Cruising the Hawaiian Islands Part II: The Islands
As mentioned in Part I of this blog series, our reason for embarking on a cruise of the Hawaiian Islands was because we wanted to check out the islands we had never visited. In this way, the trip was very successful. Here’s what I learned.
The Lesser Known Islands
I was surprised to discover that Hawaii is made up of 137 islands. Only seven are inhabited: Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, and Niihau. Ninety-eight percent of the island of Lanai is owned privately by Oracle founder, Larry Ellison. What isn’t owned by Ellison is occupied by high-end resorts and spas. They all look gorgeous, but a little beyond our middle class budget!
Molokai is the fifth largest island, but at only 38 miles long and 10 miles across, it isn’t very big. It has a population of only 7,400 people. Apparently, Molokai is less ‘touristy’ than the other more well-known islands, but it still offers amenities for tourists. I am a little disappointed the Cruise did not stop there.
Niihau is the seventh largest island. It is completely privately owned. King Kamehameha V sold the island to Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864. He agreed to the sale on the condition the family protect the island from outside influences. More than 150 years later, the family continues to keep their promise. There are only 170 permanent residents, although some think there are now as few as 70. There is neither electricity, running water, or internet, nor paved roads, cars, shops, or hotels. I have to say it sounds like a fascinating place, but sadly, visitors are welcome by invitation only.
Pride of America Ports of Call
Our cruise took us to the remaining four islands: Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (also known as the Big Island) and Kauai. Our journey began and ended in Oahu. The population of Hawaii is about 1.4 million, 950,000 of those people live on Oahu.
We embarked from Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii and its largest city. Despite having been to Oahu several times before, I have never spent time in downtown Honolulu. In my youth, my grandparents owned a place on the North Shore of Oahu. When we visited, we drove directly from the airport in Honolulu to their place in Mokuleia. We did our shopping in the small community of Haleiwa. As my grandfather would remind us, we didn’t travel to Hawaii to hang out in the city!
In recent years, when my husband and I started to visit Hawaii, we went directly to Waikiki. Although we always rent a car for a few days so we can explore other parts of the island, we never had much interest in Honolulu. On this trip, because we arrived the day before our cruise, we had some time to kill. I decided to reserve a hotel room as close to the cruise port as possible. This put us in the heart of downtown Honolulu. I assumed it would be a good location to spend an evening and morning before embarking the ship on the afternoon of December 24th. The thing about travelling is that you should never assume.
Our hotel, Aston at the Executive Center Hotel, was a great downtown location. However, I forgot to consider the dates we would be there. Like most downtown cores, there are lots of restaurants and services available, but they are there to cater to the weekday business crowd. Evening and weekends, however, are quiet. Add to this that it was Friday, December 23. Everyone clocked off early and no one planned to be back in the city until at least the 27th. By the time we checked into our hotel and hit the streets to find dinner it was 6:30 p.m. We had been traveling for 9.5 hours. We were tired and hungry. But to our dismay everything was closed. And, unlike Waikiki it did not feel particularly safe wandering the streets. The city was deserted. At the suggestion of our hotel, and with the help of some security guards we ran into, we did eventually find Murphy’s Pub. Being the only place open, it was busy. The food was nothing to write home about, but it filled the hole.
[Downtown Honolulu all lit up for Christmas.]
The next morning, we had a few hours to kill. We decided to give electric scooters a go. These are the ones you find at random locations that can be activated with your phone. You can use them for as long as you like and then return them to one of their locations when done. It seemed like a good idea. I had a bummed foot that was making walking long distances difficult. The scooters, we thought, would allow us to bomb around and checkout Honolulu quickly. They were fun, but ultimately not the best choice. You are not allowed to ride them on sidewalks which forced us onto bike lanes. But more than once we lost track of the bike lane and ended up on far too busy roads, or very rough roads. At one intersection, my husband’s front wheel hit a small pothole and he took a tumble. It did not look very bad at the time, but he was pretty banged up. More than three weeks later and the last of the bruising on his hip and thigh are finally fading away. Although it gave us something to do, the scooters did not help us discover much about Honolulu.
For those that care about these things the Ala Moana Center is the big mall in Honolulu. It is an open-air mall with more than 350 shops including 160 dining options. There is even a daily Luau. I am sure it would be easy to spend a day there. But shopping is not our thing, so we have never been there. In retrospect it probably would have been open on the evening of Friday the 23rd so we should have taken an Uber there to find dinner. Now we know.
The location of our hotel was spot on in terms of easy access to the cruise ship port. It was so close we passed our ship when we were scooting. When it was time to embark, it was a quick Uber ride with our luggage to the terminal. Like all the ports, there is nothing special about the cruise terminal. Although, because it is in Honolulu there are more services and amenities close by than at the other ports, but still a bit of trek from the pier to the main road. Unless you are travelling for business or a really into shopping, I would not recommend staying in downtown Honolulu.
[Image 1: The tug boat pulling the ship into dock. Image 2: Boaters on the water as we arrive in Kahului, Maui.]
Our first port of call was Maui. Maui is the second largest, third most populated, and the second most visited island. Arriving in the pier in Maui was underwhelming. We stepped off the ship into a large dockside warehouse. Taxis lined up outside the warehouse for cruisers who were not joining an onshore excursion. That was us! Our destination was an oceanside hotel a few miles down the road from the pier. We had reserved two mopeds for travelling around Maui. Reserving even these proved to be challenging because we were in Maui on Christmas day. Our pickup location was the hotel. But when we arrived at the hotel, we could not find any moped rental place. I won’t bore you with the details, but that rental fell through. So, we found ourselves stuck in the parking lot of a hotel plastered in signs that read “Guests Only.” There was a strip mall down the road and across the street, but it was closed because of Christmas. There was not much else around. We walked down the road to where we could find public beach access, sat on a patch of grass, and pulled out our phones to find ourselves another mode of transportation.
[The lawn and beach access beside the Maui Beach Hotel. The Pride of America in the distance on one side, and Kahului in the distance on the other.]
Because so many flights had been cancelled, rental cars that were not available when we booked our trip, were now available because of cancellations. Other people’s misfortune was our good luck. We were able to pick up rental car at the airport, which was about a 20 minute cab ride away. It turned out for the best that we got a car instead of the mopeds. There were not a lot of destinations we wanted to visit in Maui, but all would have been very difficult to get to on a moped.
Maui has two landscapes. The dry almost desert-like side of the islands. And the lush rainforest side. The cruise ship docks in Kahului, the more arid side of the islands. Most cruisers were headed for one of two destinations: the Road to Hana or the shorter trip to Lahaina. The Road to Hana is a famous strip of highway that connects Kahului to Hana in east Maui. The drive takes a winding road through lush rainforests and along dramatic coastlines. There are more than 600 turns and 50 single-lane bridges along the route. It takes approximately 2.5 hours one way not including stops at viewpoints. Unfortunately, because we did not get our rental car until noon, we could not drive to Hana. The round trip would have taken at least five hours, and we had dinner reservations on the ship at 5pm. It was Christmas day, so I feared not being able to find anywhere else to eat if we did not have dinner on the ship.
We decided to drive to Lahaina instead. The drive there did not really impress. Parts of it reminded me of desert areas of British Columbia like Merritt. It was dry with little vegetation. I kept telling my husband that I didn’t feel like we were in Hawaii. It was a little over a half hour drive to Lahaina. It was worth the time. It is everything you envision when you think about an island vacation town. Lahaina is a historic whaling town tucked on the west side of Maui. It has been converted over the years into a hub of galleries, restaurants, and unique shops. We enjoyed a delicious lunch overlooking the water at Lahaina Fish Co. We then strolled the street. The galleries had some truly beautiful work on display, but my bummed foot prevented us from walking as long as we normally would. A priority for each island was to check out at least one beach, so we cut the stroll short to find a beach.
After quite a bit of research we decided to drive south down the west side of Maui to Wailea. The area is known for its golf courses, high end resorts, and sandy beaches. We found the public access point and enjoyed an afternoon playing in the waves and soaking up the sun. Watching a catamaran drop off passengers at the beach was particularly entertaining. It was a very pretty location, but there were more grassy places to sit than sandy, and most of the beach was blocked off as “private” so the public part was very busy. If you are someone who likes resort-style vacations though, Wailea would be a lovely option.
[Image 1: Wailea Beach - public access. Image 2: A tour catamaran dropping people off at Wailea beach.]
Our ship was not leaving port until 2 pm on the 26th so we had hoped to keep our rental car and do a little more exploring in the morning. But, as mentioned in Part I of this blog series, there was no public parking anywhere near the cruise terminal. We ended up returning the rental car in the evening and spending the whole next day on the ship.
Maui was nice, but there was nothing about it that inspired us to return. Although we did not see much of it, Kahului is the largest community, and it was not very appealing. We like options when we are travelling. We have our do nothing beach days, but we also enjoy people watching in busy areas, and like access to diverse food options. We fear we would find the options on Maui too limited and that we would get bored. Also, I recently learned that Maui struggles with fresh water supply. Water restrictions have been put on locals that have not been placed on vacation resorts. The resorts’ consumption is robbing locals of fresh water. That doesn’t feel right to me, so I don’t think we will return to Maui.
The Big Island of Hawaii
There were two ports of call on the island of Hawaii, Hilo and then Kona. Hawaii is the largest Hawaiian island and the second post populated. More than 186,000 people live there. Known for its volcanoes, it is the third most visited island. My husband has always wanted to visit a volcano, so that was top priority when on the big island. In Hilo we rented a car through TURO. (If you have never heard of or used TURO we highly recommend the service. You rent vehicles directly from private owners through the app. Owners drop off and pick up the vehicle and provide extras like beach chairs. We used it twice on this trip and used it on both our previous trips to Hawaii. Every experience has been great!)
Much like Kahului, Maui, the pier in Hilo was underwhelming. It was a lengthy walk from the ship to the road, which is in an industrial area. There was also road construction taking place, so it was even more chaotic. Fortunately, our TURO driver was waiting in a very visible spot and waved us down quickly. The drive from Hilo to Volcano National Park is about 45 minutes. There was nothing about the drive that stood out. There is a $30 per private vehicle entrance fee to the park. However, there are few amenities within the park. There is an information center and small gift shop at the entrance, which was packed. But beyond that it is road and park. The restaurant and other facilities at the end of drive were shuttered and looked like they had been for some time.
To stand on the edge of the crater of volcano is a very cool. Seeing and feeling hot steam pour from the center of the earth is one of those experiences that makes you think about things that you don’t usually. What is really going on at the earth’s core? How vulnerable are we to its hidden mysteries? What was it like in prehistoric times? Imagine seeing the ground suddenly explode and start bleeding fire down a mountainside when you had no understanding what was happening. It all felt very prehistoric and intimidating. I am not sure your average kid would find it very thrilling. I am glad I saw it as an adult so I could comfortably stand in awe and enjoy every minute of it.
From the volcano we drove back to Hilo to have lunch. We discovered Hilo Bay Café by the water. We enjoyed a lunch made from fresh local ingredients sitting at the bar overlooking the bay. One thing I noticed was that the price of food was increasing with every stop.
Eating out in Hawaii is expensive, but each island seemed be more expensive than the last. Our very basic lunch, a salad with shrimp, an order of fish and chips, and two non-alcoholic speciality drinks came to $90US including taxes and tip. That’s over $120CA!!! Clearly, we were lucky that we ate most of our meals on the ship.
After lunch we sought a beach. We discovered Carlsmith Beach Park about a five minute drive from the Port of Hilo. The beauty of this park was surprising considering how close it is to the port and industrial areas. A variety of shallow tidepools formed by coral reefs dominate the water for several yards before they reefs give way to the open ocean. Palm trees dance in the wind along the shoreline. A fresh cold water river cools the tidepools as it drains into the ocean. The bobbing heads of snorkelers filled the water, the laughter of children filled the air.
[Carlsmith Beach Park, Hilo.]
We donned our snorkeling gear and jumped right in. NOT!!! It was a bit of a treacherous walk over lava rock to get to the water. The surface was both slick and rough and we forgot our water shoes. And did I mention that freshwater river? The water was freezing. It took me at least 15 minutes to completely immerse myself. Although the landscape above water was beautiful, the snorkeling was disappointing. The water was murky making for poor visibility and there weren’t that many fish. And we kept hitting random cold spots of water. So, we cut this snorkeling adventure short. We dropped our TURO rental off exactly where we picked it up, left the keys in a lockbox, and walked away. LOVE that convenience! Overall, a day well spent in Hilo. But like, Maui, there was not much to motivate us to return.
Our next port of call was on the opposite side of Hawaii, in Kona. Arriving in Kona was a unique experience. It is a tender port. This means that the ship does not anchor at the pier. Instead, it sets anchor offshore, and they ferry passengers to shore via the lifeboats on board. Each boat holds over 100 passengers. They have four operating all day long taking passengers back and forth to the ship.
I was wary of this process because I do get motion sickness, but it turned out to be fine. The weather conditions were perfect, and the water was like glass when we crossed. If conditions are rough, the ship does not stop at this destination.
The boat brought us to the small community dock. We stepped off the boat directly into the heart of the tourist area. Hands down this was our favourite port of call. This is what we are looking for when step off the ship. Restaurants, shops, excursions, services, all within easy walking distance. It was a quaint town that was clearly ready to serve the arriving cruisers, but that did not have that over-commercialized cruise feeling. Here were had reserved a “buggy” through Big Island Buggy. I have to say two things here. First Aaron at Big Island Buggy was fantastic. Great communication when we reserved in advance. Connected with us the morning we arrived in Kona to confirm and ensure we knew where to find him. Super friendly and helpful when we picked up. Easy drop off. Just left the buggy in his lot and walked away. The second is that my husband is a real trooper. It doesn’t matter what kind of vehicle we rent, he hops in, adjusts the seat and mirror, and off he goes. The buggy was a standard shift in very tight quarters. He handled it like a pro.
We only rented the buggy for four hours. We drove along the west side of the island from Kona to the St. Benedict Church also known as The Painted Church. Built between 1899 and 1902 it sits high on a hill overlooking Kealakekua Bay. The road there wound through coffee farms, and the roadside was littered with coffee bean, baked good, and fruit stands. Tropical flowers hung from branches low over the road, casting shadows and protecting us from the sun. There is a lookout that provides a clear view of the Captain James Cook Monument located below by Kealakekua Bay. The drive there was beautiful, but we were surprised and disappointed to see a lot of abandoned vehicles and large garbage items like freezers and furniture along the quiet road.
[Image 1: the Painted Church. Image 2: The view from the church grounds. Image 3: The painted ceiling of the church.]
The route did a circle that took us back in the direction we came. Aaron at Big Island Buggy suggested Kahalu’u Beach Park for snorkeling. It was only a 12 minute drive from his buggy rental booth and did not disappoint. It was extremely busy, so we had to park on a street outside the park, but the walk was only about two blocks. If you are looking for a wide open white sandy beach, this is not the place for you. If you are looking for great snorkeling in shallow, safe water, this is the place. Absolutely the best snorkeling we have experienced in Hawaii. We paid to snorkel in Hanauma Bay a few years ago. It was spectacular, but not cheap. And it is a very long trek from the amenities and park services down to the bay and beach.
At Kahalu’u the beach is at street level and is easy to access. Like the beach in Hilo, it was a little treacherous walking across the coral to get into the water but would have been easy with water shoes. The snorkeling was amazing. The second we put our faces in the water we were surrounded by colourful fish. There was a huge variety of fish and visibility was great. We saw our first eel. I am not sure what kind, but it was about 3 feet long and almost invisible. The water was warm enough that we stayed in for about an hour. If you are in Kona and like snorkeling, we highly recommend Kahalu’u Beach Park.
[Image 1: Poster of species found in Kahalu'u Bay. Image 2: Kahalu'u Bay. ]
We wrapped up our day in Kona with lunch at the Fish Hopper. Located on Ali‘i Drive, the main drag along the water, it was only a couple of minutes from both the buggy rental booth and the dock to catch our boat back to the ship. The view over Kailua Bay was beautiful. Nothing better than sipping a slushy drink while watching all the activity on the water. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Kona. It is place we would return to, but not for a long stay. Five days would be perfect.
[Image 1: Writer's husband enjoying lunch at the Fish Hopper in Kona. Image 2: View from the Fish Hopper restaurant. Image 3: Writer enjoying lunch at the Fish Hopper.]
Our final port of call before returning to Honolulu was in Kauai. Kauai is the fourth largest and northern most of the Hawaiian islands. It is also the lushest. The ship docks at Nawiliwili Harbor just outside of Lihue. Like Honolulu, Maui, and Hilo, the pier is in an industrial area and the arrival area is a warehouse. We were in Kauai overnight, but sadly, once again our stateroom was facing the warehouse. In Kauai we again used TURO. The vehicle owner brought her car to us and allowed us to drop it off in a park close to the ship with the keys in the glove box. Again, love this convenience!
Our destination for the day was Waimea Canyon. It took us a little over an hour to get there but it was a beautiful drive. The roadways and views along the way reminded me of what the drive out to the North Shore of Oahu used to be like in my youth before major highways were built. The last leg of the drive that brings you through the foothills felt very deserted. If not for the steady stream of traffic coming from the opposite direction, it would have felt like we were driving to nowhere. Starting at the foothills of the mountain, the landscape is dramatic. It is a rolling vista of red rock hills. Mars comes to mind when looking at it. This landscape continued as we snaked our way up the mountain, unsure of what we were in for, but anxious to see.
It is free to access Waimea Canyon State Park, but you must pay to park your vehicle. The parking lot at the end of the road was very busy, but there was a constant flow of people coming and going so we didn’t have to wait long to find a parking spot. We walked from the parking lot to the viewing platform and gasped at what lay before us. They call Waimea Canyon the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, but I would argue it is more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon. The red rock of Waimea stood in striking contrast to the green vegetation crisscrossing its canyon walls. It was easy to envision dinosaurs in this environment in the past. Or indigenous tribes hidden in its valleys today, living by ancient traditions. I struggle to put into words how beautiful it was. I am grateful I got to see it.
After the canyon, we headed back towards Lihue and the ship. We had a quick lunch Verde located in Kukui Grove Center a strip mall about a six minute drive from the ship. The food was fresh and delicious, but once again, we were shocked by the prices. Kauai was proving to be even more expensive than the big island. $57US ($76CA!!!) including tax and tip for one order of shrimp tacos, on order chicken quesadillas and two non-alcoholic drinks!
From lunch we headed away from the ship again for a 20-minute drive back to Poipu Beach Park. Located on the south shore of Kauai it is one of the island’s most popular beaches. There is a reef not far offshore that breaks the tide and creates a wonderful, protected swimming area. It is known for its sea turtles (yes, we saw one sunning on the beach), beginner surfers, and snorkeling. Both the drive there through mangrove forests, and the destination were gorgeous. There are a lot of resorts in this area, and there were tons of families on the beach. We arrived later in the day and the weather was a little overcast and not as warm as it had been, so we did not swim. We sort of regretted not planning better, because it looked like a fabulous place to play in the water.
[Image 1: Poipu Beach. Image 2: Sea Turtle sunning on Poipu Beach. Image 3: Roosters are everywhere in Kauai.]
That evening I made reservations at a waterfront restaurant in Lihue. I wanted to get off the ship and enjoy a fancy dinner with a view. I chose Hualani’s located in Timbers Ocean Club and Residences mostly because of the location. The property was amazing. The drive from the ship was less than 10 minutes, but more than half of it was spent winding our way through the resort roads. There are several other resorts within the acreage. And the Ocean Course at Hokuala is also located on the property. This Jack Nicklaus course is the longest ocean front golf course in Hawaii. Visiting a property like this makes me think I was meant to be born into money!
Despite the atmosphere being lovely, our dinner did not quite live up to expectations. Hualani’s promote themselves as farm to table, but we were not that inspired by the menu options. And again, the prices were outrageous. I had the Wagu beef, which I know is always expensive, but it was $100US. Two appetizers, two main courses, two cocktails, one glass of wine, and two bottles of sparkling water. Our dinner bill was $360US including tax and tip. We did not feel like we got good value for our money. But if you have money to burn, I think Timbers Ocean Club would be a spectacular place to stay.
[Image 1: The view from our car driving through the resort property. Image 2: Our view at dinner from Hualani's Restaurant.]
In the morning we had a few hours to kill before we had to return our TURO rental and embark the ship. We decided to drive to Wailua Falls. These are the waterfalls that were featured in the opening scenes of the 1970s version of the TV show Fantasy Island. It was only a 20 minute drive from the ship. We always enjoy just driving. It is a great way to take in the scenery, see different communities, and discover unexpected delights. Like most of the destinations we visited, the viewing location for the falls was busy. All you can do is look at them from above, there is no access to the falls or river below, but it was a pretty drive and view. We ended our time in Kauai by popping into some of the shops that are close to cruise port. Nothing jumped out at us as special, but my husband did by a t-shirt for only $20US, a real deal we thought.
[Image 1: Wailua Falls. Image 2: Roosters fighting (did I mention they are everywhere in Kauai. Image 3: Up close of Wailua Falls.]
Overall, we enjoyed Kauai. The whole island had a very tropical feel. There are a lot of pretty areas, but once again, we fear we would get bored staying there. It feels like most people stay at resorts and keep most of their activities and eating within the resort property. We like to see and experience things beyond resorts. But if you are looking for a luxury resort vacation on a tropical island with sandy beaches, Kauai would please you.
Our cruise did for us what we hoped it would. It exposed us to the other Hawaiian islands and helped us decide if we wanted to visit one of them in the future or stick with Oahu and Waikiki. And we both agree that Waikiki is for us. This blog is already far too long, so I will talk about Waikiki and why we like in Part III of this blog series. Mahalo!