The goal: to enter back into society with a bang; a clear line of demarcation where sweatpants ended and sun dresses began. After getting our second vaccine shots, it felt important to do something crazy to mark the end of the COVID-19 era instead of quietly easing back into society as if 2020 never happened. We could go skydiving! Wait, we've done that. Or bungee jumping! Or do something we hadn't done in nearly a year and a half, something that felt nearly as dangerous, considering the pandemic - go on vacation! So off we flew to Hawaii's Big Island.
If you've never been to Hawaii before (like me, until recently), here's a quick run-down of the eight islands that comprise this U.S. state, largest to smallest: Hawaii (aka the Big Island), Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe.
Most people think of sunny beaches and mixed drinks while planning their tropical vacation, but did you know the Hawaiian islands have an impressive assortment of farm tours to explore as well? The tropical climate creates perfect conditions for all sorts of exotic fruits, vegetables, and plants to grow.
Brandon and I love taking factory tours during our vacations, like this one at the Jelly Belly Factory in California, and while on an island, we discovered that farm tours are the outdoorsy equivalent. Learn a little, taste a little, pet a little goat. It may not be everyone's idea of the ideal vacation, but we don't mind getting nerdy in our off time.
Our relaxation schedule left room for at least one farm tour per day, between lots of eating and reading, so these were the ones we chose: vanilla, octopus, soap, chocolate, coffee, and bees. I'll share some of the incredible facts we learned.
BONUS: Keep scrolling to the bottom of this post to see our recommendations for several additional Big Island activities we enjoyed, like farmers markets and a Japanese garden on the rainforest side of the island.
(Little disclaimer: this was a #selfietrip, meaning two professional photographers went out into the world with only a camera phone in their pocket, leaving their heavy, expensive equipment behind. Enjoy these photos for what they are - we were living in the moment!)
First up, the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in the mountains of Paauilo. This family-run business offered a sneak peek into the lives of boutique vanilla farmers and ended with an impressive vanilla-infused lunch. We recommend this tour!
- Vanilla lemonade or vanilla ice tea
- Appetizer of garam masala shrimp cooked in vanilla butter served on a crostini with vanilla pineapple chutney
- Vanilla bourbon marinated chicken on a vanilla sweet bread bun, topped with caramelized onions and vanilla mango chutney aioli
- Green salad topped with a vanilla raspberry balsamic dressing, vanilla honey peppered pecans and feta cheese
- Crispy potatoes baked in a vanilla southwest rub
- Hawaiian vanilla bean ice cream
Some things we learned about vanilla:
- The tiny vanilla beans inside the pod do not have much of a flavor, but when combined with fat, sugar, or acid, their delicate flavor emerges and compliments the food.
- Did you know vanilla comes from an orchid?
- The vanilla orchid only blooms once per year, for less than eight hours. It must be pollinated by hand during that timeframe, whether it's midday or middle of the night, or it will die and then it's "better luck next year, pal." That's a lot of pressure on the farmer!
- It's a vine, like in the photo below, that grows by climbing up an existing tree (or in this case, a pole covered in moss).
- Once pollinated, the flowers close up and the pods begin to form. They're picked when still slightly green, then humidified and dried to the shriveled brown sticks you recognize, like in the jars above.
- Vanilla can only be grown at high elevations in locations 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and thrive in the mountains of Mexico, Madagascar, Tahiti (aka French Polynesia), and Indonesia.
- Due to its labor-intensive growing process, vanilla is one of the world's most expensive spices, second only to saffron.
- Vanilla extract is made by pouring a tasteless alcohol, like vodka, into a jar with split-open vanilla bean pods, like in the photo above. After waiting 6 to 9 months, the extract is ready to use in delicious baked goods or drinks.
- During the prohibition, people were drinking vanilla extract straight from the bottle, so manufacturers were required to add bitterants. This would make the raw extract taste gross, but the bitterants would burn off in the baking process, only leaving the vanilla flavor behind.
- Prohibition is over, but the bitterants are still added to vanilla extract to this today, that's why we're using the fresh vanilla bean pods from Hawaiian Vanilla Company to make our own extract, which can be added to uncooked recipes like mixed drinks. Genius!
Meeting these precious octopus friends at the Kanaloa Octopus Farm was really special for me. Anyone who knows me is aware that I am not a huge animal person - I like them from afar and appreciate a cute photo on social media, but am not the type to fawn over your new puppy if I'm at your house. But these little guys were different. Their shy behavior and gentle caresses were so endearing, I didn't want to leave when our hour was up.
The dozens of suckers (that's the official term) on each tentacle are not sticky like adhesive, they're muscles. When the octopus would curiously approach you to shake hands, it was up to them if their tentacles grabbed onto you or not; it wasn't like getting stuck in a glue trap. Their dainty arms would reach up, explore your hand and wrist for a few moments, then slowly drift back down.
Most of the octopuses were very chill, but active, like this. You can see me playing with Clive in the photo below. Then there was Pearl - she was vigorously trying to escape via Brandon's arm. The presenter warned us that if any of the cephalopods tried to break out, they're known as "escape artists" after all, we should gingerly dip them back into the water and peel back their tentacles from the ends inward, like you would a price tag from a new item. No big deal, right? Except it was also important to avoid their underside if you didn't want to get nibbled on.
Octopuses are soft bodies. The only hard part in their anatomy is their beak, aka their mouth. They use it to latch onto tasty sea creatures for lunch, like clams, sea snails, and fish. It's directly underneath their torso, centered between all eight tentacles. The presenter said they may try to take a little bite out of you, which often won't break the skin, but will be a heck of a pinch. Best to avoid.
Some other amazing octopus facts:
- Octopuses love people! In nature, they are loners who interact with other members of their species only when mating, which is why each one had their own tank at the Kanaloa Octopus Farm. But around humans, they're game for a playdate.
- The green plastic turf you see on the edge of the container helps prevent them from escaping, which many of them tried to do when we were there. Their suckers have trouble grasping the prickly turf.
- It may look like they have different skin textures, colors, and even spikes all over their bodies, but these octopus are all the same kind. They camouflage their bodies to blend into the environment around them, or to express their mood.
- They have three hearts! Lots of arms require lots of blood flow.
- These particular octopus were sourced from the wild so they could be studied. This cephalopod aquaculture research center is dedicated to finding a sustainable way to farm octopus for human consumption in an effort to prevent overfishing in the wild. And since one octopus births tens- or even hundreds of thousands of tiny larvae babies at a time, farming them would be very sustainable, once they figure out how to raise them in an artificial environment.
- They have short lifespans (sad). The cuties we played with live six months to a year, whether in captivity or in the wild. Some live up to five years, like the red Giant Pacific octopus you've probably seen on your last aquarium trip.
- They have blue blood! While our human blood is red because it's iron-based, octopus blood is blue because it's copper-based, which is more efficient for transporting oxygen in low temperature environments.
- The plural for octopus is "octopuses" not "octopi." Mystery solved!
- They can lose arms and regrow them. Some of the squishy friends we played with had six or seven tentacles instead of eight, or had a stumpy little tentacle that was midway through regrowth.
Next up, we visited Greg and Marty at the Kona Natural Soap Company at Kokoleka Lani Farms. They're partners in business and partners in life who bought a barren rock quarry many years ago and turned it into a lush rainforest of coffee and cacao trees, among many other native plants. The cool thing is, they harvest fruits, nuts and seeds from the plethora of fauna all over their property and turn it into natural soap!
Greg was a fantastic tour guide, very lively and clearly in love with his job. He showed us around the property, allowing us to touch and smell all sorts of tropical plants like ornamental gingers, palms trees with coconuts, apple bananas (which are much sweeter than the Cavendish variety we are accustomed to on the mainland), gliricidia trees that shade the cacao trees, papaya, citrus, avocados as big as my hand, and a fascinating hot pink and purple ginger that looked straight out of a sci-fi movie.
He cracked open a kukui nut for us, pointing out the oil-rich flesh inside that they use as a base for their hydrating oil blends. We purchased a bottle of 100% kukui nut oil, which has a very light nutty scent, but you could also buy it blended with aromatic essential oils like lavender or lemongrass. View the full list of smells here. Amazingly, the oil absorbs right away and does not leave a greasy or tacky feeling on the skin.
Their natural soaps smell HEAVENLY. After a brief demonstration of how the soap is mixed, poured, set, cut, and packaged, we walked away with several bars in scent blends like grapefruit and cinnamon, tangerine and cacao, and spearmint and lime. So dreamy. Natural exfoliants are added to the soaps to get you squeaky clean, like ground papaya seeds, oatmeal, and tea leaves.
And I can't forget about their chocolate! Kokoleka means "chocolate" in Hawaiian, the farm's namesake. Greg showed us how to identify which cacao pods are ripe for harvest, and told us how in 2019, they won the Cocoa of Excellence award in Paris, competing with cacao growers from around the world. Nice going guys! We savored a bar of their dark chocolate, my favorite.
Below is a photo of how the inside of a ripe cacao pod looks. Greg cut one open for us during the tour and passed around these slimy, white beans. They tasted like a tangy mango. Once fermented, this pulp is removed, the beans are roasted, and the thin shell is taken off, leaving the dry cacao nibs behind.
If you take this Big Island tour, you'll enjoy all of Greg's inspiring stories about his childhood visit to a family farm that spurred his love of agriculture, his and Marty's jump from life in the insurance business to life as island farmers, and how they've focused on biodiversity in their small lot farm to increase yield while reducing the need for irrigation and pest control chemicals. We highly recommend this tour!
The Kona coast is known worldwide for its exceptional coffee beans. Ask any coffee connoisseur, they'll tell you. Coffee trees grow like weeds in Hawaii's tropical climate, and the island is dotted with more than 650 coffee farms, many of which offer tastings and tours. Needless to say, we felt a bit overwhelmed. How would we choose which one to visit?
Brandon (my hero) chose Greenwell Farms for us because of its impressive history. Founded in 1850, Greenwell is one of the oldest coffee groves on the island and mills coffee cherries for themselves and many other local farms. Of the hundreds of small-time coffee growers, most of them only cultivate the coffee cherries, they don't process them into the dried coffee beans as we know them. Greenwell steps in to help, which keeps their outdoor facilities humming year round. Win win!
The practice of processing coffee goes like this:
- Usually coffee plants require irrigation, but Greenwell Farms relies on the natural rainfall of the island to nourish their plants.
- The coffee cherry ripens on the plant in about nine months, going from flower to green cherry to red cherry.
- The cherries are handpicked by skilled professionals whose hands move so fast from the plant to their basket, you can barely see them, expertly removing only the ripe fruit and leaving unripe cherries behind to be harvested later on. This results in optimal yield, compared to "shaking harvester" machines that remove ripe and unripe cherries alike, causing up to 85% wasted product.
- Special mill machines remove the raw coffee beans from the cherry skin. They also have lightning-fast cameras that identify and remove any under ripe or damaged fruit.
- The beans tumble dry in yet another machine, or are sun-dried for several weeks, where they're raked and turned often to avoid uneven drying.
- The final machine removes the hull and silver skin, leaving only the "green beans" that are ready for roasting.
This was a fun tour - our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot about coffee farming and processing while walking the orchard. Afterward, we sipped free samples of brewed beans back at the giftshop.
I enjoy the taste of coffee (with enough cream and sugar in it), but Brandon is the true aficionado between us. We'll take his word for it that the 100% Kona coffee from Greenwell Farms was some of the best coffee he's ever had. We bought several pounds to take home, which he is carefully rationing out each morning.
How do you like your coffee? Strong? Well, what do you mean, strong flavor or strong caffeine content? We learned that the longer you roast coffee beans, the less caffeine they contain. A blonde roast has the highest caffeine content with a lighter, more acidic flavor, while a dark roast or espresso has the least amount of caffeine, but offers a more rich and strong flavor. This is why espresso is often served with dessert after dinner, because it's not as caffeine heavy per serving compared to drip coffee.
A few coffee facts you may not know:
- This ancient drink dates back to 800 A.D.
- Only two U.S. states produce coffee - Hawaii and California. Brazil grows the most coffee in the world.
- Folks in Finland drink more coffee than anyone else in the world, nearly 28 pounds per year, compared to Americans at 11 pounds.
- Decaf does not mean completely caffeine-free! Decaf coffee contains a few milligrams of caffeine, as opposed to regular coffee which contains 95 to 200 milligrams per 8oz serving.
- One cup of black coffee only has one calorie.
- The world's most expensive coffee can cost more than $600 per pound. It comes from the Asian palm civet, a cat-like animal that eats coffee cherries and, ehm, excretes the seeds, which people collect and brew into a drink known as kopi luwak. To each his own, I guess!
What do you think of my crazy vacation dress with its colorful tassels? Come on, it's fun! They let me borrow an umbrella on this tour because I burn so easily in the sun. Top customer service.
Last, we visited Big Island Bees for a honey tasting and hive demonstration. This was one of my favorite tours we attended - the honey was divine and the presenter let us get up close and personal with her bees. Highly recommended!
We had so much fun, I wrote a whole separate blog post about this tour! Click here to read it and meet the Queen Bee.
BONUS farm tour! Sort of.
Near the end of our trip, we were on our way to Honomu Goat Dairy on the east side of the island to hug some baby goats and eat fresh goat cheese. Out of nowhere, a forest fire broke out on the side of the highway! We were right at the front of the line of cars when the fire trucks arrived and we saw the flames leaping toward the road.
I'm convinced that if I had woken up five minutes earlier that morning, we wouldn't have had to turn around and miss seeing those sweet furry babies and their mama's cheese. There is only one public road on the north side of the island, unfortunately, so taking an alternate route was impossible, unless we wanted to drive 3 hours in the opposite direction to get there.
Needless to say, I can't personally vouch for this goat dairy farm tour because we never made it there, but it looks like a lot of fun. If you ever go, let me know what it's like!
I was pretty bummed by the change of plans, but Brandon always knows how to cheer me up, so we headed back toward the hotel and stopped off at Puakō Petroglyph Park for a quick hike, which is a public archeological preserve in a kiawe tree forest. It's located on the Kohala Coast near the Mauna Lani Resort. After hiking through the tangled trees for less than a mile, we emerged at the ancient lava field you see below.
Each section of lava rock surface contains a single petroglyph carved by Hawaiian peoples centuries ago. Most resemble humans, like the strange four-legged guy in the photo above, but some depict turtles and canoes, among other images. The island used to contain countless petroglyph artifacts just like the 3,000 carvings in the preserve, but many have been destroyed as hotels and other construction take priority.
No one knows why the petroglyphs were created or what they mean, but everyone has a guess. Why do you think they're here?
Kiawe tree forest inside Puakō Petroglyph Park. Walking through this short forest felt like venturing towards Mordor in Lord of the Rings - it was very quiet and ancient-looking.
Brandon got a closer look at the waterfall with his binoculars when we hiked in ʻAkaka Falls State Park on the Hilo side of the island. If you're planning to see the falls with young kids, don't worry, the hike is very easy and is paved the whole way, though not wheelchair accessible.
Our beautiful hotel, the Royal Kona Resort in Kailua-Kona. Our home away from home for ten days on Hawaii's Big Island. It kind of looks like a cruise ship, doesn't it?
Notice the black lava rock coastline in the photo above. Some people prefer Hawaii's other more tourist-y islands for their sandy, family-friendly beaches instead of the rugged, rocky shores, but we loved it here. I'll admit that trying to get into the water while the strong waves smash you back into the sharp rocks was a challenge. Fortunately, the Royal Kona Resort has a private swimming lagoon on the property, allowing guests to swim in a calm protected cove with plenty of fish and tide pool sea creatures to examine up close.
The Big Island is home to two of the world's most active volcanos - Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. It's constantly expanding, so lava rock beaches are always going to be a key feature of this island. If you have time, we recommend driving to Volcanos National Park on the southeast side of the island for a day hike. You may even see an active lava flow. It's eerie to see the landscape go from lush rainforest at sea level to barren alien desert at more than 13,000 ft elevation. Bring hiking shoes and a jacket, it gets cold that high up!
Our ocean view room at the Royal Kona Resort, surrounded by lava rock coastline. Total bliss.
We tried snorkeling one day near Two Step Beach in Captain Cook, a popular tourist snorkeling site, but the coral were spawning, which flooded the coastal water with dense spore clouds of baby coral. It's great that the coral are healthy and trying to propagate themselves, but it made snorkeling impossible - we couldn't see our hand in front of us. Plus, it's unsettling to be in the water when you can't see if a toothy sea friend is close by, waiting to bite you in half.
So on our last day before flying out, I dipped into the water right here in front of our room. All week, the water in this photo seemed too rough to swim in, with white waves crashing into the rocks, but on that fateful morning, I had no trouble entering the water and snorkeling above the coral and beautiful fish. The water was warm and perfectly clear; the cherry on top for this wonderful trip.
The open-air rainforest courtyard inside our hotel.
A few more activities we enjoyed on the Big Island:
- Strolling around Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo and watching the mongooses play in the bushes.
- Buying exotic fruit from local farmers markets, like Kona Farmers Market and Ali’i Garden Marketplace. Click here for the full list.
- Seeing a movie at one of the many local movie theaters.
- Taking long showers to scrub off all the zinc sunscreen we've slathered on.
- Window shopping in downtown Hilo.
Mahalo for making it to the end of this fact-filled post! Now go start planning your own vacation to Hawaii's Big Island. Wondering where to eat? Click here and I'll show you: