KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — "Don't dip your head into the dark chocolate," a male voice behind me said. Dark melted chocolate swirled in 2-foot-wide pots, filling the air with the scent of cocoa as our group toured the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory in Kailua Kona on the Big Island.
During our weeklong trip to the Big Island in October, my husband, Michael, and I had decided that when we weren't snorkeling, we would explore its back roads, an investigation that soon turned into a do-it-yourself foodie tour of the Kona Coast.
FOR THE RECORD: Culinary tour: In the April 20 Travel section, an article on a culinary tour of the Big Island of Hawaii identified the ice cream brand sold at Discovery Antiques as Lappert's Hawaii. It is Tropical Dreams, and the flavors are mango, macadamia nut, passion fruit, toasted coconut and Kona coffee.
We had sampled the area's coffees on a previous visit, but because the food scene here has grown so much in the last decade, this time we were searching for more substantial cuisine.
Our first stop was a 90-minute tour of the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in the town of Captain Cook, about nine miles south of Kailua-Kona. Peter Van Dyke, the 12-acre garden's manager and tour guide, introduced us to traditional Hawaiian staples such as taro, sweet potatoes and breadfruit as well as coconuts, bananas and other plants Polynesians brought to the islands.
Van Dyke also shared that the most authentic lau lau, a traditional dish in which butterfish and pork are wrapped in taro leaves and steamed, was served at Kaaloa's Super J's, two miles south.
We almost missed the unassuming building with red benches out front. Janice Kaaloa and her husband, John, and six children (all with names starting with J) run the casual café where neatly hand-printed signs list the menu: "Kalua pig and cabbage" and "lau lau." The traditional lau-lau plate lunch was served with pork or chicken, macaroni-potato salad and a choice of rice or poi. When Michael ordered poi — a bland, purplish, pudding-like concoction made from taro — Janice squinched her face in disbelief. Michael ate every bit of his lau lau and complimented Janice on it and her poi. "Other places make bad poi," she said. "Like the hotel buffets. I told them it's bad. I said, 'By making bad poi, you're insulting our people.'"
The bill was $8 per plate lunch plus a buck each for drinks. "We keep prices low so the locals can afford to eat here and remember the traditional foods," Janice said. "We want our grandchildren to know our culture. We do it for the locals, and it's a bonus for the tourists."
We wandered south a couple of miles, then headed north on Keala O Keawe Road and along densely jungled Painted Church Road, winding past coffee bushes, papaya trees and banana plants. When we got out of the car to listen to the many bird calls in the otherwise quiet area, we noticed a sign for Joe's Nuts, with the invitation to "Visit the nut farm." Owner Diane Hein gave us a mini-tour of the 22-year-old macadamia-nut trees, which grow more than 30 feet tall. She sells Maui-onion, coconut-curry and ginger-lime-flavored mac nuts, but we stuck with unsalted and Kona coffee-flavored ones.
The next morning we headed to Kailua Kona's colorful downtown farmers' market to buy local pineapples, mangoes, bananas, star fruit, "scaly" dragon fruits, "hairy" rambutans, several varieties of papayas (four for $1) as well as fresh local peppers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and four types of actually green lettuce. Twenty years ago I don't recall seeing lettuce on the Big Island that looked like anything other than a wrinkled brown paper bag. We loaded up so we could fill our rented condominium's refrigerator before we headed out to snorkel.
We also stopped in town at Da Poke Shack for poke (poh-kay), a local specialty and Hawaii's seasoned, chunky raw-fish version of sashimi. Sauce choices included sweet, sesame, avocado or "Pele's Kiss," a spicy homage to Hawaii's goddess of fire and volcanoes. "Always fresh. Never frozen" is its motto. Also on the menu were lau lau, kalua pork and huli huli (barbecued) chicken, a favorite of mine. Alas, no poi — instead we could get quinoa.
After snorkeling near Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park — also called Place of Refuge — we stopped in Kealakekua at our favorite quirky store, Discovery Antiques, for cones made with Lappert's Hawaii ice cream, which comes in flavors such as mango, passion fruit, coconut-pineapple, chocolate-macadamia nut and Kona coffee. I once bought an alien-head cookie jar there too.
The next day, after a slow morning gazing at the sea and savoring the local fruits, we moseyed south about 13 miles to Honaunau and the 3-year-old Kona Coffeehouse & Café. We sat on the patio where flowers and ferns grew out of a lava-rock wall. I skipped the local chicken and grass-fed beef options and went for the mac nut veggie burger made with ground macadamia nuts, eggs and spices with local lettuce and avocado. It was incredible — rich and nutty. Michael had perfectly grilled ahi and said, "It doesn't taste tuna-y at all." Our lunches were so good that we had to have dessert: coconut cream pie and a lilikoi (passion fruit) bar. We needed coffee to cut the sweetness of the lilikoi, but that was fine because we were sitting in a coffeehouse in the middle of Kona coffee country.
We drove west down Keala O Keawe Road to snorkel near Kealakekua Bay, then headed to Big Island Bees, a honey-and-beekeeping museum, factory and shop. Inside the museum were a natural beehive-shaped hive, beekeepers equipment, framed historic photographs and drawings of the area — and samples of its three single-flower honeys: wilelaiki (Christmas berry); dark macadamia-nut blossom; and mild, indigenous ohia lehua. (Its website said, "Each 9.5 oz. jar of Big Island Bees honey is the result of 683 bees flying 32,550 miles to visit 1,185,000 flowers to collect 5.93 lbs. of nectar." I'd love to see the little GPS units on each bee.)
Heading north back to Kailua Kona, we stopped for dinner at Annie's Island Fresh Burgers, which opened in 2010. Although the menu is more Californian than Hawaiian, Annie's emphasizes local organic produce such as vine-ripened tomatoes from a co-op, lettuce from its own garden, Big Island Hamakua Heritage Farm mushrooms, grass-fed island-raised beef and fresh, locally caught fish. My Good Karma Burger and Michael's barbecue burger with "island-style BBQ sauce" were delicious, but Annie's prices really weren't geared to locals.
The next day was finally time for the tour of the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory in Kailua-Kona, which has been making chocolate for 15 years. As he passed out samples, owner Bob Cooper said it was the only confectioner in the U.S. that uses chocolate from the only cacao-tree orchard in the country.
After an hour of looking at cacao pods, drying racks, seeds and processing equipment, I couldn't blame anyone for being ready to submerge their head in chocolate. We indulged instead by buying some dark and milk chocolate plumeria flowers in the gift shop. It was a sweet — and fitting — conclusion to our foodie tour along Hawaii's twisting and verdant back roads.