What's the perfect way to see Hawaii on a cruise?

Sharon McDonnell
Hawaii's islands offer a particularly scenic cruise experience - Vlad Turchenko
Hawaii's islands offer a particularly scenic cruise experience - Vlad Turchenko

Hawaii’s sandy beaches, big surf, volcanic landscapes, rugged coastlines and tropical glamour beckon. But cruise choices abound. Do you prefer a big ship with a cast of thousands and a huge variety of onboard activities and restaurants, or a small ship for a more intimate atmosphere, personal attention, peace and quiet, and seeing the same faces? Is a cruise that starts and ends in Hawaii preferable, or can you spare four or five whole days crossing the Pacific, enjoying the ship experience? Our guide will help you decide.

Small ship cruising in Hawaii

What are the options?

UnCruise Adventures is the smallest option, with just 18 cabins to Safari Explorer. A seven-night cruise around Hawaii is available year-round, which departs and ends in Kaunakakai, Molokai. Pre- and post-cruise stays at Hotel Molokai, the island’s only hotel, include airport and hotel-ship transfers but no tours.

Looking ahead to May 2021, Ponant has a 15-night French Polynesia and Hawaii cruise on board the 132-cabin yacht, Le Soleal. The voyage departs from Papeete (Tahiti) and ends in Honolulu, which presents a cruise-and-stay option.

Then Crystal Cruises is offering a 16-night round-trip from Los Angeles to Hawaii, departing May 29, 2022, on board the 440-cabin Crystal Serenity. The ship arrives in Hawaii on day six. Besides this dedicated cruise, longer cruises combine Hawaii with the US West Coast (San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Seattle and Astoria, Oregon), or with Polynesia, Guam and Micronesia, or Polynesia and Vietnam, or Pacific islands and Asia.

UnCruise's Safari Explorer sails around Maui
For a small ship experience in Hawaii, choose UnCruise

Where will you go?

Crystal Cruises' Hawaii-dedicated voyage visits Oahu (Honolulu); Kauai, nicknamed the Garden Isle; Maui - home to Haleakala, the largest dormant volcano in the world; and Big Island; then Ensenada in Mexico on the way back to Los Angeles. 

Ponant visits Oahu (Honolulu) and the Big Island (Hilo), in addition to the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Moorea and Tahiti. Take a memorable helicopter ride for unforgettable views over Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.

UnCruise is the only cruise line that visits two lesser-known rural islands, Molokai and Lanai, besides the Big Island (Kailua-Kona) and Maui (but no port stop).

What can I expect on board?

Luxury line Crystal Cruises was the first to offer a restaurant from a Michelin-star chef: Nobu Matsuhisa, who created Umi Uma and Sushi Bar, one of five main restaurants on Crystal Serenity. You can take classes in movie-making and website-design at its Computer University or in art, finance and bridge, choose from multiple lectures daily, watch recent movie releases in its theater and enjoy over 8,000 books and movies in its library. On black tie optional nights, women wear evening gowns or cocktail dresses, men tuxedos or dark suits.

Ponant is a French cruise line, so a distinct Gallic accent prevails in the food, wine and cheeses served at Gastronomic Restaurant and sweets at tea time, spa, bath products, interior design, crew and entertainment, which ranges from piano music to cabaret and dancing. 

UnCruise has one restaurant and bar, whose Hawaii-based offerings include local seafood, fruits and Maui Brewery pineapple wheat beer, but no pool, spa, live entertainment or WiFi. Its activities are mostly water-based (kayaking, snorkels, whale, sea turtle, dolphin and manta ray spotting) since the ship’s tiny size means it can tender in small bays, except for port visits in Kailua-Kona and Lanai. Evenings are for chatting in the lounge, reading or movie-watching from the DVD library.


Small-ship cruising always costs more than big-ship cruising, but the price includes much more. UnCruise, from £4,207pp, includes everything (all meals, wine, beer, spirits, tours, activities, airport and ship transfers), except for tipping. Ponant, from £4,174pp, includes everything except tours, some premium alcoholic drinks and spa treatments. The Hilo heli tour costs £350. Crystal starts from £4,753pp, with shore excursions and spa extra. 

Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America in Hawaii
Norwegian Cruise Line is the only big line to offer Hawaii year-round

Big ship cruising in Hawaii

What are the options?

Norwegian Cruise Line is the only bigger cruise line operating year-round in Hawaii. Pride of America has 1,093 cabins. Other cruises are provided by Celebrity Cruises (1,425 cabins); Holland America Line (982 cabins); Royal Caribbean International (1,571 cabins) and Princess Cruises (1,300 cabins). Departure points include Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver and Honolulu. Some cruises depart from and end in the same port; others don’t.  

Where will you go?

Big- and mid-sized ships always include a non-US port, usually Vancouver or Ensenada in Baja, Mexico, except for NCL. Its seven-night cruise of four Hawaiian islands starts in Honolulu, and visits a port each day, including two overnights each in Maui and Kauai.

Royal Caribbean's Hawaii cruises range from 10 to 12 nights, with Ovation, Serenade and Radiance of the Seas all touring the islands at different times. An 11-night cruise on board Serenade of the Seas departs from Honolulu on May 5, 2021. Highlights include snorkelling in Honolulu's pristine coral reefs, visiting the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbour and exploring Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. 

Celebrity Cruises' options either start or end in Vancouver, which makes for an interesting twin-centre but be prepared for four sea days. The shortest option departing April 12, 2020 (eight nights) has four Hawaii calls including the final stop, Honolulu. An 11-night departure on May 3, 2021 includes two overnights in Hawaii - Honolulu and Lahaina. 

Other options include a 17-day Circle Hawaii departing San Diego on October 17, 2020 on board Holland America Line's Koningsdam and the 15-day Hawaii Islands on board Princess Cruises' Grand Princess, a round-trip from Vancouver departing September 22, 2020. Both cruises visit Hilo and Honolulu. Princess adds Kauai and Maui, while Holland America Line offers Lahaina (with 11pm departure); Kona and spends a day scenic cruising for a close-up look at Mt Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes. 

What can I expect on board?

Big ships mean a much bigger variety of restaurants and entertainment, plus pool, casino and spa, but different lines are known for different things. Royal Caribbean boasts flashy, attention-getting onboard attractions like a sky-diving experience, rock-climbing wall and panoramic-viewing capsule soaring 300ft above the sea. Its 18-deck ship Ovation of the Seas has 16 (from Jamie Oliver’s Italian eatery, Chef’s Table for five-course feasts, Wonderland for imaginative cuisine to casual fish-and-chips, pizza and hot dog spots), 10 bars (from a cocktail-making robot to an English pub), four pools, Las Vegas-style shows, kids’ clubs and a video arcade. Expect lots of families and a mainstream cruise experience.

Waimea Canyon, Hawaii - Credit: iStock
Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific Credit: iStock

NCL is the only line that offers a week-long cruise of four Hawaiian islands year-round, and the biggest choice of Hawaii port tours of any line (100+). Its meals aren’t at fixed times, hence its tagline, Freestyle Cruising. You also have your pick of up to five deals on any Hawaii cruise, from free or reduced airfare from/to the US West Coast, free port tours to free drinks, specialty dining and WiFi packages for guests booking ocean-view cabins or above. Its bars cater to different audiences, from Pink's Champagne Bar to a Waikiki Beach Bar.

Celebrity Cruises offers many luxury touches at a modest price: stylish contemporary design, menus by two Michelin-star chefs (Daniel Boulud at Chef’s Table, for all guests, and Luminae, for suite guests only; other menus by Cornelius Gallagher), art galleries filled with works from some of the biggest names in the art world, and a glass-art-making class. Its special AquaClass cabin category offers cabins just steps from the spa with unlimited spa lounge access and a private restaurant for healthy cuisine.

Princess Cruises' Grand Princess is equipped with the line's new Medallion Class technology, offering a high-tech cruise experience, while Holland America Line's Koningsdam has live music from BB King's Blue Club to the Rolling Stone Rock Room. 


Bigger ships charge extra for dining in specialty restaurants (i.e., not the main dining room), alcoholic drinks, often sodas and specialty coffees, tours, WiFi and spa treatments. These costs really add up, often doubling the price, and constantly being asked to sign a bill can be annoying, so it’s best to figure out the “real” price. For example, see what's not included. Single supplements are often hefty. Interior cabins offer the best value. Princess Cruises starts as low as £899pp for 15-days, cruise-only. Royal's 11-night cruise comes in at £956pp.

Suites offer many perks besides more space: butlers for making reservations, packing and unpacking, suites-only restaurants and lounges, luxury bath products, pillow menus, priority boarding and disembarkation. It’s like airline business-class v. economy. Such perks mean better value-for-money to some passengers, but not everyone. Loyalty clubs, based on the number of nights sailed and cabin category, offer discounts and other perks to repeat cruisers. Celebrity currently starts from £985pp for an inside cabin for an eight-night voyage departing April 12, 2020, with prices rising to £6,573pp for a suite on Celebrity Eclipse's 10-night Hawaii cruise departing September 19, 2021.