Exploring Kualoa

A new Hawaiian experience

By: Dawna L. Robertson

When I moved across from the old sugar mill remains at Kualoa Ranch about a decade ago, my recreational pursuits took a twist. I started exploring my new Oahu “country” neighborhood at a casual pace, taking a trail ride one weekend, kayaking at Secret Island the next, then ATV-ing deep into hidden valleys when friends would visit from the mainland.

While the action was great, I was equally consumed with Kualoa’s rich cultural significance as one of the most sacred places on Oahu in ancient times. I realized that each activity exposed merely a sliver of the big picture the power of the aina (land) and how steeped in history Kualoa actually is.

Well aware that soaking in the 4,000-acre spread was no quick task, I was pleased when Kualoa recently linked its maze of discoveries into the new Hawaiian Experience.

Clients can now select from a menu of outings to match their interests and abilities in full- or half-day packages that expose the historic ranch’s vast diversity.

Owned by sixth-generation descendents of Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, who purchased the land from King Kamehameha III in 1850, the ranch operates with an admirable mission: to preserve, protect and enhance the land’s beauty and culture, while developing recreational and agricultural enterprises compatible with the environment. The Hawaiian Experience does just that.

“We want to be the premier destination for those wanting to experience the real Hawaii,” explained John Morgan, president of Kualoa Ranch Hawaii, Inc.

Morgan recognized that the market for horseback riding and ATV touring comprise but a small percentage of Oahu’s visitors.

“We know that beauty and culture appeal to a greater population,” he said. “The Hawaii Experience evolved from that. It takes visitors off the beaten path into the heart of Hawaii.”

I decided to make a day of it, having a choice of four narrated tours plus a buffet lunch at Auntie Pat’s Paniolo Cafe in the ranch’s visitor center.

Being a movie junkie, I started with the Ranch and Movie Set Tour. It’s no small wonder that even first-time visitors to Kualoa find it oddly familiar. Kaaawa Valley’s lush landscape has served as a backdrop in such blockbusters as “Jurassic Park,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Godzilla” and “50 First Dates.” Most recently, the ranch has found the cast of “Lost” filming on a regular basis.

Stopping at a WWII bunker which has been converted into an exhibit space, we learned even more about the history of the land.

“Kualoa was a residence of kings, a place of refuge and sanctuary, and a training ground for royalty who were instructed in the art of war, history and social traditions,” said our guide.

Next, I boarded a six-wheel-drive Swiss Pinzgauer vehicle for the Jungle Expedition that rocked and rolled into the lush Hakipuu Valley. Bumping and grinding through the tough terrain, the jolts were well worth the payoff a dramatic view of the windward coastline and Molii, an 800-year-old Hawaiian fish pond that is one of the largest and best-preserved in Hawaii.

Requiring a bit of ped power, the Paliku Exploration included a mild hike to the top of a ridge with a 360-degree view of Oahu’s windward side. Along the trail, we learned the history of the dramatic mountain named Paliku and how Kualoa became a ranch.

During my finale, the Hawaiian Fishing and Garden Tour, we traveled through fields of tropical flowers, gardens and fruit trees for an easy-going cruise on the 125-acre fish pond we’d spotted from the Paliku and Jungle tours earlier.

“The ponds were stocked with moi and awa fish for alii [Hawaiian royalty],” explained Lani, one of our guides. “Small fish could swim in with the tide, but when they grew, they couldn’t swim out.”

It was obvious that the alii had a great dining plan.

The Hawaiian Experience also includes an Ocean Voyaging option aboard a 49-passenger catamaran. Offered Monday through Saturday only, the outing covers Hawaiian navigation as it sails past Mokolii Island in Kaneohe Bay.

At the end my day of range roving, I had an even deeper appreciation of Kualoa’s place in Hawaii’s past, and tremendous respect for how the ranch shares that past today. Kualoa is the polar opposite of a fabricated theme attraction. The culture and history of this sacred site make it the real deal.


Kualoa Ranch and Activity Club
49-560 Kamehameha Hwy.
Kaaawa, HI 96730
Open from 9 a.m. daily except major holidays.
Half-Day Experience: Choice of two one-hour tours and buffet lunch: $69 per adult and $39 per child 3-11 years old.
Full-Day Experience: Choice of four one-hour tours and buffet lunch: $95 per adult and $59 per child 3-11 years old.
Kualoa Ranch also offers activities a la carte, including one- and two-hour horseback rides, one- and two-hour ATV dune cycle excursions, a one-hour ranch and movie set tour and one-hour jungle expedition.
Commission: 15-20 percent