The industry has waned, but when you leave the beach and explore, you'll find it woven into the islands' culture.
The garage was cavernous and had a high tin roof, so that in wet weather the pounding of raindrops echoed above. Agronomist Michael Tambio was inside fixing the last few rusty scraps of machinery used long ago by the Kekaha Sugar Company, once one of the largest employers on the island of Kauai. When I came across his shop, he was only too happy for company. Tambio, 57, told me that he'd come to Kauai from the Philippines in 1973 for a Kekaha position that paid $2.79 an hour. He remembered living by the sugar mill in town, where cranks crushed the sweet juice out of the cane, and being woken each night by the clatter of rocks inadvertently mixed with the stalks inside the crusher. He could recall when more than 400 people worked for Kekaha, before the business shut down in 2000. "Driving around the fields, fixing the pipes," said Tambio, who now tends the vacated lands for the State of Hawaii, "we got a lot of aloha." He touched my hand, his eyes wistful and his voice urgent, singsongy, and sad. "A lot of aloha, Bill."
These days Tambio has two coworkers. The sugar company's 8,000 acres are largely fallow, and many of Tambio's old friends have left Kauai for jobs in mainland cities like Las Vegas and Denver.
After Hawaii's first modern sugar mill opened on Kauai in 1836, sugar was one of the archipelago's prime industries for more than 12 decades. In 1957, one of every 12 jobs was still in sugar. Ever since, King Sugar has been fading, eclipsed by farms in the developing world—especially in Brazil and India—where laborers get pennies an hour.
Only two functioning sugarcane farms remain in Hawaii—Gay & Robinson on Kauai and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company on Maui. Many of the state's other plantations languish unused due to their zoned-for-agriculture status. Cattle ranchers and coffee bean farmers are utilizing some of the land—and many of the plantations are enjoying new lives as tourist attractions. You can find small, charming museums displaying antique farm implements, outfitters offering bicycling tours of old fields, irrigation ditches that you can float down in inner tubes, and even sugar-themed lodgings. At the Waimea Plantation Cottages on Kauai, you can stay in the tin-roofed houses that Michael Tambio's Kekaha coworkers vacated. For a traveler intent on exploring Hawaii's rich sugar past, the opportunities are plentiful enough to form the backbone of an edifying holiday.
I was spending a week on Kauai to visit some of the alluring sugar attractions, hoping for a sense of their role in Hawaii's complex past. For over a century the sugarcane industry imprinted the landscape, the economy, and especially the culture. Long-ago sugarcane barons recruited workers from all over the globe and made the islands one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. To plumb this fascinating history, I would have to see past the romantic myths of the sugar industry and face the facts: Until the 1950s, most plantation employees lived and worked in dire conditions.
What I needed to do first, of course, was learn how sugar is made, and there is just one place in Hawaii where you can do that. Gay & Robinson in Kaumakani, on Kauai's west shore, is the only working plantation open to tourists. So I drove to the visitor center and boarded a bus that was soon bumping along a dirt road onto Gay & Robinson's 7,400 acres of cane. Guide Wilfred Ibara, who once worked at Kekaha Sugar, explained how the husky green stalks around us grew from seedling to sucrose.
The how-to of getting sugar from cane is basic. First, ideally, you move to Kauai, where the combination of hot sun and intermittent rainfall engenders optimal growing conditions. Then you plant 18-inch cuttings of cane, water them for 22 months, and let them stand, unirrigated, for two more (so that, stressed, the plants send juice to their stalks). Burn the fields after that, to destroy bugs and leaves, mow the cane down with a giant rake, haul the blackened stalks to the mill, squeeze out the juice, and then let sucrose crystals slowly form in the syrup.
On our tour, we lingered in a charred field as a roaring crane chucked cane into a truck. With a machete, Ibara hacked little chunks of stalk for us to suck on. Then we visited the mill, where cane stalks chugged along a loud steel conveyor and sweet brown liquid washed up against small submarine-style windows before sloshing, improbably, straight into little pots that seemed perfect for dipping your finger into for a taste. At one point, stepping onto a high metal catwalk, I saw beneath me a brown pond of molasses the size of four tennis courts. I immediately thought of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, so I asked Ibara what a person should do if he fell in. Ibara gave me a dour look. "Just float on your back," he said, "and good luck to you."
I can understand Ibara's disdain, for my question was a bit brazen, and the history of sugarcane in Hawaii has been marked by brazen insensitivity. Consider the launch of the modern sugar industry. In 1833, a young man from Boston, William Hooper, showed up on Kauai and, casting about for lucrative schemes, latched onto an ancient local practice. The Polynesians had grown sugar on Kauai for over a millennium. Now Hooper would do it differently, with the efficiency of a New England mill operator. "Local chiefs felt threatened by his presence," notes a plaque beside the remains of one of Hooper's mills in Koloa, "and withheld vital provisions. Native workers had no experience in the use of western tools and were unaccustomed to working regular hours for pay." No matter. Hooper pressed on and hundreds more sugar entrepreneurs—both American and European—swept into Hawaii and transformed the culture.
Needing legions of workers, the planters recruited them in Japan, China, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Norway, and Germany, among other locales. All told, about 395,000 immigrants came to Hawaii from 1852 to 1946, and for decades sugar workers lived in semifeudal conditions—in racially segregated camps and often in debt to the company store.
In 1946, things changed. The International Long-shoremen's and Warehousemen's Union organized Hawaii's sugar plantations and, for a few months, shut down all but one of them. By 1958 sugar workers in Hawaii were among the highest paid in the world, earning an average of $1.97 an hour. But by the 1970s the industry here was tumbling toward oblivion, and the islands were gaining cachet with tourists. Today, a sour dynamic prevails: Few locals on Kauai hold middle-class jobs, and the median home price stands at $630,000.
Even as Hawaii changes, it remains a melting pot. Roadside stands sell "mixed plate" luncheons mingling Philippine adobo and Korean kalbi (ribs). Many locals still speak a distinctly hybrid English dialect, pidgin, concocted in the sugar fields to facilitate dialogue across language barriers. The writer in me was enchanted with its piquant directness and intrigued to learn that a handful of books have recently been published in pidgin. One afternoon, beneath a swaying palm, I read what may be the most famous—Da Word, a collection of short stories by Lee A. Tonouchi. It begins, "Back den I nevah know. I wuz only one six grader trying fo' make 'em into Punahou, 'lolani, or Kamehameha."
I could not linger, though, for on Kauai the sugar attractions are myriad. Just outside the island's largest town, Lihue, I wandered through Grove Farm, the former estate of Yale-educated sugar pioneer George Wilcox. There, I beheld the turtle-shaped spittoon that sat in his grand bedroom. Then I went on a bike tour of Wilcox's plantation and rode through a green valley to a stone-silent mill whose ruinlike charm lured us inside. Ricky Castillo, the driver for our support van, stayed outside. "My great-grandparents came here from Puerto Rico to work in the mills," he explained, "and it gives me the creeps going in there, where they worked with the dust and noise level so high."
One night at the Kilohana Plantation, another restored estate, I dined on delectable chicken sautéed with papaya and pineapple. The next day in Lihue I ate at Hamura Saimin, where a brimming bowl of tasty noodles and pork cost $4.75 and the conversation beside me went something like this: "Howzit?" "Broke da mout, braddah!"
Eventually, my whole Serious Historian status was thrown into serious jeopardy. After paying $95.83 to Kauai Backcountry Adventures, I folded myself into an inner tube and, in the company of eight other visitors, floated down one of the former Lihue Plantation's irrigation ditches—through gentle, cool currents, against rocks that sent me spinning and bumping into neighboring tubes, then around hairpin turns and through two rock-roofed tunnels. It was an exhilarating joyride that had me groping at the headlamp attached to my helmet.
Just before our third tunnel, which was a half-mile long, we paused, and our guide told us that these tunnels were built around 1870 by a labor force wielding axes and picks. Workers received 49 cents a day. The reaction of my fellow travelers to this bit of news? I quote their remarks verbatim, as enunciated in the echoey tunnel:
OK, I was yelling too, and for a moment I feared that postsugar Kauai had drowned in goofiness.
Then that night I drove across the island to the village of Hanapepe on the west side and happened on a funky café-bookstore, Talk Story. Opened a year ago by newcomers to Kauai, Ed Justus and Cynthia Powell, the store is home to thousands of worn volumes and, on the floor, flower petals that scuttle about in the breeze. Each Friday night, Talk Story serves gourmet Indian food and hosts entertainment that has included Indian belly dancers, a Japanese pop singer, and a local washtub bass maestro. The place is the soul of the ever evolving, fresh culture that has succeeded the sugar era.
I was at the café on a Friday night, devouring basmati rice off a paper plate on the patio as a string of Christmas lights, way out of season, blinked above me. A troupe of dancers from a local hula school were performing with their instructor, the large and elderly Nani Higa, presiding from a white deck chair. The dancers came on in waves. First, a trio of graying older women who floated about in serene concert—not expertly, but with generous smiles and a tranquil joy that wafted easily through the night air, carrying wisdom. Next came some grade-schoolers, and then Higa spoke into the microphone: "Bring out the babies."
Four-year-old hula dancers—including Higa's great-granddaughter, Jayel—appeared. Cameras flashed. Camcorders whirred. Tourists and locals reveled together in the absurdity. And then, abruptly, above the mayhem Higa began singing "Hawaii Aloha" over the mike, in Hawaiian. She sang it quietly but with force, her voice an instruction to join her, and I thought: How can anyone say no to a culture looking back as it looks forward, to a place staying alive? I put down my plate and I sang.
Hawaii's Sweet Attractions
On Hawaii, Kauai, Maui, and Oahu, you can still find traces of the old sugarcane culture.
Flumin Da Ditch $95. With four other people, float in an inflatable kayak down an irrigation ditch through tunnels and lush vegetation. (877) 449-6922, www.flumindaditch.com.
Laupahoehoe Train Museum $4. Travel back to the heyday of sugar on the Hamakua Coast by communing with Rusty the switch engine and other artifacts. Highway 19, Laupahoehoe, (808) 962-6300, www.thetrainmuseum.com.
Waipio Wayside B&B Inn $99–$175. Lounge in a hammock and gaze at the sea while staying in this 1932 plantation superintendent's home. Highway 240, Honokaa, (800) 833-8849, www.waipiowayside.com.
Gay & Robinson $30. Tour Kauai's only working sugar plantation. Kaumakani Avenue, off Highway 50, Kaumakani, (808) 335-2824, www.gandrtours-kauai.com.
Grove Farm $10. The sprawling estate of sugar pioneer George Wilcox has been maintained just as it was in his last days. Nawiliwili Road, Lihue, (808) 245-3202.
Kauai Adventure Trek $100. Bicycle behind the locked gates of a 22,000-acre sugar plantation—over bumpy gravel roads, through a tunnel, and finally to the beach. (800) 452-1113, www.alohakauaitours.com.
Kauai Backcountry Adventures $92. Ride an inner tube down sugarcane irrigation ditches. (888) 270-0555, www.kauaibackcountry.com.
Kilohana Plantation Visit this restored plantation estate to shop for local arts and crafts, dine at Gaylord's restaurant, and take a horse-drawn carriage ride ($12 per person). Kaumualii Highway, Lihue, (808) 245-5608, www.kilohanakauai.com.
Waimea Plantation Cottages $150–$650. Bed down in restored tin-roofed cottages, once the homes of plantation workers, in a grove of coconut palms by the sea. Kaumualii Highway, Waimea, (866) 774-2924, www.waimea-plantation.com.
Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum $5. One of the exhibits in this palatial plantation home features a scale model sugarcane crusher. 3957 Hansen Rd., Puunene, (808) 871-8058, www.sugarmuseum.com.
Lahaina Kaanapali Railroad $19.95. Take a leisurely one-hour narrated ride on an old steam train. Limahana Place, Lahaina, (800) 499-2307, www.sugarcanetrain.com.
Hawaiian Railway Society Sundays only. $10. A 1944 Whitcomb diesel engine transports passengers along historical railroad tracks from Ewa to Kahe Point. (808) 681-5461, www.hawaiianrailway.com.
Hawaii's Plantation Village $13. Behold antique furniture and replica pre–World War II homes of sugarcane workers at this outdoor museum. Waipahu Street, Waipahu, (808) 677-0110, www.hawaiiplantationvillage.org.
Photography by Robbyn Peck
This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.