Best way to see a lot of Hawaii? Cruise from island to island, rent a car in every port, and burn rubber like you’re a certain Hawaii-based private-eye from the `80s
For some, a Hawaiian vacation inspires images of relaxing on a beach in Maui sipping mai tais and soaking in paradise. For others, it conjures up fantasies of driving madly around the islands at a frenetic, nonstop pace while blasting the theme to “Magnum, P.I.” — all to see as much of this natural wonderland as humanly possible.
A vacation is no time to relax! You need to see as much of Hawaii as possible (Photo: Thinkstock)
If you’re in the latter category of Hawaii vacationers, you may want to consider seeing the islands via ship. Cruises allow you to see several Hawaiian islands in one vacation without having to go through the hassle of plane-hopping and moving all your gear from hotel room to hotel room. Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises offer Hawaiian cruises, but they’re long (10 or more days) and expensive (in the $1,400 per-person range and up), and don’t originate in Hawaii, meaning more days at sea cooped-up on board the ship.
If you’re a mainlander who wants to mainline a quick, concentrated dose of Aloha State adrenaline right now, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Hawaiian cruises aboard the Pride of America are your best and only bet; it’s the only cruise line offering trips that start and end in Hawaii (out of Honolulu). Also unlike its competitors, its Hawaii cruises run year-round. And at roughly $1,000 per person, they’re less pricey than the others.
Get a good look at the Pride of America; you won’t be spending a lot of time on board (Photo: Daniel Ramirez/Flickr)
But there’s a catch with this and all cruises: the on-shore bus excursions offered by most cruise lines are expensive. A single bus tour in Hawaii can cost about $100 per person — sometimes significantly more. After a few island tours over a seven-day cruise, you’ve about matched the amount you’ve spent on your cruise fare.
A cheaper and more adventurous alternative is to go rogue: Forgo the tours, rent a car at each port, and explore the islands yourself. Not only is it cheaper, it frees you from getting stuck on some tour bus that doesn’t necessarily stop wherever you want to shop, snap a picture, or admire the view. This being Hawaii, you’re going to want to do that a lot.
Skip the cruise-arranged tours. Rent a car and explore Hawaii on your own. It’s more adventurous and a lot cheaper (Photo: Thinkstock)
So if you set sail aboard one of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America Saturday-to-Saturday Hawaii cruises, here’s the best way to grab a car and run-and-gun your way through Hawaii, “Magnum, P.I.”-style (Sorry — Hertz doesn’t rent red 1980 Ferraris).
Friday/Saturday: Honolulu, Oahu
Typically, Pride of America leaves out of Honolulu on Saturday evening. But you’re going to want to arrive in Honolulu a day or so early, not only to see the Hawaiian capital but to avoid the stress of flying day-of, where a late plane can cause you to literally miss the boat.
If you’re staying on Waikiki Beach Friday night, treat yourself to dinner at the Ocean House Restaurant. The beautiful beachfront setting will prepare you for the awesome sights you’re going to enjoy during the trip. And the leisurely vibe will be a nice prelude to the hectic vacation on which you’re about to embark.
Feast at the Ocean House Restaurant before your journey. You’ll need your energy. (Photo: Ocean House Restaurant)
The ship usually starts boarding late morning/early afternoon on Saturday and leaves port at 7 p.m. That leaves you a brief window of time for a morning trip to the beach or some quick sightseeing (Pearl Harbor is nearby).
Or you can spend time planning your upcoming motoring session around Hawaii. Make car rental reservations at each of Pride of America’s ports of call: Kahului on Maui; Kailua-Kona and Hilo on “The Big Island” of Hawaii; and Nawiliwili on Kauai. Several of the main rental companies, like Hertz, offer shuttle service from the port, so you can arrange a time for a pickup. And make sure you either rent a GPS or bring your own; cellphone service is spotty on some islands, so you might get lost if you rely only on your mobile’s GPS. But the most important thing about your stay in Hawaii: Make sure you get to the ship on time.
Sunday: Kahului, Maui
One of the best drives you’ll ever take: The Road to Hana (Photo: Thinkstock)
First island! Pride of America docks here at 8 a.m., and you’ll want to get an early start. Hop on the car rental shuttle, grab your car and head off on your first adventure (Important tip: Hawaii residents may live in paradise but they still have to work. Account for morning and afternoon rush hours during your car trips, especially as you drive to and from the larger cities and towns in which your ship will dock). Head east on Highway 36, and begin the famous Road to Hana.
Related: 14 of the World’s Craziest Roads
The deep green forests dotted with waterfalls, beaches with black and red sands, and amazing ocean views you’ll see on your trek on the Hana Highway will make this one of the most fun drives you’ll ever take. The Road to Hana is only about 55 miles or so, but the windy roads, occasional one-lane bridges, and the frequent stopping you’ll do to shop and/or admire the scenery will easily make this a day-long journey. One of your first stops will probably be to admire the windsurfers at Ho’okipa Beach Park. As you continue the drive, the vegetation gets greener, and the landscape even more spectacular as the highway skirts the edge of the Ko’olau Forest Reserve. That’s when the show begins; you’ll start seeing beautiful waterfalls around every turn — beautiful byproducts of the 80 inches of rain they get on the coast each year (and hundreds of inches that fall on the higher elevations). But try not to gawk too much while driving here; the lanes get tiny, and there are lots of one-lane bridges that require your attention.
After that, Hana Highway starts to resemble more of a country highway, with lots of delicious and tempting food stands. You’ll definitely want to stop at Hana Farms at around mile marker 31. The sign out front says it has the “Best Banana Bread in Hana.” Believe it.
Stop for a banana bread break at Hana Farms. (Photo: Ryan Greenberg/Flickr)
You can continue on for a while longer until you get to Hana. But if you’re going to keep your rental car through tomorrow (Maui is one of the two ports at which Pride of America docks overnight.), you’re going to want to get back to the ship in Kahului to take advantage of some of the cruise ship rental car parking you’ll find around the pier. These will fill up, so try to be back by dinnertime at the absolute latest. Besides, you’re going to need some sleep for tomorrow.
Monday: Kahului, Maui
Wake up early (or don’t go to sleep), grab your rental car and a good jacket, and make the drive to catch the sunrise from the top of the dormant volcano Mount Haleakala (The jacket is important; temperatures at the top of the mountain can plunge to 30 degrees lower than the temperature at sea level). The drive to the Haleakala National Park is not that long — less than an hour. But once you go through the park entrance, the slow drive up the mountain itself can take more than an hour. It’s steep, windy, and pitch-black due to the lack of street lamps, so drive extremely carefully (For those nervous at the thought of driving alongside a mountain, there’s a bright side: At this hour, it’s too dark to see just how high up you are). When you get to the summit and park, prepare to be dazzled: Watching a spectacular, multicolored sunrise at almost 10,000 feet above sea level is a true treat, with vivid colors you didn’t know existed. And on clear days, you’ll be able to see the surrounding islands.
Hopefully after the sunrise, you’ll have enough energy to see the otherworldly sights at the park. (Photo: David Fulmer/Flickr)
After the sunrise show, you can spend the rest of the day hiking. There are several hiking trails on which you can walk into the volcano’s crater or view the park’s unique wildlife (Haleakalā has more endangered species than any other U.S. national park). Or after the sunrise show, dash back to the ship for some much needed R & R before your ship leaves in the early evening.
Tuesday: Hilo, Hawaii
The Big Island Thurston Lava Tube at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Photo: Thinkstock)
Once your ship docks and you get your car (most likely from the nearby Hilo Airport), it’s less than an hour to today’s destination: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Before your drive, you’ll want to check the road status in the park; roads are occasionally closed because of lava flows). Like Haleakala, this is a part of Hawaii that looks like an alien landscape. After a short walk from the visitors center, you’ll see the Steam Vents — an entire landscape with steam literally rising from the ground (a phenomenon that occurs when groundwater filters down to the hot volcanic rocks below). The nearby Sulfur Banks are unmistakable, mostly because of the smell. Here, the groundwater steam rising from the ground mixes in with volcanic gases, creating a unique and unpleasant aroma (The park warns that pregnant women, babies, young kids, and people with heart or respiratory problems like asthma should skip this part of the trip).
The Sulfur Banks won’t be the best-smelling walk in the park you’ll ever take. But it’ll be one of the most unforgettable. (Photo: Joey Rozier/Flickr)
Continue your walk through the breathtaking Kilauea Iki Overlook, where you can gaze at a mile-long, 3,000-foot-wide, burned-out crater created by a 1959 eruption. If hiking’s your thing, you can spend all day at this fascinating park. You can walk along the crater, through more lava-scarred landscapes, and even a beautiful rain forest. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship, which will likely leave at 6 p.m.
The most impressive hole in the ground you’ll ever see: The Kilauea Iki Overlook (Photo: Townsend/Flickr)
Wednesday: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Take a leisurely walk through the town of Kona. (Kahunapule Michael Johnson/Flickr)
For your second port of call on the Big Island of Hawaii, you can skip the car if you wish. The boat docks right near town, and there’s plenty to explore on foot on Alii Drive: souvenir shops, nice restaurants (The Fish Hopper is a must for lunch.), and the Kona Farmers Market (open Wednesdays through Sundays, 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.) are great places to spend your afternoon. If you wish to venture out, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park is a good place for swimming, birdwatching, and sea turtle spotting. Or head south to the Kona Coffee Living History Farm for a look at Kona’s most famous export.
Thursday: Nawiliwili, Kauai
Time to take in the beauty of Kauai. (Photo: Jean-Philippe Rebuffet/Flickr)
The port on the lovely island of Kauai is the second overnight port of call for Pride of America. The ship will dock here from Thursday morning to Friday afternoon. Some businesses near the dock offer rental car parking, but it’s expensive. If you can, see as much as you can in one day so you can return the car and avoid the overnight parking hassle.
As you pick up your rental, watch out for the chickens! Wild chickens roam freely throughout the island (Polynesian settlers brought them to the island for food and eggs). They walk around like they own the place, so drive carefully around them, especially in parking lots.
Chickens are everywhere in Kauai — even at the car rental counter! (Photo: Tracey Steinberg)
From the airport, head north from Route 56 (the Kuhio Highway), a coastal highway that takes you along the north coast of the island. Head up to Princeville, where you can stop for a quick lunch at the Princeville Shopping Center. Just down the road from the Princeville Center is a beautiful spot that’s made for selfies: the overlook at the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. This nature preserve is closed to the public, but here you get a stunning view of the park that’s home to Hawaii’s endangered birds and wildlife.
One thing you should definitely “overlook”: a scenic view of the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Tracey Steinberg)
Continue on the Kuhio Highway (Route 56 becomes Route 560) and you’ll find more outdoor fun. At Hanalei Bay Beach Park, there’s snorkeling, surfing, and kayaking. Or literally go to the end of the road to Haena State Park, where you can take a peek inside 4,000-year-old wet caves or begin the Kalalau Trail, a very challenging, 11-mile trail you will absolutely not have time to finish in the time you have here. But you can take in the natural beauty before heading back to the ship. Or if you’re feeling rich from all the money you saved after blowing off those expensive cruise-organized tours, double back to Princeville to spend the night at the beautiful St. Regis Resort (But don’t oversleep: The ship will leave at 2 p.m. Friday).
Spoiler Alert: Here’s what the Kalalau Trail looks like toward the end. (Photo: Michael Caroe Andersen/Flickr)
Friday: Nawiliwili, Kauai
Take a walk on the beach at Kalapaki; you’ve earned it! (Photo: Steve S/Flickr)
If you’re not hightailing it back from an overnight in Princeville, take the short walk from the ship over to Kalapaki Beach, where you can spend a leisurely couple of hours before the ship leaves. After all the driving you’ve done, you’ve earned it.
Saturday: Back in Honolulu!
The voyage is over! Back to Honolulu (Photo: Daniel Ramirez/Flickr)
Say aloha to your cruise/Hawaii driving adventure! By this point, you’ve probably covered hundreds of miles, snapped hundreds of pictures, and saved hundreds of dollars on the bus tours you didn’t take. You’re undoubtedly exhausted. But that’s what happens when active vacationers go rogue: They end up so tired, they need a vacation after the vacation! Congratulations on completing your Hawaiian adventure: Magnum would be proud!