Hawaii Tour Operators and Planners
At Turtle Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, observe and learn about globally threatened green sea turtles with Oahu Nature Tours‘ small guided groups.
Explore the Hawaiian Islands
Researched by Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner
Here is a sampling of small-group or customized operators and guides, many with specialist credentials that make for lively discussions and colorful personal tales on any outing. I have sampled each of these very professional operators during my travels through the islands on three occasions. The most comprehensive resource for ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations is the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii website, sustainabletourismhawaii.org.
All Hawaiian Islands
An experience of Pearl Harbor, historic Oahu and Polynesian culture is extra memorable with an expert guide from family-run Pearl Harbor Tours. Our island roots and sustainable company mission offer guests “their best vacation day” every day. Book a Pearl Harbor tour for Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or Big Island: pearlharbortours.com/tickets/
Aloha Hawaii Activities is a Hawaii activities planner and Hawaii information resource. They have feature articles about different aspects of the main Hawaiian islands: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii, Molokai, and Lanai. Articles include write-ups on beaches, famous landmarks, restaurants, theater, shopping and Hawaiian history. The website provides a good jumping off point to planning a Hawaii vacation with information and activities suitable for a wide range of travelers. www.aloha-hawaii.com.
Hike Maui is the oldest, most experienced hiking company in the state of Hawaii. The company is particularly proud of its exceptional guide expertise, embracing many specialties that speak into the unique features of the island’s natural history. Tours range from easy three-hour waterfall and rainforest hikes to half-day and full-day tours that are more physically demanding but still perfectly do-able. I can personally recommend the full-day, four-mile Haleakula volcano crater hike as an inspiring, educational glimpse of the power and beauty of volcanic environments, hiking into a dormant volcanic cone at 8,000 and 10,000 feet. www.hikemaui.com.
An awesome walk inside the crater of a dormant volcano is a unique educational experience with Hike Maui. Hike Maui
Tour da Food offers morning excursions for two to four guests, searching out Maui’s hidden culinary treasures such as small restaurants, snack shacks, markets and food makers where you meet the locals and “talk story”. Founded by restaurant publicist, freelance food and travel writer, cookbook author, and certified pastry cook Bonnie Friedman, these tours offer two to four guests the benefit of her 26 years of dedication to studying the island’s food ways. www.tourdafoodmaui.com.
Skyline Eco-Adventures, located at the 4,300 foot level of Haleakala volcano, combines exciting zipline experiences through tropical forest with conservation education, reforestation of native trees, and a donation of 10% of profits to local ecological organizations. Check out our Travel with a Challenge feature article that reveals all about this Maui tourism venture. www.skylinehawaii.com.
Feast at Lele offers a unique and spectacular “tour” of Polynesia in music, dance, song, authentic costumes and culinary treats showcasing the pre-contact traditions and culture of native Hawaiians, the Maori of New Zealand (Aotearoa), Tahiti and Samoa. This nightly gourmet feast, which includes a different course to dovetail with each culture being presented, takes place on Lahaina’s beach front formerly known as Lele. The venue where you enjoy your meal, unlimited beverages, and a rainbow of colorful entertainment was once reserved exclusively for Hawaiian royalty and their families.
Definitely book ahead by phone — the Feast at Lele will be a significant memory of any visit to Maui. www.feastatlele.com.
At the Feast of Lele on the Lahaina waterfront, enjoy a musical tour of Polynesia and a lavish culinary experience. Feast at Lele
With profits from eco-adventures going to marine conservation, the Pacific Whale Foundation offers educational whale, dolphin and guided reef snorkeling cruises led by marine naturalists. These take place in waters around Maui and Lanai, including the spectacular Molokini Marine Reserve. The Foundation’s goal is to inspire and promote appreciation, understanding and protection of whales, dolphins, coral reefs and the planet’s oceans. Allow time to visit their extensive ocean-theme store and the next-door Maui Ocean Center. You can also become a PWF member and support the on-going work of the foundation. www.pacificwhale.org.
Under marine reserve protection, Molokini is an extinct volcanic crater 3 miles off the southwest shore of Maui. It is famous for incredibly clear water with visibility exceeding 100 feet almost every day. Richly endowed with 250 species of brightly colored tropical fish, many of which are unique to Hawaii, it has been a snorkeler’s paradise. However, as the number of tour-licensed boat operators brings increasing “waves” of visitors to the waters of the reserve, there has been a significant decrease in the sightings of its underwater inhabitants even while there has been a dismaying increase in flipper and snorkel sightings. Stricter regulation of numbers of vessels and people visiting the reef at any one time may yet preserve this quality experience for all to enjoy a remarkable marine setting.
With an exciting Hawaiian culture and nature focus tailored to your interests, Open Eye Tours & Photos offers privately-guided visits to places seldom seen as well as to popular sights throughout Maui. Customized activity levels allow for hiking, walking or no walking. Serving enthusiastic seniors, couples, families, and singles since 1983. Let Pono Fried show you his Maui — refreshing, unique, fun! www.openeyetours.com.
Pride of Maui is Maui’s #1 snorkeling adventure catamaran tour offering guided tours to famous Molokini Crater and Turtle Town. Activities include snorkeling, snuba and scuba diving. Amenities include glass bottom, two bathrooms, warm showers, complimentary lunch, open bar, and deep ladders for easy water entry. www.prideofmaui.com
Molokai Mule Ride, www.muleride.com, is surely one of the highlights of visiting Molokai is the famous guided mule ride, navigating 1,700 feet down the face of one of the highest sea cliffs in the world on a 2.9 mile stair-stepped trail with 26 serious switchbacks. Just trust your sure-footed mule mount which is a veteran of this round trip six days a week (not on Sundays), and you may spend your time taking in the scenery on the way to and from the historically infamous leper colony. From the 1860s until 1969 when Hawaii’s isolation laws were abolished, this picturesque peninsula removed Hawaiians who had contracted the “separating sickness” of leprosy from families and communities on all other islands.
Today, the peninsula is an inspiring and beautiful place to visit, with the Molokai Mule Ride as one of three ways to access what is now the highly-regulated Kalaupapa National Historic Park. Established in 1980, it is open by invitation only Monday through Saturday to visitors 16 and older. You will be entering an amazing piece of past and current history for a window of a few hours. Father Damien, the first non-Hawaiian to move to the leper community in 1873, served the residents until his own death from contracting leprosy in 1889. With the 2009 sainthood of Father Damien recently announced by the Roman Catholic church, Catholic visitors will undoubtedly have a special interest in experiencing this inspiring site first hand. Please read about the full adventure in our feature article.
Molokai Fish & Dive is a knowledgeable local tour operator that offers outstanding ocean activities including scuba, reef snorkel, ocean kayak, whale watching in season and sport fishing adventures. It also offers land activities such as coffee plantation and plumeria farm agri-tours, a Halawa Valley waterfall hike, a guided visit to the Kalaupapa peninsula by mule, on foot or by air, and other cultural activities. If you have forgotten to pack any of your favorite items for an active outdoor vacation, you will find them at the extensive store this company maintains in www.molokaifishanddive.com.
From December to March, 7,000 Humpback whales spend the winter in the narrow channels between Molokai, Maui and Lanai. Molokai Fish & Dive
As Maui and Lana’i’s oldest family-owned and -operated sailing company, Trilogy Excursions, has made it their mission to become a leader in Hawaii’s ocean recreation industry. In an independent survey of over 11,000 Maui visitors, Trilogy was chosen the #1 Activity on Maui, and it has received the Living Reef Award acknowledging their care of Hawaii’s coral reef ecosystems. The company specializes in catamaran-based snorkeling, diving and marine life watching explorations around Maui, the marine reserve of Molokini and Lana’i, with on-board naturalists delivering plenty of information about the islands and surrounding waters. They also do informative guided tours of the island of Lana’i focusing on its ancient cultural and plantation settler history. www.sailtrilogy.com/.
A Trilogy catamaran approaches Lana’i’s Sweetheart Rock, the site of an ancient, tragic Hawaiian legend. Trilogy Excursions
Lana’i Culture & Heritage Center, www.lanaichc.org, has received high praise for the creative cultural authenticity with which it is telling the story of this island’s rich native Hawaiian heritage, and the ranching and pineapple plantation history of the early 20th century. The powerhouse behind this initiative is Kepa Maly, a renowned and passionate Hawaiian historian and linguist raised on Lana’i. He is the visionary for the center, a recognized island authority on natural ecosystems and culture and a great story teller. Kepa Maly’s gift for “talking story” brings culture and tradition vividly to life in word and song chant, embodying the center’s mission, Honoring the Past and Enriching the Future. Please read our feature article about fully exploring Lana’i.
Allow plenty of time to enjoy the displays and demonstrations around this growing collection in Lana’i City’s Old Dole Admin Building. If you happen to be on Lana’i when Kepa Maly is leading a field tour on the island, you are in for a special treat.
Kepa Maly “talks story” about native Hawaiian history with artifacts excavated on Lana’i. Alison Gardner
Kualoa Ranch, family owned and operated, is a role model of land stewardship — to preserve, protect and enhance the natural beauty and unique Hawaiian cultural traditions, while developing recreational and agricultural enterprises compatible with the environment. www.kualoa.com.
Established in 1850, Kualoa Ranch is one of the most historically significant properties on Oahu, and in ancient times, one of the island’s most sacred places. Alternative-compatible ways to explore accessible areas of this spectacularly-located 4,000 acre working cattle ranch include horseback riding, hiking, cycling, guided bus touring, and kayaking to coral reefs and offshore islands.
From steep mountain cliffs to tropical shoreline, Kualoa Ranch offers plenty of variety. Kualoa Ranch
Oahu Nature Tours – This long-standing operator offers small-group excursions with an emphasis on Hawaii’s unique native bird and plant species, as well as geology, archaeology, mythology and history. Twelve expertly-guided tours are described in detail on the website, complete with walking times and recommended fitness levels, mostly ranging from easy to moderate.
The website also offers a lot of information about rare and endangered species found in Hawaii, accompanied by excellent photography. See our article, Dawn Raid at Diamond Head for an example of an ONT itinerary. www.oahunaturetours.com.
Hawaii is home to several varieties of Honeycreeper, all under siege. Oahu Nature Tours
In Hawaiian waters, the green sea turtle, ranging up to 440 pounds, is making a comeback from its worldwide threatened status. Tori Cullins/Wild Side Specialty Tours
Wild Side Specialty Tours introduces Oahu visitors to Hawaii’s unique marine environment and its ocean inhabitants, including Hawaiian spinner dolphins, green sea turtles and endangered humpback and false killer whales in season. With four-hour morning sailings aboard a 42 ft. catamaran, small groups of 4 to 15 explore Oahu’s spectacular “lost coast” with a crew of marine biologists. Also check out Wild Side’s snorkeling trips and volunteer vacations on a fine informational website. https://sailhawaii.com/
Esprit de Corps Riding Academy trail rides are limited to 5 guests, ages 10 and up. Rides go out Monday through Friday, morning and afternoon, starting at the ranch and moving up into spectacular mountain valleys. All rides begin with an orientation lesson in the arena, and go out rain or shine; rain gear is provided. Countryside rides range from two hours up to eight hours. A six-hour Spiritual Exploration ride offers an unusual opportunity to add a little wellness travel experience to your vacation mix, if desired. Visitors may also take riding lessons from expert instructor and ranch owner, Dale Rosenfeld. www.KauaiHorses.com.
Kaua’i Backcountry Adventures offers tube rides along the Lihue Plantation irrigation ditch and tunnel system. This waterway that once irrigated vast sugar crops has been unused since sugar production ceased in 2000. Running through beautiful land not normally accessible to the public, guests experience spectacular views of ocean, coastlines and valleys along the two-mile route that also includes five well-restored stone tunnels. An abundant picnic lunch awaits in a forest grove at the end of the run. This three-hour tour is entirely safe and suitable for older people and a great adventure for all ages from 5 to 97 years [so far]! www.kauaibackcountry.com.
Hawaiian Wildlife Tours – Eminent Hawaiian ecologist, Dr. Carl Berg, leads personalized nature tours of Kauai tailored to the client’s hiking activity level. These spotlight such special interests as rare and endangered birds, marine life, and native Hawaiian plants. About 90% of his clientele is mature travelers.
Kauai Nature Tours/TEOK Investigations – Worldwide geological consultant and oceanographer, Dr. Chuck Blay, settled in Hawaii in 1995 where he has become the driving force behind both these inter-active, education-focused offerings. KNT features five expert-led day hikes into spectacular canyons and along coastlines with unique geological and natural environments. Designed for inquisitive vacationers of all ages and especially popular with the older traveler, The Edge Of Kauai (TEOK) Investigations offers comprehensive 6-, 7-, and 8-day tours and seminars on both the Big Island of Hawaii and Kauai. www.teok.com.
Kayak Kaua`i – This well respected company has been celebrating the Kaua’i outdoors for the last 20 years. Serving clients of all ages, Kayak Kaua`i offers a variety of island-wide guided day and overnight multi-day tours and experiences via the rivers, trails and coastline. Charming and knowledgeable guides share the ecology and cultural history of the area. You may also rent all equipment for self-guided canoe, biking, snorkeling, surfing and kayaking explorations of the island’s picturesque trails, rivers and coastline. www.kayakkauai.com
Mauna Kea Summit Adventures offers an in-depth experience that begins with a breathtaking two hour drive from sea level to the 13,796 foot volcano summit, a sunset to die for, and 1.5 hours of exploring both hemispheres under a light-pollution-free starry sky. Absolutely necessary hooded parkas and gloves, hot drinks and a light supper are provided. www.maunakea.com.
Mauna Kea volcano enjoys an average of 325 clear nights annually. From its strategic Pacific Ocean location, it is possible to see 100% of northern hemisphere skies and 80% of southern hemisphere skies, making it the number one destination mountain in the world for professional astronomers and amateur star gazers alike.
Hawaii Forest & Trail – This highly respected ecotourism company run by husband and wife team, Rob and Cindy Pacheco, offers a rich menu of coastal, rainforest and volcano hiking adventures ranging from half to full day. You may also sample an historic 3-hour mule trail adventure, limited to 6 riders, descending a switchback trail amid stunning views of surf, sea cliffs, undisturbed tropical valleys and waterfalls. www.hawaii-forest.com.
Guided rainforest tours on the Big Island engulf visitors in a lush environment. Hawaii Forest & Trail
Feel free to explore other stories about alternative Hawaiian vacations well suited to senior travelers, their families and friends. Click on the titles below to read each inspiring article.
Maui’s wine, goats and lavender
Moloka’i mule ride
Lana’i moves slowly into tourism
Hawaiian Islands volunteer vacations
Maui’s most Hawaiian hotel
Hawaii’s tasty cultural cuisine
Hawaii – sleeping in paradise
Language and culture
Hawaiian bird pictures
Hawaii wellness vacationing
Hawaii’s wellness providers
Maui Zipline Adventure