Sunday, November 18, 2001


Wilfred Ibara cuts the "skin" off a cane stalk.

Kauai sugar mill
looks at isles’
sweet past

The Gay & Robinson sugar
plantation is 1 of only 2 in
Hawaii still in operation

Stay in a plantation cottage

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Special to the Star-Bulletin

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, cane was king in Hawaii. More than 240,000 acres of it could be seen nodding in the wind on Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai. At one time there were 17 sugar mills operating on Kauai alone.

Today, low labor costs in other countries, American foreign government subsidies and other factors have made it increasingly difficult for local companies to compete. Only two working sugar plantations remain in Hawaii, one of them being the 7,500-acre Gay & Robinson in Kaumakani, Kauai.

In 1889, New Zealand immigrant Eliza Sinclair; her daughters, Jane Gay and Helen Robinson; and their sons, Francis Gay and Aubrey Robinson, formed a partnership to grow sugar on their family's lands in West Kauai. Gay & Robinson has since earned recognition as the highest-yielding sugar plantation in the world, producing 14 tons of raw sugar per acre. You'll discover how the company accomplishes this during a fascinating two-hour tour that takes you into its fields and factory.

The best time to visit is from April through October, when the mill is in full operation.

You'll learn about the history of the plantation; how cane is planted, irrigated and harvested; and how sugar is processed. You'll meet employees and witness exactly what happens during a normal workday.

Tour guide Wilfred Ibara comes from a plantation family whose roots in sugar trace back to the early 1900s on Kauai. His maternal grandfather worked for Hawaiian Sugar Co., and his father worked for Waimea Sugar Co.

Ibara was employed by Kekaha Sugar Co. for nearly 20 years, first as a design engineer in the factory, then as a processing supervisor, maintenance supervisor and equipment shop supervisor. He escorts you up stairs, over ramps, beneath steaming tanks and alongside droning gears in Gay & Robinson's mill with ease, as though he were showing you his home.

Gay & Robinson's
Sugar Plantation Tour

Address: 2 Kaumakani Ave., Kaumakani, HI 96747
Hours: Visitor Center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.
Admission: Free
Tours: Offered twice daily Monday through Friday; check-in times are 8:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. at $30 per person, $21 for children ages 8 to 15. Reservations are required. All participants must wear shorts or long pants and low-heeled, closed-toe shoes. Hard hats and safety glasses will be provided for the factory portion of the tour. Children under the age of 8 are not allowed in the factory when it is operating. During the off season, younger children are allowed inside the facility if they fit the hard hats and glasses. The plantation's rich red soil stains clothing so dress appropriately.
Call: 335-2824
Web site:

A word of warning: It's hot and noisy in the factory. It also vibrates from monstrous machines such as clarifiers that clean impurities from the cane juice, vacuum pans in which a mixture of sugar crystals and molasses called massecuite is formed, and centrifuges that spin off raw sugar crystals from the massecuite.

Before or after the tour, browse in Gay & Robinson's Visitor Center, which features displays of artifacts such as sugar sample cans, a 1940s calculator as big as a modern computer keyboard, and "bangos," the numbered metal disks that were used as identification by plantation laborers.

Says tour supervisor Chris Faye: "Our experience gives people a real appreciation of what it takes to make a simple food product like sugar. It's a long, complicated process, and on the tour we take you through every step." Like Ibara, Faye grew up in a sugar plantation environment. Her great-grandfather was Hans Peter Faye, whose family's distinguished role in Kauai's sugar history began in 1884 when he founded the H.P. Faye & Co. plantation.

Faye still enjoys cruising in the cane fields. She says: "I love the colors there, the red dirt, green cane, purple mountains and blue skies. I love the harvest and the crackling sound of cane fires. I even like the smell of the smoke and the noise of the equipment. It reminds me of my childhood. All plantation kids grew up playing in the fields."

She realizes the time will probably come when it will not be financially feasible to grow cane in Hawaii.

"So much of the beautiful rural landscape we have known has been lost already," she laments. "I grew up in Central Oahu when it looked much like Kaumakani. I think of this landscape; it is so much a part of Hawaii. If we lose it, the outward face of Hawaii will change, and so will part of its soul."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a
Hawaii-based free-lance writer.

Wood floors, ceiliing fans and period furniture made
of mahogany, rattan and wicker add to the rustic
charm of Waimea Plantation Cottages.

Experience life in
historic plantation cottage

Set oceanfront amid sprawling green lawns and lush gardens of flowers and fruit trees three miles from Gay & Robinson's mill, Waimea Plantation Cottages preserves the quiet simplicity that once defined plantation life in Hawaii.

Employees of the sugar companies that once dotted West Kauai actually lived in the 48 historic cottages that now make up the resort.

Dating back to the 1920s and '30s, the cottages have been restored and equipped with modern conveniences such as cable television, phones and stereos.

Ceiling fans, wood floors and period furniture made of mahogany, rattan and wicker add to the cottages' rustic charm. You can dine in the on-site restaurant or enjoy "home-cooked" meals in the privacy of your cottage, with a kitchen that has everything you need, right down to the rice cooker.

Most of the cottages sport the name of the last plantation worker who lived in them. Scan the signs and you'll see names like Bautista, Ko, Morinaga and Domingo, which illustrate the plantation community's ethnic diversity. In a few cases, the worker's name could not be tracked down, so his job description is posted instead; for example, "Hanawai" refers to a man who worked with water.

Through Dec. 22, Waimea Plantation Cottages treats kamaaina to discounted rates and a 4 p.m. late check-out. A one-bedroom cottage is going for $88 per night; a four-bedroom cottage, which sleeps eight, is priced at $175 per night. Call 800-922-7866.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

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