Hawaii Gastronomic – Kona to Volcano ! Lava, Wine & Bakeries
Eat and Drink on the Road from Kona to Volcano National Park
This section of my Hawaiian Gastronomic Journey will cover places to visit while you are making the trek to Volcano National park. The southern section of the Island is known for being isolated, with few restaurants and windy roads. Although there are limited places to eat on the southern side of the Island, there are several gems that you should know about.
Pro-Tip: If you are traveling to Volcano National park from Kona, you are in for long drive through windy roads. Always pack food, water and a jacket. Many people think that they will find something to eat on the way back from the volcano. Although it is possible you will find something, especially with my tips, you do not want to be stuck in the bad situation of driving home dehydrated and with a growling stomach.
If you are going to make the long trek to Volcano from the Kona region, there are a lot of fun things to see and eat along the way. I already mentioned quite a few in the Captain Cook’s area, although things only get more interesting on the way south.
There are two things you should do. The first is the southern-most bar in the USA, Shaka’s. I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy a beer here, although if you have time for a drink and then some sober-up time, give it a try. Second, an absolute requirement for everyone going to Volcano is to stop at the Punalu’s Bakery – the southern-most bakery in the USA. Not only is it cool to say that you visited this place, but your senses will be rewarded with the visit!
I am seriously glad that I don’t live here, because I would be fat from eating their pastries all day, every day…you only live once! As a foodie, it is best that their delicious pastries, breads and ice cream were only a passing foodie memory on the side of the road; otherwise I will would end up on the Biggest Loser television show.
Punalu’u Bakery is located on Mamalahoa Highway (route 11) in the town of Na’alehu, which is midway between Kona and the Volcano National Park. This bake shop welcomes over 200,000 visitors every year. Punalu’u Bakery is known for their pastry called the malasada, which is sugary and fluffy like a doughnut, but slightly dry like a Mexican pan dolce.
The malasada was introduced to the Hawaiians by Portugesse sugar workers during the 19th century. The sugar cane workers needed a portable sugar laced-snack to eat in the field and their native malasada fit the bill. Eventually the tasty dessert was adopted by the local population and it became a staple of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine.
At Punalu’u Bakery, the malasada comes in different flavor combinations, with both the dough and the sugar-based frosting bearing natural fruit flavors. My favorites were the Liilikoi (passion fruit), mango and taro. It was obvious that the whole fruit was used in the dough, as the malsada was flecked with fruity flesh and the smell and taste of the sweet bread was permeated with the flavor and smells of fresh produce. Similarly, the frosting was chocked-full of the fruit’s flavor. The other products they sell include their short breads, sweet bread loafs and sweet bread rolls (this is the O.G. version of Kings Hawaiian bread…and so much better).
Tropical Dreams Ice Cream
Finally Punalu’u Bakery offers an amazing ice cream, called “Tropical Dreams!” The ice cream is expensive, but it is made with top quality ingredients and their recipe goes heavy on the buttermilk, which gives it a creamier texture. The ice cream is also heavy on the mix-ins. For example, when you order the macadamia nut ice cream, you taste the wonderful infusion of macadamia nuts into the ice cream and you get nice chunks of macadamia nut in every bite. My favorite flavors included the coconut, macadamia nut and Kona coffee.
Accidental Tourist Note: We also stumbled upon the Tropical Dreams Ice Cream factory in Wiamea, when we entered in “Tropical Dreams” into our GPS. They source their milk from cattle farms on the north side of the Island, so your ice cream is farm-to-cone!
One of the highlights of my trip! There are only two wineries on the Hawaiian Islands chain: one in Maui and one on the Big Island. I had the pleasure of visiting Volcano Winery on our way to Volcano National Park. Since I made it there, I’ve technically made it to 50% of all wineries in the State of Hawaii 😉
The owners, Delwin and Marie, who took over the winery from their son, have been enjoying their role as gentleman farmers ever since. The property sprawls over 64 acres of fertile volcanic soil, which Del uses to grow wine grapes and tea trees. Although the grapes vines were relatively young in wine making terms, they were already forming thick stalks and producing large clusters of grape buds.
Since this winery was build on an old Lava flow, Del showed me how they have to cut out sections of lava rock cover to uncover the volcanic soil just below the 3 inch thick lava rock. We also got a view of their tea bushes, which are used to make the estate grown tea and tea-infused wine.
Tea Tree Groves at Volcano Winery
During our tour of the facilities, DeI showed us his tea tree grove, which included the Japanese tea varieties Bohea, Benikaori, Yutaka Midori and Yabukita. Tea Trees are in abundance on the island, as the climate is ideal. I sampled several of his teas and they were fresh, vibrant and delicious.
Aside: Did you know White, Green and Black Tea come from the same tea tree? Yes, it is true, on the branch of a tea tree the young leaves at the top are used to make white tea, the slightly older leaves are used to make green tea and the large, old leaves lower down the stalk are used to make black tea. Things you learn on a winery tour!
Volcano Winery Terroir and Grapes
On the south side of the Island near the volcano, the climate, elevation, and chemistry of the soil are ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. These types of grapes also do well in Oregon, which has a similar climate and soil. So why would Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio grapes grow well here? The Valcano Winery is located at 4000 ft elevation on the slope of Mauna Loa, making it a cool and moist micro-climate. I personally noticed the temperature dropping as we started to climb up the volcano slop. Another common factor between Hawaii Island/Oregon wine is the volcanic soil, which will put distinct flavors into the wine.
Aside: How does volcanic soil effect the flavor of wine? There is a scientific theory called “terroir”, which states that the character of the soil is most responsible for the character of the wine. Volcanic Soil is very alkaline, for example, and tends to impart the flavors of Big Cherry, berries and accents of flowers, spices into Pinot Noir.
The Pinto Grigio Grape (white grape clone, based on the Pinot Noir) is also well-suited for this cooler weather and volcanic soil. Their base Pino Grigio was medium bodied and tasting notes again similar to Oregon wine with notes of apple, melon and a hint of guava. The third grape is a hybrid call “Symphony”, which is a blend of Muscat and Granache Gris, a sweeter wine. This grape grows extremely well in the Hawaiian climate and is blended with other tropical flora /fruits. The winery also features fruit- and honey-based wines that are the more complex and sophisticated version of the Mead that you might find at your local Renaissance Faire. This is Hawaii, after all, and they have to do fruit and honey wine!
Wine Tasting Notes of Select Wines Offerings:
Macadamia Nut Honey Wine
This was a award winning mead style “wine” that is made by fermenting macadamia nut pollen honey to make a very sweet dessert wine. The flavor is clean and uses the blossoms of macadamia nuts to accentuate the flavor. I’m normally not a fan of sweet wines, but this one actually impressed me.
They also have a variation of this wine called the “Infusion” which takes the Macadamia Nut Honey Wine and blends five estate tea leaves. It has a very sophisticated flavor profile of freshly-brewed tea with a spoonful of sugar, the way your grandma used to make it.
One of their traditional wines made with their estate Pinot Grigio grapes, which have the flavors of apple and tropical citrus fruit. This medium boddied and fruit-forward wine had a clean, crisp finish. The Pinto Grigio Grape (white grape clone, based on the Pinot Noir) is also well-suited for this cooler weather and volcanic soil. Their base Pino Grigio was similar to Oregon wine
Wines made with Jaboticaba Berries
a very interesting wine made with sweet white grapes and blended with a native berry called the jaboticaba, which tastes like a combination of a cherry and cranberry. The jaboticaba berry imparts a pleasantly sweet flavor with a tinge of cranberry tang. This wine won the bronze medal at the 2006 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
This wine is light and has a sweeter finish. The flavor reminded me more of a Spanish Sangria, which probably comes from the infusion of jaboticaba berries. You could drink this one by itself or mix it with fruit and sprite to make a Volcano Sangria.
This wine uses California grapes in this base blend and has a fruit-forward style. Its delicate body is created not by being fermented in oak barrels, but rather by containing floating oak chips which impart subtle woody characteristics.
Reserve Estate Pinot Noir
This wine uses the Pinot Noir grapes from on the Estate Vineyard. It is aged in French Oak Barrels. This wine was very impressive and can complete with some of the best Pinot Noirs from northern California. Quantities are very limited for this vintage and remarkably delicious wine!
To find the volcano winery just drive along Highway 11 (Highway Belt Road) and turn onto Pii Mauna Drive. The signs are very small and there is only a picture of a wine bottle to mark the winery (the National Park Service is very restrictive with signage). If you hit the volcano you went too far. Be sure to tell them Tom’s Foodie Blog sent you.
Places to eat Near Volcano National Park
Now let us suppose you didn’t follow my advice to bring food and water. You are probably pretty hungry after a full afternoon of exploring the Volcano National Park. Fortunately there are three restaurants nearby, although since there are only three restaurants and thousands of tourists, be prepared to wait. The restaurants in the area are Thai Thai, Kileaua Lodge and Kiawe Kitchen. All three restaurants are located in Volcano Village, just down the road from the park entrance. Volcano village is a sleepy little town, and at night it feels like you are visiting a mountain lodge deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
This restaurant has a lunch and dinner menu, but limited hours of operation, so plan ahead by calling to confirm hours. There are no reservations unless you’re in a group of 6 or more. The menu changes daily, depending on what is fresh and in season. The waitress told me you can always expect their pizzas, fresh fish, lamb, duck and beef to be in the menu cycle.
We started with their locally grown asparagus which was steamed, grilled and covered with parmesan cheese and spritzed with lemon juice. The asparagus was actually very tasty with a nice crunch and very fresh flavors. I liked the combination of parmesan and lemon juice over the asparagus and actually did this when I returned home. The other items on the appetizer list included such options as meat/olive plate, duck, sautéed green beans.
The star of this restaurant is their wood-fired pizzas. If you come here, this is what you should order. All the pizzas are hand-tossed, thin crust pizzas. The size is suitable for a full dinner portion with leftovers for one person or to share if ordering a large salad to split between a twosome.
The pizzas flavors included margarita, four cheese, meat lovers and pesto chicken. The ingredients are all farm fresh and locally sourced. We ordered the margarita pizza and I can tell you, it really was delicious. You can tell when the ingredients are fresh because the tomatoes and basil exploded with flavor on my tastebuds and the mozzarella was fresh.
I chatted with other customers and they said the salads are large and delicious and told me to get the antipasti salad. The table next to me ordered the wood oven-fired duck breast and said that it was juicy and delicious, although a tad on the small side for his preferences. The prices are high at all three restaurants in Volcano village, although they are in middle of nowhere, so it’s hard to complain. This restaurant has a nice wine selection, so it is also a great place to relax after a long day at the Volcano Park.
Other Restaurants in Volcano Village
O.G. Thai cuisine made by a Thai couple. Check their hours and status of operation. They actually close the business down when they go back to Thailand on vacation. I have been told by many people, both locals and tourists, that this restaurant has some of the most authentic Thai cuisine that they have ever tasted. The owners bring back recipes and new trends whenever they return from Thailand. The restaurant also uses seasonally fresh produce and meat, so you can expect great food.
This restaurant, connected to the hotel, sells higher-end foods with farm-to-table practices in place. I didn’t eat here, but I have heard many good things. The menu is high-end from prime steaks, fresh-caught fish to fresh produce. If you think that you might have a hard time driving back at night through the windy roads, I suggest that you stay one night in the Volcano National Park, at Kilauea Lodge. On the plus side, you will have time to properly enjoy Kilauea Lodge’s restaurant, which I have been told is an excellent gourmet experience.
My Final Thoughts
The drive from Kona to Volcano National Park is definitely worth a full day excursion, just be sure to give yourself plenty of time to visit Punalu’u Bakery and Volcano Winery. Again, always plan ahead with food and water when visiting Volcano National Park, especially if you have children. The south side of the Island has very windy roads as well, so if you have a hard time driving at night, be sure to plan your trip accordingly. With a little effort and some proper planning, you will be rewarded with some great food, wine and a fun time at the volcano. If you stop at Punalu’u Bakery be sure to take a box of goodies to go, you will enjoy it on the ride home and in your hotel room!