When Hawaiian travel first captured American hearts during the 1920s, it was very much a shipboard affair. Matson steamers carried passengers from the mainland to Honolulu, a leisurely voyage in keeping with the relaxing atmosphere awaiting them at Waikiki.Skip to next paragraph
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The past few decades have seen jet travel and high-rise hotels largely replace the pleasures of shipboard life. But the latter can still be a part of a Hawaiian vacation, thanks to the S.S. Oceanic Independence, which sets sail every Saturday for a week-long cruise around the seven-island chain.
Ever since the Oceanic Independence first moved out from Honolulu's Aloha Tower on June 21, 1980, the first cruise vessel recommissioned to carry an American flag in the past two years, nearly all of its spacious, cheerfully decorated staterooms have been full. So popular has the cruise become that the company that owns the ship, American Hawaii Cruises, plans to introduce a sister ship, the S.S. Constitution, which will follow a similar itinerary beginning this June.
I sailed on the Oceanic Independence recently, and for me the trip (with the slight substitution of TWA and Western for the train and Matson steamer) had qualities that could have characterized a Hawaiian sojourn of decades past.
For instance, right after stepping off the gangway into the ship's foyer on Saturday evening, I was greeted by an ''aloha'' kiss and presented a lei of orchids and carnations - in itself something of a treat for one who had just left the snows of New Hampshire. Passengers have the rest of the evening to get settled in their staterooms and enjoy a leisurely first-night dinner on board. Leaving the lights of Honolulu and the dark outline of Diamond Head behind, the ship pulls out of the harbor and sails toward Molokai at 10 p.m.
Because the next day, Sunday, is the only time the ship is at sea all day, that's the time to discover what the gleaming white vessel has to offer. Built in 1951 as a Mediterranean cruise ship, the Oceanic Independence was refurbished just before her assignment to the Hawaiian waters. The pleasing results: chrome-railed staircases, a plush dining room and main lounge, and an abundance of cozy nooks in which to read or watch the coastal scenery roll by.
Other amenities include a lively disco, well-equipped gym, two swimming pools , saunas, and a theater showing first-run movies. Throughout the nine passenger decks a young and enthusiastic American staff provides pleasant and efficient service.
Every evening passengers receive a schedule of the next day's events. Some of these are characteristic of cruise ships everywhere, while others have a distinctly Hawaiian flavor. Shuffleboard and table tennis are augmented with ukulele and hula lessons, leimaking, and macadamia-nut tasting. Auntie Vi's Hawaiians, an engaging trio that plays Hawaiian music, turn up on different decks at various hours of the night and day. And among the live entertainment offered each night is a colorful show of traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian dancing.
A Hawaiian influence is also present at mealtimes, whether in the dining room or at the poolside buffets served every morning, noon, and midnight. Fresh pineapple and papaya, local fish, roast suckling pig, guava sherbet, and macadamia-nut ice cream are among the island treats that turn up on the menu.
But the real feeling of being in Hawaii comes by just looking over the railing of a deck, beginning with its circumnavigation of Molokai on Sunday. The ship sails close enough to the island shorelines to afford some magnificent views -- such as the lushly green 2,000-feet-high ''hanging'' cliffs of Molokai.
After the day at sea on Sunday, the Oceanic Independence drops anchor at Hilo on the island of Hawaii the next morning. From Monday until Friday there are shore excursions every day. My choice on the big island was a full-day tour of Hilo, Volcanoes National Park, and the spectacular lava-bound southeastern coast.