Naturally, the morning we had to leave Maui it was absolutely breathtaking – a gorgeous, sunny day greeted us just in time to say goodbye. We oohed and ahhed at the surrounding beauty on our drive to the airport to catch our flight to the Big Island, which welcomes travelers with miles and miles of black lava fields.
As mom and I drove to our hotel, we looked around at the desolate landscape and questioned our decision to leave Maui. Our conversation in the car went a little like this:
Mom: What’s with all the rocks?
Me: That’s lava.
Mom: It feels like we’re in hell and someone forgot to tell us.
While I couldn’t help but agree, having never seen anything like the vast expanse of blackness, I vowed to mom that we would turn our stay on the Big Island by the time we left. I wanted to fall in love with it, as I know so many other people have before – there has to be something that sets this island apart, that makes it stand alone as a destination in itself.
We arrived at the Fairmont Orchid to a beautiful Fairmont Gold-level room (Gold-level is the Fairmont’s version of Club-level – definitely worth upgrading to, in my opinion, as you’ll receive multiple food presentations daily, well worth it!) and a complimentary cabana rental, presented by our lovely Fairmont Orchid reps, Noe, Joan and Sam. Thankfully, as soon as you enter the resort areas, the atmosphere of hellish lava rocks is far behind you. Instead, you’ll find incredibly beautiful grounds and beaches. Mom was in her happy place:
We enjoyed a short afternoon in the sun in a cabana right down from a giant stage on the outdoor lawn. With no signs up, we weren’t sure what was going on, we just heard a couple walk by us and say, “Oh, there’s Larry” and wave to a man in the distance near the stage. We thought nothing of it.
That afternoon, I met up with my Fairmont contacts and a few other agents from the Journese event for cocktails. Over Mauna Lani Mules (a must-try for anyone staying at either Fairmont in Hawaii! Known as the Molokini Mule at the Kea Lani), I had a conversation with Joan about the Big Island. As a native Canadian, she explained to me what drew her to this island in particular. She elaborated on the two different types of lava that you see everywhere around the island – Pahoehoe (the smoother lava) and A’a (the jagged, rocky formations) – but mentioned that the lava was certainly not the extent of what one could witness on the Big Island. The island of Hawai’i is home to 11 of the 13 different climate zones in the world – from tropical rainforests to volcanic deserts to tundra – yes, snow. Within this small area of land, one can experience as many different climates as they would driving between Alaska and Costa Rica. Wha!?
Armed with this new knowledge, I discussed the appeal of the Big Island with mom on the way to Merriman’s for dinner. The Big Island was suddenly becoming more and more interesting to us, which is something worth noting for anyone who visits: do your homework! When you know what you’re looking for, the bleakness of a giant lava field can suddenly become much more fascinating, as it continued to become for us over the course of the next 3 days.
Rewind to our arrival into Kona: while we were on the Avis bus to pick up our rental car (a Nissan Sentra that, no matter how hard I pressed the accelerator, would never top 60 mph) two men sat down across from us.
“Last name?” the bus driver asked.
“Merriman,” the man replied.
Having just eaten at Monkeypod Kitchen and after doing my due diligence on the restaurant scene in Hawaii, I thought for a second how funny it would be if this man was somehow involved in the Merriman restaurants. I dismissed the thought, though, until the two struck up a conversation with us. They asked if we were on vacation, where all we were going, where we planned on eating while we were there, if maybe we planned on eating at Merriman’s…
“So you ARE somehow related to the restaurants, right?” I asked. The men introduced themselves – Peter and Neil.
Neil was introduced to us as the head chef at Monkeypod, we thanked him for the most incredible Mahi Sandwiches we’d eaten. Peter did not identify himself in any particular way – just as humble as he could be – but Peter Merriman is a world-renowned chef, recipient of two James Beard Awards, and one of Hawaii’s most respected restaurateurs (if not THE most respected). The two were incredibly nice, told us that we’d be closest to Waimea from the Fairmont, and we parted ways saying we’d try to make it up to the restaurant that night.
Merriman’s was about a 25 minute drive from the Fairmont, located in Waimea, the upcountry of the Big Island (and home to another climate zone than the one we had come from). As soon as we walked in, we heard our names proclaimed from the table behind us. “Lindsey! Cathy! You made it!” – we looked over at Peter and Neil, hosting a table for dinner. What a feeling – to be thousands of miles from home, in the middle of the island of Hawaii’s Upcountry, and to be welcomed by name by Peter Merriman in his own restaurant – that’s something I’ll never forget.
My problem in life is this constant striving for perfection – I want every meal I eat to be the best meal I’ve ever eaten. Well, this one really was. I had the Macadamia Nut Crusted Mongchong, served in a miko-sake reduction and surrounded by the freshest mushrooms, broccolini and black forbidden rice (that was a new one for me!) and could not get enough.
My only regret (besides not having my nice camera to take a better picture of the dish) is eating the lunch that we’d had earlier, which I’m pretty sure featured some old fish (that restaurant won’t make it onto the blog), so neither of us had much of an appetite. Had that not been the case, I would’ve ordered the appetizer special – crab stuffed squash blossoms – and the Crispy Molten “Original Hawaiian Chocolate” Purse for dessert. Never forget: life is too short to not order dessert. That’s a rule I wish I hadn’t broken at Merriman’s and I’d go back in a heartbeat to try everything on the menu.
As we wrapped up our dinner, we were informed that the bill had been picked up by Mr. Merriman, an act of generosity that left us both speechless. With this act, I recognized how much further the heart behind Merriman’s beats – it’s not just about the freshest ingredients or the hand-crafted menu – it’s about the people. This is the kind of business and leadership that I respect more than anything else – you can’t teach character like that, it has to be instilled, and Peter Merriman is, without a doubt, a stand-up business owner, chef, and individual.
I don’t want to go all Lilo and Stitch on you, but over the course of the next few days, I truly began to see the meaning of Ohana in the Hawaiian culture, beginning with this very moment. It’s something I’m forever grateful to the Big Island for revealing to me, and I can’t wait to continue writing about it.
To end the incredible night, we arrived back at the Fairmont and heard the outdoor concert just outside of our room. Curious as to who was performing, we walked up just in time to hear Don Henley sing “Last Worthless Evening.”
The event was for Oracle’s President’s Club – remember “Larry” that the couple waved to earlier in the day? It was Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and the 5th wealthiest man on the planet, according to Forbes. We sat under the stars and listened to all of the Eagle’s best hits (the irony here: I visited the actual Hotel California last year on the Journese trip; this year I got to listen to Henley perform it live – bucket list moment!).
What. A. Day.
The best part of it all? I was already in love with the Big Island and we still had two more days to enjoy it.