ABOARD PRIDE OF AMERICA – A great way to sample the many wonders of the Hawaiian Islands without the hassles of island-hopping by plane — like going through security and carting your luggage on each flight — is to instead take a cruise.
My wife and I did just that when we escaped the winter cold to sail with friends on Pride of America, a classy Norwegian Cruise Line ship that sails year-round from Honolulu. We embarked from Honolulu, Oahu, and traveled to the ports of Kahului, Maui; Hilo and Kailua-Kona, also known as Hawaii's Big Island, and Nawiliwili, Kauai, before returning to Honolulu.
We filled the fabulous seven-day cruise with sightseeing, shopping and snorkeling. Because there is so much to see and do on Oahu, the most-populated of the islands, when the cruise was over, we stayed a few extra days in a Honolulu motel before returning to the icy streets of our Midwestern hometown.
Maui is home to Haleakala, which is the world's largest dormant volcano. You can book an excursion there with the cruise line or rent a car and venture out on your own. Views from atop the 10,000-foot "House of the Sun" crater are spectacular anytime, but incredibly special at either sunrise or sunset.
Or if you'd prefer, a journey along the Hana Highway provides splendid views of the island's lush tropical rain forest and rugged northern coastline. Maui also offers whale watching, and we were not disappointed.
One of the many huge humpback whales we saw off Kahului on a beautiful Pacific day bellied its white underside right up to the bow of our tour boat and then swam past the stern of a nearby boat packed with excited tourists capturing digital images. Several other whales were spotted within a couple of hours at a more comfortable distance.
The port of Hilo is a good place to take an excursion to the active Kilauea Volcano. You can also get a bird's-eye view of Kilauea by helicopter. Keep your fingers crossed that Hawaii's goddess of fire, Pele, just simmers.
The big island is also home to Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the world's tallest mountain at more than 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) as measured from the floor of the ocean to its peak. (Mauna Kea's altitude above sea level, however, is less than 14,000 feet — about 4,200 meters — much lower than Mount Everest's 29,000 feet above sea level — nearly 8,850 meters.)
You can book an excursion to visit Mauna Kea through the cruise line or rent a vehicle to get to Mauna Kea. (Note that most rental car companies prohibit driving to Mauna Kea because of road conditions, but one rental company, Harper, rents four-wheel-drive vehicles specifically for Mauna Kea.) Some of the world's most powerful telescopes are perched on its peak, though the public is not permitted to look through them. But public presentations are offered on research being done there, and stargazing programs using portable telescopes are held when skies are clear.
Disembarking at Kona, many snorkelers headed for Pawai Bay, which offers clear water and spectacular views of tropical fish and coral colonies. Other cruise ship passengers chose scuba diving, catamaran sailing, ocean kayaking and parasailing.
On Kauai, we took a bus tour to Waimea Canyon. It is called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and the colorful reds and browns of its volcanic rock, along with the greens and blues of interspersed tropical vegetation do not disappoint. You can also ride a boat to view the unspoiled scenery along Hawaii's longest navigable waterway, the Wailua River. Among other Kauai activities for the more adventurous: zip-lining, tubing through water tunnels and horseback riding.
Ending our cruise in beautiful and bustling Honolulu, we spent the next few days on the beach or near the beach. We snorkeled at Hanauma Bay, took a rattling bus ride around the island to watch surfers on the monstrous waves of the North Shore and soaked up the pleasant winter sun on Waikiki Beach. Waikiki's gentle waves make it an excellent place to learn the art of surfing and try your hand at paddle-boarding. Or just relax on the island's No. 1 beach.
We also spent the better part of a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu's northeast side, learning about other Pacific islands, including Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa and Fiji. Historical information, cultural activities, live performances and a luau are featured at the theme park.
Before leaving Oahu, we went to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and took a skiff to the USS Arizona Memorial, the somber resting place for many of the vessel's nearly 1,200 crewmen who were killed when Japan bombed the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet on Dec. 7, 1941.
We are cruise veterans, and this trip was among the most memorable of many. A giant cruise ship, with all its amenities, is a convenient base to see and experience the Aloha State. Unpack just one time and start your adventure.
If You Go...
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE PRIDE OF AMERICA: http://www.ncl.com/cruise-ship/pride_amer/overview . Cruise prices vary by date and stateroom.