The islands of Hawaii are perfectly matched to a cruise-based vacation. These choice cruise lines do the destination best.
When visiting a multi-island locale, there’s no denying the appeal of a seamless cruise-based vacation: Sailings offer an ease of logistics, convenience, and affordability that you’d be hard-pressed to replicate when traveling by land and air. And tropical Hawaii is the quintessential island-hopper vacation destination indeed, with its eight major islands, including the tourist hubs at Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and the Big Island. Find sun-soaked, palm-fringed beaches; sparkling blue waters teeming with surfers, marine life (like giant manta rays and humpback whales), and coral reefs; and dramatic rain forest–blanketed landscapes, pocked by volcanic peaks and cascading waterfalls. Plus, there's plenty of Polynesian-flavored culture, like the touristy-yet-transporting luaus, complete with pig roasts, ukulele jams, and hula dancers.
Exotic, yet altogether American, the archipelago can be handily explored by cruise ship, either on immersive weeklong itineraries running round-trip from Hawaii itself, or in combination with ample days spent at sea on lengthier voyages that primarily run between the state and the western U.S./Canadian coast. Note that while a few luxury cruise lines feature Hawaii on rarer one-off repositioning sailings or as segments of longer world cruises or grand voyages, the major players in the region tend to skew more mainstream. With that in mind, here are the six best cruise bets for saying aloha to the 50th state.
UnCruise Adventures Sails Hawaii on Intimate Yacht
Small-ship adventure line UnCruise Adventures kicks off its first-ever summer sailing season in the Hawaiian Islands, in July and August 2019, building on the company’s already-established Hawaii presence, which normally operates between November and April. Sign up for one of six weeklong summer itineraries, cruising round-trip from the island of Molokai with stops in Lanai, the Big Island, and Maui. Cruises embark on the 36-guest, upscale-yet-laid-back Safari Explorer yacht, making it the most intimate voyage option in the region.
The four-island itineraries include less commonly visited ports and come chockful of active adventures like hiking to a waterfall in the Halawa Valley or snorkeling alongside green sea turtles off of west Maui. A complementary cultural heritage component includes hosted visits inside a local family’s home and a traditional pa‘ina feast, accompanied by traditional music and dance. Rates from $5,195, including excursions, ground transfers, and alcoholic beverages; uncruise.com
Celebrity Cruises Vancouver-Honolulu Routes on Plush Sister Ships
Two of Celebrity’s sleek Solstice-class ships—the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Solstice and 2,852-passenger Celebrity Eclipse—run a handful of 10- to 13-night spring and fall Hawaii voyages between Vancouver and Honolulu. Itineraries vary slightly, but generally include stops at Hilo and Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and Lahaina in Maui; several also factor in scenic cruising past the Kilauea volcano and one or two overnight calls in port, too.
Opt in for excursions like a tasty coffee, chocolate, and beer tour in Kailua-Kona, or a hike to the Haleakala crater, the highest point in Maui. Back on the ship—itineraries incorporate at least five full days at sea while in transit—kick back and relax at the top-deck Lawn Club, featuring a half-acre of real grass, or luxuriate at the top-rated Canyon Ranch Spa. Rates from $1,049/person; celebritycruises.com
Norwegian Offers Seven-Night Voyages Year-Round From Honolulu
Norwegian Cruise Line is the only big-ship cruise company to homeport in Hawaii, touting a year-round schedule of interisland sailings. The seven-night itineraries, which embark every Saturday, sail round-trip from Honolulu (on Oahu), covering four islands—Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island—with two overnight stays in Maui and Kauai, as well as scenic sailing along the Na Pali Coast.
Unlike most other Hawaiian cruises—which run routes between Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast or western Canada, requiring a good amount of sea days—the 2,186-passenger Pride of America focuses exclusively on Hawaii, allowing for one of the most immersive itineraries on the market (guests can expect some 100 hours in port). Port tour options include helicopter rides over Hawaii’s legendary landscapes, a sunrise bicycling tour down the switchbacks of the Haleakala volcano, or a rappelling excursion past 50-foot-high waterfalls in Maui.
The midrange mega-ship was extensively refurbished in 2016 and features nearly 80 suites that are upgraded with VIP perks like priority embarkation and disembarkation, concierge services, and a private captain- and senior officer-hosted cocktail party. Rates from $899/person; ncl.com
Royal Caribbean Runs Repositioning Cruises on Quantum-Class Ship
Known for its bigger-is-better, embrace-all-the-bells-and-whistles ethos, Royal Caribbean offers a select number of Hawaiian sailings each year, as part of its repositioning routes. Its trio of Quantum-class ships are among the biggest, boldest, and newest of the amenity-packed cruise line’s 26-ship fleet. But two of those three—Quantum of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas—have been serving the Asian and Australian markets since their debut, with only the New Jersey–based Anthem of the Seas targeting U.S.-based travelers.
That changes this year when the 4,180-passeger Ovation of the Seas repositions from Sydney to Alaska for the summer 2019 season. En route, cruisers can sign up for an 11-night voyage from Honolulu to Vancouver; embarking May 2, 2019, it includes an overnight stay in both Oahu and Maui, scenic cruising past the active Mount Kilauea volcano, and a call in Victoria, British Columbia. Several sea days afford ample time to explore the mega-ship, with its FlowRider surf simulator, RipCord by iFly indoor skydiving experience, and SeaPlex entertainment center (with a trapeze school, roller-skating rink, and bumper cars).
The Ovation runs a similar return route from Vancouver to Honolulu, embarking September 20, 2019, with repeat Hawaii-inclusive repositioning voyages scheduled in May and September of 2020, too. Rates from $840/person; royalcaribbean.com
Princess Sails Unique Round-Trip Itineraries From San Francisco and L.A.
Princess Cruises maintains an ongoing portfolio of Hawaii-focused cruises, with more than 20 such voyages scheduled aboard four ships through 2020. Not only is it the only cruise line to run a full season of round-trip voyages from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii but it also stands out from the pack for its rare round-trip itineraries out of San Francisco (on the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess) and Los Angeles (on the 3,080-passenger Emerald Princess, 3,080-guest Ruby Princess, or 2,600-guest Star Princess). These 15-night sailings include stops at Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island, with a late-night stay in Honolulu, as well as a call in Ensenada, Mexico.
Guests can opt in for a variety of excursions, including an Animal Planet–branded (thanks to an exclusive Princess partnership) shark cage encounter in Honolulu. But keep in mind that these lengthier voyages factor in a whopping nine days spent at sea—time where you can reboot on the ships’ signature adults-only Sanctuary relaxation deck and partake in Hawaii immersion while mingling with the Hawaiian ambassadors onboard or enjoying “Aloha Spirit” programming, like lei-making workshops, hula dance lessons, Polynesian language classes, and a menu dedicated to Hawaiian dishes, including a farewell luau on deck. Rates from $1,112/person; princess.com
Holland America Cruises Round-Trip From San Diego
Holland America has a handful of 16- to 18-night voyages in 2019/2020 that run round-trip from sunny San Diego, aboard the 1,964-passenger Oosterdam or 2,104-passenger Eurodam. Itineraries vary slightly but typically incorporate stops in Oahu (with a late-night call in Honolulu), Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island, along with scenic cruising past the Kilauea volcano and a dip into Ensenada, Mexico.
Excursion highlights include a farm-to-fork, Food & Wine magazine–branded culinary tour of the Big Island, or a visit to the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” at Kauai’s 2,857-foot-deep Waimea Canyon. Note that these lengthier voyages include up to 10 days at sea: Pass some of that time in the ships’ numerous music venues, including BB King’s Blues Club, Lincoln Center Stage (featuring chamber music, in partnership with NYC’s Lincoln Center), and dueling-piano venue Billboard Onboard. Rates from $1,699/person; hollandamerica.com