Hawai'i One-3, Day 7: We go Head Over Hilo

We wake up in the morning, wave hello to the cruise ship in the bay -- another sign of the recovering economy is the return of a cruise ship dropping off tourists almost every day -- and prepare for today's outing, our obligatory trip across the island to Hilo.  Well, technically, it's going around the island, not "across" -- Saddle Road, which cuts over Mauna Kea, is still under construction, dangerous, and generally prohibited by car rental companies; so that's not really an option for us.  For tourists, the two options are to go up and around the island through Kohala / Waimea, or down and around through Volcanoes and Puna; since we're planning on visiting Volcanoes in a couple days from now, we opt to head up and around (which is also actually the only way we've ever done it, since going the southern route can take about an hour or so longer.)

For the trip up, we stay on the coastal highway along the Kohala Coast, up past the airport, all of the various white sand beaches and high-end resorts, and through the lava fields until we reach the turnoff for Hawi.  Since we're planning on doing that tomorrow, we head away from Hawi and go through Waimea, past Parker Ranch, passing and waving hello to Waipio Valley, and making our first stop at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in Pa'auilo.  Remembering our last adventure when Google Maps tried (successfully) to get us lost, we use the driving directions on the vanilla company's web site and arrive without incident.

The store is technically open, but in a strange turn of events, there's absolutely nobody around when we arrive.  No tour buses, no lunch events, and no other drop-in tourists; it's just us and the teenage son of the owners, who happens to be around in the kitchen -- "if I hadn't been here, you'd be out of luck because there's nobody else here today," he says.  However, it's a good thing for them he is here, because we give him the biggest sale he's seen in a while; buying various baking items, lotions, soaps, teas, and snack foods, and we also decide to have a light lunch while we're here.  
The light lunch is actually just a dessert course, since that's kind of what they specialize in -- Lucie gets their vanilla liliko'i pound cake, I get the vanilla bread pudding a la mode with vanilla rum caramel sauce for myself, and we split the vanilla fudge brownie.  The pound cake is incredibly powerful passionfruit flavor, sharp and intensely sweet, if a little dry; the brownie is slightly crispy on the outside and just gooey enough on the inside, more dark chocolate than vanilla flavor that we can taste but still delicious; the bread pudding is just freaking INCREDIBLE, light and sweet and boozy, crazy hot out of the oven tempered with the frozen vanilla bean (of course!) ice cream, chewy and dense and just fantastic.  I don't even want to know the calorie count of the thing, but this is an absolutely amazing dish.  I'm a little afraid of blinking after eating this thing, since I'm pretty sure my eyeballs have crystallized because of all the sugar I've just eaten and the sugar crystals might scratch the insides of my eyelids.  Plus, it's HUGE -- I'm unable to finish the thing and need to bring part of it and half the brownie back with us for later that night.

We take a few minutes to digest, then head out to our car and continue on along the Hamakua Coast until we get to Hilo.  We continue through Hilo to the far side of the city, and stop at Hershey's Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation and Haole Tourist Air-Conditioned Shopping Mega-Emporium where we buy some stuff (which is -- you guessed it -- macadamia nuts) for friends, family, and coworkers, and possibly for our own snacking purposes later.  Form there, we go to Hilo Hattie's, where I stumble across a nifty find -- because of 1) the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival, 2) the 200th anniversary of coffee being introduced to Hawaii (first brought to O'ahu in 1813, though not to Kona until 1828), and 3) Hilo Hattie's 50th anniversary, all of their coffee themed clothing is on sale for 30% off.  I buy coffee-themed T-shirts, coffee-themed Hawaiian shirts, some coffee (also technically coffee-themed, I suppose), Hawaiian salts and other food items, and some other souvenir-type stuff.  After that, we head to Ken's House of Pancakes for lunch, because all of that shopping had made us hungry.

Ken's still has their late 1960s look and feel, quaint and comforting; some people may criticize them for not having the tastiest food in Hilo, but for us it's not just about the food itself, it's about the experience... and besides, the food we have is pretty darn good so it's all a win as far as we're concerned.  I go for the corned beef hash and Lucie goes for the char siu noodles, lightly pan fried noodles with the smoky sweetness of nicely glazed pork.  And, because it's the main thing we remember from our last trip here, we feel the need to have the pineapple upside down cake for dessert... it's still steaming hot, dense syrupy cinnamon pooling around the base, ice cream on the side per our request.  It's a good lunch.

While we're eating, we try and locate our next planned stop for today, Big Island Candies.  We both use our iPhones to find their location, and we opt to use the directions from Lucie's iPhone 5 instead of my new iPhone 5s.  See, there's an issue with the new phone's GPS sensing (which has since been fixed, but not on this day) which -- possibly combined with what I feel is Hawaii's attempts to get us lost when we use technology -- that has it telling us we need to drive into the ocean to get to the candy factory.  I don't remember seeing anything about an underwater secret lair on their website, so it's possible that my phone
may have the location of Big Island Candies a little bit wrong.  Using Lucie's phone, however, we find them without incident -- it's actually only about 5 minutes from Ken's, which is nice serendipity -- and head past a small crowd of Japanese tourists with their translators waiting for the tour bus into the store.  They specialize in shortbread cookies and chocolate, so we buy large amounts of both in our survivalist goal of staving off future carbodehydration (I've heard that's a real thing and we must at all costs avoid it.)

We head back out past the tourists (now much larger in number) and head back toward Kona.  It's about a two and a half to three hour drive, so it's about dinner time once we get to Kamuela, about two thirds of the way back.  Lucie's heard about a burger joint that's supposed to be very good -- picked as the best burgers in the state of Hawai'i by USA Today a while back -- and she wants to give them a try.  It's a little difficult to find -- we have the address available, but the restaurant is tucked into a corner of a strip mall and we drive past it a couple of times before Lucie sees their sign -- but the food is definitely worth it.

I get their gorgonzola burger, a 6.5-ounce patty made with local Parker Ranch beef cooked to a light pink medium and topped with a crazy-thick slab of gorgonzola cheese and bacon, served on a pleasingly crunchy toasted roll from a local bakery -- everything that Village Burger makes is done using local ingredients.  When I first see the size of the slab of gorgonzola cheese, I'm more than a little concerned that the cheese will completely overpower everything else as blue cheeses are prone to do, but these fears are totally unfounded -- the flavor is mild enough so it works perfectly with the bacon and the beef, and it's overall a succulent, juicy, and downright awesome food experience.  Lucie goes for their Kahua Ranch wagyu beef burger with bacon and avocado -- it also looks amazing, but she says afterwards it's a little gamey for her tastes though not too bad.  We share an order of their twice-cooked french fries -- all good fries should be twice cooked for optimal crunch and creamy interior texture -- with wasabi mayonnaise, and I get a vanilla milkshake with 2 shots of espresso to stay alert for the drive home.

We opt to drive back to Kailua-Kona using the more inland Mamalahoa Highway instead of our outgoing choice of the coastal Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway; not that much of a difference in times but a different driving experience with the narrower mountain road and lush foliage.  It rains a little bit on the way back so we need to put the top up on our Mustang (whom we have dubbed "Betty" -- we used Mustang Sally last time, so went with a different name but still a Ford), but nothing too bad at all.  It's dark when we get back into town, but decide to head upstairs to bed instead of heading down to the bar.  It's been a long day, filled with good food and scenery; no need to supplement with plastic drink-accessory monkeys.  Those can wait until tomorrow.


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