Five classic Chilean foods

chilean foodChilean food doesn’t have the glamour and romance of the cuisine of its neighbor, Argentina, nor the complexity and exotic Japanese influences bestowed upon the contemporary dishes of its other neighbor, Peru. I just returned from my second visit to Chile, where in between consuming epic quantities of manjar (dulce de leche) and pisco sours, I found more substantial food to love.

Chilean food is of humble origins; a combination of indigenous influence, simple technique, and hearty, regional ingredients designed to sustain and nourish the body despite limited means and harsh climate. Today, Santiago is a glossy, metropolitan capital of seven million, and there’s no shortage of high-end dining with regard to various cuisines. But travel beyond the city limits, and you’ll see tweaks on Chilean specialties depending upon what part of the country you’re visiting.

Northern Chile is largely high-altitude desert, while Central and Southern Chile have more of a focus on seafood. The following is a very simplified list, but they’re five of the most classic dishes to be found throughout the country.Try them for a taste of Chilean culture and history.

1. Empanadas
Not to be confused with the Argentinean variety, which are essentially a culture within a culture, the Chilean empanada is usually baked, larger and flatter in composition (either crescents or rectangular in shape), and less varied in variety. But what’s not to love about a tender, flaky pocket of dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, hardboiled egg, and olive; roasted vegetables, or melted, stringy cheese? Not much. Find them at panaderias, shops, markets, or restaurants offering “comida typica.”

2. Curanto
This is a specialty of the lovely island and archipelago of Chiloe in Chilean Patagonia’s Lake District. Curanto is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau via Easter Island (Rapa Nui). It’s traditionally cooked in a pit that is covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. The potato flatbreads, milcao, and chapalele (the latter flavored with pork cracklings), are delicious street foods in their own right that can be found in coastal towns throughout this region. A curanto is a must-see if you’re visiting Chiloe.chilean food3. Pastel de choclo
Sort of an indigenous shepherd’s pie, this comforting dish is composed of ground corn (choclo) mixed with hard-boiled egg, olive, and usually ground beef and/or chicken. It’s baked and served in an earthenware bowl called a paila, and it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

4. Caldillo de Congrio
Okay, I confess that I have a particular dislike for the congrio, or conger eel, which is an obsession in Chile. It’s not that it’s bad; I just don’t care for most fish as a rule (for the record, it’s fairly mild, white, firm, and rather dry and flaky). But I would be remiss to not include it, because it’s such a classic. Whether fried or served in a caldillo, or brothy soup seasoned with cilantro, carrots, potato, and fish stock, it’s hearty, rustic, and very representative of Chile’s culture of subsistence and commercial fishermen.

5. Chupe
This is a somewhat generic term for a creamy seafood stew enriched with milk or cream. Depending upon where you are (or what country you’re in, because it’s also found in Peru and Bolivia), chupe might contain shrimp (thus, it would be called chupe de camarones), fish, chicken, beef, or lamb. It also contains vegetables, potatoes or yuca, and tomato, but the magic is in the addition of merquen, an indigenous (via the Mapuche people) spice mixture made with smoked, powdered cacho de cabra chili. The end result is fragrant, complex, and delicious.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Chiloe: Chilean Patagonia’s emerald islands offer eco- and agritourism

I can’t remember who first told me about Chiloe, but I do recall that it was just a few weeks before my first trip to Chilean Patagonia. For a year I’d been planning an itinerary around my personal Holy Grail: rafting the thunderous Futaleufu River.

Located across the Chacao Channel from the bustling town of Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia, Chiloe is a 41-island archipelago. The largest of these is Isla Grande (“Chiloe island”), at 3,241-square-miles the second-largest in South America, after Tierra del Fuego. In 2009, Chiloe was ranked #3 on Lonely Planet’s “Best Places to Visit,” so it’s no longer a secret, but its relatively isolated location, sleepy pace, and often-tempestuous maritime climate tend to appeal to more intrepid travelers.

Chiloe was originally inhabited by Mapuche, Chonos, and Cunco indians, until the Spanish arrived in the mid 1500’s. The blending of indigenous and Catholic beliefs gave birth to superstitions and mythological creatures like the troll-like Trauco. These fanciful beliefs and icons are still a popular part of Chilote culture.

Located in Chile’s Lakes District–a breathtaking palette of cobalt-blue glacial lakes, emerald fjords, snow-capped volcanoes, and native alerce forest–Chiloe’s rural way of life is a direct reflection of its fishing and farming economies. While many of the archipelago’s 130,00 residents still subsistence farm, a low-key brand of eco-tourism has been steadily increasing in the last decade.

Flocks of sheep, not cars, clog the (frequently unpaved) roads, and ox carts, horse, and donkey are the alternate forms of transportation. Milk cans sit at the head of rutted driveways, awaiting pick-up from the dairy co-op. Brightly-painted palafitos (shanty towns on stilts) resemble children’s blocks, and colorful, handcrafted wooden fishing boats dot the coast or repose onshore. Many of the 150 Jesuit-built, 19th century churches are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Miguel A. Gallardo]

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Many visitors choose to sea kayak or do live-aboard boat tours of the fjords and inlets of the archipelago, which is perhaps the best way to take in the spectacular scenery and surrounding views of mainland volcanoes. Land tours, however, provide a more intímate cultural experience, especially for those wanting to experience Chiloe’s nationally-famed cuisine.
Chilean Patagonia has a strong European influence due to German, Swiss, French, Welsh, and Yugoslavian immigrants that arrived in the mid-1800’s to establish small farmsteads, which is reflected in the hearty regional food. Many farmers still make their own cheese, jams, and charcuterie, and keep bees. As a result, agriturismos (farmstays) have grown in popularity the last 15 years, which supplements the island economy.

The mystery acquaintance who suggested I visit Chiloe told me to contact Britt Lewis and Sandra Echegaray, the husband-and-wife owners of Ancud-based Austral Adventures. Britt is from the States, while Sandra, a chef, grew up on a farm in Peru. She prepares all of Austral’s land-based meals from Chiloe-grown ingredients, including potatoes (which originated on the island, not Peru, a fact that Chilotes are understandably proud of), as well as mussels, clams, fish, sea urchin, lamb, cheese, orchard fruits, vegetables, honey, seaweed, and foraged native foods like murta, a wild berry used in jams and sauces.

Austral specializes in eco-tours aboard Cahuella, a 50-foot wooden boat. Their six-day live-aboard trips around the archipelago’s fjords, and four-day journeys along the northern fjords of Parque Pumalin (across the Golfo de Ancud) are considered “one of the five unique boat journeys in the world,” by the U.K. Guardian’s travel section. The couple also guide personally-tailored land tours that focus on Chiloe’s culture, food, wildlife (which includes whales and penguins) and outdoor activities such as hiking and paddling. Austral provides guides on all of its tours “to enhance the cultural exchanges.”

After corresponding with Sandra, I immediately rearranged my itinerary, carving out five days on Chiloe. She made a plan to take me around the main island, where we would stay at several of her favorite agriturismos, and attend a curanto. This beloved Chilote social event is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau (via Easter Island). The food is traditionally cooked in a pit covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. No curanto is complete without Chilote music and dancing, copious amounts of red wine, chicha (fermented fruit cider, usually apple), and pisco sours. If you’re traveling solo or as a couple, and can’t find a curanto to attend, look for a restaurant that offers “pulmay,” or “curanto en olla (in a pot).” It’s not the same experience, but it will allow you to try the foods for which Chiloe is famous.

Chiloe is connected to the mainland by ramps that have been built in the channel to form a motorway. The easiest way to get there is to fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt (LAN is the country’s main international and domestic carrier, but other domestic airlines include Aerosur, Aerolineas Star Peru, and Taca) then take a bus. There are terminals in the main towns of Ancud (North island), the capital of Castro (East coast), and Quellon (end of the road on the southeastern coast), but you can get off in any of the villages en route. Ancud has two bus terminals. Cruz del Sur, the long distance operator, is convieniently located near the Plaza de Armas. The municipal terminal is on the outskirts of town.

It’s about a 54-mile bus ride from Puerto Montt’s bus terminal to Ancud. Chiloe operates on a much slower pace than the rest of the world, but Ancud is a fairly busy, pleasant place to unwind for a couple of days. There’s an indoor marketplace where you can find produce, artisan foods, and handwoven Chilote wool sweaters. I spent night at the charming Hostal Mundo Nuevo, a Swiss-run place right on the bay. For dining, Sandra and Britt recommended Mascaron de Proa (65-621-979, and Casamar (65-624-481). Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to either due to time constraint and getting sidetracked by a nameless empanaderia off the Plaza de Armas.

The day after my arrival, Sandra met me and we rattled off in her pick-up to Tenaun, a one-street, 19th century fishing village on the eastern coast. Seaweed is a major part of Chiloe’s economy, used for culinary, medicinal, and agricultural purposes, and I watched a farmer planting pelillo (agar agar, a species used in processed foods ) on the tidal flats. Mainly, I just wandered the quiet streets, snacking on buttery plum kuchen (coffeecake) and enjoying the solitude. Tenaun is known for its UNESCO-designated church, Iglesia de Tenaún, but the village is lovely: lots of apple orchards, beehives, beached fishing boats, flower-bedecked cottages, and old Mapuche men on donkeys. I stayed overnight at Familia Vásquez Montana (owned by aforementioned seaweed farmer Guido Vasquez, and his wife/cook, Mirella; reservations required, (09-647-6750). Since my visit, however, it has expanded from four to 25 beds, and operates more like a hostal than family home. You can catch a bus from Ancud or Castro to Tenaun three times daily (one-and-a-half hours, approximately).

The next day, Sandra took me to lunch at Maria Luisa Maldonado’s agriturismo (09-643-7046), outside of village San Antonio. The adorably fiesty octogenerian is one of the founding forces behind Chiloe’s agriturismo movement, as well as a hell of a cook. She has four guest rooms (seven beds in all) on her farm, which also operates as an informal dining room for overnight guests and pre-booked visitors. We joined Luisa’s son and young niece for a gratifying meal of her farmstead cheese; cazuela Chilote, a rich, flavorful stew of grass-fed veal and vegetables from the farm, raspberry juice from fruit picked that morning, and panqueques con manjar- crepes with Luisa’s own luscious, caramelized milk spread. Heaven.

Another popular agriturismo is Los Senderos de Chepu, in the wetlands area of Chepu, outisde of Ancud. Proprietor Enriqueta Carcamo is the current president of Chiloe’s Turismo Rural association; she and her husband, Fernando offer cheesemaking and other farm activities, horseback riding, and meals sourced from their farm.

My most memorable meal on Chiloe, however, came the day Sandra took me to the home of her friends, Hugo and Wanda Brenni. Hugo, who is Chileno, is the founder of Berkeley’s 35-year-old La Pena Cultural Center (oddly enough, I used to live just around the corner). He started La Pena while working as a cook in the Bay Area, “to create an awareness of solidarity” during Chile’s period of dictatorship.

Hugo prepared our lunch from ingredients grown and foraged on the property or purchased from neighboring farms. While he cooked, Wanda, who is from the States, told me, “What’s amazing about Chiloe is you can just walk down to the beach and collect as many shellfish as you can carry, get king crab from the kids on the corner, harvest wild berries. The local people are so traditional, the soil is so rich…there is always food. That’s the miracle of this place.” We sat down to a lunch of roast duck with a piquant salsa de murta, freshly-dug fingerling potatoes, a beet salad, and Wanda’s sourdough bread, cultured from wild yeast. Miraculous, indeed.

Potatoes in Chile Sauce

Recipe by Sandra Echegaray, Austral Adventures

serves 8

2 lbs. waxy new potatoes, such as Yukon gold, cut into ½-inch cubes
olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Drizzle potatoes with olive oil and seasoning, and roast in a pre-heated 350-degree oven until cooked through. While potatoes are roasting, prepare chile sauce.

Chile Sauce

1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1-1 ½ cup dry red wine
4 tablespoon tomato puree
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
2 fresh red chilies, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
finely chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

In a medium size pot, sauté onion and garlic two tablespoons of olive oil for until tender, approximately two minutes. Add chilies and cook until tender. Add tomato puree, salt, and pepper, and sauté two minutes, stirring constantly. Add fresh tomatoes, half of the wine, and oregano. Cover and simmer the mixture at low heat for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rest of the wine, and continue to cook at low heat for 10 more minutes.
Just before serving, add the warm roasted potatoes. Serve immediately, garnishing with parsley.

[Photo credit: church, Flickr user James Byrum]

Big Island Hawaii: The Resorts of the Kohala Coast

The Kohala Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island might not look like what you imagine when you think of Hawaii. While the grounds of the many resorts that line the coastline are lush and green, once you leave the confines of the property, you’ll see a land that’s almost barren, dotted with tiny shrubs and long expanses of hardened black lava from the last eruptions of the now dormant Hualālai volcano. It’s not the jungle filled with waterfalls that you might have envisioned (for that, head to the Hilo side), but the otherworldly landscape is still beautiful.

If you want exciting nightlife or are traveling on a budget, there are better places to stay on the Big Island. But if you want carefree luxury, beautiful beaches, seaside golfing, and waiters at the ready to cater to your every whim as you relax by the pool, check out the resorts of the Kohala Coast.

Divided into four main resort properties, the Kohala Coast is home to eight luxury resorts. I had the chance to briefly visit them all and to stay in two, and I saw that each one has its own style, advantages, and disadvantages.

Waikoloa Beach – Waikoloa Beach Marriott and Hilton Waikoloa Village
Best for families with active children.

The Waikoloa Beach resort complex seems like a great choice for those who want to be able to stay busy without renting a car or leaving the resort complex. I can see spring breakers, older couples, and definitely families with young children loving the amenities, but if you want something that feels a little more intimate, I’d recommend you go elsewhere.

The Hilton Waikoloa Village is the largest of the eight properties in terms of number of rooms. There are over 1200 rooms on the 62 acre resort. It looks like it’s been picked up from Disney World and transplanted here to Hawaii. In fact, like Disney World, there is a tram system that transports guest around the hotel. There are four pool areas (one is adults only) with swim-up pool bars, waterslides, waterfalls, and lazy rivers. There’s a beach and ocean-fed lagoon for swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and boogie-boarding, a fitness center, tennis courts, and golf course. The hotel offers a whole host of activities like hula classes, luau dinner, lei-making demos, pool parties, and live music.

The hotel also boasts the area’s only dolphin encounter, the Dolphin Quest. I had the chance to experience the encounter and while I thought it was well done, there really wasn’t the opportunity to “swim” with the dolphins as advertised. Instead, we donned life vests and stood in the water while we learned about dolphin commands and were able to pet the dolphin as it passed by. Then we floated in the water while the dolphin swam beneath us a few times and snorkeled as the dolphin swam around the small lagoon. I’d recommend the activity for kids, and suggest having a family member camp out on the shore and take photos – the ones sold in the gift shop are quite expensive.

There’s a nightclub for adults, several restaurants, spa, and onsite shops. Basically, it’s dream come true for a family managing hyperactive kids, and a nightmare for honeymooners looking for privacy.

Average rates range from $260 – $400, though they do offer specials that start as low as $199 per night, making this an attractive choice for families who want a full-service resort but are traveling on a budget.

The Waikoloa Beach Marriott offers some of the lowest rates in the area. Basic rooms rates range from $199 to $320 per night, and the resort also offers some great package deals that can help you save on car rental, golf and spa treatments. The resort looks like a typical Marriott with a bit of Hawaiian flavor added into the decor. There is a restaurant, lounge, coffee shop, and commissary onsite and the resort hosts a luau dinner. Several other restaurants and shops are within a mile’s walk.

There is an onsite golf course, fitness center, spa, swimming beach, nature reserve, and two pools.

Mauna Kea Resort – Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and and Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel
Best for couples,honeymooners and families with older children who want a swimming beach.

The Hapuna Beach and Mauna Kea hotels are owned by the same company and are located on the same property (though they front different beaches) but the similarities seem to end there.

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened in 1965. At the time, it was the most expensive hotel ever built and was the favorite Hawaiian retreat of many celebrities. Eventually it grew outdated, so when it was damaged in an an earthquake a few years ago, the owners took the opportunity to close it down and do a complete overhaul, spending $150 million sprucing up the decor and reducing the number of guest rooms (making each one larger). The 258 guest rooms are now stylish with colorful accents and modern furniture. They have flat screen tvs, iPod docks, and L’Occitane bath products. The hotel features a pool, sandy beach, fitness center, two golf courses, 11 tennis courts, several restaurants, luau, spa, salon, shopping, and Hawaiian culture classes.

Guest rooms all have private lanais, and room rates range from $450 to $850.

From what I saw of the Hapuna Beach Prince Resort during my three night stay there, it needs some of the TLC that’s been showered on its sister resort. With a perfect location on beautiful Hapuna Beach and ocean views from every room, the hotel has a lot of potential. But the decor is outdated (peach walls, carpeted floors, and comforters that have started to pill), the amenities are basic, and while the hotels lacks any “wow” factor in the romance department (making it an unlikely choice for honeymooners), it’s also not ideal for families with young kids. The single pool is just a basic pool – no crazy waterslides of fun fountains – surrounded by lounge chairs and “reservation-only” cabanas.

My biggest complaints about the hotel were the outdated decor, the lack of any safety latch on the room’s doors (a concern because non-guests could access the property via the public beach), and the less than enthusiastic service I received from staff. The friendly and caring service I was told about by resort representatives (who themselves were the epitome of friendly) was no where to be seen. Upon arrival, I pulled up to inquire where self-parking was. The bellman told me, but didn’t mention that it was quite a walk from the garage to the front desk – a walk with no signage directing you where to go once out of the garage. After stumbling around with my heavy bags for a few minutes, I made it to the front door where the bellmen watched me struggle to the front desk with no offer of help. The front desk person didn’t crack a smile until she checked my name on the computer and when I later called with a problem with my Internet connection, the response was similarly apathetic. Especially for the price ($415 to $615 for single room, $1350 for a one-room suite) I expected better service and higher quality rooms

There are four on-site restaurants, spa, salon, and kid’s club at the hotel, but the big draw is the beach. Connected to Hapuna Beach State Park, it offers sandy white beaches, mild waves, and reefs for snorkeling. There are beach chairs available for use, but you have to sign for resort towels. As an added bonus, guests at the Hapuna can use the amenities at Mauna Kea.

Hualālai Resort – Kona Village and Four Seasons Hualālai
Best for honeymooners and those seeking privacy, luxury and romance.

There’s more I’ll say about Four Seasons later, but suffice to say, it’s nice. Really, really nice. But it’s Four Seasons, and the resort was recently rated the number one beach resort in the US by Travel and Leisure, so you probably already knew that. With four pools, a kids club, three restaurants, golf course, culture center and unparalleled service, it’s worth every penny of the pricey room rate (which starts at $500 per night).

Kona Village is the perfect place for honeymooners or anyone who wants to feel like they are on their own private island. The resort definitely delivers “barefoot luxury”. Assorted hale (huts) are scattered around 82 acres of lava, black sand beach, palm trees, and ancient fishing lagoons. Dirt paths connect the hale to the pebbly beach and to the three resort restaurants. There are also three lounges, including the Shipwreck Bar, built from the resort’s founder’s boat when it broke apart on lava rocks. Guests can arrange for private candlelit dinners on the beach, and the resort’s luau is considered one of the best on the island.

I was able to attend the Wednesday Night Hula Mana Luau, featuring authentic kalua pig (smoked in an underground imu), mai tais and entertainment. During the luau Hawaiian dancers perform hula, sing and chant, and tell the stories of Hawaiian history and culture. While the food didn’t floor me, I loved that the Luau was more than just fire dancers (though, there was a fire dancer) and hulu girls. The stories behind the dances and chants were presented well and included lots of insight into Hawaiian history and traditional Hawaiian culture.

There is a pool onsite, but with all the water-sports offered, you might not ever use it. The resort offers SCUBA certification and diving, snorkeling, stand-up paddle-boarding, outrigger canoe paddling, deep-sea fishing and surfing.

Rooms feature traditional Hawaiian patterned quilts, mini-fridges stocked with soft drinks, and twice-daily housekeeping service. They don’t have tvs or phones, which means staff member communicate with guests through notes left on the door. A coconut serves as a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Just leave it on the stairs and you’ll be left alone.

Rates that include three meals a day range from $700 to $1200 per night, but frequent promotions help bring the cost down.

Mauna Lani Resort – Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and Fairmont Orchid
Best for families and couples looking for a luxurious, intimate setting that still offers lots of activities.

The Mauna Lani Resort complex hours both the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and the Fairmont Orchid, two distinct hotels that are connected to each other (and to the surrounding shops and restaurants) but a system of free shuttles. Both offer luxurious rooms, beautiful beaches, and lots of family friendly activities.

The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel puts a strong emphasis on preserving Hawaiian culture and educating visitors about the ways and traditions of the Hawaiian people. Cultural tours of the historic royal fishponds (which date as far back as 250 BC) as well as the ancient petrogylph fields are led by the incredibly informative resident historian Danny Akaka. The resort is also quite proud, as justifiably so, of its green efforts. Condé Nast Traveler named it one of the world’s top luxury eco-friendly resorts for its solar energy innovations, which have resulted in the resort generating more solar electric power than any luxury resort in the world. Golf Magazine also recognized the resort for its environmental stewardship during the construction and use of its eco-friendly golf course.

Awards and accolades aside, the Mauna Lani has a lot going for it as a luxury hotel for families and active couples. There’s an onsite fitness club, free snorkeling equipment, and bikes available for riding around the sprawling property. The kids club includes a 9-hole kids golf course and an intro to snorkeling class. Each of the 343 guest rooms, which start at rates of $270 per night, has a private lanai, mini-fridge and flat screen tv. 90% of the rooms have ocean views. Two-bedroom bungalows also feature gas grills and private plunge pool. There is a spa, four restaurants, 24-hour room service, and guest laundry. Like other resorts in the area, the hotel also offers wedding packages, which start at $550.

The Fairmont Orchid is ideal for honeymooners and couples who want a luxury experience but still want a range of activities to choose from. It’s also great for adults who may be traveling with kids but still want a bit of romance in their vacation. The 540 guest rooms have AC, internet, private lanais, and are decorated in muted tones and with plush linens. 10 tennis courts, 24-hour fitness center and a 36-hole golf course keep guests busy, and a kids program with arts and crafts and educational tours will entertain the kids. The grounds, while quite large, still manage to feel intimate thanks to lush landscaping and romantic torches that light the way at night.

The Fairmont Orchid, like the Mauna Lani, works hard to be eco-friendly. The Fairmont is the only resort in the area that recycles 100% of its waste. It uses low wattage bulbs, landscaping is done with indigenous plants that are drought-resistant and require less watering, and herbs and produce grown onsite are used in the hotel’s seven restaurants. I sampled the sushi at Norio’s Sushi Bar and Restaurant, which uses “locally sourced, organic, and sustainable items whenever possible,” another way the Fairmont works to be eco-friendly in its practices.

One of the biggest draws of the Fairmont is its “Spa Without Walls.” This alfresco area offers guests the chance to have a relaxing massage to the sound of a trickling waterfall while a warm breeze blows on their skin. The massage I enjoyed was one of the best I’ve ever had. My masseuse was knowledgeable and made me feel comfortable, and the sensations of being outdoor made the experience even more pleasant.

Rooms at the Fairmont Orchid generally start above $500 per night, but some great promotions and discounts have dropped the prices as low as $199 per night recently, allowing guests to afford the hotels romance and luxury even on a small budget, and keeping occupancy rates as high as 79% even during low-season.

The trip was paid for by the Kohala Coast Resort Association, but the views expressed are entirely my own.