The Hawaiian Islands are the perfect place to experience activities that are at the same time culturally relevant and environmentally sensitive. Some people call this eco-tourism; I call it fun. Over the course of more than a dozen visits to Maui, Kauai, Oahu, and Hawaii Island, I’ve encountered a number of unforgettable eco-friendly activities. Here, in no particular order, are some of my faves.
Celebrating cultural history on Maui
Here, with the help of an outfitter named Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Adventures, I was able to take a sail aboard a wooden outrigger canoe—a replica of the very same models Polynesians used to explore these tropical islands thousands of years ago.
The tour began on the sand at Polo Beach. After some ritualistic chanting, our guide, a Native Hawaiian, pushed the boat into the surf, our group of four passengers waded in, and clambered aboard. Once we cleared the breakers, our guide raised a canvas sail to harness the wind, the only energy source the boat used on our journey. From there, we sailed north and west.
As the vessel glided quietly toward Lanai, owner Sage Spalding—himself a native Hawaiian—regaled my group with details about those Polynesian explorers, the trials they experienced at sea, and the environment to which they adapted once they arrived.
We sailed and drifted for a while, chatting about ancient shipbuilding techniques, modern-day fisheries, and the environment. Then we spotted a Green Sea Turtle and dived in to take a closer look.
Viewfinder Tip: To learn more about eco-tourism in Hawaii, or to get a list of certified outfitters, check out the Hawaii Ecotourism Association.
Adding to the green on Hawaii Island
On Hawaii Island, on the slopes of Mauna Kea, another fantastic Hawaiian eco-tour enables visitors to make the island greener. Through an outfitter dubbed Hawaiian Legacy Tours, guests can spend a half-day planting seeds for koa trees—the very same trees historically used to make those traditional canoes.
When I participated the experience began at 3,200 feet. In a cozy welcome center, our small group received a brief history lesson during which guides and local historians informed us about the site. They told us the area once was the personal koa forest of King Kamehameha the Great, the first king of Hawaii. They explained how the land was cleared over time to make room for farming and ranching. Then they ushered us all aboard a bus, which climbed another 1,800 feet up the mountain.
Here, at the planting site, guides handed out seedlings. We guests knelt down, recited a prayer in Hawaiian, and started working the soil. A while later, once the baby trees were in the ground, we watered the seedlings and said another prayer to bless the flora for a fruitful life.
All told, our Hawaiian Legacy Tours experience lasted about three hours. In the scheme of a two-week vacation, this was a small commitment; if all goes according to plan, the trees themselves will last for hundreds of thousands of years.
Touring wild land on Oahu
We’ve done two of the tours over the years. The first was a self-guided hike through the facility’s botanical garden, a light and easy 1.5-mile round-trip from the visitor center to Waimea Falls and back. The second was a guided tromp along the 7-mile Kamana Nui trail. The area covered in this latter hike is so remote that Hollywood producers have tapped it to film scenes for popular movies and television shows including Lost, The Hunger Games, and more. It’s also teeming with colorful tropical flowers and plants.
Flowers in Waimea Valley
On our most recent visit, which we made with our daughters (ages 4 and 1 at the time), we kept it simple and stuck to the garden. As we meandered, we marveled at the collection of native plants, including loulu palms (palms without coconuts), Hawaiian hibiscus, and taro. Our Big Girl practiced reading by sounding out words on the signs designed to inform us about what we were seeing.
At the end of the day, we came upon a family of little birds, which the four of us watched for what seemed like hours. My older girl described the experience as “better than any Disney movie.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
Tubing irrigation canals on Kauai
Kauai is the wettest of the Hawaiian Islands, which means it’s no surprise that many of the eco-tours here revolve around water.
My favorite: Tubing old sugar cane plantation irrigation canals with an outfitter named Kauai Backcountry Adventures. After a bone-jarring drive from a visitor center to the top of a mountain—a drive on which guides give visitors a rundown of the history of the area—each participant gets an inflatable inner tube and a headlamp, then group members put in at the top of the canal system and work their way back down to the bottom.
The water system runs through some of the most beautiful and remote land on the island; a stretch with breathtaking views of the ocean, coastline, mountains and valleys. At some points, the canals go into hand-dug tunnels that date back to the 1870s.
Personally, I like the tour best on hot days—the water in those irrigation canals is pretty chilly, and the tunnels offer some cool shade from the hot tropical sun. All in all, the experience is like one giant natural water park, only with fascinating, colorful history sprinkled throughout. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the wonder of the tropics.
What sort of eco-adventures do you seek out while traveling?