Hawaii Ports as visited by the author during RCI's Legend of the Seas December 1998 Ensenada to Honolulu Cruise
The following port information is in addition to our review of our cruise on Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas on the Ensenada to Honolulu 11-day itinerary. This itinerary is relatively unique as cruise itineraries go. Although we and others have been to Hawaii in the past, most people have never visited the Islands from the vantage of being a cruise ship passenger. I would therefore hope that some of our observations would be of value.
We and our traveling companions have been to the Hawaiian Islands a number of times over the years. We've seen many of the sights. We decided we would not buy any of the shore excursions offered and instead would rent a car at each of our ports of call and go on our own. We made arrangements in advance with Budget Rent-A-Car for a full-size sedan for a commercial rate at $39 per day (plus gas and taxes) at each island. Sharing this nominal cost between two couples afforded a considerable savings as well as allowing us to be more flexible in our sightseeing plans.
We carried our cellphone with us, which incidentally worked OK on every island. When we were ready to get off the ship we called ahead to Budget. We had all of the local office numbers with us. They were waiting for us in every instance when we stepped off the ship.
Hawaii Tourism and Commercialism:
It was evident to us in the years since we had last been to the Islands, that an enormous amount of commercial build-up has taken place, especially on the outer islands. Waikiki has always been very commercial...for decades...and remains so. However, elsewhere you see the proliferation of the tee-shirt shops, junk art galleries and frozen yogurt parlors that can nowadays be found everywhere that tourists go, anywhere in the world actually. These places are not hard to find, and having our own car as we did, were not hard to avoid either. We discovered many places on each of the Islands that were really pristine, and by doing some research before we arrived, we knew what we wanted to see and how to get there.
Many people we spoke to on board relied exclusively on the ship's shore excursions for what they did on each island. It sounded to us that their experiences were largely disappointing at the overrun and "touristy" type attractions they saw including the interminable stops at Hilo Hattie-type souvenir shops. Other than that, these people wandered around (Lahaina is good for doing that) or even stayed aboard ship. Too bad. Hawaii has so much to offer once you get away from the commercialism in certain places. You just have to plan ahead a little bit.
By having a car, we not only saved real money vs. what the shore excursions cost but we also had a lot of control. We felt we didn't miss a thing and that every day was as fulfilling for us as we wanted it to be. It was important however that you knew what you wanted to do when you got behind the wheel.
Also, no cars were available on a spur-of-the-moment. You had to have a reservation for this prime-time week, at least with Budget.
We decided a month before leaving home that we wanted to take a helicopter ride from Hilo to the Kilauea Caldera and Volcanoes National Park. We checked on the Internet and located a broker called Hilo Wings who arranges tours with local helicopter operators. We didn't save any money by planning ahead, but we were assured of a reservation. The ship's helicopter tours sold out almost immediately. The going rate was about $130-$140 per person for a 50 minute flight. Considering these helicopters cost about $1.3 million and are very expensive to maintain and operate, we felt the price was fair.
The ship docked at 8 AM and our helicopter ride was scheduled for 3 PM. We approached our day in Hilo with some concern. Hilo is advertised as the wettest city in the US, averaging 150" rainfall annually. It was particularly surprising for us than that there wasn't a cloud in the early morning sky. We were docked next to the SS Independence of American Hawaii Cruise line. The Independence is an old clunker built in 1952, lowly regarded by many, that operates on 7-day cruises inter-island cruises from Honolulu. It is to protect operations like this that the Jones Act still exists.
The port in Hilo is adjacent to the airport, not ten minutes away. We called Budget on our cellphone from the ship and they made it easy for us. Take a taxi over to the airport and they would reimburse us the $12 fare. By 9 AM we were in our car, a Mustang convertible upgrade @ $15 extra for the day, and we were on our way. When we had asked about a convertible at the time we made the initial reservation, we were told it would cost $110 extra for the day. On an availability basis, we got one for far less.
We spent the first part of our day in Hilo driving north to Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls, well worth the drive and the short hike when we got there. We had a Siamin lunch in a small cafe nearby. Siamin is a Hawaiian food staple resembling chicken noodle soup with sliced pork, a little salty, but actually quite good. We've had it before. Later, back in Hilo, we stopped at Hilo Hattie's in a small mall near the airport and bought some souvenirs. It seemed to be the thing to do.
Then we went to the airport for the helicopter tour. It was really first rate, very well done and quite spectacular. We all enjoyed it fully, so much so that we made arrangements with the same company, Safari Aviation Inc., to take their tour in Kauai two days later. Safari has a nice touch in that they video tape in real time our helicopter ride including views of us seated inside. They have four cameras strategically placed and the pilot chooses the camera with a button on his joystick. They offered the tape for an extra $19. Looking at the video on a big screen TV after we got home, we felt it was a very worthwhile souvenier of the aerial experience.
Afterward, we returned the car, took the Budget shuttle back to the ship and left Hilo soon thereafter, on Christmas eve.
Whereas Hilo is on the windward (wet) side of the Big Island, the Kona Coast is on the opposite, western side. We anchored less than a mile off-shore and the ship provided tender service to get us into town. Although it was Christmas day, pretty much everything was open. I guess with two cruise ships anchored off-shore, the Legend of the Seas and SS Independence, it was an opportunity for business most storekeepers could not afford to miss.
We used our cellphone to call Budget from the ship, and just as we stepped ashore from the tender, the shuttle bus arrived from Kona Airport, 7 miles to the north. Once again we were able to get a 1999 Mustang convertible for a $15 surcharge on top of our base commercial rate.
Unlike the wet and green terrain found on the windward side of the Big Island, the leeward Kona Coast is dry, warmer and desert-like. We headed north on Hwy. 19 through the century-old lava fields that flow down from the now-dormant Mauna Kea volcano to the sea. A unique thing we saw along the way which we had never seen before is what the locals call "clean graffiti". Small, white coral rocks are carefully arranged on the black lava flows to spell out names or social statements just like spray paint on flat walls. Not unattractive actually, and it went on for miles.
Our first stop was the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. This place charges $625 per night for an ocean-front room in the off-season. Since this was prime season, I have no idea what they charge, but it didn't appear they were suffering for lack of guests. My wife and I often will visit a first-line hotel or resort, one that we clearly cannot afford, but one where we can stay awhile, enjoy the grounds, the facilities, and perhaps even have lunch. We've done this many times, worldwide.
This resort was clearly among the nicest we had ever seen anywhere. Rating such places as better than 5-stars and comparing it to others that might have more amenities, is, I think, an exercise in subjective futility. While we were there, we all felt that there may be indeed be a better resort than this extravagant place, but there can't be very many.
We stayed for about an hour and moved on up the coast another 10 miles to the Westin Mauna Kea Resort on the Kohala Coast. As much as we all agreed that the Four Seasons was the best we had seen in quite a while, we all later agreed that the Mauna Kea was even nicer.
Mauna Kea is a world-class golf resort. Since we don't play the game, we couldn't comment on what we saw except that the vistas of the greens were spectacular. We decided to have the Sunday Brunch that the hotel offers on their pavillion. We weren't there on a Sunday, but they had a special-occasion brunch for Christmas.
The brunch was relatively expensive ($36 per person) but we felt it was simply the most extravagant food presentation we had ever seen. We've enjoyed the elegant buffet at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. We've had the magnificent Sunday brunch at the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale. In both cases, these occasions have remained memorable to us over the years. The Mauna Kea spread was simply better. I had been there more than 25 years ago. It was great then and it is still great now.
After this major chow-down, we drove back to Kailua-Kona, less than an hour away on the excellent coast road. We walked around the many shopping opportunities just south of the tender pier and left a little money behind. Kailua-Kona was not unlike a mini-Lahaina in this regard. Pretty soon it was time to return to the airport to turn in the car, tender back to the Legend of the Seas and sail further west to our next day on the Island of Kauai.
The Legend of the Seas docked at 7 AM in the small and intimate Nawiliwili Harbor located next to Kauai's principal town, Lihui. As commercial marine terminals go, this place was quite picturesque, lined with the jagged green mountains that typify the Kauai terrain. Budget picked us up promptly, and soon we were leaving nearby Lihui Airport in still another Mustang convertible carrying a $15 daily surcharge.
We drove north along the lush eastern shore of the Island and stopped briefly at the picturesque Kilauea lighthouse. From there, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding valley. We proceeded a short distance further west and stopped for brunch at the five-star Princeville Resort on Hanalei Bay. The setting was superb, the scenery magnificent, and the pancakes smothered in macadamia nuts (with your choice of either guava or coconut syrup) were delicious.
You cannot drive all the way around Kauai...the rugged Na Pali Coast gets in the way. We drove back down the way we came to Lihui Airport to connect to the helicopter sightseeing excursion that we had arranged for when we concluded our Hilo ride two days earlier. Once again we were using the services of Safari Aviation Inc., an operation that we would recommend to anyone.
There are some 30 helicopters offering sightseeing trips at any given moment on the island of Kauai. On the beautiful sunny day-after-Christmas such as this, all the choppers were in the air, and all day long. It was a sellout. As much as we enjoyed the volcano tour from Hilo, this trip was even better. In a flight that actually lasted 55 minutes, we saw the Poipu / Koloa resort area on the south shore, we flew way down into the depths of Waimea Canyon, and cruised way down low along the rugged and inaccessible Na Pali coast. We entered several narrow canyons at a very low altitude, and flew in the rain up the slopes of Mt. Waialeale, the summit of which is the wettest place on earth. Our pilot did a terrific narration to the background music of Ravel's Bolero drumming in our headphones. There is no better way to see and enjoy all the varied vistas of Kauai.
Afterwards, we drove over to Poipu Beach and got a quick look at the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency hotels from the road. We were out of time. We quickly got rid of the car and were back on the Legend of the Seas barely a few minutes before we sailed away for Maui at 5:30 PM.
My wife and I were married on Maui almost twenty years ago. Although we had been back since, it's been a few years since the last time. We were looking forward to renewing our acquaintance with this beautiful island. Further, the itinerary would allow us to be there for two full days, overnighting on the ship.
We anchored off-shore Lahaina, and as at Kailua-Kona, the passengers were tendered ashore. The weather was perfect and remained that way. Even the summit of Mt. Haleakala remained cloudless into the afternoon hours.
Lahaina is located just south of the popular Kaanapali Beach hotel area. We decided to forgo the Mustang convertible. Despite the fun part of having an open car, after three days we found the Mustang to be a dreadful car with hardly any room in the front and an impossibly uncomfortable rear seat, even for petite women It rides lousy and is severely lacking in power with four people on board. Since we were driving about 100 miles daily, we decided to finish our trip with air conditioned full-sized cars. We called for the shuttle on the cellphone, and it was waiting for us when we stepped off the tender. We were taken to the Budget office, about 20 minutes from the tender pier, just at the north end of Kaanapali.
Front Street in Lahaina is an artsy kind of place that can typify for some everything that is wrong in Hawaii; lot's of commercialism, whatever that means. Nevertheless, when compared to similar scenarios in the Caribbean...Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas immediately comes to mind...the people on Maui just seem to be kinder, gentler and far less pushy in trying to pick a tourist's pocket. Also, if you don't like it, in just a few blocks you're really out of town and thus able to enjoy Maui as it should be. Lahaina really is quite nice if you're into people watching and just enjoy browsing stores for awhile.
Our first stop after getting the car was to drive 30 minutes to Kahului to visit the Price Costco discount warehouse store. We are Costco aficionados at home. While there, we stocked up on all the souvenir items we had been seeing at twice the price in the local souvenir shops, including macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, Island photo books, and lots of made-in-Hawaii clothing such as Aloha shirts, shorts, and long dresses for women.
Incidentally, Costco prices on Maui for the same kind of staples we buy at home in California were about 15-20% high. That's just the higher cost of living in the Island Paradise.
From Kahului, we drove another 30 minutes south to the Wailea Beach area on the southwest shore of Maui. This is a magnificent part of the island, entirely different from all the craziness of Lahaina and in our opinion an order of magnitude classier than the much older Kaanapali Beach. We stopped at the Grand Wailea Resort, still another super-five-star hotel, arguably regarded to be the best on Maui. We had lunch at their poolside cafe. We stayed a couple of hours and enjoyed it thoroughly for reasons expressed earlier regarding similar places on the other islands.
After that, we went back to Lahaina and visited an artist's flea market set up under the huge and famous Banyan tree behind the old landmark Pioneer Inn building.
That evening, we visited some friends who were staying at the Maui Marriott and accepted their invitation to the luau that takes place there nightly. Supposedly, there are three hotels on Maui offering a luau, and the Marriott is said to be the best of them. It was quite good actually, although we've been to a luau more than once in the past. Despite it being a lot of fun, it's not something you want to do too often, something akin to going to the circus or to the Ice Capades.
The tender service back to the Legend of the Seas operated all night long. When we drove down Front Street at 10 PM to get to the tender boat, the street was packed with strolling people and it seemed that every business along the street was still open on this particular Sunday night.
The following morning we drove north on the coast road past Kaanapali. About 10 miles further up the road we passed by Kapalua, to return later in the day. Kapalua is a world-class golf resort on a beautiful part of the northwest Maui coast, just below Honolua Bay. There are a number of scenic overlooks with sweeping views of the Maui shoreline and of Molokai in the distance. There is a lot of surfing activity in this part of the Island as well.
We drove back down the road to Kapalua and according to our custom, we decided to have lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Terrific place and a great meal, but the hotel is definitely understated compared to the other places we had been visiting. Lots of women dining or lounging by the pool alone, probably golf widows at that particular place.
At 6 PM, the Legend of the Seas pulled up anchor and began to sail 150 NM west to our last port of call, Honolulu.
We docked before 8 AM, and began a full day (plus one more night) aboard ship. This was the extra bonus day we picked up due to the extra speed of the Legend of the Seas between Ensenada and Hilo.
The ship was docked at the foot of the landmark Aloha Tower, essentially in the middle of downtown Honolulu, surrounded by tall, modern office buildings. The immediate area has been built up considerably in the years since we were here last. When stepping off the ship, the Aloha Tower Marketplace greets the visitor. This is a very nice, 3-year old shopping and entertainment complex, readily available to the ship passenger as a nearby walk-around destination that evening when we were remaining aboard ship.
The super-luxurious Paul Gaugin was docked behind us and sailed away that night.
We contacted Budget and we were picked up by a shuttle a few minutes later. Unfortunately, we had to be ferried to the Budget office on Kalakaua Avenue in the middle of Waikiki, more than 20 minutes away. The neighbor island car rental operations were friendly, accommodating and low-key, but this place was like renting a car in New York City. Among the things to deal with was that they wanted a $30 drop charge to leave the car at nearby Honolulu Airport. The shuttle driver hinted to us that if we made a stink as a cruise passenger they would waive this, and he was right...they did.
Anyway, we got through that and headed off out of town in the car. We stopped at a couple of scenic overlooks: the Punchbowl Cemetery and the Nuuanu Pali overlook.
We detoured to the Dole Plantation, north of Pearl Harbor. Many years ago, this was a small roadside operation selling low cost spears of field-ripened fresh pineapple, the best pineapple anyone could ever eat anywhere. Now it is a huge production, bordering on becoming a theme park, with cars and tour buses fighting for available parking space. And, needless to say, the pineapple samples are no longer sold as spears but rather in chunks that taste exactly the same as what you find in any cheap salad bar anywhere. And all this while in the middle of the Dole pineapple fields. Too bad.
We then continued on and drove past huge 20-30 ft. surf at Banzai Pipeline and at Sunset Beach on the north shore of Oahu. From there we stopped for lunch at the Turtle Bay Hilton at Kulima Point. I guess we had hoped that this place would be similar in luxury to the hotels we had visited on the outer islands. It sure looked good from the outside. We were disappointed. The place was mediocre, the food likewise, the prices high, and they charged for parking even with a validation.
The lesson here is to go for the best. Even though a five-star hotel may be an expensive place to stay, for people who go there just to enjoy the facilities for a while and have lunch, it is often a bargain. The Hawaiian beaches are all public. Even though we didn't do this, you can bring some towels from the ship and enjoy the public beachfront at the Four Seasons or any of the other places. It's more difficult and more restrictive to do this in the Caribbean.
We returned to the ship in the late afternoon and it was time to pack up for our morning's disembrakation.
Since we were leaving the ship on December 30th, we had made arrangements to stay on in The Ilikai in Waikiki and fly home New Year's Day.
We had an opportunity to stroll down Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag in Waikiki. It still has the tattoo parlors and the tee-shirt shops, especially at the western end of the street. Closer to the International Market Place were now several blocks of European designer stores, similar to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Judging by the bilingual signs we saw, these businesses are there mostly to cater to visitors from Japan. The problem however is that due to the Japanese financial recession, tourism from Asia is off a ton...we heard numbers like 50%. Many businesses in Hawaii are really struggling. We saw a lot of Japanese tourists on Oahu but relatively few on the Outer Islands.
The streets were packed with people...the Las Vegas Strip comes to mind...but again we were there in the highest of the high season. Two weeks later, the town may be deserted. Walking down Kalakaua Avenue at night was a very pleasant experience.
The following links to a website that Paul M. Jaffe maintains which includes panoramic pictures he has taken on this cruise and on some others. Paul uses a Sony Mavica digital camera and stitches the pictures together using software called PhotoVista. You may enjoy taking a look at these other photos!
Paul is a frequent contributor to The SeaLetter and can be reached for questions or comment at: email@example.com.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please