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Hawaii's sugar history makes for one sweet island tour

Hawaii's sugar history makes for one sweet island tour
Sugar cane lines a field near the KoHana Rum distillery on Oahu, Hawaii. The crop was king in the 19th and 20th centuries; now only small patches remain. (Roberts Hawaii)

A new tour on Oahu takes visitors back to Hawaii’s sweetest century. From 1850 to 1950, sugar was king, a crop that brought thousands of workers from several Asian countries, as well as Puerto Rico and Portugal, to the state’s cane fields and mills.

Roberts Hawaii, the state’s largest tour operator, takes visitors from Waikiki to Hawaii’s Plantation Village, near the town of Waipahu, which features restored buildings and replicas of the buildings that once housed laborers. Guides tell the story of the sugar years and show visitors a small stand of sugar cane that still remains.

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Malasadas are a Portuguese-style doughnut introduced in Hawaii by immigrants who came to work the sugar cane fields.
Malasadas are a Portuguese-style doughnut introduced in Hawaii by immigrants who came to work the sugar cane fields. (Tor Johnson / Hawaii Tourism Authority)

And then there are tasting stops, too: first at the Malasadamobile, operated by Leonard’s, an iconic Honolulu bakery, for a sweet treat. The bakery since 1953 has specialized in malasadas, which are known as Portuguese doughnuts. Recipes for the doughnuts — fried without a hole and then covered in sugar — were brought to the islands by immigrants who toiled in the sugar fields.

Sugar cane, seen here after its harvest, was Hawaii's biggest export for around 100 years until cheaper sources of sugar killed the industry in the islands in the mid 20th century.
Sugar cane, seen here after its harvest, was Hawaii's biggest export for around 100 years until cheaper sources of sugar killed the industry in the islands in the mid 20th century. (John Hook / Hawaii Tourism Authority)

The final stop is at KoHana Rum near the village of Kunia, where visitors learn how sugar cane is used to make rum.

A worker stands beside the large tanks in which sugar cane juice is distilled into rum at KoHana Rum on the island of Oahu.
A worker stands beside the large tanks in which sugar cane juice is distilled into rum at KoHana Rum on the island of Oahu. (Roberts Hawaii)

The tour includes the tasting room, where grownups can sample Rhum agricole, as it’s called, made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice instead of molasses.

A small patch of sugar cane towers over visitors during a tour of Hawaii's Plantation Village, where sugar was grown for roughly 100 years.
A small patch of sugar cane towers over visitors during a tour of Hawaii's Plantation Village, where sugar was grown for roughly 100 years. (Roberts Hawaii)

Oahu Sugar Tours, offered Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, pick up visitors from Waikiki hotels starting at 8 a.m. Tickets cost $118 for adults and children at least 12 years old, and $89 for children 4 to 11 years old.

Even after the sugar fields fell fallow in the 20th century, thanks to cheaper sugar sources elsewhere, many descendants of the original immigrants still live in the same communities as their ancestors.

One such town, Haleiwa, on the island’s North Shore, has reinvented itself as a popular tourist destination, with surfers and sun seekers drawn to its broad beaches. Others, such as Honokaa, an hour’s drive north from Hilo on the island of Hawaii, retain a sleepier vibe than in the era when sugar reigned.

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