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Hawaii: Kava conquers all during a mellow evening of music, hula and art in Hawi

Hawaii: Kava conquers all during a mellow evening of music, hula and art in Hawi
(left, top)Pololu Valley beach.(left, center) Young hula girls showing their moves at the Kava Kafe. (left, bottom)The Bamboo Restaurant. (Right) A batch of the calmative drink kava is brewed up at the Kava Kafe in Hawi, Hawaii. (Tom Bentley, Alice Bourget (right))

— White dudes with dreads, flower-bedecked kids in tie-dye, a general air of mellow merriment — was I at a Grateful Dead concert? No, I was at the Kava Kafe in Hawi, at the tippy-top of Hawaii Island, for the Friday night festivities.

The evening's program included a local art show, a soulful acoustic guitarist, a vegan feast, a hula-dancing demo by a group of pre-adolescent girls, and throughout, coconut shells filled with kava.

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Kava is a calmative drink, though some think of it as a mild euphoric. It was used by ancient Polynesians in ritualistic ceremonies, but today, you can go to a local health food store and buy it in powdered form in capsules and tinctures. Those old Polynesians probably didn't think of serving it with cacao, cayenne, cinnamon and rimmed with coconut cream, as I had it at the Kava Kafe, but times do change.

Unadorned kava tastes of faintly perfumed, earthy river water — not horrible, but I had less incentive to drink it than, let's say, a Manhattan. Take in quantity and you'll get a not unpleasant numbing of your lips and mouth.

That didn't deter the denizens of Hawi from talkative good cheer — lots of dudes saying, "Hey, bro," and clapping one another on the back. In fact, hugs abounded. Everyone seemed to know everyone.

Hawi (pronounced hah-vee) is a small town, but it's rich in restaurants, boutique galleries with striking sculptures and paintings, and curious characters who could be waiting for novelists to set them in intriguing scenes. It's reminiscent of Santa Cruz, but with tropical breezes.

There's a small, jolly parade honoring King Kamehameha the Great's birthday every summer (he was born on Hawaii Island) and plenty of eye-pleasing snorkeling spots and hikes.

Head through the mountains to Hilo if you want more — but not a lot of — bustle, or down the dramatic lava-covered coast to Kona, if you need to get caffeinated.

The evening's entertainment included a guitarist transplanted from New Jersey who sang covers of Peter Tosh, Sam Cooke and Tom Waits songs on the outdoor patio, and the growing crowd took in more kava.

After we set down the forks used for our spring rolls, pineapple fried rice and vegetables, out came the hula dancers swaying to Hawaiian chanting. At that point, the joint was jumping, but I'm a kava lightweight — I could manage only a shell and a half. But considering there are several cups in those shells, that's enough liquid to feel fully ceremonial.

I missed the next weekend's activities, but they included an open-mike night with singing and poetry as well as various flavors of kava served up fresh. My girlfriend reported that the vibe was again mellow. Kava conquers all.

The secrets and history of the kava drink 

Kava as a drink is derived from the root of the awa plant, a member of the pepper family. The drink is also sometimes called awa, sometimes called kava kava — or on the Micronesian island where I lived, sakau — and is considered an intoxicant in some places, a medicine in others.

Polynesian voyagers long ago brought kava to Hawaii. The root was crushed on ceremonial stones, then filtered with water or coconut water through some kind of fibrous plant, usually palm, or through cloth.

Chiefs and elders would gather to decide on village matters over kava ceremonies and prayer, drinking it out of coconut-shell cups.

Kava Kafe in Hawi, Hawaii, uses kava organically grown on farms in Kona. The drink is prepared in small batches by kneading the powder with water for 15 minutes or so, then straining it through a special cloth into a large serving bowl. Its contents are replenished throughout the evening with freshly made kava.

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The Kafe sells powdered kava, coconut shells and even a kava gift set, with kava, shells, straining cloth and instructions. The Kafe also makes deliriously good fudge. Go figure.

Pololu Valley beach.
Pololu Valley beach. (Tom Bentley)

Hawi has a lot happening despite its small size.

Drop by the Kohala Coffee Mill. It's a local hangout next to the Kava Kafe. It serves great coffee and treats, and the Tropical Dreams ice cream is, well, a tropical dream.

There's an excellent farmer's market every Saturday, with locally grown fruit and tropical flowers, breads and handmade soaps.

Don't miss the photo-op statue of Fidel Castro throwing a shaka salute outside Mother's Antiques & Fine Cigars.

The hike from the Pololu Valley Overlook, a few miles north of town, is one of the loveliest I've ever taken. There's a moderately steep (but not too long) trail to the black-sands beach below—stunning.

On the way to Pololu, go see Kamehameha I's impressive statue in the town of Kapaau.

There's good snorkeling at Mahukona Beach Park and at Lapakahi State Historical Park (worth the trip for the park alone). Both are about 20 minutes south of Hawi on Highway 270.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO KAILUA KONA, HAWAII

From LAX, American, Delta and United offer nonstop service to Kailua Kona, and Hawaii, American, Delta and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $534, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

Hawaii Island Retreat, 250 Lokahi Road, Kapaau; (808) 889-6336, www.hawaiiislandretreat.com. It's called an eco-retreat, and indeed, the 50-acre setting is lovely, with lush gardens, winding trails and striking views of the coast. Spa too. Yurts from $195; doubles from $425, depending on the season.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast; (866) 977-4589, www.princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel/index.php. One of the first plush resort hotels on the Big Island, with a white-sand beach, 18-hole golf course, spa, wine bar, fitness center and more. From $375, depending on the season. Thirty minutes south of Hawi on Highway 270.

Kohala Village Inn, 55-514 Hawi Road, Hawi; (808) 889-0404, kohalavillagehub.com. Simple, clean and quiet, within easy walking distance to Hawi's restaurants, galleries and shops. Doubles from $98.

WHERE TO EAT

Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery, 55-3415 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi; (808) 889-5555, www.bamboorestaurant.info. If Hawi has an institution, this is it. Once a historic hotel, now an expansive restaurant and gallery. Lots of pupus, salads and hearty meat and fish entrees. And definitely cocktails. Entrees $11 to $30.

Local Dish, 55-3419 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi; no phone or website. Great sandwiches, fresh soups and salads and a genial owner. Sandwiches from $7.75; fancy salads from $13.

Tina's Garden Gourmet Café, 168 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo; (808) 935-1166, www.tinasgardengourmetcafe.com. OK, so it is a couple of hours away in Hilo. The food was dizzyingly good, though: The tom kah soup and the green papaya salad — insert your own joyous epithet here. Entrees from $12.

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TO LEARN MORE

Pololu Valley Overlook, www.city-data.com/articles/Pololu-Valley-Lookout-Halaula-Big-Island.html. Free. Stunning vistas and not-too-strenuous hike to striking beach below.

Lapakahi State Historical Park, http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/hawaii/lapakahi-state-historical-park. Free. Partially restored and intriguing ancient Hawaiian settlement. Stunning coves.

Mahukona Beach Park, www.kona123.com/mahukona.html. Free. Former shipping harbor used by sugar plantations, now a gathering site for snorkelers and sunbathers.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO KAILUA KONA, HAWAII

From LAX, American, Delta and United offer nonstop service to Kailua Kona, and Hawaii, American, Delta and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $534, including taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

Hawaii Island Retreat, 250 Lokahi Road, Kapaau; (808) 889-6336, www.hawaiiislandretreat.com. It's called an eco-retreat, and indeed, the 50-acre setting is lovely, with lush gardens, winding trails and striking views of the coast. Spa too. Yurts from $195; doubles from $425, depending on the season.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kohala Coast; (866) 977-4589, www.princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel/index.php. One of the first plush resort hotels on the Big Island, with a white-sand beach, 18-hole golf course, spa, wine bar, fitness center and more. From $375, depending on the season. Thirty minutes south of Hawi on Highway 270.

Kohala Village Inn, 55-514 Hawi Road, Hawi; (808) 889-0404, kohalavillagehub.com. Simple, clean and quiet, within easy walking distance to Hawi's restaurants, galleries and shops. Doubles from $98.

WHERE TO EAT

Bamboo Restaurant & Gallery, 55-3415 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi; (808) 889-5555, www.bamboorestaurant.info. If Hawi has an institution, this is it. Once a historic hotel, now an expansive restaurant and gallery. Lots of pupus, salads and hearty meat and fish entrees. And definitely cocktails. Entrees $11 to $30.

Local Dish, 55-3419 Akoni Pule Highway, Hawi; no phone or website. Great sandwiches, fresh soups and salads and a genial owner. Sandwiches from $7.75; fancy salads from $13.

Tina's Garden Gourmet Café, 168 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo; (808) 935-1166, www.tinasgardengourmetcafe.com. OK, so it is a couple of hours away in Hilo. The food was dizzyingly good, though: The tom kah soup and the green papaya salad — insert your own joyous epithet here. Entrees from $12.

TO LEARN MORE

Pololu Valley Overlook, www.city-data.com/articles/Pololu-Valley-Lookout-Halaula-Big-Island.html. Free. Stunning vistas and not-too-strenuous hike to striking beach below.

Lapakahi State Historical Park, http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/hawaii/lapakahi-state-historical-park. Free. Partially restored and intriguing ancient Hawaiian settlement. Stunning coves.

Mahukona Beach Park, www.kona123.com/mahukona.html. Free. Former shipping harbor used by sugar plantations, now a gathering site for snorkelers and sunbathers.

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