Trail riding in Hawaii on the island of Maui is about getting off the beach and away from golf courses, crowds, and highways. It's the sight of vast ocean views from high mountainside fields; it's walking the horses on red clay roads through pineapple plantations; it's the quiet and peace you look for in a get-away-from-it-all vacation.
I spent the first days in Maui on the beach, but the horse lover in me wanted to ride. I called Ironwood Ranch, the closest stable to the resort area of Kaanapali, where I'd been staying. The brochure promised, "Maui's best horseback riding."
Gina, the ranch manager, described the choice of rides: a sunset ride, a leisurely ride into Ironwood forests, or a faster, guided tour for the experienced rider. I chose the walk through the forest. After days on the hot beach, with sunburn on my toes, the idea of lush, exotic mountain valleys and panoramic ocean views sounded enticing. I'm an experienced rider, but I wanted to enjoy the entire vacation without any risk of trouble on the trail.
When the other guests and I arrived at the ranch, Gina called us over to the stable. She took a minute to size us up and began to assign horses to each rider.
"At Ironwood Ranch, our guests are given the names of the horses," she said. "It's safer for us to direct you and the horse this way."
A retired schoolteacher and his wife were assigned Brad Pitt, a fit, bay Quarter Horse, and Queen Latifah. A young woman and her new husband were assigned to Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer. I was given a trim, gray Arabian Horse cross.
Kate, our guide, rode a Paint Horse named Orlando Bloom. Kate and Orlando led us in single file past the shady paddocks into the bright sunlight of the pineapple fields.
Pineapples and sugar cane are becoming a rare sight on Maui, as land is sold to developers for resorts. The view from these fields of the ocean below and the distant, hazy brown cliffs of Lana'i Island are panoramic and beautiful.
The surefooted horses carefully took us into the shady green of a tropical forest. Kate directed us: "Jet Li, don't crowd Queen Latifah; she'll kick you if you get too close. Michelle Pfeiffer, try to keep up with us; you look like you're asleep."
We passed wild coffee plants, pepper trees with bright-red berries, oranges out of reach in the trees, and lilies that border the trail on the forest floor. At the lowest point on the trail, our horses splashed through a muddy stream - something my fine dressage horse at home would never cross without plenty of encouragement.
At one point, Kate asked us to stop to look up the sides of the ravine at an ancient Hawaiian rock wall built to keep out wild pigs. Then we headed into a dense jungle and the famous Ironwood forests, where soft light filters through the trees.
A Special Place
At the trail's end, we left our horses and gathered on the screened porch for a cold drink and snacks. I left the group to ask Gina about her life on Maui.
Gina rode hunter/jumpers on the circuit in California before settling in Maui. As ranch manager, she's conducted 23,000 trail rides. Celebrity guests have included Britney Spears, Kelsey Grammer, Rachael Ray, Toby Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Natalie Portman.
The horses come from Canada and Southern California. While many are warmblood/draft crosses, Gina also tends to prefer Paint and Quarter Horses. All the horses are fit, obedient, healthy, and a pleasure to ride.
For more information on Ironwood Ranch, call (808) 669-4991, or visit www.ironwood ranch.com.