Amp up your next island vacation with mountain tubing, horseback riding, and swimming with sharks.
A vacation in my family is never really a vacation in the most traditional sense. There is no lounging by the pool sipping cocktails or getting aromatherapy facials at a fancy new resort spa. Led mostly by my mother, who has seemingly unlimited amounts of energy, we set our alarms for 6 a.m. and go, go, go, all day until well past midnight. And then repeat it all over again. And again. But, what we skip in relaxation, we make up for in adventure. Before we leave a place, we've explored every inch of it—from the tourist traps to the local hotspots to the quirky finds culled from blogs and friends' recommendations.
And that's exactly how things went down on our recent family trip to Hawaii. My husband and I, my parents, and two (of three) of my grown siblings hopped on a pre-dawn flight to Hawaii on December 26 (tossing our Christmas tree in the recycling pile on the way out) and spent a breathless week reef snorkeling, tunnel tubing, maze racing, horseback riding, waterfall jumping, shark greeting, and kalua pork eating. Here's the scoop on three of my favorite adventures on Kauai and Oahu, to consider for your next visit to the islands (between the pool and spa dates, of course).
While everyone would wish they could trade places with the retired couple who own this 300-acre Kauai ranch, at least anyone can explore its majestic beauty on horseback. The friendly staff at Silver Falls Ranch offered refreshments as we gathered at the stables on a misty morning, watching peacocks strut about and a cat sleep away the day on the still-warm hood of a car. After a brief tutorial on how to handle the reins (and how to prevent our horses from chowing down on the lush green foliage), we were off, following our cowboy guide through 80 acres of botanical gardens (orchids, palms, hibiscus) and an ancient volcanic caldera, over the Pohakuhonu stream, to the base of the 2,800-foot Makaleha mountain range.
About two hours into the three-hour ride, we stopped for a delicious hot lunch of teriyaki chicken, rice with salty seaweed seasoning, pineapple and macadamia nut-studded salsa, and guava juice—as well as a swim. At the base of the eponymous Silver Falls, adjacent to the picnic site, is a deep natural swimming hole. We weren't quite prepared for the temperature—the water was easily 60 degrees—and waded in slowly, trying to not lose our footing on the slippery rocks, while our guide showed off climbing a tree and jumping in. Once acclimated, we sat amid the falls, letting the white water spill over our shoulders as we took in the picture-perfect surroundings.
Tropical Trails Adventure Ride, $135/person, Silver Falls Ranch, Kilauea, Kauai, (808) 828-6718, silverfallsranch.com.
Since we were now pros at handling frigid cold water, we headed for Kauai Backcountry Adventures, a company staffed by enthusiastic co-eds that organize a variety of outdoor activities on Kauai, including mountain tubing. After being fitted for helmets with head lamps and super-grip gloves and donning water shoes, we hopped into a Jeep-like off-road vehicle for a very bumpy 20-minute ride through the former Lihue Plantation, stopping for the occasional scenic lookout. Opened in 1849, this was the first sugar plantation in Hawaii, and in the 12 years since it ceased production, the jungle has reclaimed the land. At our "launch site," we plopped into sturdy inner tubes and began our descent through the Hanama'ulu Ditch—four miles of irrigation canals and tunnels that were dug by hand in 1870. The water originates near the top of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots in the world, and is channeled down through the system by gravity alone.
Guided by the current, our tubes spun and bounced off walls, rocks, brush, and each other. Before any significant drops (a foot or two), our guides would hold us and release one at a time, and whenever the ditch got shallow, one would yell, "Bottoms up!" The word "sorry" was off-limits (the guides were sick of hearing it whenever people bump into each other) and so was complaining about the frigid water (we were to call it "refreshing" or "invigorating!") Traveling through several tunnels was both eerie and magical—lichen above us sparkling like glitter in the light of our head lamps, echoing voices piercing a very strange silence. For the final tunnel, we switched off our lamps, crashing blindly through the total darkness, thankful for the protective gear. At the end of our journey was the "horse play area," where we could swim or test our skills at tube surfing, and then we gathered, shivering, for a picnic lunch of sandwiches and Maui-style potato chips.
Mountain Tubing, $102/person, Kauai Backcountry Adventures, Hanama'ulu, Kauai, (808) 245-2506, kauaibackcountry.com.
I should preface this one by saying nearly everyone in my family is prone to motion sickness, especially me. So, I'm not sure why we thought it would be a good idea to take a boat, from the North Shore of Oahu, three miles out to sea. I think the fear of being ill was greater than the fear of the sharks we were about to visit, via Hawaii Shark Tours. Dramamine ingested and pressure-point wrist bands on, we huddled at the front of a 32-foot boat as we bounced through five-foot swells, the water splashing over the sides of the boat, for about 20 minutes. When we arrived at a cage, seemingly floating in the middle of nowhere, our guide gave us a brief snorkeling tutorial and asked for volunteers for the first group in the water. My hand shot up, as I was eager to enjoy the experience before the rough waters got to me. I pulled on my goggles, adjusted my snorkel, and bounded down the ladder—so quickly, in fact, that I forgot to take off my clothes (I'm still being teased about this).
Already so wet and cold, the ocean water seemed warm. I swam to the side of the cage and felt for the horizontal support bars we were instructed to use for stabilization before dipping my head underwater. A dozen Galapagos sharks were already swimming around the boat. I was surprised at their size: about 8-10 feet! They were around and below us, often getting within a few inches of the cage, which was open between the bars except for a wide eye-level viewing spot filled with Plexiglas. It was a bit tricky keeping my arms and legs inside the cage, with the swells thrashing us around, but the sharks didn't seem too menacing (although they're considered aggressive and dangerous sharks, many think the classification is too extreme; this tour company has a perfect safety record). The water was nearly crystal clear (the disposable water camera didn't do it justice), and the sharks were so magnificent and graceful as they swam by. It was pretty incredible--certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We stayed in the cage for about 15 minutes before swapping places with the second group. While they swam, the guides told us more about the sharks as the boat rocked and bobbed. I'm happy to report, I was one of the few who survived—not just the sharks, but the motion sickness!
Shark Encounter, $105/person, Hawaii Shark Tours, Haleiwa, Oahu, (808) 351-9373, hawaiisharkencounters.com.
Where to stay and eat
Kauai Beach Resort
I loved the homey, cottage feel of this 25-acre oceanfront resort. Our room overlooked the four pools and waterfall, with the beach just beyond, and featured floor-to-ceiling shutters that allowed us to keep the glass doors open and fall asleep to the sound of the waves. We skipped the resort's many amenities, such as a spa, gym, and restaurant with live music but frequented the grab-and-go menu at the cafe for pre-adventure fuel of breakfast sandwiches, burritos, and coffee. 4331 Kauai Beach Dr., Lihue, Kauai, (866) 602-8558, kauaibeachresorthawaii.com.
We took a chance on a brand-new restaurant after reading some glowing Yelp reviews, and it turned out to be a great decision. This hip Mexican restaurant and bar was hopping with loud music and a two-hour wait for dinner, but a table opened up in the bar area, which offers a small plates menu. We devoured a trio of salsas, and four different kinds of soft taco plates: carne asada, chicken, fried fish, and grilled mahi-mahi. Everything was fresh and delicious. 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Koloa, Kauai, (808) 742-8884, tortillarepublic.com.
These "Hawaiian-style hot dogs" are unusual and crazy good. A soft bun is impaled on a hot metal rod to toast from the inside out. Then, the hole (the "puka") is filled with a custom combination of sauces and a grilled Polish sausage. Go for the garlic lemon sauce and pineapple salsa. Trust me. 2360 Kiahuna Plantation Dr., Koloa, Kauai, (808) 742-6044; 2301 Kuhio Ave., Ste. 2, Honolulu, Oahu, (808) 924-7887, pukadog.com.
All photos courtesy of the Carson and Jones families.