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Sightseeing in Lihu‘e, Kaua‘i

While Lihu‘e certainly has some amazing sights to see, such as a beautifully preserved plantation and truly inspiring museum architecture, the stories behind the sights make them worth the time to fully experience. From cultural exhibits and plantation history to the great myths and legends of Kaua‘i’s heritage, here are some places to fully immerse yourself in Lihu‘e’s past.

Kaua‘i Museum

The Kaua‘i Museum (4428 Rice St., 808/245-6931, 10am-5pm Mon.-Sat., $10 adults, $8 kama‘aina and seniors 65 and up, $6 students 13-17, $2 children 6-12, and under 5 free) is a real treat. This two-building complex is in downtown Lihu‘e, and although it’s a good place to visit anytime, exploring it at the start of your trip leaves you with a background that enhances the rest of the visit. The island art exhibits change on a regular basis; however, the museum focuses on displaying ethnic heritage such as koa furniture, feather lei, and more. Permanent exhibits include the Story of Kaua‘i, which takes up two floors in the Rice Building. The exhibit constructs the island’s past, highlighting the geological aspects of the island and settlement by the Hawaiian people. Island chiefs, Captain Cook, traders, and whalers are highlighted. The exhibit even features a life-size camp house to walk through, shedding light on the many different people who came to the island.

The William Hyde Rice Building was built in 1960 to house the museum, and the Albert Spencer Wilcox building was built in 1924. Although small on the scale of national museums, the Kaua‘i museum exudes a strong presence with arches, a cement front, and broad steps. The building has a lava rock exterior, sloped roof, barrel-vaulted ceilings, original antique light fixtures, and a mezzanine with a balcony overlooking the first floor. The building is on the National Historic Register. The museum shop sells books, cards, Hawaiian prints, a magnificent selection of Hawaiian craft items, and a fine selection of detailed U.S. geological survey maps of the entire island.

In the Juliet Rice Wichman Heritage Gallery, exquisite finds are on display. Beautiful and rare N‘ihau shell lei and items that belonged to Kaua‘i ali‘i and monarchs are out for viewing. Furniture and other household items are on display. In the Oriental Art Gallery exhibit, housewares from Asia are on display. Asian china, sculptures, and art that had been in homes on the island are shared with viewers here.

There are also temporary exhibits. These include exhibits on the Kekaha train robbery, various art exhibits, textiles, and an aviation history of Kaua‘i.

It’s a good idea to dedicate at least a couple of hours for a thorough visit to the museum. The entrance fee is valid for several days and includes docent tours, so ask for a pass if you’d like to return. Free family admission is offered the first Saturday of every month.

The Alakoko Fishpond tells the story of Hawaiian history and myths.
The Alakoko Fishpond tells the story of Hawaiian history and myths. Photo © Bret Robertson, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Alakoko Fishpond

The Alakoko Fishpond is commonly known as Menehune Fishpond. Overlooking the Hule‘ia River and the Ha‘upu ridge on the far side, the pond tells the story of Hawaiian history and myths. This fishpond has been used to raise mullet and other commercial fish. But unlike most other fishponds, which are built along the edge of the ocean, this pond was constructed along the riverbank and is said to have been built by the menehune in just one night.

Legend says that these little people built the rock wall surrounding this pond for a royal prince and princess and made only one demand: that no one watch while they were working. It’s said that throughout the night the menehune passed the stones needed from hand to hand in a 25-mile-long line. Meanwhile, the prince and princess grew curious and watched from nearby. The menehune saw them and turned the royal pair into two pillars of stone that you can see on the mountain overlooking the pond. The small workers stopped their work and left holes in the wall. To get here, follow Hulemalu Road until you see the overlook. It’s a beautiful sight.

Travel map of Downtown Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii
Downtown Lihue

Grove Farm Homestead

The Grove Farm Homestead (4050 Nawiliwili Rd., 808/245-3202, tours Mon., Wed., and Thurs. 10am and 1pm, $20 donation for adults or $10 for children 5-12) is a former sugar plantation that was started in 1864 by George Wilcox, the son of Congregational missionary teachers who worked for the original owner of the bordering land. Wilcox bought 500 acres for $12,000 through a lease-to-purchase arrangement. The property had been chopped out of a large grove of kukui trees—hence the name Grove Farm. Bringing water down from the mountains, Wilcox formed one of the most profitable sugar plantations in Hawaii. He purchased more land as the years went by, and now the property encompasses 22,000 acres (one of the five largest landholdings on the island).

The homestead was a working plantation until the mid 1930s when Wilcox died. His nieces went on to care for the property, and in 1971 Mabel Wilcox created a nonprofit organization to preserve Grove Farm Homestead as a historical living farm. Reservations for tours are preferred, but the staff will most likely accommodate unexpected visitors. They ask that visitors call at least 24 hours in advance to book a tour. Reservations are also accepted by snail mail up to three months in advance by writing to Grove Farm Homestead (P.O. Box 1631, Lihu‘e, HI 96766). Exact directions will be given on the phone. Wear comfortable shoes that can be slipped off because, as in most homes in Hawaii, shoes are not worn indoors here. Tours are sometimes canceled on rainy days.

Kilohana Plantation

For an elegant trip back in time, visit the Kilohana Plantation (3-2087 Kaumuali‘i Hwy., 808/245-5608, shops open 9:30am-9:30pm Mon.-Sat. and 9:30am-5pm Sun.), a sprawling estate with manicured lawns, fruit, flowers, a train, and the former mansion of Gaylord Wilcox. At the time that Gaylord Wilcox moved the business offices of Grove Farm from the homestead site, he had the 16,000-square-foot Kilohana plantation house built in 1936. After decades of family use, the building was renovated in 1986 and turned into shops that sell arts and crafts. Exploring the antique mansion’s rooms, still decorated with original furnishings, jewelry, and other elegant artifacts, serves as a tangible experience of history.

Kilohana Plantation has several restaurants, as well as Lu‘au Kilohana every Tuesday and Thursday evening. A horse-drawn carriage operates 11am-6pm daily. Just show up and stand in line near the front entrance to take a ride. The 20-minute carriage ride is $12 for adults and $6 for children; call 808/246-9529 for reservations.

The Kauai Plantation Railway is a popular attraction here also. With a whistle to get the excitement going, the 1939 Whitcomb diesel engine, named Ike, pulls mahogany coaches modeled after King Kamehameha’s personal car. The first stop is at a housing of wild pigs, goats, sheep, horses, and other farm animals. You can even feed the animals with the bread supplied by the conductor. Go on the tour that includes riding the train, hiking in the surrounding rainforest into a valley with streams, and having a picnic with a dessert of fresh fruits right off the tree.

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