Surf, Sand and Spam

By | Blog Posts, Hawaii | No Comments

Hawaii’s residents devour the much-maligned meat

March 17, 2022

HONOLULU – There’s an old proverb: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Hawaii Spam

Spam for sale at a Safeway in Honolulu

I certainly wouldn’t equate Spam with trash.  But consuming the canned mystery-meat has about as much appeal to me as a week-old Costco hot dog.

In Hawaii though, the state’s residents view Spam in a far more favorable light than most mainland Americans.

It all started during World War II when Spam was introduced to feed U.S. military personnel stationed on the islands.  The product — manufactured at Hormel plants in Minnesota and Iowa — worked well as a wartime staple because it didn’t require refrigeration and had a long shelf life.

Ever since, the cooked pork product has been an integral part of the local diet, even earning the moniker “Hawaiian steak.”

Hawaii’s residents eat 7 million cans of Spam each year, the highest per capita consumption rate in the country.  If you do the math, it averages out to about five cans per person.

That’s five more cans than I typically consume.

At no time was the state’s infatuation with Spam more apparent than in 2017, when stores on the islands were hit with a rash of Spam thefts. Authorities said the stolen Spam was used by drug dealers as a form of currency. The problem became so bad that some stores actually started keeping cans of Spam in locked display cases.

I spoke about Hawaii’s love of the much-maligned meat with Kainoa Delacruz, who has been lecturing about Hawaiian culture on cruise ships for 20 years.  I sat down with Kainoa following one of his presentations on the Holland America Koningsdam during a recent 17-day cruise to the islands.

McDonald's Spam Platter

A Spam Platter at a McDonald’s in Honolulu comes with rice and eggs

“I grew up with Spam,” he told me.  “I acquired a taste for it and a love for it. I love a good Spam sandwich – just bread, mayonnaise, cheese and Spam.”

During my visit to the islands, I noticed Spam for sale in every convenience and grocery store, some of which devoted entire sections to the product.

Even McDonald’s has Spam on its menu.  At the Golden Arches just a block away from Honolulu’s famed Waikiki Beach, I tried a “Spam Platter” – a plastic plate full of scrambled eggs, white rice and Spam.

It might be the only time in my life in which I’ve dined at McDonald’s and didn’t clean my plate.

Kainoa said a favorite Hawaiian way to eat Spam is in the form of musubi – a fried slice of Spam on rice pressed together to form a small block, then wrapped with a strip of dried seaweed known as nori.

“We took the Japanese heritage involving sushi and put Spam on top of it,” he explained.  About 14 percent of the state’s population has Japanese ancestry.

Jennesa Kinscher, Hormel’s Spam brand manager, said Spam musubi in Hawaii “is as famous as a slice in N.Y. and a hot dog in Chicago.”  Kinscher added that the dish seems to be gaining traction in the rest of the country.  “It continues to gain popularity on the mainland — from restaurant menus to food trucks to local kitchens,” she said.

musubi spam

Sushi-like musubi is a popular Spam dish in Hawaii (photo courtesy of Hormel Foods)

Spam has long been ridiculed around the world — it was the punchline to a famous Monty Python skit that ultimately spawned a Broadway musical comedy called “Spamalot.”  Paramount Pictures is adapting the show into a movie.

Jokes about the canned meat are rampant on the Internet.  For instance, there are numerous derivations of this joke:  “Do not open email from Hormel Foods.  It might be Spam.”

Wisecracks aside, it’s clear that Spam isn’t burdened with the same stigma in Hawaii as in other places.  Kainoa told me a story about living in New York City when Spam helped build a cultural bridge with his roommate.

“My mom was sending me cans of Spam,” he recalls.  And my roommate asked why.  ‘Are you guys poor?’

Kainoa responded to his roommate: “’It’s funny that you say that.  I think you are poor because you eat mac and cheese all the time.  I always thought that only poor people eat mac and cheese.’”

When his roommate wasn’t home, Kainoa mixed cubes of Spam into a pot of mac and cheese.

“When he came home, he tried it and he loved it.  I loved it, too.  It was interesting that my Spam and his mac and cheese brought us even closer as friends.  It’s kind of like our friendship meal.”

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner

Hawaii Cruises Finally Resume

By | Cruising, Hawaii, Hawaii -- Hilo | No Comments

After two-year pandemic-related absence, cruisers return to explore Kilauea volcano, waterfalls and historic temples

The USA Today — February 7, 2022

HILO, Hawaii – While cruising in the Hawaiian Islands is just now returning to life after a two-year pandemic-related hiatus, Tūtū Pele has been far from dormant.


The Holland America Koningsdam anchored off the coast of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Holland America is one of several cruise lines that resumed sailing to the Hawaiian Islands in January 2022

The legendary Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes has been busy flexing her muscles and cleansing the Earth in the place where many Hawaiians believe she resides — the famed Kilauea volcano in the south-central part of the Big Island of Hawaii.

My late January visit to the top of Kilauea and the surrounding Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — was one of the highlights of a recent 17-day cruise to the Hawaiian Islands on the Holland America Koningsdam.

Hawaii cruises resumed in January 2022

I was aboard the first Holland America ship to return to Hawaii since November 2019.  Other cruise lines, including Carnival and Princess, also resumed Hawaii sailings in January.

The cruise, heavy on sea days, started and ended in San Diego. After a stop in Catalina Island — 22 miles west of mainland California — we were at sea five days before reaching Honolulu on the island of Oahu.  We also visited Maui and spent three days exploring Hawaii’s Big Island — so named because it’s larger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined.

We were anchored for two days off the coast of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island’s relatively dry western side, home of most of the island’s resorts.

mauna kea

The snow-capped Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its peak is 13,803 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state of Hawaii

In Kona, we toured coffee plantations and hiked through a “cloud forest” on the slopes of the Hualālai Volcano, 3,000 feet above sea level.  We also visited the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park, where ruling chiefs would grant absolution to Hawaiian lawbreakers and vanquished warriors.

On our final day in Hawaii, the Koningsdam was docked on the more tropical eastern side of the island in Hilo, a gateway to picturesque waterfalls and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Hilo is the rainiest city in the United States, averaging 211 days of precipitation each year. Fortunately, we had sunny skies, ideal for viewing the snow-capped Mauna Kea volcano.  Its peak is 13,803 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state.

Kilauea’s spiritual significance

Visitors to Kilauea’s 4,000-foot-high summit can see a constant eruption of volcanic gases that have been spewing from its caldera since 1983.  The result is an ever-changing landscape of black lava fields, steam vents, underground lava tubes and basaltic rock formations.

For Hawaiians, Kilauea is much more than a scenic mountain that glows at night during eruptions.  It’s a wahi kapu — sacred place — that has deep spiritual significance.

It’s believed that Pele, short for Pelehonuamea, inhabits Kilauea and its even larger but less active neighbor to the west, Mauna Loa.  Hawaiians often refer to the goddess as Tūtū — grandmother — as a sign of fondness and respect.


The Kilauea caldera spews a steady stream of volcanic gases

If ever there were an aptly named volcano, it would be Kilauea, which means “much spreading” in the Hawaiian language.  Tūtū Pele’s burning lava flows have caused significant property damage to farms and homes as recently as 2018.  Another eruption — thus far low-key — started last September within the Halema’uma’u crater, the volcano’s most active vent.

Kilauea’s eruptions: ‘We refer to it as creation’

Kainoa Delacruz, our onboard “Hawaiian Cultural Ambassador,” told me that despite Pele’s occasional outbursts, most Hawaiians don’t fear the deity.

“When she erupts, we don’t refer to what she does as devastation,” said Delacruz, who has been lecturing on cruise ships for 20 years.  “We refer to it as creation.  While she’s burning everything down, she’s really cleaning.  It’s not looked as a negative thing to have her roll her lava over everything.  We know that things will come back even better.”

I especially enjoyed hiking past extraterrestrial-like rock formations through one of Kilauea’s many black lava fields.  Along the way, we encountered several nene, also known as the Hawaiian goose.  The nene is Hawaii’s official state bird.

kilauea lava field

Hikers walk across a lava field with unusual rock formations at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii

We also stopped to see the Wahinekapu steam vents, where hot-water vapor continuously billows from cracks in the earth.  Hawaiians come to the vents to place leis and other adornments as offerings to Pele.

On the drive from the ship in Hilo to Kilauea, we stopped at two waterfalls — Akaka and Rainbow.  With a height of 442 feet, Akaka is more than twice as tall as Niagara Falls. Seeing it up close involves an easy half-mile hike on a loop trail.

COVID-19 protocols on our Hawaii cruise

Passengers were required to register prior to the cruise with the state at and upload proof of vaccination.  We were then emailed a QR code to display to local authorities when we got off the ship in Hawaii.

Additionally, Holland America required us to produce a negative, medically observed viral COVID-19 test taken no more than two days before sailing.  We were tested again at the cruise terminal in San Diego prior to embarkation.  Two days later, following our first port stop in Catalina Island, we were tested again on the ship.

Douro River Valley

A paddleboarder glides past the Ahuena Heiau Temple, once the residence of Hawaiian King Kamahameha the Great, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Masks were required to be worn throughout the cruise, except when we were actively eating or drinking, in our own cabins or on outside decks where we could socially distance.  We were each given several KN95 masks.  From what I observed, a vast majority of my fellow passengers were compliant of the mask rule — even when dancing at one of several music venues on the Koningsdam.

The 2,650-passenger ship — the largest in Holland America’s fleet — was about half full.  More than 90 percent of the passengers on the sailing were Americans.

A downside of being on one of the first cruise ships back in Hawaii was that the local tour operators seemed rusty.  Some of the excursions I took were disorganized and the guides were clearly out of practice — understandable after more than two years of having few tourists to take sightseeing.

But that in no way marred the experience of seeing Kilauea and her sister volcanoes in all their grandeur.  It’s been a rough couple of years for Hawaii’s tourism industry.  Now, the cruise ships — and tourism dollars — are starting to come back.  And Pele, according to Hawaiian legend, continues to regenerate and breathe new life into her surroundings.

“This current eruption is just an indication that Pele is playing in the front yard,” said Delacruz.  “Everything is OK.”

Websites for more info:
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Holland America Line
                                                                                © 2022 Dan Fellner

Jewish Life in a Tropical Paradise

By | Hawaii, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Maui’s Beit Shalom meeting the needs of Jewish residents and tourists in Hawaii

February 1, 2022

KIHEI, Maui – It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a Jewish house of worship than the one located in a quiet residential neighborhood at the corner of Alulike and Kaonoulu Streets in Kihei, Hawaii.

maui synagogue

Maui’s Beit Shalom, one of only two stand-alone synagogues in the Hawaiian Islands

Beit Shalom, a blue one-story building adorned with a large star of David on its roof fronted by a lush garden of flowers, is just a five-minute walk from the picturesque white-sand Kamaole Beach on Maalaea Bay, the longest uninterrupted stretch of beach on the island of Maui.

The tiny shul is home to the Jewish Congregation of Maui and is one of only two stand-alone synagogues in the entire Hawaiian Islands.

It’s a place where Jews living in paradise – joined by a steady stream of tourists — can maintain their Jewish identity, observe the holidays, and even celebrate the end of Shabbat with a Havdalah service right on the beach with Humpback whales swimming in the distance.

I recently visited Beit Shalom during a cruise to Hawaii on the Holland America Koningsdam.  Deciding to forego an array of Maui sightseeing tours offered to the ship’s passengers, I caught a local bus for a half-hour trip south from the port of Kapalua – where the Koningsdam was docked – to see the synagogue in Kihei.

There, I met Ellyn Mortimer, Beit’s Shalom’s executive director and — until recently — its only employee.  There had been a rabbi, renowned whale-researcher David Glickman, but he left the position in 2019.  Three years with no rabbi — not to mention the pandemic — has made it a challenging time for the congregation.

Ellyn Mortimer

Ellyn Mortimer, executive director of the Jewish Congregation of Maui, inside Beit Shalom’s small sanctuary

Finally, in late January 2022 the congregation hired a new rabbi, Hawaii-born Raanan Mallek.  Most recently, he led a congregation in Shorashim, Israel.

Rabbi Mallek was one of more than 100 applicants for the job.  If you’re a rabbi, you can do a lot worse than a post on Maui.

“I’m thrilled,” said Mortimer of Rabbi Mallek’s arrival.  “It’s leadership that a synagogue needs.  If we were a community center, it would be different.  But we’re a synagogue.”

It’s estimated that about 7,000 Jews live in the Hawaiian Islands.  Most are in Honolulu – home of Emanu-El — the only other synagogue in Hawaii besides Beit Shalom.  Emanu-El is a reform congregation located just six miles from the famed Waikiki Beach.  Additionally, there are several Chabad chapters in Hawaii and some small congregations that meet in hotels or rent space in churches.

Mortimer, who has lived in Maui for 27 years, says she thinks about 2,000 Jews live on the island; Maui has a total population of about 170,000.  Beit Shalom was established in the late 1990s and currently has about 150 members.  It’s unaffiliated and Mortimer says the level of religious observance is completely up to each individual.

“We welcome everybody,” she says.  “Basically, we ask that you don’t judge somebody’s path to Judaism, and they won’t judge your path to Judaism.”

Beit Shalom menorahs

Unique menorahs — with a Hawaiian flair — on display in the Beit Shalom sanctuary

Mortimer says that pre-COVID, about 20-30 people would typically turn up for Friday night services and there would be enough for a minyan on Shabbat morning.  During the busy winter months, up to 70 percent of attendees are tourists.  High-holiday services can attract as many as 130 people, making Beit Shalom’s small sanctuary “very crowded,” Mortimer says.

Originally constructed as a sales office to market surrounding properties, the synagogue features a kosher kitchen.  Not surprisingly, the specialty of the house is locally caught fresh fish — typically mahi-mahi or ahi tuna.

“We are fortunate to have some renowned chefs in our Jewish community who help with delicious preparation with local ingredients and local flare,” says Mortimer.

I was impressed with the sanctuary’s beautifully designed ner tamid — eternal flame.  Several unique Chanukah menorahs on display — with a Hawaiian flair — were created by artist and congregation board member Marge Bonar.  The synagogue has a small religious school that currently meets outdoors due to COVID.

In Maui, being able to hold religious classes outdoors is a treat — not an inconvenience.

Mortimer says it’s not unusual for tourists to drive by Beit Shalom, see the star of David, and knock on the door to find out if it’s really a synagogue.

“I love when people come and they’re surprised that there are Jews on Maui,” she says.  “It’s exciting for me as a director because it takes me back to our roots and why we’re actually here and why I’m doing this job.”


Maui’s beach on Maalaea Bay, just a five-minute walk from Beit Shalom

During the pandemic, Beit Shalom became a popular site for destination bar and bat mitzvahs – hosting at least a dozen.  If you’re going to gather for a religious ceremony and want it to be outdoors in a beautiful setting right on the beach, what better place than Maui?

“It’s whatever people want,” says Mortimer when I asked about the ceremonies involved with destination bar mitzvahs.  “Sometimes we do them here at the synagogue.  Sometimes we’ll do them at a location right on the ocean.  Because we’re pluralistic, we can give people what they want.  It’s more important that their ceremony is meaningful to them.  What do they want their child and their family to get out of it?”

With such an ethnically diverse population, Hawaii is known as a place that’s accepting of minority groups. The state twice elected a Jewish governor – Linda Lingle – who served in the position from 2002-2010.  Mortimer says the local Hawaiian population is inquisitive – but non-judgmental about Judaism.

It’s the same philosophy that forms the core of the Jewish Congregation of Maui’s mission.

“We’re not here to tell anybody how to be Jewish,” says Mortimer.  “We’re here to give people what they need to live their best Jewish life.”

Website for more info:
Jewish Congregation of Maui

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner