Dawna L. Robertson


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Sure, I can spot the Big Dipper. And while I love a full moon, nothing beats the promise of wishing on a shooting star. But those iconic nighttime wonders aside, my knowledge of the darkened sky is basic at best. Wanting to heighten my celestial sense, I knew few earthly viewing venues could top Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. So on a recent romp to this remarkably diverse island, I decided to shoot for Hawaii Forest & Trail’s (HF&T) stargazing tour to this renowned astronomical observing site.

On a typical warm Big Island afternoon, our group of seven eager explorers boarded a 12-passenger van at HF&T’s Kona Coast headquarters. Interpretive naturalist Greg Brown had packed parkas and other provisions for the eight-hour excursion. Not accustomed to lengthy transit, I had my concerns. They faded away, however, as our adventure began to unfold.

We made a quick stop at Waikoloa Resort to pick up pre-ordered dinners plus five more adventuresome souls. These strangers gradually grew into a friendly ohana (Hawaiian for family) with a common goal … star trekking.

Mauna Kea is overwhelming. To observe the “white mountain” from sea level, one can only begin to grasp its size. Weaving toward the summit, I was consumed by this massive mound.
Remarkably well-versed in Hawaiian nature, culture and history, Brown shared both fact and folklore on the dramatic evolution of our surroundings. As we passed a pueo (native Hawaiian owl) perched in a dead mamane tree, our guide explained how ranching and grazing herds had transformed the area from forest into grassland.

Midway to the summit, we stopped at historic Humuula Station, an abandoned sheep outpost geared with a dining tent, tables and extremely clean porta potties. It was cool and foggy at the Parker Ranch post – quite a contrast to our coastal conditions earlier in the day. I donned my parka and joined others wandering among ranch remains. Aside from sustenance, the dinner stop also helped acclimatize us for our final ascent. With a hearty meal under our
belts, we continued our star quest.

Near the 9,000-foot level, the van emerged from a thick fog into a brilliant blue sky. It was as if the heavens had opened up. We progressed toward the 13,500-foot elevation, past volcanic cinder cones and patches of snow.
“”Mauna Kea’s summit rises above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere,” Brown explained. “”Plus, it’s far from city lights. Up here, you’ll have optimal viewing of galaxies that stretch to the very edge of our observable universe.” With some 200 billion stars in our galaxy, I knew we were in for quite a show.

Brown warned us that the temperature drops three degrees every 1,000 feet. “It’s freezing up here right now,” he reported. I exited the van with a wobbly step or two. The elevation definitely had an impact, but it quickly passed. The temperature was another story. I zipped my parka and tightened the hood.

Standing at the summit is nothing short of amazing. We were literally on top of the world, at the peak of the tallest mountain on Earth, rising from the ocean floor some 31,000 feet . What a rush! And as daylight slowly slipped away, the journey was growing even better.
Brown recited the roster of observatories. “Those are the Keck twins and that’s the Subaru Telescope.” Eleven countries currently host 13 telescopes at the summit, nearly three miles above it all in the world’s most isolated area.

After a stunning sunset, we returned to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the 9,200-foot level. Here, Brown set up a pair of eight inch Celestron Cassegrain telescopes for our star party.
He also used lasers to point out clusters and constellations. Warm in our parkas and with hot chocolate and macadamia nut cookies in hand, we “oohed’ and ‘aahed” at the brilliance of Hawaii’s night sky.

While this stellar show seemed so distant, Brown clarified how we were standing in the middle of it all right here on Earth. “We’re looking into the past and into the future right now,” he commented. “We see what’s light years away. It’s all linked.” His remarks made me sense that life in space was likely staring right back at this exact moment. Far beyond simply viewing the heavens, I was learning Earth’s place in the cosmos.

My night’s highlight was in so clearly seeing Saturn’s rings. Another trekker said she enjoyed the lore – learning that Taurus stands as a protector between the hunter Orion and the Seven Sisters. Others seemed astounded by Jupiter and its eight moons or the fact that Earth’s moon had such intense divots.

After an hour or so, our ohana agreed that we were seeing things more clearly – connecting the dots, so to speak. We were headed for home as the Southern Cross began to rise – just as Brown had promised. I counted my lucky stars I’d taken this trek.

The eight-hour/12-person maximum Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure is offered daily, with pick up at HF&T’s headquarters, Waikoloa Resort’s Kings’ Shops, and Junction of Highways 190 and 200. Afternoon departure time varies throughout the year. The price is $185 plus tax per person, including picnic-style dinner, snack, hot beverages, hooded parka and gloves. Reservations are highly recommended at least one week in advance, as this tour consistently sells out.

“Mauna Kea is one of the premier locations in the world to observe the night sky, either with the naked eye or using some of the world’s largest telescopes,” noted Rob Pacheco, Owner and President of HF&T. “Some of our uests come hoping to see a specific object, one of Jupiter’s moons or a specific constellation. Others are blown away when they see the ncredible vastness of the Milky Way for the first time. The night sky is something we all can relate to, and there’s no place better to experience it than in Hawaii.”

Aside from its Mauna Kea summit stargazing trek, HF&T takes adventure lovers on journeys that include hiking to waterfalls, experiencing volcanoes, walking in rainforests and spotting native birds in remote habitats. “Our vision is to inspire the conservation of Hawaii’s natural resources, which is fulfilled, in part, by offering guided nature adventures on Hawaii Island,” remarked Pacheco. “By taking people to places they wouldn’t normally access on their own, and by facilitating connections to the resources found there, we hope that our guests leave us with a greater understanding of the truly fantastic natural and cultural heritage of Hawaii.”

New to the company’s offerings is a Waterfall HeliHike with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters that explores several of the deep valleys in North Kohala via air, and then lands at the edge of a forest for hiking past streams and swimming in waterfall pools. The three-hour option is $406 per person plus a $59 fuel surcharge (subject to change).

Also launched recently are PinzTrek off-road adventures operated in Pinzgauer six-wheeled vehicles holding up to 12 guests. Whether fording mountain streams in Kohala, exploring the misty reaches of Hualalai or rambling through tropical fruit orchards, explorers can expect to be both entertained and educated. Priced at $115 plus tax per person, each PinzTrek Adventure incorporates a walking element. So in addition to experiencing off-road thrills, passengers also witness the beauty and diversity of Hawaii at a slower, more relaxed pace.

Both the Kohala Wai and Holoholo Hualalai excursions run three to four hours, while a five-hour Kohala Waterfalls Adventure is $135. Other trips and prices include a Kilauea Volcano Adventure for $169, Rainforest & Dry Forest Birding Adventure for $179 and Hakalau Forest & wildlife Rescue Adventure for $179. For those into more delectable discoveries, Merriman’s Culinary & Farm Adventure is a behind-the-scenes tasteful trip covering Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

Included in the Merriman’s itinerary is a visit to Kahua Ranch, a sprawling spread devoted to cattle and sheep ranching, as well as innovative agricultural practices. Also scheduled is a stop at Honopua Farm, where organic vegetables, lavender and cut flowers are grown. This outing returns to award-winning Merriman’s Restaurant in Waimea for a special four-course dinner prepared by chefs using the fresh local ingredients produced on farms that were visited earlier in the tour. The $169 rate covers all transportation, tours and meals.

HF&T Joins World Heritage Alliance

HF&T has operated eco-excursions that take people for an up close look at the Big Island’s most remote natural assets since 1993. So it was a logical step for the company to take its commitment of sustainable tourism to a global level by becoming a member of the World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism (WHA).

Founded by Expedia, Inc. and the United Nations Foundation, WHA operates with an initiative to support UNESCO’s goal of promoting and protecting World Heritage sites around the globe.

“Sustainability along with environmental and social responsibility are core tenets of our business philosophy,” said Pacheco. “We are excited about joining the WHA, and working together to preserve our treasured cultural and natural resources.”

HF&T will be implementing the WHA’s training materials on sustainable tourism into its own extensive guide training program. Additionally, the underlying principles of the WHA – encouraging social and environmental responsibility – serve to strengthen ongoing projects like the removal of invasive species from a Stewardship Plot inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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Travelers in the know have long gravitated to the Big Island¹s Kona Coast for its superb weather and unique diversions distinguishing it from other Hawaii destinations. Adventure lovers find a bevy of sun splashed pursuits, from championship sport fishing and world class golf to unparalled diving and trippy trekking through ancient petroglyph fields.

Recreation aside, there’s another dimension to the Big Island that tends to appeal to visitors with all tastes. It¹s such an integral part of the island¹s cultural complexion, in fact, that it¹s been honored for nearly four decades in Hawaii¹s longest running agricultural festival that continues to stir up quite a buzz on the laid-back island. Through the years, the award-winning Kona Coffee Cultural Festival has attained recognition as the oldest and most successful food festival in Hawaii, and the only coffee festival in the United States.

Heading to Kona a few days prior to the launch of the festival, I opted to perk up a low-key day by touring Kona Coffee Country. West Hawaii was brimming with robust reviews of this gourmet beverage characterized for having a full, rich flavor with balanced acidity, great aroma and long finish lacking bitterness.

American missionary Samuel Ruggles introduced coffee to the island in 1828, transporting cuttings of Arabica trees from Oahu to Kona. The area was a natural choice, thanks to its rich volcanic soil, ample rainfall, natural cloud cover and hard-working family farmers who toiled away to establish the renowned region acknowledged today.

Creating steam among connoisseurs, Kona Coffee consists exclusively of beans grown on the western slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa in a strip extending south from the village of Holualoa to the town of Honaunau. More than 670 farms create a tapestry amid the 22-mile-long, two-mile-wide coffee-rich corridor.

Picking up a Kona Coffee Country driving map from my concierge at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, I learned that maps can also be found at most local businesses or by contacting info@konacoffeefest.com. The comprehensive piece includes information on coffee history, Kona¹s cultural legacy, current industry standards and an overview of cultivation practices. For direction ease, it opens to a map pinpointing locations of the Kona Coffee farms and retail sites that welcome guests. So with this Java 101 scoop under my belt and map in hand, I hit the road.

First stop was at Greenwell Farms in Kealakekua, one of the industry¹s oldest and most storied producers. The Greenwell legacy began in 1850 when Henry Nicholas Greenwell left England for the fertile soil of rural Kona. For the next forty years, he and his wife farmed, ranched and perfected their product.

Today, the spread lies adjacent to the Greenwell¹s ancestral home, now occupied by the Kona Historical Society¹s Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Managed by family descendants, Greenwell Farms works 150 acres of the most productive land in the Kona District. As with many larger producers, it purchases additional coffee cherry from other selected farms within the region.
Along the way, our guide, Kapua, described how the transformation from cherries into a full-bodied, aromatic brew begins with hand-planted seedlings. They blossom into Kona Snow flowers, which produce bright red cherries that generally contain two coffee beans, Kapua said. Those producing a single bean are referred to as a peaberries ­ considered top crop with a more concentrated flavor leaving a tingle on the tongue.
We then headed to the drying area where beans are pulped, dried and hulled to remove their parchment. Mill machinery sorts the beans into distinctive grades based on size and shape.

With a selection of savory souvenirs I purchased at Greenwell’s retail shop, I set off for Mountain Thunder’s new five-acre organic farm that recently opened in Kainaliu. Here, visitors can tour, taste and purchase organic Kona Coffee and green tea grown at 3,200 feet on the slopes of Hualalai. But it’s the quality that truly elevates Mountain Thunder to even greater heights.

Owner Trent Bateman’s commitment to the environment, new technology, and his family are the secret ingredients that give Mountain Thunder’s 100 % organic Kona Coffee its true flavor. Bateman believed in the health benefits of foods grown free from harmful herbicides and additives before organic farming became the mainstream staple it is today.

During a typical farm tour, visitors might be served a cup of coffee by Bateman¹s wife Lisa, or learn how to roast coffee beans from Bateman himself. Their daughter, Brooke, serves as company roastmaster and developed a line of coffee and tea-infused beauty products sold on-site. The Batemans even employ families of Chinese Geese, St. Croix Sheep and Kona Nightingale Donkeys to help weed the grounds and nuzzle up to visitors … not to mention provide plenty of free organic fertilizer.

Next, I headed further along Highway 11 to Kona Joe Coffee in Kainaliu. Established in 1997, the family-owned 20-acre estate has taken a page from wine vineyards by growing its cherries on trellises. The brainchild of owner Joe Alban, the process trains trees by years of meticulous pruning to grow sideways and upward over the patented system. “It’s well worth the effort because the tree develops with more uniform sun exposure resulting in more even ripening of the coffee cherry,” remarked the tasting room hostess. She went on to explain how hand harvesting is facilitated because the ripe cherries develop within easy reach of pickers.

Aside from a mean cup of Joe, Kona Joe’s setting was worth the jaunt. Acres of coffee trees sprawled below the tasting room, with the blue Pacific as a backdrop. This trek was turning as scenic as it was tasteful.

With a few more farms and quite a few more cups of coffee fueling the afternoon, I was compelled to make one final stop at Kona Coffee & Tea Company’s retail outlet near the Kona International Airport at Keahole on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. According to Malia Bolton, Director of Operations, comparing Kona Coffee to Napa’s wine industry is natural. “We’re both regions producing fine quality beverages,” she said. “And we share the reputation of coupling these products with memorable experiences.”

Bolton added that one of the greatest misconceptions is that there is only one Kona Coffee. “So many people don’t understand what a big business this is,” she commented. “There are hundreds of farms producing. So the variety inspires tasters to discover their palate¹s most desirabl e flavor.”

Once the actual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival began, everything I had learned while touring the individual farms began to tie in. Of the events I attended, I was most impressed with the signature Gevalia Kona Coffee Cupping Competition at the Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort
Similar to wine tasting, the blind tasting allowed us to observe judges as they sampled and selected the finest Kona Coffee ­ all while sampling the coffee ourselves and learning from experts how to critique a high-quality brew. Sixty-six farms each submitted a 50-pound sample from which five pounds were actually entered into the cupping competition. The judges look for high marks in six categories – fragrance, aroma, taste, nose, aftertaste and body. Deemed the cream of the crop for 2007 was Arianna Farms, a 40-acre farm situated on land that was once a hunting ground for Hawaiian royalty.

“The Festival speaks to the 180 years of the Kona Coffee industry and the numerous cultures involved in its production along the Kona Coast,” noted Norman Sakata, President of the Kona Coffee Festival. “Signature events include Kona Coffee Cupping Competition, Miss Kona Coffee Pageant, a
Picking Kona Coffee Competition and a Kona Coffee Recipe Contest.”Sakata added that since the festival has increased its promotional efforts over the past year, it expects even greater attendance in the future.

Beverage aside, the festival focuses on creativity at different levels. An art exhibit featured a collection of paintings and other mediums depicting the Kona coffee lifestyle, while a recipe contest offers amateurs, culinary students and professional chefs an opportunity to enter their most stellar creations using gourmet Kona Coffee. Two parades were planned in conjunction with the festivities.

Whether touring coffee territory or attending the festival, the story that kept emerging is how many of these farms are operated today by fifth generation families who are relentless in improving on what¹s already considered by many as percolated perfection. Still far from being a java genius, I knew one thing was certain ­ Kona is not your average cup of Joe. Kona Coffee Cultural Festival for 2009 will be Nov. 6 – 15. If the 2009 version proves to be as compelling as previous years, coffee lovers will be satisfied far beyond the brew.