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
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
“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
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.