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Can't-miss food experiences at 4 Hawai‘i hotels

Aerial view of The Farm at Hōkūala. Photo courtesy Timbers Kaua'i at Hōkūala

In 1991, a dozen young visionary chefs launched a bold movement to establish Hawai‘i as one of the top food destinations in the world. The premise of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine made sense: Focus on freshness using local fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood in imaginative dishes inspired by the Islands’ multiethnic population.

The chefs became celebrities, their food garnered rave reviews, and the revolution they started is still going strong 32 years later. In addition to sun, surf, and sand, Hawai‘i serves up history, culture, and an ever-evolving dining scene in which farmers, fishers, and ranchers play key roles.

Farms statewide have opened their land to visitors for tours. Resorts have also jumped on the “agritourism” bandwagon, offering programs and classes that provide knowledge kama‘āina can use long after they’ve checked out of their hotel. Unless otherwise noted, these 4 experiences are available only to registered guests, and reservations are required.

1. Ulu Pono Garden Experience

Fairmont Orchid, Hawai‘i Island

Ka'iulani Blankenfeld gathering a handful of herbs

Ka’iulani Blankenfeld harvests herbs. Photo courtesy Fairmont Orchid

At her home in sunny Waikoloa Village, Ka‘iulani Blankenfeld tends a sanctuary filled with plants to eat or weave into lei. “My garden provides peace, beauty, healing, and nourishment,” says the Fairmont Orchid’s director of Hawaiian culture.

That passion for gardening makes her the perfect guide for the AAA Four Diamond hotel’s complimentary, 60-minute Ulu Pono Garden Experience, which provides up-close looks at both “canoe plants” such as kukui, breadfruit, and sweet potato brought from Polynesia by Hawai‘i’s first settlers between AD 500 and 1200, and plants introduced by other peoples from afar who came later, including guava, pineapple, jackfruit, and kaffir lime.

Someone holding a handful of small Hawaiian Chile peppers

Hawaiian chile peppers. Photo courtesy Fairmont Orchid

Blankenfeld will enthrall you with legends, cultivation tips, and explanations of plants’ cultural and medicinal uses. You can weed; plant; harvest whatever is ripe; and pick, sniff, and taste basil, oregano, sage, and other herbs. The tour concludes with samples of mamaki tea and chile pepper water, and you’ll leave with a packet of chile pepper seeds, the recipe for chile pepper water, and, Blankenfeld hopes, respect and gratitude for nature and a commitment to mālama ‘āina (care for and about the land that feeds you).

The tour begins at 2 p.m. on Thursdays. Room rates start at $599; $349 for kama‘āina.

Tip: Moisture, temperature, salinity, sunlight, and soil chemistry are among the factors that affect plant growth. When planning your own garden, be sure to choose plants that can survive in the existing environmental conditions.

You may also like: 5 eco-friendly activities across the Hawaiian Islands

2. Tropical Mixology 101

Hotel Wailea, Maui

James Shoemaker sitting behind the bar, a cocktail in front of him

Bartender James Shoemaker. Photo courtesy Hotel Wailea

“If you’re gonna be loud, you gotta be funny.” That’s James Shoemaker’s philosophy, and the moment you sit down for his 60-minute Tropical Mixology class, you know you’re going to have a good time. The witty, genial Shoemaker once aspired to be a stand-up comedian, and he spent several years behind the mike as a DJ in Tampa, Florida. These days, he’s behind Hotel Wailea’s pool bar, mixing drinks and leading cocktail classes for hotel guests.

A pair of cocktails: Mai tai and Wailea Flow with liliko'i

Mai tai and Wailea Flow with liliko’i. Photo courtesy Hotel Wailea

There’s ample time for everyone to “talk story” as Shoemaker prepares 2 cocktails—always the mai tai and usually the Wailea Flow with liliko‘i. All the hotel’s alcoholic beverages use fresh fruits and herbs, such as liliko‘i, mango, pomegranate, and calamansi (the latter 3 of which are picked from the on-site orchard). Attendees 21 years and older sample a “modern jigger” (containing 2 instead of 1½ ounces) of Shoemaker’s refreshing concoctions (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol).

“Bartending is a service position,” he says. “I put myself aside and focus on the guests. It winds up being a fun, interesting, wonderful experience.”

Shoemaker’s complimentary Tropical Mixology class starts at 10 a.m. on Saturdays at the pool bar. Reservations are not required. Private classes can be arranged for a fee based on group size. Room rates start at $899.

Tips: Just like cooking, know your ingredients; consider the combined flavors and alcohol level. Don’t over-juice your citrus. Strain out seeds but remember that pulp adds flavor. Garnishes are important; cocktails should look as good as they taste.

You may also like: 5 delightful food tours and classes in Hawai‘i

3. “Agrication” Tour

Timbers Kaua‘i at Hōkūala

Hualani inamona crusted market catch

Hualani’s weekly farm-to-table dinner features bounty from The Farm at Hōkūala. Photo courtesy Timbers Kaua'i at Hōkūala


Looking at The Farm at Hōkūala, it’s hard to imagine that it was once a golf course. Timbers Kaua‘i transformed those 16½ acres into an Eden comprising an apiary, coconut grove, fruit orchard, and herb and vegetable garden. Some 60 organic crops now thrive there, ranging from beans, bok choy, and breadfruit to taro, tomatoes, and turmeric. Harvests are used for the resort’s cocktails, menu items, and spa treatments and refreshments.

Farmer showing plants to a family of 3 during the "agrication" tour

The farm tour is a popular activity at Timbers Kaua’i. Photo courtesy Timbers Kaua'i at Hōkūala

On The Farm’s 60- to 90-minute “agrication” tour, the activity director might discuss growing techniques; the medicinal benefits of some plants; and exotic fruit varieties such as Surinam cherry, rollinia, and cherimoya. You might smell fragrant herbs, taste different varieties of banana and papaya, and pet the friendly chickens that roam freely.

On Tuesdays, Hualani’s restaurant at Timbers offers a 4-course prix fixe dinner that incorporates freshly picked bounty from the farm. Menus change weekly, based on what’s in season. The farm is also a valuable community resource, offering schools the opportunity to arrange field trips for students.

Tours cost $20 per guest and are held on Wednesdays starting at 9 a.m. Room rates start at $1,795.

Tip: You can grow pineapple at home. Cut off the crown of a mature pineapple, dry it for a week, then plant it in soil in full sunlight. Water it when the surface of the soil is dry (about once a week). Your pineapple will be ready to harvest in 18 to 24 months.

You may also like: 8 resorts in Hawai‘i perfect for couples, families, and solo travelers

4. Hydroponic Garden Tour

Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa

Ashly Trask showing guests lettuce growing in the hydroponic garden

Ashly Trask explains how hydroponics works. Photo courtesy Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa

Garden manager Ashly Trask runs a farm with no fields, no tractors, and little soil. Instead of hoes and trowels, she works with scissors and a hose—yet she harvests 400 to 600 pounds of lettuce each week in a former tennis court that is now a 4,000-square-foot “plot” at the AAA Four Diamond Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa.

Kale, herbs, and cherry tomatoes flourish in earth-filled pots, but the primary crops are hydroponic microgreens and 8 or so constantly changing lettuce varieties. Trask bases her choices on leaf form, color diversity, and, during the summer, shelf life and heat tolerance. Everything she grows is used by the hotel’s food and beverage venues and for private events.

During her complimentary 30-minute tour, Trask says, participants are surprised to discover that the hotel grows its own produce in an efficient, environmentally conscious way. “Since plants grow without soil in a hydroponic garden, we’re able to reduce water consumption and the need for land and pesticides,” she says. “I hope visiting the garden leads some guests to start a home hydroponic journey.”

The tour is offered Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. It’s open to the public, and reservations are not required. Room rates start at $499; ask about kama‘āina rates.

Tip: You can easily set up a small, simple indoor or outdoor hydroponic system at home to grow herbs and lettuce. Costs range from $50 to $175.

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Honolulu-based contributor Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi may not be a whiz in the kitchen, but she appreciates a great meal and the many people who make it possible. Food-related experiences are priorities wherever she travels.

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