Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Foodie Tour of Upcountry Maui

On Valentine's Day weekend, which coincided with President's Day weekend and thus was one of those wonderful three-day affairs, we flew over to Maui for some quality relaxation. For those of you not from Hawaii, Maui is about a 30 minute airplane ride from Honolulu. And that includes taxiing. Flight takes off, you get a tropical juice drink, you have five minutes to drink it, flight lands. Just my kind of travel.

View from our room at the Grand Wailea

So off to Maui we traveled, to the very posh Grand Wailea Hotel. That place should probably have its own post, however,  I am going to forgo telling you about all the water slides, pools, gilded statues and such, because as the title reflects, on the second day of our mini vacation we went on a foodie tour.  While there may be foodie tours that one books with a travel agent, this particular tour was organized just for us, and as such it is not commercially available.  However, you can visit all the places we went to so this tour is very easy to duplicate.

The tower above the building is where the alcohol gets distilled.

Our first stop was at Ocean Vodka. This brand new facility is located on the slopes of Haleakala, and they distill not only vodka but also rum from sugarcane.  Not being much of a hard liquor drinker, I never pondered where vodka comes from.  Having done the 30 minute tour at Ocean Vodka, I now know quite a bit about it.  

The bottling room/ different types of sugar cane to taste/ the bottle was designed to resemble an old Japanese glass float

Ocean Vodka makes all their alcohol from sugarcane. While rum is traditionally a sugarcane based drink, vodka can be distilled from many sources (basically anything that contains sugar or starch, such as grains or potatoes), the only requirement being purity. To put it simply, if you distill any alcohol long enough you get vodka. In fact, what you get is much stronger than vodka. The master distiller then takes this supercharged alcohol (think 80+%) and dilutes it into a drinkable strength. At Ocean Vodka they use desalinated deep-sea water for this dilution. The very same deep sea water apparently sells for over $20.00 a bottle in Japan. No flavoring, no alcohol, just the bottled water. At the end of our distillery tour we got to taste not only the vodka and rum, but also the expensive water. I swished it around and announced in my best wine connoisseur voice: "Smooth". Can't say it tasted all that different from the $1.00 bottled water.

The tour was fun and informative, and definitely the earliest in a day I have ever consumed vodka (even in a minute quantity such as this was).  We also got to see the twenty or so varieties of sugar cane they have on the plantation - I was previously not aware of the diversity of sugar cane plants. The place also had lovely views of West Maui, which we got to enjoy as it was an exceptionally clear day.

Kids waiting to be fed/ the entrance/ the milking line

After Ocean Vodka, we made our way to Surfing Goat Dairy to taste some yummy goat cheese and learn about its production. We took a guided tour and learnt about goats and milking, and after the tour we tasted all the varieties of goat cheese they make there. Definitely the highlight of the goat farm tour. I loved the many different flavors.

Having said goodbye to the goats, we then made our way to Ulupalaka Winery. Most people think Hawaii's climate is too warm to cultivate grapes and produce wine; the slopes of Haleakala, however, are cool enough that vineyards can be planted here.  With that said, the Napa valley or Bordeaux winemakers have no need to worry, Maui wine will not take over the world. The winery offers fee tastings and the staff is very nice and knowledgeable.  We bought a couple of bottles of the white to take back to Oahu as gifts. 

Ulupalaka Winery is housed on a historic ranch and besides the tasting room and garden, across the street there is a farm to table ranch store, selling tasty lunches with locally sourced vegetables and meat.  After our wine tasting we had some elk burgers, lamb burgers and pulled pork sandwiches, all farm raised meat. Consumed at a picnic table in the shade of some century old trees in the winery garden, with sprawling views of the Pacific. 

French lavender/ fields of lavender/ lavender products

With our tummies full, we went in search of dessert, and found it at Ali'i Kula Lavender, a lavender farm -you guessed it- on the slopes of Haleakala. What can I say, Haleakala is very large, and this was an upcountry foodie tour after all. To give our bodies a bit of time to digest lunch, we went on a guided walking tour of the farm first. Here we learned (amongst other things) about the differences between Spanish, English and French lavender. Ali'i Kula Lavender grows all three varieties, some of those making their way into soaps, lotions, jams, tea or scones.

Besides lavender, the garden is home to a variety of plants /a friendly Jackson chameleon

Lavender scones with lilikoi lavender jelly is what we had for dessert, out on the deck of the little store there, again with amazing views of West Maui and the islands of Lanai and Molokai beyond. 

Top of Haleakala: if the moon had roads it would probably look like this/ silversword/ nene goose

Since we had no more capacity to consume anything, be it liquid or solid nourishment, as the final stop of the tour, our lovely guides drove us up to the summit of Haleakala, to watch the sunset.  We came well prepared for this viewing event, and brought our ski jackets with us. Even bundled up in those we were chilled to the bone by the time the sun graciously decided to set.  Of course the beauty of the scenery made up for the cold.  As luck would have it, on our way up the volcano, when we stopped at the visitor's center, an endangered nene goose flew over and landed right next to us. With this happy event within a few yards of each other we were lucky enough to see the two endangered species symbols of Haleakala: the silver sword plant and the nene.

As we descended the volcano in the darkening sky, we got to reflect on our foodie day. It was time indeed well spent: we learnt things we did not know before, tasted flavors we have not tried before and capped the day with the beautiful sunset.  We are thankful to our gracious hosts and guides: Pauline and Nicholas for a lovely day on the slopes of Haleakala. 

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