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Akatsuka Orchid Gardens is far more than a flower farm. The 30-acre Hawaii Island lure stimulates all the senses, from the visual appeal and fragrance of its flowers — yes, some orchids do have scents — to the tangy flavor of “poha” (cape gooseberry), which the company also cultivates.
Calling to flower buffs, agritourists and anyone interested in natural beauty, Akatsuka enjoys an enviable location. Set at an elevation of 2,800 feet, it’s right on the road that runs between the city of Hilo and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the island’s most popular attraction.
Home to 2,000 varieties of orchids, including scores of award winners, Akatsuka was founded by Moriyasu Akatsuka in 1974. In late 2016, it launched its Orchid Farm Tour & Tasting, designed to give visitors a fuller sense of the diversity and magnificence of orchids.
At the beginning of my tour, our guide, Nathan Sherwood, provided us with some background on this blooming business, which is a family affair. Moriyasu’s son Takeshi serves as vice president, and Takeshi’s wife and daughter also help out. Some of Akatsuka’s employees have worked at the farm for 30 years, and many of its original customers still stop by to see what’s new.
“The owner and all of us who work here want to share our knowledge and love of orchids,” Sherwood said. “At heart, we’re just a bunch of orchid nuts.”
Sherwood ushered us through Akatsuka’s orchid maze, which has been open since March 2016. The maze — actually more like a gently winding path in an 8,000-square-foot indoor space — is enlivened by innovative displays, interactive video stations and mind-boggling blossoms.
“We specialize in cattleya orchids, but we feature a range of other flowering plants, such as anthuriums and bromeliads,” Sherwood said.
During the tour, however, the orchids took center stage with their eye-catching shapes, colors and markings. One variety looked like ladies dancing in yellow skirts. Another resembled a lavender starfish, while another was a dead ringer for a spider.
Sherwood encouraged us to sniff certain orchids, rewarding us with aromas of chocolate, coconut and citrus. He showed us a large sign spelling the word “aloha” with more than 700 baby orchids, which offered a unique spot for a photo op. We also perused an exhibit that demonstrated the different stages of orchid growth.
A true highlight was the Volcano Queen, a one-of-a-kind orchid from Thailand worth $20,000. Prized for its perfect symmetry, it’s on view only between May and August, when it’s in bloom.
While clients can experience the orchid maze on a self-guided tour, the guided tour comes with several benefits, including Sherwood’s expertise. In addition, as tour participants, we were invited into Akatsuka’s vast greenhouse. There, Sherwood led us through a hands-on planting experience, where each of us pressed an orchid sprout into a small pot. Sherwood packed and labeled our plants as certified for air travel, which allowed us to take them home and watch them grow. Currently, mine is thriving on my dining-room table.
During our visit to the greenhouse, we saw one of Akatsuka’s newer ventures: juicy, golden poha berries, which are bigger than their counterparts grown elsewhere. Each week, Akatsuka harvests 100 pounds of poha. Partnering with a local creamery, it turns the berries into a distinctive ice cream, sold only at the farm’s gift shop. At the end of the tour, each of us got a heaping cup full of the luscious confection. Not surprisingly, most members of our group bought a carton of poha ice cream to go, a sweet memory of the Akatsuka tour.
The Orchid Farm Tour & Tasting’s 2 p.m. afternoon tour costs $20 per adult and $10 per child, while the 11 a.m. lunch tour costs $35 for adults and $20 per child. A self-guided maze tour costs $5 and $3.