A recent Gallup Poll indicated that residents of Hawaii enjoy the highest level of well-being in America.
Last August I sat in the busy parking lot of Waipouli Town Center in Kapaa, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the most remote island in the world. I was virtually inhaling an Ahi Tuna wrap courtesy of Mermaid's Café, just across Kuhio Highway.
Laced with potent wasabi and filled with brown rice to both sate the belly and temper the fire of the spice, the wrap had just enough kick to oust me from a vacation induced haze.
I saw masses of rental cars, hassled parents, harried folks living typical American strip-mall lives, just in a different place. It's surprising how unwell one can seem to be in Hawaii!
A refreshing OnoPops Pineapple La Hing paleta from Java Kai (a hip coffee shop next to Mermaid's Cafe), cooled the palate. Licking every last sticky drop of that delicious, simply complicated frozen treat, I realized: those crazy tourists plainly needed some Aloha.
Trite? Clichéd? Not really. Aloha means much more than hello in Hawaiian. Aloha is a ray of calm yet steady tropical sunshine: a natural, unpretentious, heartfelt expression that slowly spreads its message of warm welcome, care, inclusivity and contentment. Aloha quintessentially is well-being.
What does this have to do with food? Everything! Leave the all-inclusive resort, get out of traffic headed to touristy locales and overpriced touristy activities: find an island chockablock with culinary delights and interesting people who will lead you to Aloha!
Mike Stewart is the owner of Uncle Mikey's Dried Fruit, the best snack you've probably never tasted. Typical dried fruits will be forever banned from your pantry the minute you taste his hand cut, sugar free, "No weird stuff in it" pineapple, banana, mango, papaya, Hawaiian Mountain Apple, star fruit and wild guava delicacies. Mango, banana and pineapple grow year round in Hawaii, while other fruit bloom three to four times. In fact, star fruit and guava are so ubiquitous on Kauai, they are practically considered weeds and folks beg Mike to pick their crop before the fruit flies set in. Mike orders fruit from wholesalers or harvests it himself, sometimes from his friend's back-yard trees. He hand-cuts the fruit, about 1,500 pounds per week, and dries it at low temperatures to retain the nutrition, color and most importantly the flavor of the fruit. To taste Uncle Mikey's is to taste the very essence of a tropical fruit. Literally. Ninety percent of the weight of fruit is lost in the dehydrator: 400 pounds of cut pineapple become just 32 pounds of dried fruit.
Despite a surge of development since the 1980s, Kauai, known as the Garden Isle, remains primarily agricultural. As you drive away from the beach, toward the mountains, verdant rolling hills are shadowed by steep mountains. The land is green, lush and productive, studded here and there with wild streams, roaming cattle and orchards of mango or nut trees. The landscape is stunning and surprisingly reminiscent of the mid-Atlantic piedmont farm country in spring.
If you dare to leave your resort or rental, you'll have the chance to meet Kauai farmers, many of whom have mango, banana, pineapple or avocado trees as edible landscape in their yards. They sell produce at unmanned tables alongside the road, at small fruit stands, natural foods stores or at farmers markets. Farmers markets are popular here, especially among the locals. Most markets allow a preview but absolutely no buying prior to opening, which is marked by a bell or a honk and a mad rush to favorite vendors. The island is pervasive with lovers of all things natural, organic and of course, grown with Aloha, but competition for the best goods is surprisingly competitive. Since the island has only one road, the markets are located conveniently and frequently along the highway.
The Hanalei market has perhaps the most beautiful setting on the island. It is large and situated in a picturesque field at the base of massive mountains carved by cascading waterfalls. It is full of produce, artisanal foods and handmade art. A friend from Annapolis once bought a $15 pineapple from there. I advise approaching vendors with interest, curiosity and whatever Aloha you've acquired since your arrival if you don't want this sort of resort fee. On the other hand, that $15 was a small up-charge for a trip to this astounding place and was probably a boon to the farmer, who most likely is struggling just like farmers across the entire United States.
Sativa (first name only) is just one of the naturally gorgeous, fit, sun-kissed and also enterprising young natives to take advantage of Kauai's bounty of natural resources. She started out selling coconuts on the beach. Eventually she took over a roadside stand (located at mile marker 24 off Kuhio Highway), which she has turned into The Coconut Experience, a profitable and popular spot. The coconuts at her stand are ice cold, and she slices their tops precisely if not a little forcibly with a machete almost as big as she is. All that's required is a straw, and really, you don't even need that. After you've dispensed with the healthy and delicious coconut water, Sativa will machete the coconut in half so you can spoon out the soft insides.
Sativa sells a variety of organic produce at her stand, all procured from friends, family and farmers who drop by spontaneously to offer her a look at their harvest. Some are familiar, while others are exotic: longan (also known as dragon eyes), lilikoi, guayabana, dragonfruit, spiky soursop, cream apple, white sapote and huge meaty avocados. Kale and greens are very popular on Kauai - they are native and prolific - and Sativa sells large bunches at reasonable prices. She also sells local Powerhouse Creamery ice cream. The smoked cardamom ginger with spiced bananas is addictive and perfect after a day on the water.
Although Kauai's North Shore is renowned for its winter swells, real life on Kauai is not a surf culture. Rather it is defined by a shared pride and affection for a community-owned slice of paradise. Make no mistake: from the poorest Hawaiian selling avocados from their front yard, to the most market-savvy hippies I've ever seen at Common Grounds in Kilauea, to simple folks like Uncle Mike, the average Hawaiian is just trying to make a living and is doing so with diligence and fortitude. Mike began selling his fruit in 2004 with just one dehydrator but a healthy dose of "faith and laser-like focus." Nine years later he has shipped his fruit to more than 15 countries, is in the Whole Foods Market Global Library (that means DC area folks can beg their local Whole Foods for this amazing taste of Kauai and it can be on the shelves in days), and counts as his fans folks as disparate yet discerning as Matthew McConaughey, Willie Nelson and President Obama. He is building an international brand name on a shoestring budget while he cuts 220 pounds of pineapples and 160 pounds of bananas by hand every day before 10 a.m., raises three kids, enjoys his 10-month-old grandson, supports his wife in her massage therapy business, works a second job and still finds time for surfing every now and then. All that stress, yet he vibrates with Aloha.
Jack Johnson, the professional surfer turned folk-alt-indie-rock voice of Hawaii croons in "Breakdown:"
"I hope this old train breaks down/Then I could take a walk around/And see what there is to see .../So for now ... Oh please just/Let me please breakdown."
Kauai is just the place to breakdown, as many Annapolitans have discovered. It's a place to leave your rental house, your hotel room, your guidebook and even the beach to discover a different sort of natural allure. It's a place to renew your own sense of Aloha. And lucky for you, it's also a great place to enjoy a small bite of paradise!