POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 1, 2011
On a trip to New York City two years ago, Jim Reddekopp and his wife, Tracy, decided to take an afternoon cooking class at celebrated chef David Bouley's eponymous restaurant.
When the couple enrolled in the class, they didn't know much about New York. "But that night, when we had an incredible dinner with 18 people from New York, we made a real connection with the city," Reddekopp said. "We not only shared a meal, we shared ideas, experiences and camaraderie. We left that night with memories and insights about New York that will stay with us forever."
As the founders of the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. on the Big Island, the Reddekopps recognize the important role culinary experiences can play in characterizing Hawaii's unique "sense of place."
Since 2006 they have welcomed visitors to their farm for tours, talks, luncheons and afternoon teas revolving around vanilla, which they've been growing on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea volcano since 1998.
"Travel should be fun and educational, and one of the best ways to do that is via food," Reddekopp said. "Tracy and I plan our vacations around food. We love spending the day visiting purveyors, then enjoying a gourmet meal made of ingredients from that area. Food defines a destination as much as its history, attractions and scenic sights."
IF YOU GO ...
Aimed AT groups of 15 to 50 people, the Reddekopps' new venture, Earth Bound Tours, supports "agritourism" — a cross between agriculture and tourism. EBT takes visitors to farms and ranches on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island, giving them an insider's look at what's involved with bringing produce and meat to market.
"Our tours involve all the senses," Reddekopp said. "For example, participants may learn how taro is grown and what significance it has in Hawaiian culture and history. They not only see loi (patches), they pick taro, smell it and taste it. They meet the growers who provide Hawaii's best restaurants with taro, and listen to their stories. Every tour ends with a wonderful meal made with locally grown ingredients."
The Reddekopps came up with the idea for EBT during a conversation they had with Matthew Loke, administrator of the state Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Development Division, at the Made in Hawaii Festival in Honolulu last August. They wanted to explore the possibility of working with members of the Hawaii Seal of Quality program, which was established in 2006. Only premium products that have been entirely grown or made in Hawaii carry the SOQ seal.
"For many years I worked for Fly Away Holidays, a tour company that my father started in 1972," Reddekopp said. "We primarily arranged trips to the mainland and Canada that ended in Las Vegas. My goal was to take my background as a tour operator and my agriculture background as co-founder of the Hawaiian Vanilla Co. to promote a new kind of tourism that really connects people to the places they visit in the islands. The Hawaiian Vanilla Co. is a founding member of SOQ, and we thought our fellow members, who now number close to 50 statewide, would be the perfect partners for such a ‘green tourism' product."
When Reddekopp first began approaching farmers and ranchers, they weren't convinced agritourism would have broad appeal. "They asked, ‘Why would people want to visit my business? I just grow coffee, mushrooms, tomatoes, anthuriums, etc.,'" Reddekopp said. "I told them, ‘Visitors want to meet you and learn as much as they can about what you do. It's a part of Hawaii they don't know; it's something new, different and interesting for them.'"
Many of the 45 companies that have partnered with EBT aren't normally open to the public. Itineraries are customized to meet the interests of the group.
Gardening enthusiasts, for instance, can visit some of the finest flower farms in Hawaii, then create classic arrangements with guidance from a professional floral designer. Those who are curious about cultivation practices will appreciate the opportunity to discuss biodynamic farming, aquaculture, hydroponics and aquaponics with experts in those fields. During hands-on culinary classes taught by professional chefs, guests learn how to prepare, cook and serve dishes made from fresh local ingredients. Tours also can revolve around alternative energy, including wind farms, geothermal technology, photovoltaic systems and ocean energy.
"Earth Bound is for travelers who want to learn, who don't mind getting their hands dirty and who enjoy the company of others," Reddekopp said. "What better way to share our island home is there than opening our doors to all who want to come in, just like the Hawaiians did in ancient times? When visitors see where we live and work, hear our stories, taste our food and feel our aloha, that's the ‘real' Hawaii — something they'll want to experience again and again."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.