A Sweet Experience

A plantation tour gives clients a sense of Hawaii’s sugary past

By: Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

I’m standing in a sea of green cane watching Wilfred Ibara, the guide for the Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation Tour, cut a hefty stalk for my group to study and sample. Ibara wields his machete with the aplomb of someone who frequents the fields. In fact, he, his father and maternal grandfather worked at sugar plantations in West Kauai; Ibara’s career with Kekaha Sugar Company spanned nearly 20 years and included stints as a design engineer, processing and maintenance supervisor and equipment shop supervisor at the factory.

From the late-1800s to the mid-1900s, cane was king in Hawaii. Low labor costs in other countries, however, have made it increasingly difficult for local companies to compete. Today, 7,000-acre Gay & Robinson in Kaumakani is one of only two working sugar plantations remaining in Hawaii (the other is Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar on Maui) and the only one offering tours to the public. Gay & Robinson produces over 13 tons of raw sugar per acre, making it one of the highest-yielding sugar plantations in the world.

A genial and knowledgeable host, Ibara shares the history of the plantation; explains how cane is planted, irrigated and harvested; and literally walks us through each processing step. In the factory, we climb stairs, peer into huge bins and cross ramps beside steaming tanks and droning gears. It’s hot and noisy, and the entire place vibrates from monstrous machines all operating at once.

“The mill’s sounds and smells remind me of when I worked for Kekaha Sugar Company, the many good workers I had and all the problem solving we went through,” says Ibara. “We had fun, too. There were parties at the manager’s volleyball court every Saturday night for someone’s birthday, retirement, wedding, anniversary. I used to feel sad about Hawaii’s dying sugar industry, but times have changed and we cannot stop it.”

Browsing in Gay & Robinson’s Visitor Center, a renovated field office dating back to 1906, gave me more insights into the hard work involved in running a plantation. Among the items on display are a 1940s calculator and typewriter; drill bits, clamps, scales and pH testers; rain gauges, irrigation equipment and water flow-measuring devices; and bangos, numbered metal disks that were used as identification by workers.

A few miles from Gay & Robinson’s mill, ResortQuest Waimea Plantation Cottages, set oceanfront in a 27-acre coconut grove, also kindles nostalgia about the old plantation days. Employees of Kauai’s sugar plantations actually lived in the property’s 55 charming cottages and homes. Some of the structures already were there when it was the site of Waimea Sugar Mill Company (1884-1969); the rest were relocated from other plantations.

Dating back between 1880 and 1940, all the accommodations have been completely restored and furnished with period-inspired furniture and modern conveniences, such as cable TV, phone, ceiling fans, in-room safe and clock radio. Fully equipped kitchens include a microwave, coffee maker and rice cooker.

The decor in each cottage is different, and a placard at the front door is inscribed with the family name of its last occupants immigrants from faraway lands like China, Japan, Portugal and the Philippines, who came to Hawaii at the turn of the last century to start life anew on the sugar plantations.

“There’s no other property in Hawaii like ResortQuest Waimea Plantation Cottages,” said general manager Stephanie Iona. “Our guests not only learn about the islands’ fascinating sugar history, they get a real sense of what it was like to live on a working plantation more than 75 years ago. The experience we offer reflects that time of peace, innocence and simplicity.”


ResortQuest Waimea Plantation Cottages
9400 Kaumualii Highway
Waimea, HI 96796
Commission: 10 percent

Nightly rates start at $150 for a studio cottage, $210 for a one-bedroom grove-view cottage, $260 for a two-bedroom grove-view cottage, $300 for a superior oceanview cottage and $435 for a four-bedroom oceanfront cottage. Rates for the five-bedroom Manager’s Home start at $650 per night.

Robinson Family Adventures
Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation Tour
2 Kaumakani Ave.
Kaumakani, HI 96747

The two-hour tour is offered Monday-Friday at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Cost is $34 for adults; $25 for children aged 8-12; free for younger children. Groups of between 12 and 20 people pay $20 per person plus 10 percent gratuity. Participants must be at least 8 years old to tour the factory when it’s in operation from April to October. During the off season, younger children are allowed inside if they can walk on their own and fit the hard hats and safety glasses.

All participants must wear shorts or long pants and low-heeled, closed-toed shoes. The plantation’s rich red soil stains clothing so dress accordingly. Reservations are suggested.