Agricultural Awareness

Rail tours offer clients a historic look into Kauai’s crops

By: Marty Wentzel

A century ago, trains hauled sugarcane to Kauai mills for processing, only to be replaced in the 1940s by trucks that were cheaper to operate. Now a new tour is paying tribute to the legacy of Kauai’s sugar trains, while introducing clients to the future of agriculture on the island.

The Kauai Plantation Railway is the brainchild of Fred Atkins, managing director of Kilohana, an established Kauai attraction and former working sugar plantation.

“For nearly 20 years, Kilohana itself has been offering visitors a glimpse of Kauai’s past,” Atkins said. “Now, on the rail tour, they’ll get a look at the next wave of agriculture, the crops that are taking the place of sugar, which is no longer profitable to grow in the islands.”

A hands-on manager, Atkins thrives on preservation efforts.

“Kauai is really growing, and the people who come here want to get a feeling for what it was like in the old days,” he said. “Until recently, Kilohana has been comprised of 36 acres, and we wanted to maintain it as a green belt as development went on around us.”

To preserve the integrity of the plantation, Atkins entered into a long-term lease on 67 acres behind the estate, where cane once grew, and started designing a route for an agricultural train tour.

When the tour launches in the summer of 2006, passengers will ride along a three-mile track encircling Kilohana. They’ll see two kinds of sugar cane, representing days gone by. Clients will also pass groves of exotic fruit trees like mango, lychee, longan, rambutan, starfruit, papaya, banana, blood orange, guava, mountain apple and pineapple. They’ll spot trees flourishing with avocados, coffee, cacao and macadamia nuts and indigenous species like koa and ohia. Livestock grazing the back acreage will wander over to greet the train as it passes by their land.

“I’m talking with a goat farmer so that we can start making goat cheese here,” Atkins said.

Train tours will begin and end at a quaint depot fashioned out of a former plantation cottage. Inside, at a state-of-the-art farmers market, guests can buy what they saw on the tour. Eventually, clients will be able to purchase a line of Kilohana packaged goods made from the products grown on the estate.

“Our soil is so rich in Hawaii,” Atkins noted. “A small farmer can make a profit off just two acres.”

Every good agricultural park needs a function space, according to Atkins, so Kilohana will promote the train to convention gatherings.

“There’s plenty of room for parties here,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a great new venue for group functions on Kauai.”

At its inception, Kauai Plantation Railway will carry clients in five open-air, covered railcars carrying 40 passengers each, pulled by classic diesel engines. Atkins has also imported a pair of steam engines that were used on sugar plantations on Oahu before winding up in the Philippines.

“It took nearly nine months to transport the two steam engines back here,” he said. “We’ll add them once the tour has been up and running for awhile.”

Meanwhile, Atkins is learning more about the steam engines’ history in the islands to lend more significance to the tour.

As an alternative to the new train tour, clients can explore the grounds on a horse-drawn carriage ride. They can also explore the centerpiece of Kilohana a grand Tudor mansion built in the 1930s for Gaylord Parke Wilcox, head of Grove Farm Plantation.

“After Wilcox died in the early 1970s, the house served various purposes, and then it was empty for about 10 years,” Atkins said. “When I looked at it, it was a wreck, but I saw its potential as a visitor attraction and a fabulous setting for group functions.”

Atkins masterminded a major renovation of the mansion and grounds, and opened it in June 1986.

“About 40 percent of what clients see in the house is original pieces,” he said.

Visitors can browse the home’s retail shops, which sell Kauai-made products; peruse the various rooms filled with art and antiques; and dine at Gaylord’s, with alfresco seating and Hawaii regional cuisine.

Kilohana Plantation Railway’s tours will cost less than $20 per person.

“It’s one of the cheapest tours on the island, providing one of the richest experiences a visitor will have on Kauai,” said Atkins.


Kauai Plantation Railway at Kilohana
3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy.
Lihue, HI 96766

Circling the historic Kilohana Plantation Estate, the train tours will start in the summer of 2006, taking clients past myriad crops representing the future of agriculture on Kauai. Refurbished historic engines will pull five 40-passenger open-air, covered railcars. Admission will be less than $20 per person.