A reluctant cruiser hits the high seas with a company that goes against the grain of big ship cruising.
With the announcement that everyone had arrived, I sat down, a bit anxiously, at a table in the hospitality room at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel. There were 22 (no, that’s not a typo) of us total, waiting to begin our cruise. One woman was knitting, a few had struck up a conversation, and others were busy with an assortment of electronics.
“We’re going to do our best to exceed your expectations,” said Un-Cruise’s Kelly Donnelly.
While many travelers dislike the crowds that come with traditional, big ship cruising, our week in the Hawaiian Islands with Un-Cruise Adventures would be just the opposite: It’s next to impossible to get lost in a crowd of less than two dozen people, even more so when there are a dozen crew members ready and waiting to attend to your every need.
My husband and I appeared to be among the youngest in the group, and I’ll admit I was curious, concerned actually, how an age range of 40s through 70s would affect activities like snorkeling, kayaking, and paddle boarding. But then tireless crewmember Flora Drury blew in to escort us to the ship. Like the Love Boat had Julie, the Safari Explorer has Flora to guide the way in what can often be wet, muddy adventures. From free diving and moor skiffs, to spotting humpback whales off in the distance and helping first-time snorkelers find their comfort zone, it quickly became clear that our fearless leader would not steer any of us wrong.
Un-Cruise Safari Explorer was docked just ten minutes away and when we arrived, our luggage had already made the trip to our rooms. Holding a maximum of 36 passengers, Explorer is modest, not massive, and certainly not showy like its mammoth cousins (think tk and tk) you might see on TV. State rooms are clean and comfortable, with private bathrooms and ocean views, but not lavish in any way. A privacy curtain that hangs in the door jam allows you to leave your cabin door open and enjoy the sea air and sea sounds, day and night. Whales in the waves can make a ruckus, but are fun to fall asleep to.
The Safari Explorer has two main public areas. On the main deck, the center of the ship serves as the dining room, bar, sitting area, and library. The mostly open top deck is home to comfy chaises and a few pieces of gym equipment. The view it delivers makes it a big incentive to get up for morning yoga or the perfect spot to spy playful humpback whales.
Many cruise ships strive for a sleek and modern look, but Explorer seeks wildlife and adventure. And the thrills start with the personable crew. Before we could set sail, we went through the standard review of emergency procedures, including the ever-so-fashionable life jacket dress rehearsal. “If we ask you to put these on after tonight, they’re yours to keep,” cracked Captain Michael Bennett.
The first true taste of what our week at sea would be like came at the end of our first full day aboard the Safari Explorer. Still off the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, we headed toward the airport for a dinner date with some hungry manta rays.
While people prefer dining by candlelight, all manta rays care about is the plentiful supply of plankton that pops up when the sun goes down. Bright diving lights deliver a clear view, even though you’re jumping in in the dark of the night.
Swimming with manta rays typically evokes one of two reactions: excitement and fear. The most experienced divers and snorkelers can’t wait to get wet. On the flip side, even the most inexperienced swimmers can get that deer-in-headlights look on their face and start mumbling something along the lines of “what have I done?”
“It’s going to look like they are going to eat you,” said Ian Roussopoulos, with Kona Diving Company.
The good news is that manta rays don’t find folks very tasty. And even if they did, the fact they don’t have any teeth, barbs or stingers makes people pretty tough to swallow. Luckily plankton goes down easy. Come nightfall, a well-illuminated airport on the coast attracts plenty of it – and usually mantas swarm in high numbers.
Some nights the mantas decide they’re on a diet and don’t show. Other nights you get lucky. My group won the aquatic lottery. I had all but given up trying to count the number of feasting manta rays when a believed-to-be-pregnant Hawaiian Monk Seal named Wai Manu invited herself to the dinner party. (The Hawaiian monk seal being the most endangered marine mammal in the US.) Catching even a glimpse can leave you fighting to catch your breath.
One day down. As I collapsed into bed, I wasn’t quite sure how subsequent days could live up to dining with mantas and monk seals.
That thought never crossed my mind again. There simply wasn’t time in between snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, and jumping off the deck. They not only let passengers take the plunge, they encourage them to take the leap. Cannonballing isn’t just for kids!
Much of our days were spent wet.
Snorkeling was a daily selection on our menu of activities while at sea. One highlight: Kealakekua Bay. Although it will forever be included in history books as the spot English explorer Captain Cook was killed in 1779, visitors will remember it as one of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii. The water is warm and shallow closer to shore, but the deeper section of the bay is a favorite hangout spot for playful spinner dolphins. The trip to and from Kealakekua Bay was like cruising through whale soup. It seemed as though every direction we looked, a humpback whale was showing off.
I almost passed on snorkeling in Olowalu, not far from Maui’s well-known Lahaina. I was leaning toward kayaking, (tough choice, right?), but it was the last chance we’d get to dive in, so I hesitantly grabbed my gear and hopped on the snorkeling skiff. When we hit the water, my first reaction was disappointment. The water was beautiful and clear, but it was deeper than I expected. I’d be doing more freediving then I’d planned.
The letdown didn’t last long. First, there was a stumbling-along snoozing reef shark. I lingered a bit until one of the crew, aboard a kayak no less, saw a turtle, so I made a beeline her way, only to stop cold when another turtle popped up an arm’s length away. We were snorkeling above what those in-the-know affectionately call a turtle cleaning station. It’s like a car wash for turtles. Goldring surgeonfish spend their days munching on algae from the shells of relaxing sea turtles, which means snorkelers get to spend their days there snapping pictures and smiling.
Every time we returned from an adventure, the crew that remained onboard were waiting to welcome us home. From hot chocolate on our one-and-only cloudy day, to refreshing coolers after our more typical stretches of sunshine.
Cruises often get a bad rap for waistline-busting buffets served with never-ending wait lines. On Un-Cruise, all meals are sit down, but still casual, affairs. The dozen-plus crew includes a dedicated chef and pastry chef. There were at least three choices at every meal: a meat, fish, and vegetarian option, and special requests were welcome. Want a BLT for breakfast? All you have to do is ask.
Menus had focus on fresh, local Hawaiian foods, but at the same time didn’t overdo it. Even better, meals didn’t come with a dress code. No one wore a bathing suit to the table, but comfortable and casual prevailed at every meal.
Wine flows freely, and passengers can order just about anything they can think of from the all-inclusive bar. Open 24/7, it’s well stocked with top-shelf names. If the bartender isn’t around when you need something, passengers are welcome and encouraged to step behind the bar and go for it.
The cruise is truly all-inclusive. Excursions, drinks, and all gear ranging from snorkeling equipment to paddle boards, is included in the cost of the cruise. Each passenger also gets a free massage compliments of the onboard masseuse and yoga instructor. The only time you’ll pull out your wallet will be at the end of the cruise to tip the crew. Trust me, they deserve it.
Dana’s adventure was hosted by Un-Cruise Adventures, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.
Dana doesn’t like to sit still, so weekends spent exploring the San Francisco Bay Area out-number those at home in wine country. Along with being the travel reporter for San Francisco’s KRON4 News, Dana writes for a variety of publications including Viator’s Travel Blog, Luxury Retreats Magazine, Hotel Scoop, Gogobot and Ciao Bambino. Her favorite trips typically include blue water and warm sand.