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The Other Hawaii (Part 1): How to See the Best of the Islands from a Cruise Ship

The Other Hawaii (Part 1): How to See the Best of the Islands from a Cruise Ship rsz_photo

I’ve been lucky enough to call Hawaii home for the past year or so and in November I was able to spend 4 nights at Aulani. Let me tell you this…It. Is. Spectacular. But I don’t really need to tell you this. If you’ve hung around the DIS long enough, you know plenty about how incredible Aulani is.

You’ve probably poured through the photo galleries and maybe even read Pete Werner’s “Beyond Aulani” blog post or listed to this episode of the DisUnplugged where the team discussed some things Hawaii has to offer beyond Aulani.

As a Hawaiian resident who has visited each of the six main islands, it was interesting to listen to which excursions and activities the crew chose on their 7-night Hawaiian islands cruise.

I understand that to many travelers, choosing an island to visit or knowing how to spend their days on each island can be overwhelming. The cruise ship offers 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?

From the perspective of a “local,” here are my recommendations on how to see the best of Hawaii from a cruise ship. For the purposes of this article, I will be adapting these recommendations to fit the Norwegian Cruise Line 7-Night cruise itinerary sailing out of Honolulu.

I assume that most DIS readers who visit Hawaii will be including a stay at Aulani (and you totally should!!). In addition to taking time to chill at the resort, here are a few highlights that you should plan to hit on the island of Oahu either before or after the cruise:


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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.

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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. If you’re a Disney fan, this place will definitely remind you a little bit of Typhoon Lagoon.

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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. Since it’s a trek over here from Aulani, try to fit Hanauma Bay and Lanikai Beach into the same day.

Explore the North Shore: Oahu’s North Shore is as “local” as it gets. Surf’s 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.

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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. The Starlit Hui show at Aulani is great (and free!) but 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 it’s right next door to Aulani!


 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 hippie 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).

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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.

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!

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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!

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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).

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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 (www.hawaiianstylesurf.com) 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.

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Haleakala Sunrise: While Pete and the gang experienced this and loved it, I’m always hesitant to recommend it to visitors…especially if you’re only on island for such a short time.  It is absolutely spectacular.  But it’s also a 2+ hour drive from port which means that you’ll need to be leaving the ship around 3AM to insure that you have time to make it to the summit and secure a parking spot (once the lot is full they stop allowing visitors up to the summit).  It’s also usually between 20 and 30 degrees up there at this time.  It’s a long winding road and the abrupt change in altitude has been known to do a few people in (0-10,000 feet in just over 20 miles).  All of this aside, if you decide to brave the adventure, you’ll be rewarded with a sight you’ll likely never see again. Don’t skip the Road to Hana to do this, but if you decide to see sunrise, make it the second day you’re in Maui since you’ll be finished by mid morning.

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Check back later for Part 2 of this series where I’ll cover my recommendations for the Big Island and Kauai. If you have any questions on things to do in the islands or your specific recommendations tailored to your family (including places to eat and shop), I’d love to chat with you in the comments below!




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