Peering into the improbable, wind-scoured crater of Maui’s Mount Haleakala was the clinching moment for us. This was the grand, otherworldly Hawaii we had hoped to discover, and it was delivering the anticipated scenic wonders in impressive style. Stretched out before our slightly disbelieving eyes was the seven-mile-wide chasm that marks the top of the dormant volcano, dotted erratically with cinder cones and wide, barren lavascapes. It could have been the surface of Mars.
It was day three of our one-week cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America, a seemingly deluxe way to indulge in the spirit of aloha, visiting each of Hawaii’s four main islands in search of a rich, up-close encounter with its unique Pacific flora, fauna, geology and culture. The reality, however, is that the Pride of America – the only vessel permitted to sail purely among the islands – is the budget version of Hawaii touring. And it still comes with no small measure of style.
Consider that flying among the four islands would cost at least $500 per person, and a decent hotel would add around $200 a night. Hawaii is not a cheap place to dine either, so you could easily spend another $75 a day on meals, totalling about $1,800 per person for a week of travel, accommodation and food.
A seven-day cruise on the Pride of America, on the other hand, was advertised from $1,449 per person, which included accommodation in a standard outside stateroom, all meals and the benefit of effortless transportation from island to island. We enjoyed two days on each of Maui, the Big Island and Kauai, returned comfortably to the original port of Honolulu on Oahu, and had plenty of entertainment, comfort and high-quality service along the way.
To start with, nearly all the sailing was done while we slept, giving us maximum time ashore to explore the likes of the 10,023ft Haleakala, a one-time monster of a volcano but now a stunning, sterile ruin. It sports the kind of iridescent bronzes and other metallics you usually only see on Japanese Raku pottery, giving it the look of a mad ceramic artist’s studio (if the artist was a giant and given to fits of random, open-air creativity on a colossal scale).
Each of the four ports of call – Kahului on Maui, Kona and Hilo on the Big Island and Nawiliwili on Kauai – provided easy access to the main sights and attractions nearby. And this being the only ship on the route, none of the ports were swamped with thousands of other cruise passengers arriving for the day, which is often the case in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Alaska.
Our vessel carried a total of 2,000 fortunate souls, all of whom had the option of walking ashore, taking a ship-organised excursion, jumping in the nearest taxi or hiring a car for the day, which proved most advantageous on Maui and Kauai where the overnight stay encouraged us to be more adventurous. Indeed, being individually mobile was a major advantage for our self-guided tour of Haleakala, where we stopped at multiple points as the whim (and view) took us, and took the long drive through Waimea Canyon – the Grand Canyon of the Pacific – where we were able to avoid the tour buses that occasionally filled up the scenic overlooks.
When we did cruise during the day, on one resplendent afternoon prior to returning to Honolulu, we were afforded views of the majestic, ravine-studded Na Pali coastline of Kauai, which drops precipitously from around 4,000ft to the ocean. Here, humpback whales frolic for much of the winter months and four species of dolphin can be seen year-round.
The voyage quickly became a collection of towering highlights, from the Big Island’s lofty peaks of 13,798 ft-high Mauna Kea and its “noisy neighbour”, the smoking crater of Kilauea, currently the most active volcano on the planet, to the rich rainforests of Maui and Kauai and the breathtaking extent of Waimea Canyon, where an astonishing 300-plus inches of annual rainfall has sculpted a worthy rival to Arizona’s epic crevasse.