Much like lei made of tropical blossoms, or Dole pineapples, Mauna Loa macadamia nuts have long been a symbol of Hawaii for me. As a child I recall family friends returning to the frozen White North from Hawaii, bringing small cans of macadamia nuts as gifts. Roasted and salted, they're a very tasty snack. But as they're now widely available, they seem less exotic than when I was a kid.
Situated near Hilo on the Big Island and adjoining the road to Volcanoes National Park, I'd probably driven by the entrance to the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory a dozen times before finally making a point of going there during my most recent visit to the Big Island. It's about a 3 mile drive from the highway to the factory, a pleasant scenic road through hundreds of acres of papaya and macadamia nut groves, in many areas the road framed by large Cook Island pines (whose very straight trunks were used to construct masts in the old days of sea exploration). As Mauna Loa is North America's predominant supplier of macadamia nuts, I had great expectations, soon to be dashed.
A Brief History of Macadamia Nuts in Hawaii:
Macadamia nuts were introduced in 1881, planted on the Big Island near the Waipi'o Valley. Hawaii's climate is conducive to the growth of these trees and soon macadamia nut plantations were established. In 1946 the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp was formed, deriving its name from the slopes of the large volcano on which its plantation fields are situated. It takes 7 years for macadamia trees to carry nuts and 15 years for them to be in their prime. With the closing of sugar plantations on most of the Hawaiian islands, more acreage around Hilo was converted to macadamia nut production. The company was purchased by Hershey's in 2004.
(Mauna Loa macadamia nut trees -- small part of their orchard)
(the macadamia nuts on the tree. Their shells darken as they ripen...)
(ripe nuts fall to the ground where they are recovered and shipped to the factory)
Macadamia nuts are not picked off the tree, but rather vacuumed by a specialized machine when they have fallen to the ground -- a sure sign they're ripe. They have the hardest shell of any nut in the world -- very hard to crack and a challenge to do so while preserving the kernel inside. After husking they're roasted, then sent to the factory for processing. The Mauna Loa plant handles approximately 180,000 pounds of nuts in shell, and packages 48,000 pounds of kernels daily.
The Macadamia Nut Factory Tour
I would have thought a business run by Hershey's would operate a slick tour. That's definitely not the case here as this is an attraction that leaves you asking, "Is that all?" It's free, so it's hard to complain about the price, but is pretty boring. The factory tour turns out to be "self-guided". You walk up a flight of stairs (no elevator I could see so likely not handicap accessible) and along an exterior second story walkway.
The tour consists of you peering through the windows of the production facility to see what's being prepared and what the workers are doing -- a Peeping Tom kind of tour. There are a few computer screens along the walkway which are supposed to explain the different stages of harvesting, roasting, salting, packaging and selling the nuts, but only one monitor was working when we visited, so they were of no help...
(peeping into the factory -- preparing and packaging the nuts)
We visited in the late afternoon as the plant was beginning to slow down in preparation for closing. Still, it was clear there were different ways of preparing the nuts using different seasonings (e.g. salted, garlic) or dipping them in chocolate (my personal favorite). Within a few dozen yards and a dozen or so minutes of its beginning, our "self-guided" tour was completed.
(the gift shop viewed from the factory)
The real point of the tour is not to educate but to bring you into the gift shop, where you are shown dozens of ways macadamia nuts can be consumed. They look beautiful in their packaging, so inviting, so enticing you'll want to purchase some. The next few images represent but a small percentage of what's available for purchase here....
Please be fully aware if you visit the factory that this is an expensive place to buy macadamia nut products. Costco has significantly lower prices, as does Walmart. You'll save a lot of money by shopping for the exact same products at those stores, especially if you are buying in bulk to bring home as gifts.
The highlight of the visit was a walk through the small tropical garden located behind the gift shop. It's also free and has a nice assortment of tropical plants. Not an extensive garden, but after the brevity and disappointment of the nut tour, a pleasant diversion:
This is definitely an attraction you can skip. You can use the time to greater advantage almost anywhere else on the Big Island.