Before visiting Hawaii, I had a very idealized view of what the place would be like. Tourism is Hawaii’s biggest industry and has been since the 1950’s, so the state does quite a bit to promote its brand to tourists. The travel industry creates jobs and brings in quite a bit of tax revenue. Given the constant drumbeat by those who promote the Hawaiian ambience, is it really all that surprising that entire aspects of this society are usually overlooked by outsiders?
I went to Hawaii expecting to see beaches and tropical fish and hula dancers and hotel rooms with lanais, and lots and lots of flowers. That’s about it. In all my years, the concept that people have to actually work to live here, and that the state has a rich culture and a complicated colonial history only crossed my mind while reading James Michener’s novel, Hawaii. I didn’t realize until just this moment that that book came out the same year that Hawaii became a state. But after reading it, I moved on to some other book, and my idea of Hawaii slipped back into that prepackaged, sun-bathed fantasy that I’m quite sure the vast majority of us indulge in.
Because I was in need of a reality check, I was really grateful that the first place we stayed was the Pono Kai Resort in Kapa’a, Kauai. Yes, this lovely place fit the brand that I had come to expect, and it made me excited for the rest of the trip. I could tell that the “product” I was receiving was exactly as described. But then a brief walk along the waterfront altered my mindset entirely. In the best possible way.
Pono Kai is on the windward side of the island, so the seas are rough, and the wind can howl. It was obvious that despite the gorgeous view, we wouldn’t be swimming in this area, so rather than lying on the beach with a good book as planned, we decided to take a walk.
On the southeast edge of the Pono Kai Resort property, you come to a delightful foot bridge that spans Konohiki Stream. (Where I come from, this wide and deep waterway that wends its way from Kauai’s mountainous interior would be called a river, but who am I to judge?) On the other side of the foot bridge is Waipouli Park.
The footbridge itself has pineapple-themed railings and sculptures, and we soon discovered why. There was an informative sign that described Hawaiian Canneries, a factory that used to stand right on the Pono Kai property from 1913 to 1962. It played a huge part in the Kapa’a community, employing 295 full time workers and 1800 seasonal workers to grow and process pineapples. High school and college kids could count on a job every summer.
Suddenly I was looking at this place with new eyes. This wasn’t just a playground for tourists. It was a place where people worked for a living. It was a place once shaped by its pineapple crop, which was the second largest industry after sugarcane on these islands until tourism took over. It was a place where people took pride in their work, and a place where people dreamed about a brighter future. Here are some vintage photos I got from the Kaua’i Museum’s Facebook Group.
The Kaua’i Museum’s Facebook Group notes “the company finally folded in 1962 after announcing in Jan 1960 that they were planting their last crop. It was the first of the small packers to announce closure since the Depression… It was the largest pineapple plantation on Kauai with 295 full time workers and 1800 seasonal workers…[Upon closing] the company was even charged for moving and transportation costs associated with employees leaving the island or company housing.”
This heaping helping of history early on in my trip greatly enhanced my visit to Hawaii. Not only did I appreciate the stunning beauty of everything around me, but after that, I also made a point of digging deeper. I learned how the land was shaped, and how the Polynesians arrived and thrived on these islands. I learned about colonialism and how it altered the way people lived and worked, and how its existence brought new people to this place.
Standing on that footbridge on my first evening in Hawaii, my view of the place finally became more three-dimensional. I could see the resort (pictured below) as but one dimension. I could also see the cannery, flickering just beneath the surface tension that holds us all in the present. And that view enhances the value of the experience, forever altering it in the process.
Moving forward, I was more cognizant of the many factors that, for better or worse, have made this state what it is today. Now, when I think of Hawaii, I not only remember its beauty, but I also am overwhelmed with a desire to return and delve deeper into it’s intriguing past, present, and future.
If you’d like to dig deeper into the history of Kaua’i, I suggest that you check out the Kaua’i Historical Society’s website along with this page, which describes the history of Kauai’s Royal Coconut Coast.
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