As you drive into the Kilohana Plantation on Kauai, it's awfully tough to miss the mansion. Built in 1935 by Gaylord Wilcox, one of the Garden Isle's best-remembered sugar barons, the colossal manor is home to more than 16,000 square feet of living space and just three bedrooms.
"To be invited to that mansion in its day, when the Wilcoxes were here, you truly had to be royalty or politicians," said Pepe Trask, general manager for the Kilohana Plantation Railway. "Gaylord Wilcox built it to really make a statement."
Today, visitors of all stripes and all stations in life are welcomed to not only the mansion at Kilohana but other on-site attractions, such as its scenic railways, farmhouse restaurant, luau and rum distillery.
First purchased in 1864, Kilohana became one of 10 plantations on Kauai operating during Hawaii's sugar boom, a deeply formative period in the Hawaiian Islands' history made possible by the U.S. Civil War.
"Prior to the Civil War, all of the 'good stuff' in the U.S. -- cotton, sugar and so on -- was grown in the South, and they would harvest those products and send them up north to be manufactured," Trask explained.
"Once the war broke out, the South cut the North off, and they sent all their good stuff over to France in exchange for guns and ammunition. The North was left high and dry. ... So they came to the Kingdom of Hawaii, and they entered into a treaty that basically said, 'We'll buy everything you can produce for us: sugar, cotton, whatever.'"
Over time, laborers from a wide range of global origins arrived in Hawaii to work the sugar cane fields.
"People just think it was the Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese and Okinawans," Trask said. "But you had the first group of Norwegians and Germans, over 650 of them, come in 1880."
According to Trask, who comes from Hawaiian, Irish, English and Chinese roots, plantation workers put in 12-hour days, six days a week for about 90 cents a day on contracts that lasted seven years.
"And whatever they charged at the company store came out of their paycheck at the end of the month," he added. "Sugar had its good and bad, but a lot of those people, if not all of them, stayed on the Islands, and they intermarried, and today we can include them as part of our ancestors.
"That's the greatest contribution, and that really is the melting pot of the Islands," Trask said.
Today, the Wilcox home is a living museum where visitors can get a sense of how a Kauai sugar king lived 75 years ago.
"If you walk in the living room, 45% of the furnishing in there is original," Trask said. "And the other 55%, we were able to identify the kinds of pieces by looking at old photographs, and then we went to auction houses and the Salvation Army and were able to acquire things. So what you see today is pretty much how it looked in the 1930s."
Kauai visitors interested in a closer look at the actual plantation grounds, along with a detailed introduction to the property's history and information about many of the destination's plants and animals, should definitely consider a trip on the Kauai Plantation Railway.
A longtime favorite for families traveling with small children, the railway offers visitors two options: Patrons can either ride along on the 40-minute, conductor-narrated Signature Train Tour or sign up for the four-hour Nature Walk Orchard Adventure.
Both choices offer travelers a chance to see much of Kilohana's remaining 105 acres, including its several animal pastures; a replanted grove of indigenous Hawaiian hardwood trees; and the property's sprawling orchards featuring papayas, bananas, eggplant, ochre, peanuts, tomatoes, dragonfruit and cashews.
"They also get a chance to get off the train and feed our herd of over 80 wild pigs, goats and sheep," Trask said.
"We call [the pigs] our four-legged porpoises. The baby piglets are the size of little hot dogs, and then we've got big ones, as well."
Visitors who have signed up for the walking tour then head out for a guided, 45-minute stroll along the plantation's quarter-mile loop trail, offering guests a chance to see some of Kauai's interior plants and flowers up close.
"The people on the hiking tour also experience something no one else in the state offers," Trask said. "We give them a chance to walk through the orchards and pick any of the fresh fruit that's in season.
"Right now, it's our citrus season, so we have blood oranges, Hawaiian oranges, tangerines, nectarines, avocados. And they get to pick them and take them all home with them."
The Nature Walk also includes a deli picnic lunch with a chance to sample a homegrown pineapple cut right at the table.
"There's a lot of people who come to Hawaii who don't really want to go on a hike, but they want to see the interior," said Valerie Owen, the manager of Interisland Vacation Concepts, a Kauai-based concierge service. "So that activity is a very easy sell for a client who wants to get out and do a little exercise but not too much, yet really get a good feel for it and have a culture tour. It's really a good mix. ... And they really have a full, hands-on experience."
The train itself, of course, is also quite an attraction. According to Trask, Kauai was the first of the Hawaiian islands with a train, and eventually each of the Garden Isle's 10 sugar plantations had its own. Kilohana guests today ride behind a circa-1948, 25-ton diesel engine in six passenger cars holding up to 144 people.
"In the late 1950s, all of the plantations pretty much stopped using trains because they had trucks," Trask said. "And all these big sugar companies had their [sister operations] in either Cuba or the Philippines, so they sent all their engines to their plantations there. We were able to locate Hawaii steam engines in the Philippines [in 2004], and we bought them."
First shipped to California for an extensive refurbishment, the two recovered engines were pieced together into one working locomotive that transports Kilohana patrons today.
"It's a bottomless money pit," Trask said of keeping the engine running. "But rain, tsunami or snow, we're going to go, including New Year's and Christmas Day."
Commissionable at 25%, the Standard Signature Train Tour is $18 for adults (13 and older) and $14 for ages 3 to 12. The Nature Walk Orchard Adventure is $75 for adults and $60 for kids.
Dinner and a show
The Kilohana Plantation is also home to one of Hawaii's most lively and colorful theatrical performances: Luau Kalamaku. Open Tuesdays and Fridays to the public, the event is actually owned by Norwegian Cruise Line and began operating three years ago.
"What makes our luau stand out is the performance that we put on," said Sandi Weir, director of Hawaii operations for NCL. "To my knowledge, we're the only luau in the state that does this full, theatrical production depicting the migration from Tahiti to Kauai, the first island that they settled all those years ago.
"I think we're the only luau that really delves into that culture and history and really hits people at the heart of how these lands were settled."
Full of striking costumes and dynamic dancing and imagery, along with a top-notch fire knife sequence, Luau Kalamaku's strength comes from its extraordinary Kauai-based performers.
"For a lot of them, this is their fun evening job," Weir said. "We have engineers dancing for us. We have roofers, we have nurses, we have a dental assistant. It's a real family atmosphere."
Owen insisted that the Kalamaku performers make the luau an easy sell.
"They really have the best dancers," she said. "And it's the combination of the traditional luau elements with a flair of theatrical show that no one else in the state offers which really distinguishes it.
"The show also has that plantation setting, and Kilohana is just absolutely gorgeous, so even just as your driving in, you're getting the setting of old Hawaii."
Commissionable to agents, Luau Kalamaku is priced at $99 for adults, $69 for ages 12 to 18 and $49 for kids ages 3 to 11.
Farmhouse fare, local rum
Dinner prior to the luau is handled by 22° North, the plantation's new restaurant. As one might imagine, not all of the luau fare can be produced on the Garden Isle, but the eatery's operators are committed to using as much Kilohana-grown food and as many Kauai products as possible.
"We live on a little rock in the middle of the Pacific and, particularly in these economic conditions, first and foremost for us is that we need to support the people that are our neighbors," explained Todd Oldham, general manager for 22° North restaurant and bar.
"The second part is that everything just tastes a lot better," he added. "If you have salad greens, carrots, whatever on your plate, they've not traveled thousands of miles to get here, and also the cultivars, the subspecies, are grown for flavor and not for production and shipping."
The restaurant offers diners what Oldham called "farmhouse eclectic cuisine" showcasing Kauai's diversity, including Garden Isle beef, lamb, pork and, of course, seafood.
"We like to say we're focused on what's grown on Kauai accented by condiments from around the world," Oldham said.
Cocktail connoisseurs will not only want to sample some of 22° North's "Farm to Bar" concoctions but also fit in a complimentary sampling at the plantation's Koloa Rum Tasting Room & Co. store. A distiller of award-winning rum fashioned from Kauai-grown sugar, Koloa started offering free tastings to the public in 2009.
"We think our rum is excellent because of that sugar," said Jeanne Toulon, public relations director for the Koloa Rum Co. "It grew in the rich, red volcanic soil, and it's the highest molasses-producing sugar in the islands. ... And the water from Kauai, which we like to say all comes from Mount Waialeale, is filtered through the volcanic rock, making the water very pure. ... It's our still, it's our water and it's our sugar that makes our rum the best and very different."
The additions of 22° North and the Koloa Rum Co. have certainly added a different energy at the Kilohana Plantation and attracted new visitors.
"We bring a different demographic to Kilohana Plantation, which is great," Toulon said. "So now with the train, there's one demographic there, and 22° North and ourselves, there's another. ...It's infusing a lot of younger people and giving it a more lively feel, so we're really getting a great cross of people coming to the destination."
For more information on Kilohana attractions, visit www.luaukalamaku.com, www.22northkauai.com and www.koloarum.com.