Base Camp Hawaii
It took three round-trips down a road angled like a hypotenuse to deliver two couples, two teenagers, and a week's worth of gear—a double kayak, a pair of surfboards, a 100-square-foot tent, a half-dozen cords of kiawe wood (for baking gourmet dinners over the fire, of course), assorted hammocks, and one well-worn game of Travel Scrabble—to sea level. Once it was all unloaded and the cars were stashed, there were then the waist-high fords to ferry it all across a churning river and the quarter-mile slog over hot black sand to our camp on the far flank of Hawaii's Waipio Valley.
Our mantra by nightfall: "Adventure isn't for lightweights."
But swinging barefoot in our hammocks at lunch the next day, we congratulated each other on slipping the bonds of the standard weeklong whirl of rental cars and chain restaurants that's stock-in-trade for so many Hawaiian vacations. And for the whole glorious week to follow, God was in the details: no cars, few people, nowhere more important to be than boulder-hopping to the valley's highest waterfall or paddling the river that flows into the sea.
And that's how the concept of base-camp retreats was born. Waipio Valley and its twin, Waimanu, were obvious choices for dropping out in search of under-the-radar adventure. Were there other places where unconventional travelers could eddy out of Hawaii's mainstream (and wholly congested) flow in favor of some single-minded outdoor exploration?
There certainly are.
So here are the rules of the game: A week is needed to do justice to the activities that follow. Some may choose to devote all their time to a single activity, kayaking Molokai's untouched North Shore, say. Natural multi-taskers may want to mix it up by renting a hard-tail and tackling that island's 100-plus miles of uber-singletrack. Either way, the important thing is that once settled, nobody has to drive the ubiquitous red Geo Metro from one simple-minded attraction to the next. A bike ride here, a hike there, a paddle elsewhere—your own kinetic power is all that's needed to navigate your week's slate of adventures (sure, a boat motoring from harbor or a quick moped ride to you day's diving might technically break the rules, but you're on Hawaiian time so don't be so uptight).
Some base camps suggested here will drop you in the lap of hammock-ready seclusion. Some are for novelty-seekers, like the berth on a 50-foot sloop. Some are fairly ordinary—the condo on the beach at Maui's Ma'alaea Bay springs to mind. What they all have in common is that each offers uninterrupted access to crazy, call-in-sick-the-last-day fun, the kind that ends with a self-addressed postcard reading, "Wish you were (still) here."
And if that isn't the definition of the perfect Hawaiian vacation, it should be.
The Big Island's Waipio and Waimanu Valleys
The Big Island
GPS Adventure Coordinates: The Big Island's Waipio and Waimanu Valleys
Primary Objective: Bagging the "Z" trail, which gains 1,200 feet the first mile, then wanders through a dozen valleys on its 7.6-mile passage to Waimanu Valley, a smaller, often-deserted replica of Waipio. There, eight overnight campsites await. Floating in the pool at the bottom of the 1,000-foot-high waterfall in the back of Waimanu Valley, accessible from a trail off the back of Waimanu Beach. Harpooning crawfish in Waimanu Stream, which threads the falls to the sea, and foil-baking your catch upon returning to camp.
Secondary Objectives: Boulder-hopping to Waipio Valley's Hi'ilawe Falls and scrambling up rock to reach the high pools of Nanaue Falls on the valley's west flank. Climbing past Hi'ilawe to "The Teahouse," an abandoned restaurant that some long-forgotten Don Quixote spent tens of thousands of dollars constructing decades ago. Kayaking up the progressively faster-flowing Waipio Stream as far as desire and long-twitch muscle fibers serve. Surfing the swells alongside the local boys who drive down from "topside" on school days at dawn for the privilege.
Base Camp: Pitch a three-room tent amongst the pines at Waipio Beach. Access is down a very, very steep paved road to the valley floor, then across a rutted road to the beach. You can either park and car-camp right there, or haul your gear across a big stream to the more remote side of the beach. Pack a one-season unit to Waimanu (bring a rain fly; if rain's falling, it's usually in the north). A free camping permit is required for the state-owned Waimanu Beach campsites; call the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 808-974-4221 for details.
Practical Knowledge: Hawaiians believe the spirits of the dead depart via the island's north shore. Consequently, each island has an unpaved stretch to the north. Bane of developers, this idiosyncrasy makes finding the purest outback simple. A bloke just flies into Hilo, rents a four-wheel-drive vehicle (unless he wants to navigate the vertiginous road into the valley on foot), and cruises past fields of waving cane and single-wall plantation homes to Waipio, where the road ends and the fun begins.
Gear List: Screw traveling light. Travel heavy this once. Crack open the luxury backpacking equipment: the tent à la Out of Africa, the rain gear, sea kayak, longboard, boogie board, power hammock, battery-powered blender, cooler, and every possible game and gadget.
Wind-powered Island Hopping
GPS Adventure Coordinates: The blue waters off Oahu, Maui, Molokai, and Lanai
Primary Objective: Getting certified as a bareboat charter captain on an idyllic weeklong interisland sail with Honolulu Sailing Company (www.honsail.com; 800-829-0114). The cost, with stateroom, provisions, books, and materials, is a slim $1,360.
Secondary Objectives: Snorkeling the best marine landscapes east of Tahiti—Molokini Island, Maui's Honolua Bay, Lanai's Hulopoe Bay. Performing docking drills in a high-traffic harbor. Hiking the rainforest or surfing the breaks off Maui's west coast, board and lessons courtesy the captain. Learning when to fly a spinnaker. Going deep-sea fishing from the boat's stern. Scrubbing up for a big night out on Maui dry land. Counting whales, dolphins, and turtles rather than license plates like plebian vacationers.
Base Camp: The stateroom of a 50-foot sloop bobbing somewhere in the Pacific blue yonder. Most nights you'll anchor out rather than docking, in places like Maui's Honolua Bay, a prime snorkeling spot, and off Molokai's Kalaupapa Peninsula.
Practical Knowledge: The journey begins and ends at Honolulu Harbor and includes a 24-mile channel crossing to Molokai and anchorages, moorings, and dockings at out-of-the-way places like Maui's Makena Beach and Manele Bay on Lanai. Captains are U.S.C.G. certified, classes American Sailing Association approved. Passengers receive signed logbooks, enabling them to charter worldwide. On whether or not guests usually pass, owner Mike Mickelwait says: "Most do, unless they get to having too much fun."
Gear List: Cruising Guide to the Hawaiian Islands by Carolyn and Bob Mehaffy (Bluewater Books & Charts, $29.95), and a toothbrush. Everything else—snorkel gear, surfboard, rod and reel—comes gratis.
Windsurfing on Anini
GPS Adventure Coordinates: Anini Beach, Kauai
Primary Objective: Mastering windsurfing as avowed since its invention. Beginners will sail in the first three-hour lesson ($75, then $25 an hour for board rental), swears Foster Ducker, owner of Anini Beach Windsurfing (www.windsurfingandkitesurfingonkauai.com; 808-826-9463). Pros can jibe and plane and do waterstarts on high-performance short boards for $75 a day. Or if kitesurfing tops the life list, head to Hanalei Bay for a crash course: $400 for five hours of book learning and body drags. Everyone flies in one to three sessions, at $100 per hour after the initial $400 outlay, including gear. But it will take the full week for beginners to master the technique.
Secondary Objectives: Snorkeling Anini's reefs, or those at Ke'e or Haena, renowned as some of the best fish- and turtle-sighting spots on the island. Pick up gear for $20 a week in Kapa'a on the way (Dive Kauai: www.divekauai.com; 808-822-0452). Alternately, renting a full-suspension mountain bike for $150 a week and taking on the skein of singletrack between Kealia Beach and the Anahola Trail, a five-mile cycle south of Anini Beach (Kapa'a Cycle: www.bikehawaii.com/kauaicycle; 808-821-2115). Or renting a boat from Wailua Kayak Adventures (www.kauaiwailuakayak.com; 808-822-5795) to paddle through the jungle in search of the trailhead for 120-foot Secret Falls, named for its remoteness and believed to make the dreams of those who find it come true. (The hike in will take about an hour.)
Base Camp: Call a county campsite at the beach home for the week. Each site has a grill and access to toilets and showers; all campsites are closed for maintenance on Tuesday. The price is right: $3 per person per night. Permits are needed; contact the Kauai Parks and Recreation Department at 808-241-6660.
Practical Knowledge: A rental car is recommended to get you to the starting line. Reservations are also recommended with Anini Beach Windsurfing; sailing starts at ten o'clock each morning.
Gear List: Mountain Biking the Hawaiian Islands by John Alford (Booklines Hawaii, $15.95) is the fat-tire fanatic's bible. Otherwise, outfitters supply everything from aqua socks (Anini Beach Windsurfing) to dry bags (Wailua Kayak Adventures). The only remaining chore is a supermarket run on the way to pick up a week's edibles.
Maui, Lanai, and Molokini Scuba Diving
Maui, Lanai, and Molokini Scuba
GPS Adventure Coordinates: The coral reefs of Maui, Lanai, and Molokini
Primary Objective: Diving until the air gauge reads in the single digits. Seeing as many caverns, arches, pinnacles, tunnels, lava chambers, Crayola-hued reef fish, spinner dolphins, and 200-pound leatherback turtles as time and tides permit. Swimming through a lava tube. Doing it again. Swimming above a hammerhead on a boat dive off Molokai. Sinking down into darkness on at least one night dive. The island of Lanai alone has enough world-class dive spots to fill a logbook. After exploring Lanai's Cathedral Caverns, seasoned divers will want to head to the island's south side, a submerged diorama of arches, caves, pinnacles, and tunnels, with marine life packed into holes in the reef like stuffing in a turkey. Then of course there's Molokini; ask locals about The Wall.
Secondary Objectives: Windsurfing in Maalaea Bay. Read: clear, sunny skies, wind steady at 18 knots. The snorkeling, along a fringing reef that goes for miles, isn't half bad either.
Base Camp: Disappointingly, Maui's legal camping spots have dwindled to nothing in recent years. But Maalaea Yacht Marina Condominiums (www.yacht-marina.com; 866-626-6367) offers one- and two-bedroom units on Sugar Beach in Maalaea, a popular windsurfing playa and the starting point for many of the boat dives. One-bedroom units are $75 out of season, $85 otherwise; two-bedroom oceanfront ranges from $150 to $165.
Practical Knowledge: Dive Maui (www.divemaui.com; 866-821-7450) offers three-day certification classes on the beach for $159 including gear. (It is possible to dive without being certified, as some kick-ass terrain is at 40 feet, the max depth for novices). A moped may be necessary to get to class on time, as well as to some shore dives. Expect to pay less than $100 for most boat dives; many are just $59.
Gear List: Prepare by reading The Diver's Guide to Maui by Chuck Thorne (self-published; $9.95). Pick up a sailboard at Extreme Sports Maui (360 Papa Place, Kahului; 877-376-6284) on the way to Maalaea from Kahului Airport; those who prefer to do their swimming on the surface of the water will find snorkel, mask, and fins for $10 a week at Dive Maui.
Kayaking Molokai's North Shore
GPS Adventure Coordinates: The North Shore, Molokai
Primary Objective: Kayaking the island's undeveloped North Shore from east to west over five altogether memorable days (ten-mph winds make the return too hairy for most; as it is, outfitter Molokai Fish and Dive doesn't advertise the trip). Lounging for two more days at the beachfront campsite at voyage's end. Camping alone each night on beaches only accessible by sea (consult a lunar calendar before booking and shoot to time your trip with a full moon). Staying the night at an unoccupied beach home owned by residents of the historic Kalaupapa Leprosy Colony, and, in the morning, taking a tour of the town where the victims of this no-longer-contagious disease were cruelly exiled in 1866.
Secondary Objectives: Riding the island's premier singletrack, the Naewa Sea Cliff Trail, a five-hour odyssey with a 2,000-foot ascent to the world's highest sea cliffs. Getting lost on Molokai Ranch's other 80-plus miles of cycling terrain. Backpacking the legendary (read: rugged, precipitous, eternally overgrown) Wailau Trail with a Molokai Fish and Dive (MFD) guide; setting up camp on Wailau Beach at trek's end.
Base Camp: Pound the tent stakes into Hawaii's longest white-sand beach, Papohaku Beach Park, a civilized place with restrooms, outdoor showers, grills, and picnic tables. Camping permits are $3 a night; to get one, call the Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation at 808-553-3204.
Practical Knowledge: The five-day unguided odyssey is restricted to summertime, when seas are flat to two feet; even then, intermediate or advanced paddlers only need apply. Fly into Molokai (Hoolehua) Airport; MFD (www.molokaifishanddive.com; 808-553-5926) transports parties from the airport to the put-in at Halawa Valley and from Papohaku Beach back to the 'port for $300 (a word to the budget-conscious: Ask for a deal).
Gear List: Double scuppers can be rented from MFD for $199 for five days, less out of season and for the good bargainer. This year-old remake of a sleepy local business also sells camping equipment and reef shoes, de rigueur for the Wailau Trail. Molokai Ranch (www.molokairanch.com/act-biking.htm; 808-552-2741) rents hard-tail bikes for $30 a day.