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Kona Brewing Company

July 30, 2015

After a day of sightseeing on the northern and eastern side of the Big Island, my husband, myself and my in-laws were finally in need of some sustenance.  Having forgone lunch in lieu of a scoop of ice cream and a couple of smoothies on the scenic highway leading into Hilo, and having driven many miles over Saddle Road to get back to Kona, we needed a nice, relaxing setting where we could just kick back, relax and grub on some good food.  My husband and I knew just the place to take his parents.  It was a restaurant that we visited last year when we were on the Big Island and we had both enjoyed.  And it was food that was sure to be just up my in-law’s alley.

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The Kona Brewing Company with their amazing pizzas and of course, their signature beers, is the perfect ending to a long day of sightseeing.  I knew that my husband and my father-in-law would appreciate the beer, and what goes better with beer than pizza? It’s a winning combination and a little reminder of home, while traveling to a far off place.  As the life long dream of a local father and son team who wanted to bring the spirit of Hawaii and bottle it up in craft brewed beer, they produced their first bottles and kegs in 1995.  After finding success with their creations, they opened their flagship brewery and pub in Kailua-Kona.  The success of Kona Brewing Company beer has gained the company worldwide recognition for the quality and taste of their brews.  When you visit the Kailua-Kona location, you can take a brewery tour to see how their famous beer is brewed and take home some growlers with you.  Or you can come to the pub, enjoy a pint with friends along with the wonderful, complimentary selections of pizza, sandwiches and other favorites.

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My husband wasn’t about to dine at the Kona Brewing Company without having a pint of one of local brews.  Black Sand Porter was his beer of choice.  He had tried the Black Sand Porter last year when we visited the Kona Brewing Company and had really enjoyed its flavor then, so he figured, why mess with a good thing.  We can find some KBC’s other favorites here locally, such as the Big Wave Golden Ale, and the Fire Rock Pale Ale, but the Black Sand Porter is something we’ve not seen locally.  Therefore, you might as well enjoy it while your on the islands..  Described as smooth and dark with strong roasted and chocolate malt flavor and aroma, the full malt flavor of the Black Sand Porter is complemented by Kona Brewing Company’s distinctive blend of hops.  My husband definitely said that he could taste the subtle flavor of the chocolate in the beer and it actually added such a nice rich quality to the beer.

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I chose gingerade for my drink.  The menu described it as Big Island ginger mixed with organic lemon juice to make a powerful and delicious beverage.  The waitress told me that while she loved the drink, it was quite strong and potent.  So she said that she would bring me a small sample of the gingerade so that I could taste it first and if it was ok, then she’d bring me the whole drink.  One little sip of the small sample the waitress brought me and I could see right away why some people might not enjoy this drink. The gingerade is definitely powerful and strong.  Heavily flavored with pungent and potent fresh ginger, the drink clears your sinuses and really hits your tastebuds.  If you are not a fan of ginger, this drink isn’t for you.  Luckily, I love ginger and I really enjoyed the power this drink packed.  I definitely wanted a full glass of it.  The lemon juice tames the potency of the ginger somewhat and adds an acidic tang to the drink, but realistically, this drink is almost like drinking straight up ginger juice.  It was incredibly refreshing and palate cleansing and a completely unique combination of flavors I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced.

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While we waited for our pizzas to bake in the pizza oven, we started our meal with an order of garlic twists.  The twists are actually made from spent-grain, baked and then seasoned with herbs, garlic and parmesan.  They are served hot to the table with a side of marinara.  The twists are light and airy with a great crunch to them.  Depth in a little marinara sauce and they are a great appetizer.  Even though we ordered these twists as well last time my husband and I were at the Kona Brewing Company, what I didn’t realize is that theses twists were made from spent-grain.  Since this is a craft brewing company, and since one of the ideals behind the creation of the company is to “protect the pristine environment,” the restaurant tries to use what it already has available at its disposal, spent-grain.  Spent-grain is the left over malt and adjuncts produced at a brewery after creating their brews.  This spent-grain can account for as much as 85% of the total byproduct of a brewery and since it’s full of nutrients and flavor through the brewing process, it would seem a shame to waste all of it by throwing it out.  Through a process of drying out the grain and running it through a grain mill you can create spent-grain flour which works wonderfully well in bread products and gives second life to the waste from your brewing process.

With 4 of us dining, and some of us with different taste than others, we decided to order three different pizzas.  Like all of the bread products on the pupus (appetizer) menu, all of the pizzas at Kona Brewing Company are also made using their spent-grain flour in their pizza dough recipe.  It’s just another way to make try to limit the amount of waste product created at the brewery by repurposing it to create amazing food at the restaurant.

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My mother-in-law decided to order the Captain Cook pizza made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan sausage, Canadian bacon, pepperoni, tomatoes, mushrooms and black olives.  Seeing as no one else in the family likes black olives, my mother-in-law was on her own in chowing down on this particular pizza.  My husband thought everything on the pizza sounded great until he got to the black olives, and since there were so many more than he wanted to bother trying to pick off, he decided not to help his mom with any of her pizza.  However, she did a pretty good job on her own with the pizza and almost finished the whole thing off.  She said she really enjoyed the pizza and thought it tasted wonderfully.  I guess I’ll take her word on that.

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We ordered a large Kulana bacon cheeseburger pizza for myself, my husband and my father-in-law to share.  My father-in-law, who’s a bit more of a traditionalist when it comes to pizza, at first wasn’t sure about the idea of bacon cheeseburger toppings on his pizza.  Made with bbq sauce, whole milk mozzarella, Big Island ground beef, Maui onions, chopped bacon and cheddar cheese, the pizza is then topped with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and KBC “special sauce.”  I think my father-in-law was quite surprised by how much he actually enjoyed the pizza.  It was really good and tasted just like a bacon cheeseburger.  The ground beef with the sweet Maui onions was terrific, and the special KBC sauce really brought the whole pizza and hamburger concept together.  The only item on the pizza that wasn’t locally grown was the big slices of beefsteak tomato as our waitress told us that the Big Island has trouble keeping up with the demand for large tomatoes and can’t grow enough on the island, so they need to import the beefsteaks from the Mainland.  Otherwise, everything else on the pizza is locally grown and sourced from the islands.  The pizza is fantastic, and incredibly tasty, and was completely finished by the three of us in no time.

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The final pizza we ordered was the Kohala.  We ordered a medium pizza for just myself and my husband to share since neither of his parents were interested in this pizza.  Made with a garlic infused olive oil base, topped mozzarella, gorgonzola, roasted red peppers, fresh spinach, fresh garlic, parmesan sausage and macadamia nuts, this pizza was really tasty.  What I loved was the sharp bite and tang of gorgonzola that was sprinkled throughout the pizza, and yet it wasn’t overpowering at all.  The crunch of the macadamia nuts and the freshness of the spinach all made for a very flavorful and well rounded pizza.  My husband really loved this pizza with all of the different flavors and textures combined into one tasty pizza.  Even though I agreed to order the pizza to split with my husband, I was a bit skeptical about it, especially containing the roasted red peppers.  But, like my husband, I really did enjoy all of the different flavors that all came together so beautifully in this pizza from the macadamia nuts to the fresh spinach and the tangy gorgonzola.

My in-laws and my husband and I all walked out of Kona Brewing Company after dinner that night full and happy.  We all agreed that the pizza was terrific and filling.  My father-in-law liked the bacon cheeseburger pizza much more than he thought that he would.  A good comfort food meal of pizza and beer, what more could you ask for?  Dining outside on the patio, feeling the ocean breeze.  It’s like being in paradise.  Oh wait, we are in paradise.

Haleo Luau

July 24, 2015

As soon as my husband and I made the decision to go to Hawaii for our first trip last year, the first thing I told my husband was that we needed to do a luau.  My husband was a bit resistant, but that was because he felt like it was so touristy.  Sure, it is touristy.  But we’re tourists.  You’ve just got to do it.  It turns out that our hotel actually hosts a luau on the grounds each week, so booked tickets well in advance of our trip.  As soon as we landed in Hawaii last year, when my husband turned on his cell phone, he had a voicemail from the production company that puts on the luau informing us that the luau we had tickets for had been cancelled.  I was so bummed as we didn’t have any time left in our schedule to try to book another luau on another day.  So, when we made plans this year to go back to Hawaii, I once again told my husband that I wanted to do a luau.  What if this was my last chance?  Instead of booking tickets in advance, we decided to wait until we arrived at the hotel to find out if the luau was going to move forward before we booked tickets to the luau.  Seems as though luck was on our side as the hotel confirmed that the luau was indeed set to go on as scheduled during our stay.

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However, due to weather concerns, as it was raining most of the morning and afternoon of the luau, when we arrived for the luau, we were told that the decision had been made to move the luau indoors due to the potential threat of more rain.  After all, the production company wasn’t about to have hundreds of people, as well as their musicians and dancers standing out in the rain for hours.  This was a bit of a bummer, especially to myself and my husband, but hey, Mother Nature is beyond our control and we just have to roll with the punches.  While an indoor luau isn’t traditional, once the festivities started, we didn’t even notice, or mind being indoors.

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Haleo Luau, or the Voice of Life, is the story of the history of the Island of Hawai’i, all of the Hawaiian Islands, and of Polynesia.  As we learn the story of King Kamehameha III, who was born not too far from Keauhou Bay where the hotel is located, we are shown through story and dance the history and culture of the Polynesian people with traditional Hawaiian hula, Tahitian dance, New Zealand dance and more.

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Now, when you attend a luau in Hawaii, it typically includes dinner and the show.  Most people know that you’re not going to a luau for the food, because, let’s face it, its mass-cooked, buffet-style, traditional Hawaiian food that sometimes even Hawaiians don’t dine on.  But it’s part of the experience.  So, everyone in our party went in thinking, let’s just enjoy the show, and the food, well, we’ll eat what we can.  As we all walked into the convention hall where the luau was moved to, we were each handed a drink: either a Mai Tai for those wanting an alcoholic drink, or fruit punch for kids or those who didn’t want an alcoholic drink.  Everyone agreed that the Mai Tai wasn’t too tasty and a bit watered down.  However, the luau also featured an open bar which featured beer on tap, a couple of types of bottled beer, red and white wine and soda and juice.

The food for the luau was laid buffet-style for people to line up and pick and choose what they wanted to dine on.  The food was all-you-can-eat, so you could go back for more food as you wished.  For some people, this was their first opportunity to really have a chance to try some of the traditional Hawaiian food.  My husband was one of those people determined to try a little bit of everything that was offered, including the love-it-or-hate-it poi.

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First up, the salads and appetizers.  Waimea field greens from the Big Island, tossed with sliced cucumbers and grape tomatoes along with your choice of either papaya seed dressing or balsamic vinaigrette.  I’m generally not a fan of papaya, but I figured, hey, when at a luau, let’s give the papaya seed dressing a try, something I’d normally not choose.  And I have to say, I was a fan.  It was a little sweet, a little fruity and really good as a salad dressing.  Maybe I need to revise my feelings on the fruit itself.

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Appetizers included a bunch of traditional Hawaiian specialities, foods that you automatically associate as being Hawaiian food.  First up was the purple-pasty looking poi.  Made by mashing cooked taro, which is a root vegetable like a potato, and combining it with a little bit of water in order to create a paste-like consistency, this is a Polynesian, and especially Hawaiian, delicacy that people either enjoy or absolutely hate.  I think my husband was the only one of the 6 of us to give poi a try.  Ultimately, for my husband, he thought that the poi was nothing too special.  It was there, so he gave it a try.  He’d probably not order it on its own, but he also didn’t hate it.  The other appetizers were a lomi lomi salmon, which is a diced tomato and raw, salted salmon salad mixed with sweet Maui onions.  Lastly, there was also the Hawaiian style ahi poke.  As a lover of poke, I was really excited about this dish.  However, of all the dishes I tried during the luau, this was the dish I liked the least and was the most disappointed by.  The poke was way too salty, it was like trying to swallow down a spoonful of salt with each bite.  I just couldn’t handle it, and that was disappointing.

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There was also a tray of fresh fruit that consisted of sliced pineapple and raspberries.  I know that guava, mango, bananas and passion fruit are also tropical fruits associated with Hawaii, but pineapple is probably the most recognized Hawaiian fruit, and the easiest to serve to a large group of people.

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For entrees, we were given a pork dish, a beef dish and a fish dish.  The pork dish was your traditional “imu pit” prepared pork.  You traditionally see this dish prepared for luaus where a whole pig is wrapped in tea leaves or banana leaves and roasted in a specially prepared underground oven.  The Keawe smoked pork is then pulled out of its oven hours later and the meat is tender and fall-off-the-bone.  I loved the pork, it was perfectly salted and flavored and incredibly tender.  Lemon verbena salted island fish was the fish offering for the night.  And finally, pineapple-soy glazed beef was our beef choice.  Personally, I liked the beef, I thought it was tender and the bit of salty soy and the tang of the citrus pineapple was terrific.  I know that my mother-in-law wasn’t a fan of the beef at all.

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As side accompaniments, we had a choice of lemongrass-scented rice, grilled assortment of vegetables, taro rolls and mango butter and chicken and long rice.  Personally, while I liked the rice fine, I found the description of lemongrass-scented rice a bit of a misnomer.  Neither did I smell or taste lemongrass in my rice.  And while the taro rolls certainly were purple-tinted like they were made with a taro puree, it also just tasted like a normal dinner roll to me.  I didn’t try any of the chicken and long rice, but I know that both my husband and mother-in-law who were adventurous enough to give it a try both loved it.  In fact, my mother-in-law thought it was the best thing she ate during the luau.

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With plates piled with food, we all got down to the business of eating dinner before the show started.  Surprisingly, pretty much everyone cleaned off their dinner plates.  I don’t think any of us went into this meal with high expectations, but we were all pleasantly surprised by the quality and taste of the food that was prepared.

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And of course, what’s an all-you-can-eat meal without the dessert?  We were supplied with pineapple upside-down cake and Kona coffee chocolate cake.  Those were the two most popular dessert items, probably because they were the best known dessert offerings.  I actually enjoyed the Kona coffee chocolate cake, it had a great subtle coffee flavor and the chocolate cake was nice and moist.  The other two dessert choices included haupia and papaya brulee.  The papaya brulee was just wedges of fresh papaya topped with sugar and then torched to form a brulee-style crusted sugar top.  I’d imagine that was a pretty delicious dish.  Finally, haupia is a traditional Hawaiian coconut-milk based dessert.  Here, they turned the haupia into a jelly-like form almost like almond jello.  But it can also be more of a frosting-like consistency for cake topping.  And of course, what is dessert without an offering of coffee and tea?  Kona coffee, of course.

I think that by the end of the, we all had enjoyed ourselves more than we had expected to.  I know my husband was bummed when we found out that due to rain the luau had been moved from an outdoor, ocean front location, to inside a grand ballroom.  However, after the initial disappointment, it was fine.  I was just relieved that after all this time, we were getting to be part of a luau.  Something I could now cross off of my list.  My husband was coming along for the ride because I forced him to.  My mother-in-law was quite interested in attending a luau too, but everyone else in the family I think also came along just because it was supposed to be a family outing.  In the end, the food was much tastier than we had all anticipated it to be, and that was a huge positive.  And the show was more entertaining and enjoyable than all of us had expected, especially the finale with the fire knife dancer.  I guess not everything that is super touristy is a bad thing, some things have a way of turning out much better than you expected them to.

Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers

July 21, 2015

Even though our family trip to Hawaii this year was virtually a mirror image of the trip my husband and I took just last year, we wanted to make sure to add in a few new things this year so it didn’t feel like we were taking the exact same trip.  There were some things we wanted to do last year that we never got around to, so this was the perfect opportunity.  After all, how often do you find yourselves in Hawaii?  Ok, so maybe after last year my husband and I figured that it would probably be a good 5-10 years before we went back to Hawaii again.  And we never anticipated that we’d get the opportunity to go back again so soon.  But, hey, that’s an anomaly, right?  Unless we somehow find ourselves back again next year.  Part of changing things up, means finding new and interesting places to eat.  Food, after all, is a big part of traveling for my husband and I and is something we find to be really memorable when we return home.  So, about a month before we left for Hawaii my husband sent me a text message with the name of a restaurant and told me to check it out because he really wanted to go there.  After I saw the restaurant’s menu, I was in agreement that we should give this place a try.  It was located not too many miles from our hotel on the Big Island and had a great reputation.  Also, it’s something a little different from what you’d think you’d go to Hawaii to eat.  It’s not your average sushi, Asian-fusion, loco moco, fresh fruit, seafood joint.

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Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers has a reputation as being of serving up the best hamburgers in Hawaii.  Now, I know hamburgers aren’t the first food item I think of when I think of Hawaii.  In fact, burgers are probably the last type of food I think of traveling to Hawaii to sample.  But it’s so far out there, it sounded intriguing to see just how great these burgers could possibly be.  This is actually how my husband found out about Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers, he saw an article online highlighting the best burger joints in each of the 50 states, and Annie’s was referenced for Hawaii.  When my husband realized that we’d only be staying a few miles away from their location in Captain Cook, just south of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, he really wanted to check it out.  In fact, when we stepped into the restaurant, there was a printout of an article from Business Insider magazine that highlighted that Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers had been named the best burgers in West Hawaii for 3 years running.  Annie’s says that what distinguishes them apart from others is their commitment to using fresh, local and organic produce and grass-fed, island raised beef for their burgers which they make to order to each diners preferred done-ness.  Their website says that they “offer organic creative dishes that reflect the quality of Hawaii-grown food.”  Everyone loves a good burger, don’t they?  Time to find out of Annie’s burgers live up to their reputation.

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When we arrived at Annie’s, just before noon on a weekday, we found that the restaurant was already hopping.  In fact, our party of 6 had to wait a few minutes before we could even be seated at a table.  The morning had brought tropical rain to the usually dry side of the island so the skies were a bit overcast, but that did nothing to cut down on the humidity and warm temperatures.  After perusing through the drink menu, my husband and I both decided to order a drink called the lilikoi spritzer.  The menu listed the drink as being a seasonal item, so we were lucky that it was in season when we were at Annie’s.  I’m not exactly sure what was in the drink, though I’m assuming it’s lilikoi, better known as passion fruit, puree and club soda or tonic water, the drink was so incredibly refreshing.  A bit bubbly and carbonated the lilikoi puree gave the drink a bit of sweetness as well as a bit of tartness and tang from the fruit itself.  It was the perfect drink to sit back and relax with on such muggy day.  The drink was a perfect compliment to the tropical island setting.  After all, you just can’t go wrong with lilikoi-anything when in Hawaii.

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For the table, we ordered a basket of the sweet tempura onion rings to start off our meal.  The basket was brought to the table piping hot right out of the fryer.  Annie’s isn’t kidding when they say that everything is made to order.  The sweet onion, which Hawaii is well known for, was quite evident in these onion rings.  The flavor of the sweet onions was terrific and really shined through past the batter and all of the seasonings in the batter.  The other thing that was evident was how perfectly these onion rings were cooked.  The onions were tender and juicy inside and the rings were perfectly fried with just the right amount of golden brown crispiness without burning the onion rings.  My mother-in-law loved the tempura batter on the onions, I was not as thrilled with them.  Different tastes for different people, I guess.  I liked that there was definitely the addition of coarse black pepper in the batter, you could see it in the onion ring itself.  However, I thought that there was too much black pepper in the batter and the strength of that black pepper started to overpower the sweetness of the onion and was just a bit too strong.  I’m sure that the reasoning behind the black pepper was to balance out the sweetness, but I think it was just a hint too much black pepper.  And you’ve got to understand that I love black pepper an I use it generously, but even for me, this was too much.  My mother-in-law, she loved the addition of black pepper in the batter and was of the opinion that the black pepper in the batter really added to the flavor of the onion ring and was a genius addition.  What we did agree on was that the tempura batter for the onions gave the rings great crunch and the batter was so light and airy that the onion rings didn’t feel heavy.

While the menu at Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers included more than just burgers, how could you come to a joint known for their burgers and order a salad or fish or chicken instead?  All of us at the table ended up ordering burgers.  Funny thing is, my sister-in-law and her husband both ordered the same burger, my mother-in-law and father-in-law both ordered the same burger, and my husband and I actually ordered different burgers, both of which were different from the burgers ordered by anyone else at the table.  I guess we don’t like being the same.  The menu indicated that all burgers and sandwiches at Annie’s included the following items: local vine-ripe tomatoes, organic lettuce, housemade pickles, and red onions.  Of course, all of the burgers were made with grass-fed, Big Island raised beef.  And each order came with a side of hand cut fries, housemade creamy cole slaw or purple potato salad.  Additionally, Annie’s served something called garlic basil fries, which you could upgrade to in place of any of the other sides.

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My husband ordered the bacon bleu burger made with juicy island raised beef smothered with Annie’s creamy garlic bleu cheese sauce.  The burger came with thick bacon and served on a toasted traditional bun.  My husband chose the upgrade to garlic basil fries as his side, which come with a small side of garlic aioli as a dipping sauce, or what my husband told me they called Hawaiian aioli.  I was shocked by the amount of garlic bleu cheese sauce on the burger when it was served at the table.  It literally looked like an ice cream scoop’s worth of sauce and I was afraid that it would be too strong for the burger.  After all, garlic and bleu cheese are both really strong flavors.  However, my husband said that the burger was perfect.  The sauce was tasty and wasn’t too strong or overpowering at all.  He loved the grilled char flavor of the patty and how that added such great flavor to the burger itself.  Also, the garlic basil fries were a winner.  They were actually made with fresh, minced garlic, which was a surprise to us all, but which added incredibly flavor to the fries.  And the Hawaiian aioli was fantastic.  My brother-in-law used the aioli for both his burger as well as his fries and had to ask for more of the aioli because it was that fantastic.

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I ordered the BBQ “South Point” burger which was made with delicious island beef glazed with Annie’s southern-most island-style BBQ sauce.  The burger was topped with avocado, cheddar cheese, and a crispy onion ring.  What I noticed right away when I took my first bite of the burger was how amazing the beef truly was.  Normally, I don’t notice the beef itself when I eat burgers, just because beef is beef and it all tastes the same.  However, at Annie’s there really is something to their sticking with grass-fed Island raised beef.  The flavor of the meat was incredible and it tasted fresh and juicy and delicious.  The fresh sliced avocado gave the burger creaminess and a cooling effect to the island-style BBQ sauce on the burger which was both a bit sweet and a hint of a bit of heat.  Using local, vine-ripe tomatoes is a big deal as we found out later on during the trip when we dined at a different restaurant.  Apparently, there’s such a desire for tomatoes that most places need to import their beefsteak tomatoes from the mainland as demand can’t keep up with the supply of tomatoes grown on the Island.  So having local tomatoes served with each burger is a bit of a treat and shows a real commitment to providing fresh, organic and local ingredients in each burger and sandwich.  This was definitely one memorable burger as all of the components of it really came together.  And again, the garlic basil fries were terrific.  Who knew?  They’re savory flavoring and hot potato goodness with the terrific garlic aioli was a great combination.

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To finish off our meal, my husband and I decided to split a “dessert.”  I use the term loosely because while it’s technically a dessert, it’s not really a dessert.  On this warm, muggy and drizzly day, my husband and I wanted something cool and refreshing so we decided to split a root beer float.  Made using a bottle of ice cold root beer poured over a couple of scoops of Tropical Dreams vanilla ice cream, the frothy, creamy dessert was a perfect ending.  Sticking to the idea of serving local ingredients, Tropical Dreams is a Hilo-based, Big Island ice cream, sorbet and gelato maker that has been serving “super premium” ice cream for over 20 years.  Ice cold root beer over ice cream that was sweet, rich and creamy was really delicious and created a combination that was perfect for this setting and this weather.

It’s not hard to see why Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers has been named the best burgers in the State of Hawaii.  A couple of days later when my husband and I were spending the day with his parents on the other side of the island, we still found ourselves talking about Annie’s and how terrific our burgers were.  I think we all agreed that it was the beef that really stood out in Annie’s burgers and really made all of the difference.  The fresh flavors, the fresh ingredients combined with some of the unique flavor combinations that they put atop their burgers, Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers really is something to write home about  and one of the more memorable meals from our trip to Hawaii that I’ll bring back with me.  A burger is just a burger is something that you won’t catch yourself saying after you’ve dined at this local neighborhood joint in Captain Cook because Annie’s burgers have that little extra something that takes it a step above all other burgers.

Rays on the Bay

July 15, 2015

After a long day of driving around the western and southern edges of the Big Island, spending some time on the beach, watching sea turtles frolic, taking a break at a bakery, and just enjoying the pretty scenery along the way, the 6 of us just wanted to find a relaxing way to end the day.  We threw around some potential dinner ideas, and of course, with 6 people, as my father-in-law pointed out to me a couple of times during the trip, sometimes you’re just not going to get everyone to agree and not everyone is going to be happy all of the time.  After having rested at the hotel for a couple of hours, we all finally decided that the easiest thing to do would be to just dine at the restaurant at the hotel.  This way, no one had to drive anywhere, we didn’t have to do anything special, we just needed to drag ourselves down to the restaurant.  Just to make it a little bit more special, and hey, we’re there to enjoy Hawaii, we booked a table at the hotel’s restaurant so that we were seated about 30 minutes before sunset.  Since the restaurant is open air, ocean side, we were at least guaranteed of a pretty spectacular view while we dined al fresco.

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Rays on the Bay is named in honor of the huge manta rays that flock each evening to the rocky alcove below where the restaurant is situated.  Drawn by the plankton who flock to the area each evening due to the flood lights the hotel shines onto the surface of the ocean, the mantas come to feed.  In turn, the people come out to watch these majestic creatures.  Rays on the Bay is the perfect setting to enjoy a meal, appreciate the scenery, and catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures of the ocean.

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You can’t come all the way to Hawaii, especially the Big Island, and not enjoy some of their tasty, ice cold brews.  Kona Brewing Company’s fire rock pale ale was on tap and my husband decided that nursing a pint for the evening would be his drink of choice.  Cool, crisp and refreshing, this Big Island brewed drink was just what my husband was looking for.

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To start the meal, my husband and I decided to share the ahi poke.  It was my goal on this trip to enjoy as much poke as possible.  After all, it is a Hawaiian speciality, and fresh tuna is so easy to come by.  Made with fresh caught yellow fin tuna and seasoned with guacamole mousse, onions, sesame seeds, chili oil, scallions and crispy lotus root, this ahi poke was refreshing and delicious.  On this dish, I actually appreciated the little bit of chili oil as it actually did give the tuna just that added kick of flavor and a tiny bit of heat.  The crispy lotus root might have been my favorite part of this poke.  First off, it just looks pretty, but it provides a nice crispness and contrast in texture to the fresh tuna on the plate.  The lotus root is also like a blank canvas that just soaks in the flavor of all of the other ingredients on the plate.  The tuna definitely tasted fresh and clean, and that’s something you really notice when you’re eating poke.  When we dined at Rays on the Bay last year, this was the first time my husband and I had ever had poke before, and returning this year and order poke again, didn’t disappoint.

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One of the items on the Chef’s Weekly Special caught my husband’s eye and he couldn’t resist ordering the pork and peas.  The current lead chef at Rays on the Bay, James Govier, who was born in Nebraska but moved to Kona 9 years ago to study the culinary arts, puts together a constantly changing weekly menu where he aims to create what he calls “Hawaiian fusion” food utilizing fresh local products from the Hawaiian islands. Described as twice cooked dry aged Duroc pork belly, pea risotto, shaved parmesan cheese and pea tendrils, my husband described it as delicious.  I’m fundamentally opposed to anything with the word “peas” in it, so I didn’t even want to look at his dish, let alone taste it.  My husband, on the other hand, seems to really enjoy ordering dishes with peas in it, especially if its fresh peas and in this case pea risotto with parmesan cheese and pea tendrils just sounded appealing to him.  And of course, let’s not forget the Duroc pork belly, which my husband said, its pork belly, how can that ever be bad?  While the dish looked more like green pea mush to me, my husband said that he was pleasantly surprised by the dish and actually really enjoyed the flavor of the dish.  He said he was surprised as the dish had a much tangier flavor profile than he had anticipated, but the pork belly provided enough saltiness to cut through the creaminess of the pea risotto.  My brother-in-law apparently enjoyed the dish as much as my husband did too as the both of them finished off their dishes completely.

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I ordered the farmer flatbread with a side of the works mashed potatoes for my main course.  The farmer flatbread was flatbread topped with kalua pig, beef short ribs, pepperoni, mozzarella, parmesan and marinara.  You’ve got to be a meat lover to order this farmer flatbread, but luckily, I’m one of the biggest meat lovers you’ll ever meat.  It’s hard, especially when you’re visiting Hawaii, to pass up kalua pig.  A Hawaiian speciality, kalua pig, when prepared correctly is so perfectly tender, and salty and incredibly flavored Hawaiian pulled pork, especially.  And beef short ribs are one of my weaknesses as I absolutely love the tender, fall-off-the-bone beef rib meat.  The farmer flatbread was like adding Hawaiian pulled pork alongside its equivalent beef counterpart.  How could you go wrong with all of that meat?  Add in just a bit of pepperoni, some marinara sauce and some parmesan and the flatbread was a wonderfully crispy, incredibly flavorful creation like none I’ve ever tried before.  A flatbread I really enjoyed.  The works mash was made with Yukon gold potatoes and mixed with bacon, sour cream (or in my case, without sour cream as I’m not a fan), cheddar cheese and green onions.  Can you really go wrong with potatoes with those kinds of toppings?  Especially if you’re a potato lover as I am.  This meal was a perfect pairing of the two things I love, meat and potatoes.

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After we had front row seats to view the sun setting into the depths of the Pacific Ocean out in the horizon and night sky take over as the snorkeling boats and sightseers came out to watch the majestic manta rays, we just had to end the night with a dessert or two.  Again, off of the Chef’s Weekly Special menu, my husband opted to order the strawberry-pineapple verrine.  Made with Kula strawberries, Dole pineapple, pound cake, vanilla cremeux, toasted coconut, crispy wonton, this had tropical written all over it.  Almost like a pound cake napoleon, I thought that the addition of the crispy wonton strips was ingenious and different.  The wontons created the texture contrast this dish needed, the pound cake provided a moist, but blank slate with which to absorb all of the tropical flavors of the strawberries and the pineapples.  And the vanilla cremeux just added to the tropical feel of the entire dish with the slight vanilla flavoring which just enhances the sweetness of the strawberries and the sweet tartness of the pineapples.  Using cremeux instead of whipped cream gives the dessert just an added measure of body as the cremeux isn’t as delicate as whipped cream and will stand up to the weight of the pound cake and the fruit.  My husband enjoyed the fruitiness, strong on the tropical flavors, of this dessert, and appreciated that it was still light and vibrant.

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My brother-in-law and I were of the same mind and ordered the chocolate decadence dessert.  Described as flourless chocolate cake with raspberry puree, caramelized banana and lilikoi cream, this dessert was much more rich, much more decadent with stronger, more prominent flavors than my husband’s dessert.  With the flourless cake sitting in a bed of raspberry puree with a bright, tart flavoring it created quite a flavor contrast between the bittersweet chocolate and the bold raspberry puree.  I would have liked to have seen a bit of a stronger, bolder banana presence in this dish as I think that the banana really could have balanced out the fruitiness of the raspberry puree.  And the lilikoi cream was a bit flat and disappointing as it was much more vanilla than tangy lilikoi, which is what I was expecting based on the description of the menu.  However, all in all, for the chocoholic in me, this dessert was fantastic as the bittersweet chocolate flavor really held its own against the raspberry puree, and the execution of the flourless chocolate cake was perfect.  A sweet ending to an exciting Big Island sightseeing day.

As a last minute decision to dine here for dinner, Rays on the Bay turned out to be the perfect ending to our first full day in Hawaii.  With the beautiful view of the setting sun while we dined, and the great company of family, this casual, relaxed experience was a perfect way to reminisce on our day and unwind after our sightseeing trip.  With the diverse menu, everyone was able to order something to eat which everyone could enjoy, which can sometimes be a challenge for a group of 6.  And we had the bonus of only having to walk around the hotel property to get to the restaurant after a long day rather than driving out somewhere to get to dinner, that’s never a bad thing.  A cold drink, great food, great company, and the Pacific Ocean as your back drop, what could be more perfect?

Punalu’u Bake Shop

July 9, 2015

One of the things that my mother-in-law really wanted to see during our trip to Hawaii was the native honu, Hawaiian green sea turtles.  After having returned from our trip last year and sharing some of our photos with her, seeing the honu convinced her that we should all make the trip to Hawaii together this year.  For me, that meant that Punalu’u Black Sand beach would be on our itinerary.  It’s the sight where we first saw honu last year and honu are known to frequent this particular beach.  Besides, I figured that if we weren’t lucky enough to see any honu, at least the beach itself is stunning and worth a trip out to on its own.  Of course, clever me also figured, if we’re driving from Kona down to Punalu’u, well we have to drive through Na’alehu anyways, we might as well stop.

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Right in the center of Na’alehu, on the highway, is Punalu’u Bake Shop.  Touted as the “Southernmost Bakery in the USA,” it’s a great stopping point to pick up some refreshments and grab some snacks to take the to beach, or enjoy at the bakery’s outdoor patio garden.  My in-laws got a kick out of the fact that they called themselves the “Southernmost Bakery…”  Hey, if you can, why not use it as your claim to fame?

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Since my husband and I had visited Punalu’u Bake Shop last year, I knew what to expect from what they were offering and I pretty much had an idea of what I wanted to pick up.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to look at the display case and drool over all of their offerings!  My husband will tell you that I’m the biggest fan ever of cream puffs and eclairs.  I rarely pass up a chance to have either of these pastries.  It must be something about the combination of the light and airy choux pastry and the creamy filling that I just can’t resist.  Cocoa puffs, vanilla cream puffs and eclairs with whipped cream, can I just take home the whole display case?

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The next case was filled with one of the items that Punalu’u Bake Shop is most known for, their malasadas.  Malasadas are essentially Portuguese donuts that are flavored or filled with various fruits and other fillings that are found around the islands.  There’s chocolate filled, vanilla filled and strawberry filled malasadas, your traditional malasadas which are just fried and coated in sugar, mango, taro and guava flavored malasadas, and the bakery’s most popular flavor the lilikoi glazed malasada.  In addition to malasadas there was also a cinnamon macadamia nut pinwheel with cream cheese icing which seemed to be very popular by the looks of other people in the store that were ordering it.  There was also a delicious looking bread pudding and a pineapple turnover along with a blueberry cream cheese turnover.

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So, I’m sure you figured out by now that there was no way I was leaving Punalu’u Bake Shop without taking home a box of goodies for myself.  After all, how could I resist, especially after I was the one who told my husband that we absolutely NEEDED to stop here on our way down to see the turtles at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.  So, the decision wasn’t whether I would get something or not, it was what I should get and how much could I get before I looked like too much of a pig?

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Between my husband and I we tried a few new things that we hadn’t tried last year when we visited Punalu’u Bake Shop, but we also went with some favorites we had from last year as well.  After all, if I loved it enough last year to come back for another visit this year, there must have been some items that stuck with me enough that I wanted to try them again!  Our box of goodies included an éclair, a Bismarck, a vanilla cream puff, and of course an assortment of malasadas.  The malasada choices were mango, taro, guava, and lilikoi glazed.  My husband loved the lilikoi glazed so much last year that he needed to have another one.  I really enjoyed the éclair and couldn’t pass up another opportunity to have one.  While I didn’t get the Bismarck last year, my husband did and said it was so good and I remember being envious of him while he was eating his that I had to get one for myself this year.  The vanilla cream puff was also my choice and I am so glad I made it.  It was so delicious and yummy.  The choux pastry was perfectly baked to a nice light and airy texture and the vanilla cream inside was perfect, there was a good amount of it and it was just slightly vanilla sweetened to provide the perfect flavor combination.  The éclair I enjoyed immediately sitting outside in Punalu’u Bake Shop’s outdoor veranda seating area.  You can’t ever go wrong with an éclair, and this one was delight and yummy and incredibly light.  As before, the lilikoi glazed malazada had the perfect tart and tangy flavor that my husband enjoys and the malasada itself is fried to a great consistency again as to be more light and airy rather than dense and thick.  My father-in-law even got himself a scoop of Kona coffee ice cream on a cone and my mother-in-law bought a sandwich that used some of Punalu’u’s special bread that they are also known for, which she found delightful.

Punalu’u Bake Shop may be a bit kitschy and gimmicky, especially trying to market themselves with the tagline of being the southernmost bakery in the US.  However, while the gimmicks may bring the customers in the door, it’s the bake shop’s products that keep the customers coming back.  The store attracts not only tourists on their way to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, but it also attracts locals who make the trek here as well.  When you’ve got a store filled with locals who come to load up on sweet bread and malasadas, you know you’ve hit the jackpot and found the right place.  Good thing I don’t live on the Big Island, or else I could see myself making excuses to visit the bake shop time and time again.

 

Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai

July 6, 2015

After a full day of travel, first from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and then Honolulu to Kona on the Big Island, we were all a bit travel weary.  By the time we got to the hotel at Keauhou Bay, we all just wanted to get settled into our rooms and put our feet up for a little bit.  However, after having traveled all day, and with little to nothing to eat for most of us, it was rapidly approaching sunset and dinner time and we needed to regroup and go in search of food.  Luckily, only about a mile or so from the hotel there was a nice shopping center with a restaurant that my husband and I had considered dining at when we visited last year.  We had actually talked about this particular restaurant in advance of our trip as a potential night one dinner option for the family if everyone felt up to going out for food as it was supposed to be good, and it was really close by.

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Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai, owned by the famous celebrity chef, Sam Choy.  Sitting atop a hill, at one of the highest points in the area, Sam Choy’s has an indoor-outdoor atmosphere.  With a lanai-type setting, there are outdoor tables with fire pits, and all of the inside area of the restaurant opens up to the outdoor lanai.  During the day time, the restaurant features a 230-degree, undisturbed view of the Pacific Ocean.  At night, the outdoor lanai lends itself to cool breezes that come off the ocean.  With an eclectic Hawaiian fare, the restaurant has a glass fronted kitchen where you can watch the chefs prepare your meal.  This was a great setting for our first meal in Hawaii.

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Dining in a tropical location calls for tropical drinks.  My husband decided to order himself a lilikoi mojito.  Made from Bacardi Silver, passion fruit puree, mint and soda my husband liked the flavor of the drink.  My husband said that you could actually taste the flavor of the lilikoi and the mont and not just the booze, which my husband appreciated.

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My brother-in-law also ordered a fruity drink for himself, one appropriately named the lava flow as we were in Hawaii.  Made with Silver Rum, Coco Lopez, strawberry puree and pineapple juice, we all made fun of him for having ordered a “girly” drink.  The drink sure did look pretty though, and while perhaps a little girly, I imagine with the combination of coconut and strawberry, the drink was probably pretty tropical.

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To start off our meal, my husband and I decided to order a couple of pupus, that’s the Hawaiian word for appetizers.  First up, the brie wontons with Sam’s papaya marmalade.  Squares of brie cheese are wrapped in wontons and then deep-fried to a golden brown until they are nice and crispy.  Arranged on a plate with some papaya marmalade, which if you look closely spells out the word “aloha”, and finished with some green onions and black sesame seeds.  The deep-frying of the wontons leaves the brie cheese nice and soft and melty so that it almost oozes out of the wontons when you bite into them.  The wontons were perfectly fried so that they were crunchy and flaky.  I’m not a big fan of brie, but these tasted fantastic.  The papaya marmalade was also terrific, just that hint of fruitiness that goes so well with brie cheese, and a little bit of tang too.  As it was a marmalade rather than a sauce, you could use the wontons to scoop up some of the marmalade so that it stuck to the wontons rather falling off in a liquid pool as a sauce would be apt to do.  The combination of the marmalade with the brie was a terrific one bite appetizer.

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As we were in Hawaii, I couldn’t help but order a Hawaiian appetizer.  Sam Choy’s offered both a traditional poke called the shoyu poke tower or a different dish called Sam’s seared poke.  I asked the waitress what she recommended and she said that while you could find traditional poke all over Hawaii, Sam Choy’s was known for their seared poke as it was just a little different from the normal poke you’d find anywhere else.  That was as good of a reason as I needed to order it.  As stated, the cubed pieces of fresh ahi tuna were seared quickly on the outside.  The sear was a really great touch as it added a bit of added flavor to the poke.  A little of the smoky, grill flavor which heightened the flavor of the poke dish as a whole.  My husband and I agreed that the poke had terrific seaweed flavor and the added saltiness that comes with the seaweed.  There was also a great soy sauce flavor to the dish as well.  Poke was one of the dishes I had on my “must eat” list for our trip to Hawaii, and this seared poke was a real winner, and a truly Hawaiian dish.

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Kona Orange duck, roasted with five star spice, soy and Big Island orange sauce with honey and macadamia nuts is what my husband ordered for his dinner.  Served with a side of white rice, my husband was surprised by just how large this entrée of duck was.  The orange sauce had tremendous flavor and the citrus flavor really paired well with the duck.  The duck had a nice crispy skin to it, which my husband loved.  And the meat was tender and flavorful.  Definitely no complaint with this meal.

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For my meal, I chose the macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi.  After all, we are in Hawaii, right?  So macadamia nut crusted fish sounds like a natural combination.  Served with white rice, this was a beautifully plated dish.  The macadamia nut crusting on the mahi mahi was terrific, crunchy and full of texture.  The fish was nice and flaky and mild in flavor.  The sautéed bok choy that also accompanied the dish was a nice accompaniment to the crusted mahi mahi.  I thought that the sauce on the plate was just a bit too sweet for the fish and eventually I just decided to have the fish with the rice rather than trying to sop up any of the sauce on the plate.  The entrée was nice and filling and I was really happy with my choice.

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As we hadn’t eaten all day until this dinner meal, my husband and I decided to split a dessert.  We chose Sam’s bread pudding with caramel sauce.  It came with ice cream to make it a la mode, and instead of choosing the traditional vanilla ice cream which would have gone well with bread pudding, we chose a scoop of mango ice cream instead.  After all, when in Hawaii, why not go for mango ice cream?  First off, the bread pudding was fantastic.  Hot, and sweet and a little chewy, the bread was fantastic.  As a bit of a surprise the bread pudding actually had some banana slices in it, and the caramelizing of the banana with the bread and caramel sauce was such a terrific combination.  This may have been my favorite bread pudding ever.  I’ve always wanted to love bread pudding, and while I’ve had some good bread pudding, I’ve never had one as terrific as this bread pudding.  The combination of the sweet bread and caramel sauce and the bananas was just a terrific pairing.  Then the mango ice cream, my husband and I both loved it.  It was not too sweet, but creamy and had bits of frozen mango in it, which was a great touch.  It tasted just like mango.  The combination of the bread pudding and the mango ice cream was a weird one, but since we pretty much treated it as two separate desserts, it was perfect.  A great ending to a terrific meal.

For our first meal on this Hawaii trip, Sam Choy’s Kai Lanai, was a terrific choice.  The indoor/outdoor setting of the restaurant was quintessentially Hawaiian.  With tropical breezes and amazing views, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of your natural surroundings by creating a setting that was laid back and where guests could enjoy the outdoors and the beauty that is the Big Island?  With tropical drinks in hand, every member of our party was able to find food that was filling and satisfying and gave them a glimpse into Hawaiian food and cooking.  After a day of traveling and trudging through airports, just being able to sit back, relax and unwind at the end of the day in the land of paradise is all we were looking for and Sam Choy’s delivered.

Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge at LAX

July 1, 2015

We had an early morning flight from Los Angeles to Kona, with a stopover in between in Honolulu.  Due to our early flight, most of us skipped breakfast at the hotel for the extra sleep before we rushed over to the airport to check in, drop off our bags and find our gate.  As we arrived at the gate with a bit of time before boarding, I decided to take a few minutes to go in search of the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge to see if I could grab a few drinks and a little something to eat.

Air Canada you ask?  I certainly didn’t fly Air Canada from Los Angeles to Hawaii, but I was lucky that the terminal at LAX I was departing from had an Air Canada lounge I could take advantage of.  We were actually flying on Hawaiian Airlines, but the Hawaiian Airlines lounge is for their executive members, of which I’m not, so I couldn’t access that lounge.  But I had a Priority Pass membership which gave me access to the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge, so why not use it?  If nothing else, I just wanted to check it out.

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First off, the terminal was under construction, or some sort of renovation, so finding the lounge through the maze of corridors and signs was a bit round about.  But once you stepped inside the lounge, it was like you were transported to a whole different world.  The terminal itself was one big mosh pit of seats strung together in a large open area that must have contained 4 or 5 different gates.  That meant that everyone who was waiting for flights at each of those gates was fighting for every empty seat to be found in this large mosh pit.  Stepping into the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge, it was tranquil, peaceful, quiet and relaxing.  A large rectangular area full of nice plush seats surrounded by windows that let in the light and provided an unobstructed view of the tarmac.

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At the far end of the lounge there was a bank of work stations for those who wanted a more productive use of their time in the lounge while waiting for their flight.  Around the corner from the work stations was a big screen TV for those who wished to pass the time with a bit of entertainment.  In the middle of this long rectangular lounge was a snack bar and refrigerators set up for drinks for those who wanted to grab a little bite to eat before they traveled.

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There were multiple refrigerated cases of canned drinks.  Coke Zero and Pepsi, along with cans of fruit juices: pineapple juice, apple juice, orange juice, peach nectar, mango nectar and cranberry juice.  I normally see carbonated soda drinks at a lot of airline lounges, but the various varieties of fruit juices was new, and I liked it.  I’d never seen pineapple juice before at an airport lounge, which is my husband’s favorite.

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In the next refrigerated case we had more canned carbonated soda: Sprite, Coke, and Diet Coke.  There was also tonic water, ginger ale and club soda.  And a couple of pitchers of juices: cranberry and grapefruit.

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Finally, there was a coffee bar.  The coffee bar featured a Keurig machine with various flavors of single cup coffee. There was also a gourmet coffee machine which could make espresso, cappuccino and some specialty flavored coffee.  Or if you were looking for tea instead coffee, there were multiple tea options as well.

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As I was there in the morning, the food display in the middle of the lounge featured different kinds of breakfast food items.  Healthy choices of cereal included Cheerios, Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran and granola.

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Fresh fruit options were also available.  Bananas, apples and oranges to be had.  Hard boiled eggs were also available, if that’s your thing.  Cartons of yogurt were also a breakfast option.

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Pastries and baked goods in the form of various types of sliced bread loaves and muffins were laid out for the taking as well.  I was really tempted to grab a chocolate-chocolate chip muffin.  I’m a sucker for chocolate.

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Finally, if you wanted bread goods for breakfast, there were croissants, bagels and white and wheat toast set up next to the toaster.  The usual suspects of cream cheese, butter and jelly could be found to accompany your bread product.

The set up for breakfast wasn’t tremendous, but it definitely was enough of an option to provide a traveler with more than enough to fill them up before traveling further afield.  What I enjoyed about the Maple Leaf Lounge was how airy and open it was.  This was definitely a space that you can go to relax and unwind before your flight.  It may not have been the most luxurious or scrumptious airline lounge I’ve ever been in, but I’ve definitely seen worse.  I was just grateful to be able to step into the lounge for a few minutes, grab some fruit and some drinks and power up for my flight to Hawaii.  It’s time for the vacation to begin.