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.
On our first day on Maui, we took a ship-organised excursion to the steepling gorge of Iao Valley State Park, where misty wisps of cloud leant a volcanic air to the long-extinct peaks. We also toured the nearby Tropical Plantation, a lush garden that houses a rich variety of tropical plants, where we learned the proper method of opening a coconut (the secret is a swift blow to the top of the nut, as it can be oriented as if it were a monkey's head).
On the Big Island’s two ports of call, we were able to visit Volcanoes National Park, walking through its eerie Thurston Lava Tube (where an ages-old lava stream has left a near-100-yard underground tunnel); and then sample the wares of the Royal Kona Coffee Plantation – from lava to java in one small journey – where their 100% Kona variety is a snip at $30 a pound.
On our second day on Kauai, we visited the bird-watcher’s paradise of Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, where squadrons of great frigatebirds, wedge-tailed shearwaters and red-footed boobies soared in the thermals over the rugged cliffs.
Back on Oahu, we paid our respects at Pearl Harbor Memorial and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and travelled back in time to the amazing Kualoa Ranch, where their variety of all-terrain tours, including on horseback and all-terrain vehicles, demonstrated why this was the eye-catching location for such films and TV shows as Jurassic Park, Godzilla, Windtalkers and Lost.
Hawaii – its islands thrusting in such unlikely fashion from the depths of the Pacific Ocean like a series of green jewels – has a rare ability to beguile and enchant. Every island had its own character and superlatives, but each was linked by unfailing friendliness, the gentle lilt of the Hawaiian ukulele, a tropical climate that generally steadied between 80F and 88F, and a never-ending series of achingly beautiful sunsets.
After the week we were in another mindset, completely de-stressed, unhurried, and totally tuned in to the laid-back aloha vibe that insists on harmony. It is not so much a word as a graceful way of life.