Horseback tours: Scenic, sensible ways to see Kauai

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HANALEI, Kauai -- Im no expert equestrian, but Ive giddy-upped my way through my fair share of horseback tours around the world, along the white-sand beaches of Turks and Caicos with a Rastafarian painter/guide; across French marshes and manades, or cattle ranches, in scenic Provence; and with tried-and-true Wild West cowboys in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. But one of the most amazing horseback rides of my life awaited on the north shore of Hawaiis lush and verdant Garden Island of Kauai.

Surveying the brochures on display at my hotels concierge desk, activities were largely aquatic, such as surfing lessons and whale-watching, or airborne, as in helicopter rides. But I decided on terra firma and an intimate look at the interior of Kauai, home to Mount Waialeale -- the rainiest spot on Earth.

So horseback riding it was. While four outlets on Kauai -- CJM Country Stables, Esprit de Corps, Silver Falls Ranch and Princeville Ranch Stables -- offer guided horseback tours, my resort concierge recommended a waterfall jungle ride and hike from Princeville Ranch, more than an hours drive from my beachfront digs at Poipu on the south shore, as particularly worth the effort and expense.

As any seller of Hawaii probably knows, leisure activities in the destination can cost a pretty penny. Surfing lessons and snorkeling excursions run from at least $50, and whirlybird and catamaran rides can cost $150 or more. Even buffet luaus will set visitors back at least $75 per person.

Horseback tours on Kauai offer comparatively good value, ranging from $80 per person for 90-minute rides from CJM Country Stables and Princeville Ranch to about $345 for an eight-hour, all-day adventure tour from Esprit de Corps.

Princeville Ranch offers four horseback experiences: the ocean-bluff ride, above Anini Beach; two- and three-hour private rides; a 90-minute paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) cattle drive; and the tour I opted for, the Waterfall Swim Picnic, priced at $125 a person for three hours or $135 for four hours (both with lunch).

Arriving at Princeville Ranch -- Princeville Ranch Stables near Hanalei offers guided treks on horseback along scenic Kauai ranch pastures through the rain forest and across ocean bluffs. TW.com photo by Kenneth Kiesnoskiwith 500 head of cattle on 2,500 acres, one of Hawaiis largest and oldest ranches -- I was given basic riding and safety instruction and then assigned a large, gray stallion named Pohaku (stone in Hawaiian).

My companion and I, along with four other riders, set out with our native Hawaiian guide, Kalei, across the hilly ranch lands. The views, from Kilauaea Lighthouse to the north to mountain ranges south and west, were thrilling and breathtaking.

Instructed to keep an eye out for the daring wild boar that often spook and sometimes gore horses (I spotted three), we gently picked our way through herds of peaceful cattle and a series of pasture gates, learning to properly ride our mounts.

After an hour of leisurely riding, we found ourselves in dense jungle. After dismounting and hitching our steeds, we set out on a steep, but short, 15-minute hike through the rain forest, stopping here and there to inspect flora and fauna of medicinal use to ancient Hawaiians. (Note: A certain degree of physical fitness is necessary on this slippery hike.)

Arriving at the bottom of a verdant valley, wed reached our swimming and picnic destination, Kalihiwai Falls. Flush with a weeks worth of winter rains, the towering, 80-foot waterfall was a veritable whitewater deluge crashing down into a dark lagoon.

While riders swam, Kalei unpacked a fresh lunch of sandwiches, cookies, oranges and lemonade. After an hour of swimming and picnicking, we made our way back, this time scaling sheer rock walls and crossing the rushing river to yet another scenic waterfall a bit farther upstream.

Yet more heart-stopping views awaited on the ride back to Hanalei.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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