LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Few of us like to think about dieting when we're on vacation -- travel is often an excuse to overindulge. But the ''Hawaiian diet" meal, based on traditional island foods, demonstrates that vacation and diet can coexist in harmony.
Even delightful harmony.
I sampled the ''native Hawaiian combination" meal at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, the most modest property along the glamorous crescent of Maui's Kaanapali Beach. The hotel often receives kudos for its efforts to maintain traditional Hawaiian culture and spirit amid resort development.
That commitment extends to cuisine. While most restaurants use local ingredients, Kaanapali Beach Hotel has transformed an eating plan (originally designed by doctors to combat high levels of diabetes and heart disease in native Hawaiians) into a fine-dining experience. The diet encourages Hawaiians to shuck off centuries of bad habits learned from the West (Hawaiians consume more Spam per capita than do residents of any other state) and return to the healthy eating of their ancestors. Codified as part of a medical study in 1987, the traditional Hawaiian diet has proved to promote weight loss, reduce the need for insulin among diabetics, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
In 1993, the Kaanapali Beach Hotel began offering a Hawaiian diet meal choice in the employee cafeteria. The diet concentrates on high-fiber complex carbohydrates, with moderate amounts of protein and low quantities of fat.
The principles aren't all that different from the latest round of dietary guidelines from the US Department of Agriculture, but Washington's food pyramid takes on exotic forms when expressed in indigenous Hawaiian foods.
''It looked great," executive chef Thomas Muromoto said of the original form of the diet, ''but when you tasted it, you realized it was a diet dish."
When he arrived at the hotel five years ago, Muromoto set about transforming the diet into a three-course gourmet meal that's served in the Tiki Terrace Restaurant. The meal begins with Pohole fern salad, using ferns harvested in the wild. Muromoto combines the tightly curled, nut-flavored ferns with Maui onions, tomatoes, lemon juice, and seaweed.
Muromoto often uses seaweed to enhance flavor. ''I season dishes with seaweed and natural flavors from the ocean," he says. He uses little salt, and when he does, he prefers Hawaiian sea salt.
The main course consists of fish or chicken (I had local mahi mahi) cooked in a pouch of folded ti leaves. ''It's the Hawaiian tinfoil," Muromoto said of ti, a large-leafed member of the lily family that is also used for making leis and ''grass" skirts.
Inside the ''lau lau," or pouch, Muromoto slathers the meat or fish with ginger, more sweet Maui onions, tomatoes, cilantro, green onions, and taro leaves. The pouches are steamed for about 15 minutes -- a key technique for cutting back on cooking oil.
When I tore open the lau lau, aromatic steam rushed out. As I waited for the fish to cool, I sampled the accompaniments arranged around it on a carved wooden platter. They were all based on the versatile taro plant, one of the ''sacred canoe plants" that the ancient Hawaiians brought from Polynesia. Of course, there was a generous serving of Hawaii's signature poi, made from steamed and mashed taro root.
Muromoto's poi is made the old way by volunteer employees, including one of the hotel's chief engineers. The meal includes a deep-colored and dense poi bread and slices of steamed taro root.
I have to concede that a full appreciation of the taro dishes may be an acquired taste, but the native Hawaiian combination meal was filling and dense with flavor.
It didn't require much culinary legerdemain on Muromoto's part to transform Hawaii's extraordinary fresh fruit into a satisfying dessert of grilled pineapple and banana slices with chilled strawberry papaya and lemon.
For the full effect, the native cuisine is best eaten on the outdoor terrace while watching the hotel's nightly hula show and catching the soft breeze from the ocean. When the show concludes, a band strikes up for dancing under the stars. After such a healthy meal, you should feel light enough to be dancing on air.
Tiki Terrace Restaurant, Kaanapali Beach Hotel, 2525 Kaanapali Parkway, Lahaina, Maui. 808-661-0011, 800-262-8450. www.kbhmaui.com. The native Hawaiian combination is $22.95. Open nightly.