headed to the day’s next stop, the North Shore of O’ahu for the requisite visit to Matsumoto’s for an order of shave ice. This is the place to come for shave ice, a concoction made of rather simple ingredients–shaved ice (shaved on a special machine, no less) doused in fruit syrups of your choosing, with the option of having an order of vanilla ice cream and/or sweet red beans hidden under the ice. When I was in Hawaii in 2006 I drove all the way up here just to try the stuff (and also to have some garlic shrimp at one of the nearby food trucks, something we skipped this time around) and found that the North Shore was still fairly unspoiled, with a very rustic feel to the place. A lot has changed in the intervening decade–not only has there been a bit of a building boom in the area, but Matsumoto’s has expanded, and their main competitor seems to be out of business. And even though Matsumoto’s is probably on every visitor’s checklist, the line moves very fast, and the quality is undiminished. I opted for the “tropical” combo (ice with passionfruit, guava and pineapple syrup) with both ice cream and beans, and found it to be delicious, and far less fluorescent than the rainbow combo of more pedestrian flavours.
We wandered around the shops of the North Shore a bit, and then made our way back home, stopping along the way at the Poke Stop to pick up our provisions for dinner. When I came to Hawaii in 2006 I was completely besotted with poke, and then with our move to China I promptly forgot all about it until just recently, when I started to make it for guests. I predict that poke will soon take over the Mainland, since it is an endlessly variable concoction made of the freshest-possible fish (not always raw, but often so) and a wide range of flavourings. When confronted with the choices at the Poke Stop, which looks like a completely unassuming low-end stripmall shop at first glance, but which offers a creative and high-quality assortment of poke choices, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store, unable to process all the choices I had to make. Somehow we managed to limit ourselves to three types–a spicy salmon, a tuna with limu (a Hawaiian seaweed) and octopus–along with “sides” of taegu (Korean-style dried cod shreds in a sweet-spicy sauce) and seaweed salad. And since the Poke Stop is also famous for their eggplant fries, which have to be eaten fresh from the fryer, we also had an order of these to eat on the spot with some local beers. The fries were extraordinary, crispy, well spiced, and the kind of thing that you cannot stop eating after just one, but they were nothing compared with the pokes, which we enjoyed with some wine back at the house. Served on a bed of hot rice, poke is a light and probably not unhealthy meal, which is one of the reasons why I think it will soon become the next big thing, especially since it is much easier to make at home, assuming you can get really fresh fish.
On Thursday we had a somewhat more leisurely start to the day, since our first outing was to visit the Doris Duke estate “Shangri La”. I confess that I knew nothing about Doris Duke before Naomi told us she wanted to take us here, other than that she was once called the “richest girl in the world” when she inherited a huge estate from her tobacco baron father at the age of 12. In her 20s, in the 1930s, she became enamoured with Hawaii and bought a parcel of land on the O’ahu coast on the ‘other’ side of Diamond Head where she designed a house to showcase her collection of Islamic art, which she discovered during her months-long honeymoon in 1935. The house is a true treasure trove, filled with antiques from all over the Middle East and commanding impressive views over the coast. You can only visit as part of a tour, and our guide was excellent, providing a wealth of information about both the house and the life of its reclusive owner, who died childless in the 1990s and left the house to the city.
Since we had found an amazing parking spot in town (that was under cover and free of charge, no less) we opted to walk from the Honolulu Museum of Art (which is the base for the visit to Shangri La) to our lunch spot for the day. Naomi had been wanting to eat at The Pig and the Lady in Chinatown for some time, ever since it opened, but had not been able to get in for dinner. Our visit gave her an opportunity to try it for lunch, and after our visit I can see why it is hard to get in. The chef-owner is from Vietnam, and his menu is a very interesting amalgam of Vietnamese, Laotian and American dishes that are both creative and delicious. We started with their Laotian fried chicken to share, which was like a Southeast Asian version of Korean fried chicken with an extremely crunchy coating and a sweet-sour-spicy sauce, and then we each had a different main dish. Mine was a “Pho French Dip” sandwich, which I suppose you could describe as a banh mi version of pho, morphed into a French dip. The filling was a slow-braised beef brisket combined with traditional pho add-ons (onions, cilantro, bean sprouts) and alongside was a bowl of pho broth to dip it into. What a creative concoction, and one I’d happily order again and again. J2 had the “Lucky Mi” sandwich, which is a more traditional type of banh mi, but the fillings were prosciutto, avocado, Calabrian chillies, and kale.
After this incredible lunch we visited a Japanese-Hawaiian warehouse store so I could pick up some supplies to take home. It was basically an Asian-inflected Costco, and if I lived here, I would probably do most of my shopping here (and at Costco, too, which has a really interesting product mix), and I found some interesting flavours of furikake to take home.
We decided to have a lightish dinner, after the rich lunch earlier in the day, so we stopped at a grocery store to pick up some poke to have at the house. If I lived in a place where even the grocery stores (a Safeway, no less) had such a great–and inexpensive–treat to take home for dinner, I imagine I would spend a lot less time cooking. They always let you taste before you select what you want, and the clerk here made sure I sampled the spicy salmon since she had just finished making it (and she did so “with love”, she told me). I probably would not have opted for the salmon had it not been for that sample, but it was really delicious so it was one of the three we chose for dinner (J2 had some of the leftover kalua pig with rice for his dinner).
Naomi had suggested that we visit another of Hawaii’s eight major islands (two of which are not visitable) during this trip, so she arranged for a Maui outing through Costco that had us depart Honolulu on Friday morning for the 40-minute flight to Kahului. I’m really glad we got to see Maui, since it is quite different from O’ahu–much slower-paced, more rural, and I’d even say a bit more beautiful. We picked up our car and drove over to our hotel on the west side of the hotel near Lahaina, and grabbed lunch at the Maui Brewing Company (good food, and really nice beers).
Lahaina was the original capital of the united Hawaiian islands under King Kamehameha the Great, so it has a good deal of history to explore. We started by heading into Old Town Lahaina and visited the Baldwin Home Museum, which was a good introduction to the history of Maui and Hawaii, since the docent provided a thorough history of the missionaries’ role in 19th century Hawaii, including how the Baldwin whose house this was helped to shield Maui and Moloka’i from the smallpox epidemic that ravaged the other islands, and how they helped to bring literacy to the population (Hawaii was the most literate country in the world, thanks to Kamehameha mandating learning to read as part of his effort to consolidate his control of the islands–it’s easier to control the various islands by sending them a written message instead of having to visit them himself all the time). Lahaina is also home to the oldest lighthouse in the Pacific (though it’s not very photogenic) and to a very interesting little museum that we wandered at length. In the evening we stopped at a grocery store and bought provisions to make into dinner to have back at the hotel while watching the sunset.
On Saturday morning we got an early start (again…) and drove into the “upcountry” part of Maui to visit the Upcountry Farmers’ Market, where a friend of ours from Beijing has a stand. She has relocated to Maui and now makes fruit pastilles and fruit pastes that she sells at tourist shops and to restaurants, and we thought it would be nice to say hi. The market is full of beautiful produce, all grown locally, of course, but when it came to finding something for breakfast it was a bit thin on the ground, especially since we didn’t really want tempeh with organic kale or spirulina juice. There was one vendor that seemed to be selling the sort of food we wanted, but the French toast that J2 ordered turned out to be made with gluten-free bread (why….???) so it went largely uneaten, though my free-range eggs with sweet potato hash was pretty darned good.
The main objective of our visit to upcountry Maui though was to ascend to the summit of Haleakala, the highest point in Maui. The drive is long and slow, and it got colder and colder as we ascended, so much that by the time we reached the 10,000-foot summit it was actually rather chilly up there (and of course we were dressed more for sea-level weather, in shorts and t-shirts). The views were beautiful from up there, though, especially with the clouds below us, though moving around was a bit tiring with the thin air. An added bonus for us was that the Haleakala Silversword was blooming, a very curious plant that exists only here, and that blooms only once in its very long life (as long as 50 years) before dying. Another added bonus–we arrived on the Haleakala National Park’s 100th birthday, so entrance fees were waived!
On the way back down we stopped at the village of Makawao, where we found a nice lunch at a small bistro in the centre. We also visited the Surfing Goat dairy, which we expected to have a tasting or something but which turned out to be rather disappointing (and the cheeses weren’t all that good, to boot), but the neighbouring Ocean Vodka and Rum distillery was far more interesting. Not only did they offer a very good tour, but the tour ended with tastings of their products, which were actually pretty darned good. The vodka bottle would also have made a great candidate for making prisoner pears back home, but getting it home would have been a challenge so we left empty-handed.
For dinner we tried to get into Star Noodle, but reservations were impossible and the wait for a walk-in table would have been two hours. So instead we bought a take-out order that we supplemented with some wine from the next-door liquor shop and found a place along the coast to eat while watching another sunset. It was only once we found a spot that we realised we had no plates and that the restaurant only gave us three pairs of chopsticks, but we improvised and had a great meal in a beautiful setting.
We were flying back to Honolulu on Sunday so we spent the first part of the day meandering around some small villages looking for interesting things to do. We started with the Iao Valley park, where we were given free entry by the parking lot guard when he learned that Naomi and Mike live in Hawaii but appeared not to be the kind of “kama’aina” who tend to despoil the place. The park is noted for its needle-shaped spire in the rainforest, and the walk through the park was beautiful despite passing rain showers. We in fact got back to the car just as the rain started to get heavy, so we took that as a cue to find a place for brunch, settling on a surprisingly good Korean spot in a shopping mall nearby. We also visited Paia, another cute little village with a plethora of shops, and Spreckelsville to see the Maui Sugar Museum, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of the industry that made Maui a magnet for Europeans and Asians in the 19th century. (This, the last remaining sugar mill on Maui is scheduled to close at the end of the year, and all the sugar cane fields that supply it are to be converted to diversified agriculture, rather a loss to future visitors, I think.)
We got back to Honolulu in the early evening and headed straight to dinner at the Side Street Inn, another storied restaurant that Naomi wanted us to experience. This place is a bastion of home-style Hawaiian cooking, serving family-style portions (read: enormous plates meant to be shared) of such treats as kimchi fried rice, spicy fried chicken and spare ribs, all of which was delicious.
One more day remained for us in Hawaii, and in order to make sure we made the most of it we started off by leaving the house at 5am (!!) for Hanauma Bay. Parking here is extremely limited, so we needed to arrive close to its opening time of 6am or risk not getting in. We arrived very shortly after the gates did and got a parking space easily, and then we learned that the entry fee is waived if you arrive before 7am (what’s this, the fourth time we escaped having to pay an entry fee??). The reason for being here is that this is the place to come to go snorkelling. The snorkel gear rental depot only opens at 7am, so we spent an hour just enjoying the view, and then when we got our gear we got into the water. You don’t have to go far at all to see the fish, which are numerous, beautiful, and not afraid of people (in fact, they come up to you if you stay still enough). In no time at all I saw my favourite tropical fish, the wonderfully named humuhumunukunukuapua’a (also known less wonderfully as triggerfish), along with wrasses, tangs, parrotfish and who knows what else. (J2 saw even more, since he ventured further out with Mike leading the way; I preferred to stay closer to shore.)
We stayed at the bay for several hours, until shortly before the promised rain storm was due to arrive, and before it started we visited the Halona Blowhole nearby and some other coastal scenic points before moving on toward lunch at yet another poke place, and a little treat of mochi ice cream at a place owned by a high school classmate of Naomi who has also relocated to Hawaii. We made a few shopping stops in the afternoon before returning to the house to sort out our luggage, making sure that we could pack everything into our bags, including several pieces of antique glass that Naomi and Mike were giving to us as part of their household downsizing (thanks again!!).
For our final dinner of the trip, Naomi had chosen a place on the west coast of O’ahu called the Monkeypod Kitchen. Since the restaurant had no view of the coast, we went for a drink at the Four Seasons where we sipped our cocktails as the sun dipped below the horizon, giving me a chance to get some nice photos. Dinner was excellent, though J2, Mike and Naomi went all boring on me and each ordered the same dish (gnocchi with Italian sausage–how much less Hawaiian can you get??) so it was up to me to get something evocative of the islands, a pan-seared onaga fillet with garlic shrimp and sweet potato purée, which was excellent, and a fitting coda to this amazing trip’s generally excellent food.
We had to leave bright and early for the airport on Tuesday, since traffic is pretty terrible in Honolulu in the morning, but we got there in plenty of time, making short work of checking in and getting through security. The only fly in the ointment was that we managed to leave our coats behind at the house, so after toting them around half the world for more than a month for no good reason, we managed to leave them behind just as we were about to need them, what with a winter storm bearing down on New Zealand as we arrived. Oh, well, it will give us a reason to return to Hawaii!!