Voluptuous women swaying in grass skirts, raging waves dotted by tan surfers on sleek boards, deserted beaches framed by swaying palms, fresh pineapple served alongside roast pork at a rocking luau: Whatever you envision when you think of Hawaii, it's accessible by cruise ship and right here in the United States.
The eight major Hawaiian Islands are volcanic, each created from at least one primary volcano. And each is different, with distinct climates and attractions, an aspect that makes cruising there even more appealing. On a given sailing, you might sail by the dramatic cliffs of Kauai's Napali Coast, sunbathe on 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.
Regardless of whether you opt for a short or long itinerary, Hawaii is bound to overwhelm you with its bounty of attractions and activities. Because a cruise can only give you a quick taste of island life, don't be surprised if you return home and start planning a longer land vacation to your new favorite port of call.
best time for hawaii cruises
The winter months are the biggest choice, especially during the Christmas holiday season, from late December through the first week of January are the most popular times to visit Hawaii. This is the best time of the year for whale-watching (whale season is November through early May), but it's also when the weather is the rainiest and flights are most expensive. Summer is a popular time for family travel, though only Norwegian is offering cruises at that time.
Shoulder season would be May through June and September through mid-December. The weeks between Thanksgiving and mid-December are an especially good time for deals. Late-spring sailings tend to offer great weather and less-crowded ships.
Honolulu, Hawaii - Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, is the embark/debark port for Pride of America and a staple on longer cruise itineraries from the mainland. Waikiki Beach is where many stay pre- or post-cruise, with easy access to the beach. Pearl Harbor is a fascinating and moving experience for visitors, even school-age kids. The 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. Active types may wish to hike the Diamond Head Crater but aim for sunrise if you're overnighting.
Kona, Hawaii - There is a reason the island of Hawaii is called the Big Island, it's big enough to have two ports, Hilo and Kona. 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. Beaches, both volcanic black and powdery white, are great for watersports like snorkeling and kayaking, and area coffee plantations offer tours and tastings of the world-famous Kona coffee. For history and culture, head to the Puuhonua O Honaunau, the City of Refuge, to see ancient temples and fish ponds.
Hilo, Hawaii - In Hilo, 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 is the place to splurge on a helicopter tour. The Hilo area has some lovely botanical gardens, too.
Maui, Hawaii - This island also offers two ports, Lahaina and Kahului, though cruise lines will call at either one or the other. Pride of America docks in Kahului, but the area has little to offer in the way of beaches and attractions; Lahaina is a tender port, but it's a destination in itself, with an artsy, historic ambience, plenty of restaurants and day-cruise purveyors offering snorkel and whale-watching trips in season. It's also quite close to the popular Kaanapali Beach. Maui's biggest natural attraction is Haleakala National Park, the spot to watch the sunrise for amazing views. The Road to Hana, a narrow, twisty road peppered with waterfalls and rainforest scenery, is another don't-miss excursion.
Kauai, Hawaii - 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 hop out along the way for a hike or photo opp. The island's Napali coast is breathtaking; tour it by boat or helicopter or cruise ship if yours, like Pride of America, does a sail-by.
The big itinerary decision is whether you want a weeklong cruise, visiting Hawaii islands exclusively, or a longer adventure, often from North America. The advantage of cruising from the mainland is that you possibly eliminate flights, but you could be adding as many as eight days at sea to the duration of the voyage (which some may consider a downside). Also remember that one-way airfares can be expensive if you're looking at a repositioning sailing.
3 options on hawaii cruises
Roundtrip from Honolulu - Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America is the only major U.S.-flagged ship sailing the Hawaiian islands year-round. Un-Cruise Adventures also offers seasonal sailings. Because ships registered to foreign countries must call on at least one international port, these are pretty much your only choices for seven-night, intra-island cruises. Itineraries are port intensive; Norwegian offers roundtrip sailings from Honolulu with overnights in Kauai and Maui, while Un-Cruise sails between the Big Island and Molokai, visiting more out-of-the-way destinations with opportunities for water-sports and wildlife viewings.
Roundtrip from the U.S., Mexico or Canada - Carnival, Princess, Celebrity and Holland America offer seasonal Hawaii cruises roundtrip from various California ports (Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco) and Vancouver. These range in length from 15 to 18 nights, typically include a short stop in Ensenada to comply with legal regulations and have many sea days in a row at the beginning and end of the itinerary. Princess and Holland America also offer longer, round trip sailings that combine Mexico and Hawaii ports or venture farther into the South Pacific before coming back to California.
Repositioning - Another way to experience Hawaii is via one-way repositioning cruises. These may be between North America and Asia and/or Australia/New Zealand, or they could be somewhat shorter trips repositioning ships to and from Vancouver (and Alaska cruises) and back to southern California or even through the Panama Canal to the East Coast. Because these cruises only occur once or twice a year, when the ship is moving from one homeport to another, your options for dates will be limited. Most major cruise lines offer this type of repositioning sailing; if you want to visit Hawaii on a luxury cruise, look for longer world cruise or grand voyage segments, or Pacific crossings that may call in one or more Hawaiian ports.