Knife-edged peaks jab into the clouds on Kauai's lush north shore, combing down hundreds of inches of rain per year. The water spills in thin veils over sheer cliffs, then tumbles down deep, shaded valleys to the sea. Along this fertile watershed, now part of 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 have been carefully restored. Upslope from the farm site are natural areas where the garden's botanists are trying to protect native plants that grow nowhere else in the world.
"Most visitors expect to see orchids and tropicals here," says Chipper Wichman, the garden's director. "But this is a powerful place. It can show visitors what Hawaii is all about." The most important lessons are about sustainable farming and living in harmony with the native environment, points out Wichman. "On oceanic islands ... you have to learn how to live within the limits of 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 the 1860s, sugar had become the state's major product. Immigrants recruited from all over the world came by the boatload to help bring in the cane.
To find out how these immigrants changed the complexion and cultural makeup of the islands, I drive to Kauai's sunbaked southwestern shore, where the red earth flattens and spreads a broad, dry plain to the sea. Near Waimea, I head into Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation, one of the state's two remaining mills. By offering tours, G & R is trying to preserve the sugar-plantation tradition and its rural lifestyle.
While we bounce over rutted dirt roads in a rattling van, our driver and tour guide, Wilfred Ibara, explains how sugar is grown and harvested. Clouds of red earth billow through a crack in the door and green cane stalks slap against the van's sides as he describes sugarcane's two-month ripening process, which culminates with burning the fields of leafy trash just before harvest. Stopping beside a pile of straw-colored canes in a newly burned field, Ibara motions us out of the van. He picks up a stalk, whacks at it with a machete, peels back the bark to expose the fiber, then hands us each a sliver. We suck out the sweet juice.
Conversation turns to Ibara and his family. His grandfather came from Japan to work the plantations and stayed. His father was a superintendent for Waimea Sugar Mill.
Ibara grew up with Hawaiian kids but admits that as a child he didn't notice a particularly Hawaiian culture. "Around the time Hawaii became a state, in 1959, culture for all of us was about fitting in and being American," he says. "It was only after the mills merged or closed and people began moving back to the land during the 1970s that native Hawaiians began reclaiming their culture."
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 way of life nearly vanished from Hawaii.
Continuing past the town of Waimea, I get a taste of plantation life by staying in one of 53 cottages that have been saved from demolition and restored. Set in a 27-acre coconut palm grove, they're part of Waimea Plantation Cottages, opened in 1996 on the grounds of the old Waimea Sugar Mill.
Here, I find the perfect place to soak up the ambience of bygone days and ponder the cultural mingling of Hawaii's many immigrants. From my veranda, a green lawn sweeps around a banyan tree, then gives way to wave-washed sand the color of chocolate. Across the lawn, another guest turns meat on a barbecue in front of his veranda. Each cottage is named for a plantation worker: Singleman, Samio, F. Ibara. Seeing them reminds me of something Leimomi Mo'okini Lum said: "We have so many races in Hawaii, we are like many-colored flowers in the lei."
Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation. The best months to visit 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. Off State 50, just past mile marker 19 near Waimea; www.gandrtours-kauai.com or (808) 335-2824.
Kauai Sunshine Market. At this open-air farmers' market, you can buy tropical flowers, as well as fresh, island-grown produce. 4:30 every Thu. Kilauea Neighborhood Center, Kilauea Lighthouse Rd. and Keneke St., Kilauea.
Limahuli Garden. The National Tropical Botanical Garden's north shore site, located 1/4 mile before Ke'e Beach near the western end of State 56, has guided and self-guided tours of the 3/4-mile loop trail (wear comfortable shoes). 9:30-4 Tue- Fri, Sun; guided tours $15 per person, ages 12 and under free (reservations required); self-guided tours $10, ages 12 and under free. www.ntbg.org or (808) 826-1053.
Bamboo Bamboo. In this stylish restaurant, open to an outdoor veranda, fresh local fare includes salads of Hanalei-grown organic greens and fish specials. For lunch, taro burgers are yummy. Lunch Tue-Sun, dinner nightly. In Hanalei Center, Hanalei; (808) 826-1177.
Hanalei Colony Resort. A small cluster of rustic two-story buildings and a pool on remote but beautiful Kepuhi Beach. All condos have two bedrooms, kitchen, bath, living room, and covered porch (no phones or TV). Best rooms are on the point with ocean views. 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, family room, 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). In Kilauea, 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 unswimmable beach. All have kitchens and pool access. From $180. 9400 Kaumuali'i Hwy., Waimea; www.astonhotels.com, (800) 922-7866, or (808) 338-1625.