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Off the Beaten Beach: Hawaii’s Other Adventures

Hawaii is much more than cerulean seas and sandy beaches, as these alternative outdoor adventures attest.



On your first day in Hawaii, the time difference might cause you to pop awake before dawn. Why not embrace that impulse and leap out of bed for one of the most spectacular sunrises of your life, followed by a scenic 6,500-foot descent into the world’s largest dormant volcano? Not bad for your first morning in paradise.

Various outfitters, including Haleakala Bike Company, offer pre-dawn tours to the summit of Haleakala, the volcano that created the lower half of Maui, to view the sunrise—and then provide mountain bikes for a smooth, go-at-your-own-pace downhill tour of Upcountry Maui.

Looming more than 10,000 feet above sea level, Haleakala is a natural wonder not to be missed. And since the summit sits above the cloud-line, sunrise is a spectacular affair, with cottony clouds shimmering all shades of pastel as chilly visitors await the moment when the sun spreads her rays across the rust-red crater.

Yes, “chilly visitors.” Be prepared for temperatures of 40 degrees or below until the sun appears. After a suitable period of oohing and ahhing, you’ll pack away your parka for the rest of the trip, and begin your exhilarating downhill trek.

If you’re on an organized tour, your bike ride begins just outside the national park, at 6,500 feet. That leaves plenty of coasting through the lovely Maui countryside amid rolling hills, past cow pastures, through lush forests and tiny, charming towns. You could make it all the way back to base in a couple of hours, but why? You’ve got the whole afternoon to explore, and gravity is doing all the work.


Oahu is the only island in the Hawaiian archipelago likely to be mentioned in the same breath as the word “cosmopolitan.” More than 900,000 of the state’s 1.3 million residents live here, and the stretch of coastline running from Waikiki to downtown Honolulu makes for an impressive city skyline. It’s a view that sometimes leads the casual visitor to conclude that Oahu is all city. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as a drive along the island’s lush windward coast quickly demonstrates.

Thirty minutes from Waikiki, across the mountains, and up the coast, you’ll find Kualoa Ranch, a fun and friendly spot to explore a few of the other facets of Oahu life. This 4,000-acre, privately-owned ranch offers a range of tours on horseback, ATV, or in a funky Swiss-made military vehicle called a Pinzgauer, which carries visitors bumpily through the deep jungle to staggeringly beautiful valley vistas stretching all the way to the ocean.

Some of the scenery will be immediately recognizable from Jurassic Park and the TV show Lost, which filmed here extensively. In fact, Hollywood has spent so much time at Kualoa Ranch that an entire tour is devoted to movie sites, including a spooky World War II bunker built deep into the mountainside.

Kualoa is a working ranch, with dairy and beef cattle grazing prettily on the grassy hillsides, and a spectrum of diversified agriculture tucked into its three valleys. At the coastline, Kualoa features an ancient Hawaiian fishpond, the ingeniously simple workings of which can be seen up-close on a flat-bottom boat tour. 

The Big Island

A visit to the island of Hawaii is all about sublime encounters with the natural world, whether it’s a whale breaching in the distance or a particularly exquisite bloom of wild ginger on a rainforest hike. But perhaps the most sublime encounter to be had—trumping even the giddy joy of having your kayak overtaken by a pod of spinner dolphins—happens nightly on the Big Island’s Kona coastline.

Dive and snorkel operations depart every evening from Konokohau or Keauhou Bay, near the Sheraton, to ferry visitors to one of two spots frequented by manta rays. The manta ray, though a relative of the shark, is one of the ocean’s gentle giants. Toothless, stinger-free, and utterly harmless, they are among the most graceful of creatures, gliding and swooping through the dark water, ingesting millions of tiny plankton as they go. Of course, they swoop and glide during the day, too, but they can be hard to find. At night, divers and snorkelers need only convene with high-powered flashlights to attract plankton, which in turn attract the mantas.

It would be difficult to overstate the elegance and serenity with which the giant rays—measuring 6-14 feet across—conduct their underwater feeding ballet. And the viewing proximity is frankly amazing. Divers are instructed to sit perfectly still on the ocean floor, about 35 feet down. Snorkelers form a ring at the surface, aiming their flashlights downward. What ensues, on a good night, is the marine version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with these peaceful but alien creatures emerging from the blackness to commune with humans, swooping within inches of your light to gather their evening meal. The only challenge is not to inhale seawater when you gasp with amazement.


Kauai is geographically the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands (six million years, but who’s counting?) and also the wettest. The combination of precipitation and time has blessed Kauai with something in short supply on the other islands: rivers.

Wailua river is popular for its easy accessibility (right between Lihue and Kapaa), inviting a variety of craft, including larger tourist barges. But for a more secluded, mist-haunted kayaking adventure, consider exploring the Huleia river, which meanders through a national wildlife refuge, past an ancient fishpond, and within a short hike of two hidden waterfalls. If you hear the strains of a John Williams score playing in your mind, it’s because Indiana Jones memorably escaped a tribe of headhunters on this river in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You won’t find headhunters here—though there are rumors that Hawaii’s own lost tribe of tiny Menehune were the architects of the fish pond—but you may just find that hint of mystery that only a river through a jungle can inspire. 


Molokai, home to only 7,400 residents and not a single traffic light, is the place to satisfy your taste for seclusion. Except for the pickup trucks ambling by, the island suggests what life in Hawaii may have been like 100 years ago—with very little evidence that you’re still in America, especially since the island’s one and only fast-food restaurant, Subway, closed last summer. There’s not much to do, but there’s a lot of opportunity to be. And what else are vacations for?

The main town, Kaunakakai, is at the midpoint of the island’s one major road, which can take you west—to the impressive Papohaku Beach, one of Hawaii’s largest and least trammeled—or east, along what could fairly be described as Molokai’s answer to the Road To Hana. It’s a lovely, twisty ribbon of smooth pavement clinging to a varied and expressive coastline. Along the way, you’ll find a chapel built by Father Damien (who tended to victims of leprosy for decades on this island) and a few other noteworthy stops. Waiting for you at the end of the road is Halawa Bay, a grand double-coved inlet that offers good swimming on calm days.


Lanai, even smaller than Molokai with only 3,000 inhabitants, has more than its share of luxe resorts: two of them, to be exact, Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay and Four Seasons Resort Lanai, the Lodge at Koele. Bill Gates famously rented the entire island for his wedding. But on a typical, mogul-free day, Lanai makes for a relaxing, pampered couple of days by the pool, having your sunglasses cleaned by the attentive staff.

When decadence becomes tiresome, pony up for a four-wheeler and test your suspension on the Munro Trail, an 8.5-mile off-road adventure that climbs to the top of Lanai’s highest ridge, affording views of all the nearby Hawaiian islands. Go when it’s clear to get the views; go when it’s dry to avoid being stuck in the mud. And make sure you’re home in time for one last mai-tai before dinner.


Watermen and surfers from across the globe flock to the Hawaiian Islands to charge the legendary waves. Surfing has deep roots within the Hawaiian culture and, long ago, this ancient tradition was a “Sport of Kings.” Hawaiian society was stratified into royal and common classes, which followed a strict code of conduct. The ali'i (chiefs) surfed certain waves on 24-foot boards, while the commoners, on shorter boards, kept to their designated reef breaks. Several of Hawaii's most famous chiefs, including Kaumualii, the ruling chief of Kauai and Kamehameha I, were renowned for their surfing ability. Through the sport they exhibited their mastery, courage, and power in big waves, elevating their status within their society.

When Captain Cook arrived in the 1778, the ancient culture of surfing peaked, and then sadly disappeared for some 150 years as Hawaiian society was transformed by the influence of haoles on the islands. The missionaries’ morality did not condone the levity of the sport, though thankfully, some die-hard native watermen managed to keep it alive. Interestingly enough, novelist Jack London descended upon Oahu in 1907, and greatly influenced the re-emergence of the sport. Fellow writer Alexander Hume Ford introduced him to surfing and Waikiki beach local surfer, George Freeth. London fell in love with the sport and wrote about both surfing and Freeth as a great waterman. Freeth’s notoriety and London’s words helped spread the news about surfing. In 1908, the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club formed to preserve the ancient art of surfing and outrigger canoeing and Waikiki became an official surf capital. 

Hawaiian native, swimming champion, and surfing legend, Duke Kahanamoku, was revered as the ultimate waterman. He and his friends became the “Beach Boys” of Waikiki, and formed their own surf club, the Hui Nalu Club, which competed with the members of the Outrigger Club. Duke’s fame as an Olympic gold medalist and actor also allowed him teach the world about surfing.

Even today, you can feel the spirit the Duke at Waikiki Beach where locals and visitors alike surf the gentle waves year-round in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. From November to March, Oahu’s North Shore experiences some of the world’s largest waves at spots like Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline, home to surf competitions and die-hard enthusiasts. During that same time in Maui, lucky visitors may have a chance to see famed big wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, founders of tow-in surfing, tackling the gigantic wave called Jaws. For those interested in the history of this intriguing sport, another great stop is the Bishop Museum in Honolulu whose exhibits and photos keep the culture and the roots of this sport alive.

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