The Maui Pineapple Tour, on Maui, is the only pineapple tour offered in the United States and was something I had been secretly wanting to do for a while. I knew a few coworkers that had gone on the tour and they enjoyed it immensely. So on a Thursday morning, Emily and I drove upcountry to the town of Hali’imaile (huh-lee-ee-my-lee) armed with our cameras, a thirst for knowledge and a hankering for something sweet and juicy.
The town of Hali’imaile is just barely that. The population is under 1000 people, there’s no downtown per se, save a baseball field, a few picnic tables and the Hali’imaile General Store (an overpriced restaurant, even by Maui’s standards).
When I made the reservation we were told to park across the street from the restaurant and wait for the bus. The mini-bus showed up and we were greeted by our tour guide/shuttle driver and all things pineapple related guru Steve. The tour group consisted of six people, including us, which seemed nice and cozy. The mini-bus had room for probably twenty or so.
From the parking lot we were taken directly to the sorting/packing area. For the next part of the story, we are going to skip the planting and harvesting part of the process…that will come later in the blog. We were taken to the sorting area because Thursdays are sorting days, so Steve wanted to show us the sorting/packing process live (which I must say was a quick, but necessary visual element to the tour). I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the tour as much if the machines and workers were not actively sorting the pineapples. Looking at unused conveyor belts and clean floors reminds me of walking through an art gallery. Give me dirty floors, noisy equipment and a chance for personal injury any day of the week.
The sorting process begins when these huge, open-topped containers packed tightly with pineapples are submerged in a pool of water. As the pineapples are placed in the water, the useable ones float to the top and are swept towards the sorting machines. The bad pineapples sink to the bottom of the container and are removed when the container is removed from the pool of water.
The ripe pineapples continue their journey onto the conveyor belts and are sprayed with a quick coat of wax. The wax helps keep out unwanted bugs and keeps in the freshness of the pineapple. There are workers along the sides of the conveyor belts looking for any defects (cuts, holes, etc.) and removing any that don’t make the grade.
The pineapples make their way along the belts until they are removed to be put into their shipping boxes. There are different levels of ripe pineapples and they are sorted accordingly. Maui Gold® pineapples are only sold to stores in Hawaii and the West Coast, because they have a limited shelf life. The Maui Gold® pineapples are sweeter and less acidic than other varieties, which makes them very desirable. Unfortunately for most of the world your store-bought pineapples are probably from Dole® and are coming from Costa Rica.
The entire process of sorting and packing pineapples is completed by a minimal crew of maybe fifteen to twenty workers. These same workers were out in the fields harvesting the pineapples the day before.
Maui Land and Pineapple Company used to produce all the pineapples on the island of Maui beginning in 1903. In 2009 Maui Land and Pineapple stopped growing pineapple on their land and a small group of investors and former workers created the Hali’imaile Pineapple Company. The new, smaller operation seems well run, very organized and seems intent on not wasting anything.
After the sorting/packing building, we moved into the refrigeration warehouse for a quick escape from the heat and humidity. The warehouse was fairly empty, due to the smart scheduling of sorting, packing and shipping days and times. The longer the product sits near the fields, the less time it has to be sold in the stores.
We exited the refrigeration warehouse and boarded the shuttle. Steve drove us up into the fields for a special treat. Today, workers were planting a field. The field work is some of the hardest physical labor your body can endure. To plant pineapples you hold the green, leafy top (crown) of a pineapple in one hand and wield a spade shaped tool in your other. You stab through the black plastic looking mulch, pull out the spade and insert the crown.
When done by a professional the planting process seems to be one fluid motion. Only the best at what they do can keep up the intense speed and skill to plant 3,000 pineapple crowns in an hour. The crown has to be planted firmly in the ground and supervisors have been known to kick at the crowns to make sure they are planted correctly. If a supervisor is able to nudge three crowns out of the ground in a row, they require the worker to go back and re-plant the entire row. Steve explained that the workers get paid by the amount of pineapples they plant and only the best field worker have the ability to earn up to forty dollars an hour.
Here are some random facts I remember from the tour:
- One half-acre of land can hold roughly 10,000 pineapples.
- The first crop of new pineapples take about two years to be ready to harvest.
- The second crop will take only one year to be harvested.
- You can plant just about any part of a pineapple in the proper conditions and it will grow a pineapple.
- Pineapples need lots of sunny days, cool nights, day temperatures between 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit and moderate elevation (below 3000 feet).
- You cannot tell a pineapple’s readiness to eat by color. All store pineapples have been sprayed with a wax coating, so the color cannot be trusted. You must use the “thump” test and flick it with your fingers and listen for a nice hollow thunk sound.
- A pineapple does not ripen more once it is picked.
- To store a pineapple after you purchase it, twist and pull the crown off, put the pineapple upside down in the fridge until you are ready to cut it up.
- The hummingbird is the pineapple plant’s natural pollinator. Since pollination produces seeds, which negatively affect the quality of the fruit, hummingbirds are prohibited in Hawaii.
- The pineapple is the international symbol of hospitality.
We left the newly planted fields and found some fields that were going to be harvested. The field was abundant with plump, ripe pineapples as Steve stopped the shuttle where we had nothing but rows and rows of pineapples around us. Steve showed us the proper technique for picking pineapples; simply twist and pull. He picked the first one, which was a bit green on the outside. He told us this would be the kind that Dole® ships throughout the world. It wasn’t quite ripe, but they needed to pick it earlier because it travelled further and could use the extra days to extend the shelf life. Steve proceeded to take out a machete and slice the pineapple apart and give us all a taste.
It tasted like a pineapple. It wasn’t until he slice another one up and explained that this would be the kind that we would buy in the store. It was slightly more yellow on the outside, but the taste was much different. Sweeter, juicier, with the slightest hint of coconut. It tasted, as Steve pointed out, like a piña colada. Steve found a golden-yellow pineapple, picked it and explained that this was a pineapple that was almost too ripe. It was ripe, but had little or no shelf life, therefore it would not be sold. He explained that pineapples like these were donated to local charities or used as seed for planting new fields. He cut up the pineapple and shared it with the tour. It was amazing! So juicy, so sweet…my mouth is watering as I type this.
Steve asked the group who like the first, second and third types of pineapples. Nobody chose the first, three chose the second and myself and two others chose the third. Steve found six new pineapples, cut them up and handed us our personal pineappsicles. We ate pineapples until we had our fill, juices dripping down our chins, fingers sticky and bellies full of pure deliciousness.
Since the pineapple tasting was the climax of the tour, Steve had the hand-wipes at the ready as we boarded the shuttle. The tour continued through the fields with a few more stops on our way back to the beginning. One stop was a large patch of the pineapple field that grows all species of the world’s pineapples. In that field they have the ability to harvest and replant any area in the world that may lose their pineapple for whatever reason.
The tour was a few hours long and was amazingly informative, almost to the point of making my head hurt with knowledge…in a good way. The tour is given at 9:30 and 11:45am, seven days a week and the cost is $65 for adults, $55 for children between 5-12 (sorry, no children under 5 allowed). As part of the tour you get to take a Maui Gold® pineapple home with you after the tour and they also offer an optional $15 lunch combination with the Hali’imaile General Store. For more information, click here.