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Cruising Hawaii

Palm-lined beaches, lava-spewing volcanoes, tropical rainforests, and rainbows of fishes in the sea, as well as a long list of shore excursions, made seeing Hawaii by ship a treat.

the coastline of Kauai seen from the ocean, image
Photo caption
The Kauai coastline is a jaw-dropping scene of ocean and rugged mountains.

Set aside the lip-sync contests, pajama parties, and jackpot bingo for a moment. What is important to remember about a cruise is that you can make of it what you will. No doubt, a cruise on American Hawaii’s S.S. Independence is a very convenient way to sample the Hawaiian Islands. She sails weekly from Honolulu, and calls at ports on the islands of of Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii.

Along the way, every preconceived image of the 50th state comes to life—palm-lined beaches, lava-spewing volcanoes, tropical rainforests, and rainbows of fishes in the sea. American Hawaii has a long list of shore excursions offered at each port of call. Some passengers on board told me they thought it was the best list of shore excursions they’d ever seen. Car rentals are also available each day for passengers to do their own exploring. The crew members know their Hawaiian culture, and give gentle lessons on the people, the language, the ancient traditions. All this without plane hopping, hotel check-ins and checkouts, or hefting luggage in and out of rental cars.

As on any big party ship, sensitive souls might find things a little campy on board the Independence. There are lounge shows with singers belting out show tunes; emcees following you around various audience participation events, microphone in hand, urging you to line-dance. Fashion shows, passenger talent nights, bingo games, and buses full of kvetching passengers whose favorite activity anywhere on earth is shopping.

But here’s the flip side. One afternoon I sat on an empty deck, the trade winds that I so love in Hawaii flapping the pages of my notebook. Perfectly polished wood railings framed the cobalt sea. Kahului, Maui, slid away from us, and the 800 other passengers were somewhere else—at dinner, or a show. The sunken sun had left the sky golden beyond Maui’s Haleakala volcano. A couple leaned on the railing, the wind carrying away their voices. Music played softly from speakers near the bar, and as I looked up at the decks, it seemed that the ship was alive, breathing slowly up and down against the sky. Even the letterhead on my stationery said "written at sea," and it all felt so completely romantic.

So I shed my inner snob and smiled. During the course of this cruise I snorkeled along the coast of Kauai, where I watched ancient sea turtles slowly surface for air and gently dive back into the blue. I took a boat trip with the Pacific Whale Foundation, and watched mother humpback whales and their young break the surface of the sea. I took a helicopter ride over the West Maui Mountains, down the brilliant green Iao Valley, along Molokai’s sea cliffs (the world’s steepest), and then over the Maui channel to watch more whales surface and disappear into the ocean deeps.

Yet my whole life I’ve been coming to the Hawaiian Islands, and on the ship I admit to missing early morning walks on sandy beaches and falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing on a nearby shore. (But falling asleep rocked by the slow bob of the ship was not bad.) Also less than perfect was the Four Winds snorkeling tour where more than 100 people crammed onto a catamaran. In the water I spent more time watching for plastic fins than fish. There were nights on the Independence when I ducked the karaoke singles shindig and the PJ party. Finally, after a few days, I decided that doing nothing was also a perfectly acceptable choice.

Not that I did nothing very much. On the Big Island, I hiked across the Kilauea Caldera where part of the earth’s surface was only 20 years old. I went scuba diving with Eco-Adventures out of Kona and watched in awe as an enormous gray-and-white manta ray floated toward me. I saw an octopus, a primordial-looking frog-fish, scary-looking eels. I meandered the Hawaii-kitsch shops of Kona, and wandered into the Hulihe’e Palace, a favorite summer retreat of the Hawaiian royal family, built in 1838 of lava rock, coral lime mortar, and koa and ohi’a timbers.

On the ship, a tour of the bridge taught me that the Independence was built in the 1950s as a passenger ship that could be quickly converted to a transport ship in times of war. It was designed by famous industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. Polished brass shines throughout. The ship is cross-wired as Navy ships are, and has five different places from which to steer.

American Hawaii plans to quadruple its fleet in the next eight years. One ship will be added by early 1999, and they’ve commissioned two more to be built in U.S. shipyards for use early next century.

Shipboard lectures featured a naturalist from the Pacific Whale Foundation, who talked of the Foundation’s work. The ship kumu, or Hawaiian storyteller, gave talks on ancient Hawaiian musical instruments, on the ti leaf lei, and the volcano goddess Pele. The emcees turned out to be remarkable dancers, skilled at both traditional and modern hula. The onboard Hawaiian singer, with the unlikely name of Butch O’Sullivan, was lovely to listen to. And, more than once, a local halau, or hula school, was invited on board to give a show.

Lest you think me incapable of Fun, in the end I found myself dancing, with abandon, as a backup singer to Aretha Franklin in the lip-sync show.

This article was first published in May 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.