Backroads Provides Mix of Hawaiian Wilderness and Luxury

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San Francisco bureau chief Laura Del Rosso recently walked the Big Island while participating in a program operated by Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based bicycling and hiking firm. Her report follows:

KOHALA COAST -- The sight of our group of 14, wearing dirty, lug-soled hiking boots and carrying knapsacks, turned heads as we walked into the marble-floored lobby of the luxurious Orchid at Mauna Lani here.

Some of the guests making their way to the lounge for cocktail hour stopped to look, puzzled. But the hotel staff recognized us immediately.

"Hey, Backroads. How was your hike?" a bellhop called to us as we marched into the lobby, recognizing Backroads' burgundy-colored vans that have become a familiar sight to Big Island residents.

Within a couple of hours, our ragged group, after showering, changing into resort wear and applying makeup, was transformed.

When we joined the other guests in the hotel's elegant dining room, no one would have guessed that earlier that day we had been knee-deep in mud in the middle of a taro farm in the Waipio Valley and had climbed a 1,200-foot hill in the afternoon sun.

That incongruity -- part roughing it, part luxury -- is the fun of Backroads tours.

Participants experience a side of Hawaii that they would never get on a "typical" vacation package.

After breaking a sweat and pushing themselves to do things few would volunteer for during their leisure time, there always is a fine meal and nice hotel room waiting at the end of the day.

But Backroads is not just about physical activity and luxury.

On the Big Island trip, there is a strong educational component, focusing on natural history.

With its varied landscape, including rain forests, volcanoes, snow-capped peaks and beaches, the Big Island is an ideal destination for nature lovers.

The firm added a bit of the typical Hawaii vacation component to the tour, as well: a morning of snorkeling and beach time.

The participants on this particular trip -- billed as a "singles" program -- were all women, which was unusual, according to company officials.

However, it was not entirely surprising because the firm's hiking trips attract a higher percentage of women than its bicycling programs, which appeal more to men.

Some of the participants were married, having left spouses behind to travel with family or friends.

Almost all were urban professionals, ranging in age from their mid-20s to early 50s, among them a city planner, a book editor, a pediatric nurse and an engineer who worked on the space shuttle.

A wedding planner from Kentucky brought along her two daughters as a gift to them and herself for her 50th birthday.

Few were die-hard hikers or exercise fanatics.

"I told my friends at work I was doing this, and they couldn't believe it," said Debbie, an insurance company executive from the Washington area.

" 'Go to Hawaii to go hiking? That doesn't seem like something you'd do,' they said. I guess this is the mysterious side of me."

Although some parts of the hikes were a challenge, all participants were in good enough shape to walk from four to eight miles a day at a slow pace.

A common thread seemed to be the need to get away from the pressures of work and other demands and to do something more stimulating than to lie in the sun.

Getting out of doors, seeing new landscapes and meeting new people seemed to work wonders on the spirit.

By the end of the trip, notably more relaxed, happy, tanned and with some more clearly defined calf muscles, the group's regret was that it was over so soon.

Backroads offers six Big Island hiking trips scheduled January through March and October through December this year, priced at $1,595 per person, double, including all meals (except one dinner) accommodations and transportation.

The company also has 15 departures of its eight-day bicycling trip, which covers the perimeter of the Big Island, January through April and October through December.

The price is $1,895 per person, double, including most meals, all accommodations and transportation.

For more information, call (800) 462-2848.

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