Voluptuous women swaying in grass skirts, raging waves dotted by tan surfers on sleek boards, deserted beaches framed by swaying palms, delicious fresh pineapple served alongside roast pork at a rocking luau: Whatever you envision when you think of Hawaii, it's accessible by cruise -- and right here in the United States.
The eight major Hawaiian Islands are volcanic, each made of at least one primary volcano. Each is different, with distinct climates and attractions -- an aspect that makes cruising here even more appealing. On a given sailing, you might cruise by the dramatic cliffs of Kauai's Napali Coast, sun bathe on urban Honolulu's bustling Waikiki Beach, reach the volcanic summit of Maui's Haleakala Crater and taste some of the world's best coffee in the verdant hills above Kona.
Until recently, cruises to Hawaii from the West Coast included at least one foreign port -- the most popular being Fanning Island -- in order for ships not registered to the U.S. (most of them) to comply with passenger shipping laws. The only downside: The trek to Fanning Island, or to another port that fulfilled the requirement, added several days to the trip, making Hawaiian cruises longer and therefore more expensive.
That all changed in the early 2000's when the U.S.-flagged brand NCL America, an arm of Norwegian Cruise Line, brought three ships to the region (Pride of America, Pride of Aloha and Pride of Hawaii) for seven-day inter-island sailings. The region subsequently grew in popularity, particularly among the honeymoon set. In February 2008, however, Pride of Hawaii was redeployed to Europe and renamed Norwegian Jade. Then in july of the same year, Pride of Aloha was renamed Norwegian Sky (its original moniker) and transferred to Miami to sail Bahamas cruises. Three ships in the same region offering the same itineraries simply didn't spark demand as hoped.
Still, Hawaii is a survivor when it comes to tourism's ups and downs, and officials there say that the state will overcome the economic impact of the ship's removal. One thing's for sure: Hawaii will continue its reign as one of cruising's hottest destinations, whether it be for longer, more traditional voyages or weeklong all-American journeys.
For most travelers, the challenge of getting to and from Hawaii is the only negative on this itinerary.
Flights from the East Coast typically connect in Los Angeles or San Francisco, which means you're adding a five-plus-hour flight to the six hours it took to get there from, say, New York or Boston. If you have little ones with you and can spare the time, you may want to consider spending a night or two in California to break up the travel time.
Obviously, West Coast residents have a shorter haul -- and folks near some central gateways, such as Minneapolis and Dallas, can find direct flights that take about 8 1/2 hours each; Continental offers one nonstop flight daily between Newark and Honolulu, around 9 1/2 hours.
Keep in mind that the Christmas holiday season -- from about Dec. 21 to Jan. 4 -- is high season, which means that air prices are at their most expensive. Summer is also popular because it's "family season." Low season is considered Thanksgiving to mid-December, and offers the best bargains.
While NCL is currently the only line offering cruises that start and end in Hawaii, other lines offer Hawaii itineraries that sail to or from the west coast of the U.S., Mexico or Canada.
The advantage of cruising from the mainland is that you possibly eliminate flights, but keep in mind that you could be adding as many as eight days at sea to the duration of the voyage. Also remember that one-way air fares can be expensive, so you may be better off booking air through your cruise lines and taking advantage of its bulk rates.
The islands you are likely to visit on a roundtrip Honolulu cruise are Oahu (Honolulu), Maui, the Big Island (ports of Kona or Hilo) and Kauai; cruises to and from the West Coast often include Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati to fulfill their foreign port requirement. Lanai and Molokai are typically only available as shore excursions from the main islands. Repositioning cruises may only visit Oahu and Maui, while also incorporating such South Seas destinations as Bora Bora, Tahiti, Fiji and New Zealand.
Maneuvering Around Honolulu
Oahu's cruise port, the Aloha Tower Marketplace, is located about 15 minutes from the airport, and transportation from the airport to area hotels (about seven miles) is a snap via shuttle service (about $18 roundtrip on Aloha Hawaii Trans, for example), taxi or car rental. If you rent a car at the airport, keep in mind that, unlike some other islands you may have visited, Honolulu operates like any other American city -- which means you won't experience culture shock navigating the roads.
If you are simply transferring from the airport to the cruise port, plan on a 15-minute cab ride. Be aware, however, that the return trip from the cruise port to the airport can be another matter entirely -- with daunting crowds at the buses (we suggest springing for a cab) and long delays at some of the terminals at the security check point. Waits of up to two hours are not unheard of if you're trying to leave at the same time as everyone else. Our advice? Stay a few extra days (Oahu deserves a week if you can swing it) or at least consider departing at night for a red eye flight home that will put you on the West Coast in time for breakfast or on the East Coast in the afternoon.
Most Hawaiian Island cruises begin and/or end in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu -- the most logical in terms of air access. It being the port of embarkation -- or debarkation -- means passengers often are hurrying from the airport to the ship or hustling away to catch a flight home. But don't forego a pre- or post-cruise stay if you can afford the time because there is so much to see on Oahu. From whale watching and surfing on the stunning beaches of the North Shore to the Polynesian Cultural Center and Pearl Harbor, the island has attractions to appeal to a wide variety of interests.
Choosing an Itinerary
When planning to book a cruise to Hawaii, there are basically three options:
Roundtrip from Honolulu. Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is the only U.S.-flagged ship sailing the Hawaiian islands, thus the only vessel permitted to offer intra-island cruises. (Ships registered to foreign countries must call on at least one international port, hence the inclusion of the aforementioned Fanning Island.) The ship sails seven-night roundtrips from Honolulu, offering the industry's only weeklong, port-intensive options. Since its introduction in July 2004, the NCL America fleet has been fraught with controversy, particularly over inadequate service levels and mediocre food service, and two of the three ships have subsequently been transferred. Also controversial: This is the first ship in the NCL fleet to levy a mandatory service charge on passengers. The fee? $10 per day.
Roundtrip from the U.S., Mexico or Canada. Holland America and Princess are among those lines that offer longish itineraries (up to 15 nights) from San Diego or Vancouver. These are roundtrip voyages. For slighter shorter varieties, lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Carnival sail one-way between San Diego or Los Angeles or Vancouver and Honolulu (in order to fulfill the foreign flag Jones Act requirements, cruises that depart from the U.S. must stop in a place like Mexico's Ensenada).
Repositioning. Another way to experience Hawaii is via repositioning cruises between the U.S. and the Far East and/or Australia/New Zealand. These trips typically call on Oahu and Maui (and, in the case of the longer itinerary, the Big Island) as well as islands in French Polynesia. Because these cruises only occur once or twice a year, when the ship is moving from one home port to another, your options for dates will be limited.
Can't Miss Shore Adventures
The ships sailing Hawaii may well be beautiful -- but they're no competition to the destination itself. As such, expect a huge variety of shore excursions -- from full-on sightseeing tours to high-adrenaline, active adventures, as well as plenty of options for families with children.
Keep in mind that shore excursions in Hawaii are pricey -- a $40 sail and snorkel excursion in the Bahamas might cost double that in Maui, for example. Often, as in the case of spending a day at the beach or shopping in towns near port, you can do it yourself by free shuttle bus (particularly in the case of shopping), rental car, taxi or even walking.
In cases of complicated excursions full of activities, rental equipment and long transfers, a shore excursion is probably your best bet. If nothing else, the excursion guides will get you back on board in time. Independent tour companies (see Hawaii's Best Water Sports) are also available, in which case it's a good idea to book ahead.
Here are some recommendations:
Despite the crowds, Pearl Harbor continues to be a fascinating and moving experience for visitors -- even school-age kids -- but typical shore excursions only include the USS Arizona Memorial. If you can tack on a day or two and go on your own, be sure to add visits to the USS Bowfin and the Mighty Mo to complete the experience. Get there early, though, to beat the crowds, and unless you like hot dogs for lunch -- the menu at the Arizona/Bowfin site is limited -- plan to brown bag it.
The Big Island
There is a reason the Island of Hawaii is called the Big Island -- it's big enough to have two ports, which means that when scouting out great shore adventures, you need to plan accordingly. In Kona, passengers arrive by tender into a small village-like setting where they can set out on a self-guided tour of historical sites near the port. The big three are: Ahuena, King Kamehameha's temple; the Mokuaikaua church, the first Christian church on the Big Island; and Hulihee Palace, the summer palace for Hawaiian royalty.
In Hilo, the Volcanoes National Park, with its starkly beautiful green and black landscape, is a must-see and is accessible by shore excursion or rental car. Keep in mind that the park is huge, so you won't see it all. Try to get a look at a lava tube to see the steam vents rising from the ground -- and, if at all possible, witness the lava flow into the sea.
This island also offers two ports: Lahaina and Kahului. Its biggest natural attraction is Haleakala Crater, which you can visit from either port if you don't mind the drive (about three hours roundtrip from both). Accessible by tender, Lahaina offers an arty, historic ambience that draws crowds as well as proximity to the popular Kaanapali Beach.
Kahului, on the other hand, is less atmospheric; considered the financial center of the island (and lacking the shopping venues and beaches near Lahaina), the port offers the advantage of a docking facility for large cruise ships. Some lines, however, offer an excursion to Lahaina from Kahului.
Waimea Canyon -- called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific -- is worth a day unto itself, but you can combine a visit with a trip up the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto. Or drive up the canyon road to the summit and don't forget to check out Lihue (Kauai's main town). Don't miss the sugar cane fields of Koloa and the eye-popping flora along the way.
In Lanai it's all about scuba, and once you've seen the miraculous underwater formations formed from lava -- known by dive aficionados as cathedrals -- you'll see why. There are shore excursions from Maui that include visits to Lanai, accessible by boat.
There are just over 7,000 inhabitants on this island, probably most famous for its haunting past as a leper colony. Nowadays, it's all about beautiful beaches -- some accessible only by boat.
If your itinerary includes a visit to Fanning Island, Republic of Kiribati, your choices aren't so much "what to do" as "which beach." There are two locations local elders have OK'd for use by NCL passengers: the Fanning Island beach and Napali Beach.
The main beach offers such inducements as food and bathroom facilities -- and it's free -- but the facilities and beaches are crowded with fellow cruise passengers.
Napali Beach offers more scenery and fewer crowds -- for a price. NCL charges $20 a head to visit Napali, which has no food outlets (other than drinks and bottled water) or bathrooms. You can rent paddle boats, though, and shop for island crafts and knickknacks from locals who line the walkway from the tender station to the beach. Your admission to Napali Beach also allows you to come and go between the two beaches (for lunch or bathroom breaks) by tender. Keep in mind that the island is near the equator, so stay hydrated and slather up.
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