Hawaii cruise

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.

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.

As we piled into our chartered motor coaches and left the enclosed dock area we found -- as is often the case in rainy Hilo -- that we were in the midst of a tropical downpour. ''Cheer up, folks,'' our driver urged as we drove through the rain-drenched streets, ''it doesn't get any worse than this.''

While the storm made it difficult to determine whether the volcanic craters were emitting either steam or mist, both the tour and the weather improved as the day progressed. By the time we were driving through the rich black lava flow that had streamed down from Mauna Loa all the way to the coast, both sea and sky were a dazzling blue.

On Monday night the ship was scheduled to sail from Hilo around the southern tip of Hawaii Island, the southernmost point of the United States, to dock at the Kona Coast on the western side. But in a rare turnabout, usually-clear Kona had rain; so we spent a second day in Hilo, which was actually fine with me -- I stayed on the boat and loved every minute of it. At Kona passengers have three shore excursions to choose from: a historic tour that includes stops at the City of Refuge National Park and the monument to Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay, an afternoon stay at a secluded beach, or deep-sea fishing on a chartered boat.

Wednesday morning finds the Oceanic Independence docked at the port of Kahului on Maui. My choice among the available tours was to take the Hana Drive, a rugged, twisting route that required a four-wheel-drive van. Although the roughest, bounciest journey imaginable, the spectacular flora, gushing waterfalls and breathtaking ravines that greet one around every hairpin turn make it well worthwhile. Forests of shimmering bamboo, silvery-green kukui trees , and scarlet-blossomed African tulip trees grow in such profusion that there doesn't seem to be room for one more leaf. If there is a standout among all the verdant greenery, it is the rare breed of eucalyptus trees with smooth trunks delicately shaded in a palette of rainbow colors.

After the Hana Drive tour, I was glad to spend the next day relaxing on board the ship, which was now docked at Nawiliwili on Kauai. At Nawiliwili, where the Oceanic Independence drops anchor for Thursday and Friday, some of the legendary Kauai scenery is visible right from the ship. Towering, green-carpeted cliffs flank one side of the harbor, dozens of tiny waterfalls cascading down their sides. On the other side of the harbor a rocky, lighthouse-capped point juts out into the sea.

While docked at Kauai, passengers can take a short hike to a nearby beach or join a shore excursion to the Waimea Canyon, said to be panoramic by those who went. The evening entertainment on Thursday was a mini-version of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, ''South Pacific''; the next day it is possible to take a tour to the beautiful Hanalei coast where the movie version of the musical was filmed.

On Friday the ship leaves Nawiliwili in the late afternoon for Honolulu, where it docks all too early the next day. For me, the most memorable moment of the cruise was when we pulled out of the harbor at sunset, a pink and gold sky forming a luminous backdrop to the Kauai cliffs. With the gentle strains of Hawaiian music filtering up from the deck below, I savored the island splendor in the way it can only be done from the railing of a ship. Practical information:

The S.S. Oceanic Independence departs on its week-long cruises from Honolulu every Saturday of the year. Rates for the cruise range from $845 to $2,125 a person double occupancy. More information is available from American Hawaii Cruises, One Embarcadero Center, Suite 611, San Francisco, Calif. 94111. Telephone [415] 392-9400.

Round-trip TWA fare from Boston is $657 weekdays, $677 weekends; fare from New York is an excellent deal at $498 APEX. American and United also offer that

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