Cruising the Hawaiian Islands on NCL's American-flagged ocean liner means never packing and unpacking the kids as you tour around a state made to be seen by sea.
Is exploring Hawai’i by sea the best way for families to gain in-depth knowledge of the destination? Okay, probably not, but first-timers to the region can get a taste of the major attractions and a sense of the Aloha spirit for which the islands are famous. We tested this theory recently on a week-long cruise aboard the Norwegian Star, a Norwegian Cruise Line ship that incorporates Hawai’ian influences in its dining, entertainment and, of course, shore excursions.
Because we live in Boston — about as far from Hawai’i as you can get and still be in the United States — we approached our visit with a sense of purpose. After all, with young children and long airplane rides to look forward to – not to mention a whole ocean full of Caribbean islands much closer to hand – who knew when we would be back?
So, with guidebooks in hand and a determination to make the most of the experience, we set off with our 10-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son to our embarkation port, Honolulu. By the second day, we realized that being off the ship – and selecting the appropriate daily shore excursion – was the key to a successful cruise.
Aboard The Norwegian Star
Once onboard, there are hands-on Hawai’ian arts and crafts projects to do on at-sea days – including make-your-own-leis and hula lessons – as well as Polynesian shows with singing, chanting, costumes and dancing that rival some of the pricey extravaganzas that tourists flock to on shore.
The Kids Crew children’s program, which is broken into four age groups, also gets into the island spirit with Hawai’ian themed activities and crafts. The 2- to 5-year-old Junior Sailors, for example, take part in a Hawai’ian Beach Bonanza party one night with hula dancing, while the First Mates (6 to 9) go all out with a Hawai’ian Adventure Night. The Navigators (10 to 12) make beaded necklaces, play cards Hawai’ian style and enjoy a rousing game of Steal the Coconuts. Even teens, the only group allowed to come and go from the programs without parental signatures, participate in an activity where they learn their Hawai’ian names.
This Aloha atmosphere lends itself to the island experience and prepares young passengers for the ports of call, which offer everything from straightforward sightseeing to active sports. The restaurants on the Norwegian Star are worth mentioning, too.
Unlike most mainstream cruise lines, there is a host of specialty restaurants (with no obligatory formal nights) and no set seating in the main Versailles dining room. We especially enjoyed the Endless Summer – a specialty restaurant with a Hawaiian-themed cuisine – and the Teppanyaki, which features kid-pleasing steaks cooked to order (and in front of you) by knife-wielding Japanese-style chefs.
Another culinary highlight was our farewell dinner at Le Bistro, a French restaurant with elegant food, gorgeous place settings and unflappable wait staff willing to offer children’s menus and ketchup. We also liked being able to eat at odd hours at the Blue Lagoon, open 24 hours, and the Market CafÃ©, which has a Kids CafÃ© at one end. Choice and quality have a price: many of the NCL theme restaurants impose a surcharge and a la carte pricing applies at the Sushi bar and Teppanyaki.
The Big Island of Hawai’i
The first island port is Hawai’i, or the Big Island, which – true to its name – is much too large to fully experience in one day. Our ship docked in Hilo, known as the rainy side of the island, but ships also can dock in Kona, which generally draws more tourists. The big thing to do on Hawai’i is to visit Volcanoes National Park and drive along the Rim Crater. Various shore excursions (about five to six hours long) that incorporate this sight are available, and you can even take the Circle of Fire Helicopter for an aerial view of the scenery.
We decided to forgo this experience for something we thought the children would enjoy more – in my experience, kids don’t always like “great views,” and the more important the view, the less likely they are to enjoy it. Instead, we opted for the Hawai’ian Eco-Safari & Snorkel outing, which took us in small vans through the countryside – green with vegetation and black with volcanic rock – to a working orchid farm, through the rain forest to Lava Tree State Park and on a snorkeling expedition in the interconnecting tidal pools at Kapoho Coral Gardens. We finished the five-hour excursion with a dip in a geothermal pond at Ahalanui Park, with its hot tub-like temperatures.
The excursion was not inexpensive at nearly $100 per dult, but it gave us the combination of water sports with small chunks of easy, kid-friendly sightseeing. Friends on board who wanted an independent way to experience the volcano with their young daughter rented a car for about $35 for the day. Obviously a huge cost savings, they said the experience was wonderful, but rushed, with barely enough time to zip through the park and back to the ship.
The next day, spent at sea, gave us time to try our hands at the Hawai’ian crafts on board, shop for local souvenirs, make new friends at the children’s club and – most of all – explore the ship’s many restaurants.
In case you are wondering which Hawai’ian Islands are far enough apart to warrant a whole day at sea, our destination day four was Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati, near Christmas Island and only 228 miles from the equator. While the beaches accessible to NCL passengers by tender are reserved for the ship’s guests, this is not a private island experience comparable to those you may have experienced in the Bahamas. The Kiribati Islands are inhabited by real people going about their daily lives, with only select areas designated for passengers’ use.
Most passengers opt to travel to the main beach at Fanning Island, where a barbecue lunch, bar service, bathroom facilities, rental bikes, Native islanders selling handcrafts and lots and lots of people await. For $20 a person, you can visit Napali Beach instead (accessible from either Fanning Island or from the cruise ship, by boat), which offers a lovely beach, fewer guests, kayaks and sailboats and a more serene atmosphere. We found no food or bathroom services on Napali Beach; cruise officials say that Port-a-Potties are under consideration. Whichever beach you choose, wear plenty of sunscreen and drink bottled water, as the weather is sizzling. And be prepared with cash to buy the indigenous handcrafts. Some of our fellow guests also brought toys to distribute to the local children.
After another day at sea, we pulled into perhaps the most eagerly anticipated port of call – Maui. Here, again, we were torn between doing what we were “supposed” to do on Maui – visit the Haleakala Crater, I’ao Valley or Ka’anapali beach – and decided, again, to do the bulk of our sightseeing under water.
A West Maui Select Snorkel excursion put us – astonishingly – inside the rim of the crescent-shaped Molokini Volcano, where we snorkeled amid an assortment of colorful fish in startlingly clear water. Wet suits, which the staff advised us to wear to ward off the chill, are available for rent ($5) on board. Being New Englanders, we scoffed at this notion and were very comfortable in just our bathing suits. The excursion cost $99/adult and $79/child — pricey, but again, a highlight of the cruise.
Our do-it-yourself friends rented a car in Maui (about $60) with the intention of driving to Kapalua, but were deterred by time constraints. Instead, they spent the day at Ka’anapali Beach, where they found the waves too rough for their young daughter. They also misjudged their time on the way back and nearly missed the boat. Other passengers we met opted to attend the popular Hoku Nui Luau – priced at $96/adults; $46/children — but reported that it ran late in the evening, offered uninteresting food and presented a similar program to the first-rate Polynesian show aboard the Norwegian Star.
Friends of ours who live in Hawaii took in the Maui Ocean Center, billed as the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. They gave it the thumbs up but would have preferred more time to explore the center. Free shuttle buses are available to the center from the dock, or there are organized shore excursions that combine the MOC with a visit to I’ao Valley.
At our next port in Kaua’i, we intended to try the Wailua River & Fern Grotto shore excursion, which offers sightseeing in Lihue Town and a boat ride along Wailua River to Fern Grotto, where passengers are serenaded with the Hawai’ian Wedding Song. Friends who tried this excursion found it touristy but fun, and said the kids liked the boat ride – nearly always a better choice for children than an oversized bus.
Instead, we chose to rough it a bit with a River Kayak & Hiking Adventure, which offered a long but easy paddle through the Hule’ia National Wildlife Refuge. Our mini film buffs were enchanted to discover that this was the very jungle where Indiana Jones escaped from the villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark – we even pulled over so the kids could swing from the vines and drop into the water Indie-style.
We finished the day with a short, leisurely hike through the tropical forest as guides pointed out the varieties of flora that bloomed in riotous profusion around us. Another option is to book a rental car in Kaua’i, which costs about $60 for the day. The top destination for young families is Poipu Beach, known for its kid-friendly snorkeling and swimming.
Our final port was back in Honolulu, where a selection of shore excursions is available for passengers with late departures or those staying on. We strongly recommend staying at least a few extra days to take in the sights of this diverse and family-friendly island.
One of the most popular attractions on O’ahu – in fact, it is the most highly visited attraction on any of the Hawai’ian Islands – is the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore. The 42-acre site re-creates seven Polynesian villages, complete with dancing, costumes and traditional crafts and games just for kids. We recommend staying for the afternoon canoe pageant and, if time permits, the evening luau and Horizons show. The latter features dancers from all seven islands in eye-popping costumes and the antics of a fire-wielding dancer, performed in a scenic, outdoor arena.
Another important sight, Pearl Harbor, is an ideal way to spend the day with older children. Be forewarned that the lines are long, so plan to arrive very early in the morning. The best way to tackle this is to begin at the USS Arizona Memorial, where you will encounter the longest lines. You will be given a ticket and time for the introductory film, and be aware that – depending on the size of the crowd – you may have a long wait. If you do, spend your waiting time at the USS Bowfin WWII Submarine and Museum next door, where kids can crawl through the submarine, view the tiny officers’ quarters and relax with a snack under a shady umbrella. Once back at the Arizona Memorial entrance, the short film sets the scene for the memorial itself, to which you are transported by boat. Be prepared for a moving experience and one that even young school-age children can appreciate.
If you have time, take in a tour of the USS Missouri (Mighty Mo), where the expert guides will make history come alive with their tales of Japanese kamikaze bombers and solemn shipboard peace treaties.
For a break from sightseeing, why not learn to surf at Hans Hedemann Surf School – there are several outlets throughout the island – or through the children’s clubs at the Sheraton and Outrigger Hotels in Waikiki? Plan to pay from about $75 per person for a two-hour group lesson at Hedemann, which includes the use of a rash-guard shirt.
Coming from the Northeast, the air portion of the trip comprised two flights of less than six hours each, connecting through Los Angeles, which put us into Honolulu in the late afternoon. To avoid cutting it too close – the NCL ship sails early evening – cruise line officials encourage passengers to arrive a day early. This gives families a chance to recover from jet lag and see the sights in Honolulu, which is also the final port of call.
Consider booking your NCL shore excursions when reserving your cruise itinerary, as the most popular options may “sell out.” Families who do choose to rent a car to sightsee on their own should book as far in advance as possible – even a month out, the less expensive cars may be sold out. It’s also a good idea to steer clear of the car rental company the ship is working with to avoid the longer lines at pick-up time. You’ll also have to synchronize your watch to ship time, and check it often, as the ships depart from port punctually!
The Norwegian Star, which we loved for its unpretentious, sunny dÃ©cor and outstanding Splash Down kids pool area, will be moved to Alaska and Mexico next spring. Parents interested in a cruise similar to ours will be able to book a seven-day voyage aboard the Pride of America. Flagged an American ship, the Pride will omit Fanning Island in favor of more time in the Hawai’ian Islands. The Pride of Aloha will ply the same waters, offering three-and four-day cruises, while the Norwegian Wind will offer 10- and 11-day cruises that will include Fanning Island.
For additional information, contact your travel agent or check out Norwegian Cruise Line’s web site at www.NCL.com.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.