Happy August! My July break absolutely flew by… And I didn’t bake a single thing all month. Not one.
I think this is the longest I’ve gone without baking anything since… Hmm… My freshman year of college when I lived in the dorms and didn’t have my own kitchen??
However… I was just so busy doing other things! I went to a musical with my grandma and her best friend, celebrated my belated birthday with them too (which included an incredibly decadent chocolate cake from a local bakery!), replanted herbs in my little garden, and had a lovely virtual coffee date with one of my best friends from high school.
And speaking of coffee dates…
Let’s pretend you and I are having one! Because I’m itching to tell you all about my extra special vacation with my mom.
So grab some coffee or tea (iced or hot, I won’t judge!), and I’ll spill all the details!
In mid-July, my mom traveled to the big island of Hawaii for business. Her work allowed her to bring one guest, and since my dad already had plans to backpack part of the Pacific Crest Trail, she invited me along.
When all meetings were cancelled on her second day of business, we ended up with three full days to relax and explore. So here are some of the things we did!
We stayed at the Marriott in Waikoloa. It’s right on the ocean. You literally walk straight from the pools out into the beach! (It was probably the best beach we visited during our trip, too!)
And speaking of the pools…
We spent as much time there as humanly possible. Mornings, evenings, everything in between! We both thoroughly enjoyed the waterslide (especially my mom… I lost track of how many times she raced down it!), and I loved the pool with a sandy lagoon-like bottom the most.
A few times during our trip, we also relaxed in the spacious open-air lobby. I sat at a table overlooking the ocean one day to work on a crossword (I’m obsessed with those puzzles!), and we lounged on a comfy sofa another day to watch a free hula performance. So fun!
The only downside? We couldn’t stay on vacation indefinitely and had to go home!
As a baking-obsessed person, this was the top highlight of the trip for me! We stumbled across a vanilla bean farm tour in Kona, about a half hour south of our hotel, and we stopped by for the last tour slot of the day.
The Vanillerie owner, Guy Cellier, had earned his PhD and was an incredibly smart man, but you’d never know it from his humble personality. He patiently explained each part of the vanilla bean growing, harvesting, and drying processes as he walked us through the viney plants, and I learned so much as he talked, like how…
›› Vanilla plants are actually orchids, and the flowers only bloom for four hours once a year. That’s it!
›› All vanilla orchids must be pollinated by hand. It requires an incredibly delicate touch… And a slightly surprising method!
›› All of their vanilla beans are also picked by hand. At the Vanillerie, their head picker, JR Pataray, gently plucks them from the vine (and then makes sure he doesn’t miss any of the precious pods!).
›› The Vanillerie also dries their vanilla beans by hand, using the hot sunlight on the Kona coast. If dried correctly, vanilla beans actually have an indefinite shelf life. They never go bad!
›› The outsides of the vanilla bean pods are just as flavorful as the caviar (those little pinprick-sizes seeds!) inside. So don’t throw away those outer parts!
We learned so much more (that’s just a teensy snippet of the tour!), and we received a scoop of sweet and luxurious vanilla bean ice cream made with the Vanillerie’s vanilla beans at the end of the tour. The gift shop also sold all kinds of fun products, ranging from regular vanilla extract and vanilla sugar grinders to vanilla bean lotion and body scrub… And just about everything in between.
Of course… I just had to purchase a kit to make my own vanilla at home using their beans. Stay tuned for how that goes!
Bottom line? If you enjoy baking — or eating anything made with vanilla! — then I 1,000% highly recommend stopping by the Vanillerie for a tour! Definitely my favorite part of our trip!
While in Kona, we drove up the Hualālai mountain into Cloud Forest, aptly named because of the thick clouds encompassing the land, roads, and houses that sit up on the mountain. When we started at the base, it was 92°F and incredibly hot and humid…
But by the time we got partway up, we were completely surrounded by clouds, fog, and mist. We even drove through torrential downpours partway through!
But the views… Oh my goodness. We looked out from the winding road and could easily see the coast, ocean, and beautiful sunshine streaming down onto both. Absolutely breathtaking.
It’s a completely different world up there… And a nice little break from the beating hot sun!
Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation
While up in Cloud Forest, we stopped by the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation for a coffee bean tour. Thankfully, it was all indoors (it drizzled the entire time!), and our guide showed us the roasting process from start to finish.
We began by looking at freshly picked coffee beans (they’re actually bright red, like cranberries!), saw the appearance of the beans once those colorful skins were removed, and walked through their facility that separates the “regular” coffee beans from the “peaberry” ones (the latter are round and somewhat larger, so eating 7 peaberry beans is supposedly the caffeine equivalent of one cup of coffee!).
From there, we checked out the roaster. Because the weather and temperatures vary so much in Cloud Forest, they still judge when the beans are done roasting entirely by sight and sound. (Many coffee facilities program the roasting machine to do it automatically for them instead!) We learned about the difference between American (light), Vienna (medium), and French (dark) roasts, saw the packaging and grinding room, then…
Headed back to the gift shop for samples! They process and roast a few hundred pounds of their own beans right there from their Mountain Thunder farm, but they also process and roast thousands of additional pounds of beans from other smaller farms on the Big Island.
Although my mom hates the taste of coffee, I still sipped on some of Mountain Thunder’s Cloud Forest Estate Vienna roast coffee. It’s fairly expensive since they grow, harvest, and roast everything by hand, but the resulting coffee tasted delicious!
Quick note: It can be hit or miss whether you end up with a good tour guide. Ours sounded a bit bored and like she could probably give the tour in her sleep, but it was still fascinating to learn about the entire coffee growing and roasting process!
Place of Refuge
We actually saw the Place of Refuge highlighted on the Hawaii TV channel one evening while relaxing before bed in our hotel room, and something immediately drew me to the Tiki-like wooden statues prominently featured in the program. Mom sounded interested too, so we drove south on our last full day to check out the national historic park.
The Place of Refuge is a very sacred place to Hawaiians. Although once the location of royal grounds, it’s slightly more famous as a destination for the lawbreakers that sought refuge there (hence the “Place of Refuge!”). If anyone broke a sacred law, called kapu, they would be sentenced to death… Unless they managed to evade their capturers, swim to the Place of Refuge, and climb ashore past the dangerous black lava rocks. Once on land at the Place of Refuge, ceremonies would be held to forgive the lawbreakers, and they could then return back to society.
We walked all around the cove, reading our guide maps and marveling at the various stops along the self-guided tour. The grand statues (called “ki’i”) stood in the middle of it, right next to the massive 18-foot-wide stone wall (made with zero mortar or glue holding the oversized stones together — they’re simply stacked on top of and around each other!). Each wooden statue had a very tall headdress, and the excessive height indicated their royal status. I can only imagine how heavy those headdresses must have been… Even though the real-life royals wore ones made from feathers, rather than wood!
We also checked out the canoe houses, sacred temple, and oversized stone directly outside of the wall overlooking the serene turquoise ocean, supposedly one of the king’s favorite resting places.
On our way out, we spotted a few tourists taking photos of a bright yellow wall at the entrance, and something clicked into place in my brain…
“We came here when I was 9 or 10!” I exclaimed to my mom. “I remember this yellow wall, the narration buttons… And the paintings of ancient Hawaiians!”
Somehow, I didn’t remember the striking wooden Tiki-like statues… But the peace and serenity of the Place of Refuge was definitely worth a visit!
(There’s also a beach nearby with pretty good snorkeling!)
Lava Lava Beach Club
When Mom drove me from the airport to the hotel, she excitedly pointed out the sign for the Lava Lava Beach Club, just one driveway prior to our hotel’s parking lot. As we walked around the hotel grounds, waiting for the staff to clean our room so we could check in, she pointed out the restaurant again, located a short walk down the beach, so I knew we were going to eat there at least once… If not more!
And of course, that’s exactly what we did.
We met up with her two coworkers and their significant others for dinner at the Lava Lava Beach Club one evening. We arrived early, around 5:15 pm, since the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and immediately fills up in the blink of an eye because…
It’s literally on the beach! About half of the tables and chairs actually sit on the sand, and because the restaurant faces due west, that gives guests the picture-perfect view of the sunset.
We ended up at the table with the best possible view, and as we talked and ate, I actually slipped off my sandals and dug my toes directly into the sand. Eating fresh seafood (shrimp for me, the featured fish catch of the day for almost everyone else!), sand between my toes, watching the sun gracefully slip down the sky and paint it stunning tangerine and dusty rose hues…
Life really doesn’t get better than that.
Well, until the dessert menu arrived! 😉
We ended up ordering two slices of Big Island lime pie and one “Kiss My Chocolate Monkey” (vanilla cake, chocolate mousse, banana custard, with more bananas and chocolate and butterscotch sauces!) for the table.
My mom and I headed back to the Lava Lava Beach Club, just the two of us, for a late lunch the very next day! I ordered the same fresh vegetable salad with shrimp, while Mom picked the kalua pork sliders with coconut coleslaw and incredibly crispy fries.
I have a feeling we would’ve gone back a third time, if we didn’t have to leave the Big Island to fly back home!
As I sat on my return flight, soaring somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, I smiled to myself…
That was the first big vacation I’ve taken in years (other than this brief semi-local one!), ever since I started full-time food blogging, and I’m so incredibly glad I did. It felt so refreshing and rejuvenating to be in paradise, exploring vanilla and coffee bean farms instead of the aisles of the grocery store… slipping on swimsuits and sandals instead of aprons and oven mitts… glued to the beach and pool instead of emails and social media…
It felt so good to take a break. To relax. To stop letting work run my life.
Don’t get me wrong… I absolutely love that Amy’s Healthy Baking is my full-time job, and I’m incredibly grateful for the role you played in that.
But I think it’s important to remember that I’m Amy… Not just Amy’s Healthy Baking.
It’s just as important to take care of myself. To try to put myself first, rather than my job.
And I really hope you’re able to do the same thing in your life, too. ♡
And now, because I almost always take way too many photos… Here are a few more from our Big Island of Hawaii vacation! Starting with our hotel (and the view from our room!)…
Then more from the Vanillerie and the amazing vanilla bean tour…
A goat! We saw lots of them along the highway to and from Kona, along with around the hotel grounds.
The fun entryway to the Lava Lava Beach Club…
Our drive south on the west side of the Big Island…
And more from the Place of Refuge!