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Islands of adventure: 10 great trips that go beyond the beach

If sunbathing and sipping margaritas are the only things that come to mind when you think of island travel, it’s time to think again. There are thousands of islands on the planet—ranging from the tropical fantasy isles of the South Pacific to the icy outposts of the poles—and the possibilities for adventure in and around them are even greater in number. Whether you’re interesting in kayaking, hiking, diving, experiencing indigenous cultures, or trying something totally new, there’s an island adventure out there that’s perfect for you. To help you move from daydreaming to trip planning, here are some choices for top island adventures to consider.

Backpacking the Kalalau Trail on Hawaii’s ‘Garden Isle’

Outfitter: Do-it-yourself
Price: from $10 per person per night

With its fluted pali cliffs, miles of undeveloped beaches, huge tracts of roadless rainforest, and a gorge known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Kauai, Hawaii, packs a seemingly endless number of outdoor adventure options into its 550 square miles. While kayaking, biking, and horseback riding are all popular activities, hiking might just be the perfect way to experience the “Garden Isle’s” landscape.

“Hiking is the best way to get to the heart of Kauai, both in geography and spirit,” says Contributing Editor Christine Sarkis, who came to Kauai for a wedding but spent much of her time hiking. “It’s also the only way to get to many natural and historic sites on the island.”

Of all the trails on Kauai, the 11-mile Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast is the most prized, passing along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the country. Hiking the trail requires backpacking a strenuous 22-mile out-and-back route from Ke’e Beach to the remote Kalalau Beach, camping along the way in designated spots.

“[The trail] was established by the Hawaiians centuries ago and follows ledges on the cliffs, dipping down into five major valleys and numerous little gullies,” says Andy Kass, a hiking leader for the Sierra Club’s Kauai group. “The ledges are usually plenty wide and vegetated, offering views up and down the coast as well as cooling sea breezes. The valleys are lush and humid, with views of waterfalls and green mountains. Near the end, you reach a crest and turn a corner where Kalalau Valley opens up before you, with near-vertical walls curving inland and around to the beach on the opposite side.”

A spectacular waterfall and sea caves mark the end of the trail at Kalalau Beach. “There is a certain sacred awe at being in such a magnificent natural setting,” says Kass. “I sometimes call it a Hawaiian cathedral, not just because of the towering cliffs on all sides, but because Kalalau epitomizes the natural balance between the Hawaiian culture and the physical world.”

The details

To hike beyond the first two miles of the trail, you must obtain a permit in advance through the Hawaii State Parks office. There is a $10 fee per person, per night. You must provide your own camping and hiking equipment.

Hiking on Kauai has its challenges and dangers, so it’s important to be prepared so that you can reap the rewards safely. To learn more about hiking in Kauai, safety on the trail, and minimizing your impact on the environment, refer to the resources listed on Kauai’s Sierra Club website. The guidebook “On the Na Pali Coast: A Guide for Hikers and Boaters” by Kathy Valier is particularly helpful.

Extremely fit hikers can do the trip in two days, spending a night camping at Kalalau Beach, but Kass says that you’ll have a far better trip if you take a few more days to soak up the landscape. Although you can hike the trail year-round, May and early June tend to offer both good weather and minimal crowding.

Round-trip flights to Kauai in May start at $389, excluding taxes, on Hawaiian Airlines.

NEXT >> Cruising Vanuatu, the hidden isles of the South Pacific

Cruising Vanuatu, the hidden isles of the South Pacific

Outfitter: Tall ship Soren Larsen
Price: from $1,902 per person

Every year, the 145-foot tall ship Soren Larsen makes an epic transpacific voyage, sailing from its homeport in Auckland, New Zealand, to Easter Island, and then returning home via the islands of Polynesia and Melanesia. On this journey, the ship hosts intrepid travelers who sign on to sail various legs with the ship’s 13-member crew. Anyone can sign up, even people who’ve never sailed before.

On the voyage, the ship visits many exotic islands such as Bora Bora, the Cook Islands, and Fiji—but the little-known islands of Vanuatu, a collection of about 80 islands located some 1,400 miles north of Auckland, are among the crew’s favorites. While many of the indigenous island cultures of the South Pacific have been degraded by colonization and now mass tourism, life on most of the Vanuatu islands (with the exception of the resort town of Port Vila on Efate) remains relatively unchanged since Captain Cook visited in 1773. The Ni-Vanuatu people still speak 113 distinct languages, and their lives still revolve around ancient rituals and communal ceremonies.

The Soren Larsen offers two different 10-day Vanuatu itineraries. The first leg visits the more remote northern Banks Islands while the second tours the Central islands. Both trips include visits to several islands, allowing you to observe and interact with different communities. The exact islands and anchorages are dictated by the weather and the preferences of the group, with the ship usually anchoring at night and then sailing 20 to 70 miles between islands in the morning. The ship’s captain gets the permission of the island’s village chief before visiting.

“On most islands, people live a simple but culturally rich life in individually isolated villages,” says Ian Hutchinson of Tallship Soren Larsen. “‘Custom’ culture is central to their way of life and each island has its own particular custom dances and ceremonies. For example, there is the snake-dance of Ureparapara, the water dances of the women at Gaua, the ancestor worship Rom dance at Ambrym, and the chanting ceremony of the men of Malakula. Witnessing these custom ceremonies in an authentic context is a privilege and highlight of the trips.”

Besides visiting with native communities, you’ll have the opportunity to hike through the islands’ jungles to see waterfalls and wildlife on guided treks, and snorkel in the coral reefs offshore. While onboard, everyone takes part in the ship’s watch system, and participates in actually sailing the vessel.

The details

The Soren Larsen sets sail on its next transpacific journey in March 2007. The “Vanuatu Banks Islands” leg departs October 8 and sails round-trip from Espiritu Santo while the “Vanuatu Discovery” leg departs October 18 and sails from Espiritu Santo to Port Vila on Efate. Rates are the same for both and include onboard accommodations, three meals per day, sailing instruction, island excursions, and use of the ship’s saloon, library, and snorkeling and fishing equipment.

Flights to Vanuatu and between Espiritu Santo and Port Vila are extra. Round-trip fares on Air Vanuatu from Auckland to Port Vila are priced around $340 and fares between Espiritu Santo and Port Vila are around $250. Fares include taxes.

NEXT >> Inn-to-inn sea kayaking in Crete, Greece

Inn-to-inn sea kayaking in Crete, Greece

Outfitter: The Northwest Passage
Price: from $2,695 per person

First settled around 6,500 B.C., Crete has seen the birth of Western civilization with the Minoan culture, rule by the Mycenaean Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians, and then the Turks, and even occupation by the Nazis. There’s so much history here, you can literally see the layers of it stacked on top of one another in archeological sites all over the island. If that weren’t enough, Crete also has beautiful beaches, wild mountainous terrain, bustling cities and villages, and tasty Greek food. There’s so much to see and do, planning a trip can be little overwhelming.

Thankfully, The Northwest Passage, a sea kayaking company that has operated for years on the island and forged a close relationship with the locals, offers a fine-tuned eight-day itinerary that combines many of Crete’s highlights with the romance of sea kayaking from inn to inn on the Libyan Sea—allowing you to see Crete in a way that few tourists do.

After some sightseeing in north around Heraklion, you’ll kayak along the south coast, paddling five to six hours daily and up to 24 miles per day. The kayaking is broken up with breaks for morning cappuccino and midday lunch. There’s also time to explore beaches and sea caves and planned stops at archeological sites and other attractions inland. The tour includes some of Crete’s most popular experiences: touring the restored Minoan palace of Knossos and the Venetian fortress of Frangokastello and hiking the Samarian Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Europe.

However, for many trip-goers, the real highlights are their interactions with the locals and the experience of Greek village life. “The cultural experience in Crete is especially unique,” says Adam Walsh, director and guide for The Northwest Passage. “Because we’ve been leading trips there for so long, our relationships with the local Cretans are very personable. The inns and tavernas we frequent are all owned by families who welcome us with open arms, hugs, and kisses with every visit. They are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met and I always feel like part of their family when I visit.”

The details

Trips are scheduled in May, June, September, and October, months that avoid the peak crowding of tourist season but still promise good weather. Rates include accommodations, most meals, ground transportation and van support, kayaking equipment and instruction, entry fees, and guides. You do not need kayaking experience to go on this trip.

Transportation to Crete is extra. Round-trip fares from New York to Heraklion in May on Air France start at $676, excluding taxes and fees.

NEXT >> Retrace Shackleton’s steps in the Antarctic

Retrace Shackleton’s steps in the Antarctic

Outfitter: Aurora Expeditions
Price: from $8,690 per person

Ninety years ago when Sir Ernest Shackleton and his expeditionary crew made their perilous journey from Antarctica to a whaling station on South Georgia Island after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed by sea ice, it took them a year-and-a-half and nearly cost them their lives to reach safety. Today, on Aurora Expeditions’ “Shackleton Odyssey” trip, you can retrace this path in relative safety in just 20 days.

The Australia-based Aurora Expeditions, a polar travel company that pioneered this trip seven years ago, offers the Shackleton Odyssey once a year in February. On this voyage, you’ll depart Ushuaia, Argentina, aboard the Polar Pioneer, an ice-strengthened research ship with comfortable onboard accommodations, and sail across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. Before picking up Shackleton’s path near Paulet Island, you’ll spend a few days cruising among icebergs and taking excursions by Zodiac to view the region’s abundant wildlife.

From the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula you’ll travel to the black, ice-covered Elephant Island, where Shackleton’s men survived for 105 days, and attempt to make a landing. Then, it’s on to South Georgia Island, where the adventure really begins. “[South Georgia Island] has magnificent mountains draped in tortured glaciers which spear from the sea to a height of 9,600 feet,” says Greg Mortimer, Aurora’s cofounder and an accomplished mountaineer. “I personally think that the island is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

If you choose, you can participate in a difficult two- to three-day traverse across the island, retracing the journey Shackleton made from King Haakon Bay to the whaling station at Stromness where the expedition found its salvation. “The crossing requires a very high level of fitness,” says Mortimer. “It is only about 50 kilometers long, but it is physically demanding and requires solid experience in crevassed alpine terrain.” When you finally reach the whaling station, says Mortimer, you’ll have a deep admiration for what Shackleton and his men accomplished.

Zodiac trips and wildlife-viewing excursions are offered for those not doing the trek. Before heading back to Ushuaia, everyone will rejoin the ship to visit the Falkland islands.

The details

The next scheduled departure of this trip that has availability is February 28, 2008. Rates start at $8,690 per person for accommodations in a triple occupancy suite. Fares include an onboard cabin, use of the ship’s public facilities, all meals, shore excursions, onboard lectures and presentations, guide services, and taxes and port charges. Add $650 to the price for the South Georgia Island traverse. You are responsible your own transportation to and from the departure port in Ushuaia. Round-trip flights from Miami in February start at $1,338, including taxes, on LAN.

NEXT >> Kodiak Island, Alaska

Sea kayaking Alaska’s Kodiak Island

Outfitter: Orcas Unlimited
Price: from $840 per person

In a state known for its spectacular sea kayaking, the 177-mile-long Kodiak Island Archipelago boasts some of Alaska’s best paddling. Because getting to Kodiak requires an extra flight from Anchorage, the island receives fewer visitors than other areas of Alaska—but those who do come say this remoteness makes the experience even better.

“When you look at Kodiak on a map, you see nothing but coastline,” says Andy Schroeder, guide and owner of the local kayaking outfit Orcas Unlimited. “There are hundreds of miles of protected fjords with fantastic views up into the mountains and you can see dozens of species of marine birds and mammals in the coastal zone.”

Rather than just offering traditional kayak-and-camp trips, Schroeder’s company has two- and three-night Kodiak sea-kayaking tours that include transportation, accommodations, and meals onboard the “Mothership,” a former fishing vessel transformed into a floating lodge and kayak dock. “The mothership element provides the most versatility, keeps me in touch with wildlife and their daily movements across a bigger area, and allows us to seek the best water conditions for paddling,” says Schroeder.

When you only have a few days, being able to get to the best spots for wildlife viewing quickly is a huge advantage. “We were thrilled to motor into a cove hosting an old fish processing plant and find grizzlies feeding in the stream running alongside,” says Judy Levin, who visited Kodiak this August specifically to see grizzlies, after making many numerous bear-less trips to other parts of Alaska.

Up close encounters with marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, sea otters, are common. “We cruised with 50-plus orcas for over an hour,” says Fred McElroy, who also went on an August trip. “We watched a humorous scene of a large sea otter pup (almost as large as the adult female) clinging to its mom like a sinking ship as we left Afognak Bay, and at the end of our trip as we returned to St. Paul Harbor, we witnessed humpback whales exhibit a full range of behaviors including breaches and slaps.”

The details

Orcas Unlimited runs mothership kayaking tours from late May through early September. Rates for three-day tours start at $840 per person (based on groups of five or more paddlers) and include accommodations onboard the mothership (or in remote cabins for larger groups), transportation in the mothership, meals, kayaking equipment, and guiding. Two-day trips are also available as well as two- to five-day trips without mothership support.

Airfare is extra. Round-trip summer flights from Seattle to Kodiak start at $865, including taxes, on Alaska Airlines.

NEXT >> Diving Costa Rica’s Cocos Island

Diving Costa Rica’s Cocos Island

Outfitter: Aggressor
Price: from $2,495 per person

Legend has it that Cocos Island, the largest uninhabited island in the world and the only rainforest-covered island in the eastern Pacific, has millions of dollars worth of gold and other loot buried by pirates in its hills. Countless treasure seekers have searched in vain for Cocos’ gold, and the island is even thought to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island.

While the gold has yet to found, scientists and nature lovers have discovered that the island and its surrounding waters hold a different kind of treasure. Much like the Galapagos, Cocos’ volcanic origin and remote location (331 miles off the coast of Costa Rica), have produced an incredible amount of biodiversity, including the evolution of species that exist nowhere else on earth. Its unique position in the Pacific also makes it something of a gathering place for free-ranging animals both above and below its surface. For divers, the number and variety of large marine animals that reside in the sea around Cocos are worth making the 36-hour boat trip from the mainland.

“Cocos diving is adventure diving—people go all the way there for action, not to see pretty coral,” says dive guru Alan Roberts, who works in fleet operations for Aggressor, the first company to offer live-aboard dive trips to the island. While diving around the pinnacles that surround Cocos from the Okeanos Aggressor, you can swim alongside 40-foot-long whale sharks, schools of hammerhead sharks composed of hundreds of intervals, manta and marble rays, and the island’s resident bottlenose dolphins. You can also see marlin, tuna, moray eels, and occasional rare species such as scorpion fish. On Aggressor’s eight- and 10-day dive trips, there are also opportunities to visit the island itself, which is now a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The details

Cocos Island dive trips are recommended for intermediate to advanced divers. Dive trips are scheduled year-round, but you are most likely to see whale sharks June through October.

Prices for eight-day trips start at $2,495 per person for quadruple occupancy rooms or $2,895 for double occupancy rooms. Rates include transfers between San Jose, Costa Rica, and the departure port of Puntarenas; onboard accommodations; diving; compressed air tanks, weights, and belts; use of the ship’s entertainment center, sundeck, dive deck, and lockers; meals, snacks, and beverages; and beer and wine. Nitrox is available onboard for a charge and dive equipment and underwater cameras are available to rent.

You are responsible for booking your own airfare to San Jose. Round-trip flights on Martinair Holland from San Jose to Miami start at $329 excluding taxes for summer 2007 travel.

NEXT >> Go where the wild things are in Malaysia’s Sabah

Go where the wild things are in Malaysia’s Sabah

Outfitter: Intrepid Travel
Price: from $790 per person

While there are no longer headhunters in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northwest corner of Borneo, this island destination is still one of the wildest places can you can visit. “Sabah has the best of everything,” says Intrepid Travel Communications Director Jen Bird, who also worked as a Sabah trip guide. “There’s a wide variety of cultures with fascinating histories, extraordinary environmental beauty, and exotic wildlife including orangutans, giant sea turtles, Asian elephants, and proboscis monkeys.” On Intrepid’s 13-day “Land Beneath the Wind” trip, you’ll sample some of Sabah’s best adventures, and see ecotourism at work in indigenous communities and wildlife reserves.

After arriving in the capital of Kota Kinabalu, the trip gets underway with a trek to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. You’ll spend the night before the two-day journey in the village of the Dusan people, who will also be your guides up the mountain. On the second day of the trek, you’ll rise at 3 a.m. so you can summit at sunrise and (hopefully), get a good view of the whole region. From a height of 13,432 feet, you’ll venture down into the jungle for another homestay, this time in a Malay village, where you may get the chance to see wild elephants and primates.

Towards the end of the trip, two days are dedicated to amazing animal encounters. From Sabah’s east coast you’ll travel by boat to Turtle Islands Park, where you can witness green sea turtles lay eggs and hatchlings race to the sea by moonlight. Later, you’ll get to see “the wild men of Borneo”—orangutans—up close at the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve, the largest sanctuary of its kind in the world.

The details

Intrepid offers this trip year-round. Rates include accommodations in guesthouses, tribal villages, park lodges, and camping; some meals; all activities listed on itinerary; and ground transportation. There is an additional local payment of $200. This trip requires that you be able to trek for up to six hours per day over difficult terrain. Bird says that travelers should come to Sabah knowing that they are going to encounter a place that’s very different physically and culturally from the West: “We get off the beaten track to more remote areas where the comforts of home are not always readily available. [You] need to bring along your spirit of adventure and sense of humor.”

Airfare is extra. Round-trip fares this May from Los Angeles to Kota Kinabalu start at $1,604 including taxes on Malaysia Airlines. Booking internal Sabah flights is also necessary; contact Intrepid for details.

NEXT >> Trekking across Iceland’s ‘Land of Fire and Ice’

Trekking across Iceland’s ‘Land of Fire and Ice’

Outfitter: Explore
Price: from $1,930 per person

When NASA needed an earthly location that resembled the lunar landscape so that astronauts could prepare for a moon landing, they chose Iceland. While this Scandinavian island isn’t exactly the moon, its topography is certainly other-worldly.

Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a crack in the earth’s surface that divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. With two land masses rubbing and smacking each other and lava bubbling up in between from the earth’s molten interior, the island is literally a hotbed of volcanic activity, which manifests on the surface as volcanoes, hot springs, steam vents, and geysers. But, being within the Arctic Circle, Iceland also has glaciers and permanent snowfields. Together, these two elements, fire and ice, have sculpted a land that once inspired fear but now stirs the spirit of adventure in hardy travelers.

For’s Managing Editor Josh Roberts, who went on an Explore trek in Iceland this summer, Iceland’s volcanic highlands were almost mystical, reminding him of Tolkien’s Middle-earth: “With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, as if it has been plucked from the imagination,” he wrote.

On Explore’s eight-day Volcano Trek, you’ll get the chance to hike through this landscape, trekking 10 to 12 miles per day across trail-less valleys and mountains. You’ll travel past the Mount Hekla volcano, which the ancient Norse thought to be the mouth of Hell; cross lava fields and glacier-fed steams; walk through the Thorsmork forest, the mythic realm of the Nordic god, Thor; and finally pass between the massive Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers.

The details

This tour departs regularly between late June and August, 2007. Rates quoted above include accommodations in guesthouses and camping, most meals, ground transportation and van support, and guide services. A local payment of $370 is extra. Because there are no trails for most of the journey, the exact route taken varies depending on weather conditions and the interest of the group. No technical skills are required for this trip but you must be fit enough to hike for up to 10 hours per day.

Round-trip flights to Reykjavik from New York start at $488, excluding taxes, on Icelandair in late June.

NEXT >> Exploring Dominica, the ‘Nature Island,’ above and below the water

Exploring Dominica, the ‘Nature Island,’ above and below the water

Outfitter: Castle Comfort Dive Lodge
Price: from $987 per person

Dominica’s tourism bureau used to tout Dominica as the “Nature Island of the Caribbean.” But now they’re dropping the “Caribbean” part because they want to be clear: Dominica is not about beaches and big resorts. It’s about ecotourism and adventure travel 100 percent. Luckily, Dominica’s virgin rainforests, volcanic peaks, unblemished marine environment, and eco-friendly development match the marketing.

The island is a particularly good place for divers, having been voted the Caribbean’s number-one dive destination for viewing marine life and the region’s healthiest marine environment by the readers of SCUBA Diving magazine in a 2006 poll. At Dominica’s Castle Comfort Dive Lodge, divers can indulge in some of the Caribbean’s best diving through the lodge’s on-site dive center, plus go on guided whale watches and other adventure tours. “You can dive the walls and pinnacles in the morning and hike to the waterfalls in the afternoon all on the same day,” says Managing Director Derek Perryman.

Certified divers can book packages that include boat dives to Dominica’s marine reserve, where you’ll likely see critters that are rare elsewhere in the Caribbean, such as frogfish, seahorses, and snake eels. Banded coral shrimp, cleaner shrimp, squid, octopus, and sea turtles are common sights too. Dominica is also a prime spot for viewing marine mammals—22 species of whales and dolphins inhabit the waters around Dominica—including humpback and pilot whales, spinner and spotted dolphins, and a resident group of sperm whales. You may see dolphins while you’re diving, but it’s better to go on one of the lodge’s whale-watch trips.

The lodge can also arrange for jungle hiking trips, including excursions to Boiling Lake, the second largest boiling lake in the world, in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. The eight-mile round-trip trek climbs through rainforest and active volcanic areas to reach the lake.

The details

Dominica is a year-round destination. Seven-night dive packages start at $879 per person based on double occupancy. Rates cover accommodations at the Castle Comfort Dive Lodge; round-trip airport transfers; seven breakfasts; five days of two-tank boat dives; unlimited shore dives; tanks, weights, and weight belt; use of sea kayaks; and taxes. Add $50 per person for a whale-watching tour and $58 for a Boiling Lake trek. You can also book four-, five-, or six-night packages. Nitrox, dive equipment rentals, and dive courses are available for an extra charge.

Airfare is not included. Round-trip flights from Miami this winter start at $424 on American, excluding taxes.

NEXT >> Cascading in the Dominican Republic

Cascading in the Dominican Republic

Outfitter: Iguana Mama
Price: $70 per person

When you drive into Cabarete and have a look at what’s around—cars with mountain bikes and surfboards strapped on to the roofs, tanned ex-pats carrying sails and boards down to the beach, kite boarders soaring above the waves—it’s clear, this place is all about adventure. Set on the north coast of the Dominican Republic near Puerto Plata, this lively little town is also known for its innovation in adventure sports, and one of the unique activities you can try when visiting is cascading.

Cascading, a sort of wet version of canyoning, involves climbing up to the top of waterfalls, often a series of falls, and then jumping or sliding down to the bottom. Anyone who’s reasonably fit and doesn’t have a fear of heights can cascade—no technical equipment or skill is needed—but using safety-conscious guides who know the area is a must.

The Cabarete-based outfitter Iguana Mama, the first licensed adventure tour operator in the country, runs the best cascading tours, including trips to the Damajagua falls, a series of 27 waterfalls in the Northern Corridor Mountains. The falls get progressively more difficult the higher you climb, and Iguana Mama is the only company with the experience to regularly bring groups as high the 12th falls (most others stop at the seventh.)

On the trip, your guide will lead you on a hike up the Damajagua River, following a serpentine network of narrow canyons and rippled rock formations. Along the way, you’ll haul yourself up, over, and through waterfalls ranging in height from one-and-a-half to 49 feet, with the assistance of guides (who seem to possess the strength and agility of acrobats) and the occasional rope or vine. Getting all the way to the 12th fall is a challenge, but the thrill of being able to leap and slide back down, plunging into amber-colored pools, is worth the effort.

The details

This six-hour tour is offered year-round. The trip cost covers breakfast, ground transportation, safety equipment, guide services, and lunch. You must wear a life jacket and helmet and know how to swim to go on this trip.

Round-trip January flights to Puerto Plata from Miami start at $388, including taxes, on Delta.

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