Culinary tours feed an appetite for aloha

here are a variety of food tours available in Hawaii, especially in busier Oahu. Many of the food tours make stops at food trucks serving the typical Hawaiian plate lunch.
here are a variety of food tours available in Hawaii, especially in busier Oahu. Many of the food tours make stops at food trucks serving the typical Hawaiian plate lunch. Photo Credit: Dana Edmunds/Hawaii Tourism Authority
With the burst of interest in food tourism creating more traveler-focused choices, and new dining options debuting all the time, exploring an unfamiliar region's cuisine can be daunting. How does one find authentic poke among a sea of so many shops?

As culinary tourism has gained steam, more organized food tours are launching that run through a range of the area's most familiar dishes in the span of a few hours. Hawaii is no different, and a recent survey conducted by the Hawaii Visitor and Conventions Bureau shows interest in food tourism in general, and on the islands, is only expanding.

"Culinary tourism has grown from a niche interest to a vital tourism segment," states the marketing analysis report released by the HVCB in July. "Whether it's visiting a local vineyard or a second-to-none farmers market, unique food and beverage options are playing a much greater role in defining how people travel."

More than half of U.S. travelers (52%) said they would be like to go on an overseas trip "focused on food or wine," a figure that has nearly doubled during the last decade, according to the report. Among both self-identified "foodies" and regular travelers the most popular food-related activities are the same, visit a winery, brewery or distillery or see how a local food item, such as chocolate or cheese, is made.

"Hawaii's food scene is diverse, eclectic, and increasingly important to the success of the broader visitor industry," the report concludes.

In Hawaii the culinary tourism revolution is well underway, with more farms opening their gates to visitors and new restaurants celebrating local, Hawaiian flavors rather than European, Asian or modern American cuisine are more prevalent. Here are some food tour operators that help travelers navigate the culinary scene.

Hawaii Food Tours: This Oahu-based company offers the "Hole-in-the-Wall" food tour. Participants are shuttled between stops, including markets, restaurants and bakeries, in an air-conditioned Mercedes van. The tour focuses on local comfort dishes rather than true, traditional Hawaiian food. The tour includes two hours exploring Chinatown, with tastings along the way. Visitors can sample local coffee, Korean barbecue, dim sum, Portuguese donuts, baked manapua (a pork-filled bun), and visit the Chinese Noodle Factory.  The tour was developed by Mathew Gray, a chef and former food critic for the Honolulu Advertiser. The Hole-in-the-Wall tour costs $129 per person and runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Aloha Food Tours: This company offers a few different tour options including outings focused on the Ala Moana area and Chinatown. The Ala Moana walking tour held every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for $99 per person visits at least a half-dozen different establishments, and guests have the chance to try loco moco, a taro latte, steak roll with garlic chips and ponzu sauce, spam musubi and manapua. The tour ends with the refreshing Hawaiian treat, shave ice. The Chinatown tour ($125 per person) is Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and features pho, Thai fried chicken, garlic chicken, brick-oven pizza and cheesecake. Aloha Food Tours also offers private, customizable tours and, for travelers who like to be untethered, they will provide a self-guided itinerary based on your interests for $40 to $60 depending on the number of stops.  

Aloha Plate Hawaii Food Tour: This culinary-themed tour comes from Hawaii Jeep and Specialty Tours and is led by the entertaining Lanai Tabura, winner of the Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race." The tour, which focuses on traditional Hawaiian dishes, visits Hawaii Plantation Village, a poke shop and Oahu food trucks serving plate lunches. The tour, which starts at 9 a.m. and last four to five hours, is offered five days a week and costs $169 for adults and $99 for children.

Maui Country Farm Tours: These tours that explore the farms, beverage makers and restaurants of the the upcountry area of Maui are run by Marilyn Jansen Lopes, who has spent years networking with the various businesses and demonstrates a limitless enthusiasm for the products of the island. She offers a variety of excursions, including a West Maui tour starting at $150 per person, and both an upcountry and deluxe upcountry farm tour at $175 and $200 per person, respectively. The tours include lunch and fees at the various farms. Some of the stops include Ocean Vodka Organic Farm and Distillery, where they make their spirits with desalinated deep-ocean water; Alii Kula Lavender Farm, where guests receive a warm scone and cup of tea; MauiWine  Ulupalakua Vineyards, home to the popular Hula o Maui pineapple sparkling wine; and Ulupalakua Ranch Store, where you can eat juicy, local beef burgers 2,000 feet above sea level.

Tasting Kauai: This company on the Garden Isle runs a few different food tours based on regions of the island. The family-friendly outings include stops at specialty shops and well-known local restaurants and food trucks. Participants not only have the chance to try some of Kauai's most notable dishes, but also have the opportunity to meet the chefs and cooks behind the creations. The guides, Marta and Daniel Lane, have both worked in food journalism and have a deep knowledge of the various food purveyors on the island. The tastings and stops change based on the season and availability. They offer a north shore, south shore and east side tour, and they all cost $99 per person.
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