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Hawaii's wilderness beckons to visitors

Published Jan. 14, 1990|Updated Oct. 16, 2005

It seems an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a just plain absurdity. To the first-time visitor engulfed by the crowds at Waikiki, the skyscrapers of Honolulu, the traffic gridlock of Kalakaua Avenue, the notion that Hawaii can be visited for its wilderness seems far-fetched indeed. Yet most of Hawaii remains a wilderness, a natural tangle of jungle and undergrowth, waterfalls and rain forests, mountains and coral reefs. Based on those riches, a dozen residents have begun operating tours that radically differ from the standard, urban variety. And though their client base is still small, it is growing fast, and posing a strong challenge to the mass-marketing firms.

Here are a few of the "dissidents" in Hawaiian travel:

Forty-five-year-old Ken Schmitt, owner of "Hike Maui," brings greater-than-usual academic training (in anthropology, archaeology and geology) and vivid wilderness experience to Hawaii's second-most-popular island. When a hurricane destroyed the boat he had been using in the charter business, he went to live in the jungle/forest on an extended camping trip that lasted three years. No one knows the back country of Maui better.

Schmitt leads hikes nearly every day of the year. They include a redwood forest trek, one to the waterfalls at Hana, others to coastal or mountain areas; but the hallmark trip - eight to 11 hours long - is into the other-worldly domain of Haleakala Crater, a panorama of changing colors, endemic plants and flowers, birds and other wildlife, that Schmitt calls "a natural temple."

The accompanying commentary is both learned and inspiring. "What I aim to do," says Schmitt, "is to teach people how to be comfortable in nature, especially by using the knowledge of ancient peoples."

Some fledgling hikers, excited by Schmitt's prescriptions on their one-day hike, decide to do a week-long trip with him to learn more.

Most hikes start at $50 per person, and range to $80 or $90 for Haleakala (less for children). Schmitt will work with a minimum of two persons, a maximum of six. When you phone his office and specify the date of your desired trek, he'll either inform you of the destination for that date or, if nothing is scheduled, permit you to pick the hike.

Contact: Hike Maui, P.O. Box 330969, Kahului, Maui, Hawaii 96733, phone (808) 879-5270.

Perhaps the leading adventure tour company of Hawaii, so popular that reservations at least three and four months in advance are often required, Pacific Quest is the creation of Zane Bilgrave (a former "experiential educator" working outdoors with children under the auspices of the Hawaii Department of Education), and his wife, "M.J.," a former ranger at Volcanoes National Park. They now have a staff of several others who accompany scores of departures each year, each limited to between 10 and 16 persons. Participants can be of any age and degree of experience, provided only that they regard themselves as active, adventurous sorts with a strong interest in the natural and cultural history of Hawaii.

Each day of the tours - there are 14-day, six-day and one-to-five-day tours available - focuses on a unique aspect of Hawaii, almost always associated with environment. One day, participants will be walking up a mountain and swimming under a waterfall; another day they may be horseback-riding, swimming and snorkeling. "And that," says Bilgrave, "leads to a heightened awareness of each day. It may even give people a different perspective on their lives when they return home."

Three basic tours are offered. The most popular, "Hawaiian Outdoor Adventures," is a 14-day trip to the islands of Kauai, Molokai, Maui and the "Big Island" of Hawaii. Cost is $1,295 per person, which includes all lodging, ground transportation, inter-island flights, activities, instruction and most meals. Nights spent camping alternate with stays in rustic inns. There is no backpacking.

"Hawaii Dreams" is an eight-day, three-island trip to Kauai, Lanai and Maui. Days are spent hiking the Na Pali coast, "zodiacking" (sailing by motorized, rubber boat) to Lanai, and hiking the summit trails of Haleakala. This one costs $995 to $1,080 per person, depending on group size.

And finally, "Hawaiian Sailing Adventures" is a seven-day sail to Lanai, Maui, Molokai and Oahu, on a 35-foot, fully equipped Coronado sloop. Cost of $1,092 per person includes seven days of sailing, all food, captain and crew, snorkeling and fishing equipment.

Contact: Pacific Quest, P.O. Box 205, Haleiwa, Hawaii 96712, phone (800) 367-8047, Ext. 523, or (808) 638-8338.

Reflecting the approach of the international "Outward Bound' movement, this company helps travelers go beyond their usual limits of endurance or daring. Its founder, a 36-year-old outdoors woman named Shena Sandler, has been leading her own, challenging wilderness courses since her work with the Hawaii Outward Bound School in 1977-80.

Although Sandler devotes much of the summer to a program for teen-agers, she offers four-day courses for coed adults or women-only in other seasons. These consist of backpacking expeditions to the southern coast of the Big Island, costing only $275 per person, and open to people of no backpacking-type skills and without equipment. (Sandler provides the necessary gear and food).

First day, participants engage in a demanding hike down a mountain slope to Halape, a remote salt-and-pepper beach that few tourists ever get to see. There, one can either sleep on the beach or in a grove of coconut trees. For two full days, there's swimming, snorkeling in a protected lagoon, underwater photography, and a visit to a "lava tube" a mile away to view the petroglyphs of an ancient archaeological site. On the fourth day, the group hikes back up the mountain.

Contact: Wilderness Hawaii, P.O. Box 61692, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822-8692, phone (808) 737-4697.

These are largely marine trips, with no camping or backpacking, but rather accommodations aboard sailing yachts (on the sea-borne portions of each journey) or in scenic inns and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts on shore. Always, the focus is on the natural history of Hawaii, and all activities are "hands on," from helping to sail the ship to recording vocalizations of whales and porpoises. Your guides: a dynamic young couple, Mark and Beth Goodoni, she an experienced naturalist and educator, he a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain and naturalist.

One seven-day trip led by them, "Earth, Fire & Sea," begins on the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, and includes a stay in remote Waipio Valley (for flora identification and photography), a hike across the crater floor to Kilauea (world's most active volcano), and three days aboard ship devoted to whale-watching, exploring a coral reef, and sailing instruction. Total cost, virtually all-inclusive: $995 per person.

A second trip of five days' duration is called "Whale Tales" and operates in winter, when hundreds of humpback whales come to breed off the west coast of the "Big Island." This time for $950 per person, including meals and lodging, instruction and sailing, participants assist in collecting data on the giant mammals, photo-identifying individual humpback whales, and recording their mating songs for a research institute.

Contact: Eye of the Whale, P.O. Box 1269, Kapaau, Hawaii 96755, phone (800) 657-7730 or (808) 889-0227.

With its warm waters (they average 80 degrees) and consistent trade winds, Hawaii is ideal for learning or perfecting windsurfing skills.

The company named above, headed by Stanley Gayle, takes people of all degrees of skill on multi-island trips that cost little more than staying on one island, an average of $100 per couple per day for a studio condominium and self-drive car, plus $50 a day for two sets of windsurfing (also called "sailboarding") equipment, and $35 per person per lesson, the latter purely optional. Most people take only one lesson.

Contact: Hawaiian Windsurfing Adventures Inc., 106 Ainakula, Kula, Maui, Hawaii 96790 or 2205 So. Douglas Mt. Dr., Golden, Colo. 80403, phone (800) 999-7944.

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