Photos: Hawaiian paradise

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  1. Waimea Canyon, Kauai

    Kalalau Valley, on Kauai's west side, is more than 3,000 feet deep and provides stunning panoramic views. Waimea is nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (John Borthwick / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Honolulu, Hawaii

    Men row their Hawaiian outrigger canoe towards Waikiki beach, with Diamond Head in the background. Outrigger canoes are now used for recreation purposes and to ride the waves, but in times past they were the main means of transportation between the Hawaiian Islands. (Mike Nelson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The tranquil waters of Oahu

    Hanauma Bay is one of the finest stretches of beach in the world. (Eric L Wheater / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Surfer's paradise

    Australian Luke Egan competes on Oahu's North Shore, one of the best places in Hawaii to ride the big waves. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Water colors

    A school of manini fish pass over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wailua Falls

    The beautiful 83-foot tiered Wailua Falls is an easily accessible, must-see waterfall on the island of Kauai. Wailua Falls was first made famous when it was featured in the television show, "Fantasy Island." (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Emerald peaks

    The iconic, towering emerald peaks of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle, stand out in Maui's Iao Valley State Park. (Adina Tovy Amsel / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historic reminder

    The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marks the resting place of many of the battleship's 1,177 crew members who lost their lives during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese. The memorial is the "ground zero" of World War II. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aloha!

    Hula dancers welcome the sailing crew of a Hokule'a, a canoe, into Kailua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The heart of Hawaii

    The sun sets on Honolulu, Oahu's capital and Hawaii's largest, most populous city. (Robert Y. Ono / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Polynesian heat

    Brandon OFueo Maneafaiga, 23, of Waianae, Hawaii balances two flaming knifes during the 13th Annual World Fireknife Championship at the Polynesian Cultural Centre in Laie, Hawaii. (Lucy Pemoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    People watch from a viewing area as an explosion takes place on Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Pahoa, Hawaii. Legend says the volcano goddess Pele dug fire pits as she traveled from island to island looking for a home with her brothers and sisters. She finally settled at Kilauea's summit, where she lives at Halemaumau crater. (Leigh Hilbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Forces of nature

    The Dragon's Teeth are bizarre lava formations eroded by wind and salt spray at Makalua-puna Point. (Karl Lehmann / Lonely Planet) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Heaven on Earth

    Astronomy observatories are seen on the peak of the snow-covered, Mauna Kea mountain near Hilo, Hawaii. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano. (Tim Wright / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. On the way to Sainthood

    Tourists walk through a cemetery past the grave, left, of Father Damien at Kalawao, Hawaii. After cancer patient Audrey Toguchi prayed to Father Damien, known for helping leprosy patients in Hawaii, to help her, and her cancer went away, Pope Benedict XVI approved the case in July 2008 as Damien's second miracle, opening the way for the 19th century Belgian priest to be declared a saint. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Cool colors

    Rainbow eucalyptus (Mindanao Gum) trees grow in Keanae, Maui. Once a year, these magnificent trees shed their bark and take on the colors of the rainbow. (James Randklev / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Magic Sands

    An aerial view of La'aloa Beach Park or Magic Sands beach in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The beach is called Magic Sands because when rough surf hits, all of the sand is emptied off the beach and temporarily moved out to sea. (Brian Powers / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 7/12/2005 2:48:25 PM ET 2005-07-12T18:48:25

GETTING THERE

For most travelers, the challenge of getting to and from Hawaii is the only negative on this itinerary.

Flights from the East Coast typically connect in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which means you're adding a five-plus hour flight to the six hours it took to get there from New York, say, or Boston. If you have little ones with you and can spare the time, you may want to consider spending a night or two in California to break up the travel time.

Obviously, West Coast residents have a shorter haul, and folks in some central gateways, such as Minneapolis and Dallas, can find direct flights to Honolulu International Airport that take about 8 1/2 hours each.

Keep in mind that the Christmas holiday season - from about Dec. 21 to Jan. 4 - is high season, which means that air prices are at their most expensive. Summer is also popular because it's "family season." Thanksgiving to mid-December is considered "low season" and offers the best bargains.

While NCL is currently the only cruise line originating and ending in Hawaii, other lines offer Hawaii itineraries that sail to or from the west coast of the U.S., Mexico or Canada.

The advantage of cruising from the mainland is that you eliminate one or both flights, but keep in mind that you could be adding as many as eight days at sea to the duration of the voyage. Also remember that one-way air fares can be expensive, so you may be better off booking air through the cruise lines and taking advantage of their bulk air rates.

THE ISLANDS
The islands you are likely to visit on a roundtrip Honolulu cruise and cruises to-and-from the West Coast are Oahu (Honolulu), Maui, the Big Island (ports of Kona or Hilo), Kauai and even Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati. Lanai and Molokai are typically only available as shore excursions from the main islands. Repositioning cruises may only visit Oahu and Maui, while also incorporating such South Seas destinations as Bora Bora, Tahiti, Fiji and New Zealand.

MANEUVERING AROUND HONOLULU
Oahu's cruise port, the Aloha Tower Marketplace, is located about 15 minutes from the airport, and transportation from the airport to area hotels (about seven miles) is a snap via shuttle service (about $18 roundtrip on Aloha Hawaii Trans, for example), taxi or car rental. If you rent a car at the airport, keep in mind that, unlike some other islands you may have visited, Honolulu operates like any other American city - which means you won't experience culture shock navigating the roads.

If you are simply transferring from the airport to the cruise port, plan on a 15-minute cab ride. Be aware, however, that the return trip from the cruise port to the airport can be another matter entirely - with daunting crowds at the buses (we suggest springing for a cab) and long delays at some of the terminals at the security check point. Waits of up to two hours are not unheard of if you're trying to leave at the same time as everyone else. Our advice? Stay a few extra days (Oahu deserves a week if you can swing it) or at least consider departing at night for a red eye flight home that will put you on the West Coast in time for breakfast or on the East Coast in the afternoon.

BEING THERE
Most Hawaiian Island cruises begin and/or end in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu - the most logical in terms of air access. It being the port of embarkation - or debarkation - means passengers often are hurrying from the airport to the ship or hustling away to catch a flight home. But don't forego a pre- or post-cruise stay if you can afford the time because there is so much to see on Oahu. From whale watching and surfing on the stunning beaches of the North Shore to the Polynesian Cultural Center and Pearl Harbor, the island has attractions to appeal to a wide variety of interests.

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CHOOSING AN ITINERARY
When planning to book a cruise to Hawaii, there are basically three options:

Roundtrip from Honolulu
Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of Aloha, the only American-flagged ship sailing the Hawaiian Islands, is also, because it's a U.S. flag carrier, the only ship that is permitted to offer intra-island cruises. The ship, which sails seven-night roundtrips from Honolulu, the industry's only weeklong, port-intensive option. Since Pride of Aloha's introduction in July 2004, the ship has been fraught with controversy, particularly over inadequate service levels and mediocre food service, but the line maintains it is working hard to clear up issues. Also controversial: This is the first ship in the NCL fleet to levy a mandatory service charge on passengers. The fee? $10 per day.

Pride of Aloha, which calls at Hawaii's big island, Kauai, and Maui, will sail solo in the region until this summer when Pride of America, the cruise line's first new-build, will debut. That ship, too, will fly an American flag and offer all-Hawaiian island itineraries.

A Longer Roundtrip-from-Honolulu Option
NCL's Norwegian Wind, which is not a U.S.-flagged ship, sails 10-night itineraries from Honolulu, performing the required "toe touch" with a sidetrip to Fanning Island, located in the Kiribati Republic.

Roundtrip from the U.S., Mexico or Canada
Holland America and Princess are among those lines that offer longish itineraries (up to 15 nights) from San Diego or Vancouver. These are roundtrip voyages. For slighter shorter varieties, lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Carnival sail one-way between San Diego or Los Angeles or Vancouver and Honolulu (in order to fulfill the foreign flag Jones Act requirements, cruises that depart from the U.S. must stop in a place like Mexico's Ensenada).

Repositioning
Another way to experience Hawaii is via repositioning cruises between the U.S. and the Far East and/or Australia/New Zealand. These trips typically call on islands such as Oahu and Maui (and in the case of the longer itinerary, also the Big Island) as well as those in French Polynesia. Because these cruises only occur once or twice a year, when the ship is moving from one home port to another, your options for dates will be limited.

Can't Miss Shore Adventures
The ships sailing Hawaii may well be beautiful - but they're no competition to the destination itself. As such, expect a huge variety of shore excursions - from full-on sightseeing tours to high-adrenaline, activity-based adventures, as well as plenty of options for families with children.

Keep in mind that shore excursions in Hawaii are pricey - a $40 sail and snorkel excursion in the Bahamas might cost double that in Maui, for example. Often, as in the case of spending a day at the beach or shopping in towns near port, you can do it yourself by free shuttle bus (particularly in the case of shopping), rental car, taxi or even walking.

In cases of complicated excursions full of activities, rental equipment and long transfers, a shore excursion is probably your best bet. If nothing else, the excursion guides will get you back on board in time. Independent tour companies (see Hawaii's Best Water Sports) are also available, in which case it's a good idea to book ahead.

Here are some recommendations:

Oahu
Despite the crowds, Pearl Harbor continues to be a fascinating and moving experience for visitors - even school-age kids - but typical shore excursions only include the USS Arizona Memorial. If you can tack on a day or two and go on your own, be sure to add visits to the USS Bowfin and the Mighty Mo to complete the experience. Get there early, though, to beat the crowds, and unless you like hot dogs for lunch - the menu at the Arizona/Bowfin site is limited - plan to brown bag it.

The Big Island
There is a reason the Island of Hawaii is called the Big Island - it's big enough to have two ports - which means that when scouting out great shore adventures, you need to plan accordingly. In Kona, passengers arrive by tender into a small village-like setting where they can set out on a self-guided tour of historical sites near the port. The big three are: Ahuena, King Kamehameha's temple; the Mokuaikaua church, the first Christian church on the Big Island; and Hulihee Palace, the summer palace for Hawaiian royalty.

In Hilo, the Volcanoes National Park, with its starkly beautiful green and black landscape, is a must-see and is accessible by shore excursion or rental car. Keep in mind that the park is huge, so you won't see it all. Try to get a look at a lava tube, to see the steam vents rising from the ground and, if at all possible, witness the lava flow into the sea.

Maui
This island also offers two ports: Lahaina and Kahului. Its biggest natural attraction is Haleakala Crater, which you can visit from either port if you don't mind the drive (about three hours round-trip from both). Accessible by tender, Lahaina offers an arty, historic ambience that draws crowds as well as proximity to the popular Kaanapali Beach.

Kahului, on the other hand, is less atmospheric; considered the financial center of the island (and lacking the shopping venues and beaches near Lahain), the port offers the advantage of a docking facility for large cruise ships.

Kauai
Waimea Canyon - called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific - is worth a day unto itself, but you can combine a visit with a trip up the Wailua River to the Fern Grotto. Or drive up the canyon road to the summit and don't forget to check out Lihue (Kauai's main town). Don't miss the sugar cane fields of Koloa and the eye-popping flora along the way.

Lanai
In Lanai it's all about scuba, and once you've seen the miraculous underwater formations formed from lava -- known by dive aficionados as cathedrals - you'll see why. There are shore excursions from Maui that include visits to Lanai, accessible by boat.

Molokai
There are just over 7,000 inhabitants on this island, probably most famous for its haunting past as a leper colony. Nowadays, its beautiful beaches - some accessible only by boat - are worth the price of admission.

Fanning Island
If your itinerary includes a visit to Fanning Island, Republic of Kiribati, your choices aren't so much "what to do" as "which beach." There are two locations local elders have OK'd for use by NCL passengers: the Fanning Island beach and Napali Beach. The main beach offers such inducements as food and bathroom facilities - and it's free - but the facilities and beaches are crowded with fellow cruise passengers.

Napali Beach offers more scenery and fewer crowds - for a price. NCL charges $20 a head to visit Napali, which has no food outlets (other than drinks and bottled water) or bathrooms. You can rent paddle boats, though, and shop for island crafts and knick-knacks from locals who line the walkway from the tender station to the beach. Your admission to Napali Beach also allows you to come and go between the two beaches (for lunch or bathroom breaks) by tender. Keep in mind that the island is near the equator, so stay hydrated and slather up.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

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