Hawaii is much more than just a place to relax, play a little golf, and get a tan. The people, culture and food of the islands impacts day to day life in a way not often found in other states across America. Tasting through the flavors of Hawaii at the 34th annual Kapalua Wine and Food Festival, expertly paired with ultra-premium wines often poured by their winemakers, made this event that much more impressive. Earlier this week I posted on the winemaker sessions of the event, which I was able to attend as a guest of the festival and hotel. This post will touch on the actual flavors of Hawaii, and the remarkable Ritz-Carlton Kapalua property.
The four day event opens with an array of flavors presented by the restaurants that are a part of the Kapalua Resort, including favorites like Merriman’s Kapalua and The Banyan Tree, at the annual Grand Tasting. Though the food, and setting at the Kapalua Montage (formerly the Kapalua Bay Hotel) were stunning, the real star here was the wine.
From vintage Champagne to Napa Valley Cabernet favorites to Willamette Valley gems, the quality was impressive. Though the event had sold out, there was never a feeling of overcrowding, or fighting for a sip of the most special bottle in the room (often experienced at other festivals) because all were special. The chance to chat with winemakers about the vintage year, or how the current season looked, was easy as in the relaxed, intimate atmosphere.
The closing Seafood Festival maintained this feeling. Held at the Ritz-Carlton, ending the annual festivities with bites from most of the top restaurants on Maui. Taking place ocean front above the award-winning D.T. Fleming Beach, chefs created elaborate seafood based appetizers (and a few carnivore friendly options,) including everything from Fruits de Mer from Roy’s, to Big Island Abalone & Kauai Shrimp with Uni Flan from Japengo and my favorite of the night, Hamachi with yuzu, Hawaiian chile, and celery ginger shaved ice from Humuhumunukunukuapua’a in Wailea. Each bite was like tasting the sea. A special opportunity to taste through the true flavors of the island.
Winemaker/Chef dinners further enhanced this, with Chef Mina preparing an elaborate tasting dinner for a select group of guests, and The Banyan Tree at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua for another group.
Intention and attention is given to each aspect of the culinary world at Kapalua. Led by Maui born and raised Chef Kenneth Sniffen. A part of the Ritz-Carlton family for over 14 years, only returning to his home state last October after spending time in Dallas at Fearing’s as Dean Fearing’s Executive Sous Chef. In gabbing with Chef Sniffen a bit about Dallas, and Hawaii, the gracious chef shyly noted that though he loved his time with us in Texas, he is happy to be home. The heart of this Hawaiian clearly lies in this “aina,” or land.
He and his dedicated team manage six onsite restaurants with a focus on sustainability and a healthy global ecosystem. With an expansive, on-site organic vegetable and herb garden, the resort is creating a sustainable environment for future generations, while producing much of the produce used daily at the resort.
Available on Monday mornings, guests are invited to stroll through this impressive garden with Chef Sniffen, Banyan Tree Chef de Partie, Jonathan Haynes, or Frank Jamali, Garden Ambassador & Horticulturist, who helped the hotel develop the hidden garden three years ago. I strolled with Haynes and Jamali.
Arriving from California, mainly to surf and relax, Jamali quickly found himself in the midst of helping develop the living jewel of the property. Filled with the resounding belief that if you eat real foods filled with vitamins and probiotics, Jamali knows you will be fully nourished, energetic and satisfied, and many medicines that are reliable crutches for Americans will be eliminated. Everything you need comes from the garden.
And, it is beautiful, filled also with a butterfly habitat, tropical flowers and plants, surrounding dozens of fruit and citrus trees, French Purple Mountain Spinach, with 3 times more vitamins than normal spinach, ginger, fennel, every kind of herb and lots of peppers.
Walking the garden with Jamali, you quickly learn the importance of the place, filled with a calm tranquility, set off from the hotel property. Full of information, Jamali is quick to note why eating this herb or that, adding a touch of Kaffir lime leaves, tarragon or pepper to your smoothie will ensure your body works for you and with you.
He also taught me a little bit about banana trees after seeing banana tree after banana tree, that seemed to be producing fruit, cut down on the property I am staying at on the Big Island. Acccording to Jamali, a mature banana tree only produces one bunch of bananas. After the bunch is produced, the tree should be removed to make way for the next. The banana tree helps with small shoots springing from the base of the mature banana trees, which will grow into trees and do the same. Mother Nature is amazing.
The Baynan Tree Restaurant, led by Chef de Partie Haynes, includes these seasonal garden ingredients as inspiration for both the food and extensive, herb influenced cocktail menus. Chef also finds a bit of respite as well in the calming, zen like nature of the garden, escaping to its tranquility when things in the kitchen get hectic. After a time being used as an event space, the Banyan Tree recently reopened their doors as the signature restaurant on property.
Their winemaker pairing dinner for the festival, with single vineyard wines from La Crema, was truly inspired. I am leading a more pescatarian/vegetarian diet, which is often difficult at tasting dinners. The chefs did a masterful job creating interesting combinations, beyond a plate after plate of risotto or pasta.
Fresh Ahi with Hamakua king mushrooms paired effortlessly with La Crema Shell Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, as did luxurious poached Kona lobster with Tahitian vanilla and a touch of aged balsamic with La Crema “Nine Barrel” Russian River Chardonnay. For meat eaters the star of the night had to be the Jerk marinated Venison Tenderloin with La Crema Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir, a new wine from their recently acquired Willamette Valley vineyards.
I had an opportunity to do a follow up dinner at the Banyan Tree after the festival commenced. I found the quality and care of each presentation to be elevated, elegant and refined, while maintaining the aloha attitude that thrives throughout the islands. Char-grilled Tako (octopus,) caught that morning was presented so tender you could cut it with a spoon, paired with bitter frisee and kale pesto from the garden.
Stunning Ahi with carrot puree and port wine reduction would make a fish eater out of any beef fan. A simple Kona Kampachi crudo with green mango, lemonade lemon and fresh chive flowers snipped from the garden, was clean, fresh and fragrant. Paired expertly from the largely West Coast, mainly California, award winning wine list, that included favorites like Domaine Carneors, Cakebread, Ancien, Patz & Hall, Pride Mountain and La Jota, made the pairing dinner a highlight of my entire time visiting Hawaii.
In between all the tasting, eating and enjoying, there is always time for a little relaxation in Hawaii, but the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua has taken this to another level by incorporating the tradition, symbolism and sense of place found on the islands throughout the hotel, both through artwork and architecture, but also through the hospitality of their staff.
The Waihua Spa at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua highlights this sense of place as well. Filled with inviting scents of plumeria and orchid, the luxury spa is inspired by concept of Waihua, believed to be the most pure form of water by ancient Hawaiians, captured from raindrops on leaves of the taro plant in the Hana rainforest. This purity and calmness guided ancient Hawaiians with healing traditions using potent plants, flowers, fruits and herbs abundant in Hawaii. The Lomilomi massage incorporates these traditions with a focus on overall improvement of the mind, body and spirit.
The tradition of Hawaii is enhanced by the work of Cultural Advisor Clifford Nae’ole. An integral part of the hotel since before it opened 24 years ago, Nae’ole is dedicated to teaching each person, from full time hotel staff to part time workers that may just come in to trim trees or assist with grounds maintenance, as well as hotel guests interested in the story of Hawaii, the importance of the place they are working in.
A hiapo (or first-born, of the first-born of the first-born) Hawaiian native, and former polo player, Nae’ole didn’t know much about his Hawaiian heritage while growing up. Teaching the Hawaiian culture, speaking the native language, dancing the hula and chanting had been banned in Hawaii since the early 1800’s when missionaries viewed these acts as those of heathens, even before Hawaii had been (rather illegally) annexed, furthered by the full annexation of Hawaii to the United States in 1898.
Growing up, his family simply did not discuss their history, which included a direct tie to the great King Kamehameha I, who was born in 1798 and considered to be the greatest King of Hawaii, unifier of the islands who brought Hawaii together through both war and skillful negotiations.
As a young man, Nae’ole finally started having conversations with his grandfather who, in his waning years, shared their native Hawaiian family history, which dated back to before Kamehameha was born. When Kamehameha was a child, his destiny to become a great warrior was prophesied. The Nae’ole family, then living on the Big Island, was given the responsibility of sheltering the young man from any harm that may have come to him.
Learning his heritage, while seeing his land continue to fall into disarray, motivated Nae’ole to change his life path, diving deep into learning the story of the language, the importance of the story told through hula and chanting. With this also came a dedication to teaching the next generations, including his three children, their heritage and why the spirit of Hawaii resonates so deeply, resolving that if he could help keep one young Hawaiian from losing his land and his culture, he would do it.
In his work with the guests, Nea’ole leads cultural walks, talk story events, weekly cultural programs and the symbolic good bye to the day ceremony in the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua lobby. For visitors with an eye only on poolside lounging and 64 holes of golf, these sessions, along with the calm, insightful nature of Nae’ole, filled with authority while remaining soft spoken, guests are privileged to have a deeper look at the real Hawaii. He is reshaping the thinking by connecting the host culture with each hosted guest, teaching why this is such a special, sacred place.
And it truly is sacred. When the property was being built, plans had the luxury hotel set to be built ocean front. When construction started an ancient Hawaiian resting place dating back to 600 A.D. was unearthed on the Honokahua Bay site. It is estimated over 3000 Hawaiians were buried in the land between 600 and the 1800’s. After much work, the decision was made to move the hotel back away from the ocean, and create the Honokahua Preservation Site, a sacred place for the native people of Hawaii. This kapu (forbidden), sacred ground honors the culture of those who came before us, the history and tradition of the land.
In 2008 the resort launched their Ambassadors of the Environment educational series with Jean-Michel Cousteau and his Ocean Futures Society as an environmental and cultural education center with excursions led by expert naturalists. From activities like hiking through rainforests, whale-watching expeditions, exploring the waters around Maui in a canoe, guests can learn about the culture and environment of Hawaii. The goal is to inspire guests to live a more sustainable life with an understanding of the relationships between land to sea, humans to nature, people to people and present to future.
In addition to the annual Kapalua Wine and Food Festival, which takes place around the second weekend of June each year, with early bird tickets going on sale in February, the resort hosts other events throughout the year, including their annual Wellness Festival held in the fall and the annual Cultural Event of the Arts, led my Nae’ole, celebrating the heritage of Hawaii through educational and cultural events, happening in the spring. Details available on each through the Ritz-Carlton website. Bonus, American Airlines flies direct from DFW to Maui. The resort has a car service that can be arranged to transfer you from the airport to the property.
Before my time at Kapalua I thought my heart was fully dedicated to the Big Island of Hawaii. Though for the most part it still is, though having a chance to learn and grow with the story of Hawaii has created a special place in my heart for Kapalua. Mahalo.