Our Hawaii deep ocean mineral water originated as Greenland glacier melt over 2,000 years ago

Leave the surf behind and follow Shelley Seale into the mountains of Hawaii to discover an array of boutique farms

The Hawaiian island of Maui is a beach-and-ocean lover’s dream. Known as the “Valley Isle,” the coastline is dotted with pristine white and black sand beaches and a diverse array of water-based adventures. But a lesser-known side of Maui is its Upcountry: fertile slopes on the high elevations around Haleakala, with soaring views over the misty mountains and cool breezes that are a refreshing change from sea level.

Here, you’ll fine numerous farms, ranches and botanical gardens; with a variety of makers that are open to the public for demonstrations, tours or tastings. Spending a few hours, a day — or more — exploring this uniquely Maui region offers a glimpse into a completely different side of Hawaiian life.

My small group had arranged to meet our guide for a day tour around some of these Upcountry spots. She was easy to spot in a white van with her logo emblazoned across the side, and she immediately came bounding up to us with a wide smile, friendly hello and seemingly endless exuberance.

After introductions and bottles of water were passed around, she escorted us into the van as she explained briefly what the itinerary would be: visits to a lavender farm, vodka distillery and winery, with a stop for lunch at Ulupalakua Ranch Store. We would end the day with a spectacular ocean view at Ho`okipa Beach Park, near Paia Town.

Personally, I was getting a kick out of the guide’s slightly zany but infectious personality; and her homemade audio rigging — instead of a modern headset connected via bluetooth to the van’s stereo system, she had a regular stick microphone duct-taped to the side of her window frame. I tried to suppress a giggle as she adjusted the preposterous contraption and set off; all the while giving a running, enthusiastic commentary on Upcountry history of sugar cane and pineapple farming.

Even though it was barely 10 in the morning, the first stop was Ocean Vodka Organic Farm & Distillery, run by the Smith family. Situated on 80 acres with stunning views across the valley below, the rich volcanic soil found on these slopes makes for the perfect growing medium for the organically farmed sugar cane that Ocean Vodka is made from.

Our guide, Kyle, began by showing us the sugar cane plants, where roosters popped in and out of the tall stalks around us. We then moved into the distillery, where the Smiths create the world’s only vodka made with organic sugar cane and deep ocean mineral water. After the sugar cane is selectively harvested by hand, state-of-the-art distillation machinery separates out impurities with its precise heating and cooling process.

“We are careful to employ responsible processes and use the most earth-friendly raw materials we can find, beginning with our water source,” says Shay Smith, founder of the company that his family has run for 10 years. “Our Hawaii deep ocean mineral water originated as Greenland glacier melt over 2,000 years ago, travelling gradually around the globe through deep ocean currents until arriving in Hawaii.”

Since all 80 proof vodkas are made up of 60 per cent water, the quality of the water and its mineral content makes a huge difference to the cleanness and depth of flavour in the end product.

Which brought us to the best part of the tour: the tasting. Kyle poured us a couple of different varieties of the vodka produced, as well as rum that they also make. It was crisp and smooth for sure; I’m not at all one to sip straight alcohol, but this went down really easy. We all were leaving with our shot glasses and some of Ocean’s popular vodka goat cheese truffles. I also bought a small bottle of the vodka, which is packaged in a unique blue glass fishing float, and angled at the earth’s axis points.

The second stop ended up being my favourite. The 13.5 acres of Aliʻi Kula is much more than just a lavender farm; it’s also home to dazzling tropical gardens that create a tranquil oasis, filled with a diverse variety of flora such as olive trees, hydrangea, protea and succulents. At an elevation of roughly 4,000 feet, Aliʻi Kula grows around 55,000 lavender plants within 45 different varieties — I had no idea there were so many kinds of lavender!

After trying to soak in the gorgeous explosion of color and the peaceful ambience it exuded, our group was led to the back Japanese garden where we were served deliciously aromatic lavender tea; and the most delicious scones I’ve ever had, made with lemon and, of course, lavender. I could have easily eaten two or three more of them.

Afterwards Marilyn led us on a tour of the gardens, pointing out various interesting plants and breaking off leaves here and there for smelling and even tasting. A highlight of Aliʻi Kula is the boutique, which sells all kinds of products made from their farm including soaps, lotions and oils, teas and culinary salts, household products and other items.

If you are a wine lover like me, you’ll enjoy Maui Wine at Ulupalakua Vineyards — the island’s only wine producer, open since 1974. The winery is built around historic buildings from the original Rose Ranch, now called Ulupalakua Ranch, which encompasses 23 acres of gorgeous pastureland. Before hitting up the tasting room, our group stopped in at the Ulupalakua Ranch Store & Grill for lunch.

Located across the street from the wine tasting room and shop, the store is filled with cowboy hats, gear and fun home gifts. The grill serves up much more gourmet fare than one might expect from either the name or the unprepossessing setting, with walk-up counter ordering and picnic table dining. Burgers can be made with lamb, elk or beef; while other specialties such as slow-roasted Maui Cattle Co. beef brisket with housemade BBQ sauce and olive-oil-and-parsley smashed potatoes are also popular.

“We’re becoming a food destination,” says Executive Chef Will Munder. “Before, it was ‘There’s the winery,’ or ‘It’s a nice drive,’ but now people are coming here from the West Side just to have lunch.” Munder’s goal is to serve only Maui-grown produce, much of which comes from his own microfarm.

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Dessert was, of course, wine. The cute restored 1870s home is equipped with an 18-foot bar crafted from a single piece of mango wood at which to taste the vineyard’s handcrafted wines — including the signature pineapple wine. For a really unique experience, tastings are also conducted at 11:15 am daily in the Old Jail, with a more detailed, exclusive look at grape growing and wine making on the island. The entire estate makes for a really nice stroll; my favorite part was the huge banyan tree out back — perfect for photos.

As we headed back to town and the Maui coastline at sea level, I kept sneaking glances back at the misty mountain road receding behind us. Discovering the entirely different world of Upcountry is an experience that can only be had in Maui, in a setting about as close to paradise as it gets.

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