Operator promises big adventures on Big Island

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KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- When it comes to guides for ecotours, travelers used to be content with having anyone who knew more than they did about nature lead them on a stroll through the woods.

Today thats a tough sell.

Active travelers spend more time than any other type of traveler researching a destination to ensure the most exciting and educational activity available to them and making certain that they hire an expert tour guide.

Hawaii Forest & Trail (HF&T), located on the Big Island, is one-stop shopping for this type of traveler.

Rob Pacheco, owner, founder and company president, said visitors to the Kohala area know more and more every year as they return for repeat vacations.

They know exactly what they want to do, and they are rather vocal about telling us what they want to see, Pacheco said. They ask very intelligent questions. Most of them have already read the guide books on the area.

The eco-adventure tour company offers eight tours, all in the vicinity of the Kohala Coast.

Activities include birding excursions with Pacheco, whos also an ornithologist, as well as excursions called the Valley Waterfall Adventure, the Kohala Country Waterfall Adventures, the Kilauea Volcano Adventure, the Hualalai Volcano Adventure, Muana Kea Summit & Stars Adventure and the Hakalau Forest Wildlife Refuge Birdwatching Adventure. A mule trail adventure is also offered.

Private groups and custom charters are available.

Trips include transportation to and from hotels, picnic lunches (or dinner, as is the case on the Mauna Kea Summit tour) and all equipment. Trips range in length from six to 12 hours.

A hot lava flow in Hawaii makes for a cool photo op. Ecotourists might be interested in this additional aspect of the operation: Hawaii Forest & Trail pays fees to land owners in order to take adventurers to private and often sacred lands. This, according to the outfitters spokesman, also gives the landowners funds to maintain their properties.

It opens a channel of support for private enterprises that focus on the cultural and environmental preservation of the island, he said. It is the best possible use of the land.

The outfitter employs 13 guides, all of whom are trained in road safety, CPR and first aid.  Each has a specialty. For example, the guide who assists visitors on the Mauna Kea Sky tours is an astronomer who knows the stars as well as the history behind the volcano and its worldwide role in celestial research.  The roster also includes master divers, geologists, geography teachers, nature historians, triathletes and a doctor of biology.

When Pacheco began the company in 1993, he was its sole guide. A knowledgeable birder, he took local children out on weekly excursions.

Eventually, the kids told their parents and word-of-mouth took over. After setting up tours for both parents and children, word spread to those visiting the islands that his operation was a good option for those who wanted to learn while giving back to the island.

So when it came time to hire additional guides, Pacheco had his hesitations.

I didnt want the quality to suffer. So I train every guide that works for me. They know everything that I do -- well, almost, he said.

In addition to the daily excursions offered by HF&T, Pacheco occasionally hosts multiday, multi-island itineraries with specific themes.

On one such trip, Pacheco takes enthusiasts on an eight-day birding tour that touches down on three islands. Birds tell the evolutionary story of the islands, he said.

HF&Ts office is located across the street from the entrance to Kona Harbor. There is an outfitting store in the office that sells various types of outdoor gear. The company picks up and returns all travelers to their individual resorts.

New activities on the horizon for the operation include a helicopter tour that will fly guests to a remote area on the Hamakua Coast and leave them to hike in the jungle.  Pacheco is in talks with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters on the Big Island and Maui regarding a working relationship between the two companies.

HF&T recently created a program that calls for a helicopter to fly guests to a remote area on the Hamakua coast.  HF&T is working on a camping option, as well, which might be combined with the future helicopter-hiking adventure.

Dave Chevalier, CEO of Blue Hawaiian helicopter tours, acknowledged he is talking with Pacheco about setting up tours but added that recently he has seen a boon in private charters for similar kinds of trips.

Until visitors can partake in the HF&T experience, they can see glimpses of the awaiting adventures on the Travel Channel program, Vacation Challenge, which will be aired this fall.

An Australian production company wrapped up the filming of a show with the guides that will be seen on prime-time television down under.  This is well-timed, according to the HF&T representative, who notes that it will be around the time when Hawaiian Airlines launches its nonstop Sydney-to-Honolulu flights.

The Japanese tourism marketing group JTB has also sent film crews, who have been working with the outfitter to film promotional spots (two of Pachecos 13 guides speak Japanese). 

Prices for daily adventures range from $93 to $155 for adults and $75 to $155 for kids. For more information, call (800) 464-1993 or visit www.hawaii-forest.com.

To contact reporter Brian Berusch, send e-mail to [email protected].

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