THE Hawaiian Islands make for a relaxing vacation spot that beckons visitors to return time and again. Add the restful nature of an inter-island cruise to the picture, and you have a winning combination. Although this year other lines are beginning to bring ships into the area, before 1988 there was only one cruise line operating here, American Hawaii Cruises. In existence only since 1980, American Hawaii Cruises has two vessels - the Independence and the Constitution. They are true sister ships, identical twins. Both have been refurbished this year with interior colors in jewel tones of blue and green.
Each ship offers its own seven-day, four-island itinerary. In addition, there is a seven-day cruise/hotel package plan that combines a three- or four-day cruise on the Constitution with a three-or four-day land stay at the Kona Surf Hotel on the Big Island, and the Turtle Bay Hilton and Prince Kuhio Hotels on Oahu. If you stay at the Kona Surf or Turtle Bay Hilton, a rental car is provided at no extra charge.
During the seven-day cruise, activities aboard ship include classes in leimaking, the hula, and ukulele. There are two swimming pools and shuffleboard, plus other diversions.
The captain plays host for a ``Welcome Aboard'' party for all passengers before dinner on the first full day at sea. This is the occasion for silk dress and pearls or coat and tie (a tuxedo isn't necessary). Otherwise, dressing for dinner isn't nearly as formal as you might gather from TV's ``Love Boat.''
Immediately after embarking, the cruise staff gives a singles party, which, unfortunately, turned out to be the only activity specifically for singles on the cruise I sampled.
During the summer school vacation there was a family program in which two children in the same cabin traveled free, and special activities and parties were planned for young people up to age 16.
There are four breakfast and two lunch schedules from which to choose. Dinner seating (main or late) can be made through a travel agent at the time a cruise is booked. Dinner is the only meal with assigned seating; otherwise, passengers are free to eat at any time, with open seating.
If three meals a day aren't enough, one can also have a late-night buffet. About halfway through the cruise, there is a traditional grand buffet; it is so elaborate that passengers have been known to arrive early with cameras to take photographs before it is served.
Another highlight is the paniolo (cowboy) barbecue held on deck one night, weather permitting. The evening's show features fire jugglers and dancers in costume, against the backdrop of a beautiful Hawaiian sunset.
Other evening entertainment includes the ship's band, which plays a variety of music from show tunes to big-band sounds and pop. It also accompanies comedy routines, magic acts, a passenger talent show, song-and-dance numbers, and stage shows.
One of the best things about a Hawaiian cruise is the ports of call. Both the Independence and the Constitution call at the same ports in a different order, including two days on the island of Maui. Here, Kaanapali Beach - one of the world's most beautiful - and the lush, cool beauty of the Iao Valley stand out in strong contrast to the barrenness of Haleakala Crater, which is large enough to hold the island of Manhattan, with room to spare. American astronauts trained for their moon walks here. When the early morning sun hits Haleakala, it is transformed into a richly hued expanse of dunes and depressions. Observation points are well situated for viewing of the crater, but, with an elevation here of 14,000 feet, most visitors aren't up to strenuous hiking.
And then there's the town of Lahaina, which offers another sharp contrast. Once an old whaling village, this restored city is now bustling with commerce. Many charming shops in buildings dating from the 1800s are nestled among modern stores and restaurants. The Pioneer Inn is a popular dining spot in an old fisherman's inn. Many relics are on display. The Carthaginian, a replica of a 19th-century sailing brig, is docked at the edge of a harbor filled with modern charter fishing boats. Nearby stands the Wo Hing Museum, built in 1912. It houses a collection of rare Chinese artifacts and memorabilia of Lahaina at the turn of the century.
Another attraction is the black sand beach at Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. The ``sand'' is actually pulverized lava. Over a period of time, as the surf pounds the land, the hardened lava becomes almost as fine grained as white sand. But don't try to take any sand or lava rocks home - it's against the law.
The Big Island is the only one in the chain that's still growing; occasional volcanic eruptions extend its edge farther into the sea.
A cruise is a good way to get an overall impression of the islands. Their beauty is unforgettable; a fellow passenger was overheard saying that, of the nine cruises he'd taken, including one on the Queen Elizabeth II, this was one of the best.
If you go
For more details or to make reservations, contact a travel agent or American Hawaii Cruises, 550 Kearny St., San Francisco, CA 94108; phone 800-227-3666.