COURTESY OF OUTFITTERS KAUAI
Outfitters Kauai's downhill Canyon to Coast bike ride offers 12 miles of gliding on smooth black top.
Kauai by bike a thrilling downhill ride
Ryan Lutgen remembers the day more than two decades ago when the training wheels came off his two-wheeler. Balancing on the bike on his own for the very first time, he began pedaling around, a big smile lighting up his face.
"My dad was shouting, 'You're doing it! You're doing it!' " recalls the 27-year-old Outfitters Kauai guide. "The next thing I knew, I hit a telephone pole and fell on the street. We still laugh about it."
Bicycle Downhill Canyon to Coast
Meet at: Outfitters Kauai, 2827-A Poipu Road
Times: 6 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily
Cost: $98 per person, $78 for ages 12 (minimum age) to 14 (10 percent kamaaina discount). Price includes blueberry muffins, coffee, tea, juice and water on the morning tour, and cookies, juice and water afternoons. The maximum weight allowed is 260 pounds.
Phone: (808) 742-9667 on Kauai or toll-free (888) 742-9887 from the other islands
Web site: www.outfitterskauai.com
Notes: Dress in layers because winter temperatures along the Waimea Canyon rim can drop to the 50s. As it warms up on the way down, you can peel off layers. Wear closed-toe shoes (no slippers or sandals) and sunscreen. Bring a windbreaker or light raincoat.
Today, Lutgen is adept at maneuvering a bike; in fact, cycling is one of his favorite pastimes. "It's a good opportunity to get exercise and be outdoors," he says. "Kauai is beautiful! I enjoy seeing the scenery and feeling the wind on my face. Biking is something you can do by yourself or with a group. Either way, it's great fun!"
It's no wonder, then, that Lutgen loves to lead the Bicycle Downhill Canyon to Coast tour. The four-and-a-half-hour adventure begins at Outfitters Kauai's Poipu headquarters, where his first task is to give all participants a riding test.
"I watch how people pedal, steer, balance and brake," he explains. "Ninety-nine percent of them pass with flying colors. The few who don't pass understand their safety could be a concern. Even though this isn't a strenuous tour, we do ride on a public road so we have to feel confident that our guests are in control of their bike at all times."
It's an hour-and-a-half drive from Poipu to Waimea Canyon, where the tour begins. Along the way, Lutgen shares interesting tidbits that you're not likely to find in guidebooks. He notes that Kalaheo, at 700 feet above sea level, is the town at the highest elevation on Kauai. Many of its streets were named after parts of the body, including Opu (stomach), Papalina (cheek), Piko (navel), Kikala (hip), Wawae (leg, foot) and Waha (mouth).
Sprawled over 3,400 acres just beyond Kalaheo, Kauai Coffee Co. is the largest coffee estate in the United States. It produces about 3.5 million pounds of coffee each year, which is 60 percent of Hawaii's total annual yield.
Coming up to Hanapepe, Lutgen mentions the opening scenes of the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster "Jurassic Park," which showed a helicopter landing in a lush area with a gorgeous waterfall as a backdrop.
"That was filmed on land in the Hanapepe River Valley that's owned by the kamaaina Robinson family," he says. "The Robinsons weren't interested in Steven Spielberg's money. They said, 'Mr. Spielberg, you can do as much filming on our land as you want, but when you're done, we want you to leave the helicopter.' "
That's what the legendary director did, and the Robinsons now offer a tour to Niihau, their privately owned island 17 miles off the west coast of Kauai, on that very chopper.
COURTESY OF OUTFITTERS KAUAI
Same for an uphill section that includes a few hairpin turns, the ride is described as easy cruising, "a nature walk on wheels."
HANAPEPE WAS founded in the late 1800s by Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants who had fulfilled their sugar-plantation contracts and settled there to start taro and rice farms and other family-run businesses. Today, the town is a haven for artists, several of whom have opened first-class galleries that belie their rural setting. On the weekly Friday Art Night, the galleries stay open until 9 p.m., offering demonstrations, special exhibits, refreshments and live music.
Past Hanapepe, 7,000 acres of cane nod in the wind. They're cultivated by Gay & Robinson, one of only two working sugar plantations remaining in Hawaii (the other is Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar on Maui).
The cane thrives in iron-rich soil that's distinctive for its brick-red color.
"If you look closely, you'll see yellow, gray and purple in the soil too," says Lutgen. "The yellow and gray are bauxite and the purple is titanium."
In Waimea, he points out Pioneer Hi-Bred International's research center where seed corn, soybeans and sunflowers are being cultivated. Among other things, the seed corn is being used to develop new hybrids resistant to insects and diseases.
Oil from Pioneer's soybeans makes environmentally friendly biofuels and lubricants for industrial manufacturing. Its new soybean varieties have negligible amounts of trans fats, making them a healthy ingredient in food products. Also low in trans fats, oil from Pioneer's sunflowers is another healthy alternative for cooking.
FROM WAIMEA, it's a 30-minute drive up a winding road to a lookout at Waimea Canyon, which, measuring 10 miles long, one mile wide and over 3,600 feet deep, has been dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."
There's plenty of time to snap photos and stretch your legs before heading up another quarter mile to the 3,600-foot elevation where the bike ride begins. Strap on your helmet, settle in the seat, grip the handlebars and you're off, gliding down 12 miles of smooth blacktop to sea level.
The exhilarating trip takes an hour and 15 minutes, including a few hairpin turns and one uphill section that's about an eighth of a mile.
"Other than that short incline, it's easy cruising, a nature walk on wheels," says Lutgen. "It's a really good family activity."
The island of Niihau, just 70 square miles, is the scenic highlight of one stop. Home to 250 full-blooded Hawaiians, it's known as the Forbidden Island because it's off-limits to everyone but relatives and invited guests of the Robinson family, U.S. Navy personnel, government officials and visitors on supervised tours.
During the breaks, Lutgen points out a variety of vegetation, including koa, melaleuca and iliau.
"Ukuleles, rocking chairs, bowls, picture frames -- you've seen a lot of koa products in Hawaii," he says. "It takes 75 to 100 years for the tree to fully mature. After ebony, it's the second most expensive wood in the world, and in Hawaii special permits are required to harvest it."
Melaleuca is a native of Australia.
"The most important part of this paperbark tree is the leaf," says Lutgen. "Crumple it and see if you recognize its scent. Familiar? You know it as tea tree oil, which is commonly used in shampoo, lotion, soap and massage oil, and has antiseptic and antifungal properties."
A woody plant related to the silversword, iliau only grows in the mountain regions of West Kauai. According to Lutgen, it's the only tree that Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, drew for his award-winning children's books.
"The bike trip is educational, it's fun and although you have to have ridden a bike before, you don't have to be in shape for the Tour de France to do it," Lutgen says.
Age isn't a factor either; Lutgen has taken out grandparents in their mid-70s who did just fine.
"A few people initially have the jitters," he says, "but by the end of the tour they're happy and excited like everyone else. They say, 'Wow! That was great! Let's do it again!' "
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.