It’s funny how there are movies that just become part of our culture. Jurassic Park is one of them. So when you say something looked “Jurassic Park” you know exactly what to envision. Imagine how amazing it was to visit the actual “Jurassic Park” at Kualoa Ranch. Most of the movie franchise was filmed on Kaua’i. But the Kualoa Valley (as well as Ka’a’awa and Hakipu’u Valleys) are a recognizable backdrop for Jurassic Park, Jurassic World and over 70 other movies and TV shows. While I love the “Hollywood” side of the ranch, it’s the preservation of the history, land and family that make it special. Cows, sheep and horses intermingle in sweet oblivion with remnants of movie sets (the giant boneyard from Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla’s leftover footprints). Movie posters line the halls of the World War II bunker and the old sugar mill (closed in 1871 from lack of rainfall) crumbles along the highway. It’s a strange mix of old and new, personal and commercial that seems to be the perfect formula for visitors to come from around the world.Despite a huge parking lot, gift shop, snack bar and the swarm of pine-coloured buses transporting thousands of visitors on hundreds of tours, the property retains the feel of a family ranch. Perhaps it’s the greeting of the grazing horses upon arrival, or the crunch of the dirt and gravel roads and rumble of the occasional cattle guard along the tour. Or the low, stable-like red structures scattered across the grounds that house not just horses, but the dining hall, ticket office and waiting areas. While everything is well kept, it’s not exactly modern. Which in my mind is perfect. Of the eight or so tour offerings, I’ve gone on four: Hollywood Movie Sites Tour, Jurassic Valley Zipline and Secret Beach (Zip and Dip), Jurassic Valley ATV Tour and the Jurassic Jungle Expedition Tour. Each one was so different I can’t say I have a favourite. The tour guides on every excursion were relaxed and chatty, happy to share history, current filming and just talk story and they all revealed parts of this 4000 acre ranch I hadn’t seen before.
It’s obvious they are proud of their movie heritage as each tour includes a number of filming locations. But the impact of World War II was ironically most highlighted on the movie sites tour as it makes a prolonged stop at the enormous bunker overlooking Kaneohe Bay. Pillboxes (concrete guard posts) litter the hills and our guide points out the location of the war-time airstrip at the foot of the mountain that has been reclaimed by the wild grasses and trees. The views of the bay from the bunker were mesmerizing and we had the opportunity to meander at our leisure before loading back on the bus to make a number of other “movie” stops.
The zipline was pleasant as we were able to hike from one platform to another and experience the terrain, trees and cool ocean breeze without looking through a bus window. As my only zipline experience I was surprised at the relaxed pace. This was no thrill-ride, but rather a coasting across treetops and valleys. Gray clouds draped the tops of the mountains and drifted down the ridges. We ended the day at the Kualoa “Secret Beach” on Kaneohe Bay. A quick boat ride across the 800-year-old Moli’i fishpond motored us to a small boardwalk leading into low-hanging trees. It was a nice way to end the day but not quite as enchanting as I envisioned. Lounge chairs, hammocks, paddle boards, kayaks and even table tennis give plenty of options. But for a secret beach, I just anticipated a more natural setting. Even so, the water gently lapped at the shore and we opted for relaxation rather than exploration.
Speaking of exploration the ATV tour gets high marks. First of all I haven’t been on a four-wheeler since I was 12 so it took some time to feel entirely comfortable. Maybe it was the mud, potholes and puddles intensified by the recent rains. Regardless, after a few turns I was itching to push the 12 MPH limit our guide asked us to remain under. Plus, buzzing along on my own transport, and not loaded on a bus with 40 other people, this was the way to see Kualoa Ranch. The clouds were low and somber and seemed to truly transport us to a Jurassic rainforest. The only opportunities for our guide to point out highlights were at stopping points. It was nice to just ride along and enjoy the sweeping ocean views and the Kualoa ridgeline towering above us. We were able to explore less accessible areas of the ranch and even trundled up the road to the platform built for the Jurassic World Gyrosphere.
The most recent tour, the Jurassic Jungle Expedition, took us to the Hakipu’u valley. The smaller vehicle (smaller than a bus, bigger than a jeep) held only 18 people and wound through a dense jungle of verdant ferns and burbling rivers. The tour guide played scene-appropriate music during each segment which I found delightful. We came to the top of a ridge that gives a breathtaking outlook over the fishpond, Chinaman’s Hat (Mokoli’i) leaning to one side and Kaneohe Bay stretching out beyond. While the description of the tour focuses on Hawai’ian history and scenery, movie magic seems to take over and at Kualoa Ranch you can’t seem to get away from the dinosaurs.
Despite the commercialism, belching buses and people standing around on every available blade of grass awaiting their assigned tour, I really enjoy being at Kualoa Ranch. There’s a sense of family, a desire to protect the land and a respect for the history that permeates the entire operation. There are still four tours I haven’t experienced and I can’t wait to go back.
- Choose the ATV, zipline, electric bike or horseback riding tours. You’ll still be with a group, but feel like you’re on your own.
- Book the earliest tour. They open at 7:30AM. The Honolulu tour buses will begin arriving about 8 or 8:30AM, so you’ll have some time before the crowds.
- There’s room to spread out even in the “waiting” area. Stroll around the grounds. Get a closer look at the horses, there’s a small “petting zoo” to the north of the stables with two huge tortoises and goats. Just past this is a Kualoa Ranch sign that’s a great place for a group photo.