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Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory

July 23, 2014

There are two things that I remember vividly about my first trip to the Big Island of Hawaii over a decade ago: visiting Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and seeing the Kilauea crater and walking through Thurston Lava Tube and visiting the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory.  I remember driving through the macadamia nut farm and the thousands and thousands of trees that were planted and seeing the blow up macadamia nut mascot out front of the visitor’s center.  Over the years, I’ve seen the photo that my dad took of me standing next to the blow up macadamia nut  mascot and it’s always made me smile, bringing back good memories of that trip to Hawaii.  In planning out our day on the Big Island with our rental car, I knew that we’d have to make a return trip to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory so that I could re-live my memories and so that I could show my husband the visitor’s center.

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As my parents had been to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory twice since the time I was last there in 2003, I knew that things had changed from what my memories were.  First off, in 2004, Mauna Loa Macadamia was purchased by Hershey Foods Corp. to add to their portfolio of consumer products.  As I’ve visited Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey, PA before, I knew that even though Mauna Loa was being operated as an independent company, I’d see some of the Hershey marketing and influence at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory, so I was prepared for it to be a bit more “touristy” than it already was.  And as you drive through 3 miles of macadamia nut orchards to get to the visitor’s center, you definitely see the Hershey influence.  When I first visited, I remember the road being one lane in each direction, and while paved, still gave you the feeling of driving into some far off place to visit the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Today, the 3 mile drive is on nicely paved and maintained, 2 lanes in each direction, road with informative signs along the drive that give you little tidbits of information on the process of growing and cultivating macadamia nuts.  Also, when you reach the end of the road, not only can you go into the visitor’s center, but you can also take a self-guided walk through the attached production center to learn a little bit more about the production of the various macadamia nut treats that are produced here and then distributed worldwide.

Inside the visitor’s center you can sample a multitude of different macadamia nut products, including certain products that are only sold here at the visitor’s center.  While Mauna Loa’s chocolate covered macadamia nuts are quite popular, their flavor-roasted varieties still remain a huge hit.  With flavors such as dry roasted, wasabi & teriyaki, Maui onion & garlic, honey roasted, and Kona coffee glaze just to name a few, this is a great place to grab treats for friends and family back home.  They even had a chocolate covered macadamia nut that was actually cookies & cream!  Out back of the visitor’s center are the beautifully manicured gardens of Mauna Loa which you can explore on a self-guided nature walk.  There’s also an outdoor snack bar where you can quench your thirst and your hunger from a day spent wandering around Hilo, or at least time spent wandering around the visitor’s center.

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As we’d already been on what seemed like a food tour for the day, we weren’t interested in any of the sandwiches, or hot dogs the snack bar offered.  However, a little refreshment in the form of ice cream would go down nice and smooth on this warm, tropical Hawaiian day.  Of course, being Mauna Loa, and being in Hawaii, the ice cream that was offered wasn’t your normal chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, butter pecan, etc.  But rather, a limited range of various Mauna Loa and Hawaiian inspired flavors such as vanilla macadamia, chocolate macadamia, coconut macadamia, mango and Kona coffee.

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My husband, who is a fan of coconut-flavored anything opted for a single scoop of the coconut macadamia ice cream.  Sitting at the outdoor snack bar, staring out at the beautiful gardens eating coconut macadamia nut ice cream, was a great way to end our food journey for the day.  You can’t tell by looking at this picture, but this ice cream was stuffed full of macadamia nuts.  You’d think that perhaps there would be a few token bits of macadamia nuts in one scoop of ice cream, but this ice cream literally had macadamia nuts in every single spoonful.  My husband enjoyed his ice cream enough that he proudly announced, upon finishing his scoop before I finished mine, “I win!”  Creamy, and coconut-y, this scoop of ice cream incorporates all of the tropical flavors of Hawaii.

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Of course, my chocolate sweet tooth dictated that I order a scoop of the chocolate macadamia nut ice cream.  Perhaps being on vacation makes you do things you would normally not do.  I am not a lover of nuts at all, and while I can stand peanuts, I almost never really eat any kind of nut, or try to minimize the eating of nuts.  But yet, here I am in Hawaii, land of the macadamia nut, and voluntarily ordering this chocolate macadamia nut ice cream is not the first time on this trip I find myself ordering something with macadamia nuts in it.  In fact, I even bought a bag of the cookies & cream macadamia nuts from the store.  But, I guess, as they say, when in Rome… Honestly, if I had to eat a nut, macadamia nuts aren’t half bad.  Again, surprisingly, this ice cream had tons and tons of macadamia nuts in it and strangely, it didn’t turn me off.

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A sweet treat to end our food journey around the Big Island of Hawaii.  Ok, so the day wasn’t designed to be a food journey, it was supposed to be a scenic tour around the north and eastern side of the island, and that’s exactly what it was, with a little bit of a food tour sprinkled in with it!  Having a cool, sweet, and delicious ice cream treat at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory while sitting outside looking out at their beautiful manicured garden was the perfect way to put an exclamation point on the day.  While the food tour of the day may be over, that doesn’t mean that the adventure of touring the island for the day was over as we had 2 more adventures ahead of us – visiting the lava-covered town of Kalapana and driving the gorgeous, and yet dangerous, Saddle Road from Hilo back to Kona.

What’s Shakin’ Smoothies

July 18, 2014

Continuing on our trek from Kailua-Kona up to the northern part of the Big Island and down the eastern side of the island, we also continue our food journey.  After all, the goal is to eat our way around the world!  From Akaka Fallas State Park, it’s only a few miles south to reach the second major city on the Big Island, Hilo.  However, there are 2 main ways to get from Akaka Falls to Hilo, you can either stay on the main highway or you can take a 4-mile scenic detour on the old highway.  Believe me, once you’re on the old highway, you’ll know why it’s called the old highway and why it’s probably a good idea that it’s not really used anymore except by tourists.  Along the old highway, you’ll catch some beautiful glimpses of the bright blue Pacific Ocean and the gorgeous Onomea Bay, pass by the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens and then also pass by a little gem that I only learned about a few days before we left LA for our trip to Hawaii, What’s Shakin.

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As you drive along the 4-mile scenic drive on Old Onomea Road and Old Manalahoa Road, you’ll come upon a small yellow and white plantation-style house with a green roof.  It almost seemingly comes out of nowhere.  Next to the little house is a large tent with several long picnic tables, and out front is a gravel lot where you’ll always find a few cars parked out front.  Having been here for about 20 years, this little stop along the road has built itself quite a reputation for fresh, delicious fruit smoothies and local home cooking.

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What’s Shakin’ is the name of this roadside shack situated on the edge of a 20-acre tropical fruit farm owned by Patsy and Tim Withers.  It is from this tropical fruit farm that many of the fresh fruits that are used in the famous smoothies from What’s Shakin’ are harvested from.

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As you walk up to the shack, grab a menu and peruse through all of their offerings.  There’s a whole page of various tropical smoothies and fresh fruit juices and the back page has a list of various sandwiches, wraps, salads, burgers and other goodies, all of which are made here fresh daily.  There’s also a number of daily specials written on a board next to the counter where you place your order.

Unfortunately, after having already stopped for food/snacks at Hawaiian Vanilla Company and Tex Drive In, we weren’t here for the food.  Though, there were a number of people there sitting at all of the tables around the shack itself and down at the picnic tables under the open-air tent next door.  So, I imagine that the food here was pretty good and fresh.

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As I said, we were strictly stopping at What’s Shakin’ to order one of their famous fresh fruit smoothies.  As their sign indicates, all the smoothies here at What’s Shakin’ are made with “no added sugar, ice or sherberts.  Only fruit, most of which is grown here on our farm.”  So, you know what you’re being served is fresh and healthy.  And your smoothie is made-to-order, so nothing is put together or blended until you’ve ordered it.

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Once you’ve ordered, while you wait for your food or drink, you can take a look at some of their amazing fruit for sale.  On the day we were there, they had a whole selection of avocados and papaya straight from their farm for individual sale.  The avocados were literally the size of my hand, they were amazing and beautiful.

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After perusing through the menu, my husband and I agreed to split a smoothie.  The flavor we agreed upon was called the Pacific Passion.  Made with “island fresh banana, papaya, guava, apple & pineapple juices,”  our cup was delivered full to overflowing.  One sip of the smoothie and I fell in love.  Admittedly, I’m not a papaya fan at all, but this smoothie has me reconsidering that stance.  Perhaps I’ve just never had fresh, from the farm papaya before.  I figured in ordering this smoothie that the flavor of the papaya would be hidden by the other fresh fruit in the smoothie so I agreed to ordering it.  Soon, I was sipping away at this smoothie and I couldn’t get enough of it.  It was a warm and slightly humid day on the Big Island and this cool, refreshing, bright smoothie really hit the spot.  The flavors of the fresh banana and papaya and guava all came through.  This smoothie screamed tropical, and bright and fresh and full of flavor.  My husband agreed as he kept drinking the smoothie as well.  If we hadn’t been so full from the Hawaiian Vanilla Company and then our stop at Tex Drive In, we definitely would have at least each ordered our own smoothie.  Knowing that what we were drinking was made from fruit grown right there on the farm and knowing that there was no added sugar or even water and that it was just jam-packed fruit mad it all the better.

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And while you’re visiting What’s Shakin’ you can even walk around some of the beautiful ground of this fruit farm and see some of the very trees that produced the fruits you’re currently enjoying in your shake.  I’m not sure you could get any more fresh and delicious than this.

It’s these little roadside gems that make traveling around the islands so much fun.  Seemingly on the Big Island, you can find a roadside fresh, fruit stand every couple of miles along the road.  Local farmers who open up little stands and sell their hand-picked fresh fruit right from their farm to your tummy.  What’s better than a crisp, delicious, cool and refreshing, health and fresh fruit smoothie on a warm and humid day while you’re out and about enjoying all of the beautiful sights that Hawaii has to offer?  It’s like experiencing everything that Hawaii can offer you all in rolled into one beautiful cup of Pacific Passion smoothie.

Tex Drive In

July 15, 2014

After our trip to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, I was stuffed!  I know we only signed up for a tasting experience and presentation, but it felt more like lunch.  However, we were already on the northern tip of the Big Island and only a few miles away from another famous malasada hot spot.  I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity.  So, I convinced my husband to make a stop, pick up some malasadas and then we’d take them to our next stop, the gorgeous Akaka Falls and enjoy our malasadas then.  Perhaps, at that point, we will have worked up an appetite again.

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Tex Drive In, located in the former sugar plantation town of Honoka’a on the beautiful Hamakua Coast has been serving up traditional Hawaiian plate lunches as other Hawaiian favorites known as “ono Kine grindz” for over 40 years.  Situated right off the highway, it’s a popular stop as people drive along the coast to order up a plate lunch and enjoy it on their covered, open-air patio, or to stop at pick up a box of malasadas for the road.

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Tex has been well documented in magazines such as Bon Apetit and Sunset Magazine for their wonderful hot malasadas.  Unlike Punalu’u Bake Shop which we visited 2 days prior, Tex Drive In makes their malasadas hot and made to order.  When you walk out of the store with your box of malasadas, you can feel how hot the box is and you know your malasadas are fresh.  In fact, when you walk into the shop, the first thing you’re greeted with is a huge, glass-fronted kitchen where you can watch your malasadas being made – from mixing the dough to rolling it out to cutting the dough to deep-frying the dough to filling the malasada.  You can watch the whole process from start to finish.

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When you step up the counter, there’s a post taped to the counter with the various malasada filling flavors being offered on that particular day.  Of course, there’s also the traditional malasada that’s just covered in sugar as well.  On the day we were there, they were offering Bavarian crème, chocolate, apricot, raspberry, strawberry, guava, mango and apple.  After talking it over, my husband and I each decided to order 2 malasadas.  We agreed that we’d get different flavors so that we could try them out.  I chose Bavarian crème and chocolate and my husband went with guava and mango.  Not surprisingly, he took the more tropical local flavors and I went with the more traditional sweet flavors.

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As you can already see, one thing different about Tex Drive In’s malasadas versus Punalu’u Bake Shop’s malasadas is that with the exception of the traditional malasada, at Tex Drive In all of their malasadas are filled with a flavored glaze or crème.  So, it’s like a filled donut or a Bismark that you’d find here on the Mainland.  Whereas, at Punalu’u, with the exception of the traditional and the vanilla that I got, neither the lilikoi or the taro was filled.  The lilikoi had a glaze over the top on the outside of the malasada and the taro had the taro incorporated into the dough and fried.  At Tex Drive In, your malasadas aren’t filled (if you ordered them that way), until you order them.  The hot, out of the fryer malasadas are rolled in sugar and then are filled with the flavors you’ve chosen and then packed in a box for you to take with you.  Here you can see our box with our order is written out on the top corner of the box – 1 Bavarian crème, 1 chocolate, 1 guava and 1 mango.

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When we arrived at our next stop, about 15-20 minutes down the road at Akaka Falls State Park, we found some picnic tables, took out our box of malasadas from Tex Drive In and enjoyed them.  You can see, when you open the box, the malasadas are stacked filling side up so you can tell what is what.  From left to right, you’ve got chocolate, Bavarian crème, guava and mango.  Truth be told, I could only barely finish my chocolate malasada at Akaka Falls, and had to save my Bavarian crème until we got back to the hotel later in the evening.  My husband actually finished both his guava and mango at the picnic tables.  Believe me though, when we got back to our hotel that night, I thoroughly enjoyed eating my Bavarian crème malasada.  The cream was outstanding!

The verdict?  My husband liked Tex Drive In’s malasadas better than the ones we had at Punalu’u Bake Shop.  For him, he appreciated that the malasadas from Tex were made to order and hot out of the fryer and into the pastry box.  He said he could taste the freshness and he liked his malasadas warm.  The warmth heated up the filling and everything just came together beautifully.  Whereas, at Punalu’u, the malasadas are chosen from a chilled display case and who knows when they were made.  For me, I went the other way.  I appreciated the flavors of the filling of the malasadas at Tex, but I definitely enjoyed my malasada from Punalu’u more.  I felt like the malasadas at Tex were huge and therefore it was hard to finish more than one – that’s a lot of dough and a lot of filling to try to put down.  At Punalu’u the size was much more manageable and made me feel like I could sample a couple of different varieties.  I also liked dough at Punalu’u better, as I felt it was lighter and airier and the ones at Tex were much heavier and denser, which made trying to finish the malasada difficult.  In the end though, can you really go wrong with either?  No.  Bottom line, my husband and I were picking at straws to choose which one was better than the other.  If you gave us an option to eat at malasada at either place, we’d definitely not say no to an opportunity like that.  Tex Drive In is an old standby, a favorite among locals, and their hot malasadas, made day and night are good from the first bite to the last.

Hawaiian Vanilla Company

July 10, 2014

One night, a couple of months prior to our trip to Hawaii, my husband was doing some Internet research on various places around the Big Island to eat and in passing mentioned the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  I think after he said those 3 words I tuned out everything else that he mentioned.  I absolutely love vanilla.  I love the taste of it, I love the smell of it, I love everything about it.  When a recipe calls for a teaspoon of vanilla extract, I see nothing wrong with adding 2 teaspoons.  After all, if one teaspoon makes a recipe good, wouldn’t two teaspoons make it even better?  I knew at that moment that we’d find a way to visit the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  After looking the company up on the Internet and doing some research of my own, I was so excited to pay a visit that I made sure to work it into our itinerary.

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Located in Paauilo, a small community on the northern end of the Big Island, it’s almost a 2 hour drive from Kona to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  During the drive out there, I was becoming a bit skeptical about where we were going and if we had made the right decision to visit.  Earlier in the day, when we had picked up our rental car, the lady behind the counter had asked me what our plans for the day were and when we mentioned that we were going to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company she was so surprised as she said she had heard of the company before but had never met anyone who had said they would actually be making a visit to the company.  Was I making the right decision taking myself and my husband out there?  The Hawaiian Vanilla Company is literally located out in the middle of nowhere.  Actually, it’s not nowhere, more like a drive up into the mountains on a one lane road, where no one would have any business ever driving unless you lived there or you were specifically visiting the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  Now it makes sense why the company is not very often visited by tourists as its way off the beaten path.  Unfortunately, the people who never make it here don’t know what they are missing out on.

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The Hawaiian Vanilla Company is a small, family-run operation headed by a husband and wife and their 5 children.  And family-run is an understatement as husband runs the business, the wife does a lot of the cooking and experimenting with ingredients and the children all help out with the business and run guided tours as well.  The story of how the family came to become vanilla farmers is an interesting one of a husband who was born and raised in Hawaii and worked in the agro-tourism industry deciding one night at the kitchen table with his family that he was going to start his own business.  It was decided then and there that business would be as vanilla farmers.  And from that point forward, the husband, wife and the kids have learned as much as they could from vanilla farmers all over the world, as well as learning about the practice of cultivating and growing orchids from experts at the University of Hawaii.  After all, as I came to learn, vanilla actually comes from an orchid.  Through trial and error, the Hawaiian Vanilla Company has established itself as the only commercial vanilla farm in the United States.  When you arrive at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, you step into a cute little souvenir shop which sells everything from vanilla beans to make your own vanilla extract, to vanilla-spiced chutneys and salad dressings, to vanilla creams and lip gloss, to vanilla salt and vanilla sugar.  The little store offers some unique and interesting vanilla products.  There’s also a small Vanilla Girls Sweet Shoppe which sells all sorts of sweet vanilla-based goodies such as milkshakes, various hot teas, vanilla lemonade and iced tea, vanilla bread pudding, vanilla banana bread, vanilla cream soda and more.

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But, I didn’t come here for a treat from the Sweet Shoppe, though I probably would have picked up something if I didn’t already walk away from my time at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company stuffed with yummy vanilla goodness.  We came to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company to participate in their vanilla presentation and tasting event.  This is one of 4 different vanilla experiences that you can sign up for at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  While the vanilla luncheon experience was quite intriguing, for our schedule, the vanilla presentation and tasting experience fit our timeline better.  What we thought we were going to experience was a little education on vanilla production and a little tasting of a few items that were vanilla-based.  What we got was so much more than we ever thought we’d get.

Our host for our vanilla presentation and tasting event was Ian, the owner’s oldest son who was just a young boy when his family got into the vanilla business.  My husband and I were so impressed at how this young, twenty-something had such a passion for vanilla farming and production.  He obviously, whether through formal education or being self-taught, understands the science behind cultivating vanilla orchids and the process of pollination all the way through production.

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To start, we’re each offered a drink of either vanilla lemonade, vanilla iced tea or an Arnold Palmer which is half vanilla lemonade and half vanilla iced tea.  We’re told that the vanilla iced tea is unsweetened ice tea with vanilla only seeds from the vanilla bean added to it.  According to Ian, the subtle taste of the vanilla seeds is enough light sweetener for the iced tea.  In trying to decide on a drink, I thought I would order the Arnold Palmer until my husband suggested that we order one of each drink so that we get a full taste of both and can make our own Arnold Palmer’s if we wanted.  I loved the idea so we went with that.  In the end, my husband enjoyed the iced tea the best and I really liked the lemonade so that’s what we ended up with.  I will say though, I’m not an iced tea person at all, but this was some really good ice tea.  As advertised, it’s unsweetened with nothing but vanilla seeds from the vanilla bean in the drink.  And incredibly, you can actually taste the vanilla and it is that subtle-sweet vanilla flavor that gives the iced tea a hint of sweetness.  Actually, it’s really all the sweetness that the iced tea even needs.  If I were an iced tea drinker, I’d be in love with this.

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The vanilla lemonade, I was completely in love with.  When we were served the drink, we were told not to be concerned it wasn’t dirt in our drink it was the vanilla seeds from the vanilla bean.  Just adding vanilla seeds to the drink completely transformed it.  It still had the bite of tartness and acidity from the lemon, but the vanilla seeds really helped to mellow out the flavor of the lemon.  Ian explained to us that this is an example of how vanilla is used as a rounder to round out the flavor of a very strong item, such as lemon.  Instead of the sharp sting of tartness from lemon you get the tart, but it’s really rounded and more mellow and the bite just isn’t as strong.  You also get a very wonderful, but incredibly subtle hint of vanilla flavor as well.  This drink was so refreshing, I feel like I could have drank an entire gallon of this on my own.

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For our vanilla presentation and tasting experience, we were told that we’d be served 3 courses of food.  Each course would feature vanilla prominently, but would also show that vanilla could be used for more than just sweet desserts, that vanilla could be used as a spice component for savory dishes as well.  During our time at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, we learned so much about the process of growing the vanilla orchid, harvesting and drying the vanilla bean, and finally the extracting of flavor from the vanilla beans themselves.  It’s no wonder that vanilla beans are the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron as everything from the pollination and extracting of vanilla beans must be done by hand with vanilla orchids that are hard to grow and highly susceptible to disease.  flavor.  Vanilla is activated when you combine it with butterfat, alcohol and citrus.  Obviously, butterfat is used in making ice cream, and you see vanilla beans used in the making of ice cream most often.  Vanilla extract is the combination of vanilla beans and alcohol, and outside of making ice cream, the use of vanilla extract is the most common item people associate with vanilla beans and flavor.  It’s citrus that’s the least often used way to extract flavor from vanilla beans.  In the first course we’re served, we get an example of how citrus can activate the flavor in vanilla beans.  We are served a roasted red bell pepper and tomato bisque soup with vanilla herb spice rub.  The soup is a combination of red bell peppers and tomatoes, both of which have very strong flavor profiles and would normally overtake any dish on their own.  The use of the vanilla herb spice rub in the soup is as a rounder so that it mellows out the flavor of the tomato and the red bell pepper.  The soup is served with a fresh organic green salad, with honey pepper pecans with vanilla inside, feta cheese, and dressed with vanilla raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.  This is an example of how vanilla is activated by the use of citrus in the raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.  The very salty feta cheese flavor is mellowed by the honey pepper pecans with the vanilla and the vinaigrette.  Normally, a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette would have a very strong flavor, but in this case with the addition of the vanilla, the flavor is sweet and mellowed and just perfect.  In general, I’m not a fan of red bell peppers at all and try, at all costs, to avoid them.  I was surprised at how the vanilla herb spice mix really did mellow out the flavor of the bell pepper so that it could be used in perfect combination with the tomatoes.  The bell pepper add a bit of heat to the dish, but you really couldn’t taste it at all.  This was an amazing starter, and I could have finished a big bowl of soup and a big plate of salad.  I loved the vanilla raspberry balsamic vinaigrette so much that I bought a bottle of it to bring home with me.

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For our second course, we were given 4 small bites of vanilla used in different ways.  We started with a puff pastry triangle stuffed with caramelized onions and brie cheese.  Over top of the puff pastry a spoonful of vanilla mango chutney was served.  Of all of the savory applications of vanilla that we were served, this was my favorite.  Again, I’m not a huge fan of brie cheese, but I honestly couldn’t even taste it in the dish.  The brie made the puff pastry nice and creamy, but I didn’t taste the brie itself.  One of the gentlemen who did the tasting with us later said that he hates onions, but yet he was surprised that he was able to enjoy the puff pastry and wasn’t bothered by the onions at all.  We were told that this was the effect of using the vanilla as a rounder as it just makes the flavors of everything you combine it with a lot more mild.  The vanilla mango chutney also added a nice touch of sweetness to the puff pastry.

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Next, we got a puff pastry square baked with a red bell pepper and cream cheese mixture inside and topped with vanilla pepper jelly on top.  Admittedly, I was concerned about this.  As I said before, I don’t like red bell pepper at all.  My husband was concerned for me as well as he wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be able to eat the puff pastry square.  And it wasn’t just the red bell pepper inside the puff pastry, but the vanilla pepper jelly on top as well.  Again, surprisingly, the vanilla is used as a rounder to lessen the bite and flavor of the red pepper.  The vanilla mellows the pepper enough that what I taste is something with a hint of sweetness, some creaminess from the cream cheese and the crunch from the baked puff pastry.  I was quite amazed that I didn’t have a negative reaction to this puff pastry bite.  I’m really believing in the power of the vanilla bean at this point.

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The other 2 small bites for our second course moved into the sweet category.  The first was a triangle of vanilla banana bread served with vanilla maple syrup and a small cup of vanilla whipping cream topped with vanilla cinnamon sugar on top.  The idea is to either dip the vanilla banana bread into the vanilla maple syrup or dip it into the cup of vanilla whipping cream topped with the vanilla cinnamon sugar.  First off, the vanilla banana bread was fantastic – completely moist and soft and with terrific banana flavor.  But adding the hint of vanilla to the banana bread really made this the best bite of banana bread I’ve ever had.  The vanilla flavoring rounded out the sweetness of the ripe bananas in the bread.  I started first by dipping the vanilla banana bread into the vanilla maple syrup.  For me, I love maple syrup, I can drown pancakes and waffles under maple syrup, this vanilla maple syrup, hands down was the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted.  You can clearly taste the vanilla flavor through the sweetness of the maple syrup and the two flavors marry together so perfectly.  This vanilla maple syrup made such an impression on me that I had to buy a jar of it to bring home.  It was just outstanding.  Between the amazing vanilla raspberry balsamic dressing and the vanilla maple syrup, I can’t decide which one blew me away the most.

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The final small bite was another sweet bite.  We were served vanilla lilikoi pound cake with lilikoi curd to dip it in.  Lilikoi is a popular Hawaiian passion fruit which is used to make everything from pastries to drinks.  Lilikoi can have a bit of a tart tang similar to a lemon.  The vanilla in the pound cake helps to round out the tartness of the lilikoi and make it more mellow.  The pound cake was nice and rich and heavy as you’d expect pound cake to be, but with the nice, subtle flavor of lilikoi and vanilla mixed in to it.  The lilikoi curd was a nice complement to the richness of the pound cake.  I wanted to savor every bite of this small sample.

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By this time, I think all of us were kind of stuffed.  No one expected we’d be served this much food.  But we weren’t even at our third, and final, course yet.  Of course, you can’t come to a vanilla tasting without getting a true vanilla dessert.  Our third course was real vanilla ice cream made with vanilla beans and served with a vanilla shortbread cookie.  The ice cream was wonderful.  It tasted so fresh, and homemade.  The flavors of the vanilla were much more subtle and not so in your face, which makes me think that they flavored it naturally with vanilla beans and not with vanilla extract.  It’s amazing how creamy and smooth and just a hint of sweetness this vanilla ice cream had.  This was the perfect ending to an amazing vanilla tasting experience.

I absolutely loved every single second of this vanilla presentation and tasting experience.  To hear the story of how this family came to be vanilla farmers and the process of growing vanilla and producing it for commercial production to tasting the amazing food and learning all of the amazing ways you can use vanilla, it’s hard not to fall in love.  If you didn’t love vanilla before, when you walk away from the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, you at least have a greater appreciation for this little bean.  And if you’re like me and love vanilla and use a tablespoon when a recipe calls for a teaspoon, this place will strengthen your love for the vanilla bean.  I just couldn’t leave here without picking up a few vanilla samples for myself so that I can try out some of their products at home.  For anyone traveling to the Big Island, looking for something unique, interesting and fun to do that’s different from the normal touristy stuff everyone does, I would hands down recommend a trip out to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  The 2 hour drive from Kona was, for my husband and I, completely worth it.  The experience we had at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company is something we still talk about, rave about actually, to this day to anyone who asks.  It was the most interesting and unique and out-of-the-box experience I throughout my entire week on the Hawaiian Islands.

 

 

 

Rays on the Bay

July 8, 2014

During our time on the Big Island of Hawaii, we stayed at the Sheraton Kona Resort at Spa at Keauhou Bay.  One of the big attractions of the Big Island involves something that takes place nightly at the hotel and in the waters of Keauhou Bay just off the beautiful black lava rocks upon which this hotel is built.  Each night, as the sun sets, flood lights from the hotel are turned on full power.  The rays of light shooting into the bay attract plankton.  In turn, the plankton attract manta rays.  Manta rays are the largest member of the ray family and can reach wingspans of 20 feet in length and weigh more than 3,000 pounds.  These black and white-colored gentle giants are strictly vegetarian and are drawn to this area solely for the plankton.  To highlight these beautiful creatures, the hotel has built a ground floor viewing deck that looks out over the bay.  Six nights a week, a naturalist comes out around sunset to give a presentation regarding the history of the mantas and their behaviors and characteristics.  You can listen to the presentation while standing at the platform watching these beautiful creatures swim gracefully by in search of their nightly meal.  For the more adventurous, you can book a scuba diving or snorkeling trip out into the bay at sunset to view the rays up close and personal.  And as these rays don’t have stingers and aren’t dangerous to humans, the only danger out in the water is from human contact with manta rays, which is strictly prohibited.

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Attached to the manta ray viewing platform is a large, open-air bar and restaurant on the ground of the hotel called Rays on the Bay, appropriately named, and decorated to honor the manta rays that grace guests with their presence on a nightly basis.  The restaurant is part bar, part lounge, part restaurant.  You’ve got oceanfront tables with firepits, there’s an large open-air bar, there’s lounge seating, there’s nightly local live music, and there’s quieter, more secluded tables for a more romantic atmosphere.  The restaurant is pretty to look at during the day, but really comes alive at night.  And all glory of outside dining at the restaurant is heightened when you stare out at the blue-green ocean and see a majestic 14 foot manta ray with its distinctive black and white coloring swim right by you.

After having spent the morning in Kailua-Kona exploring, and the afternoon relaxing on our lanai and watching the beautiful colors of the Hawaiian sun set, we thought that tonight, being Cinco de Mayo, would be a good night to dine at Rays on the Bay.  Obviously, being in Hawaii, Cinco de Mayo isn’t quite what it is back home in Los Angeles, but nevertheless, we figured it would be good to stay on the resort rather than wandering back into town and just have a quiet dinner while we watched the ocean waves lapping against the black lava rock and dined on local Hawaiian food.

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First off, to start the meal, we were given a plate of crispy flat bread and hummus.  I’m not generally a hummus fan, but this one was decent.  It’s something different from your traditional bread and butter basket that generally starts off most meals.

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My husband decided to try one of Rays on the Bay’s specialty cocktail drinks.  Their most popular drink is the restaurant’s signature drink, the Ultimate Dark & Stormy.  The cocktail is made with sailor jerry, lime, ginger beer and kraken dark.  At first, my husband was a bit hesitant about this drink as it contained both sailor jerry and kraken dark, both rums.  Unfortunately, of most of the liquors, my husband is probably least fond of rum because it’s so sweet and sugary.  But, I think that in the end, the lime and the ginger beer, two items he really likes, sold him on the drink.  After a sip of the drink, he actually discovered that he liked it, much to his surprise.  The ginger beer was quite pronounced and really cut through the sweetness of the two rums.

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After perusing through the menu, we couldn’t decide between a couple of different appetizers so my husband suggested that we just order both.  We didn’t actually have lunch earlier in the day, well, unless you could shave ice as lunch, and in the end, the appetizers were small enough that ordering both wasn’t actually that much food.  The appetizer that really caught my eye was the spider shrimp.  Described as crunchy phyllo wrapped shrimp with a spicy sweet chili dip, this sounded intriguing to me.  After all, can fried shrimp really be a bad thing?  Looking at the dish, you can definitely see why it’s called spider shrimp as the thin strips of phyllo dough are curled in every which direction look like spider legs.  I loved the crunchy, deep-fried phyllo dough.  It’s a play on the traditional breaded and fried shrimp.  The shrimp was sweet and the phyllo dough added playfulness and crunch to the dish.

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The appetizer which caught my husband’s eye was the smoked ahi poke.  Neither my husband nor I had ever had poke before, but we know that this was a favorite dish in Hawaii due to the abundance of fresh seafood.  After the waiter told us that they smoked their own ahi tuna for the poke, we had to give it a try.  The menu described the dish as fresh smoked ahi tossed with sweet onion, Big Island ogo, sea asparagus, togorashi and soy gelee.  I took the first bite of the smoked ahi poke and I was immediately in love.  I told my husband right away that he had to try it.  I think the first words out of his mouth were “wow.”  The smoked ahi poke was so fresh, and clean and tasty.  It was literally an explosion of flavors in my mouth.  The ahi was lightly smoked, but enough to taste the smokiness.  The sweet onion really added a punch and crunch to the dish.  I think it was the Big Island ogo or edible seaweed that added the punch of saltiness to the dish.  My husband and I both agree that the ahi poke was one of the best, and most delicious items we ate throughout our whole trip to Hawaii.

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For his entrée, my husband was feeling a good old-fashioned hamburger.  I think his comment to me was that he realized we were at a nice restaurant, but that the hamburger sounded really good.  Hey, if it’s on the menu and it appeals to you, why not order it?  Da BI Burger, as its known, is a 1/2 pound of Big Island beef patty served on a pretzel bun and topped with Hamakua mushrooms, smothered onions, roasted garlic aioli and with the addition of cheddar cheese and bacon.  My husband loved his burger.  The roasted garlic aioli with the smothered mushrooms was terrific and he loved the grilled pretzel bun that was used as well.   For him, the burger absolutely hit the spot.

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I decided to keep the seafood theme going with my entrée of Den’s crab crusted catch.  The catch of the day was some sort of white fish, which I unfortunately didn’t get the name of.  The fish was served with garlic seared kale, cherry tomatoes, boursin Yukon mash, and wasabi beurre blanc.  The fish was just ok, it was nice and flaky and tender, but it was a bit fishy.  The crab crust was fine, but I was hoping it would have been a bit crispier, maybe similar to a crab cake.  In this case, it was more like the crab was baked on, but didn’t really have a chance to set up on top of the fish, so the whole thing was a bit mushy for my liking.  The boursin Yukon mash was flavorful and rich and paired nicely with the wasabi beurre blanc and I loved the garlic seared kale, that was really delicious.  If I went back to Rays on the Bay again, I’d probably order a different entrée as this was ok, but not spectacular.

While my husband and I were enjoying our dinner, true to the restaurant’s reputation, we did actually see a couple of manta rays swimming out in the bay just off of the black lava rocks of the hotel property.  That was quite a treat for us.  We both tried, a bit unsuccessfully, to take pictures of the manta rays.  Oh well, we both know they were there.

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We ended our dinner meal at Rays on the Bay by splitting a dessert.  After checking out the menu, we went with Sam’s Kona coffee crème brulee.  After all, we are in Kona, we might as well take advantage of dessert enriched with the magnificent Kona coffee we just learned all about.  According to the menu, this crème brulee was named a winner at the 2013 Kona coffee festival.  Served with fresh berries, candied tangerine and Kona coffee crème, the dessert was served in a cute little coffee cup.  This was a terrific size portion for two people looking to split a light dessert.  I was a bit disappointed that the crème brulee was really kind of missing its torched sugar topping as it was more like a cup of Kona coffee custard.  However, that didn’t take away from the fact that this was basically an amazing up of Kona coffee custard.  One spoonful and the strong taste of wonderful, rich Kona coffee shines through like a bright star.  The fresh berries add a bit of tang and texture and a hint of freshness to the dessert, which is wonderful.  It’s like having an after dinner coffee in your dessert!

Rays on the Bay has an amazing outdoor dining atmosphere, exactly what you think of when you think of dining outdoors in Hawaii.  Being able to see the waves crashing against the shoreline and listening to the roar of the water as a light breeze cools the night air creates such a wonderful ambience.  The smoked ahi poke was one of the most amazing first bites of food I’ve ever had and that alone is well worth a trip to Rays on the Bay.  In fact, my husband said he could have ordered another bowl of it as his dinner and he would have been happy.  Of course, it’s convenient for us that this restaurant was on the grounds of the hotel that we were staying out so we didn’t have far to travel to get there.  If I were to find myself at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay again in the future, I certainly wouldn’t hesitate spending a nice evening meal with my husband at Rays on the Bay.  Being able to see the majestic and magical manta rays swim by while you’re enjoying your dinner doesn’t hurt either.

Scandinavian Shave Ice

July 2, 2014

After we booked our trip to Hawaii and I knew we’d be spending the first 4 days in Kona, I started my research on local tasty treats to enjoy during our time on the Big Island.  One of the very first places I made notes on was Scandinavian Shave Ice.  The more I read about them, and more I saw reviews, the more excited I was about going there.  I think my husband got tired of hearing how much I wanted to try their shaved ice as he had the impression that shaved ice was just shaved ice.  What could possibly make this better than any normal shaved ice?  My plan had originally been for us to check out “Scandi’s,” as the locals call it, on the day we arrived on the Big Island – in fact it was supposed to be the first thing we did.  It turned out that never happened for one reason or another although we probably went by the shop 4 times, so it wasn’t until Day 3 of our trip that we finally made it into Kailua Village and were able to see what everyone’s talking about.

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According to their website, Scandinavian Shave Ice & Coffee Shop has been a local Kona landmark right at the heart of Kailua Village for over 20 years.  Just a stone’s throw down from Kailua Pier it’s convenient for locals and tourists alike to visit this treat shop.  And while famous for their shave ice, also serves up killer ice cream, coffee drinks and smoothies.  There always seems to be a line out the door, but the people who work behind the counter are quick, knowledgeable and friendly, so the line moves pretty quickly.  Besides, having a few people in front of you gives you a chance to figure out what they offer and how to order, which can be a tall order in and of itself if you’re not familiar with how shave ice works.

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Luckily, for the uninitiated, when you walk into the small shop, you’re greeted by a digital sign board that basically gives you step-by-step instructions as to how to order.  Step 1, you need to decide what size shave ice you want – small, medium, large or jumbo.  Step 2, do you want to add ice cream or frozen yogurt to your shave ice.  Step 3, choose 3 flavors of syrup for the shave ice.  Step 4, almost there, do you want any toppings on top of the shave ice.  It sounds so simple to do when you type it all out, but believe me, when you’re there in person, you’re bombarded with choices and options and it’s all a bit overwhelming.  It’s not just a matter of making a few choices, but there’s so many steps and so many options for each choice.  For instance, one of the first things you notice when you walk into the shop are all the bottles of flavored syrup that are hanging down from the syrup.  The picture above is just a small sample of your choices.  These bottles occupy the full length of another wall of the store.  Just trying to choose a yummy combo of up to 3 different flavors for your shave ice is daunting.

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Over the years, the people at Scandi’s have come up with a list of popular shave ice combinations with some very creative names to go with them.  You’re welcome to choose a combination that’s already been put together, or choose from the long list of flavors to put together your own combination.  Some of these popular combinations include: Rainbow with Blue Hawaii, banana and cherry; Hawaiian Sunset with mango, guava and passion fruit; Sweet-Tart with grape, orange and lemon-lime; Pink Lady with pink lemonade, pineapple and guava; Jungle Juice with fruit punch, mango and watermelon; Tropical Trio with guava, coconut and mango; Lava Flow with strawberry, pina colada, with an ice cream center and sno-cap drizzle; Tiger’s Blood with tiger’s blood flavor with an ice cream center and topped with azuki beans; and Hawaiian Pearl with coconut, lychee with an ice cream center and topped with tapioca pearls.  If you choose to make your own combinations, flavors run the gamut from candy flavors, to fruit flavors, to uniquely Hawaiian flavors and everything in between.  You can choose from apple, apricot, banana, banana colada, blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, Blue Hawaii, boysenberry, bubble gum in pink or blue, butterscotch, cantaloupe, cherry, cherry cola, chocolate, cinnamon, coconut, coffee, cotton candy, cream, daiquiri, dreamcicle, frutti, grape, green paradise, green tea, guava, haupia, Hawaiian punch, honeydew melon, horchata, kiwi, kola, lemon, lemon-lime, li hing mui, lime, lychee, mai tai, mango, margarita, melona, orange, papaya, passion fruit, passion orange, peach, pina colada, pineapple, pink lemonade, passion-orange-guava, raspberry in blue or red, red velvet cake, root beer, strawberry, tamarind, tangerine, tiger’s blood, watermelon, wedding cake and vanilla.  If these options aren’t enough to make your head spin, the final decision you have to make in this whole shave ice process is whether or not you want a topping.  Now, if you’re wondering what they mean by topping, well it’s what would go on top of the ball of shave ice you get after they’ve poured on the 3 flavor syrups you’ve chosen.  The list of toppings you could add include: snow cap (which is a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk), coconut cream, gummy bears, azuki beans, boba pearls, coconut jellys, lychee jellys, popping pearls and mochi balls.  As I said, some of these are uniquely Hawaiian items which heavily reflect an Asian influence.  If you have to ask what a flavor or a topping is, you might as well be adventurous and give it a try because explaining it would probably take too much time.

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Are you dizzy yet?  We’re not done with your choices yet.  Did you forget Step 2 that asked you to decide if you wanted ice cream or frozen yogurt in your shave ice?  At first, it may sound a bit weird to add ice cream to your concoction of shave ice, or at least it did to me.  But hey, when do I ever say no to ice cream?  So, I had to go for it.  But then here comes more options as to what flavor of ice cream do you want?  Mango? Kona coffee? Oreo cookies?  Volcano? Chocolate Decadence?  Saddle Road?  Macadamia Nut?  Caramel Macadamia Nut?  Chocolate Macadamia Nut?

After you’ve made all your decisions, you walk up to the counter and blurt out in one long sentence, without breathing, because you just want it get it all out before you forget something important, “I’d like a small-monkey business-with-Kona-coffee-ice cream-with a snow cap!”  Whew, now you can pat yourself on the back for correctly putting in your order.  It’s like taking a test!  Step 1, choose a size.  Check – I got the small.  Step 2, do you want to add ice cream.  Check – I went with Kona coffee ice cream.  Step 3, choose up to 3 flavors.  Check – I got the special monkey business combination.  Step 4, do you want a topping.  Check – I went with the snow cap!  Yes, I passed my test.  Now I can relax as the magic happens and my shave ice is created for me right in front of my eyes!

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The process starts with shaving the ice.  A huge block of pure, clear ice is added to a machine that shaves down the ice.  The shave ice goes into a small plastic cup.  Once the cup is about 1/2 to 3/4 full, the machine is turned off so that a scoop of ice cream, or frozen yogurt, of your flavor choice can be added, if you choose.  The ice cream is added right over the shave ice and packed down.

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Then the machine is started again and a huge mound of shave ice is added over the ice at the bottom of the cup and the ice cream in the middle.  Even though I ordered a small, the amount of shave ice that is added to the bowl is makes it come out the size of a small ball, something bigger than a softball.  If this is a small, I’d hate to see what a large looks like.

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When the ice has been added to the cup, the syrup is then poured over the ice to flavor it.  Look at the size of the ice ball in her hand!  Here she’s adding the banana flavor syrup to my monkey business shave ice.  The monkey business shave ice that I went for is a combination of banana syrup and root beer syrup, which when done should taste like a banana root beer float.  The flavor is enhanced by adding ice cream in the shave ice to make it really have the taste of a root beer float.  When all of the syrup has been poured over the ice, and believe me they add a generous amount, the person behind the counter takes their gloved hand and pats the ice down and flattens and smooths out the surface of the ice to make it a perfectly formed ball.  At this point, if you asked for a topping, it’s added.  If the topping is a liquid topping, it’s just drizzled over the top.  If the topping is beans, mochi, or some other item more substantial, an indentation is made on the top of your ball of shave ice right at the center so it acts as a cup to hold your toppings.

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Here is the my small monkey business shave ice with Kona coffee ice cream and topped with a snow cap, which is a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk.  The white swirls over the top of the shave ice is the snow cap of condensed milk, which just adds flavor and makes the shave ice sweeter.  It’s like adding whipped cream to a sundae.  You can see underneath the two colors representing the two flavors of syrup added to my shave ice: banana is the yellow color and root beer is the dark brown cola color.  And somewhere underneath all of that is a scoop of Kona coffee ice cream.  The shave ice is served with a spoon so you can dig into it as well as a straw so that you can sip up any of the ice and syrup as it melts into the cup.

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My husband ordered a small shave ice with Tahitian vanilla ice cream topped with guava, lychee and pineapple syrup and a snow cap.  You can see in the picture above that the lady behind the counter is adding the guava syrup to my husband’s shave ice, and she has the pineapple (orange-ish bottle) and lychee (light pink bottle) ready to go.

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Since the guava and the lychee were similar in color, the pineapple was added as a stripe down the middle so that it would be easier to distinguish the colors and flavors.  Although, it doesn’t really matter as eventually everything melts together and the flavors all blend together.  Look how pretty those colors are!

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And here’s the final product.  Underneath the snow cap, all I can really see is the yellow-orange of the pineapple syrup.  The pink of the guava and lychee syrups kind of all blend in and get washed out by the snow cap.  Again, remember this is just a small.  It’s easily big enough for two people to share.  The difficult part in sharing is finding 2 people who will agree on the same flavors and combos!

With our shave ice in hand, my husband and I walked to a nearby shaded area across the street to enjoy our concoctions as the store was packed and there wasn’t a table or bench to be found.  Let me tell you, one spoonful of this magical shave ice and I was sold!  I don’t think I’ve ever had anything so delicious and refreshing to incredible as this shave ice from Scandinavian.  First off, if I didn’t know it was made from ice, there would be absolutely no way I’d ever be able to tell I was just eating a spoonful of ice with some flavor syrups and sweetened condensed milk.  It didn’t have the texture, consistency or taste of ice whatsoever.  It was so creamy and smooth you would have thought you were eating ice cream.  As you dig deeper into your creation and you finally get to the ice cream hidden in the middle, you realize that the texture and flavor of this ice cream is different from the ice you had been eating.  The ice cream is luscious and creamy and has a really vibrant flavor, so now you know you’re eating ice cream.  But still, the whole time I devoured this shave ice, my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea that what I was eating was ice.  How could it be ice?  It didn’t taste like it, it didn’t have the texture of it.  It was mind-blowing.  The flavor of my monkey business was incredible.  I love banana to begin with, and root beer floats are one of my favorite things, and to me, coffee flavor and banana go so well together, this combination of banana and root beer syrup and Kona coffee ice cream was magical.  It was the perfect marriage of three really distinct flavors.  As soon as I had a spoonful, the first thing I could think of was that I was enjoying a delicious root beer float on a hot summer day.  This treat really hit the spot for me and I loved every single last bite of it.   My husband too was blown away by his shave ice.  Like me, he couldn’t believe that this was ice as it didn’t taste like ice at all.  He could taste the guava and the pineapple and the lychee and thought that the 3 flavors melded together perfectly with the creamy Tahitian vanilla ice cream he got.  For me, the snow cap of the sweetened condensed milk was the perfect topping that really brought all of the flavors together.  These shave ice concoctions were so good it was almost like a race to see who could eat theirs fastest as we just couldn’t stop scooping them up into our mouths.  There’s little these days in terms of food that I’m completely in awe of and blow away by, but I’ve got to say that Scandinavian Shave Ice did just that to me.  To this day, I can stop looking at these pictures and smiling and thinking about our day in Kailua-Kona standing under those trees enjoying our shave ice and just being awestruck by how amazing and wonderful the shave ice was.  The shave ice here at Scandinavian quickly moved into my top 10 list of best things I’ve ever eaten.  If you find yourself in Kailua-Kona, you have to try the shave ice at Scandinavian, I know you’ll be blown away by it just like I was!

Ainakai

June 26, 2014

When we arrived at our hotel in Kona on the first day of our vacation to check in, the lady at the front desk asked if we wouldn’t mind waiting for a few minutes as our room wasn’t quite ready yet.  As it was just a few minutes before 3:00 pm, we didn’t mind as we were a little early for the posted check in time.  We ended up waiting in the lobby for about 15 minutes before the lady at the front desk came back to get us and let us know that our room was ready.  She provided us a property map, explained to us how to get to our room since it’s a bit confusing as the property is large and broken up into various wings, and finally, she provided us with a one-time breakfast pass for two as she apologized several times for having to make us wait for our room.  We were so surprised as we hadn’t thought anything of it.  The wait wasn’t more than 10-15 minutes, and besides, the hotel’s posted check in time was 3:00 pm and we had arrived at the property prior to 3:00 pm, so therefore it certainly wasn’t the hotel’s fault that we had to wait for a room.  So, for her to offer us breakfast passes as a way to make things right, was a surprise to us, but certainly one we wouldn’t turn down.  Free food is free food, after all.

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Breakfast is served at the hotel each morning at Ainakai, one of the hotel’s restaurants.  You know you’re in Hawaii when there are surfboards used as decoration on each side of the entryway to the restaurant.  This beautiful, open air restaurant with views out to the ocean is the perfect breakfast location.  Like much of the hotel, it is built with a very open, airy and bright feel.  If you so choose you can either dine outside on the patio or inside the dining room.  Although, even sitting in the dining room it has a little bit of an inside-outside feel as the large floor-to-ceiling-glass doors along one wall of the dining room are thrown wide open during good weather so that even when you’re dining inside, it feels almost as if you are outside with beautiful views of the immaculately manicured grounds, the beautiful black lava rock upon which the property is built and of course, the blue ocean waves crashing against the lava rock.  The only thing that is a little off-putting is that with the doors open to the outside, that means outside elements, namely birds have free range of the dining room, so when tables are left unattended, the birds seem to find their way in to pick at the food.

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There are two different options for breakfast at Ainakai.  You can either opt for the breakfast buffet where you have an array of different options to choose from, or you can take the lighter continental option where they bring you some pastries, eggs and coffee/juice.  As our breakfast passes allowed us to go with the buffet option, we decided to take advantage of it.  As mentioned, there’s a large spread of breakfast options to choose from including both traditional breakfast items as well as Hawaiian specialty items.  Everyone loves eggs, right?  Or at least, for most Westerners, when we think of breakfast, we think of eggs.  They had both scrambled eggs and hard boiled eggs.  With the eggs, there were condiments on the side to add to your eggs – shredded cheese, salsa and caramelized onions.  There was also another egg option, which we’ll get to in a little bit.

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And of course, you have to have bacon and ham for protein, right?  What would a breakfast buffet be without bacon.  Bacon is the one thing you’re guaranteed to find at any breakfast buffet anywhere in the world – believe me, I’ve been to a bunch from Asia to Europe and they all had bacon.

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There’s also potatoes.  In this case, you had roasted potatoes with onions and red bell peppers.  One interesting note here, they actually left the seeds from the bell peppers in and roasted everything together.  The potatoes had a bit of heat imparted on them from those bell peppers.

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Ainakai also had Hawaiian specialties such as the traditional loco moco served in individual-sized ramekins.  Essentially, the ramekins were filled with white rice on the bottom, topped with a grilled beef component, smothered in homemade gravy, and topped with an egg over easy.  The idea is to crack the egg by digging into the ramekin with a spoon so that the creamy egg yolk runs all over the beef, the gravy and the rice.  For Hawaiian’s, this is comfort food and a traditional breakfast meal.  My husband loved this so much he devoured the entire thing, and if he hadn’t been full from trying everything else, he probably would have gone back for seconds of just the loco moco.

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For a bit healthier fare, there was steamed broccoli, bok choy, tomatoes and cauliflower.  Presumably these could go with your ramekin of loco moco, or maybe with your scrambled eggs.

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And for a Hawaiian flair on a traditional breakfast item, there was upside down pineapple pancakes served with a side of maple syrup or coconut cream sauce.  For me, these were more like upside pineapple bundt cakes rather than pancakes, but either way, they were good.  They were sweet enough from the fresh pineapples and the pineapple glaze that it didn’t need syrup on it.

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As Hawaii is an extremely popular holiday destination for Japanese tourists, Ainakai also catered to those tourists by ensure that all signage inside the restaurant was in both English and Japanese.  There was also a breakfast offering that geared more towards Japanese and Asian tourists to appeal to something they would be more familiar with having during breakfast time.  On the day we dined at Ainakai they were serving tofu crab egg drop soup.  While it may be particularly strange to some Westerners, in Asia it is quite common to have hot soup or hot porridge for breakfast.  My husband was disappointed that he hadn’t seen this section of the restaurant when we were dining there or else he said he would have wanted to give the soup a try.  He only knew they had this soup offered after he came home and looked through my photos!

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Another hot offering at the breakfast buffet was steel cut oatmeal with all of the fixings including brown sugar and golden raisins.

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For those looking for lighter options for breakfast, there was a whole array of yogurt offered.

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What about fresh sliced fruit for breakfast?  There was sliced pineapple, after all this is Hawaii, cantaloupe and watermelon along with whole oranges and apples.

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Interested in white toast, wheat toast, bagels, croissants, and various pastries?  Yeah, they had those at Ainakai too.  There was also a toaster, of course, for those who wanted to toast their breads, or at least heat them up.  And there was a selection of various jams, cream cheeses, and butter.

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For the kids, or even the kids at heart, there was cereal offered along with milk, either to drink or with your cereal.  Also, there was a selection of fruit juices for breakfast as well – orange, guava or pineapple juice to choose from.  Yeah, I might have had a couple of glasses of the guava juice.  It was mighty tasty!

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And possibly my favorite part of breakfast was a make-your-own omelet station.  Except this one had a little bit of a twist compared to most create-your-own-omelets, here you could walk up to a display, grab a small plate, and load it up with all of the fixings you wanted inside the omelet.  In most cases, you’d tell the cook what you wanted in the omelet and they would grab the ingredients for you.  At Ainakai, not only could you choose what you wanted inside your omelet, you got to decide just how much of each item you wanted inside your omelet.  Options included items like mushrooms, bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach, asparagus, bacon, ham and baby shrimp.

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Once you filled your plate with the items you wanted, then you just took your plate to the next station and handed it over to the cook who would then make your very own creation for you.  Of course, the cook had the most important ingredient – well after the eggs, of course – with him, and that was a whole container of shredded cheese, because, really, what’s an omelet without cheese?!?  There was no way I was walking out of here without making my own omelet.

My husband and I were so full from our hearty breakfast that we didn’t even need lunch that day, we just got by with a light snack – well more like dessert – at lunch time.  We were so surprised that we were given breakfast passes on the day we checked in because we had such a minimal wait to get into our room, but we were even more surprised when we used those passes to enjoy a nice breakfast buffet at Ainakai.  Ainakai was a great way to start our day and fuel us up for a day of sightseeing and shopping around Kailua-Kona.  When you’re not necessarily expecting anything, and then what is given to you is beyond what you could have believed, it surely makes an impression in your mind that sticks with you.  This is just one of the experiences that added our wonderful stay at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou.