How can you experience Hawaii's environmental bounty without damaging it or contributing to the dangers of over-tourism? Start with reef-safe sunscreen, and sign up for one of these terrific eco adventures while you're there.
HAWAII – Attracting some ten million visitors per year, the Hawaiian Islands know exactly how appealing they are. Home to eleven of the world’s thirteen microclimates and vast variety of landscapes — from beaches and coral reefs to rainforests and waterfalls — much of Hawaii’s appeal lies in its bounty of environmental offerings. What isn’t as well known is that, as a result of Hawaii sharing its most precious gems with the world, the islands are starting to show the dangerous impact of over-tourism.
Instead of shying away from the topic, many of Hawaii’s tour operators are addressing it head-on, proactively educating tourists by presenting them with opportunities to connect with nature while also leaving a positive impact on the land. With this movement, Hawaii has taken a lead in sustainable tourism — from implementing reef-safe sunscreen laws to encouraging eco-certified tours.
“We believe that if you have the kuleana (responsibility) to enjoy a destination or make a living off a place, then you also have the kuleana to take care of it,” says Lauren Blickley of Hawaii Ecotourism Association.
What does this mean for visitors to Hawaii? That they no longer have to limit their outdoor adventures to surfing, hiking, and scuba diving to fully immerse themselves in the island’s outdoor experiences. In fact, these five activities that I tried all left me feeling closer to nature than I’ve ever felt before, allowing me to absorb the cultural and natural pull of these incredible islands.
Situated on Oahu’s northeast coast, Kualoa Ranch offers 4,000 acres of varying topography, from rainforest to open valleys, filled with rows of cacao and breadfruit (Hawaiian ‘ulu), along with an aquaculture of tilapia and shellfish ponds. Billed as one of the most sacred places in Oahu, the ranch dates back to 1850 when the land was non-governed royal crown land. As you learn about Kualoa (which means “long back” in Ancient Hawaiian), you’ll venture into the ranch’s most popular agricultural grounds, including its sweet potato (‘uala) rows, macadamia nut trees, apple-banana plantains, and oyster farm.
Though you’re traveling in an open-air trolley, the variety of produce at your fingertips will leave you craving a taste of what you witness during the 90-minute tour. A craving you’ll quell as you sit down to a rainforest view as the on-site chef talks you through a multi-course, farm-to-table experience featuring seasonal ingredients that are harvested daily. While the menu changes, expect variations of local delights, like taro in the form of ciabatta bread, cold smoked oysters, sauteed garlic shrimp, and breadfruit croquette.
Hawaii Island + Oahu
Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty as you adopt and plant an endemic Hawaiian tree. What began as a reforestation initiative in 2008 has since developed into an inclusive program for locals and visitors to contribute their part throughout the islands. On Hawaii Island, a tour starts by hopping into a carbon neutral vehicle as a guide educates you about the success of the reforestation program of rare, native trees like koa, ōhi‘a, milo, māmane, naio, ko‘oko‘olau, kūkaenēnē and ‘iliahi. With a better understanding of the program, the guides move the tour to foot to hike to a designated area to plant a koa or sandalwood tree.
On Oahu, you’ll ride horseback to the part of the forest where you’ll plant your seedling. On either tour, keep an eye out for the endangered wildlife that thrive in these protected grounds where more than 400,000 trees have been planted so far. As you leave your positive mark behind on the Hawaii Islands, your guide will set you up with tree-tracking information so you can follow your tree’s growth into the future.
One of the best ways to feel the rhythm of Hawaii is to get your feet wet. Whether that means kayaking, surfing, or stand-up paddle boarding, water sports let you not only exercise your body but also connect your soul to the island’s lifeline: the ocean. At Aloha Kayaks, you can interact with marine life in the most responsible way, as the company relies on non-motorized boats for snorkeling, turtle-, and whale-watching. Spend hours floating alongside humpback whales before paddling to insider snorkel destinations where you’ll spot local green sea turtles and a variety of marine life in the island’s shallow, warm waters. The company provides reusable water bottles and gear washed with reef-safe detergent to stay consistent with their mission to protect oceans for future generations.
As one of the most popular attractions on Maui, the Haleakala sunrise is an otherworldly experience. Bask in the moment of the early morning sun peeking through the clouds at 10,000-feet above sea level as it illuminates Haleakala National Park, which you entered while it was still dark. You’ll then ride that high down the winding mountainside on a 23-mile bike journey out of the park.
Although you start in a group, this is a self-guided tour. If you ride straight down, the trip will take you no more than an hour. But if you stop to take in the views and for other stops along the way like lavender farms and lavender-infused donuts, you’re looking at a leisurely two hours. The crisp, morning air gradually becomes warmer, so you’ll want to dress in layers. An otherworldly sentiment will ripple out into your whole day and the rest of your time on Valley Isle. (Hawaii’s islands all have nicknames.)
The outrigger canoe has Polynesian roots, but it’s a quintessential Hawaiian experience. At Holokino Hawaii, the experience is heightened. You don’t just paddle along Oahu’s south shore: You sail — the wind in your hair and saltwater splashing onto your skin. The one-hour tour includes exploring Hawaii by sea, learning how to paddle and steer, understanding the culture of Polynesian voyagers, and receiving a brief introduction on non-instrumental celestial navigation.
Owner and operator Austin Kino was inspired to create this experience after discovering Hawaii Ecotourism Association. He developed his business plan around their certification checklist. “Ecotourism isn’t the prettiest thing, but you should educate guests about the environmental problems,” says Kino, explaining that a portion of their ticket proceeds supports the Huli Movement in partnership with the Maunalua Bay Community. Through this program, island cleanups and reforestation are encouraged to counteract the negative impact of over-tourism throughout the past decade. Holokino is temporarily on hiatus, but in the meantime, Kino recommends Anelakai Aventures and Kona Boys for the opportunity to experience Hawaii’s original outrigger canoe.
“In finding a creative way to educate people,” says Kino, “you’re not just painting a picture of the negative issues. You’re allowing guests to participate in the solution.”