Our cruise ship, Pride of America, is steaming slowly along one of the world's most hallowed and remote coastlines. Clouds hover over jagged cliffs towering 1225 metres above the crashing Pacific waves, casting multiple rainbows over the Hawaiian sky. Meanwhile the razor-edged slopes of Kauai's famed Napali coast look awesome and ominous in the late afternoon sunlight.
We are less than one nautical mile out to sea, and I'm sipping the "cocktail of the day" on the main pool deck as I listen to the ship's native Hawaiian guide explain the significance of this mid-ocean landscape. Had we been at this exact spot around 6 million years ago, we'd be on land, he explains.
When Kauai, the oldest of the four most populated jewels of the Hawaiian archipelago, first bubbled out of the Pacific it was a shield volcano. We've already visited "the Big Island" (real name Hawai'i) so we already know what a shield volcano looks like. And Kauai (like Oahu, Maui and all those other weathered-down western islands) were conceived over the same deep ocean volcanic "hotspot".
The sublime forces of geography – vulcanology, continental drift and erosion – means every new Hawaiian island severs its umbilical cord to Mother Earth and moves closer to Japan each year. So why does Kauai, "the Garden Island", seem so different? That's what 6 million years of facelifts will do.
According to archaeologists, the first people to settle Hawaii arrived 1500 years ago (probably from the Society Islands). They made their homes in these inhospitable valleys of the Napali coast, even though the other side of Kauai is lush and relatively flat. Why? No one knows, which is what makes Hawaii so much more than the sun, sand and surf destination most tourists assume.
There is only one cruise ship that is allowed to call in at two or more of the Hawaiian islands on a single cruise without visiting another country in between. And there aren't that many other countries close to the 50th state of the US.
Don't be put off by the crass plumage of the gaudily-coloured Pride of America. It is the only large cruise vessel that sails under the Stars and Stripes (the others are river cruises or small offshore boats).
For passengers, that brings both good and bad news. The downside is that the Pride of America, a member of the now US-owned Norwegian Cruise Line's fleet, is subject to both Federal and Hawaiian laws. This means 75 per cent of all crew must be US citizens, be paid US wages and obey Hawaii's bizarre alcohol rules (if you head to any bar and attempt to buy a drink for yourself and a partner or friend, you'll be forced to present that individual in person). Naturally, that means the Pride of America is not a cheap cruise.
The upside is that there is no casino aboard (they're banned in Hawaii) and passengers get to circumnavigate the state's four main islands – Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai – on a regular seven-day cycle, leaving Honolulu cruise terminal every Saturday around sunset and arriving back the following Saturday at sunrise. Except for this cruise. Did I mention Hurricane Lane?
For the first time in a decade, the Pride of America's routine round trip has been disturbed. Not by volcanic activity but by Hawaii's other natural scourge. In August 2018, the slow-moving, rain-saturated Hurricane Lane was bearing down on Hawaii. Scores of Americans and Canadians, who jointly make up about 70 per cent of all of Pride of America's annual passengers, cancelled. (On a typical cruise, 15 per cent of the 2200 passengers are Australians or Kiwis, with Brits, Germans and Japanese making up the remainder.)
Lane did hit Maui and particularly the Big Island hard, but fizzled into a mere tropical storm without ever striking Oahu. However, the threat of an unpredictable hurricane caused the US Navy to leave Pearl Harbor – and Pride of America to stay out in deep water for an extra night. Ironically it was a perfect day out at sea and passengers got sunburnt.
Nevertheless I arrived in Honolulu on Friday morning to the news that my cruise would be cut back to five days. (All passengers were granted complimentary accommodation and meals in Waikiki, so it wasn't that bad).
By the time I boarded on the Monday afternoon, most new passengers had already been checked into their "state rooms" for at least 24 hours. The Aussies and Kiwis around the bar for the "sunset sailaway" seemed generally content with the revised itinerary, knowing passenger safety wins every time over needless risk.
So what is a truncated five-day cruise around Hawaii like? And what do we miss? Hawaii's tourism has undergone tough times in the past few years mainly due to the exploding teenage antics of Kilauea, the world's most active volcano. Kilauea's eruptions have closed the Volcanoes National Park, one of the state's most popular tourist attractions, and deterred instate and interstate Americans from chancing a holiday in Hawaii even though Kilauea hasn't impacted the other islands at all.
In recent months, the sail past Kilauea has become an added bonus of the weekly cruise but sadly, it is something we have to miss because of the shortened itinerary. The Pride of America's Finnish-born hotel director Kaj Turunen shows me some of the spectacular night photographs he has taken of Kilauea's molten lava spewing into the Pacific. Turunen has worked on Pride of America for 10 years and assures me this is the first time a cruise has had to be curtailed for weather reasons in his time.
The usual itinerary includes two overnight stays – at Kahului (on Maui) and Nawiliwili (on Kauai) – plus day visits to the two biggest towns on the Big Island, Kona (famous for its coffee) and Hilo.
But on this post-hurricane cruise, Turunen explains that the captain, after discussions with the US coast guard, weather authorities and NCL headquarters in Miami, decided to drop Kona and one of the days in Maui.
Personally, I'm happy with the captain's choice. I've never been to Kauai before and it has the reputation of being the most spectacular in the Hawaiian island chain. So the Pride of America leaves Honolulu at 6pm on Monday, docks at Hilo on Tuesday, Maui on Wednesday, and Kauai on Thursday for an overnight stay, leaving at 2am on Friday for the voyage along the Napali coast before disembarking on the Saturday morning.
If this is a once-in-a-decade deviation, it's a seamless operation. Naturally, given fewer shore excursions (and there are no tendered ports, even on the full itinerary, so passengers can always walk off at their convenience), attention is focused on what the ship itself has to offer (see box). .
Turunen admits this is one of the most expensive cruises in the NCL program, but adds it is still one of the most economical ways of seeing this much of Hawaii in a week (or even five days). "If you stay in Waikiki you'll pay between US$300 and US$900 a night," he says. "For that, you'll get no food, no entertainment. And if you want to see Maui the next day you'll need to pay for a cab to the airport, and a flight.
"On the Pride of America you have dinner, a dance, a cocktail and a show, then you go to bed. The next morning you wake up in Maui."
PRIDE OF AMERICA FACILITIES
FOOD: There are nine dining venues aboard, ranging from the Key West Bar & Grill overlooking the main pool deck, to the upmarket Jefferson's Bistro on deck five. Most are "free dining" (included in your cruise package) and they are surprisingly good, including the buffet-style Aloha Cafe on deck 11, the 24/7 Cadillac Diner (think American Graffiti and great for the kids), East Meets West (Asian fusion) on deck five, Skyline (the main dining room on deck five with its elaborate chandeliers and relaxed dress code) and Liberty (reached by an internal staircase on deck six with identical chandeliers and menu but a stricter dress code: no shorts or T-shirts).Then there are the "fee dining" options. Cagney's Steakhouse on deck six, surrounded by photos of actor James Cagney, is the most "American" but you can also go Japanese , Italian , Brazilian and French.
ENTERTAINMENT: The cruising world divides into two: those who love going to see a show before or after diner, and those who'd walk the plank to avoid them. I only caught two shows, but the male quartet singing everything from The Four Tops to Adele were superb, and I'm still trying to work out how the Las Vegas-based magician fooled even those members of the audience who were stooges.
My much younger female colleagues disappeared several nights in a row to bop at the Mardi Gras Cabaret Lounge & Nightclub or laugh at how little married couples know about each other in the marriage quiz. I retired early, calling in to the hokey Gold Rush Saloon – the guitarist playing the Eric Clapton songbook was especially good – on my way to my bed.
HEALTH: There is a well-equipped gym, a basketball court, deck shuffleboard and the classic promenade walking track. And then there is the spa. This wouldn't be America unless the treatments included Botox. Oh, and thanks to Hawaiian law, smoking is only allowed at one spot on board: the Aloha Lanai Bar on deck 13 overlooking the stern.
FIVE GREAT HAWAIIAN EXPERIENCES
Humpback whale season, Maui. From October to March, when the Arctic humpbacks swim south to the breeding grounds around Maui.
Kilauea sunset, the Big Island. Not a cocktail but a unique glimpse of red-hot lava spilling into an ocean, causing a cauldron of hell-fire steam.
"Jurassic Park" by chopper, Kauai. You can take a helicopter ride over each of the islands and not be disappointed. But if, like me, you can only afford one, make it the hour-long flight over Kauai, scene of so many Hollywood blockbusters.
Napali coast, Kauai. Even if you've seen it from the air, please do yourself a favour and see this spectacular landscape from the ocean. If you're really keen, there are hiking trails.
The safe volcano crater, Maui: Haleakalā is the most visited volcano in Hawaii since it's extinct but still looks like a shield volcano. Though it forms more than three quarters of Maui, it is "only" 3000 metres high.
Steve Meacham was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line.
Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America visits four Hawaiian islands in a seven-day cruise. See ncl.com