Monday, January 28, 2013

FoodTrek: Wowie, it's Maui! Getting Onto Island Time

One of the first things I did before heading to Maui on vacation was adding the city of Kihei onto my iPhone's weather app. Oh, the joyful rapture of seeing temperatures in the high seventies to low eighties appear for the week, as compared to our dismal high thirties and mid forties "highs" in the Northwest. Blerrrrg. We have since returned, slightly crisped from sunburn, tired from many activities all over the island of Maui, and with a pirate's treasure trove of good times under our collective belts. And yes, somewhat lamenting the fact that it's cold, cold, cold in our home state of Washington. As I went about trying to organize all our Maui shenanigans (Mauianigans...?), I realized more than any time difference or insufferably long-ass time you spend on a cramped airplane, the hardest adjustment is going from Normal Work-Stressed Mode into Relaxed Vacation Mode.

Breathe in... breathe out... Karate Kid-style. Let's Miyagi-san this vacation - Photo by Mr. Wasabi
I'm not kidding -- the crossing of the International Rat Race Line into Let's Get Lazy for a Week is disconcerting. You're used to being glued to your smartphone, checking email/Twitter/Facebook every fifteen minutes, being constantly connected to your work and home life, but barely living presently in either. Being on a plane over open water helps, as some airlines like Alaska Air shuts down their WiFi when you're soaring over the ocean, so you're in a technology cul de sac, listening to saved-up podcasts or watching movies on your iPad before the battery craps out moments before you find out all there is to know about the Crying Game. It also leaves all the more time for you to make comparisons between you and the Oceanic flight that dumped all those dysfunctional fools on The Island for seven seasons -- could have been an in-flight drinking game, counting how many Lost references were thrown about. Sometimes a 5-plus hour plane ride is a good thing for no other reason than to cut you off from technology and just take a long-ass nap. Beer, wine and mixed drinks help, too, as did the free Mai Tais served right before we landed -- mahalo, Alaska Airlines! 

The freezing fog/inversion layer we bid farewell to while flying to Hawaii - Aloha, bitches! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I should preface this whole vacation-a-palooza by explaining that Mister and I traveled with his company, Runic Games, out to Maui for just shy of a week -- a very, very, VERY generous and wonderful show of appreciation for the employees and their game-widowed/widowered families who gave up many months of normalcy over last year to make the very successful video game Torchlight II. This isn't a typical thing, bringing a whole company to a tropical island as a thank-you, but it does wonders for employee morale, so if you're a small company wanting to show your appreciation to your workers for a particularly good year, consider this as an option versus the Jelly of the Month Club. You'll likely have employees for life, willing to give up plasma or even a kidney if you ask real nice.

Welcome to Maui - one of the prettiest islands to fly into - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The best view you'll ever see is the island of Maui appearing like Avalon from the mist -- tall mountains and lush green valleys below, contrasting against the island's iron-rich red volcanic soil. And you can't miss the crystal-blue water made bright and inviting from the shallow reefs below. You see this view and it's the first step towards transitioning into relaxation/vacation mode, so take in every second. The green fields are mostly sugar cane, some of the last few cane fields that the islands have. I remember summers at my grandparents' home "upcountry" in Makawao, driving through the cane fields during harvest, where they burn the cane to reduce the plant for more economic processing, so that the machines aren't doing extra work on unusable plant waste and soil. It literally looks like the island is on fire, it's alarming to see at first, and then you realize no one's in a panic and that it's totally normal. But it wasn't harvest time and the fields were lush and full as we flew in. It had been a few years since I'd been back to Maui and I saw the Kaheawa Wind Farm, right above Maalea Harbor, which became a good visual signpost to know which direction we were heading, and around this time, the humpback whale migratory season was in full-swing and for whatever reason, the deeper waters by that line of windmills were particularly flush with whale activity. Some people think the windmills are a bit of an eyesore, but knowing that it's a sign of the islands moving towards more sustainable energy resources, that's a pretty damn fine view. And clearly, the whales think they're awfully keen.


Checking into paradise at the Makena Beach Resort - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The first thing to do, even before checking into the hotel, is supply-up. Because the second you see a beach, you're going to want to frolic and never stop, and then wonder why you're sunburned from head to toe. There's a Costco within spitting distance of the airport in Kahului, so bring your membership card if you want to pick up perishables and the important stuff like copious amounts of boozeahol. We picked up a second set of snorkel gear and saved our supply-up for a Longs, which is pretty much the Everything Store for the islands. I held back on the Costco-sized handle of vodka, and picked up some of Maui's finest, a bottle of their own locally distilled (and organic) Ocean Vodka, which is good stuff, as well as a sixer of POG -- pineapple/orange/guava juice -- for hotel room cocktail hour POG-tinis! That's another crucial piece of the Vacation Mode Puzzle, have a signature tropical cocktail at the ready, at all times!

Feet in the sand, beautiful views, what more does anyone need? - Photos by Wasabi Prime
By the time we were settled into our amazeballs resort, the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, we were SO READY FOR VACATION. They have a beautifully open upper-level lobby area -- gorgeous vintage outrigger canoe on display, handmade Hawaiian quilts hanging on the walls, an open garden and koi fish pond below. Plenty of comfy sofas set up like a big lanai for just hanging out. We upgraded to the ocean view and it was worth it, displaying a beautiful view towards the north, looking right at Maalea Harbor and the line of windmills. And whales, if you stood on the balcony long enough to see spouts in the distance. But the beach called, and we answered, along with many of the Runic crew scrabbling out onto the sandy shores, pale and confused from the burning ball of light in the sky, hissing like Gollum, wailing, "It burrrrnsss ussss!!!" But then you put your feet into the pleasantly cooling surf, feel the foam of the Pacific Ocean (the warm part of it) swirling around your legs and you've achieved another level-up on your road to Vacation/Relaxation Nirvana.

Break the rules - have the breakfast buffet at least once - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Travel experts/snobs say: Never Eat at the Hotel. Most times I'd agree, but it's hard when you're in the middle of a beautiful resort and can sit out under palm trees and gorge yourself stupid on fresh papaya, pineapple and bacon. Despite the higher markup, we did the hotel buffet breakfast, which was delicious and covered our hunger needs for both breakfast and lunch for one day. I filled my plate several times like a big fat tourist, going for savory eggs, bacon, ham and these cute little shrimp quiches, along with fresh fruit and plain yogurt. Hawaii is the vacation favorite for a lot of Asian tourists, especially Japan, so most resorts will serve miso soup at breakfast, which is traditional. The Mister gave me a funny look, but whatever, I like it. Sure, it was pricier than a typical local-style breakfast, but we were paying for the convenience of having a relaxing breakfast close to our room and no sidelong glances from the staff because I was grubby like a sweathog from a morning workout.

Treat Yo Self - Photos by Wasabi Prime
And that's another thing about being on vacation: Treat Yo Self. Don't go crazy and get a timeshare or a Gucci handbag for every day of the week, but don't be afraid to sprinkle little treats throughout a trip. We splurged on a pricier, but extremely relaxing resort buffet breakfast -- check. We also splurged on one nice dinner out -- we went with a small group to Nick's Fishmarket over at the neighboring Fairmont Kea Lani resort. It was an elegant restaurant, beautifully-plated dishes with as much locally-sourced ingredients as possible. The daily specials were fresh and lovely, and we were with a fun group, so we had a very nice evening. Was everything crazy-to-die-for? No, but I wouldn't say a nice dinner out for at least one night isn't worth it, regardless of where you go. It really put us into the mindset of, "Wow, we are in a really amazing and beautiful place -- let's enjoy every second of it." You're in the middle of a resort-bubble, which is to say it's a beautiful, well-manicured dream of what living in Hawaii is like, and it's wonderfully no-fuss, which was perfect for a large group like ours, with several people who had never been to Hawaii, much less Maui. The convenient thing about this little ghetto of fancy-schmancy resorts and shops around Makena and Wailea is that there's a shuttle that putters around the area, so that makes for an easier (and safer) way of getting from place to place, especially if you're planning on Mai-Tying one on for the night (har har). Makena is a little isolated; Kihei is the biggest city close by, and even that's a few miles up the road, so having a rental car is a must if you're wanting to explore the island. I did a little shopping at the nearby Shops at Wailea, at their Whalers General Store, which was like a slightly fancier ABC Store (which they also have). I picked up some Maui-grown coffee and souvenir-sized jars of local honey, while getting a damn fine cup of Lappert's coffee. It wasn't a shopping spree straight out of Pretty Woman, but I was plenty happy.

Party On in the tropics - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I didn't use the pool at our resort (because it feels weird to swim at a pool only steps away from a beach), but I sure as hell enjoyed sitting around it. There were several evenings spent around Makena Resort's pool, sipping tropical cocktails and the Gangs of Runic taking over their lounge chairs and sofas. Cocktail Hour is a must for fully engaging your vacation. Even if it's a mock-tail, even if it's a club soda -- sit out in the open air, enjoy the fact that you're not swaddled in three layers of sweaters and fleece, and watch the sun slip into the ocean in a tirade of color, light and fury.

Give yourself a few hours, you'll thank Yourself for it - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Despite being on a vacation with a bunch of friends, it was good to take a couple of hours for oneself. Even if that means waking up really buttcrack-early most mornings. Hawaii is the place to eschew sleeping off that hangover till noon -- you want to see the morning light creep up across the mountains and churn the skies into warm, dusky hues. The resort had morning yoga (Tues/Thurs) which I wanted to do at least one class. I figured no one would want to meet before 7am for stretchy-bendy times, but the class was surprisingly filled, and with many from the Runic crew, which was great. Doing yoga with a view of the ocean and the morning sky is about as personally indulgent as it gets -- foie gras wrapped in bacon... for the soul. I know this is a food blog, but you have to feed your soul as much as you feed your piehole, and this was my ultimate Vacation/Relaxation Nirvana moment, taking some time to absorb everything. Smell the flowers. Feel the breeze. Realize there is so much more than crap on a computer and a Facebook status. It was early enough to where the beach wasn't yet full of people, so I could do a quick run up and down the sand in peace, and catch the first rays of morning light hitting the rocks and surf. Heaven.

I have much more Maui finds and adventures to share, this was the premiere post that needed to get this blog into an Island State of Mind -- so stay tuned! Despite a little sadness to be back to the daily doldrums, I didn't feel like I left anything behind, I truly feel like I brought so much back with me and I can't wait to share it all with you!

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