A WEEK ON MAUI / the trials, travails and joys of a December vacation

julias-tree-houseBy Larry Levine –

It was the second week of December. We were on the island of Maui in Hawaii and it was raining. It had been raining at least part of every day. I hear it rains a lot on Maui, particularly up on the northwest corner, where we were staying at the Kapalua Resort.

We’re spoiled. We’ve been there numerous times through the years and never before had we seen even a single drop of rain. We go there so I can play golf and unwind after a busy election season, Jennifer can be pampered at the spa and we can welcome the whale watching season. Oh, yeah, and we manage to squeeze in a fair amount of restaurant exploration.

This time we planned to stick to the area between Kapalua and Lahaina, with an upcountry drive stuck in one afternoon. We’ve driven the Hana Road many times; we’ve been to the caldera of Haleakala and I’ve waded among the fish in the crystal-clear waters at Mile Post 14. No plans to do any of those things this trip. Just as well. It was raining. Not just in Kapalua, but on the whole island. And from the floor-to-ceiling window of the upstairs lanai of our villa we could see it raining on the islands of Molokai and Lanai and out over much of the ocean.

That about sums up this year’s visit to Maui. My 36 holes of golf was reduced to 12 holes. One whale watching trip, scheduled for two hours, was cut to 90 minutes by a storm a sea. A splash pan came loose on the underside of our rental car on a very narrow, one-lane road 14 miles north of the resort. I left my brief case and lap top in the living room at home and didn’t realize it until we unloaded the limo at LAX. The “next day air” UPS delivery arrived four days later. This restful vacation became a true test of my commitment to live life with the guidance of the serenity prayer.

I recall very little about our dining experiences from earlier visits to Maui, The Big Island of Hawaii, or Kauai. Luau food is universally awful. Most of the places at which we had eaten were just so-so. An online hunt for restaurants in Hawaii can be dispiriting. It soon begins to look like seen one seen ‘em-all. You better like Asian fusion. It can feel like seared Ahi tuna, Mahi-Mahi, and Opakapaka (a bottom-feeding pink snapper) is the only thing restaurant kitchens know how to prepare.

This time, however, we left L.A. with a list of restaurant recommendations from our friends Tim and Birgit, who visit Maui frequently. While we love to seek and find worthy eateries on our own, there is a degree of comfort in coming equipped with a catalogue of local knowledge.

The Number One dining experience for this trip was Merriman’s on the Kapalua side of the border with Napili on Lower Honoapi’ilani Road. It was a collaborative find that combined my instincts with a few words from resort concierges Elyse and John. When Elyse first suggested Merriman’s, I already had seen it online. But her efforts to secure a reservation were stymied. It was John to suggested we show up about 5:30 on our chosen day and try for a spot on the Sunset Deck. There, he said, we could have a drink, order from the bar menu, or see if our server could wrestle up a table inside the restaurant. Maybe a cancellation, or a no-show.

That didn’t work because every table on the deck was occupied. Most of them were four-tops with only two people seated. In much of Europe we would have ended up joining one of those couples. But Americans are too reserved (up tight and possessive) to allow such things.

We wandered back into the restaurant and spotted a glass-top oval table with a couch-like seat right next to the koto player and guitarist, who were providing extremely pleasant background music. We were given permission to use that table and were told we could order from either the regular menu or the bar menu.

Merriman’s was an absolute treat. The patrons were nicely dressed – not a baseball cap in sight. Many of the women wore dresses, some with a Hawaiian motif. All but one of the men we saw wore a collared shirt – mostly either golf shirts or shirts with Hawaiian patterns, and only one t-shirt. The staff was plentiful and beyond pleasant and Chuck was the kind of waiter for whom you wish. I started with my signature Makers Mark Perfect Manhattan on the rocks and Jennifer with her standard Mimosa. Then we shared two appetizers: kalua pig and sweet onion quesadilla with house-made kim chee, and a Big Island tomato salad with baby fennel, arugula, maytag blue cheese and a basil-lemon vinaigrette. For the entrée, we each selected the rib eye steak, mine rare and Jennifer’s medium rare. Both were cooked to perfection, topped with fresh cracked pepper and served with green beans and lightly garlicked mashed potatoes.

A not too distant second in the dining sweepstakes was the Lahaina Grill, which was recommended by Tim and Birgit and heartily supported by our resort concierges.

Lahaina Grill is housed on the ground floor of the historic Lahaina Inn on Lahainaluna Road right off Front Street in (where else) Lahaina. The Lahaina Inn was built in 1938. It was originally a general merchandise store known as The Maui Trading Company and it became a popular gathering spot for troops stationed on Maui during WW II.

The upper floor was converted to a hotel in 1949. The building looks today as it did then, with every room featuring a balcony fronting on the ocean. Fire all but destroyed the building in the mid-1960s and 20 years later it was restored, with the restaurant taking on the look of a turn of the century fine dining establishment. The restaurant, with its many ceiling fans, wall designs and alcoves could double as a set for a movie depicting the island’s colonial times.

Yes, the menu does include seared Ahi and Mahi-Mahi. And on our visit, Opakapaka was the night’s fish special. From the list of eight starters, I focused on escargot baked in the traditional garlic butter sauce, but with a bit of curry added. Also appealing were seared Ahi with Hudson Valley foie gras, a Maui onion soup, Wagyu beef filled ravioli, and a trio of fish cakes, each made with a different kind of sea food – local lobster, rock crab, and diver scallops. I don’t know where anyone came up with the notion of adding curry to escargot, but it worked. Big time. For my main I had the Opakapaka on a bed of corn risotto that was a perfect complement to the grilled fish. Jennifer was less fortunate with her starter of crispy spring rolls and a beet salad that was too heavy on the vinegar. But she later opined that she just ordered the wrong things in an otherwise very good restaurant.

Here, too, the crowd was dressed up to the quality of the restaurant – not one t-shirt or baseball cap, collared shirts for all the men, dresses or nice pants for the women. You can go to the best restaurants in L.A. these days and not find the crowd dressed so well.

We had two very different Japanese dinners. The first was at a restaurant called Sensei Sushi within the grounds of the resort. I spied the website before we left L.A., one of our concierges said he hadn’t been there for a while but it had a good reputation, and other people kept mentioning it. The website seemed appealing, so I made a reservation. Don’t make the same mistake. The restaurant is one of those sushi barns with too many tables for too many patrons and too frenetic a pace. I’d rate the food a five on a scale of ten.

For dinner on our last night, I selected Kai Sushi at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua. It reopened that night after a two-week break. It’s everything one could ask of a Japanese restaurant in an upscale resort – quiet, restful décor, one wall opens to the outdoors, pleasant staff, and very good food. We shared a sea weed salad and a shrimp and Maui onion tempura. Jennifer had two cut rolls that she thoroughly enjoyed and I had 10 pieces of well-cut nigiri sushi on rice at the perfect temperature.

We had a very special breakfast before a whale watching trip one morning at Longhi’s on Front Street in Lahaina. This was one of my finds. As we drove through Lahaina for our first whale trip, I saw a restaurant that was open to the street and packed with customers. It looked interesting. I knew I had picked a winner when the waitress told me the orange juice had actually been inside an orange only a couple of hours earlier; they squeeze the juice on site. I love fresh orange juice, have it every morning at home, not “fresh squeezed”, but real fresh juice from an orange, not from a container. When the waitress set the eggs and bacon in front of me, I could smell the freshness of the sunny side up, very runny eggs. She had suggested the baked-on-site bread rather than the standard restaurant fare. The potatoes were sliced thin and fried and the bacon was tops. Jennifer had the orange juice and then an Italian sausage with her eggs. My taste of her sausage was excellent, just the right amount of fennel and cooked spot on. Longhi’s is an Italian restaurant that also is open for lunch and dinner. Based on the quality of the breakfast, it’s probably worth a try for dinner.

Let me now say a word about something called malasadas. Tim and Birgit had suggested a place called Star Noodle. It’s a mostly Chinese restaurant but not your ordinary Chinese menu. I can’t fairly comment on this restaurant because we made a big mistake. Instead of finding our own way on the menu, we let ourselves be swayed by the people at the next table. We opened with two starters: the ahi-avo that Tim and Birgit recommended and the steamed pork buns suggested by the couple at the next table. The ahi-avo is the house name for poke, which I enjoyed. Jennifer tried it and it wasn’t for her. The steamed pork buns were like a trimmed down bao, fine for me but not at all to Jennifer’s taste. Then we ordered Lahaina Fried Soup. It’s fat chow fun noodles with ground beef and pork in a sauce that was complete absorbed into the noodles. It looked good in the serving dish at the next table. Neither of us went back for seconds after a modest first helping.

Then came dessert. Tim and Birgit raved over the malasadas. The people at the next table ordered them. They were served five hefty balls of dough sprinkled liberally with sugar. Jennifer asked the waiter for a cut down order of two, as I didn’t plan to eat any. One bite and I wished we had gotten all five. Malasada is just a local name for what in New Orleans is called a beignet and these were fabulous.

If you are feeling adventuresome, and it isn’t raining, you may want to try heading north from Kapalua on Highway 30. After not too great a distance, it turns into Kahekili Highway. The road narrows and becomes very rough. It’s not uncommon to find large boulders blocking the road. Passing cars coming in the opposite direction requires the full cooperation of both drivers. Turning around to head back takes patience. Visitors’ maps issue warnings about driving this road. But if you are willing to brave it, fourteen miles up the road – a 45-minute drive – you’ll come to Julia’s Tree House (pictured with this feature). There you will find what may be one of the best banana breads in the history of the universe. I don’t ordinarily like banana bread. But Tim and Birgit said this was good. Jennifer and I shared half a loaf on the spot and took the other half back to have for breakfast with coffee at our villa the next morning. I can’t imagine a better tasting or textured banana bread.

Now for a few observations and curiosities.

Sugar was once a cornerstone of the Maui economy. At the end of this year – 2016 – the last sugar plantation on the island will close for good. Seems while the rest of the world has gone to sugar free heaven, the Hawaiian sugar industry has been wiped out. All that sugar being grown in South America and sold for less hasn’t helped either.

It took five days for me to taste my first pineapple on Maui. This other former cornerstone of the Hawaiian economy – once the largest pineapple producing location in the world – now turns out less than two percent of the world’s pineapples. What is more, the only pineapples grown on Maui are called Maui Golds. They are sweeter than the pineapples to which we are accustomed; they have more vitamin C and less acid. After five days of craving pineapple, I finally found it at the buffet breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton. It wasn’t on the regular menu, so the buffet it had to be, even though I’m not much of a buffet eater. I later found a plastic container of pineapple chunks at the local market. It was not the Maui Gold, so it probably wasn’t local. Pineapple is my favorite fruit and the waiter at the Ritz-Carlton said I can find Maui Golds at any Costco. “Buy them green and just wait for them to turn gold,” he advised.

Several years ago, on a visit to The Big Island, I discovered 100% Kona Peaberry coffee. Now, that’s the only coffee I drink at home. I have a feeling pineapples are about to become a greater presence in our home.

Finally, there’s the subject of whale watching. The whale season off the coast of Maui officially begins Dec. 15. No one could explain if and how the whales would know that. Sure enough, we went whale watching Dec. 10 and saw just a few whales far in the distance. Then, we did a second outing Dec. 15 and saw eight whales up very close and a number of others in the distance. Our Hawaiian trips have all been the second week of December, before school lets out on the mainland and the crowds flood the islands. The whale season runs into early May, with the peak of the season coming in February. That’s when the whales are popping out of the water like popcorn. I think we’ll try that next time. School’s out in February, so we should be just fine. According to Jon’s Maui Info, we should have less rain then, too.

About the Author

Larry Levine is the founder and host of atLarrys.com and Table Talk at Larrys. Read his full biography by clicking here.