With its black-sand beaches, dense rainforests, steaming calderas, and epic waterfalls, Hawaii has all the trappings of a faraway tropical getaway combined with the comfort and ease of domestic travel. Each of the four main islands — Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (The Big Island), and Kauai — has a different vibe and unique wonders to discover. If you're undecided about which to visit, consider taking a cruise, which allows you to sample the best of what each island has to offer. We recently embarked on Norwegian Cruise Line's seven-day Hawaii itinerary on Pride of America. Read on for everything you need to know about cruising in Hawaii.
Why Cruising to Hawaii Is Unique
While there are several cruise lines that make calls in Hawaii, most sailings embark from Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Francisco, or Vancouver, and the sea journey to and from the islands takes a total of seven to eight nights. So, of a two-week sailing, only half of it will actually be spent exploring Hawaii.
As the only ship based in Hawaii, Norwegian Cruise Line's 2,186-passenger Pride of America is the only one sailing the Hawaiian Islands year-round. Sailing out of Honolulu translates to more time in port — 100 hours over the course of six nights. There are overnight stays in two of the four main islands, as well as options for pre- and post-cruise accommodations and excursions on Oahu. NCL's model provides a taste of what each of the four islands has to offer, with a generous amount of flexibility.
Whether you only have a week of vacation, or you want to spend any extra days exploring Oahu — Hawaii's most populated and diversely cultured island — you'll walk away from Pride of America, having immersed yourself in the local culture and scenic backdrop. Of course, you'll need to fly to Honolulu to catch your ship (instead of sailing from California or Canada), but you'll avoid the long days at sea to reach the islands.
What to Expect on Land
Pride of America calls on four or five ports in six nights (depending on the itinerary), with overnights on two of the four main islands (Maui and Kauai). There are no sea days — the ship sails while passengers sleep, and each morning you wake to the sun rising as you approach a new island.
Overnights in port afford passengers time to make the experience their own: You can spend the first day on an ambitious sightseeing adventure, hitting all the major highlights, and the second driving to a quiet, remote beach where you can post up with a good book and relax. You can have dinner on the islands or on the ship, or do a little bit of both.
While it's easy and often cheaper to plan your own excursions, Norwegian has connections to local tour operators and sights — the Luau Kalamaku on Kauai, for instance — which often translates to some level of priority access. And, because of the relative exclusivity Norwegian Cruise Line enjoys in the islands, you'll rarely encounter another ship in port or on your outings — we didn't at all.
What You'll See
Late embarkation and early disembarkation in Honolulu leaves you with nearly two free days to explore Hawaii's most diverse and modern island on your own. Many guests opt to do this. The cruise line offers pre- and post-cruise excursions to Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, the secluded North Shore (home to former pineapple and sugar cane plantations and surfing beaches). Easy DIY add-ons also include the landmark Diamond Head hike (just east of Honolulu) and Waikiki.
After departing Oahu, the ship spends two days in Maui — a honeymoon favorite. There, you can experience the island's most picturesque beaches and resorts, charming towns like Lahaina and Paia, the Haleakala volcano, and the perilous (but beautiful) 52-mile Road to Hana.
Hawaii (The Big Island)
All Pride of America sailings call on Hilo on Hawaii's Big Island. Some itineraries also include a stop in Kona. In Hilo, the standout excursion is a 45-minute helicopter tour, which flies above Kilauea, the earth's most active volcano, where you can peek into the steaming caldera and see the results of the eruption last spring. Other popular excursions include Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots basalt-lava rock pools. In Kona, you can tour the coffee farms (and sample the goods), explore an endangered cloud forest, hike to ancient ruins, and see petroglyphs.
Norwegian is the only cruise line permitted to overnight in Kauai's Nawiliwili port — the final stop on Hawaii itineraries. Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai is sparsely populated and covered with rainforests, secluded beaches, and sea caves. The dramatic scenery makes for excellent kayaking and hiking opps. Top excursions include Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), Hanalei Bay, Poipu Beach, and Kokee State Park. As the ship departs for Oahu, the captain sails past the breathtaking Na Pali Coastline, whose cliffs and pinnacles have served as a backdrop in Jurassic Park and King Kong.
What to Expect Onboard
With nearly 100 hours in port, the ship itself can play as little or as large of a role in your vacation as you want it to. For many passengers, it serves primarily as a floating hotel; but with 12 restaurants (including an excellent Brazilian churrascaria and haute French cuisine), six lounges and bars, three pools and four hot tubs, a theater with musical and comedy performances, and a tranquil spa, there is plenty to keep you occupied while on board. Plus, a resident Hawaiian ambassador is on hand to lead activities like hula lessons and lei making.
How to Get a Deal
Look for Promotions
Norwegian's Free At Sea promotion includes free or reduced airfare to Hawaii for guests from dozens of airports nationwide as well as from Vancouver, British Columbia. The offer includes value-packed perks like specialty dining, airfare, wifi, a $50 shore excursion credit per port, pre-paid service charges, and complimentary sailing for third and fourth guests.
Avoid the Busy Season
With consistently great weather throughout the year, Hawaii rarely experiences a true off-season. However, a slight dip in occupancy during the fall makes way for deals on end-of-year sailings, like those in early December. Check the cruise line's website for offers, which are updated frequently.
Rental cars on the islands cost around $80 per day, and, in some ports, there are shuttles that will take you to car rental agencies. Planning your own outings is a good way to save, and the islands are fairly easy to navigate. All beaches are free to the public, as are many of the natural wonders, including the awe-inspiring Waimea Canyon.
Make at least a rough sightseeing plan ahead of time, and think about your meals. If you know you'll be spending a lot of time on shore, you may want to adjust your drink or dining packages accordingly.