Family samples the ecology of four major islands

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HONOLULU -- On a recent visit to the islands, with a 10- and an 11-year-old in tow, my family, like many other families, set out to find soft-adventure excursions that would give us a taste of ecotourism yet fit each of our interests and fitness levels.

Here's a look at what we found:

Kauai

In Kauai, the answer came in the form of a two-and-a-half-hour river kayaking and hiking adventure on the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge, departing from the Nawiliwili Small Boat Harbor on the southeast coast.

The 240-acre refuge is best known as the jungle setting for the Indiana Jones film "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

We set out in two-person kayaks to ply the river, which we found wide enough to accommodate several kayaks side by side.

Thanks to a gentle current, which was moving in our direction, the paddling was easy. On the other hand, we were on the river for a good hour, so participants should be strong enough to enjoy the sustained effort.

Two miles downriver, we stopped to swing from the rope that Indiana Jones used to escape the bad guys. (To round out the film theme, the "Jurassic Park" movies also were shot in the area.)

The guides provided snacks and cool drinks, after which we left the kayaks and embarked on a short but informative nature walk through the reserve.

In all, the experience took several hours, and had we had more time, a longer version that takes in Papakolea Falls also is available.

Children under age 3 are not permitted on the Wildlife Refuge Kayak tour; the age cutoff is 8 for the Papakolea Falls tour. The tour is priced at $59 for adults, $39 for kids age 3 to 12. The Papakolea Falls excursion costs $99 for adults, $69 for kids 8 to 12. Tours are commissionable at 10%. For information, call (877) 877-1222 or visit www.hawaiiactivities.com.

Oahu

In Oahu, we set out to find a dolphin encounter that would offer us a chance to interact with the animals in an unusual setting.

From experience, we knew that dolphin encounters can range widely in content, from introductory sessions -- where participants dangle their feet

in the water and learn to pet and interact with the animals -- to full-immersion experiences where they can swim and do tricks with the dolphins under supervision.

Veterans of several such programs, our young 'tweens set out with great anticipation to see what the four-hour Wild Side Specialty Tour boat excursion -- which leaves from the Waianae Boat Harbor on the leeward side of Oahu -- would offer.

The difference between this outing and others of our experience became clear as soon as we got under way. For one thing, the staff that run the operation are well-trained marine biologists who have plied the same waters for more than 10 years in their 42-foot yacht, the Island Spirit. Although the boat can hold more, groups are limited to four to 15, with a maximum of 10 allowed to swim with the animals.

Like good dive masters, the crew knows not only where the water will be clear on a given day, but, more importantly, where the dolphins are likely to appear. The company said its success rate for providing dolphin views is 95%.

Rather than spend the sailing time going over routine snorkeling instructions and selling drinks, as most snorkel tours do, the staff fitted masks on passengers, offered a fresh buffet lunch and explained what to expect and how to make the most of the experience.

Unlike the typical Atlantic bottlenose dolphins we have come to know from prepackaged dolphin encounters, the animals we met that day were spinner dolphins, which travel in pods and feed nocturnally.

Small and active, the dolphins not only spun for our enjoyment off the prow of the ship, but they dove and leapt in tandem just the way the trained variety does.

The trick to swimming with them, our guides explained, is to position yourself near the animals and swim parallel to them rather than try to chase them in the water.

One at a time, we entered the water and tried our luck. My 10-year-old daughter had trouble finding the elusive creatures, which seemed to be always playing just out of reach.

Unlike on many snorkel tours, where your in-water experience is up to you, a guide noticed her difficulties, entered the water with her and swam her over to the nearest pod.

Afterwards, we sailed on for another swim, this one with green sea turtles that live on the reef, before heading back to shore. The experience is $95 per person for the four-hour excursion, with a 15% discount for groups of five or more. For information, call (808) 306-7273 or visit www.sailhawaii.com.

Also in Oahu, we tried a Mauka Makai Excursions eco-tour, operated by Hawaiian guides and limited to 10 people per excursion.

The guide who picked us up at the hotel -- pick-ups and drop-offs are part of the package -- was a Hawaiian specialist not only in architecture but also local culture and lore.

He began our half-day outing with an easy 20-minute hike in the rain forest near Waikiki, equipping us first with bug spray and cold drinks.

As we navigated the forest on our way to a waterfall and local watering hole, we stopped along the way to examine petroglyphs, ancient trees and colorful vegetation.

Our next stop was Pali Lookout, where we took in the view and learned the history of the site, including tales of soldiers jumping or being forced off the cliff during the heat of battle.

A final stop was at an ancient Hawaiian temple, where our guide helped us visualize what the site would have looked like in its day and the traditions and practices in use at the time.

The information was detailed, so fidgety children might do best on a longer tour that incorporates a break for swimming.

Half- and full-day excursions are available and are priced at around $45 and $75, respectively. For information, call Barefoot's Hawaii at (888) 222-3601 or visit www.tombarefoot.com.

Maui

In Maui, we opted to try our hand at snorkeling at Molikini volcano, where, depending on the weather, visitors can venture into the rim of the partially submerged crater.

We approached the volcano by boat, departing from a slip at Maalaea Harbor near the Maui Ocean Center.

During the short cruise to the spot, the crew outfitted passengers, many of whom were children, with snorkel gear and offered instruction on its use. They also offered wet suit rentals, explaining that the water near Molikini is unusually cool for Hawaii.

After dropping anchor, we ventured into the crystal-clear water where we saw dozens of tropical fish. In fact, there are more than 250 species of fish in the area, and those of us who ventured near the crater also saw birds nesting along its rough edges. Had we been there in winter (from December to May), we also could have spotted humpback whales nearby.

The cruise included drinks and lunch as well as a warm shower. It's a good idea to bring your own towel and sunscreen.

The ship takes a maximum of 38 passengers, and kids pay half-price. The excursion, which takes a maximum of 38 passengers and is commissionable to agents, costs $90.24 for adults; $45.12 for children ages 4 to 12.

For information, call Paragon Sailing Charters at (800) 441-2087 or visit www.sailmaui.com.

The Big Island

Here we explored the Hilo area of Hawaii, known for its black, volcanic rock and intensely green vegetation.

We ventured to Lava Tree State Park, where a guide explained the origins of the ghostly trees and formations and pointed out the colorful species of flora blooming around us.

After an easy hike into and out of the park, we traveled to Kapoho Coral gardens, where we snorkeled in chilly, clear water covering a forest-like growth of coral.

We saw very few fish, but the unusual coral formations more than satisfied our junior snorkelers, who had to be dragged out of the water for a buffet lunch.

To warm up, we finished with a plunge in the geothermal pond at Ahalanui Park, which feels like a hot tub and offers such amenities as bathrooms and changing rooms.

A package that also includes a hike to a black sand beach within view of flowing lava is priced at $75 per person through Deep Hawaii Volcano Tours.

For information, call (808) 966-6916.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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