Hawaii’s sugarcane history comes alive at Kauai’s Plantation Railroad

All aboard this bountiful train ride in Kilohana.
kauai train plantation railroad

When the whistle sounds, it can only mean one thing: The train is ready to chuff out of the station. 

As I settle into the mahogany bench seating aboard the Hanalei—one of three historical, steam-powered trains in service at Kauai’s Kilohana Plantation—I begin to get a taste of what life was like in Hawaii during the golden age of sugar.

“All aboard!” the conductor howls. It only takes a moment for the pulsing pistons to propel the train forward, making a memory of the charming, red-roofed train depot. 

Formerly home to 22,000 acres of sugarcane, Kilohana Plantation is now a 105-acre estate punctuated by tropical forest, a bounty of fruit trees, friendly livestock and dramatic emerald mountain views. The property’s nucleus is the Gaylord Wilcox mansion, an inductee of the National Register of Historic Places and an emblem of plantation-era architecture. Wilcox, a sugar baron, built the 16,000-foot Tudor-style homestead in 1935. Back then, it was the most expensive home ever constructed on the island. 

mansion kauai
The Gaylord Wilcox Mansion, built in 1935. 
Photo: Joel Abroad

Encircling the home and its acreage is a 2.5-mile railroad, a rare and striking remnant of the bygone plantation era. Launched on Kauai in 1835, Hawaii’s seemingly indomitable sugar business ballooned in the 19th and 20th centuries and, as the technology became available, railways were adopted to boost efficiency in transporting the annual sugar harvest from the fields to the mill. On Kauai, the birthplace of the Hawaiian railroad, the last fixed-rail system phased out in 1959.

At Kilohana, the island’s railroad culture lives on as a sort of living museum. Daily narrated tours on old sugar-haul cars take guests on a 40-minute journey. On weekdays, the plantation offers a four-hour adventure tour, which includes an orchard walk, a hike to a tropical valley and a ride on the rails. On this warm, blue-sky day, I opted for the adventure tour.

kauai train
The inside of the Hanalei. 
​Photo courtesy: Kauai Plantation Railroad

Powered by a 1948 diesel engine, the Hanalei whisks past rows of papaya, Okinawan sweet potato, Samoan coconut trees and stately Cook pines. But soon, fields of cashew trees and tropical flowers give way to green pastures, where a trio of perky-eared, white-nosed donkeys graze.

“These are friendly reminders of the plantation days of old,” the conductor says. “Long before the train and the truck, donkeys and similar animals provided a mode of transportation for the sugarcane and the workers.”

I meet more animals as we go. In a field to the left of the tracks, I spy Red Bull and Betty, the plantation’s pair of longhorn cattle. The train rolls by goats and a pony next. Then lots and lots of pigs.

“Our current ratio of pigs to residents right now on this island is five to one,” the conductor says.

pigs kauai train
Passengers disembark to pet the grazing animals.
​Photo courtesy: Kauai Plantation Railroad

From the window of the train, I gawk at the wildlife on the move and laugh to myself about the prospect of a tropical isle overrun by oinking pigs.

Halfway down the line, the conductor slows the train to a halt. It’s time to disembark for photo ops. As I pose for a selfie with a baby pig, our tour guide taps my shoulder and points to a heap of bread and then signals back toward the animals in the pen.

With a fistful of bread, I approach the pen where dozens of pigs and a pair of donkeys stand with snouts pressed against the wire fencing. It’s snack time, and these animals know it.

goat kauai plantation
A goat ready to snack.
​Photo courtesy: Kauai Plantation Railroad

As I extend an open palm toward a gap in the fence, a donkey robs my handful of bread, showing no regard for the baby pig I had wanted to feed instead. Flashing its dentures, the donkey seems to chortle at its success.

At my side, a young girl with wispy blonde locks contemplates feeding the same donkey. 

“It just tickles your hand,” her father encourages. “It’s very fun. Do you want to try?” 

The girl stands quiet a moment. Then she renders her verdict: “Here, donkey, donkey!” She giggles as the donkey slops up the bread in her hand.

Next on the agenda is an easy, eight-minute hike down a series of switchbacks into Kahuna Nui Valley. The trail is an old cattle shoot leading to a dense forest where towering mango trees form a canopy over a wild garden of honeycomb ginger and heliconias. Suddenly, I round a turn and spy the most impressive sight in the forest: A 150-year-old mango tree wrapped in banyan vines. Standing beside the tree’s impressively wide girth, I swear I’ve never felt so small on this Earth.

When I climb out of the valley, I’m greeted with a reward: It’s time for lunch. The menu features sandwiches and salads, along with cookies, chips and fresh-cut fruit harvested from the plantation. But just when I think lunch is over, I learn that it’s not. A short walk leads to an orchard of citrus trees. 

The fruit is plump with juice and ready for picking. Careful to avoid spider webs, I reach into a tangerine tree and pull down some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted. It’s been a rainy winter, the tour guide explains, which makes for lip-smacking citrus.

fruit trees kauai plantation railroad
There are more than 50 varieties of plants, including taro,
pineapple, mango and banana.
​Photo courtesy: Kauai Plantation Railroad

At last, it’s time to board the train and roll back to the depot. Stepping into the passenger car, I imagine what it must have been like to be a plantation worker, accompanying pounds and pounds of sugarcane to the mill on this very train car. 

Without uncertainty, a ride on the Hanalei was a whole lot less elegant back then. Yet while I’m a champion for historical accuracy, I can’t say I mind the upgrade.

Kilohana Plantation, 3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy., Lihue, Kauai, available every day, 7 days a week, 5 tours a day at 10 and 11 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Check-in is 30 minutes prior departure times, (808) 245-7818, kilohanakauai.com.

Categories: Kauaʻi