American Hawaii Cruise lines has also won awards for their extensive offering of shore excursions. 

They were named “Best of the Best” by Travel Holiday magazine, because they have about 85 different ways to experience the culture, sights, and settings of Hawaii.  You can go horseback riding, ride a bike down the slopes of a volcano, experience a luau, go snorkeling or whale watching (in season), and do touristy things like go parasailing or rent a jet ski.  Of course, you can also choose to experience all or some of those things on your own.

When it comes to vacations, some people like to buy their tickets, pay their money, and let others handle the details.  We chose to give up this convenience in exchange for the ability to pursue our own interests at our own pace (and, we think, at considerable savings).

Rental cars are easily available at each port of call and will pick you up from the pier if you call the local office.  We used our cell phone when we sighted land, and the moment the gangplank hit terra firma we were on our way while the "tour-ists" waited around to pile onto buses.

We armed ourselves with guide books (see the Resources page) and for the price of the car and some gas, experienced parts of the Islands that no tour bus ever saw.

In many cases, many of the excursions available on the ship were also to be had at considerable savings by contacting the proprietors directly.  For example, the "Bicycle down the Slopes of Haleakala" tour was $135pp on ship, and $65 direct.

In other cases, we just couldn't beat the on-ship prices.  It pays to do your homework. (To be fair, the excursions are NOT run by American Hawaii Cruises, but by a concessionaire.)

Snorkeling and Glass Bottom Boat (Kona)

We opted in on the morning "Fairwind Snorkel Sail" excursion in Kona for $99pp (it was $87 direct, but they wouldn't pick us up from the pier).

This was an excellent outing that took us to the Kealakekua Bay marine sanctuary, with many varieties of tropical fish, beautiful coral reefs and clear waters.  For history buffs, it is located right next to the Captain Cook Monument.  After a morning of snorkeling we were treated to a buffet barbecue lunch with some really good burgers!

One of us also took the "Glass Bottom Boat Ride" that same morning and was very enthusiastic about it.

Luau at Polynesian Cultural Center (Oahu)
Since it was our first trip to Hawaii, we knew that we absolutely had to experience a luau and so we bought excursion tickets to the Polynesian Cultural Center. We thought it was a disappointment.

Our Self-Guided Excursions

On the first day, we went to the Border's Bookstore at the Maui Marketplace Mall on Dairy Road, near the airport.  We equipped ourselves with a set of excellent guidebooks (see Resources).

The mall also has a Starbucks (if you are a java junkie like me) and a Sports Authority (if you forgot to pack a bathing suit or sunglasses).

One essential element of DIY excursions is the rental car.  This is no problem.  The ship will book you a car through Alamo, or you can call your favorite agency when you arrive in port (most will pick you up from port or will pay for cab fare -- if they don't, keep shopping. 

Maui (Friday, Saturday, Sunday morning, and the following Saturday and Sunday)

Our approximate expenses for our 2-day do-it-yourself Maui adventure were: $30/day for the car (full size), $15 for the guide book, $30 for gas.

We are the proud owners of a National Parks Golden Eagle Pass ($65) which entitles us to enter any National Park or Wildlife Refuge for free (of course, we ALWAYS leave a donation in support of our national treasures).  That comes to a total of $105 (not including meals or shopping).  "Comparable" excursions booked on the boat would have come to over $300.

  • Drove to Haleakala, a now (arguably) dormant volcano.  Since we did not bring warm clothes, we opted to go at mid-day rather than see the sunrise (when temperatures hover around freezing, not including wind chill from up to 100 mph gusts -- cold enough to freeze your nuggies off).  Call 871-5054 for a forecast of conditions at the top. Park entry fee was free because we have a National Parks Golden Eagle Pass ($65).

  • Drove the entire Hana Highway, all the way around the east side of the island.  Tour buses can't go there because of the twisty road (many sections are one-lane and include blind turns).  If you only drive to Hana, you are missing half the fun (apparently there is a rumor that the road past Hana is somehow forbidden to rental cars).  When we hit Hwy 31, we just kept driving (carefully, of course).  On the way, we hiked, saw more waterfalls than I'd ever seen in one place, swam in natural pools, saw black sand beaches, and saw a desert (something I thought I would NEVER see in Hawaii). Not available as an Excursion Option.

  • Visited Lahaina, this is an old whaling village turned tourist trap, but has some neat shops. The shopping deals get better as you get away from Front Street.  We ate delicious Vietnamese food at Ba Le in the Lahaina Cannery Mall (just off Front Street), we had to keep coming back because it was so good! Also, we discovered a REALLY authentic luau, the Old Lahaina Luau in Maui.  This establishment has received excellent reviews from several reputable sources including Fodor's, The Best of Hawaii, and the Maui News.  While we did not get the chance to enjoy their offerings, the Old Lahaina Luau was PRAISED by some very critical friends of mine who were there during the week of 5/15.  If you want to try them, make your reservations NOW (yes NOW); they fill up months ahead.  The ship wanted $19pp to bus you over to Lahaina.

  • Drove Hwy 340 around the North coast of the island.  This is another section that is rumored to be "prohibited" to rental cars because it is twisty, turny, occasionally one-lane and has blind corners.  It was INCREDIBLY beautiful, with little villages tucked away in lush valleys and the most incredible vistas you could ever hope for.

Hawaii (Hilo) (Monday)

There are two stops on the "Big Island": Hilo and Kona. We rented a car from National in Hilo, who were kind enough to pick us up and drop us off from the pier.  Our do-it-yourself adventure cost us about $30 for the car, $15 for the guide book (but it gets split between Hilo and Kona, so $7.50), and let's say $20 for gas.

Again, we made use of our wonderful National Parks Golden Eagle Pass that allows free entry into Volcanoes National Park.  To do everything we did using the Excursions Desk, it would have cost at least $240 (this is a VERY conservative estimate -- again, you can't compare because we did things that weren't even offered in the Excursions Package).

  • Drove 30 minutes to Volcanoes National Park. There, we drove around the rim of the Kilauea Caldera, visited the Volcano House Hotel and nearby sites.  We hiked the Halema'uma'u Trail across the steaming crust of the volcano.  We also hiked down to the Thurston Lava Tubes.

  • Drove back through Hilo to visit some gorgeous waterfalls including Rainbow Falls, the curiously-named Pe'epe'e Falls (gotta watch where you put those apostrophes!) and the equally curiously-named Akaka Falls.

  • Drove along scenic Banyan Drive on the way back to the ship.

Hawaii (Kona)

This is the stop where we
elected to sign up for
snorkeling and the glass
bottom boat (see above).

Oahu (Wednesday and Thursday).

In Oahu we were disappointed by the Polynesian Cultural Center.

The next day was saved by our do-it-yourself adventure.  Here we didn't have a guidebook from our trusted source so we relied on the free (i.e. mostly advertising, a bit of misinformation, and scraps of useful things thrown in as filler) brochures handed out at the tourist information (i.e. "we want to sell you a timeshare") booths.  Cost to us: $4 ($1pp each way) for the city bus, the USS Arizona Memorial is FREE TO EVERYONE, the Hawaii Maritime Museum cost $7.50pp. Cost at Excursions Desk: at least $40 (again, you can't compare because things we did weren't even offered as excursions).

  • Pearl Harbor / USS Arizona Memorial.  To get there, we took the number 20 city bus (leaves from a stop about 2 short blocks from the pier).  Public transportation in Honolulu is inexpensive, clean and fun! (Probably the reason it was designated as #1 by the American Public Transportation Association). We were startled that the admission to the Memorial was free, because the Excursion Desk wanted $19pp.  We left a generous donation, of course.

  • Hawaii Maritime Museum. This gem is not even on the list of Excursions, but is probably the BEST deal out there.  It is more along the lines of what we were expecting the from the HORRIBLE, AWFUL, TACKY Polynesian Cultural Center.  Here they tell the story of how the Polynesian people migrated thousands of miles across open ocean from island to island.  They tell of the unification of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha the Great.  They tell of the arrival of the first Western ships. Of course, a lot of the information has a maritime twist, but you will also find out about agriculture, native medicine, and a few other gems (including the only existing 4-masted schooner, and a working replica of a Polynesian oceangoing canoe).  How do you get there?  Well, you walk about two piers over from the ship. DOH! (Don't expect to find any shopping deals at the Aloha Center on the way).

  • China Town.  This was a bonus trip on the way back from Pearl Harbor.  We took an express bus back into town and got off a few stops before the pier.  Was an unexpected bonus and was the first visit to a China Town ever for one of our party.

  • Aloha Tower.  Another freebie steps from the ship. Okay, it's a shopping mall built around a famous landmark, but the trip up the elevator to the top is free.  Check out their website for a STUNNING picture of the SS Independence at port.

Kauai (Friday)

Kauai is the "Garden Island" and is the lushest, wettest, and most tropical of the major Hawaiian Islands.  Again, we rented a car from National, who were nice enough to pick us up and drop us off at the pier.  The car was about $30, gas about $20, and the guidebook was $15 or so.  Excursion Desk prices: at least $120 (again, not comparable -- we did things not even offered to the "tour-ists").

  • Why we didn't see the Fern Grotto.  Okay, the FG got a lot of hype on the cruise and from the brochures, but our guidebook, which proved to be very reliable clearly states that the FG is no longer what it used to be after getting devastated by Hurricane 'Iwa in 1982.  Even then, it was depicted as a largely synthetic garden theme-park.  I guess it's all in your philosophy.  If you're after "pretty-even-though-it's-all-fake", go for it.  If you're after "real", maybe best stay away. WE DID drive Hwy 56/560 to its end on the north side of the island.  This was a VERY scenic drive and included a number of points of interest, described below.

  • 'Opaeka'a Falls.  Along the way to the falls you can see several heiaus (aboriginal temples) one of which was the birthing place of all Kauaian kings, and another which was probably built by a race of people called the Menehune who predated the Hawaiians. The falls themselves are stunning and not to be missed.

  • Kilauea Lighthouse and Bird Sanctuary.  Further along Hwy 56 we happened upon one of the highlights of our tour, the Kilauea Lighthouse and Bird Sanctuary.  It is home to one of the largest collections of native birds in the islands, and is also a prime whale-watching vista (we saw a straggler breech before our eyes).  For lighthouse buffs, it is also home to the world's largest bivalve Fresnel lens.

  • Princeville.  Much touted golf course community.  Blecch.

  • Hwy 560 and Hanalei Bay.  INCREDIBLE Scenery, tide pools, more waterfalls, "caves" (actually remnants of ancient lava tubes), glorious beaches.  A must-see.

"Official" Excursions

For your convenience, I have scanned and converted the ship's excursion sign up sheets complete with VERY UP-TO-DATE prices (at least as of 5/01).  You can get them by clicking on the links below.

Maui Hilo (Hawaii) Kona (Hawaii) Oahu Kauai