I have just returned from a wonderful vacation to Hawaii. We stayed almost the entire time at the Makena Beach and Golf Resort (formerly the Prince Hotel) on the south side of Maui. I had an excellent experience in dealing with this trip on a gluten-free diet, and most of that is thanks to Chef Marc McDowell, who is the new executive chef at Makena. Chef McDowell and the rest of his staff went way out of his way to ensure I had an easy and comfortable trip without worries about gluten issues.
When I was first planning out my trip to Maui, I did a little research on what to expect. I did find a blog post with some useful tidbits of information, especially in the comments section. Encouraged, I sent out an email to the concierge at Makena to see what they could do for me about gluten-free dining. I didn’t want to travel around much – my plan for this vacation was to spend as much time as possible by the beach and the pool, relaxing my ass off. (Mission accomplished, by the way…)
What I got in response a couple of days later was an email from Chef McDowell, saying I’d have nothing to worry about, and that he wanted to give me a call to go over some options. When we talked, Marc let me know he had extensive experience with handling food allergies and intolerances, and he was going to make sure I had whatever I wanted. I muttered something about burgers and pancakes with bacon, and he said we’d be good. Yes, every morning I had gluten-free pancakes with bacon, and on several occasions lunch consisted of a burger on a gluten-free bun with hand-cut and custom-prepared fries, poolside. Just look at this work of art:
In ordering, I found it was easiest for me to let the wait staff to give my name to whomever the chef on duty. Chef McDowell made sure the kitchen staff were well advised of my situation and how to prepare gluten-free meals, and just about anything I wanted to eat they were able to customize to be gluten-free. Here I am with my two new best friends. Chef Lester on the left, Chef Marc McDowell on the right. I am the well-fed one in the middle:
On the second day of our trip, we booked a tour to Hana and around the south side of Maui. This is a very remote part of the island, with a lot of windy dirt road to get through. Marc had asked if we were going on any excursions, and indeed this was just about the only one we had planned ahead of time. He insisted that they pack a lunch for us, and that morning at breakfast I went and picked up a cooler full of sandwich fixin’s, with the gluten-free parts clearly labeled. This was incredibly thoughtful and we had a great picnic in Hana with turkey wraps for my wife and kids, and a nice big gluten-free turkey club sandwich for myself.
Dinners were quite good. The special evening for us was dinner at Roku, which is the Japanese restaurant there at the resort. I brought my own gluten-free soy sauce (actually black bean sauce to be specific—tastes very similar) for the event. We decided to order some sashimi for appetizers and then a nice big pot of sukiyaki for the main course. We handed a small, travel-size bottle of the black bean sauce to the waitress and she said the chef would have no problem making a special batch of sukiyaki sauce for us.
Eventually we decided to rent a car and explore a bit outside the island. With a little Google research, I was able to find a pasta joint in Lahaina called Penne Pasta. They have rice pasta available for $2 extra per plate, and they assured me that the pasta was cooked separately and with all the appropriate precautions in place. I had some great bolognese and was quite full on our way back to the hotel.
That night we booked reservations at Mala Wailea at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort. Let me just start by saying I generally can’t stand the Marriott chain. There is something kind of corporate and unfriendly that I’ve experienced at every one I’ve stayed at. This place was no different. When asking for directions, the employee I asked looked as if she were thoroughly inconvenienced by my query, and then pointed it out with a rather snotty tone of voice. Once at Mala, things got much better. Very professional staff, and we had our meals served in record time. There was a bit of excitement over the fact that we were seated right near Alice Cooper, who is apparently a part owner of the restaurant – he looks way more friendly in person. Anyway, the menu has gluten-free items indicated right there, but it wasn’t very clear as they only marked appetizers and sides with gluten-free and didn’t mention anything about the entrees. Turns out many of the entrees could be modified or were already gluten free, so it was no big deal, but I couldn’t help but think if you’re going to print a menu like that then at least mark a few entree options. Anyway, the food was decent, although a bit too much on the sweet side overall.
On our last day, we did a road trip up to Wailuku and the Iao Valley. Along the way, we found Maui Tacos, which is a great little chain fast-food joint. On their website they state that everything not made with flour tortillas or enchilada sauce is gluten-free, so that means tacos and the burrito bowls are A-OK. I had a couple of hard tacos and half of my wife’s burrito bowl and they were quite tasty. Maui Taco franchises are found all over Hawaii and in a few locations on the mainland as well! I hope to see one in the Bay Area soon…
My recommendation to anyone traveling to Hawaii is: Stay at a nice place like the Makena resort, and get in touch with the head chef beforehand to make sure they can handle your needs and give them time to prepare. Makena was more than accommodating, and I was really appreciative of everything they did for me. This resort is in a transition under their new management, and I can clearly see these guys are committed to rebuilding this hotel with things like customer service and attention to detail at the forefront of the guest experience. You’d be in very good hands staying at the Makena and letting Chef McDowell and the rest of the great staff there take care of you. And if you do head down to Makena, tell them I said hello!