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7 places where you can experience Hawai‘i plantation life

The railway at the Kilohana Plantation. | Photo by Wendy Hu Photography The vintage locomotive at Kilohana Plantation. | Photo by Wendy Hu Photography

My maternal great-grandfather, Chun Lin Hung, died 29 years before I was born, so I know him only through anecdotes my grandmother shared with me. He emigrated from Kwangtung, China, to Hawai‘i around 1877 to seek his fortune, first living on O‘ahu, then moving to Kaua‘i, where he became an overseer at Grove Farm sugar plantation in Līhu‘e.

In 1887, Ahana, as he became known, married my great-grandmother. He began experimenting with growing rice a short time later. By the early 1890s, he had left Grove Farm to start a rice mill and plantation in nearby Hulē‘ia, which he operated for 30 years.

Stories such as these are plentiful among local families. Between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, some 400,000 young men and women—primarily from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines—arrived to work on sugar plantations throughout Hawai‘i. Many of them stayed after fulfilling their contracts, creating the melting pot that now defines our state’s population. Kama‘āina whose ancestors share this background, along with Hawai‘i history buffs, will be especially interested in the following 7 plantation experiences.

1. Hawai‘i Plantation Museum, Hawai‘i Island

A visitor at Hawai‘i Plantation Museum on Hawai‘i Island reads a plantation newspaper from his parents’ generation.

A visitor at Hawai‘i Plantation Museum on Hawai‘i Island reads a plantation newspaper from his parents’ generation. | Photo by Andrew Richard Hara

Wayne Subica parlayed his penchant for collecting plantation memorabilia into the Hawai‘i Plantation Museum, which is housed in a 2-story 1902 building that was originally Onomea Sugar Company’s store. Some of the pieces on view were donated; most, however, are from his 60-plus years of treasure hunting. They include tools and toys, signs and soda bottles, menus and musical instruments (Puerto Rican maracas, a Portuguese accordion, a Filipino bamboo drum, a Japanese shamisen, and an ‘ukulele made by Manuel Nunes, one of the first ‘ukulele craftsmen in Hawai‘i).

One of Subica’s favorite artifacts is a 1-horse wagon with “P.C. Beamer Store 1905” painted on the side of the seat. At Peter Carl Beamer’s shop, a fixture in Hilo from 1901 to 1966, you could find everything from guns, nails, and knives to lanterns, rope, and razors. The savvy entrepreneur used his wagon to peddle his wares when it was difficult for people in plantation camps and other communities to get to his shop.

Info: 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday. Adults, $8; kama‘āina, $6.

2. Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village, O‘ahu

Religious buildings, like this 1914 Wakamiya Inari Shrine on view at Hawai'i‘s Plantation Village on O‘ahu, were often part of the plantation camps. | Photo courtesy Hawaiiʻs Plantation Village Archives

Religious buildings, like this 1914 Wakamiya Inari Shrine on view at Hawai'i‘s Plantation Village on O‘ahu, were often part of the plantation camps. | Photo courtesy Hawai'i‘s Plantation Village Archives

Hawai‘i’s Plantation Village, a living-history museum, comprises 25 structures found in a typical plantation camp, among them a store, an infirmary, a barber shop, a community bathhouse, and houses representing various ethnic groups. Except for the 1914 Wakamiya Inari Shrine and the Chinese Cookhouse, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, all the buildings are well-researched replicas. Most of the art, artifacts, clothing, and furnishings on display were donated by plantation workers or their descendants.

Plants that immigrants valued for practical and cultural purposes flourish throughout the village. For example, Chinese workers grew lemongrass to make a tea to lower blood pressure, Puerto Ricans used achiote seeds for coloring and flavoring in cooking, and the Portuguese snacked on mammee apples (which taste like a cross between mango and apricot).

Info: 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday–Friday. Guided 90-minute tours begin at 10 a.m.; the last tour is at 1 p.m. Adults, $15; kama‘āina, $8.

3. Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, Maui

In 1869, Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, sons of prominent missionaries, paid $110 for 12 acres in Makawao. The following year, they purchased an additional 559 acres there for $8,000 and planted their first crop of cane. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company was the first business venture of Alexander & Baldwin, which grew to be one of Hawai‘i’s biggest diversified corporations.

Fast-forward to December 12, 2016, when HC&S’s last harvest arrived at its mill in Pu‘unēnē. The closure of Hawai‘i’s sole remaining sugar plantation marked the end of a 180-year-old industry that was once the backbone of its economy.

Located in the former residence of the mill’s superintendent, the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum chronicles Maui’s sugar history through objects big (the 50-ton, 1898 Nordberg steam engine outside powered the mill’s machinery from 1902 to 1983) and small (among them, bango, metal discs or squares that served as workers’ ID cards).

Info: 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday–Thursday. Adults, $7; kama‘āina, free. Reservations (optional) can be made here.

4. Grove Farm Museum, Kaua‘i

The historic main house at Grove Farm Museum on Kaua‘i contains an 1861 Chickering grand piano and other elegant furnishings.

The historic main house at Grove Farm Museum on Kaua‘i contains an 1861 Chickering grand piano and other elegant furnishings. | Photo courtesy Grove Farm Museum

Established in 1854 by German immigrant Hermann Widemann, Grove Farm was one of Hawai‘i’s first sugar plantations. A decade later, Widemann sold it to George Wilcox, a lifelong bachelor who had been managing it for him. One of Wilcox’s brothers, Sam, helped run the business, and he and his wife, Emma, raised their 6 children there. Grove Farm ceased sugar operations in 1974, the same year Sam and Emma’s youngest child, Mabel, created a nonprofit organization to preserve the homestead.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it looks much as it did when the Wilcoxes lived there. Among the artifacts that catch the eye in the main house are dog-teeth anklets, boar-tusk bracelets, a preserved native Hawaiian bat, and necklaces made with whale bone and human hair. There’s also koa furniture, an 1861 Chickering grand piano that still makes music in perfect pitch, and rare first-edition copies of Captain James Cook’s Pacific journals.

Info: Guided 2-hour tours at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Adults, $20; kama‘āina, $10. Reservations are required.

5. Kilohana Plantation, Kaua‘i

Kilohana

Kilohana Plantation is now a popular tourist attraction. | Photo by Jaxon Communication

In 1936, Gaylord Wilcox and his wife, Ethel, decided to reside at Kilohana, a 35-acre property in Puhi that she had inherited from her stepfather, Albert Wilcox, who also happened to be Gaylord’s uncle. It was near Grove Farm, which Gaylord was running as president. The couple spared no expense in restoring Kilohana (the original house had been torn down in 1935). Their 2-story, 16,000-square-foot Tudor-style mansion boasted coffered ceilings, furnishings from Gump’s in San Francisco, and the first elevator on Kaua‘i.

Today, Kilohana is a popular visitor attraction that meanders over 104 acres. Boutiques, art galleries, and a bar now occupy what formerly were bedrooms, the cloakroom, the nursery, the carriage house, guest cottages, and Gaylord’s office.

Other diversions include a lū‘au, a gourmet restaurant with courtyard seating, and a ride in a train pulled by a vintage locomotive. Those 21 and older can take a tour featuring a rain forest walk, cocktails made with Kōloa Rum and fruits and herbs grown on-site, and up-close views of the orchards, vegetable fields, and farm animals (be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol).

Info: Check the website for hours and other details about the shops, the Rum Safari, Lū‘au Kalamakū, the Kauai Plantation Railroad, and the Plantation House by Gaylord’s.

6. Waimea Plantation Cottages, Kaua‘i

Waimea Plantation Cottages

Most of the 59 houses at Waimea Plantation Cottages are from camps at Waimea Sugar Mill Company and Kehaka Sugar Company on Kaua‘i. | Photo by Wendy Hu Photography

Waimea Plantation Cottages is the only resort of its kind in Hawai‘i: 59 authentic plantation houses dating from between the mid-1880s and the late 1930s are set oceanfront amid lush tropical greenery. Most of the cottages are from camps at Waimea Sugar Mill Company and Kekaha Sugar Company, which closed in 1969 and 2000, respectively. Modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV, a fully equipped kitchen, and a DVD player (a kiosk in the lobby stocks dozens of movie selections) are at hand, but, for the most part, this is truly a go-back-in-time, get-away-from-it-all escape.

There’s lots to do, even without a spa, golf course, or mega swimming pool. Stroll on a 2-mile black-sand beach. Challenge your ‘ohana to a spirited game of volleyball, shuffleboard, kickball, or boccie. Fire up a grill for a barbecue or just relax in a hammock with a good book.

Info: Nightly rates begin at $306. Valid through December 17, the Local Waves promotion provides up to a 25% kama‘āina discount and waives the $30 daily resort fee, which covers parking, local and Mainland calls, use of the guest laundry, and more.

Read more: An escape to Old Hawai‘i at Waimea Plantation Cottages

7. Kōloa Plantation Days, Kaua‘i

Kōloa Sugar Company, Hawai‘i’s first commercial sugar plantation, was established in Kōloa in 1835. A daylong celebration in 1985 observed its 150th anniversary with a lū‘au, a parade, and rides on a train pulled by Paulo, a locomotive named after Paul Isenberg, owner of Līhu‘e Plantation and a partner in Kōloa Sugar. It was built in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1887 and used to haul cane at Kōloa Sugar until the 1920s.

The sesquicentennial was so popular, it became an annual event dubbed Kōloa Plantation Days. COVID-19 necessitated a 2-year pause, but it’s scheduled to return July 22–31, 2022, with a rodeo, a parade, and a ho‘olaule‘a among the highlights.

In addition, Kōloa Plantation Days: A Talk Story by Ada Henne Koene with Melissa McFerrin Warrack is set for release in early 2022. The 200-page, full-color, softcover book chronicles Kōloa’s sugar story through hundreds of photos and more than 70 interviews with field workers, mill supervisors, and descendants of picture brides, early immigrants, and others who helped shape that remarkable history.

Info: Book details are posted on koloaplantationdays.com along with the festival schedule.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is proud of her roots and describes life on her great-grandfather’s plantation in her book The Hawai‘i Book of Rice (Watermark Publishing, 2011).

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