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Kauai for adventurers

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You've signed the release forms, cinched yourself into a full-body harness, strapped on the tactical helmet and jostled out to the rugged Kauai jungle in the back of a six-wheeled, all-terrain Pinzgauer.

You've mounted the platform, peered down your chest to watch the guide snap your tandem pulley to the cable, heard the click of metal as the carabiner marries your harness to the pulley.

You note that the cable you'll be riding is no bigger around than your thumb and stretches to the vanishing point. A wide river valley, 200 feet deep, yawns at your feet.

It's time. Time to take that heart-stopping step into the thin air between you and the river, and in the next instant bless the solid tug that means the rigging has caught your fall and is zipping you at 30 or 35 mph, 940 feet across the void to the other side.

Now!

You!

Scream!

And when you're done with that, thrill to the wind on your face, the hollow-metal hum of your pulley racing along the cable, your oneness with the sky -- this is how birds must feel! -- and, in the distance, a view of foliage-draped, cloud-capped Mt. Waialeale that no scenic overlook can match.

Just as you're starting to like all of this, you come in for a landing on the opposite platform, into the care of another guide who unhooks you and directs you to the next run.

You're ziplining, Kauai style.

Don't fret. If the fledgling sport of ziplining is too far out of your comfort zone, this 555-square-mile Hawaiian island offers plenty of other active pursuits. In fact, Kauai might just be the world's greatest adventure island.

The roll call? River and sea kayaking, mountain hiking, downhill and coastal biking, snorkeling from ship or shore, climbing walls, waterfall swims, helicopter flights, ATV outings, Zodiac expeditions, catamaran sails, surfing and horseback riding.

For some Kauai outings, all you need are a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a good trail map, or snorkel gear and some local advice, or the inclination to rent a bicycle or a surfboard and just see where they take you.

But for more extreme adventures, you need to call in the troops, who not only have the equipment, the expertise and the facilities to get you going but also know how to pack a serious picnic. Even better, many of these small-group expeditions combine other types of activities with the main attraction -- ziplining and a challenge course, for instance, horseback riding and waterfall swims -- for a multifaceted adventure.

Just one thing before we get started: It rains a lot on Kauai, more than 400 inches a year in some places, which is why the place is so lush. It's not nicknamed the Garden Isle for nothing. Rain is normal. Rain is good. Consequently, tours go out rain or shine. However, local conditions can change hour to hour, and as a result some activities such as waterfall swims are never guaranteed; it might be too dangerous. Trips are canceled/rescheduled only when the weather overall is deemed hazardous.

Ziplining

Basically, you're jumping off a cliff without a parachute. Great for confronting trust/fear issues -- even ones you didn't know you had -- and finally satisfying your flight fantasies. Enjoy the bird-on-the-wing views.

Four companies on Kauai offer zipline runs combined with other activities such as swinging bridges or waterfall swims. Each outfitter will take you into its own little slice of Kauai's backcountry, which is a treat in itself. And for those less daring souls who find themselves traveling in the company of more radical thrill seekers, some of these outfitters allow you to bow out of the zipping.

Don't think this is just for the young'uns. When I went, the only people in the 18-34 demographic were the group's two guides. The age of participants on my tour ranged from upper-30s to upper-60s.

They provide: trained guides, all necessary equipment.

Safety check: All zipline courses operate under the standards of the Association for Challenge Course Technology.

You must: meet minimum age restrictions; meet minimum and maximum height and weight requirements; wear sturdy, close-toed shoes with tread (no clogs or slip-ons); dress for the harness in T-shirt and long shorts or full-length pants; tie your hair back if it's long enough to get in your eyes.

Optional: wearing a swimsuit under your clothing; packing a rain poncho.

You bring: water, sunscreen, insect repellent, camera, towel.

Duration: 3 to 4 1/2 hours, depending on the outfitter.

Prices: $99-$175.

Forget it if: you're pregnant or have had recent injury or surgery to feet, ankles, knees, hips or back.

Ziplining outfitters: Just Live (808-482-1295; justlive.org); Kauai Backcountry Adventures (808-245-2506; justlivekauaibackcountry.com); Outfitters Kauai (888-742-9887; outfitterskauai.com); Princeville Ranch Adventures (888-955-7669; adventureskauai.com).

Mountain tubing

The immigrants who toiled more than a century ago to create the system of irrigation canals and hand-hewn tunnels for sugar farming couldn't have known that one day a section of the former Lihue Plantation would become a backcountry flume ride. This pleasant float approaches Kauai's scenery inside and out, with participants bobbing downstream in colorful, industrial-strength inner tubes. When I took this trip, a foursome in their 70s were among our small group of 11 having a blast.

They provide: tubes, gloves, helmets with head lamps.

You must:: meet age and weight requirements; wear sturdy, close-toed shoes with tread. Full-length pants are highly recommended.

Optional: wearing a swimsuit under your clothing.

You bring: sunscreen, insect repellent, towel, change of dry clothes.

Duration: 3-3 1/2 hours, which includes lunch and the round-trip drive from headquarters to the location.

Price: $100.

Forget it if: you have claustrophobia or are afraid of the dark.

Mountain tubing operator: Kauai Backcountry Adventures (808-245-2506; kauaibackcountry.com).

ATV tours

You know those famous Red Dirt T-shirts? Well, you won't have to buy one after this; you'll be making your own with every mud-caked splatter. Movie-set scenery? Oh yeah, there's that, too. ATV tours on Kauai offer various routes -- some with waterfall stops -- on private property and a menu of vehicles.

They provide: leader-guides, all necessary equipment; refreshments on shorter tours, picnic lunch on longer tours. You can ask about rental clothing.

Safety check: vehicle instruction is part of the package.

You must: meet age and/or consent requirements and have a valid picture ID to drive; meet age, weight and relationship-to-driver requirements to be a passenger, depending on outfitter and vehicles; wear sturdy, close-toed shoes with tread; dress in full-length pants.

You bring: water, sunscreen, insect repellent, camera; swimsuit, aqua shoes and towel if you take one of the waterfall tours.

Duration: 3 to 4 hours, depending on the tour.

Prices: $105-$155, depending on whether you're a driver or a passenger.

Forget it if: you're pregnant or have back problems.

ATV tour operators: Kauai ATV Tours (877-707-7088; kauaiatv.com); Kipu Ranch Adventures (808-246-9288; kiputours.com).

Sailing, snorkeling tours

You haven't experienced all Kauai has to offer unless you take to the ocean. Catamarans go out for snorkeling or sunset/dinner sails along the Napali Coast, and a couple even venture into the waters off the island of Niihau. Expeditions by inflatable rafts (Zodiacs) explore the Napali Coast's sea caves and come ashore on the beaches, when conditions permit. Some outfitters have guided snorkeling from shore, and one offers "snuba," a cross between snorkeling and scuba. I had signed up for one of the Zodiac trips, which was canceled because the seas were too rough. I switched to a catamaran dinner sail that still took a lot of guff from the waves ... and left at least one fellow leaning over the aft railing.

They provide: snorkel, mask, fins.

You must: meet age and fitness requirements.

You bring: sunscreen, insect repellent, swimsuit, aqua shoes, towel, change of dry clothes.

Duration: 2 to 7 hours.

Price: $69-$196.

Take some pills: if you are prone to motion sickness. This is the open ocean, after all. (Strange thing: I once got seasick in Kauai while snorkeling a few feet from shore, so don't think it can't happen.)

Forget the Zodiac if: you're pregnant or have back problems.

Sailing, snorkeling operators: Aloha Kauai Tours (800-452-1113; alohakauaitours.com); Blue Dolphin Charters (877-511-1311; kauaiboats.com); Capt. Andy's Sailing Adventures & Raft Expeditions (800-535-0830; napali.com); Catamaran Kahanu (808-645-6176; catamarankahanu.com); Holo Holo Charters (800-848-6130; holoholocharters.com); Kauai Sea Tours (800-733-7997; kauaiseatours.com); Kauai Z Tourz (888-998-6879; ztourz.com); Napali Explorer (877-335-9909; napali-explorer.com); Snuba Tours of Kauai (808-823-8912; snubakauai.com).

Guided hiking

On Kauai, there's no such thing as "just a hike." Guided outings will, at the very least, include local cultural wisdom and ecological discussions. Some visit waterfalls or beaches.

They provide: guides.

You must: meet fitness requirements; wear hiking boots, sneakers or trail shoes.

Optional: wearing a swimsuit under your clothing.

You bring: water, sunscreen, insect repellent, camera, hat, rain poncho, towel.

Duration: 2-10 hours.

Prices: $1-$130.

Guided hiking outfitters: Aloha Kauai Tours (800-452-1113; alohakauaitours.com); Kauai Nature Tours (888-233-8365; kauainaturetours.com); Kayak Kauai (800-437-3507; kayakkauai.com); Princeville Ranch Adventures (888-955-7669; adventureskauai.com).

Other hiking resources: Na Ala Hele, the State of Hawaii Trail and Access Program (hawaiitrails.org); Kauai Group, Sierra Club (hi.sierraclub.org); A Kauai Blog (great-hikes.com/blog).

Downhill biking

No one visits Kauai without visiting the dramatic sea-cliff Kalalau Lookout in Kokee State Park or viewing Waimea Canyon. This organized tour takes its time as it runs the 12 miles from cliff to canyon to coast, all downhill on paved roads.

They provide: cruising bikes with wide saddles and hi-rise handlebars.

You must: meet age and weight requirements; wear sturdy, close-toed shoes with tread; dress in layers for various climate zones.

You bring: windbreaker, sunscreen, insect repellent.

Duration: 4 hours.

Price: $78-$98.

Downhill bike operator: Outfitters Kauai (888-742-9887; (outfitterskauai.com)

Horseback rides

Just when you've started to think you're in pretty good shape, along comes a saddle to prove you wrong. Kauai's dramatic scenery can be counted on to keep you distracted long enough to finish the ride, and some routes are further sweetened with waterfall swims or beachcombing.

They provide: horse, tack and guide.

You must: meet age and weight requirements; wear sturdy, close-toed shoes with tread. Full-length pants are highly recommended.

Optional: wearing a swimsuit under your clothing.

You bring: water, sunscreen, insect repellent, camera, towel.

Duration: 1 1/2 to 8 hours, depending on the tour.

Prices: $80-$375 for adults.

Horseback ride operators: CJM Country Stables (808-742-6096; cjmstables.com); Esprit De Corps Riding Academy (808-822-4688; kauaihorses.com); Princeville Ranch Stables (808-826-6777; princevilleranch.com); Silver Falls Ranch (808-828-6718; silverfallsranch.com)

Kayaking

Kauai boasts the state's only navigable rivers, most prominently the Wailua, Hanalei and Huleia rivers. Some outfitters combine the Hanalei River and Hanalei Bay. Expect movie-set scenery, a hike and a swim along the way. Then, there's the ocean. Putting paddle to saltwater on Kauai can come as soft as a dip around a resort bay or as challenging as a daylong course along the south shore or the Napali Coast.

They provide: kayaks with dry bags.

You must: meet age and weight requirements; wear hiking/aqua shoes.

You bring: sunscreen, insect repellent, swimsuit, towel, change of dry clothes.

Duration: 1 to 8 hours.

Price: $22-$140.

Kayaking operators: Alii Kayaks (877-246-2544; aliikayaks.com); Kayak Hanalei (808-826-1881; kayakhanalei.com); Kayak Kauai (800-437-3507; kayakkauai.com); Outfitters Kauai (888-742-9887; outfitterskauai.com); Princeville Ranch Adventures (888-955-7669; adventureskauai.com); True Blue andIsland Adventures (808-246-6333; kauaifun.com); Wailua River Guides (808-821-2800; wailuariverguides.com).

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