The Big Island Festival Underway Friday, Nov. 17, 2006

The Big Island Festival kicks off this weekend at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, with an endless string of wine, cocktail and food tastings, topped off with an outdoor event on Saturday night that coincides with Dwight Yoakam in concert.

The weekend begins on Friday, November 17, with a 10 a.m. tour of the NEHLA (Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii) facility just south of Waikoloa, where scientists and aquaculture cats join forces to harvest deep sea or cold-water marine life that otherwise couldn't live in Hawaii's warm waters. See abalone, lobster, Japanese flounder and more, followed by a critter tasting and cocktails at the facility. Transportation is offered from the resort. Cost is $97.

Those wishing to be pampered can opt for a "Spa Passport" on Friday, which offers mini-treatments, tours and gifts from a handful of Big Island spas, including Mauna Lani, Mandara Spa, Hilton's spa, Marriott's spa and more. Tickets are $50.

Friday evening kicks off with a Paniolo Cook Out at the hotel's Lagoon Grill, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Barbeque fare is highlighted with a tasteful blend of paniolo inspired Hawaiian music, hula and storytelling. Tickets to this event are $65.

Before the Cook Out is a wine tasting entitled "Wonderful Whites, Remarkable Reds" that will feature fine vintage wines ($45 per person).

Chef Mavro will cook a special menu paired with Grgich Hills wines at Donatoni's Restaurant for those wishing a more intimate dining experience on Friday evening. Mavro owns and operates one of Oahu's finest Mediterranean-meets-Pacific eateries, and he garners the accolades to prove it. He's a champion of the independent chef who cooks what he loves and loves to cook.

Saturday is all about the wines, as guests can attend a number of tastings and seminars hosted by vintners from Napa to France (see Web site for a complete listing of wineries and locations of tastings). Saturday evening's highlight event is "The Big Taste" gala dinner on the Lagoon Lanai, which hosts more than 20 top Hawaiian chefs, wine pairings, cocktails, live entertainment, dancing and a silent auction. Tickets are $125 for the event, which will take place from 6 to 9 p.m.

At the resort's Grand Ballroom, Dwight Yoakam will take the stage and demonstrate his unique blend of bluegrass and country rock, while supporting his new album, "Blame the Vain". Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Special kama'aina ticket and room packages are still available; contact the resort directly. www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com

Sunday, November 19th wraps up with a special "Eat Right" luncheon, hosted by the resort's Kohala Spa, and features a lecture by Christine Ansbacher. The proclaimed "Wine Diva" will talk about the benefits of wine while pouring organic selections. Ansbacher will prove that red wine in moderation aids in combating arthritis, cancer, asthma, kidney problems, cataracts and more.

Maui-based chef David Paul Johnson presents a special menu on Sunday evening, complimented by wines from Chateau St. Jean, at Donatoni's Restaurant, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $110 per person.

Go to www.bigislandfestival.com or www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com for more information, ticketing, and a schedule of events.