As we gaze into the dark Halemaumau Crater inside the Kilauea volcano, Hawaii’s tempestuous goddess of fire Madame Pele is unleashing her fury 450 feet below the moonscape surface. Oozing through the crater floor, an eerie 2,000°F pond of orange molten lava is creating new earth via a 60-mile magma plumbing system deep into the planet’s crust. This is one of the Pacific’s most spiritual settings and most popular group excursions for attendees flying into The Big Island of Hawaii.
We’ve come to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the southeast side of the island with the Hawaii Forest & Trail tour company. Founder Rob Pacheco escorted our group here—the #1 land attraction in Hawaii—after a hike through the massive Thurston Lava Tube and lush fern rainforest.
“In a sense, we’re all children of volcanoes,” says Pacheco. “Volcanoes are the engines that have made the land we live on. Standing on Kilauea is a direct connection with this fundamental life force.”
Pacheco is like many residents of Hawaii. You don’t need to explain to him what “teambuilding” means or what a green meeting is. There is an inherent shared bond among the people and the planet here. Truly experiencing that and learning from it might be the greatest takeaway for any group here.
Hawaii Forest is unique in that it cares for a “Stewardship Plot” within the park where groups can participate in a CSR activity to help restore a native ecosystem. We spent a few hours pulling up an invasive ginger root that harms the indigenous plants in this UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve.
“It not only helps save a Hawaiian rainforest but it also makes a difference in the lives of those participating,” says Pacheco. “You walk into the plot as a tourist and leave as a caretaker of Hawaii.”
Pacheco offers full-day group tours to the National Park for up to 96 people, utilizing 12-passenger vans that make the 3-hour trip from the Kohala Coast resorts on the west coast.
Or you can take the high road with companies like Sunshine Helicopters. Fortunately, I manage to do both. On the latter adventure, six of us fly VIP-style above rivers of lava spilling into the ocean. The beauty of this route is that we also witness the deeply etched valleys of the Hamakua Coast, cascading waterfalls and rambling Kohala Mountains as icing on the 2-hour flightseeing cake.
During this trip, Melody Sadlier, owner of Chicago-based Elite Travel & Events, said she finds these types of diversions nothing short of remarkable.
“The Big Island is an exciting destination with activities that tend to impress even those who have traveled extensively. There’s so much to do that repeat visitors can always find something new.”
The city of Hilo is the hub of the island’s east coast and jumping off spot to visit the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii atop the the dormant volcano, Mauna Kea. This stellar 42,000-sf, LEED venue explores the history of stargazing from the early Polynesian navigators to modern day astronomers. Imiloa’s 120-seat planetarium is a pioneer in full dome 3-D stereoscopic capabilities, and it caters receptions for 350 in its Special Events Hall; 100 for dining in the Sky Garden Restaurant.
Imiloa sits at the base of the Observatories of Mauna Kea—one of the most important research facilities on the planet for exploring the farthest reaches of the universe. It’s only September, but we don parkas and gloves to combat the chilly temperature at 9,300 feet above sea level where we’re dwarfed by the 13 massive observatories. Then our interpretive guide Jon Knight sets us up with some mega-strength portable telescopes for an interactive astronomy lesson.
“The farthest we can see is Andromeda galaxy, two million light years away,” he says. “That means what we are seeing happened two million years ago.”
It’s just a smidgen of what those bad boys above can uncover but it’s still nothing short of mind blowing. Due to visitor restrictions, Hawaii Forest can transport up to 24 each evening, with a dinner stop at the abandoned Humuula Ranch sheep-sheering station to help acclimate to the elevation change.
You would have to drive from Alaska to Costa Rica to experience 11 of earth’s 13 climate zones, or you could visit the Big Island. It’s this diversity that appeals to Kathleen Strickland, President of the PJA Groups USA incentive firm, who is seeing a growing demand from her clients for agri-tourism programs.
“The venues offered in North America are quite limited in terms of agri-tourism,” Strickland says. But that’s only part of what woos her to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company farm in the small town of Paauilo. “It’s rare that we would get to have such a hands-on experience with a family like the Reddekopps who seem so open to share their lives with us strangers.”
Co-founder Jim Reddekopp launched his sustainable vanilla farm in a tropical rainforest where planners can select from a menu of activities such as: cultivation classes, mini-tastings and cooking classes.
“I think what groups take away from visiting our farm and other farm experiences is that connection to Hawaii,” says Reddekopp. “I see it happen every day at our operation. It’s not just another attraction. It tells a story and makes memories, and that’s what travelers seek.”
In a pleasant tea room restaurant seating 70, we gobble up a vanilla-bourbon and citrus-marinated chicken breast with caramelized onions and organic greens on fresh-baked herb focaccia, served with vanilla-mango chutney aioli.
At the family-owned Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation, it’s much the same. Creating a stir that’s akin to wine tasting in Napa Valley, the island’s Kona Coast is ripe with coffee farms producing the coveted java. After touring the organic plantation, we perk ourselves up with a group event roasting primo beans to haul home in exclusively labeled bags.
SEA + AIR
Kealakekua Bay is where British Captain James Cook met his demise in 1779. Today in a designated marine sanctuary near the monument honoring the explorer, groups can frolic with colorful reef fish, sea turtles and even spinner dolphins. We got wet with Captain Zodiac, which hosts up to 260 passengers for 1/2-day tours that explore sea caves, lava tubes, blowholes and shallow coves en route to this aquatic utopia. The 24-ft rigid hull inflatable vessels seat up to 16 on the side of the pontoons.
For groups preferring to hit some of the more hidden and remote spots down the coast, check out Fair Wind. Their 55-foot Hula Kai catamaran with comfy shaded seating for 42 sails far beyond Kealakekua thanks to its unique hydrofoil design allowing for faster speeds.
Our group spent a wonderful and exhilarating day at KapohoKine Adventures’ 9-line zipline facility. Covering nearly two miles over the gorgeous tropical river valley, we whiz up to 160 feet above volcanic formations and 14 waterfalls—including the famous triple-tiered Umauma Falls.
It becomes a balance between trust and thrills, whether we’re soaring nearly a 1/2-mile solo or racing against one another along a quarter-mile dual-track line. KapohoKine went to great lengths to protect the native forest and farm lands during construction of the zipline.
“The Hawaiian word kuleana means, among other things, responsibility. It’s a very important part of the kuleana at KapohoKine Adventures to give back in any way we can,” says cofounder Tony DeLellis.