With NCL America's Pride of America sailing weekly inter-island cruises year round, and giants such as Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal and Carnival also offering attractive Hawaii itineraries, there's no question that the Aloha State has become a major cruise destination. The reasons are obvious: balmy weather; safe, centrally located ports of call (Honolulu, Oahu; Kahului, Maui; Nawiliwili, Kauai; and Kona and Hilo on the Big Island); and shore excursions that spotlight the best of the islands' unique history, culture and scenic attractions.
Gone are the days when cruising was considered a pastime solely for the Geritol generation; newlyweds, young families and adventure seekers are appearing on ships' manifests in ever-increasing numbers, and Hawaii is no exception. Land options here reflect this wide diversity.
Following is a sampling of the great shore offerings you can consider when you visit a Hawaii port. Some diversions are world-famous; others have until fairly recently been well-kept secrets. All definitely will make your Island cruise vacation truly memorable.
Battleship Missouri Memorial
Japanese leaders signed the Formal Instrument of Surrender aboard the "Mighty Mo" on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay, officially ending World War II. The 887-foot battleship's distinguished career spanned five decades, including service in World War II, the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm. Decommissioned and opened as a museum, the mammoth ship now offers a variety of guided tours and fascinating insights into the life of a sailor.
Who Should Go: Families, history buffs, seniors who are ambulatory. Most of the tours require extensive climbing up and down ladders and through hatches.
Why It's Extraordinary: You'll venture into areas of a real U.S. battleship that were seldom seen by anyone besides active-duty crews. Highlights include the Surrender Deck, where the war-ending treaty was signed; Engine Room #4; the brig; the sleeping quarters; the mess deck; and "Broadway," an armored belt running about two-thirds the length of the vessel where you can touch the original analog computers that controlled the Missouri's 16-inch barrel guns.
A treasured resource of Hawaiian history, Bishop Museum was founded in 1889 by entrepreneur Charles Reed Bishop as a tribute to his wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of Hawaii's royal Kamehameha dynasty. The museum preserves the culture and natural history of Hawaii and other Pacific islands through fascinating exhibits, special events and educational workshops.
Who Should Go: Families, school groups, seniors, researchers, cultural practitioners, scientists and history buffs.
Why It's Extraordinary: The museum originally was established to house the royal family heirlooms of Princess Pauahi, but it has expanded over the years to include millions of other rare artifacts, documents and photographs from throughout the Pacific. Scheduled to open in November, its $17-million, 16,500-square-foot Science Adventure Center will be the only facility in Hawaii dedicated to the wonders and mysteries of science. Visitors will learn about topics such as oceanography, geology, entomology, botany, volcanology and seismology through state-of-the-art exhibits.
Tip: If you're going to be doing a number of activities in Honolulu, you might consider purchasing a Power Pass Card, which includes free admission to the Bishop Museum, the Battleship Missouri Memorial and a number of other popular area attractions. See more information at www.powerpasscard.com.
Editor's Note: On July 10, 2006 Bishop Museum began a renovation of Hawaiian Hall that is scheduled to be complete in early 2008. For information on continuing exhibits, visit www.bishopmuseum.org
Polynesian Cultural Center
Here's a way to visit Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and the Marquesas in one day, without boarding a plane or showing a passport! Each authentically recreated village features dwellings, cooking areas, vegetable patches and interactive demonstrations. For example, you can learn how to husk a coconut in Samoa, play the tititorea stick game in New Zealand and pound huge nafa (drums) in Tonga. Other draws include the Rainbows of Polynesia canoe pageant, the film Coral Reef Adventure in Hawaii's only IMAX theater, the award-winning Alii Luau and the spectacular Horizons night show, which boasts a cast of more than 100 performers.
Who Should Go: Seniors, families, anyone with an interest in Polynesian cultures.
Why It's Extraordinary: The staff is composed primarily of students from the islands represented. Their jobs at the Center help pay for their tuition at the adjacent Brigham Young University-Hawaii. Traditional ways are perpetuated, students develop a renewed interest in and appreciation for their culture, and visitors get a tantalizing taste of the "real" Polynesia. Everybody wins.
Tip: This attraction isn't widely available on ship shore tour menus, but there's no reason why you can't plan an independent visit. Info: www.polynesia.com.
The highest point on Maui, Haleakala (meaning "House of the Sun") rises 10,023 feet above sea level. The views at its summit are magnificent; on a clear day, you can even see the peaks of the Big Island's Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes above the clouds. Other intriguing sights include the ahinahina (silversword), which grows nowhere else in the world, and the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose), Hawaii's state bird. If you're up for thrills, consider taking the Haleakala Downhill Bicycle Adventure at Sunrise tour.
Who Should Go: The scenic driving tour is great for seniors, nature lovers and photo buffs. Those wanting to bike down the volcano should be at least 12 years old and five feet tall. They must be competent riders who are able to negotiate 29 switchbacks as they coast 38 miles downhill at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour -- though you don't necessarily have to be in the greatest shape, as the ride is all downhill! No pregnant women, please.
Why It's Extraordinary: Haleakala last erupted in 1790 and is the world's largest dormant volcano. Its lunar-like crater measures 7 1/2 miles long, 2 1/2 miles wide and 3,000 feet deep. More than three-quarters of 30,183-acre Haleakala National Park, which encompasses the awesome crater, is designated as wilderness. The summit of Haleakala is the best place in Hawaii to welcome sunrise.
Each winter, between 3,500 and 4,500 humpback whales (Hawaii's state mammal) travel 3,000 miles from chilly Alaska to warm island waters to mate and bear their young. Certified marine naturalists lead whale-watching expeditions between December 1 and April 30; the protected channel between Maui, Lanai and Molokai is the best place to see these magnificent animals. The experts provide fascinating information about the whales' behavioral patterns and current whale research, and if you're lucky you'll be able to hear haunting whale songs via onboard hydrophones.
Who Should Go: Families, sailors, anyone interested in the ocean and marine biology. Those prone to seasickness should take appropriate precautions.
Why It's Extraordinary: The whales are extraordinary! Weighing up to 40 tons and measuring up to 45 feet long, humpbacks are the fifth largest of the world's great whales. Their annual return to Hawaii is a much-anticipated event, and thousands head out to sea to observe them. Imagine the thrill of seeing a gigantic whale breach, dive and slap its tail right before your eyes!
Maui Cave Adventures
Kaeleku Caverns is a subterranean lava tube system that was formed about a thousand years ago during Maui's last major phase of volcanic activity. The lava flow from Haleakala Volcano cooled and hardened on the surface, but it remained a literally red-hot river below, reaching temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The molten lava flowed downward toward the sea, carving a hollow tube several miles long. Spelunkers can explore Kaeleku one of three ways: a Self-Guided Cave Tour, a Guided Walking Cave Tour or a Wild Adventure Cave Tour.
Who Should Go: The Self-Guided Cave Tour is great for families with kids aged 6 and older. Participants need to have good vision and be able to walk on uneven terrain. The minimum age requirement for the Guided Walking Cave Tour also is 6 and there is a suggested weight limit of 230 pounds. You'll have to duck down in a couple of spots, and crawling is optional for those wearing pants. You must be top physical condition, at least 15 years old and no more than 230 pounds to take the Wild Adventure Cave Tour. It requires crawling through tight spots, climbing a ladder and walking over rough trails.
Why It's Extraordinary: Kaeleku's immense passages measure 100 feet wide and its chambers have ceilings rising more than 40 feet. Since fresh clean air continually flows through the cavern, there's virtually no dust and it's free of mosquitoes and bats. Incredible formations include stalagmites, stalactites and flowstone -- a thin, runny, brown covering on rocks and walls.
Heads Up: If this isn't offered by your ship, plan your own expedition; info at www.mauicave.com.
Kauai Canopy Zipline Adventure
A four-wheel-drive vehicle takes you to the start of the zip line course. After a briefing, you're securely strapped to a harness, and then you're off—soaring like a bird across valleys, gulches, streams and treetops. Seven zip lines descend down a lush mountainside on private land that has never before been open to the public. Enjoy a picnic lunch and a refreshing swim in a natural pool after you glide down the last line.
Who Should Go: Participants must be at least 15 years old, weigh between 100 and 240 pounds, and be in good physical condition. This tour is not open to pregnant women and not recommended for people who are afraid of heights.
Why It's Extraordinary: You get to play Tarzan in a gorgeous country setting! Need we say more?
Na Pali Adventure
The sheer cliffs of Na Pali rank among the seven wonders of Hawaii. Soaring more 3,000 feet above the ocean, they form an impregnable 22-mile fortress along the northwest coast of Kauai. Tucked within these towering green ramparts are lava arches, beaches, sea caves and 10 gorgeous uninhabited valleys. You can explore Na Pali on foot (the trail only runs half the length of the coast) or by catamaran, raft, kayak or helicopter.
Who Should Go: Active travelers, nature lovers, photo buffs. Be aware that the ocean can be very rough at Na Pali, especially during the winter months. Because of that, the long (at least six-hour) boat tours aren't a good idea for pregnant women, young children, people prone to seasickness, and those with back problems, heart conditions or other serious ailments. Raft and kayak expeditions only operate during the summer.
Why It's Extraordinary: Na Pali's sheer cliffs have remained virtually unchanged since they first burst forth from the ocean some two million years ago. If your tour makes a stop at Nualolo Valley, you'll see remnants of ancient villages, including agricultural terraces and irrigation ditches. Another wow factor is the abundant marine life -- seabirds, dolphins, turtles, fish and, during the winter, humpback whales.
Gay & Robinson Sugar Plantation Tour
Learn how sugar is manufactured during a tour of Gay & Robinson's fields and factory (the best time to visit is from April through October, when the mill is fully operational). You'll learn about the history of the plantation; how cane is planted, irrigated and harvested; and how sugar is processed.
Who Should Go: This is a great diversion for just about everyone with a few stipulations. Children younger than 8 can go on the field portion of the tour, but they aren't allowed in the mill. The tour makes quite a few stops, which may be challenging for people with limited mobility (they can, however, choose to wait on the bus instead of disembarking at each stop).
Why It's Extraordinary: Sugar once was the backbone of Hawaii's economy. Today, Gay & Robinson is Hawaii's last family-owned plantation and one of only two plantations remaining in Hawaii (the other is on Maui). This tour gives you a first-hand look at every step of its operations. You'll also sample raw cane and raw sugar, see what the giant machines in the mill do and meet employees "on the job." The Builder Bob set will love seeing lots of big trucks and other equipment.
Heads Up: This is another tour that's fairly selectively offered, but you can certainly visit independently; go to www.gandrtours-kauai.com for more information.
Big Island: Hilo
Mauna Kea Summit and Stars Adventure Tour
On the way to 13,796-foot-high Mauna Kea's peak, you'll learn about the cultural and natural history of the Big Island and the remarkable evolutionary changes it has undergone. After a hot, picnic-style dinner, you'll proceed to the summit for a spectacular sunset, followed by stargazing led by your naturalist guide. The premier location in the world for astronomical research, Mauna Kea boasts the largest collection of telescopes (13 sponsored by 11 countries, including the U.S.).
Who Should Go: Anyone 16 years and over who's in good health and interested in science, nature and astronomy. Because of the high altitude, this tour is not recommended for those who are pregnant or who have respiratory, heart or circulatory problems.
Why It's Extraordinary: In the course of a year, 95 percent of the stars visible from Earth can be seen from atop Mauna Kea, although on any given night that percentage will be substantially less. You'll experience the spiritual energy of a place that Hawaiians believe to be one of the most sacred sites in the islands. They regard Mauna Kea's summit as the piko (umbilical cord) connecting the land and people to the spiritual world and mana (supernatural or divine power). The dramatic scenery at the summit will take your breath away -- stark, surreal landscape; red cinder cones; lavender clouds floating below; views of other Big Island mountains (Mauna Loa, Kilauea, Hualalai and Kohala) as well as Haleakala on Maui and the neighboring islands of Lanai and Molokai.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The state's top attraction, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (HVNP) literally erupts with activity. Kilauea Volcano awoke from its long slumber on January 3, 1983, shooting molten lava four stories high. More than 22 years later, scientists say it's still in an eruptive phase and there's no indication when it will end. Sprawled over 377 square miles, HVNP offers a visitor center, museum, art center, camp sites, observatory (not open to the public), and Volcano House, an inn built on the rim of Kilauea Caldera in 1846. Park-goers can explore 150 miles of trails, ranging from an easy 20-minute stroll on a paved path that measures less than half a mile to strenuous four-day treks that cover more than 36 miles.
Who Should Go: Families, photo buffs, active travelers, those with an interest in geology and botany.
Why It's Extraordinary: HVNP is a natural wonderland boasting vast expanses of aa (rough and chunky) and pahoehoe (smooth) lava, massive calderas, sulfur banks, fragrant rain forests, fern-draped lava tubes, kipuka (oases that have been miraculously left untouched by molten rivers of lava) and intriguing plant life, including the brilliant red ohia lehua, the Big Island's official flower.
Big Island: Kona
Here's your chance to meet Big Bertha, Sugar Ray, Curly Ray, Koji, Vicky, Rocky, Lefty and the other regulars who dine in waters off the Kona Coast. After the sun sets, you'll dive 35 feet below the surface of the sea to watch these amazing creatures glide, roll and spin as they feed on microscopic plankton, which look like snowflakes swirling underwater.
Who Should Go: Divers, snorkelers, anyone who enjoys being in the ocean and who has an interest in marine life. If you go in the water, you should be able to swim. You must be certified to do the one-tank dive; there are no special requirements for snorkelers or "riders" (those who want to observe the manta rays from the boat).
Why's It's Extraordinary: Among the largest creatures in the ocean, mantas reach 22 feet in length and 22 feet in width, and weigh up to 3,000 pounds, yet they move with the grace of ballerinas. If you haven't seen one up close, this is a rare opportunity; they often swim within inches of awestruck divers. Many people have described their beautifully choreographed feeding as an ethereal experience.
Heads Up: Again, a selective offering, but don't let that dissuade you! Info: www.dolphindreams.com.
--By Honolulu-based Cheryl Tsutsumi, who writes "Hawaii's Backyard," a weekly column for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. She's also written seven books about Hawaii, the most recent of which, Hanauma Bay: Hawaii's Coastal Treasure, was just released by Island Heritage Publishing.
Photo of Bishop Museum appears courtesy of Bishop Museum. Photo of Polynesian Cultural Center appears courtesy of Polynesian Cultural Center. Photo of Haleakala appears courtesy of the Maui Visitors Bureau. Photo of whale is copyright Pacific Whale Foundation. Photo of manta ray is copyright James L. Wing.