KAUAI'S PLANTATION TOWN
Take a self-guided walking tour through historic Hanapepe. Photo courtesy HTA |Tor Johnson
Visit Kauai's 'Biggest Little Town'
By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
Blink and you could miss the sign on Highway 50 that marks the turnoff for Hanapēpē, dubbed the “Biggest Little Town on Kaua‘i.” “Big” is a relative term: The part of Hanapēpē Road that goes through the heart of town is just two blocks long, and none of the buildings there stands more than two stories high. Most are of single-wall wood construction and have paned windows, boardand-batten siding, and pent roofs or awnings over their entrance. It’s a quaint picture from the past—the rustic, sleepy kind of place where you imagine your great-grandparents might have grown up.
Hanapēpē means “crushed bay” in Hawaiian, probably in reference to the piles of rocks bordering nearby Hanapēpē Bay. Centuries before Captain James Cook arrived in 1778, Hawaiians were growing banana, sugarcane and sweet potato in fertile Hanapēpē Valley. Unlike most of Kaua‘i’s towns, which were built and owned by sugar plantations, Hanapēpē was founded by Asian immigrants who had fulfilled their contracts with plantation owners and settled there to farm rice and taro, and launch mom-and-pop ventures. By the early 1900s, the town’s population was primarily comprised of the descendants of those plantation workers. Savvy entrepreneurs, they operated stores, bars, hotels, restaurants, pool halls, movie theaters, bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks. A USO club opened in Hanapēpē to accommodate the droves of military personnel who went there for R&R, and with Port Allen just over a mile away, Hanapēpē was the hub of commerce and entertainment on Kaua‘i.
The climate changed in the late 1930s when Highway 50 was built, bypassing the town, and Nāwiliwili Harbor in Līhu‘e became Kaua‘i’s principal port. Businesses and residents migrated east. The opening of Līhu‘e Airport in 1950 confirmed Līhu‘e’s status as Kaua‘i’s new business, social and political center.
The famed swining bridge was built around the turn of the century.
©Hawaii Tourism Authority | Robert Coello
For the next three decades, Hanapēpē settled into a state of quiet contentment. Then, in the early 1980s, the town’s pulse quickened when camera crews filmed Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward in scenes for the television miniseries “The Thorn Birds” (1983). The Serikawa Building (built in 1921) played the role of a hotel in Queensland, Australia. Hanapēpē also appeared as the Filipino city of Olongapo in “Flight of the Intruder” (1991), and it was the inspiration for the heroine’s home in the Disney animated blockbuster “Lilo & Stitch” (2002). Production Designer Paul Felix wrote in the companion book to the film: “In the small town of Hanapēpē, I found all the usual homey details, ranging from rusted-out bridges to homemade mailboxes…I took as many pictures as I could but tried, at the same time, just to soak in the general atmosphere, which is hard to reproduce in photographs. I certainly recall being impressed by the saturation of colors and the ever-changing moods of the skies and landscape.”
Fine artist Joanna Carolan also was bewitched by Hanapēpē’s beauty. Born and raised in San Francisco, she spent many idyllic summers with her grandparents who lived in Wailua, on the east side of Kaua‘i. Her grandmother volunteered at Kōke‘e Museum in West Kaua‘i every Sunday, and Carolan enjoyed accompanying her on the 90-minute drive. “We’d spend the day at the museum,” she recalls, “and on the way home, we’d stop in Hanapēpē for a treat — either ice cream at Lappert’s or a slice of liliko‘i pie at Green Garden restaurant [now closed].”
In 1974, when Carolan was 14, her parents sent her to live with her grandparents for a year and a half. “I was a bit of a rebellious teenager,” she says with a smile. “I went to Kapa‘a High School for ninth grade. On weekends, my friends and I would go to the Old Hanapēpē Pool Hall. We could play pool and drink sodas there for a few dollars; it was fun and inexpensive.”
From 1978 to 1990, college and work kept Carolan from visiting her grandparents as often as she had when she was a child. When she moved to Kaua‘i in 1991, she was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see the influx of big-box stores and fast-food restaurants on the island. To her relief, the building boom didn’t affect Hanapēpē. “It looked and felt the way I remembered it from my ‘small kid’ days,” she says. Carolan purchased the old pool hall (built in 1926) where she and her friends had passed many happy hours in their youth, and spent four years, from 1999 to 2003, renovating it.
Families harvest sea salt from shallow pools.
©HTA | Robert Coello
Listed on the state and national registers of historic places, it now houses Banana Patch Studio, her gallery and working ceramic studio, and Banana Patch Press, which publishes children’s books by her and her pediatrician husband, Terry. Over the past decade, largely spurred by Carolan, Hanapēpē has been undergoing a revitalization that has bonded residents. Artists have given 11 of the town’s historic buildings new life as galleries. The 1.5-mile self-guided Historic Hanapēpē Walking Tour spotlights 69 significant sites in town. Among these is the Storybook Theatre (built in 1932), a TV studio and theater focusing on children’s activities.
Originally a Chinese restaurant that offered taxi dancing, it’s nicknamed “Sparky’s Place” after the late Masayuki “Spark” Matsunaga, the former U.S. Senator from Hawai‘i who was born and raised in Hanapēpē. “As an artist, I see Hanapēpē’s potential—what it could become with all its buildings restored and back in use,” Carolan says. “Historic restoration is usually a costly, time-consuming endeavor, but I believe there’s mana (spirit) in our wonderful old buildings that makes every minute and penny of that effort worthwhile.”