touring the historic ha‘iku mill, where old world europe meets natural hawaiian splendor

haikumill_cjevans_nWith its crumbling vine-covered walls, lush tropical flora, and elegant French-inspired décor, it’s easy to see why the historic Ha‘iku Mill is renowned for being one of the most romantic wedding venues in the world. Now owner Sylvia Hamilton Kerr has opened up her extraordinary property for tours, which means you no longer have to be attending a wedding to experience the magic of Ha‘iku Mill.

The Ha‘iku Sugar Company was chartered on November 20, 1858, by the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and began production in 1861. It was one of the first 10 companies to go into the sugar business in the Hawaiian Islands, and the first to be powered by steam. In 1871, Samuel T. Alexander became manager of the Ha‘iku Mill. He formed Alexander & Baldwin with his partner Henry Perrine Baldwin, and organized an irrigation system, which was completed in 1878, that allowed crops such as sugar to be grown in more leeward areas of Maui. As a result, Ha‘iku Mill was abandoned in 1879.

When Sylvia Hamilton-Kerr stumbled across the deteriorated walls of Ha‘iku Mill nearly 30 years ago, she recognized a hidden gem waiting to be uncovered. Sylvia developed a passion and understanding of beauty and hospitality at a young age. Influenced by the lavish dinner parties thrown by her parents at their home in British Columbia’s beautiful Cariboo region, she acquired an ability to enhance experiences by creating inviting atmospheres of elegance, punctuated by precise demonstrations of fine detail.

Pursuing her childhood dream of having a castle so enchantingly beautiful that people’s spirits would be lifted just by its existence, Sylvia moved to Maui in 2009 to devote all her attention to her property at Ha‘iku Mill, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places listings in Hawai‘i in 1986.

It wasn’t Sylvia’s original intent to restore Ha‘iku Mill, also known as Pua Le‘a (“blossoming passion” in Hawaiian), to be a wedding venue. She simply wished to preserve this little piece of Hawaiian history on Maui’s north shore. But as the years-long restoration process progressed, Sylvia was approached by people asking if they could get married in the Mill’s fairytale surroundings. Nowadays, as many as 50 weddings take place each year at Ha‘iku Mill.

The tour of Ha‘iku Mill begins underneath stately mango trees whose trunks are dotted with colorful, wired-in orchids. Tour guide Melissa tells us there are some 55 different plant species on the two-acre property: besides mangoes, there are bananas, papayas, exotic palms, star fruit, lemons and limes, and breadfruit, to name a few. Melissa says Sylvia’s vision for the property was for it to be a transformative place, similar to a “secret garden,” where you’re definitely in Hawai‘i, but also someplace else in your imagination. “One of the reasons we have these lush tropical grounds is Sylvia’s talent and passion as a horticulturalist. Although this is a venue for weddings and special events, the day-to-day business is agriculture. We have a partnership with Maui Preserved, as well as some private catering companies, that all utilize our products.”

We head deeper into the property and pause under a sprawling 100-year-old mango tree in a courtyard that Melissa says is the centerpiece location for special events. The tree, which Melissa says yields some 1,000 fruits per year, is decorated with white lights, a chandelier, and old window frames, consistent with Sylvia’s vision for an elegant secret garden.

Melissa directs us to follow a path towards a charming old house with weathered gray wood siding, and a front door and windows trimmed in crisp white. We pause near an allspice tree, from which Melissa gives us fragrant leaves for our olfactory pleasure, and we also admire the flowering “kitty whisker” bushes nearby. “This little house was actually moved here from a property in Kahului,” she says. “It was originally two houses that were brought here on a flatbed truck, and put together to make one structure. They formerly housed plantation workers.”

Inside the house, we see firsthand Sylvia’s vision and her passion for acquiring French antique furnishings, weathered objects, lighting, and architectural elements. “This house is currently used as a changing area for special events,” Melissa says. “Sylvia’s sister is an interior decorator, and I’m sure she offered up her assistance here.” The furnishings are all antique white, and the chests of drawers, end tables, cheval mirror, door frames utilized as space dividers, and even an antique bird cage have weathered finishes. Elegant crystal chandeliers grace the main “living” area, as well as the dining table in the kitchen.

Our next destination is the old mill itself. Sylvia’s restoration process involved shoring up the original stone walls, but she left the roof completely open, except for metal framework that Melissa says accommodates clear tenting. One can only imagine what it must be like to attend a special event here under the stars. Underfoot are sandy-colored bricks set in a chevron pattern, and lush, green creeping and hanging vines envelop you in a cloak of foliage. “You really get an indoor/outdoor feel in here with all the blooming vines such as Easter lily, orange trumpet, wisteria, and night blooming jasmine,” she says.

Antique columns, cherub sculptures, and scrolled pots were sourced in France. Metal railings adorning staircases leading to a mezzanine level were faux finished to look as though they’ve always been here, according to Melissa.

We head up one of the staircases to an ideal vantage point for overseeing the mill’s structure. “Three of the exterior walls are original, but the front wall had to be refurbished due to damage from a tree that grew through it,” Melissa says. “In keeping with the property’s historic designation, the restoration work on the wall was done so that it closely resembles the original three walls.” A waterfall at the top of one of the staircases adds an extra romantic element to what’s already an extraordinarily lovely setting, and a scenic archway is, according to Melissa, one of the most photographed features of the property. “During afternoon events, the sun sets a little earlier on this side of the property, so you get beautiful, backlit photos at the arch.”

We pass by flowering shower trees, a puakenikeni tree that’s between blooming cycles, a fragrant Tahitian gardenia shrub, and an exotic lipstick palm on our way back to the big mango tree in the courtyard. Melissa has made for us fresh mango lemonade with fruit from the property, which we happily consume to quench our thirst.

Touring the historic Ha‘iku Mill has been a fun and interesting way to spend a morning in an area of the island that’s not necessarily on most visitors’ radars, but definitely should be. With its unmatched beauty and elegance, unique past, and lush, tropical location, Ha‘iku Mill is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Ha‘iku Mill, where lush vegetation, vine-draped ruins, and immaculately kept and vibrant gardens come together to create a stunning microcosm of Maui’s tropical splendor. The property is now open to tours, which cost $16 for adults, and $8 for keiki ages 4-12. Children under the age of 4 are free.

WHERE •

Ha‘iku Mill is located at 250 Ha‘iku Rd.

WHEN •

Tours last approximately one hour, and are offered Mondays & Wednesdays at 10:30am and 2pm.

HOW •

Advance reservations are required through Eventbrite on the Ha‘iku Mill website: haikumill.com.

 

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