For a lot of people, a Hawaiian vacation is THE dream! Visions of swaying palm trees, ukulele music, hula dancers, surfers, and iconic beaches are what everybody thinks of when they imagine Hawaii. And, hey, it’s all there! But for many travelers, choosing an island to visit or knowing how to spend their days on each island can be overwhelming. For the traveler who wants to see everything, a cruise to Hawaii can be the perfect solution…you get to go to all of the islands, you don’t have to worry about inter-island airfare, and your bed follows you around!
So if you’re wondering how to make sure you get to see the best of the islands from a cruise to Hawaii, this post if for you! These ships offer countless excursions…how are you supposed to know which ones to pick? And when is it better to ditch the excursion and head out on your own?
These are my recommendations on how to see the best of Hawaii from a cruise ship. For the purposes of this post, I will be adapting these recommendations to fit the Norwegian Cruise Line’s 7-Night cruise itinerary sailing out of Honolulu as it’s one of the more popular cruise lines but you can still use these daily recommendations no matter which ship you’re on!
Since you’ll be flying in and out of Honolulu (that’s Oahu), here are a few highlights that you should hit on Oahu either before or after your cruise:
Pearl Harbor: This should be at the top of anybody’s list. It’s easy to spend a full day here but the highlight is the USS Arizona Memorial. It’s free to take the boat out to the memorial but you have to have tickets and they only give out around 2000 a day. Make reservations online before you go so you’ll be guaranteed entry.
Hanauma Bay: Some of the best snorkeling in all of the islands is at this spot on the windward side of Oahu where part of Elvis’ “Blue Hawaii” was filmed. It’s a beautiful bay and the overlook is a major tourist stop, but take the tram or hike down to the bottom and spend some time snorkeling. They stop letting people in once the parking lot fills up, so come early. You pay a small entrance fee and you have to watch a conservation video before being admitted but the place has great facilities and top notch snorkeling.
Lanikai Beach: While you’re over on that side of the island, head north to Lanikai Beach (in Kailua town) to check out one of the most stunning beaches in the world. It’s easily Hawaii’s best beach. The water is clear and calm and if you rent kayaks or paddle boards at nearby Kailua beach, you can paddle out to the two small islands offshore. While neighboring Kailua beach has great amenities, you’ll find none at Lanikai. Park along the neighborhood streets and find a shoreline access sign to cut through to the beach.
Explore the North Shore: Oahu’s North Shore is as “local” as it gets. Surfs up in the winter months and if you’re there in December or January be prepared for MAJOR crowds coming out for the surf competitions. Notable spots include the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay, and Haliewa town.
Dinner on Waikiki: If you’ve never been here, you kind of have to see it, but once is usually enough. Plan to arrive at Waikiki between 3-4 PM and have time dinner at either Duke’s or Rum Fire to catch the sunset. Spend some time walking up and down the strip ogling at all the high end shops and throngs of tourists. There’s two major photo ops on Waikiki: 1) with the Duke statue (he’s considered the father of surfing), and 2) on the beach with Diamond Head in the background.
Paradise Cove Luau: If you want a taste of Hawaiian culture, this really is the best place to get it. This traditional luau combines a stellar show with a major feast and all kinds of fun activities and traditions. If you’re considering going to the Polynesian Cultural Center, skip it and do this luau instead. You’ll find many of the same experiences and the atmosphere is much more fun.
P.S.: If you’re looking for a great beach resort to either unwind at after your cruise or acclimate to the time difference at before, I can’t recommend Disney’s Aulani Resort in Ko’Olina enough.
Norwegian Cruise Line offers an overnight stop in Maui which is great because there’s no way you can see everything in one day. Here’s what not to miss on Maui:
Road to Hana: On the first day, rent a car (preferably a four door Jeep) and drive the Road to Hana. Do this the first day so you won’t feel pressured to make it back to the ship at a certain time. You can do this as part of an excursion, but the fun here is the adventure and it’s hard to feel adventurous on a tour bus. From Kahului, you’ll head to Paia town (which is the official start of the Road to Hana).
This is a great North Shore hippy surf town and a great place to either grab breakfast (try Anthony’s Coffee Shop) or pick up a picnic lunch (multiple places on the main drag offer a cooler with sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, and drinks).
Once you leave town, your first stop should be Ho’okipa Beach Park. You’ll see a sign for “Ho’okipa Overlook” just a few miles out of town. If the surf is up, pull in and watch the surfers for a few minutes. Down below on the beach, there is a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles “resting area” where 20-25 turtles come up onto the beach and…well…rest.
Continue on the road for several miles until you come to a grove of rainbow eucalyptus trees (between mile markers 6 and 7). Definitely worth a photo stop. There’s a bamboo forest along here (you’ll see cars parked along the road, just look for an opening in the bamboo and hike down) but there’s a better one at Oheo Gulch on down the road.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Oahu
Once you get back on the road, the views will really start to open up. You’ll drive past waterfalls and amazing scenery and there will be a million places to get out and explore and that’s the fun part, but don’t let the time get away from you!
As you get near Hana town, stop at Waianapanaapa (the black sand beach). There’s an overlook and you can walk down to the beach as well. Once you’re in Hana town, you’re near what I consider to be the highlight of the Road to Hana…the red sand beach! It’s tricky to find but very worth it. As you’re coming into Hana town, take a left on Hauoli road (you’ll pass a church and some tennis courts) and then turn right when the road dead ends at the Hana Community Center. Park along this street and walk across the open lawn of the Community Center. You should be able to pick up a trail through the bushes (if this sounds downright crazy to you, you might be better off to wait for people who look like they know what they’re doing to come along and follow them!). Whatever you decide to do, just remember that after your initial descent down to the trail, keep going to the left. There will be a narrow beach of rock and red sand below you and a lot of people stop here but keep going. You’ll know it when you see it. You will be floored. This is a true highlight of Maui, and you could be lucky enough to have it all to yourself!
In Hana town, stop at Hasagawa’s General Store for a coke and then keep on going if you want to hike the trails at Kipahulu and still make it back before dark. Kipahulu (part of Haleakala National Park) is about 10 miles past Hana town and the road gets interesting but it’s all paved. Once you reach the parking lot of the National Park, it’s about a 3-hour hike up through the bamboo forest to the 400-foot Waimoku falls on the Pipiwai trail. This trail is a truly stunning experience but it requires good time management on the front end of the day to make it here and still have time for the hike. If you don’t have enough time or you’re not up for the hike, there’s a shorter trail (less than ½ mile loop) that takes you to the Seven Sacred Pools.
Once you leave here, you’re officially on the “backside” of the Road to Hana. This road intimidates many people but they’re the ones who have never done it. The 4-5 miles just past the national park are the worst (narrow, windy roads) but after that it clears up into nicely paved roads with wide-open views. The backside road is very different from the front road and definitely worth experiencing. It’s also quicker to come back this way instead of backtracking. Once you leave the national park, it’s less than an hour and a half drive to Kula (back to civilization).
You’ll be exhausted at the end of the day, but this is the real Maui and not to be missed! A trip to Maui without experiencing the Road to Hana is a missed opportunity.
Surf Lessons: On your second day in Maui, consider taking surf lessons. Most companies operate out of either Kihei or Lahaina. Try Hawaiian Style Surf for a very local experience. If you’re starving after hanging loose for a few hours, walk across the street to Horhito’s Taco Truck for the best fish tacos of your life!
Ka’anapali Beach: This is the best beach in Maui and the drive from Kahului over to West Maui is pretty spectacular. If you’re visiting for the day, park at the Sheraton ($20 for the day) or the Whaler’s Village (which validates parking with a minimum purchase) and hang out in the sand, play in the waves, snorkel at Black Rock, shop at Whaler’s Village, or stroll along the beach walk. This is one of the best spots in Maui and a great place to spend an afternoon. If you schedule your surf lessons at 8 AM it’s possible to squeeze both surfing and hanging out at Ka’anapali in one day.
The Big Island (Hawaii)
The island of Hawaii is called the “Big Island” for a reason…it’s really big. So big in fact, that not only does this cruise itinerary spend two days on this island, but it actually docks at two different ports: first in Hilo, and then travelling around the island for a second stop in Kona (a distance of several hours by car).
A stop in Hilo is really about one thing…Volcano National Park. This is one of the only places in the world where you can see an active volcano, and it’s certainly the most accessible. There are several different ways you can explore this park: by land, by air, and by sea. Perhaps the most iconic is to take a helicopter tour. You’re almost guaranteed to see the lava flow this way and although you won’t be able to take the nighttime tour because of the boat’s departure time, it’s a pretty spectacular sight to see during the day too.
You could rent a car and strike out on your own to explore the park (you can hike down to the crater floor, walk through a fern forest and through a lava tube, and check out an aerial view of the crater) but it’s questionable whether you’ll get to see the lava flow this way. There are boat charter companies that will take groups out to the point where the lava is flowing into the ocean, but this is dependent on what’s going on with the volcano and the lava flow on the day that you visit.
I would recommend taking the helicopter excursion that does a tour of Volcano National Park (where you’ll mostly likely see lava flow and possibly where it enters the ocean) and a stop at Rainbow Falls. It’s pricy, but this really is a spectacular thing to see. If you have time left over, spend a bit strolling through historic Hilo town. It’s got cute shops and restaurants and it’s very quaint. You’ll probably want to pack rain gear as it seems it’s usually raining on this side of the island (that’s why it’s so lush!).
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Kona side is the more arid side of the island (think lava fields as far as the eye can see). It seems there’s more beaches on this side of the island but there’s also more attractions to visit.
In my opinion, an attraction not to be missed is the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm. You have to take a tour and it only lasts about an hour but at the end you get to hold a seahorse. Yes, you get to hold a seahorse. If that doesn’t grab your attention then maybe you should skip this, but you have to appreciate it as the once in a lifetime kind of experience that it is.
If you want to do this experience, you might consider doing one of the ship’s excursions that combines this with a coffee plantation tour.
For the most adventurous of travelers who are looking for something truly off the beaten path, nothing fits the bill more than a trip to the Green Sand beach down south. There are only a few of these in the world (others being in the Galapagos Islands, Guam, and Norway). I’m warning you…getting here isn’t for the mildly interested or those just looking for a casual excursion. It will take some work but you’ll be rewarded with a truly spectacular sight.
From Kona, you’ll have to drive south to South Point (the most southern point of the island and also the most southern point in the US), which is a couple of hours. You’ll turn off on the road towards South Point and drive as far as you can. At some point you’ll reach a parking lot and you’re met with a few options.
1) You can get out and hike along the rugged coastline (it’s a couple of miles). 2) If you have 4WD you can drive through the sometimes open gate and enter at your own risk (this is Hawaiian Homelands Property). 3) You can hop in the back of one of the local’s trucks or ATVs and they’ll drive you right up to the top of the cliff overlooking the beach. This is the way to go. They know the land and the rules and the experience is way worth their fee (bring cash). They love this land and love sharing it with appreciative visitors. Just remember, this is their home…ask plenty of questions and just enjoy the experience.
Once you arrive at the overlook, you’ll have to scramble down the rock formation but there are well-worn paths and usually plenty of willing people to help you haul your stuff (and kids!) to the bottom. The sand is beautiful and the water is great for swimming. Just make sure you don’t get so wrapped up in this authentic Hawaiian experience that you forget to head back to the ship in time!
This is the oldest and perhaps most beautiful of the Hawaiian Islands. Normally, I would say that a trip to Kauai is not complete without a raft ride down the Napali coast, zipping in and out of sea caves and spotting places where some pretty iconic movies were filmed, but since the ship makes a point to cruise by this on the last day, I would suggest using your time on Kauai for other experiences.
Waimea Canyon: This really isn’t to be missed. They call it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and it totally lives up to the hype. It’s a drive (it’s located on the remote southwestern side of the island) but it’s something that you absolutely must see. There’s dozens of different outlook spots and several boast views of the Napali coast from the top (this is a different view than you’ll get as the ship floats by). There’s a lodge type restaurant to stop and have lunch at before you make the drive back.
Fern Grotto: You can cruise up the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto on a riverboat to a sort of natural amphitheater. This is an experience that is truly unique to Kauai. I would suggest signing up for the excursion that takes you to Waimea Canyon and the Fern Grotto in the same day. Not having to rent a car and worry about driving directions will be worth it.
Hanalei Bay: On your second day on Kauai I would suggest renting a car and driving up the north shore to spend some time at Hanalei Bay. During the summer it’s a calm bay perfect for paddle boarding (and there’s plenty of rental companies) but in the winter it turns into one of the best surf breaks in Hawaii (comparable with the Bonzai Pipeline on Oahu) and you’re guaranteed to see some of Kauai’s best out there ripping it up. Princeville is a nice resort community on the north shore (have lunch at the St Regis if you’re looking for spectacular views of Hanalei Bay with the mountains in the background) or continue into Hanalei town for cute little local shops and restaurants. Keep driving along the north shore until the road stops. It’s a great, less explored part of the island.
Once the cruise ship departs port and heads for the Napali coast make sure you’re up on deck (or on your balcony) for views straight out of magazines. This is why Hollywood producers come to Hawaii. Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and Pirates of the Caribbean have all shot here. This is the Hawaii of your dreams.
The next morning you’ll be back in Honolulu and I recommend adding on a few extra days at Aulani to “recover” from your cruise. A Hawaiian cruise is likely different from any other cruise you’ve been on. You’re covering a lot of ground in just a week and there’s so much to see, but if you follow these recommendations you’ll be sure to have seen not just Hawaii’s most popular sights but some of what makes Hawaii truly special. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to stop and enjoy the moments…talk to the people. Ask questions and take an interest in the local way of life. These people are what make Hawaii truly special.
Whew! What a whirlwind! You’ll notice that I didn’t really recommend much “down time” on any of the islands. That’s because you’re on island for such a short period of time that I think you really need to make the most of it. To make sure that you don’t come back from your vacation needing a vacation, plan to stay a couple of extra days on Oahu and just be a beach bum.
Have you been on a Hawaiian Island cruise? What were your favorite things that you did? Come on over to Facebook and tell me about it!
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