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'Hawaii Two-Five' might be the theme of Big Island second honeymoon

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Many women yearn for a second honeymoon on a tropical cruise. My husband, Ace, and I found our fun on the farm.

In Hawai'i.

The islanders add the apostrophe, so we haoles (white people) know we should pronounce the "i" twice. The name is kind of confusing because one Hawai'i refers to the whole state, the other is the largest island in the chain, sensibly called the Big Island.

Our friend Woodene Merriman, the retired PG restaurant critic, says the Big Island is her favorite, and my three-month sabbatical was our chance to venture there. Her son, Peter, has a restaurant in Waimea and is acclaimed for using Hawaiian-grown products. You may think it is a long way to go for a meal, but it was worth it, even the 18-hour, two-stop flight that was required if we flew free on our frequent-flier miles. Grueling, even for us honeymooners.

As for the farm, Lions' Gate Bed and Breakfast, owned by the husband-wife team of Bill and Diane Shriner, is near the town of Captain Cook on a 10-acre Kona coffee and macadamia nut farm, tiny by Mainland standards, but about average for these labor-intensive crops. Ace is a great breakfast cook -- his pancakes are light and his waffles seldom stick -- but we both found the second B of this B&B amazing. When they served taro pancakes, we debated between lilikoi (passion fruit), coconut or maple syrup.

From our ground-floor bedroom, first we would hear the magical sound of the coffee grinder in our hosts' huge kitchen upstairs. It was the final step for great coffee, the first being the freshness of coffee beans grown right there, and the second the meticulous drying and roasting.

"We leave in the peaberry beans," Bill said. A peaberry is one that didn't develop properly, giving the so-called cherry only one misshapen bean, rather than two. Bill said others have made a niche market -- the "ultimate Kona" -- out of these very beans that the international grading system for coffee beans dictates tossing. "But size is not an indicator of flavor," he said with a grin.

Bill is not a farmer born and bred. A retired Marine, he has lived with his wife in many places, but Hawai'i won their hearts. Their house is large, and the B&B was almost an afterthought. "We ran the numbers, and we could see we couldn't live on farming alone," he recalled. Later he discovered that his wife had always dreamed of running a B&B. Generally, they go 50-50 on the work, but lately he's had to learn to bake, too, as she was recovering from chemotherapy. "Don't give away all my recipes," Diane warned her husband.

The last day, Bill came forth with a macadamia version of sticky buns that won my heart. The couple have 283 mac trees. His baked goodies are also on the Best Eating List of his father-in-law, who lives up the lane nearer Highway 11. He showed up our first day there, post-breakfast.

So sorry, Bill said, these guests ate every last poppy seed muffin. My goat cheese omelet disappeared just as quickly.

It wasn't just the baked goods and coffee. The farm also has apple bananas, lemons, blood red oranges, tangerines, apples, litchi nuts and apple bananas that he picked for our morning fruit plate. He fancy-cuts the pineapple. The Shriners' papayas were as delicious as they were beautiful. Ace thought they were the best we'd ever had. Lions' Gate even has its own lime tree -- a squirt of lime juice on a perfectly ripened papaya can make a person's day.

Bill would usually have a cup of coffee with us each morning -- he wouldn't sit down, though -- and share interesting facts on the challenges and the rewards of Big Island farming.

He started from the ground up 10 years ago, learning the job from the University of Hawai'i Extension (Pennsylvania has Penn State Extension) and attending educational meetings.

We didn't spend all our time eating. We started our trip at the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, where we hiked into a lava flow and felt the 100-degree heat of the active volcano. We had a lovely meal at Kilauea Lodge in Volcano Village and bit the bullet for the prices at Volcano House, so we could stay right on the rim of a crater. You can't beat the U.S. Park Service for prime locales. As one guidebook noted, some of the best shopping on the island is at the park's art center. It was wonderful.

Shopping isn't Ace's strong suit anyway. Ten minutes, tops, and he's done and lurking outside looking bored. Two or three short forays to spur the economy were all I got, but a woman has to make sacrifices for her 25th anniversary trip.

I rode horses on the Parker Ranch and watched the sun go down on the edge of the cattle ranch's 225,000 acres. Was the spectacular rainbow over the new houses on ranchland a portent of things to come for Hawaiian agriculture? I hope the paniolo (cowboy) won't be relegated to history museums in favor of golf courses and condominiums. We visited the Painted Church and Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, or House of Refuge, a sanctuary for people who had broken the kapu (forbidden) laws.

We found our sanctuary dining with Woody and Carl, the Husband Formerly Known as His Honor, at son Peter's signature restaurant, called simply Merriman's. We loved it so much we went back the second night to enjoy a fabulous meal with what the staff call their "house mother."

Though Peter was elsewhere engaged, on Maui, where he lives with his family and owns Hula Grill, his philosophy shone in the entrance to the restaurant, where photos of the farmers who grow the ingredients for his wonderful dishes hang in the foyer.

This chef warms the cockles of this farm-grown woman's heart -- he has made a name for himself and his restaurants featuring food grown on the islands. Guy Suzuki, the most knowledgeable and among the wittiest waiters I've had the privilege of meeting, has been with Merriman's since it opened in 1988. Guy said the farmer who grows the sweet corn will drop it off around the back and then come in the front door to enjoy a steak.

Don't tell my brother, Jon, but this is the best sweet corn I've ever eaten.

"Peter loves sweet corn," said his mother. And he gave it its due, as he did the succulent fresh-caught ono and ahi, glaringly great greens, mac nuts, beef, coconut and tropical fruits that give whole new meaning to the word "fresh."

What we liked best about the Big Island was its lack of pretense, including Keei Cafe in Honaunau, just a couple of miles from our B&B. The home-owned restaurants often have anti-glamour facades, and, although you can eat well at some of the big resorts on the Kona coast, you needn't venture into their hermetically sealed version of Hawai'i if you don't want to.

Great food, plus a glorious sunset with a splash of white wine on our lanai, a comfortable bed in a room decorated with orchids on an Aloha farm ... I think we're looking at a 25-year extension on this love affair.

Island Banana Macadamia Nut Bread

This is the most delicious banana bread we've ever eaten.

  • 3 1/2 pounds bananas, very ripe (see note)
  • 2 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 ounces macadamia nuts, diced (we doubled the amount)

Peel bananas and mash very well.

Add sugar; incorporate well. Then add oil, eggs and vanilla.

Mix all dry ingredients together and add to banana mixture. Mix well.

Paper and grease three 8-by-8-by-2-inch pans and divide batter evenly. Bake in preheated oven at 365 degrees for 30 minutes. (Because we used larger pans, ours took longer.) Touch top to check if done (it should spring back).

This will keep well if chilled. You can also freeze for later use.

Note: To provide a tiny taste of the tropics, we used a combination of 4 red bananas from Ecuador with enough of the typical yellow bananas from South America to make 3 1/2 pounds (before peeling). We experimented with two pans, a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, which we topped with 3 ounces of chopped macadamia nuts, and a 10-inch bundt pan. In the case of the bundt, we stirred the additional 3 ounces of nuts into the batter.

Adapted from a recipe from Mamane Street Bakery & Cafe, Honoka'a, Hawaii, in "Tasting Paradise" by Karen Bacon

Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

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