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3 extreme outdoor adventures in Hawai'i you have to try

A Paradise Helicopter flies over a valley in the North Kohala region of Hawai‘i Island. | Photo by Bruce Omori/Paradise Helicopters An MD 500 helicopter flies over a black sand beach on the Kohala Coast of Hawai‘i Island. | Photo by Bruce Omori/Paradise Helicopters

I like to try new things. But that wasn’t always the case. I once thought I knew my limits and was happy to stay within those safe parameters. Then, years ago, I found myself boarding a glider at Dillingham Airfield on O‘ahu and thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this!

But I did: I soared 2,500 feet above the ground in a sleek blue-and-white aircraft named Sky Surfer, which was most notable for what it didn’t have—an engine. Of course, I was scared at first. How can a plane fly without an engine? It’s actually quite simple, I learned: with skilled pilots who know how to navigate updrafts.

Ten minutes into my hour-long flight, my anxiety gave way to awe. I watched in Super Techniscope as the world unfolded before me: beaches, bays, the brilliant blue of sea and sky, windsurfers skimming whitecaps, the craggy Wai‘anae Mountain Range, and the towns of Waialua and Hale‘iwa. This is what soaring like a bird is like, I realized. Smooth, quiet, graceful, free.

That ride remains one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Since then, I’ve zip lined, parasailed, spelunked, drifted in a hot air balloon, navigated an ATV over rocks and ruts, and ridden a mule 3 miles and 1,700 feet down a narrow, serpentine path to Moloka‘i’s isolated community of Kalaupapa.

Those activities broadened my boundaries and whetted my appetite for more adventures in the great outdoors. Here are three awe-inspiring diversions—and a look at the thrill-makers offering them—that could do the same for you.

1. Hawai‘i Island: The ultimate helicopter ride: no doors

A Paradise Helicopters tour of the Kohala region takes guests up close to towering waterfalls.

A Paradise Helicopters tour of the Kohala region takes guests up close to towering waterfalls. | Photo by Bruce Omori/Paradise Helicopters

As a kid, Matthew Mannion hiked the magnificent valleys of North Kohala, where he was born and raised. Today, he loves showing those areas to visitors as a pilot for Paradise Helicopters. Although he flies all 12 of the company’s tours on the island, his favorite is the Doors-Off Kohala Waterfalls Hike.

Why? First, the doors to the helicopter really are absent, which boosts the thrill factor. “When you fly with the doors off, there’s nothing separating you from incredible views,” Mannion says. “The route goes along the northern coast where waterfalls flow over 1,300-foot sea cliffs. I’ve flown this tour many times, but each time I’m struck by how beautiful the waterfalls are.”

Weather permitting, he’ll take guests into a few of the seven verdant valleys carved into the coast, so they can admire waterfalls up close and even feel the mist and spray. Waimanu Valley claims the island’s tallest waterfalls; some cascade down nearly 2,600 feet.

What also makes this tour memorable is that it lands on a ridgetop accessible only by helicopter. Passengers disembark for a half-mile hike, led by the pilot through a forest thick with hala, ‘ōhi‘a, liliko‘i, and strawberry guava. A sure-to-wow photo op awaits at Mokupuku Islet, a 1.29-acre seabird sanctuary.

“Many of this island’s most spectacular sights can be seen only from a helicopter,” Mannion says. “With the doors off, that scenic flight becomes a real adventure.”

Details: Cost is $495 per person. Hawai‘i residents receive a 15 percent discount. (866) 876-7422.

You may also like: Beautiful waterfall hikes in Hawai‘i

2. Maui: Stargaze atop a dormant volcano

Jan Roberson Maui Stargazing provides sunset and stargazing tours high up on Haleakala using the largest portable telescope on Maui.

Jan Roberson, founder of Maui Stargazing, sets up a portable telescope on Maui. | Photo courtesy Maui Stargazing

Jan Roberson is an astronomy buff whose hobby grew into a passion, and then a successful business. Maui Stargazing, the company she started in 2013, takes groups to the 10,023-foot summit of the dormant Haleakalā volcano to search for planets, nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, and other deep-space phenomena. Optimal weather conditions for observation—clear, still, dry, and dark, meaning no clouds, no wind, no humidity, and no bright moonlight—are said to prevail atop the volcano 315 nights a year.

Roberson counts herself lucky to have had mentors such as Rob Ratkowski, founder and president of the Haleakalā Amateur Astronomers club, and JD Armstrong, Maui technology education and outreach specialist for the University of Hawai‘i’s Institute for Astronomy. They’ve become good friends who sometimes assist her with private events, but she’s the primary tour guide.

In addition to giving guests ample time to scan the heavens through her 12-inch Dobsonian telescope, Roberson explains how stars and galaxies form, how the sun and Earth move in the Milky Way, and why objects visible in the night sky change with the seasons. During the summer in Hawai‘i, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn can be spotted along with the constellations Draco (dragon), Sagittarius (archer), Ursa Major (big bear), and many more.

“The telescope enables us to see celestial bodies that are otherwise invisible to the unaided eye,” Roberson says. “On a dark night, sparkling star clusters rival the beauty of diamonds on black velvet. Such unique cosmic gems can be found every month; my tours are treasure hunts in the night sky.”

Details: Cost is $225 for those 16 and older; $195 for children 4 through 15. Hawai‘i residents receive a 20 percent discount. (808) 298-8254.

You may also like: 12 ways to explore Hawai‘i at night

3. Kaua‘i: Live off the land

A family picks guava along the rim of Waimea Canyon on an outing with Kaua‘i Hiking Tours.

A family picks guava along the rim of Waimea Canyon on an outing with Kaua‘i Hiking Tours. | Photo courtesy Kaua‘i Hiking Tours

During a trek into the wild with Kaua‘i Hiking Tours, you’ll connect with both nature and the past as you learn how the simplest things—vines, branches, stones, spring water—served as lifelines for the early Hawaiians.

Jeremiah Felsen, the company’s founder and lead guide, is a certified Wilderness First Responder who has worked in rural areas across the country as, among other things, a forest ranger, wildland firefighter, rock-climbing instructor, bear guard, hiking and backpacking guide, and wilderness therapy counselor for at-risk youths.

“The people who first settled in these islands understood and respected nature largely because they depended on it to survive,” Felsen says. “They knew what to gather for food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and supplies—and when, where, and how to do it. Our Survival and Life Skills in Nature class provides opportunities to practice timeless skills that remind us of our intricate and vital connection to the natural world.”

For example, in the heart of a forest, participants might weave cordage from the inner bark of a hau tree; build a makeshift hut with palm fronds and tree branches; make fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together; and forage for guava, banana, and liliko‘i.

“It’s reassuring to know how little one needs to live comfortably in nature, especially in warm places such as Hawai‘i,” Felsen says. “This experience invites you to use your senses to tap into the rhythms of nature—to fine-tune your innate observational skills to pick up on the at times subtle information nature is always giving us. Like the Hawaiians of old, we’ll see how it is possible to not only survive but thrive using natural resources in a sustainable way that leaves minimal traces of our presence.”

Rated moderately difficult, this Friday class is intended for people who are fit and mobile. There’s a minimum requirement of three students.

Details: Cost is $95 per person ages 7 and older. Hawai‘i residents receive a 20 percent discount. (808) 212-9928.

When Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi isn’t at her computer working on stories, you’ll find her
outdoors either hitting tennis balls or hiking a scenic trail.

You may also like: Eco-friendly activities across the Hawaiian Islands

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