Against a backdrop of towering waterfalls, fragrant tropical forests and volcanoes drooling with red-hot lava, the spirit of aloha courses through the islands of America’s 50th state. Although the vast majority of visitors to Hawaii stay in land resorts, a cruise through this Pacific paradise remains a bucket list item for many.
One reason a cruise ship vacation works well—especially for first-time visitors—is that a ship-based tour can encompass a sampler of highlights from each of three or four different islands. From the wave-lashed emerald-tinged red cliffs of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast to the awesomely scenic (and curvaceous) Hana Highway on Maui, each of the islands affords its own pace, beauty and spirit—more than the typical land-based vacation can contain.
Cruising the Hawaiian Islands comes with a curious caveat, courtesy of the Jones Act, a federal statute that prevents non-U.S. ships from operating solely in U.S. waters. Only one cruise ship, Norwegian’s U.S.-built Pride of America qualifies to operate Hawaii sailings that bypass foreign ports (there’s also the small, expedition ship line Un-Cruise Adventures—more on them in a minute). All other cruise lines visit Hawaii either as part of round-trip itineraries departing from various U.S. West Coast ports (and include a stop in Ensenada, Mexico to comply with Jones Act restrictions), or they visit the islands on repositioning cruises en route between the West Coast and South Pacific or Asia. None of these itineraries are shorter than 10 or 11 days and each involves a minimum of 4 consecutive sea days for the Pacific crossing.
Who Goes There
For those seeking a true, Hawaii-focused cruise, Norwegian’s Pride of America operates 7-day voyages year-round out of Honolulu on Saturdays, spending two days and a night in Maui, a day each in Hilo and Kona on the Big Island, and a day-and-a-half and a night in Kauai. The relaxed, port focused agenda—no sea days—provides more island time than most other cruises. For instance, an overnight in Maui allows us to rent a car and enjoy the nightlife and luaus of Lahaina, or make the pre-dawn drive to the summit of 10,023-foot Haleakala for sunrise.
Pride of America’s downside is that cruise fares are considerably higher than most other mainstream options. For instance, a 7-day cruise on Pride of America is typically more expensive than the 15-day round-trip cruises offered by Princess out of San Francisco (credit American labor laws and wage requirements—along with a dearth of competition—for Norwegian’s high Hawaii fares). Add in airfare to Honolulu, and the cost of a Pride of America cruise starts to edge toward that of a luxury ship.
With the exception of Disney, all of the major cruise lines also offer Hawaii cruises, with the largest number of sailings provided by Princess Cruises, followed by Holland America Line. Pride of America sails year-round, while other cruise lines primarily offer Hawaii itineraries only September through May.
Unlike cruises through the Caribbean, you won’t find ports clogged with other cruise ships—two vessels calling on the same day is the exception, not the rule. And because land-based vacations are Hawaii’s bread and butter, you’ll find much of the visitor infrastructure geared to the needs of those staying in resorts. Rental cars are an excellent way to discover these islands, though advance reservations are strongly recommended (for competitive rates we like Discount Hawaii Car Rental).
Of the six main Hawaiian islands, four receive the vast majority of cruise calls.
Islands on the Agenda
Virtually all cruises start or end in Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city and state capital, on the island of Oahu. Home to almost one million people, Oahu is famous for Waikiki Beach, the massive surf of the North Shore, iconic Diamond Head, and Pearl Harbor, headquarters for the largest U.S. Naval fleet in the Pacific. With five million visitors annually and hotels concentrated in and around Honolulu, Oahu is not exactly a quiet hideaway, yet isolated beaches and local culture can be uncovered by dedicated visitors. Honolulu is also home to many of Hawaii’s more moderate priced hotels.
Second largest of the islands, Maui also has Hawaii’s second largest tourism base, with more than 2.5 million visitors annually. There are two ports: one in Kahului, the island’s main town, as well as Lahaina, a historic whaling center with a thriving art and culinary scene. Lahaina has the bulk of the charm, but is accessible only by tender boat, while Kahului is convenient to two of Maui’s biggest attractions. The first of these is Haleakala National Park, centered on a dormant volcano that soars above the clouds. Downhill bike expeditions and sunrises from the eerie, moon-like summit are popular (allow two-and-a-half hours for the drive to the top from Kahului). Maui’s other top attraction is Hana—or, rather, the Road to Hana, a twisting, turning adventure involving dozens of one-lane bridges and postcard-perfect waterfalls amid the island’s lushest scenery. Other highlights include some of Hawaii’s best diving and snorkeling, whale watching (in winter), and several excellent golf courses.
Larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined, the Big Island of Hawaii is, geologically, the youngest in the chain, and the outflow from active volcanoes continues to add new acreage to the state. Of late, this action has been focused on Kilauea, where an eruption has been ongoing since 1983. You can glimpse historic (and possibly current) activity at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, but this is one place to splurge on a scenic helicopter tour, a flight that may take you to the actual site of the eruption (usually a remote section of the park off-limits to most visitors). The volcano sights, along with splendid Akaka Falls, are easiest from the port of Hilo, on the island’s east coast. Many ships dock in Kailua-Kona, a tender port on the west coast that has been the traditional tourist hub of the island. Nearby are the coffee farms growing some of the world’s most expensive coffee, as well as historical sites such as King Kamehameha's temple.
Quieter yet fast developing, Kauai is the oldest island—geologically speaking—in the Hawaiian chain. It has come to represent the quintessential South Pacific setting, with its sheer, weathered mountains providing a striking backdrop to Hollywood films ranging from South Pacific to Jurassic Park. Ships dock in Lihue, the island’s utilitarian hub. Memorable day trips include Waimea Canyon State Park, sometimes called the South Pacific’s Grand Canyon, where average rainfall of 460 inches has carved a 3,000-foot-deep gash that will someday divide the island in two. The rugged Na Pali coastline is accessible only on foot or by water—some cruise itineraries include a sail along this fascinating wilderness.
Off the Beaten Track Hawaii
Two smaller islands don’t receive much in the way of cruise ship traffic. With a population of just 7,000, Molokai has few hotel rooms and a rural atmosphere, but pristine beaches, the highest sea cliffs in the world, and a traditional culture that is the most authentically Hawaiian of the six main islands. Smaller still, Lanai was once known as the pineapple isle—owned almost in its entirety by Dole Food Company. Today, 98 percent of Lanai is owned by Larry Ellison (of Oracle Corporation) and the island is home to a pair of Four Seasons resorts and two golf courses. Both Molokai and Lanai are reachable by daily ferries from Maui.
One other cruise line operates a U.S.-built ship in Hawaii, and that’s Seattle-based Un-Cruise Adventures. Bypassing Honolulu entirely, the 36-passenger Safari Explorer sails 7-day itineraries November through April between little visited Molokai, Lanai and Kailua-Kona on the Big Island. Although these intimate ships may not be a good fit for those seeking traditional cruise diversions, the line’s focus on culture and wildlife is ideal for some travelers—night snorkeling with manta rays is one highlight.
Updated February 13, 2016 to include cruise lines for the 2016-17 seasons.