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Pedaling in Paradise
Up Close and Personal With Hawaii's Natural Side
by Lesa Griffith

One of the most intimate ways to explore historic, natural Hawaii is by mountain bike through Kaaawa Valley.

A breeze rustles the long fronds of hala trees as riders gaze up at the imposing green peak of Pu'u Ohulehule, part of the Koolau Range jutting up at the back of lush Kaaawa Valley. It's an up close view that one can get only with a tour—this historic slice of Oahu, part of Kualoa Ranch, is privately owned by the Morgan family. Run by John Morgan, his great-great-great grandfather Gerrit P. Judd, purchased the land from King Kamehameha III in the 1850s.

Local outfitter Bike Hawaii is the only company with access to Kaaawa Valley. Honolulu born-and-bred John Alford, a former trials rider and author of the guidebook Mountain Biking the Hawaiian Islands, started the company in 2000, combining two things he loves-mountain biking and Hawaii. He and his certified guides lead riders of any level into a part of Oahu that's a world away from the Waikiki hustle—Kaaawa looks so tropically primeval that it was one of the locations for Jurassic Park.

Oahu residents and visitors both sign on for the Kaaawa tour. The Bike Hawaii van picks up clients at their hotels or designated spots around 9 a.m., and drives the crew out to Kualoa Ranch, about an hour away. All you have to bring is your sunscreen-front-suspension Trek bikes, helmets, a bag of trail mix, water bottles and lunch are included in the excursion.

The ride starts with an uphill climb to the entrance of the valley. At the top you stop at a WWII bunker that has been converted to a minimuseum—on view are stills from films shot in the area, such as Pearl Harbor and Godzilla. In addition, a diorama and displays detail real Pearl Harbor action.

As you emerge from the cool concrete bunker, you see the Pacific Ocean spread below you, and depending on the season and swells, you might spot surfers or whales. Then you descend the hill to the valley's mouth, a breathtaking panorama of a green bowl. As you pedal on the dirt trail, surrounded by craggy slopes, you half expect to see a dinosaur, or perhaps a young warrior—this was the home of chiefs and an ancient training ground for Hawaiian youths. Kaaawa was also a puuhonua, or place of refuge, where those accused of breaking a kapu could find amnesty.

The ride can be as easy or technical as you want. You can remain on trails on the valley floor, or break off with one of the guides (they're all expert riders) for some singletrack action up on the lower slopes. You'll see a natural botanical garden of indigenous Hawaiian plants—charismatic, blue-eyed Alford will stop to point out ohia trees with their fuzzy red blossoms, kukui nut trees, and scarlet awapuhi plants (squeeze the flower and a natural detergent oozes out; that's the secret ingredient in Paul Mitchell shampoo). Maybe one of the staff will pick a backpack-full of sweet strawberry guavas for you to snack on.

Alford also gives a crash course on Hawaiian history and culture. A stop at a re-creation of two hale pili (thatched houses) transports you to another time, as Alford explains how Oahu was divided into ahupua'as—literally slices of the island, each one ruled by a chief, that run from mauka (mountain) to makai (seaside), providing everything needed for daily life.

Then it's a pedal back to the ranch for a hard-won lunch of gourmet sandwiches from Saint-Germain, one of Honolulu's best bakeries, at picnic benches. As you take a bite and look around at the paddocks of horses and cattle, and the stately Koolaus, you might start thinking about signing up for other Bike Hawaii tours—Alford also offers trips such as a bike-and-hike (a downhill cruise on a paved road for great Honolulu views and a trek to a private waterfall in Manoa Valley).

Kaaawa tour: $95 for adults and $75 for children under 14 (20 percent off for kamaaina). To reserve, call 808-734-4214; or out-of-state toll-free 877-MTB-RIDE. Or for more information, visit

(Updated: 07/02/08 HC)

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