Monday, March 21, 2011

FoodTrek: Breaking the Foodie Rules on Hotel Eating - and Loving it

Travel and food writers often say, don't eat in the hotel, go out and explore, lest you become fully absorbed into a Jabba the Hutt-like resort repose, addicted to pillow mints and pay-per-view movies. Well, maybe not the Jabba the Hutt part, but the general advice tends to lean towards hotels being the HQ for luggage and sleeping only, which normally I'd tend to agree. But being the Wasabi Rebel that I am (no tattoos or regrettable piercings required), I'm here to say, rules are meant to be broken, especially when it comes to Hawai'ian hotel eats, from dusk till dawn.

Aloha morning from the Queen's Court at Hilo Hawaiian Hotel - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Spending some extra time on the Big Island of Hawai'i, I had the opportunity to explore less as of a local who just hops from one family's guest room/couch to another, and more as a true visitor. I was able to visit the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel along the eastern coast city of Hilo (aptly named hotel, no?), the Royal Kona Resort and the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort, both on the western Kailua-Kona side of the island. These are all hotels centrally located within the main center of their respective cities, so if you're looking for a place to stay that doesn't feel like you're totally isolated, these are all good options. More importantly, the reason why these hotels break the "no eating in the hotel" rule is that they take advantage of the fact that they're in Hawai'i, a land blessed with fresh, readily available ingredients. No heat lamp-warmed baked potatoes and sickly, limp chicken cutlets swimming in a murky bernaise. The food prepared is vibrant and takes cues from its surroundings. True, a vacation should be something that takes you away, but the place you're staying at shouldn't take you even further from where you've traveled so far to reach.

Flavors of Queen's Court and sights of Liliuokalani Garden and Mauna Kea - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Hilo Hawaiian Hotel is located along the main street of Banyan Drive, with a view of Hilo Bay, and walking distance to the nearby Queen Liliuokalani Garden, a Japanese fish pond park that's one of my favorite places to go for a picnic or a nice walk. It's one of the original hotels in Hilo and a popular place to stay during the big hula festival in April (28th-30th), Merrie Monarch Festival. It's literally the Superbowl of hula, with people traveling from around the world to converge upon the city, so if you're planning on visiting and not a hula aficionado, come any time of the year except the end of April, just so you can save yourself the extra hassle of trying to find a room, as the whole city gets taken over. But 99% of the time, Hilo is a relaxing paradise. A perfect way to start the day would be to wake up around sunrise to see the first glow of morning's light start to fill the sky, and if the air is clear, you can see the peak of Mauna Kea in the distance. The air is still cool, but warm enough to inspire an early walk over the little bridge to nearby Coconut Island (an old Navy training area, now a favorite picnic spot), or a stroll through Liliuokalani Garden. The tidal pools will be low, you may see small fish jumping in the still waters of the seawater ponds flowing in and out of the hilly park. There's no sound of busy rush hour traffic, just the early morning breeze and the rhythmic cooing of little grey doves that are everywhere. And then you'll hear a low rumble. That's your stomach saying it's breakfast time.

So head to the hotel's Queen's Court Restaurant for breakfast, with Executive Chef Piet Wigmans helming a menu of traditional dishes mixed with local flavors. During my stay, I had a beautiful fresh papaya topped with yogurt mixed with locally-grown vanilla and mixed with tart slices of apple bananas. A little wedge of calamansi (sort of like a tart key lime) adds a quick splash of brightness. I also had a wedge of frittata that had savory chunks of pipikaula, Hawai'ian style beef ribs, and chopped warabi, wild fiddlehead fern shoots that taste a bit like asparagus or broccoli. Eggs Benedict gets an island twist with lilikoi (passionfruit) flavored hollandaise and slices of Portuguese sausage, and even the pancakes get a little Aloha, as the batter is mixed with poi, and topped with a coconut syrup. Sure, breakfast is a hard thing to do wrong, but these extra flourishes made for a distinctively local way to start the day.

Picture-perfect views and tastes at the Royal Kona Resort - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Heading to Kona, on the western coast of the island is like going to a totally different island, not unlike traveling west to east, across the state of Washington or Oregon. The climate change is dramatic, going from lush green to dry and rocky -- and hot, so bring your sunscreen SPF Gazillion, pale Northwesterners. People think of the entire state of Hawai'i as being all sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, but throughout the islands, there are varying climates, from rainforest to desert. The island of Hawai'i is one way to experience multiple environments by staying on a single island, driving from Hilo to Kona. Taking the scenic route can be a couple of hours, so it's worth spending a few days in Kona to really enjoy it. It may be late afternoon by the time you get into the rocky shores of King Kamehameha's hometown, and you'll be looking at your watch thinking, hm... it's Mai Tai-thirty. What, your watch doesn't say that? Eh, time for you to get a new watch, braddah. I checked into the Royal Kona Resort along the busy main street of Ali'i Drive and immediately went to their open-air Don's Mai Tai Bar, overlooking the setting sun over Kailua Bay. The waves literally crash against the bar! This hotel is uniquely set right against the sea and is a big supporter of the annual Ironman Triathlon, held within walking distance of the hotel, by the pier -- if you're an Ironman fan, book early for October, but if you're just wanting to relax with a fruity drink and minimal crowds, there's 11 other months that are just as good for a visit. Royal Kona's Chef Jason Ito was there to present some cocktail hour pupus, which included my favorites: sashimi-style ahi (tuna), spicy ahi poke (a Hawai'ian style ceviche of raw fish, onions, peppers, garlic and salted ogo, or seaweed) and satay skewers of chicken and vegetables with a spicy peanut sauce. Mushrooms from the Hamakua area of the island were also served, a deliciously local vegetarian option. I was especially glad to see so much produce being sourced not only locally, but from the island itself. Even in the local grocery stores, you can find vegetables from Hamakua, and I personally think the tomatoes from that area are superbly ono kine -- super sweet and not acidic like most tomatoes.

Mahalo to Chef Ito for preparing such an ono kine menu - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The fresh food had my head spinning, I nearly forgot to drink my Mai Tai! I'm normally not one for super sweet cocktails, but when in Tropical Rome, do as the Tropical Romans do, and the sweetness balances out the savory eats like the spicy ahi poke. It's fitting to have a vintage umbrella-bedazzled cocktail like the Mai Tai in the 1960s-cool surroundings of the Royal Kona Resort. During their happy hour, they have a great xylophone player who plays all the retro-cool classics, with the crashing surf in the background. I liked their Mai Tai sampler, which is four of their signature Mai Tais made in mini form. It's a smarter way to sample without becoming Paradise Lost in the span of a night. The sampler includes smaller Mai Tai versions of their Pele, Original, Topless and Green Flash. They were very fruity and sweet, and I was recommended to try their Plantation Mai Tai, which was a little less sugary and supposedly closer to the original recipe. I was starting to feel the sleepiness of the day's travel take over, so I vow to save the Plantation Mai Tai for another day. The ocean waves were still crashing dramatically, throwing a mist of white foam into the night air, and I have to say, it was another reason why it was nice to have a delicious meal and a cocktail right downstairs from your room -- a restful night was just an elevator ride away, right past their most excellent chandelier shaped like carved fish hooks that I couldn't stop taking pictures of.

Sunset dinner and manta ray viewing at the Sheraton Keahou Bay Resort - Photos by Wasabi Prime

What makes it easy to break the rule of spending too much time at the hotel, aside from the restaurants' ample use of fresh ingredients, is the ease of enjoying some of the most beautiful views of the island. Unless you have access to a private seaside home or are super-BFF's with Paul Allen (he's got a ginormous house right along the Kona coast), you can't beat an evening of food and drinks between views of a misty mountain and crashing waves, and an evening show of manta rays swimming right in front of you. A little ways up from Ali'i Drive, on Ehukai Street, sits the impressive Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort. It's a little further out and doesn't have direct beach access, but their higher cliffside location feels like you're on the edge of the world, with the views of the green, forested mountain behind you. Where you feel the direct spray of the ocean along Ali'i Drive, you feel you're a bit closer to the clouds and the faraway whisper of the sea in this location. I had the pleasure of talking with the hotel's head Chef Eric Lelinski, who left the Mainland for paradise and never looked back, fully charmed by the ease of fishing trips and the ability to serve meals from farm to table. He spoke of the pleasurable abundance such fresh ingredients harvested throughout the islands, both land and sea, being able to serve fresh-caught fish like wahoo or ono (pictured above), along with ahi wrapped in nori and lightly fried, topped with a tartly sweet chutney of local fruits. He combines two sides of familiarity, Island and Mainland, which I think makes visitors new to Hawai'i more open towards trying something new. A traditional dessert of jello-like haupia, or coconut pudding, may not be what a first time visitor would crave, but haupia layered with sweet purple ali'i or Okinawan potatoes, on a shortbread crust feels more familiar for someone used to Western/European desserts.

Combining familiar with exotic flavors in Kona's tropical oasis - Photos by Wasabi Prime

One of the most unique things the Sheraton offers is a first-row look at manta rays swimming off their viewing area in their Manta Ray Bar. It's open to all visitors, even if you're not a guest of the hotel. After a sunset dinner, you can gather at the lookout to see dive boats anchor off the deepwater shore and shine bright lights to attract the microscopic plankton or krill, creating sort of a moonlight buffet for the manta rays that live in the waters surrounding Kona. Every night, on Mondays through Saturdays, they have half hour complimentary talks about the local manta rays, explaining their life cycles and interesting notes like the fact mantas can live for decades. The history of the hotel is that prior to it becoming a Sheraton property, it used to have a saltwater pool in the location where the manta viewing area is, and the mantas used to come by even when the pool was still there, attracted by the lights that attracted their food source. It's interesting to think that the same mantas that roam the waters today are ones that were there from years before -- talk about repeat business! The nighttime dive tour boats garner most of the manta activity, as their lights are stronger, but you get a great view of an eerie brown wingspanned creature, flying through the surface of the water, with maybe a tip of its wing flipping up, showing its white underside. It's also quite a sight to see the snorkelers paddling around with noodle-like flotation aids, en masse, to gather around the lights and see the mantas glide about. It's weirdly wonderful to watch from the viewing area. Especially with a happy buzz of a ginger cosmopolitan to ease one into a moonlight night.

It's important to mention that none of these hotels were seriously damaged during the recent tsunami that came as a result of the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. While as a precaution, everyone in the flood zone was evacuated and the people in Hilo and Kona were able to avoid harm, thanks to the incredible tsunami emergency system that's in place throughout all the Hawai'ian islands. This fact of nature is just a part of living near the ocean, and it's a reminder of the power and beauty of being surrounded by such paradise. Don't feel intimidated by the recent events, instead, if you find yourself on the shores of Hawai'i, take a moment for a deep breath out of respect for the ocean and the life it sustains. And if you haven't already done so, please head to the American Red Cross or other relief efforts that are providing aid to the people of Japan affected by the terrible disaster. Part of Hawai'i is a sense of ohana, or family, and that includes sending goodwill and Aloha to all who need it. Thanks and Mahalo -- stay tuned for more posts about Hawai'i eats, coming soon!

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  1. You are a gem of a travel writer & photog. Everything comes alive.

  2. Oh snap, maybe it is time for me to get a new watch then. We were on the big island in December and only left the resort to surf! Didn't regret it though, the food was amazing. What great pictures you took, I'm envious of your skills.

  3. Hotel restaurants are SO often overlooked! New York Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo has THE BEST SPAGHETTI in the just have to know what hotels have great food! Wonderful blog!!!

  4. I had a similar meal in Waikiki just a few months ago. A papaya scooped out with crab salad and avocado. I keep remember it and wish I could make it, but I know without the ambiance it will never be the same. I enjoyed your post! We have traveled the islands over and over and never get tired of them. Aloha!

  5. SOOO enjoyed reading this post! This food is unbelievable!! Your trip seems like it was just amazing. I have never been more convinced to take a trip to Hawaii.


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