Plantation Tubing: The Ultimate Recap

I'm sad to say we're approaching the end of my Kaua'i posts, but not to worry, I saved the best parts of my trip for the finale! I've shared with you the places where I've eaten and the towns that I've visited. Now, it's time to talk about the more rugged affairs! I keep emphazing the "Garden Island" nickname, but what's the fun in being on a tropical haven brimming with plant life if you can't enjoy it up close? Well, Kaua'i has an abundance of options, from sailing along the Na Pali coast, to ziplining over the forest canopy. I've done most of them on previous travels, so this year's group wanted to try something new and something that we could do all together.

Solution: Mountain tubing. A little internet research and feedback from friends brought me to this Garden Island-exclusive. (Our group also wanted to avoid problems with sea-sickness and fear of heights.) So read on for my complete recap on Kaua'i Backcountry Adventures' Mountain Tubing Adventure, with tips and anecdotes along the way.

What exactly is it? Well...If you've ever floated on an inner tube down a waterpark lazy river, on an actual river, or on a lake, then you'll have a pretty good idea of how this goes. But this tour hardly qualifies as "lazy". I think a better name for it would have been "Plantation Tubing". You float on irrigation canals and through hand-dug tunnels that were formerly used by the grand Lihue Plantation. I'll admit that I was hesitant to try it at first. At $100 per person, it seemed like the average tourist trap. However, my friend Ally, who's gone on many trips to Kaua'i, assured me that it's her favorite tour on the island and that she's even gone back multiple times. Reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor were encouraging as well. So, I convinced my fellow vacationers...including my easily-frightened-by-physical-activity mother and my limited-swimming-experience-so-he's-sketchy-around-water try Kaua'i Backcountry Adventures.

The day of our "Backcountry Tubing Adventure", we brought a small bag with towels, sunscreen, bug repellant, and a change of dry clothes, and we all had swimsuits and water shoes on like the website suggested. Some advice, though... In order to pack as minimally as possible, go ahead and leave the change of clothes at the hotel. Your guide will recommend only wearing your swimsuit/trunks while in the water anyway, so you can just take off whatever clothes you came in (like a tshirt and shorts), and put them back on later after toweling off. Should you feel worried about what's acceptable to wear...I showed up in a bikini, a crop top, spandex shorts, and already wearing my water shoes. If you want to dress lightly, feel free to just dress lightly.

And, finally...BRING. A. WATERPROOF. CAMERA. IF YOU HAVE ONE, BRING IT. IF YOU FORGOT, BUY ONE. Pardon my capslock, but I feel obligated to warn you. Our group committed the worst error and did not bring one, nor did we buy one. Sad. Face. As a result, my photos of this expedition will be limited. But hang in there! If "a picture is worth a thousand and yada yada yada", I'll try to make up for what I lack in visuals with details.

Don't forget!
When you first arrive at KBA's headquarters, a big yellow warehouse, you sign some standard waiver forms and check in. We showed up with 20 minutes to spare before our 2:00 PM tour. If you check in early and realize you are sans waterproof camera, this is a perfect time to buy one from their shop. This would also be a good time to use the restroom. You're not going to see another one until a couple of hours later. Next, our guides -- Kalana, Lito, Mica, and John (I sincerely hope that I didn't butcher the spellings) -- corralled the entire group to hand out helmets, issue protective gloves, and briefly show us how to adjust our helmet straps and turn our helmets' headlamps on/off.

At last, we loaded into two vans. Our tour size was less than 20 people total, including the KBA staff. It didn't feel like a big crowd at all. Most of us filed into Kalana and Lito's van, so John asked if anyone wanted to move over to his and Mica's where there was more space. At this time, I'm going to go ahead and confess that I already had a slight crush on Tour Guide John...funny, charming, a tribal tattoo on his leg...Because, while I ended up staying in my original place, on the inside I was having a Katniss Everdeen moment...

...Moving on...It was a nice drive to our first stop, the scenic lookout. And by "nice", I mean "it was pretty bumpy but Kalana's sense of humor kept everyone distracted and entertained". (But, hey, you're on a dirt country road. A bumpy ride should be expected!)

We spent the next 15 minutes or so introducing ourselves. Lito is Filipino (Surprise, surprise!), but has lived on the island since the 70's and has worked with this tour company since it started almost a decade ago. He certainly had the "company dad" attitude, as he was obviously a lot older than our other guides. Kalana is from Princeville on the North Shore and currently going to school to become a teacher. There were also two girls in town for a family wedding and two honeymooners (or "honeytubers", as Kalana called them). When I mentioned that I was a culinary student, Kalana made a dry quip about me cooking lunch for everyone. My mumbled response was, "I forgot?" But she quickly retorted with, "Then I guess I'll have to make you all Spam for our lunch today! Blame Jullie Anne."  

Ha. Banter aside...she also took the time to explain some of the plants on the acres of land we were driving through. Among them were these half-palm trees oddly scattered...leftovers from when Tropic Thunder was being filmed! We even passed a small house where one plantation worker used to be posted. Kalana joked, "Lito's staying there now, but he's struggling and looking for a roommate. If you need a place to stay...or wanna make a donation...just let Lito know."

Left to right: Mom, Me, Dad, Uncle Alex, Auntie Jocelyn, & Alexi
When we got to the lookout, it turned out to be a gorgeous view of Mt. Wai'ale'ale. The lush vegetation just stretches out before you, a sweeping view of mountains, green...and more green. It was a beautiful spot to take photos, and Kalana & co. were more than happy to play photographer.

John then gathered us around to tell the history of Mt. Wai'ale'ale, one of the wettest spots on earth. "There it is. Doing what it does best...Raining," he said. He wasn't kidding. This dormant volcano gets over 400 inches of rain every year. Its waterfalls feed the irrigation canals that we were about to be tubing in. Lastly, he pointed out the Wai'ahi Stream. He translated "wai" to "fresh water", but asked if anyone knew what "ahi" meant. Hint: it's not tuna. (If your guide asks, don't say tuna. They'll just laugh at you.) It actually means "fire". The naturally red dirt gets swept up into the stream, so it was called "Fire Water" by the Hawaiians.

Finally, we were off to our "intake" site. During this drive, we passed open fields and some cows grazing. I sarcastically called one a horse. Kalana chimed in, "That's a fat horse...we have lazy horses over here. Island way, yeah?"

Some specific instructions from Kalana at this time: "2 rules! #1) Don't go #1 in the water. #2) Definitely don't go #2. If we are upstream relative to you, we will not appreciate random warm messages."

She went on to explain that the "C", "F", and "S" words will absolutely not be tolerated..."Cold", "freezing", and "sorry"! They prefer it if you use words like "refreshing", "rejuvenating", and "take that." Fair warning: if you happen to use the "C" or "F" words at any time, you've given permission for them to splash you with water. The guides also got tired of hearing "Oh! Sorry!" every time tubers bumped into each other. So, again, if you use that "S" word, you are officially vulnerable to splash attacks.

At the intake spot, we had one last chance to apply sunscreen/bug repellant...and put away my iPhone :( ... then Kalana gave us a final safety briefing under a wooden arbor overlooking the water. She was interrupted, though, when Mica tapped her on the shoulder and casually dropped this bomb: "Oh...hey, Kalana...Uh...Happy birthday." He immediately darted off with a smirk on his face, leaving her to endure our totally cheesy and off-key rendition of Happy Birthday. Honestly, I think he used the distraction of all the birthday greetings to give him and John more time to play around in the water. Yes, I said play. It was hard to miss the loud battle cries as they took turns cannonballing and backflipping into the canal. Lito watched, leaning on the railing like a dad supervising his sons. He laughed, "I was supposed to go with you guys, but Mica said 'Ooh, I want to go one more time. Can I?' And...ahh, well...there he goes."

Photos of Kauai Backcountry Adventures, Hanamaulu
This photo of Kauai Backcountry Adventures is courtesy of TripAdvisor
After walking down the steps to the canal, we lined up on a ramp. Mica used the girl in front to demonstrate how to board your giant, personal cheerio. Turn around and just squat into it, holding on to the railing as you lower yourself. At long last, we were all floating in our tubes! Kalana lead the way, Mika brought up the rear, and John paddled his tube to the middle of the pack. When I inadvertently floated into his path and nudged him, naturally, I declared..."Take that!".

So, of course, he just shoved my tube out of the way. When I jokingly called him rude, he just yelled back over his shoulder, "Oh! Now it's 'rude', huh?!"

Yep. This afternoon was going to be fan-tastic. :P

The first couple of minutes of floating were very calm and relaxing. I looked up, and all I saw were trees, tall overgrown plants, and little rays of sunshine poking through. Even the moss-covered rocks and walls on the banks of the canal looked stunning. A word of caution, though: expect your party to get split up. Obviously with no steering, and your tube at the mercy of the natural current, that's just how it goes. We were moving at a pretty slow pace, and I somehow ended up a good 15 feet behind everyone else...But Mica was there to keep me company, sitting on his tube rather than laying on it.

Funny story: He actually asked if I was from this island, assuming I was local and just taking visiting relatives to see the sights. When I answered that I was actually from California, he was amused, "Oh. You blend in pretty well." (Filipinos, man.)

Really, all of our guides made the tour a very comfortable experience. We felt like we were hanging out with friends, as opposed to someone who sounds like they're reading out of a travel brochure. I never felt isolated, no matter how many times I drifted away from my group. This is definitely an activity for the social butterflies. You're going to meet new people, so why not make some new friends!

Then, in an ooh-and-aah moment, we approached the first tunnel. (Headlamps on!) Hand-carved into the mountainside, immigrant workers used only simple tools like pick-axes and sledge hammers. Lihue Plantation was founded in 1849, and the irrigation system carried water to the acres and acres of sugar cane. It stretched for fifty-one miles. Even after the plantation closed its doors in 2000, the channels remained. Currently, KBA uses the 142-year-old and 4-mile-long Hanama'ulu Ditch for their organized tours. The introductory tunnel is short, but opens up into a vaulted space in the middle of it. Mica explained that the workers tried using dynamite, but it took out way too big chunks of rock, so they stopped and went back to the manual method.

Afterwards, there's a short transition between tunnel #1 and tunnel #2. You bump and spin gently along the fern-lined banks, pushing off with your feet or gloved hands. (Or, bumping into other tubers. Remember to say your take-that's!) The second tunnel is definitely longer, so my recommendation is: don't be afraid to use your headlamp and look up. Because of their method of construction, the tunnel walls look more like the jagged surfaces in caves. The wet rock seemingly glittered under the flashlight.

Before the 3rd tunnel, there's an exit point for anyone who's not enjoying themselves. Kalana calls it "The Walk of Shame" because everyone gets to watch you get out and leave. Luckily, nobody wanted to leave. Although I half-expected my mom to jump at the opportunity, she handled the spinning, thumping, and dark enclosed spaces very well. The company does warn customers that those who are afraid of the dark, or are claustrophobic, should not participate, but as far my opinion goes, the tunnels were plenty spacious and everyone's headlamps provided enough light.

I should also clue you in on the "How wet do I get?" part. If you haven't been splash-attacked by a guide yet (I did. Every time Mica and John rotated positions. Take-that's and ah-HA!'s were usually exchanged.), you're about to get pretty soaked anyway. We stopped at a wooden beam that stretched across the canal, and Kalana let us pass one-by-one. The single file line is to avoid a tube "wedgie", when "two tubes go where only one tube was meant to be". This is because we were about to encounter The Drop. And by drop, I mean, a petite waterfall that you cascade over. And by petite, I mean, 1 foot...maybe 1 1/2. Mica instructed, "BUTTS UP!", to avoid scraping our bottoms on any rocks when we landed. After this tiny thrill, it was off to tunnel #3 for more fun.

I would say this is where the tubing pace picked up a little, as the flow of the water quickened somewhat. Tunnel #3 is the longest, and it's also the curviest. With almost-90 degree right and left turns, the tunnel snakes into an S-like path. The current whirls you around in circles, you bounce off the walls, water splashes over the side of and into your tube, and... someone breaks out singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight?! Yup. Mica and John's voices echoed through the tunnel..."Iiiin the juuungle, the miiighty juuungle..."

Also, every time a turn was coming up, Kalana would direct "Left!" or "Right!" and the info would work its way down the line. However, if you were in the me...You were at the mercy of John, laid out on his tube like a body board, who would reverse whatever directions Kalana gave, so I never really knew what to expect. Example: "Left? Turning right! Where? I mean WHAT?!" Oh yeah, this was definitely an adventure. ;)

Finally, we entered the last of the tunnels. The 4th is very short and quick, but for some reason, there's a concrete divider right in the middle of the tunnel. John stood in front of it and directed traffic, pushing each tube either to his left or to his right. Of course, my tube went straight for the wall. I collided with John and knocked him backwards, so my first instinct was to say...wait for it...

"Oh my god! I'm so SORRY!"

Not even skipping a beat, he took both of his hands and started shoveling some of that DAMN COLD water all over me. Taunting me the whooole time. 

The 5th tunnel was the most interesting. (Yes, after everything else that had happened already.) That's because you float through the 5th and last tunnel in complete darkness. All! Lights! Off! I'm not sure exactly how long it was, but it was enough that you couldn't see the other side until the last few seconds. Everything eerily slows down. For a bit, you feel like you're just sitting there and going absolutely nowhere. It's pitch black so you can't see anything around you. Everyone also decided to stop speaking...Why? I'm not sure. But it added to the eerie effect. All you hear is the trickling of the water.

We ultimately emerged into the "Lazy River" finale of our tour. Kalana let us know that we could stretch out, swim around, and link up with our loved ones. The water slowed to the calm speed it started out with, and we all just drifted along leisurely and peacefully. Well...that was until John climbed out and cannon-balled right in front of me. I'm pretty sure everyone else was mildly damp while I was thoroughly drenched by this point. I was the one tuber who got soaking wet...

 But I didn't mind one bit. I was here to have fun, after all! :) Mica also got off his tube and was just swimming around to see how everyone was doing. I actually got stuck in some tall grass and branches, and he had to come over and help me out...but not before standing there, observing my predicament, and in the deadpan way I came to adore, telling me, "You shouldn't go there. There's snakes."


Yes, I internally freaked out for a moment. But uable to keep a straight face, he caved and just picked me out of the bush. Still laughing. Ha ha, buddy.

With the tubing done, it was time to eat! They drove us to a picnic area overlooking a swimming hole, where there were also changing rooms and bathrooms. During the ride over, Kalana tried to convince us that she was serving a big bowl of poi and some fried spam. (Which, I didn't really see any problems with...:P) In the end, our late-lunch/early-dinner was really a build-your-own-sandwich spread, chips (Maui-style chips imported from Texas, as Kalana brilliantly pointed out), Kaua'i Kookie shortbread, and bottled water. For the sandwiches, you started with a sliced bagel and had your choice of turkey, salami, cheese, cucumbers, sprouts, pickles, peppers, and olives as toppings. Mustard and mayo packets were on the side. One of the "honeytubers" was apparantly vegetarian, so they even fixed up a hummus & red pepper sandwich just for her. All in all, the food was nothing fancy, but nothing to complain about either.

Mica and John realized there were quite a few bagels left over. So obviously, the best way to use up extra bagels have a bagel toss. The two of them stood at the edge of a hill above the swimming hole and tried to see who could throw it across the water the farthest. John bragged about the height he was getting with the oh-so-easy flick of his wrist, and Kalana attempted to join in the competition...but her bagel only wobbled about 5 feet away. That's when Mica suddenly turned around and searched for me in the watching crowd. He marched over, dropped a bagel on the table in front of me, and ordered, "You can join our bagel toss." Of. Course. I picked it up, knowing I was either going to impress them or horribly embarrass myself. I'm happy to report...I didn't do so bad. I basically threw it like I would a frisbee, and it arced all the way over the swimming hole. Success. Unfortunately, my toss did not go as high nor as far as John's. He was declared our Bagel Toss King.

Left to right: Me, Kalana, Mika, & John
Around 5 o'clock, it was time to head back to the KBA warehouse. I would recommend using this time to ask your guides for any suggestions, from dining recs to anything as specific as "Where's the best place for kayaking?" Kalana was all ears and answered all questions. She nor Lito gave typical touristy advice, either. You got more authentic or off-the-beaten path answers. When we returned, the last thing I did was ask for a picture with Kalana and the guys. John and Mica, still sitting in their van, leaned out the windows and answered with completely straight faces...

"Sure, $20 processing fee," Mika said.
"And $5 per head," John added.

These guys.
Lito somehow left without me noticing, so unfortunately he isn't in the photo. But really...They were all the BEST. GUIDES. THAT. ANYONE. COULD. ASK. FOR. Kalana gave me a huge hug before I left, and it was like saying goodbye to one of my closest friends. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I spent a good amount of time raving about this experience. I told anyone that would listen that, not only did I enjoy myself, but I would go back and do it all again whenever I come back to Kaua'i. It's something the whole family can enjoy, and you learn a lot of history along the way.

I even bought a couple of KBA t-shirts! There are quite a few designs to choose from, but I decided to go with the basic logo that the staff wore. I definitely wanted a memento from this tour. If you want to bring something home for a friend or loved one, one of these shirts would be a pretty nice gift. I hope my recap has given you more than an idea of what you'd be getting into and inspires you to try "tubing the ditch" for yourself!