On tour, roots of a luau staple

Kids on a tour of the Kohala Institute at Iole.
Kids on a tour of the Kohala Institute at Iole.
Most visitors to the Hawaiian Islands taste their first poi at a luau, and after years of witnessing these introductory samplings at luaus across the Aloha State, I feel comfortable reporting that the majority of those first-time visitor reviews are not glowing

For many travelers to Hawaii, a small scoop of poi from the luau buffet is the limit of their exposure to the taro plant, also known as kalo in the Hawaiian language, and it's not uncommon for people to leave thinking of taro only as something that produces a bland, purple paste when you pound up the roots.

Taro is an integral component, however, of Hawaiian creation stories and thought of as the ancestral older brother of the Islands' first human inhabitants. Kalo was so important to Polynesians they carried it with them to Hawaii in their long-voyage sailing canoes, and the archipelago was covered in loi kalo, or carefully engineered, terraced taro wetlands, by the 1778 arrival of Capt. James Cook, the first Western explorer to set foot on the Islands.

"Taro was a staple food for ancient Hawaiians," said Noelani Kalipi, the executive director of the Kohala Institute at Iole. "It really has always had a spiritual connection, a cultural connection, and from an agriculture perspective, it's a very healthy food."

Located on the north shore of the Big Island of Hawaii, Iole is one of the Aloha State's few remaining intact ahupuaa, an ancient Hawaiian land division running from the mountains to the sea, and the Kohala Institute offers visitors a chance to tour some of the farming projects now underway there along with a wonderful opportunity to explore a recently renovated pre-Western-contact loi kalo.

The taro plant, also known as kalo in the Hawaiian language.
The taro plant, also known as kalo in the Hawaiian language.

Cleared out from beneath a veritable jungle of invasive plants and trees by a community group from the North Kohala district of the Big Island, the taro patch is a cleverly designed system of terraces, making use of water from a nearby stream, that offers travelers not only a glimpse into Hawaii's history but also a better understanding of taro's importance.

The Iole Ag Journey "is intended to give visitors a sense of what it's like to be on an ahupuaa now and back in the day," Kalipi said. "And then also a look at modern-day farming and water practices [and] a chance to see many ways to engage in healthy agricultural practices."

Lasting about 90 minutes, the tour begins at the loi kalo but then offers visitors an up-close look at the state's largest organic macadamia nut farm and a modern permaculture and agroforestry site while learning more about the region's rich heritage.

"King Kamehameha grew up in this area and spent time across many of the ahupuaa here," Kalipi said. "And our land is one of the areas where we know he had a presence, and we have evidence of some of the land and water practices he engaged in."

Kamehameha would eventually unite all of the Hawaiian Islands. And while the Iole tour certainly isn't just a history lesson, the range of stories about Hawaii's past combined with insight into the Islands' ancient approach to sustainable agriculture and the natural beauty make the activity a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.

"Ultimately, our focus is to give people the opportunity to walk through these areas and learn a little more about growing food in a healthy manner," Kalipi said. "We're really trying to provide experiential learning that allows people to connect with the land."

The tour is $35 for adults and kids older than 4; admission is free for ages 3 and younger.

Visit www.kohalainstitute.org.

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