Sunday, March 8, 2015

Going Nuts for Macadamias on Hawaii

Macadamia Nuts are native to Australia, but the first large-scale commercial plantations were Hawaiian. Now the nut is nearly synonymous with The Aloha State. Sure, other search engines may have started up before Google, but no-one ever says they need to "yahoo" something. Such is the cultural association of the macadamia nut with Hawaii. Australia was left kind of like that guy who gives away an old painting from his attic that later turns out to be the lost work of a master. 

And if the nut is now identified with Hawaii, so too Hawaiian macadamias are identified with Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation. There are other plantations to be sure; actress Roseanne Barr owns one near Kona, and I had very good samples from Hamakua, but I wasn't in Hawaii to experience Rosie's nuts. I wanted to see where that product came from when I first discovered macadamia nuts as a kid.

The Mauna Loa plantation itself is a short 15-minute drive from Hilo on route HI-11 (Hawaii Belt Road). With nearly a quarter million trees on the plantation, there is sure to be one that is worthy of a quick photo as you proceed up Macadamia Nut Road. If the nuts are ripening on the trees, don't be tempted to pick any samples on your own. Macadamia nut oil is reputedly very healthy, but there is such a thing as being overly desperate for cheap nutrition. The nuts are incredibly tough to crack; typical nutcrackers won't work even after roasting, and you'd need a hammer and pliers. It was lost in translation that when David killed Goliath, he actually had a macadamia nut in his sling.

But if you need to smash some cement, by all means steal a couple lying on the ground.

The factory overview starts under the canopy towards the back of the picture, up some stairs to the railed platform (you peer through the windows), then back down the blue railed stairs in the foreground.

When you arrive at the factory and visitor center, about three miles down Macadamia Nut Road, head first for the self-guided tour (arrows point the way) You'll take a stairs up to an elevated walkway external to the factory, where you peer through large windows looking down onto each station in the production process. The floor workers have nowhere to scratch their buttocks incognito, which is perhaps an inadvertent quality control. Several "stops" above the factory include an audio component in a variety of different languages and video commentary on a suspended flat-screen TV. When we visited, one of the videos wasn't operational.

The gift shop is a tourist trap, but that's why the tourists come. It's a comfortable place to purchase kitschy Hawaiian souvenirs that support the Chinese economy. The shop also offers samples of all Mauna Loa's products. Sure, we could purchase bags cheaper at the nearby Walmart, but won't nuts direct from the factory be that much fresher? There are many things I'd pay a little more for not to encounter poor fashion choices in the box stores of paradise. We bought a few resealable 11 oz bags for $9.99 each.

The ladies at the sample counter were very generous; I felt like I had a full serving after trying most varieties. I particularly like the Maui Garlic and Onion and the plain dry-roasted. Our boys loved the honey-roasted. But the milk chocolate-coated confections?  You might just want to scrape the FDA-endorsed "chocolate" off and stick with the nuts. Hershey's bought Mauna Loa in 2004, and the light beer of the chocolate world does nothing to improve the nut on its own, though the candies are as shiny as a freshly waxed floor.

OK, the kids liked them.

But the ice cream is excellent, with nuts or without. The concession stand is behind the gift shop, on the back side of the visitor center. I had the vanilla in a waffle cone for US$3.40 and performed quality control on my children's choices. This may be the first time I've had a Hershey chocolate product I'd stand behind. Mauna Loa gives a generous serving of ice cream for your money. 

While your ice cream melts in your mouth (or on your hands), wander around the "nature walk," which features displays of tropical flora fronted by placards. It's really more of a spacious back lawn with a shotgun pattern of small gardens, but it's eye candy while you digest. Keep an eye out for a mongoose in the underbrush; these small immigrant carnivores are now as common in Hawaii as white on rice. They look so cute. Do the endemic ground-nesting birds a favor and run one over.

Travel can be an exhausting rush from one place to another. We found the nut plantation to be the perfect place for a couple hours of easy-access, low-stress fun after a hectic flight between islands. This is one place where I didn't get much value out of Tripadvisor. There are a lot of positive reviews of the ice cream, but also several by the type of tourist who suddenly becomes a prima donna on vacation. The visitor center purports to offer nothing more than a folksy, self-guided tour, tasty treats and a pleasant family-friendly diversion amidst your grander Hawaiian adventure. At face value the Mauna Loa Macadania Nut Plantation delivers that.

Hasn't everyone wanted to pose with a giant inflatable nut sack?
February, 2014.