The Westside is a landscape of iconic images: Honolua Bay’s perfect, peeling waves, the sweeping mountains over Olowalu, the pineapple fields of Kapalua, and, of course, the Sugar Cane Train. The Sugar Cane Train, along with being a childhood favorite of many Maui residents, is symbolic of the historic plantation days of rippling cane fields, a time when the sugar crop, now gone from the landscape of Maui, was king. Carving through the fields with steam trailing from the chimney under the stunning backdrop of West Maui, the locomotive has had a special place in many residents’ hearts for decades. Though it is not actually from the plantation days – it began as a tourist attraction in the ’60s – it recalls that piece of history with nostalgia.
“The train is beloved by the people who live here,” said Todd Domeck, one of the owners of the train. Domeck, along with co-owner Craig Hill, bought the train in 2014. “They’ve had about 15 million people ride on the train over the years. Every day we have folks stop in with their grandchildren to tell us about coming here when they were a child.”
With the new owners, the train has retained its idyllic charm but has been reimagined for the holiday season. From November through the end of this year, kids and adults alike can board the train for the evening Holiday Express for some of that old iconic nostalgia imbued with a festive Christmas spirit. Twice a night, the train brings passengers along the old routes from Pu‘ukoli‘i Station in Ka‘anapali to go pick up Santa. Along the way, kids sing songs, have milk and cookies, and get a present from and take pictures with Santa, which is about as exciting to kids as you would imagine.
“We do two trips nightly, they’re about 45-50 minutes each,” said Domeck. “We have a premium cabin this year where the kids get to sit with Santa, get an extra special gift, and it comes with a free photo for the family. The other thing we added this year is that you can pick your seats. Now you can reserve any seat you want.”
“It’s an old train, with old train cars, and an old steam engine, so you’ve got all of that nostalgia of a train ride,” said Domeck. The train is decked out in festive cheer, with “about 200,000 Christmas lights on the train itself, and at Santa’s Depot there’s another half-a-million lights. There are lights and garlands and Christmas spirit – that’s what people love.”
“The train has been here far longer than I have; it was started as a tourist attraction in 1969 by Mac McKelvey, Angus McKelvey’s dad,” he added. “It did really well all throughout the ’80s; they used to run a thousand people a day. Then by the time we bought it, the numbers were down to less than 10 percent of that.” Domeck and Hill’s plan was to revamp the train, repair the tracks, and start a daily service again, “to focus on special events for the public and private events like weddings and corporate events. We want to change it up a little bit.”
“We’re still only doing the Holiday Express, but we’re working out a deal with the landowners and we should be able to reopen fulltime next May or June,” said Domeck.
“It’s really a loved attraction for folks off island and locals. Everyone I know had relatives that worked on the train at some point. So we’re just really proud to be able to save it and keep it here, and we can’t do that without the support of the people who live here.”
The Sugar Cane Train Holiday Express
Corner of Pu’ukoli’i Rd. and Honoapi’ilani Hwy.
Twice nightly until Dec. 31
6:30pm and 8pm
Images courtesy Facebook/Sugarcanetrain