Hands-On Science Center Offers Visitors an Ecology Lesson

Reed Travel Features

WAILUKU, Hawaii -- Tucked into Iao Valley is Maui's newest tourist attraction, the Hawaii Nature Center's Interactive Science Arcade, opened last June. Billed as Hawaii's first hands-on science center, it has more than 30 exhibits and interactive experiences featuring Hawaii's natural history.

The Hawaii Nature Center is a private environmental education group. It has provided classes and nature excursions for Hawaii's school kids since 1981 on Oahu and the past five years on Maui.

According to Tamar Chotzen, nature center executive director, the new visitor attraction and gift shop were seen as a way to help finance children's programs. "In order to survive these days, a nonprofit group must be self-sufficient," she said. The 4,000-square-foot science arcade was created at a cost of $1.3 million, with funding from the state and foundations.

The arcade building, on Iao Valley Road, is a remodeled and expanded former restaurant that closed in the 1980s. Behind it are the nature center's classrooms and offices, buildings acquired in 1990 that started out as a short-lived 20-room lodge in the late 1950s.

The arcade is designed to inform visitors about the islands' unique ecology and how it is threatened. Exhibit areas are designed around such themes as isolation, dispersal and adaptation.

There are touch pools, aquariums and waterfalls and such marine life as freshwater shrimp and goby fish. Past the reception area and gift shop, the facility opens onto a glass solarium, providing views of Iao Valley and the first exhibits.

Visitors lie down and take a simulated dragonfly ride, maneuvering through Iao Stream; learn about Hawaii's happy-face spider and the carnivorous caterpillar, and view a rain forest exhibit. By pressing buttons, guests can hear the sounds of the various native birds, most of them rare and endangered.

The nature center recently started offering daily guided nature hikes in the valley, departing the arcade at 2 p.m. The price, including arcade admission, the 90-minute hike (less than a mile one way) and a T-shirt, is $24.95 (minimum visitor age is 8).

It also started scheduling a series of monthly events for families, such as petroglyph rubbing and lei making. The center in Honolulu, headquartered at Makiki Heights Drive on Mount Tantalus, has weekend events for families, including hikes, excursions and demonstrations.

Chotzen is pleased that more than 20,000 visitors already have been through the arcade this year. "We'd like to see 150,000 a year, but we realize the arcade is not for everyone," she said.

The center is seeking group business and has group rates. It is on one of Maui's major sightseeing tour routes. Less than half-a-mile farther into the valley is the six-acre Iao Valley State Monument, with its impressive Iao Needle rising 1,200 feet from the valley floor and visited by more than half-a-million visitors annually.

The center -- like Hawaii's other museums and attractions with low admission prices, hence low commissions -- has been unable to tap into the sightseeing tour business. Iao Valley, which stretches several miles from Wailuku, Maui's county town, into the West Maui Mountains, has several other attractions.

Just outside town, at the beginning of the valley, is the Bailey House, the home of New England missionaries beginning in the 1830s. Headquarters of the Maui Historical Society, the museum is open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (admission $4; children $1).

Below the nature center is Kepaniwai Park and Heritage Gardens. Dedicated to Maui's various ethnic groups, Kepaniwai is popular for weddings and features pavilions with picnic tables.

The nature center arcade is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children under age 12; children and under age 4 are admitted free. For further information, call the Hawaii Nature Center on Maui at (808) 244-6525 or its Honolulu headquarters at (808) 955-0100.

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