I got back last week from the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. It is a weeklong celebration of hula culminating in three evenings of the dance from Thursday to Saturday nights. There is also a free performance, the Ho'ike, on Wed. night that is not televised as the last three nights are. I call it a hula marathon because you have to pace yourself and your energy in order to be at your best and most observant as hula cognoscenti when the performances start.
Not only is there world class hula every evening for 5 hours at the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium but there's also yet more hula, craft fairs, art exhibitions and cultural presentations at the hotels, the malls throughout Hilo and and at 'Imiloa, UH-Hilo's Astronomy center. One of the biggest attractions for me, to Hilo, second only to the people, is the high quality and variety of the food. I can say that for a week every single meal I had was exceptional. It isn't just that this is my favorite island. The cooks really do seem to put more love and care into their offerings.
My first stop was Ken's Coffee House, open 24 hours, for broiled mahi, eggs and pancakes. The mahi has a wonderful smoked flavor, grill marks and very moist flesh. The pancakes come with homemade syrups of guava, coconut and liliko'i. If you order a cup of coffee you get that along with a thermal carafe so that you can pour yourself as much coffee as you like.
That first day I also went to Two Ladies Mochi to pick up mochi and drop off omiyage for my friend Nora Uchida, a co-owner. Had to stop by Big Islands Candies where Lance, their floral designer, was creating a beautiful tableau of yellow and red lehua blossoms in dozens of glass cups. It was a Wednesday, so I picked up ruby-red and luscious Waimea strawberries and 3 bundles of gardenias from the Farmer's Market. On my way out to Volcano I popped into KTA at Puainako for some POG (passion, orange, guava juice) and eggs for my breakfasts.
I did something different this year and reasoning that I spend half my time at the Park anyway I elected to stay at a place in Volcano Village. The round trip by car from Volcano to Hilo is 45 minutes, something that you would want to do only once a day. So, I spent my time hiking and hanging out at Volcano National Park during the day and in the evening I would drive to Hilo for the hula performances.
My friend, Ku'ulei, who lives in Volcano, tipped me off to the soups that they have at the two general stores, Kilauea and Volcano. On previous visits to these stores, I'd noticed crockpots by the chili, the hot dogs and coffee but didn't pay any attention to them. They contain country style, hearty, chunky soups. A pint of these are perfect for picking up before you go into the Park for hiking. I had a Portuguese bean soup that was much like something I'd make at home and a satisfying Mulligatawny soup. The temperature in Volcano ranged from 60 deg. during the day to a chilly 44 deg. at night, good soup weather.
On Sunday I woke up at 6 am after going to bed at 1 from the last night of hula. I thought "I'll get to the Volcano Farmer's Market when the true locals arrive, at 6:30 am!" Not! I could barely find parking and the place was jumping. Turns out the reeaal locals start arriving at 5: 30!
Went straight to Joyce to get the best pastries ever. For, say a bearclaw, you get half mincemeat and half flaky pastry in every bite. Then, on to something I dream about when I'm home in Kailua, the Thai Lady's Tom Yum chicken soup. Try as I might I've never been able to perfect her clear stock, the homemade sambal oelek or the secret flavored oils she adds, the correct proportion of cloud's ear to potato to long rice and fresh basil leaves.
The produce is always outstanding but I noticed the addition of a new dessert lady offering mile-high apple and banana pies, liliko'i squares, dark chocolate brownies cloaked in ganache and ohelo berry tarts. Another vendor had freshly fried doughnuts dipped in chocolate and caramel!
My favorite way to enjoy breakfast was to wake up early before the buses arrived in the Park. I'd make the short hike out to Byron's Ledge with a true concert of birdsong around me and the crunch of my boots on the dirt. In the distance I could hear but never saw, nene geese. I'd sit on a log with my hard boiled egg, my POG, apple bananas, Waimea strawberries and hot Puna coffee as I contemplated the mile high cloud plume coming out of Halema'uma'u Crater in the distance.
And people ask me why I love the Big Island so much.