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During the 25 years since Kilohana Plantation first opened, the multifaceted attraction has distinguished itself from others on the island — and throughout Hawaii — by providing a well-rounded look at Kauai’s history and culture and making a statement about the island’s future.
“What sets Kilohana apart from other attractions in the state is that we provide a glimpse into Kauai’s past,” said general manager Fred Atkins. “We have created that atmosphere through the restoration of a plantation home and cottages, the creation of a plantation-style railway, the addition of a luau performed by an all-Kauai cast and the opening of a tasting room and company store for Kauai-made rum, which is totally unique in the state.”
The centerpiece of Kilohana is a 16,000-square-foot Tudor mansion. Built in the 1930s for the head of a sugar plantation, it was Kauai’s largest plantation dwelling at the time. After the owner died, the house fell into disrepair. Sensing its potential, Atkins renovated it and opened it as a visitor attraction in 1986.
Today, a stroll through the impeccably restored mansion is like a step back in time, from the art deco detailing to the antiques and artwork throughout. The building features several retail shops selling Kauai-made products like Niihau shell necklaces and island crafts. It’s also the home of 22 Degrees North, a restaurant in a casual courtyard setting. Boasting farm-to-table cuisine, it serves dishes made from ingredients grown and raised on Kauai.
While sugar is no longer a profitable crop in the islands, Kilohana keeps alive the spirit of 19th-century plantation days. Consider its Kauai Plantation Railway, whose classic diesel engines pull open-air covered railcars along a three-mile track around the estate. Open since 2007, the train passes groves of sugar, reminiscent of the past, as well as crops that represent the next wave of agriculture, such as mango, lychee, starfruit, papaya, banana, guava, mountain apple, pineapple, avocado, coffee, cacao and macadamia nuts. Tours begin and end at a charming depot, where display boards feature old photos and information about the steam trains that hauled Kauai sugar beginning in the late 19th century.
Train tour options include a 40-minute conductor-narrated excursion, with a stop to feed Kilohana’s herd of pigs, sheep and goats. A four-hour alternative adventure begins with the standard ride followed by a 45-minute walking tour though Kilohana’s tropical forest, with stops to learn about the flowers and plants along the way. Participants then enjoy a deli lunch, followed by a stroll through the orchards to pick and taste in-season fresh fruit and a train ride back to the depot.
Kilohana further diversified in 2007, when the new Luau Kalamaku chose it as its headquarters. The experience begins with craft demonstrations and Hawaiian games followed by dinner and entertainment by hula dancers. The evening culminates in a 45-minute luau show — the only one in Hawaii that’s performed in the round — highlighted by a dramatic fireknife dance.
In 2009, Kilohana once again broadened its appeal with the opening of Koloa Rum’s tasting room and company store. Showcasing the first and only rum manufactured on Kauai — out of Kauai cane, no less — the plantation-style shop offers visitors a free sample of the local spirit as company representatives talk about how it’s made. Clients can browse the retail area for products such as rum cake, mai tai mix and rum fudge sauce.
With an eye toward the future, Atkins is working with a local expert to plant taro, the staple crop of the ancient Hawaiians, for the production of taro fries and chips at 22 Degrees North and other Kauai outlets. His team has replanted Kauai’s only remaining sugarcane field, whose crops will be used in the restaurant and by Koloa Rum. And, Atkins is currently doing a feasibility study on establishing a farmers market.
“Our agritourism project is maturing and our fruit orchard and farmers need an outlet for our produce,” he said.
Ultimately, said Atkins, Kilohana represents a sense of pride in Kauai’s heritage, and he hopes it will continue to do so for the next quarter-century.
“When Kilohana first opened, you could see sugarcane from the other side of the highway down to Nawiliwili, several miles away,” he said. “Our commitment to Kauai has been to preserve our 10-acre roadway frontage so that it’s open pasture space. We’re keeping Kilohana true to its past.” n