Cruising around the Hawaiian islands allows you to sample several different islands’ charms within the space of a few days. In a place where the weather really is perfect all the time, you can learn to surf, go to a luau, snooze on the sand, float in warm water surrounded by rainbow-colored tropical fish, enjoy the local coffee, or check out the native Hawaiian culture, of which the locals are fiercely proud.
By far the most developed of the islands, Oahu has some of the best shopping, trendy eateries, and beautiful beaches (including the famous Waikiki Beach). Probably the most important shore excursion here is a visit to Pearl Harbor and USS Missouri (www.nps.gov/vair ), site of the 1941 bombing that brought the U.S. into World War II. Honolulu has both America’s only royal palace, its oldest Chinatown and the superb Bishop Museum (www.bishopmuseum.org ) dedicated to South Pacific culture and history.
The garden isle of Kauai is the most spectacular in the chain. There are no opulent shopping malls here, but what Kauai lacks in glitz, it more than makes up for in sheer natural splendor: moody rainforests, majestic cliffs, jagged peaks, emerald valleys, and the breathtaking beaches of the Napali Coast. Shore excursions tend to focus on outdoor adventure, although the historic remnants of sugar cane plantations add a dash of culture.
Maui, also called the Valley Isle, has two ports, industrial Kahului and the far more charming historic town of Lahaina. Top sights here include the dramatic crater of the Haleakala volcano and the peaceful rainforest of Iao Valley state park; it’s the islands’ best destination for whale-watch tours, and has a wide range of shopping, from local boutiques to luxury goods.
The island of Hawaii, usually called The Big Island, is large enough for more varied terrain, from the waterfalls and rainforests that surround Hilo to the coffee plantations and rugged lava shores of the Kailua-Kona coast. A visit to the Big Island will usually include its volcanoes snowcapped Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain; its neighbor Mauna Loa, is the largest volcano on earth; and still-erupting Kilauea, where you can still see fiery-red lava flow (www.nps.gov/havo ). Helicopter tours fly over the crater, or you can hike through the ravaged landscape (often on a free ranger-led tour). Other activities include coffee tastings in the lush Kona Plantations, hiking to ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs north of Kailua, horseback riding in the inland plains, or rounds of golf at the island’s west coast resorts.
Cruises may also stop at Lanai to visit the beautiful beach of Manele Bay, a nature sanctuary, for snorkeling and diving.
The most popular Hawaiian cruises start and end in the islands which means that travelers fly there and fly home but it’s also possible to sail there from a North American port and fly home. Some longer itineraries even include Hawaii as part of a longer cruise that goes on to French Polynesia.
Smell the roses Some 13 miles north of downtown Victoria, the world-renowned Butchart Gardens (www.butchartgardens.com ) features English, Italian, and Japanese gardens, along with water gardens and rose gardens.
For nature lovers Catamaran tours visit the waters off southern Vancouver Island, where passengers can view killer whales, seals, porpoises, and myriad birds.
A slice of history The stone-turreted Craigdarroch Castle (http://thecastle.ca ), built in the 1880s, was the home of millionaire Scottish coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir, furnished in opulent Victorian splendor.
Shopaholic alert While handy to the Inner Harbor, the 5-block Government Street promenade is mostly souvenir shops. Worth a stop is Fort Street’s Antique Row, renowned for quality British collectibles. In Old Town, the Market Square complex has 35-plus shops, as well as dining and entertainment.