By Leslie A. Westbrook.
From underwater expeditions to whale watching to cultural immersion excursions, an UnCruise of the Hawaiian Islands aboard the Safari Explorer is the real deal. She will take you there . . . and then some.
Early on the third morning of a weeklong cruise, I am gently rocked awake. We are calmly plying the Pacific Ocean aboard the 145-foot-long Safari Explorer, a tourist ship built for 36 passengers, nearing our destination: the Hawaiian Islands, the most geographically remote islands on the planet. Today we are motoring from Lana’i to the Westside of Maui. I pull open the door to our compact but comfortable cabin. The sky is a soft pinkish blue and the ocean views extend as far as the eye can see. Another day at sea has begun.
If you are one of those people who doesn’t resonate to the midnight buffets and oft-times cheesy entertainment offered by larger cruise lines, the more intimate, educational experience that UnCruise provides might just be the ticket to a dreamy holiday. More than half of the 22 guests on our Hawaiian sojourn had taken at least one previous UnCruise.
UnCruise may be the 50th state’s best kept secret. The Safari Explorer is the only passenger ship allowed to dock on the tiny island of Molokai where, during the season, the ship departs from either Hawai’i (the Big Island) or Molokai, sailing for a week to a variety of locales, oft times decided on the spot based on weather and sea conditions.
UnCruise provides a mix of onboard life with real experiences and interaction with the locals – not some canned version of the Hawaiian “dream”. In fact, you will return from your holiday more knowledgeable about the islands, even for those who have visited many times.
I learned new things, despite having lived on the Big Island for a brief interlude some 15 years ago, from the correct pronunciation of Molokai (it’s mo-lo-kī) to the true definition of aloha (not hello and goodbye, but, simply, love). Poi is really called poi kalo (poi is a preparation of kalo, another word for taro) and a luau is called a pa’ina. Where a luau is a larger social gathering, the pa’ina is more of a cozy family celebration. The word luau means the food you eat, not the actual party or feast.
Adventures by Land and Sea
At almost 8 a.m., a brief announcement comes over the loudspeaker in our room from enthusiastic group leader/tour guide Ben: Two whales have been spotted. Everyone rushes to the bow of the ship for wildlife viewing. Water activities include kayaking, which allows participants to get up close and personal with a pod of spinner dolphins. The frisky mammals delighted us with their antics before our afternoon swim off the boat into the azure blue sea.
Each time we re-board the ship, Terra, our awesome bartender, welcomes us with fresh fruit juices such as lilikoi or mixed berry . . . with optional add-ins such as rum or vodka.
Our first two days included cultural immersion and/or hiking options. On Sunday, we met dedicated “cultural ambassador” Greg Pilipo, who invited us into his off-the-grid home in the sacred Halawa Valley on the east end of Molokai, where he introduced us to traditional norms. We walked to Greg’s home bearing gifts of dried coconut wrapped in banana leaves, and then greeted one another in the traditional mode: foreheads and noses touch with a deep breath (“ha”) in.
The group then split up. Some forded a stream and hiked up to a 250-foot waterfall, passing ancients religious ruins (sacred heiau or temples) and conversing with the birds en route. Others sought the open-air classroom where Greg pounded kalo from his field on his family’s seventh-generation wooden board using two pumice pounders (also passed down) while sharing the fascinating history of the valley and his ancestors.
The cuisine was superb, to put it mildly. Boston-trained chef Liz Samatis created a delightful range of delicious fare ranging from Nobu’s miso cod to Taco Tuesday. Breakfast specials ranged from delectable pancakes made with taro flour and topped with coconut syrup, fresh mangos and macadamia nuts to avocado toast. Pastry chef Riley turned out exquisite desserts: house-made ginger lemongrass ice cream, Pavlova and a coffee semifreddo with salted chocolate slivers (which several passengers declared their favorite).
Our UnCruise itinerary included one of my favorite activities: swimming with the honu (green sea turtles) followed by afternoon kayaking.
After a hearty “go local” breakfast (scrambled eggs with Spam and rice), we hopped aboard inflatable skiffs and traveled to an abandoned Maui wharf nestled between Lahaina and Kaanapali, a spot (like many we visited) better accessed by sea than land. I adjusted my mask and snorkel, slipped on my fins (all provided aboard the ship) and slid into the refreshing blue waters. Almost immediately a huge turtle brushed past me. Before long I spotted three, four, five more swimming below and rising to the surface. I floated effortlessly, watching as small fish ate off the back of one large turtle — a symbol of good luck in the form of a guardian spirit.
After about an hour in the water, we motored back to the Safari Explorer where we are welcomed back aboard with delectable mimosas made with Spanish Cava and lilikoi juice.
There’s time to relax before lunch (Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches) and optional afternoon activities.
Thanksgiving at Sea
Our weeklong sojourn coincided with Thanksgiving, and Chef Liz was able to procure two farm turkeys on Molokai. We were in store for a traditional holiday dinner with our new shipboard friends, which included a mother and daughter from Portland, several long married couples (from Whidbey Island, Washington; Florida, Alaska and even Melbourne, Australia) and a few solo travelers from New Zealand and South Dakota. Two Millennial women rounded out our lively group of just 22 passengers.
The ages of this merry band of travelers ranged from 30s to 70s — all sizes and shapes, robust and adventuresome, one and all!
As the Safari Explorer plied the waters, the hum of the engine and gentle rocking were just soft enough to lull us to a wee afternoon nap — unlike the Alenuihaha Channel crossing the night before, from Maui to the Big Island.
“’Twas a seven out of ten,” one of the crew members tells us the next day. Tossed from side to side, enough to keep us awake half the night and make us groggy the next day, we are relieved for calmer waters.
“If it was a ten,” the crew member adds, “we call it the Alenui-not-so-ha-ha”.
Despite the turbulence, these waters are the clearest of those surrounding the Big Island. Creatures we see snorkeling include bright yellow tangs, sea urchin hiding in the crevices of the coral and skinny needle fish swimming at the surface.
Above the surface, we were privy to humpback, Baines beaked and pilot whales, as well as bottle-nosed dolphins. We “oohed” and “ahed” as we craned our necks — away from the delicious falafels and yogurt with dill and quinoa salad — to watch their antics.
Our last night aboard we encountered the manta ray — a most surreal experience and definitely a highlight of our UnCruise.
I jumped into the dark water in my snorkel and fins and held onto a boogie board with a handful of my fellow passengers. We’d been briefed beforehand, so when I found myself immediately looking into the cavernous mouth of a huge ray whose ballet-like dance skims within inches of my body, I remained calm — and full of awe. Lanterns used to attract plankton lured, in turn, the immense, surreal-looking creatures doing somersaults. The experience made for a mighty fine and memorable ending to our weeklong cruise.
The next morning, we bid a “hana hou” to the wonderful crew who looked after us so ably and sweetly. The phrase translates to “until we meet again” — and I, too, hope to join the UnCruise’s repeat customers club.