Making the most of a Hawaiian cruise.
Photo creditPhoto: Larry Ulrich
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This certainly wasn't how the ancient Hawaiians got around. They'd pile into canoes and paddle through wind and waves for hours—or days—to get where they wanted to go. And they shared accommodations with the groceries: live pigs, dogs, and chickens.
For a moment, as I stood by the swimming pool on the ninth deck of Royal Caribbean International cruise line's huge, luxurious Legend of the Seas, I wondered if being so removed from local reality was the best way to experience Hawaii. Could I combine riding around on an oceangoing resort with hard-core island exploration?
Then it happened. I caught a glimpse of the cherry-red sun as it plunged below the horizon. In retrospect, it might have been the perfect sunset. We were miles from the nearest island. The warm sunlight struck the blue-green sea and exploded into a thousand shades of red. At the same time, the deck swayed slightly from the surge of the waves below. You just couldn't experience this on land.
I decided that I'd have it both ways: I'd enjoy this 11-story, seaborne, luxury hotel with its great food, bars, discos, pools, jogging track, and miniature golf course—and I'd make the most of every minute ashore, taking advantage of the excursions arranged by the ship and creating some of my own.
Surfing, I'd read while nibbling on tropical trail mix in the maritime-themed Anchors Aweigh Lounge, was more than a little important to the ancient Hawaiians—it was a spiritual and cultural happening. What better way to get into Hawaiian culture than to give surfing the old college try?
When we reached Kauai I left the ship early, before most people were up, and signed on for a private lesson I'd found with the help of the ship's excursion desk. After paddling out to the break and turning to face the beach, I got a gentle push from my two instructors—who went by the thoroughly unspiritual names Stumpy and Shorty—just as the wave was beginning to fold over on itself. As I tried to stand up, the gurgling crest would grab my board and send me schussing down the face. If successful, I'd ride the wave several yards toward the beach; if not, I'd tumble in the surf like a sock in the wash cycle. It wasn't a graceful or a spiritual performance, but it did begin to get me into Hawaiian culture. Wasting no time, I headed inland for more hands-on experience.
Though on a map they look like tiny pearls in a sea of blue, the islands are deceptively large—too big to explore in a day or two, the time that I was allotted for each. So I knew I had to work fast. Six-million-year-old Kauai is the oldest of the islands and some say the most beautiful. I wanted to get closer.
Renting a car, I drove west toward spectacular Waimea Canyon. Sometimes called "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific," Waimea is a favorite with tourists. It's easy to see why. The chasm looks like a giant wedge has been cut from the island. In the midafternoon fog, its walls shimmered pink, purple, slate, and copper. I watched a 10-story waterfall plunge to the canyon floor—it was hypnotic.
Being thus captivated, I was very lucky not to have missed the boat—literally. Don't lose track of time while on a cruise, as the ship won't wait for you. I returned to the Legend of the Seas with only moments to spare before it left for Maui.
Besides all the amenities, being aboard a cruise ship has the added benefit of letting you arise to a new slice of paradise every day. Next morning, the view from my window was of Lahaina Harbor and the nearby bustling artists' haven on Maui's west end. Kamehameha the Great, the king who united the islands 200 years ago, made Lahaina the seat of power. Whalers arrived in the 1820s, as did missionaries looking to save souls.
Encountering whales was what interested me. Many humpbacks spend the winter in the shallow waters between Maui, Molokai, and Lanai. I was quickly able to get a seat on a whale-watching charter.
Since it was April, pretty late in the season, the marine naturalists on board couldn't guarantee that we'd see any of the highly intelligent mammals, but I figured there wasn't much harm in spending an afternoon with some highly intelligent scientists out on the ocean. At first, whales weren't to be found, but then we heard via radio that a mother and calf had been spotted a few miles away. We kept our eyes glued to the horizon looking for the spout, the telltale sign of a surfacing whale. Of course, someone had to say it: "Thar she blows." And sure enough, a few hundred yards off starboard were mother and calf, surfacing, spouting vapor, then diving again.
Seconds later they resurfaced. I can't claim to have bonded with the whales—which remained at a fair distance—in any deep, spiritual sense, as people who swim with dolphins sometimes claim, but making any connection with these huge mammals can be moving.
By the time we reached Lahaina, I was ready for another onshore excursion, so I rented a car and took off for the Kahekili Highway. On the one hand, it would have been nice if the car rental people had told me that the Kahekili Highway is off-limits to their customers—they later pointed it out in the fine print. On the other hand, I'm glad they didn't because it's an enchanting drive. The single-lane road hugs steep basalt cliffs and winds through verdant jungle filled with the smell of moist, decomposing leaves— and the smell of banana bread.
At the tiny shack marked julia's best banana bread, the car practically stopped itself on the gravelly shoulder. The woman behind the counter—it wasn't Julia—explained they were out of bread at the moment, but, she said, more was on its way. I sipped mango nectar until I heard the buzz of an electric golf cart, Julia's preferred mode of travel. You wouldn't think that fortunes are to be made in selling roadside banana bread, but after restocking the shelves, Julia told us of her flashy clothes, big TV, and twice-yearly gambling trips to Vegas. The bread was that good.
On the drive back, I stopped at a trailhead and hiked to a place locals call the Olivine Pools, natural pockets carved out of the black lava rock. I donned my mask and flippers and spied on flashy wrasses and reef triggerfish. They'd been stranded in the pool by the tide and, with luck, would be returned to the ocean to resume their lives on the reef. I, too, was destined for another change in venue—the island of Hawaii, the Big Island.
I had two notions about the Big Island. One, I knew that it was the home of the famous Kona coffee. And two, it was a land of volcanoes, where you can actually observe red-hot lava pour forth from the earth. I set out to see for myself.
As a certifiable coffee nut, I wanted to see where Kona was grown. They say taxi drivers are a good source of local information, and it certainly was true this time. My driver suggested Greenwell Farms, one of the oldest coffee plantations on the island. Kona lies in the rain shadow of Mauna Loa and supposedly has the perfect climate for growing world-class beans: dew in the morning, sun in the middle of the day, and clouds in the afternoon. After a tour, I went to the tasting bar for a bottomless cup of coffee.
I buzzed well into the night and then overslept, nearly missing the ship-sponsored tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There I gazed into the gaping Halemaumau Crater and imagined I was a dog or a pig—only occasionally did ancient Hawaiians use a man—about to be sacrificed to Pele, goddess of the islands' volcanoes, in the hope that she would consequently go light on the volcanic death and destruction. We took a short hike across lava shards to a rocky vent and saw scorching red goo ooze out of lava tubes.
On the day we set sail on the final leg of our trip, a six-day journey to Ensenada, Mexico, the sky was clear, the air balmy, and the cruise staff still impressively perky. I'd crammed a lot of activity into a short week—at times it felt like I was gasping to keep up with the fast-moving itinerary laid out by the cruise line and to complete adventures I'd undertaken on my own. But through the daily embarking and disembarking, the 50th state did pull back the veil and reveal part of itself to me. I realized in the end that on a cruise you can have it both ways: You can enjoy the luxury of a floating resort and explore many of Hawaii's treasures.
This article was first published in Spring 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.