Peaceful times on the Big Island with tea


POSTED: Sunday, March 29, 2009

A young couple had one last day on the Big Island before they both were to be deployed to Iraq. They could've spent that day hiking or swimming. Instead, they chose to drink tea with Eva Lee.





        » Address: In Volcano Village on the Big Island; directions given upon booking

» Offered: Daily, by appointment at least one day in advance


» Cost: $25 per person, $10 for children 10 and younger who occupy a seat in the studio (infants and toddlers are free if they sit on their parent's lap), $150 for groups of eight. Ask about rates for larger groups, up to 36.


» Call: 967-7637


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» Web site: www.teahawaii.com


» Notes: The three-hour Deluxe Tour includes visits to Tea Hawaii and Volcano Winery (www.volcanowinery.com). It's available daily; reservations required. Cost is $45 per person, and participants must provide their own transportation. Call 967-7637 or (877) 967-7772 to book. Volcano Winery will release a tea-infused macadamia nut honey wine made with Tea Hawaii tea in May; orders are being taken at the phone numbers above.




“;The ritual of preparing and drinking tea has throughout history been a path to serenity and introspection,”; Lee said. “;In old Japan the samurai left their weapons outside and entered the teahouse with a quiet, thoughtful demeanor. Last July there were two modern-day warriors at my door seeking the same experience. I was honored to be their host.”;

Lee owns and operates Tea Hawaii & Co. with her photographer/ceramist husband, Chiu Leong. Headquartered on their 5-acre property in Volcano Village, the business grows, processes and sells tea and tea plants.

One of seven children born to a father from China and a mother from Virginia, Lee regards tea as a metaphor of her dual heritage. She grew up in a home in Connecticut where both Chinese and English teas were regularly served. Her enjoyment of tea continued throughout her 30-year career in theater and dance.

Leong, whose parents hailed from China, also traces a lifelong connection to tea. He started his art career in the late 1960s, making bowls, cups and other tea implements. His understanding of and appreciation for tea deepened through his study of “;chanoyu,”; the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

In 2001 the couple became acquainted with Dr. Francis Zee, a renowned horticulturist and research scientist at the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo who had just reintroduced Camellia sinensis in Hawaii. All “;true teas”;—green, white, oolong and black—are derived from this plant; the differences depend on the way it is processed.

“;Prior to that, Camellia sinensis had not been available to the public in Hawaii since the 1800s,”; Lee said. “;Dr. Zee put forth the idea that it could be grown commercially here. He sparked our interest to grow tea and to develop a unique tea experience.”;

LEE AND LEONG launched Tea Hawaii & Co. in 2002. Their tea plantings cover two acres. Some are in a garden; the rest flourish amid olapa and ohia trees and hapuu and palapalai ferns in the lush forest that surrounds their home.

“;It's unconventional,”; Lee said, “;but Camellia sinensis is a hardy plant that has done well, even in vog. We chose that method because we didn't want to do any clear-cutting. We have the only rain forest shade-grown tea in the state—and, very likely, the country.”;

Lee hopes this unique eco-friendly technique will inspire other entrepreneurs interested in starting an agricultural venture, especially because Camellia sinensis can live for a few thousand years, increasing its potential as a small-scale industry in Hawaii.

Among numerous health benefits, tea is said to reduce cholesterol levels, stimulate the immune system, lower high blood pressure and fight cancer and viral and bacterial infections.

“;Tea has a lot of vitamins and antioxidants, but it also gives you a gentle, heightened awareness and helps you relax and enjoy the moment,”; Lee said. “;I drink tea several times a day, pairing it with whatever food I'm eating. In the evening I have a cup of tea before I go to sleep. It's nice to end my day embraced by the soothing, comforting feeling that tea provides.”;

In addition to growing and processing tea for sale, Tea Hawaii propagates plants for purchase by farmers and hobbyists statewide. It also markets the products of two other Big Island growers: Volcano Tea Garden, four miles away, and Johnny's Garden in Hakalau, 12 miles north of Hilo.

HOURLONG TOURS of Tea Hawaii began five years ago. Lee first provides participants with a brief introduction to tea in an 864-square-foot redwood studio with skylights, handmade shoji doors and 25-foot-high ceilings.

Following that, she leads guests into the forest and garden to get close-up looks at the tea plantings. The group then returns to the studio to sample different teas with complementary treats that might include tea truffles that she created in conjunction with Big Island Candies.

A small shop in the studio sells tea, tea plants, and artwork by Leong and the couple's daughter Asia, a jewelry designer who divides her time between France and the family's tea estate.

Depending on the season, tour-goers also might see tea being planted, harvested and “;withered”; (when the leaves are left to wilt in the sun for about 45 minutes). If they're lucky, Leong will be sitting at his potter's wheel, shaping bowls.

Response to the tour has been enthusiastic; Lee and Leong have welcomed visitors from around the world, including India, Brazil, Australia, China, Japan, Tahiti, Austria and Germany.

“;We've met many interesting people from all walks of life—priests, healers, businessmen, families celebrating special occasions, tea connoisseurs—those who are curious about and new to tea and farmers from notable tea-producing countries,”; Lee said.

On each tour, new friendships are forged over cups of tea. “;Tea heals, it calms, it seems to bring out the best in people,”; she said. “;As our guests sip tea and listen to the songs of the apapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper), they feel a bond with humanity and discover a part of their own personal grace.”;


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Bulletin have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.