Sunday, September 23, 2001


See Kauai and
get a workout, too

Former sugar lands that were
private for 140 years are opened
to guided bicycle treks


By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Special to the Star-Bulletin

I'm standing on an old cane haul road on Kauai, trying to remember the last time I was on a bike -- a real bike, not a Lifecycle at the gym. I think I was 12, maybe 16; at any rate, enough years had passed for me to be feeling a little uncertain about how I would fare on this trip.

I'd signed up for the Kauai Adventure Trek, billed as a 4.5-hour intermediate-level bike ride and hike "suited for everyone from young families to active seniors." I'd been told the tour's youngest participant to date was 7; the oldest, 80. Reminding myself that I am well within this range, I tighten the strap on my helmet, take a swig of chilled bottled water and listen to final instructions from the guide. The 8-mile trek, he says, will take us through scenic sections of 22,000-acre Grove Farm, which was founded as a sugar plantation in 1864 by George Wilcox, the son of missionaries Abner and Lucy Wilcox.

Our group of 10 sets off down the flat gravel path, admiring the lush pasture and herds of contentedly grazing cattle that border it. Beyond to the right is magnificent Mount Waialeale; beyond to the left is the equally imposing Hoary Head range. Our first photo-taking and rest stop comes just 1.5 miles down the road. "Not bad," I think as I slowly squeeze the hand brakes and glide to a gentle stop. "I can do this."

From there we head up a slight incline to the Wilcox Tunnel, named after the entrepreneurial George. Just over half a mile long, it was constructed in 1948 to provide cane-filled trucks with a more direct route from the fields to the mill. It took $200,000 and seven months for Japanese laborers to build the tunnel. Two teams of workers started at opposite ends, and when they finally reached each other in the middle, they amazingly were less than 6 inches off their mark of meeting perfectly.

Wearing head lamps, we pedal through the tunnel in pairs, about 15 feet apart from the two cyclists in front of us. The road is pitch black, very rocky and full of ruts, making for an exhilarating, if not downright scary, ride. I find the best way to conquer the tunnel is to bike at an even, fairly fast pace, always keeping my eye on the brilliant orb of daylight that beckons at the end.

From the tunnel the road winds downhill, requiring soft but sure hands on the brakes to maintain a controlled speed. We pause for a look at 360-acre Waita Reservoir, the largest manmade reservoir in the state. Originally a swamp, Waita was drained by Ladd & Co. (which started Hawaii's first successful sugar plantation in nearby Koloa in 1835) to provide more acreage for growing cane. Company honchos quickly realized, however, that the marshy land wasn't suitable for agriculture, so they built a reservoir on the site instead. Waita is used today for commercial bass fishing and to irrigate the fields of corn, coffee, papaya and asparagus that have replaced cane, which no longer is an economically feasible crop in Hawaii.

At one time there were 77 sugar mills in Hawaii; today, there are only two: one on Maui and one on Kauai.

Koloa Sugar Mill, which closed in 1996, is a fascinating stop. We park our bikes and walk inside, trying to imagine what it was like in its heyday when the gears of its mammoth machinery were turning, molasses was simmering in its huge vats, and hundreds of workers were walking on its grated ramps. Today, the mill is a forlorn figure -- a silent, rusting, giant ghost.

A 10-minute ride away, Mahaulepu Beach provides a pretty location for a midday break. A few of us settle in the shade of ironwood trees to enjoy our deli lunches and chitchat. The rest opt for a refreshing dip in the ocean first, in hopes of spotting dolphins, sea turtles and maybe a rare Hawaiian monk seal or two.

From December through April, Mahaulepu also is a prime place to view pods of humpback whales that migrate to Hawaii each year from chilly Alaskan waters.

The last leg of our trip takes us to Haula Bay, where a gorgeous vista unfolds during a short coastal walk: turquoise surf, a crescent of golden sand, rugged ebony cliffs. Movie buffs will recognize the bluff from which Harrison Ford and Anne Heche jumped to escape a band of modern-day pirates in the 1997 hit "Six Days, Seven Nights."

Fred Atkins, co-owner of Kauai Adventure Trek, said the inspiration for creating the trek came from Allan Smith, vice president and chief operations officer for Grove Farm.

"He told me to be creative and use whatever part of Grove Farm's 22,000 acres I needed to make it a wonderful activity for both local people and visitors. After riding through the plantation with Allan, I realized the property had components for a great adventure.

"The tunnel, mill, beach and hike are definite highlights, but what brings everything together are the guides' aloha and their interesting commentary on each place. I can't think of a better way to see a special part of Kauai that's been private for about 140 years -- and enjoy some healthy exercise at the same time."

Kauai Adventure Trek

Address: Kilohana Plantation, 3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy., Lihue, HI 96766

Call: 808-245-3440 or 808-635-8735

Cost: $85 per person, including lunch and gear; 25 percent discount for kamaaina. The tour is aimed at those ages 9 and older. Participants under 9 are permitted at the discretion of the booking agent. Three-wheel bikes are available for younger children, and two electric Leisure Bikes can be reserved on a first-come, first-served basis by those who aren't confident they can pedal the entire distance. The Leisure Bike has the same features of a regular mountain bike, but it can be powered by a battery if the rider chooses. Those who aren't capable of biking at all can enjoy the tour in the air-conditioned comfort of the accompanying van, go on the mill tour, have lunch at the beach and do the short hike at the end. The cost for this option is the same as the biking tour.

Times: 8:15 and 10 a.m. daily except Sunday. Check-in is 30 minutes prior to departure.

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