Hilton Waikoloa Village serves up fun for foodies

WAIKIKI -- Food Network junkies who visit the Big Island can now get their fix with culinary tours being offered by the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island.

The Hilton's four-night Culinary Experience package combines farm and ranch visits with food prepared by the hotel's top chefs, who also spend quality time with visitors on the road, in the kitchen and at the table. A luau, wine-tasting and spa treatments are thrown in for good measure.

On ranch day, we drove through the arid scrub of the island's northwest side, past crumbling lava rock walls that remembered a time when cattle from the Waimea hills were driven to the sea by cowboys and penned near the shore before being loaded onto ships.

Naturalist Rob Pacheco narrated our trip, telling us of terraced fields of taro, sweet potato, yams and banana that once criss-crossed the land and supported several thousand native Hawaiians in the 16th century.

We turned into the green crevice of Kohala Valley and toward Kahua Ranch. Ranch executive John Richards took us up to 4,000 feet on the property, where we could see Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa sweep from the sea through the clouds, and his black and red cattle dotting the pasture below.

As we drove on the high road toward Waimea, the brown flats of Parker Ranch filled the landscape below. Parker is the largest private ranch in the U.S., so large that we saw not a single cow while we were there. Ranch executives took us through the house where Hawaii's cattle industry began (with a stop in the kitchen to sample some beef jerky).

The big payoff was at the Habein Ranch, home of Kamuela Pride Natural Beef and Lamb. Owner Rick Habein took us to the pastures with buckets of "cow candy" -- pressed alfalfa cubes -- where we fed the cuddly livestock while he told us how to tell when an animal is ready to be "processed."

"It's interesting to get people back in contact with where their food comes from," said Hilton executive chef Wilhelm Pirngruber, our food specialist for the day. "Most people associate steaks with the supermarket."

I wasn't sure I wanted to get that close to my food. It's tough to pet a warm, soft cow nose and know that his sister or brother would be your lunch.

But seeing the animals roaming the field didn't seem to put me or anyone else off from our lavish spread of perfectly grilled beef, spicy lamb patties, fresh tomatoes and island fruit, prepared for us by Chef Willie right there at the ranch.

The next day's activities took the group to a coffee plantation for a tour of one of Hawaii's most famous crops.

A demonstration at a nearby candy factory showed off another local product, chocolate.

Luscious breakfasts fortified us: steak and eggs on ranch day; a Hawaii regional breakfast on coffee day; an East-meets-West tour de force on Sunday, with a Japanese egg custard, butterfish and omelet and hash browns.

Later we followed Chef Willie through his massive kitchen, where he told us how the staff there prepares 5,000 meals a day. Afterwards, it was time for a cooking demonstration and a four-course luncheon.

As a wafer on the sundae, so to speak, spa treatments were on order for the afternoon, a final indulgent nod to what can only be called "the good life."

The Culinary Experience will be repeated Sept. 10 to 14. The ranch tour will be repeated Nov. 8 as part of the Big Island Festival.

Accommodations at Hilton Waikoloa Village are available through wholesalers. Total cost of the Big Island Culinary Experience is $950. Both the package and a la carte events are commissionable at 5%.

For more information, call the hotel at (808) 886-2933, Ext. 2877.

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