Kauai: Authentic experiences beyond the beach

Knife-edged peaks jab into the clouds on Kauai's lush northshore, combing down hundreds of inches of rain per year. The waterspills in thin veils over sheer cliffs, then tumbles down deep,shaded valleys to the sea. Along this fertile watershed, now partof Limahuli Garden, early Hawaiians grew crops, such as taro,that they'd brought with them in their canoes from Polynesia.

Today the ancient terraced fields edged with black rock havebeen carefully restored. Upslope from the farm site are naturalareas where the garden's botanists are trying to protect nativeplants that grow nowhere else in the world.

"Most visitors expect to see orchids and tropicals here," saysChipper Wichman, the garden's director. "But this is a powerfulplace. It can show visitors what Hawaii is all about." The mostimportant lessons are about sustainable farming and living inharmony with the native environment, points out Wichman. "Onoceanic islands ... you have to learn how to live within the limitsof the land."

But here on Kauai, as on other islands, waves of immigrants― starting with American missionaries in the early 1800s― quickly discovered the economic potential of one of the"canoe crops" brought by those first Hawaiians: sugarcane. By the1860s, sugar had become the state's major product. Immigrantsrecruited from all over the world came by the boatload to helpbring in the cane.

To find out how these immigrants changed the complexion andcultural makeup of the islands, I drive to Kauai's sunbakedsouthwestern shore, where the red earth flattens and spreads abroad, dry plain to the sea. Near Waimea, I head into Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation, one of the state's tworemaining mills. By offering tours, G & R is trying to preservethe sugar-plantation tradition and its rural lifestyle.

While we bounce over rutted dirt roads in a rattling van, ourdriver and tour guide, Wilfred Ibara, explains how sugar is grownand harvested. Clouds of red earth billow through a crack in thedoor and green cane stalks slap against the van's sides as hedescribes sugarcane's two-month ripening process, which culminateswith burning the fields of leafy trash just before harvest.Stopping beside a pile of straw-colored canes in a newly burnedfield, Ibara motions us out of the van. He picks up a stalk, whacksat it with a machete, peels back the bark to expose the fiber, thenhands us each a sliver. We suck out the sweet juice.

Conversation turns to Ibara and his family. His grandfather camefrom Japan to work the plantations and stayed. His father was asuperintendent for Waimea Sugar Mill.

Ibara grew up with Hawaiian kids but admits that as a child hedidn't notice a particularly Hawaiian culture. "Around the timeHawaii became a state, in 1959, culture for all of us was aboutfitting in and being American," he says. "It was only after themills merged or closed and people began moving back to the landduring the 1970s that native Hawaiians began reclaiming theirculture."

Today, Ibara lives in a cottage much like the one he grew up in.But as other plantation cottages become museum pieces, his is a wayof life nearly vanished from Hawaii.

Continuing past the town of Waimea, I get a taste of plantationlife by staying in one of 53 cottages that have been saved fromdemolition and restored. Set in a 27-acre coconut palm grove,they're part of Waimea Plantation Cottages, opened in 1996 on the grounds ofthe old Waimea Sugar Mill.

Here, I find the perfect place to soak up the ambience of bygonedays and ponder the cultural mingling of Hawaii's many immigrants.From my veranda, a green lawn sweeps around a banyan tree, thengives way to wave-washed sand the color of chocolate. Across thelawn, another guest turns meat on a barbecue in front of hisveranda. Each cottage is named for a plantation worker: Singleman,Samio, F. Ibara. Seeing them reminds me of something LeimomiMo'okini Lum said: "We have so many races in Hawaii, we are likemany-colored flowers in the lei."

AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES

Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation. The best months tovisit for a 2-hour plantation tour are March through November. 9 and 1 Mon-Fri; $30, $21 ages 7-12 (no infants or toddlers).Call for availability and arrive at least 15 minutes early. OffState 50, just past mile marker 19 near Waimea; www.gandrtours-kauai.comor (808) 335-2824.

Kauai Sunshine Market. At this open-air farmers' market, youcan buy tropical flowers, as well as fresh, island-grown produce. 4:30 every Thu. Kilauea Neighborhood Center, Kilauea LighthouseRd. and Keneke St., Kilauea.

Limahuli Garden. The National Tropical Botanical Garden'snorth shore site, located 1/4 mile before Ke'e Beach near thewestern end of State 56, has guided and self-guided tours of the3/4-mile loop trail (wear comfortable shoes). 9:30-4 Tue- Fri, Sun; guided tours $15 per person, ages 12 andunder free (reservations required); self-guided tours $10, ages 12and under free. www.ntbg.org or (808)826-1053.

DINING

Bamboo Bamboo. In this stylish restaurant, open to anoutdoor veranda, fresh local fare includes salads of Hanalei-grownorganic greens and fish specials. For lunch, taro burgers areyummy. Lunch Tue-Sun, dinner nightly. In Hanalei Center, Hanalei; (808)826-1177.

LODGING

Hanalei Colony Resort. A small cluster of rustic two-storybuildings and a pool on remote but beautiful Kepuhi Beach. Allcondos have two bedrooms, kitchen, bath, living room, and coveredporch (no phones or TV). Best rooms are on the point with oceanviews. From $180. About 5 miles west of Hanalei. 5-7130 Ku-hio- Hwy.; www.hcr.com or (800)628-3004.

Kilauea Lakeside Estate. Secluded house with kitchen, familyroom, and three bedrooms on a private lagoon surrounded by gardens.Great place to splurge on a honeymoon or family reunion. $495 per night ($750 per night in summer and on holidays). InKilauea, toward the mountains from State 56; www.kauaihoneymoon.com or (310) 379-7842.

Waimea Plantation Cottages. Refurbished plantation cottages(pictured at top) nestle among palms on a pretty but unswimmablebeach. All have kitchens and pool access. From $180. 9400 Kaumuali'i Hwy., Waimea; www.astonhotels.com, (800)922-7866, or (808) 338-1625.

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