Pastoral adventures along the Kohala coast

Rolling hills and coastal ranch land along the Kohala coast of the Island of Hawaii.
Rolling hills and coastal ranch land along the Kohala coast of the Island of Hawaii. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Brentano/Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau

On Hawaii Island, the past month was marked by the tremors, cracked roadways and building-devouring lava flows caused by erupting volcano Kilauea.

The volcano has been active since 1983, but the eruptions and flows since early May were some of the strongest sustained activity in decades. A 10-acre area on the eastern tip, Lower Puna, was evacuated when the ground tore open and lava threatened residential neighborhoods. The majority of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park also closed until further notice.

Still, flights and accommodations on Hawaii Island are operating as normal, and the volcanic activity is limited to a relatively small portion of the island. It's called the Big Island for a reason: At roughly 4,000 square miles, it is more than twice as large as Oahu, Maui and Kauai combined. The north Kohala coast is about as far from the volcanic activity as one can get on Hawaii Island and is teeming with a variety of activities.

For those who want to visit a much calmer volcano, the Kohala area is not far from the dormant Mauna Kea, which last erupted 3,600 years ago and is home to at least a dozen astronomical observatories. Sunrise hikes are popular, but the crowds come out for sunset tours capped with evening star gazing from a world-class viewing spot.

During the day, explore the Kohala coast's rugged beauty and welcoming towns dotted with inventive vegetarian cafes and top-notch burgers made from beef from one of the region's several ranches. On a recent trip to Hawaii Island facilitated by the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, I had the opportunity to get outside and explore the rolling hills around Waimea by mountain bike and cruise down the century-old flume system in rafts, two activities where the stress of options is eliminated by exclusive providers.

After fueling up on local Kona coffee, I headed to Anna Ranch, a cattle ranch dating back to 1848 that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, where Big Island Bike Tours has an exclusive concession to offer rides through the 110-acre area property (approximately four hours, $159) where guests can count on a steady climb, herds of cattle and, on a clear day, sweeping vistas.

I was game for a workout and some climbing, but I also don't ride a bike regularly. So when my guide, Sylvia, offered me the choice between a regular bike and one with electronic motor assist, I chose more fun over more sweat. I'd never ridden a bike with a motor, which gives a boost only when the rider is pedaling, but after some adjustment I quickly embraced the way it made taking root- and rock-riddled hills more of an amusement ride than a calf-burning slog.

We climbed more than 1,200 feet during the ride, winding through green pastures where wary white cows kept one eye on us as we cruised through. At the top, we took in the rolling hills that eventually give way to the azure blue Pacific Ocean to the west and views of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai to the south. Along the route we stopped to take in two waterfalls that, on a warmer day, provide ideal pools for cooling off from the climb. Then came the mud-splattering, bouncy ride down when you can let your legs rest and cruise back to the ranch visitor center.

The next day I visited the compact town of Hawi on the northern tip of the island, a good stop for lunch before or after activities along the Kohala coast, like exploring Pololu Valley. There I found Flumin Kohala, which has exclusive access to run inflatable kayak tours down the irrigation system built into the mountains in the early 1900s to provide consistent water to the sugar plantations.

The approximately three-hour tour, for ages 5 and up, takes visitors down three miles of the 22.5-mile ditch system made out of hand-drilled, concrete-lined tunnels and aboveground water bridges, or flumes. Many of the guides grew up in the area and took their own makeshift rafts down the Kohala ditch as kids, before the system was fenced off, regulated and set up for commercial tours. They offer a wealth of knowledge about the area, its history of ranches and sugar plantations and later development. The ditch system winds through lush tropical forest, past narrow streams and over rushing waterfalls.

Rafters are nearly guaranteed to get wet during the leisurely ride, and the Flumin Kohala tour is a good activity on a muggy day. Some of the tunnels pass directly under rivers, and thin sheets of water shower rafters as they pass through. With headlamps on, the walls sparkle with pyrite and other minerals. As an ideal finale to the day: After the shady and damp rafting experience, take the scenic drive along the coast south on Highway 270 and dry off at one of Hawaii Island's western beaches, like Hapuna Beach State Park.

The Flumin Kohala tour is $75 for ages 5 to 11, $125 for ages 12 and up. See
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