Maria Sadusky, our 19-year-old tour guide from Delaware, frets about going home for a visit because the bananas just won’t be right.
“I’m so afraid to go home at Christmas; they won’t have any of this fruit, and a Chiquita banana tastes like an unripe apple banana!”
If that comparison doesn’t ring a bell with you, think about rock-hard avocados. Bartlett pears the color of green grass. Just not edible.
Sadusky, who gave up a tennis scholarship to find her happy niche with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization, was leading me and others on a tasting tour of Ono Farms, a remote organic fruit and coffee farm on the junglelike Hana Coast of Maui.
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On a recent trip, I combined it with a tour of Maui Brewing’s expansive new Kihei brewhouse, plus a visit to a distillery near upcountry Makawao, all part of a growing number of tasting and sipping tours that are making this Hawaiian island a food-and-spirit lover’s paradise.
ONO ORGANIC FARMS
I was warned to come hungry for the 1:30 p.m. tour of Ono Farms, where owner Chuck Boerner and his crew farm 70 acres of a 300-acre property on the southeast shoulder of Mount Haleakala.
Starting in a rustic pavilion at the end of a long and winding driveway that climbs through lush orchards of bananas and breadfruit, this experience is as much tasting as it is tour, promising at least 12 varieties of tropical fruit for sampling, along with coffee and chocolate, all grown on the farm ($35; children younger than 10 free, onofarms.com).
Boerner, born in Honolulu, came to this coast with his parents in 1942, ultimately creating what is claimed to be Hawaii’s largest organic farm, naming it with the Hawaiian word for “delicious.” Among other things, it grows bananas for Whole Foods stores throughout Hawaii.
Boerner has a passion for discovering novelty fruits from tropical climes. On my visit, Sadusky delights in slicing and serving several fruit treats that are new to me. The big hit: the ice-cream banana.
“When you freeze them and take them out they have the consistency of ice cream!” she announces, offering a sample.
Yep. And yum.
But even better, she says: the abiu, a native of the Amazon region, which looks a bit like an orange that got too friendly with a persimmon.
“This has kind of a toasted-marshmallow flavor, and it’s my favorite fruit on the entire farm. I just couldn’t stop eating them,” Sadusky exclaims.
I’m not so sure. There’s a disturbing kind of s’mores quality there.
Tourgoers cleanse their palates with tart slices of star fruit – a perfect star shape when sliced crosswise – before sampling oddities such as the canistel, native to Latin America and commonly known as egg fruit. The texture is alarmingly like a hard-boiled egg yolk.
Honestly, I think it’s kind of icky. But I admit my palate has been educated in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I’d stuck to plate-lunch trucks at Ka’anapali.
We learn about how to prepare breadfruit, and as we walk through the groves, I get a ripe one to take along. Next tropical adventure: frying up breadfruit pancakes in our rental-condo kitchen the next morning.
With butter and syrup, these Polynesian flapjacks – though a tad mushy – make a tasty meal on the lanai, concocted from a fruit that looks like a football with mumps.
MAUI BREWING CO.
You’re on vacation. So after breakfast – maybe make it a late breakfast – go beer touring.
Maui Brewing Co., just over 10 years old, operated out of a crowded Lahaina brewhouse until the end of 2014, when it opened a big, shiny new $15 million brewery in a clean and spacious business park in the Kihei uplands.
From the red-awninged beer garden, you get views down to the ocean and the distant, uninhabited island of Kaho’olawe.
So far, the only food is from food trucks and carts that park out front, but I was perfectly happy with the tasty Lilikoi Pork pizza ($12) from Outrigger Pizza’s clay-oven trailer.
Lilikoi is the Hawaiian name for passion fruit, and its tangy sweetness makes a delightful pairing with pork, crispy crust and – for my October visit – Kula Pumpkin Ale, which is like pumpkin pie in a pint glass. Raw ingredients came from a pumpkin patch high on the shoulder of Haleakala.
Brewery tours ($15; mauibrewingco.com) include a tasting of the brewery’s four flagship beers (Bikini Blonde Lager, Big Swell IPA, CoCoNut Porter and Mana Wheat), along with a souvenir glass and a token for a full-sized house beverage.
My group’s skinny-as-Ichabod Crane guide, Buck Florian, tells some of the challenges of shipping beer from Maui to 15 states and 13 foreign countries: “There are definitely issues with having a brewery 3,000 miles out in the middle of the ocean!”
For one, primary ingredients must be shipped from the mainland; about 60 percent of the hops come from the Pacific Northwest. Expanding the market across the seas is one reason Maui Brewing puts its beer in aluminum cans, which are light, easily transported and protect the brew from sunlight and air.
As he leads a 30-minute tour through a chilly indoor forest of stainless tanks on concrete floors, Florian tells about the recipes – “we actually use 300 pounds of toasted coconut in each 100-barrel tank of CoCoNut Porter” – and the process, geared to be “green” wherever possible, including sending spent grains to local farmers for feed.
“One of the farmers told me his cows now start wagging their tails when they see the truck coming up the driveway!” he said.
For beer lovers in paradise, A happy offshoot of Maui Brewing moving out of its Lahaina digs: A new brewery has moved in. Kohola Brewery (the name is Hawaiian for humpback whale), opened a tasting room in December at 910 Honoapiilani Highway (koholabrewery.com). Among its trademark brews: Talk Story Pale Ale.
Based in upcountry Makawao, in funky World War II-vintage Quonset huts across the road from Maui Gold’s pineapple fields, Hali’imaile Distilling is making its own island-style joy juice.
The flagship brand is Pau Maui Vodka, made from those high-sugar pineapples grown with the benefit of warm, sunny days, cool nights, fresh water and volcanic soil.
The Maui distillery started with California’s LeVecke family, whose big mainland business now bottles spirits for Costco’s Kirkland label. But while Hali’imaile has deep-pocket backing, this is a hands-on, small-batch, showcase distillery, where master distiller Mark Nigbur has designed his own pharmaceutical glass stills.
During a 45-minute tour with tastings for adults ($10, children younger than 12 free; haliimailedistilling.com), you step under one of the corrugated tin roofs and it’s warm, musty and aromatic of sweet yeast mashes. Guide Michelle Maros tells the story of making vodka.
“You can use anything with enough sugar to distill to 190 proof, or 95 percent alcohol; it can be from potatoes or from pineapple.”
Take a selfie modeling one of the fake mustaches kept in a jar by the door, a playful trademark of the distiller’s Paniolo Whiskey, named for the bewhiskered Mexican cowboys imported to Hawaii in the 19th century to help with the cattle that Capt. George Vancouver presented as a gift to King Kamehameha. Another brand made here: Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, distilled from Maui sugar cane and bottled as a vanity label for rocker Sammy Hagar.
In the tasting room, island-inspired choices include chocolate-coconut whiskey and pineapple-orange-guava vodka.
Take a bottle home to Grandma and you never need buy those macadamia-nut chocolates at the airport again.
Here’s a sampling of more tours of interest to food lovers visiting Maui:
▪ Local Tastes of Maui hosts two-hour walking tours focused on food sampling, art and local history in Paia, Lahaina, Makawao and Kihei; $45, localtastesofmaui.com.
▪ Hawaii Tasting Tours offers lunch or dinner tours on Maui and Oahu, starting at $134 for Lahaina lunch tour; hawaiistastingtours.com.
▪ Tour da Food Maui offers upscale, half-day tours of Wailuku or upcountry Maui, starting at $425 per couple; tourdafood.com.
▪ O’o Farm offers a tour and luncheon in Waipoli, in upcountry Maui; $58, oofarm.com.
▪ Tedeschi Vineyards last year rebranded as MauiWine, and continues to offer free tasting and 30-minute tours of its scenic and historic ‘Ulupalakua facility and grounds. mauiwine.com.
▪ Hawaii Sea Spirits offers tours of its Kula-area organic sugar-cane farm and distillery, with a tasting of its Ocean Organic Vodka; $10. oceanvodka.com.