First time in Hawaii? Don't forget socks.

When you cruise the Hawaiian Islands, you don't expect to need warm socks - especially not calf-high ones with rubber toes that look like hooves.

But funky protective gear is all part of a first visit to paradise, where a rain-forest hike can unexpectedly yield a new footwear experience.

Newcomers are bound to learn a few things they didn't know before, and not just about the latest rain-forest fashions. This is a place that impressed the likes of Mark Twain, but - in an unusual, Austin Powers kind of way - still finds Spam an acceptable food choice.

Combine your first vacation here with your first cruise, and the learning factor shoots way up, as I discovered on a spring voyage with American Hawaii Cruises.

Along with figuring out shipboard etiquette (I have to tip how many people?) I was educated on everything from helicopter safety (What do you mean the doors don't lock?) to which of the eight islands is the oldest (Kauai - 70 to 80 million years and counting).

Hawaiiana is this cruise line's main theme, and they don't leave anything out. Always wondered how to hula? Catch the class at 3 p.m. Never tasted mango and pasta together? Your waiter's got it covered. Want to know how to say the Lord's Prayer in Hawaiian? Set your alarm for the nondenominational Sunday service.

Regular talks by a kumu, or teacher, provide even more background on the islands and their traditions.

"It gives you a whole feel for the Hawaiian culture," says Beverly Henry of St. Clair Shores, Mich.

The week-long voyage stops at the islands of Kauai, Maui, Hawaii (two ports -Hilo then Kona), and Oahu, where the cruise begins and ends in Honolulu.

Before you head off on the cruise's long list of shore excursions, you have a day at sea to get acquainted with the 1,000-plus passenger ship. The S.S. Independence, circa 1952, is not as modern as most cruise ships - you can't watch TV in your room, for example, and there's no arcade -but it has character thatmany larger ships don't (not to mention very small showers).

Thirty years ago, in fact, my dad took his first ocean voyage on the Independence as a graduate student traveling from New York to Italy. Not many cruises can offer that kind of family history - and this one won't for much longer, as it is due to be retired in the next few years.

Repeat passengers are especially partial to it. "We like boats, and this is a boat," says Mary Smith, a sailor and retiree from Honolulu who regularly takes the cruise (it's offered year-round) with her husband.

Decisions, decisions

One of the best discoveries for first-time visitors isthat there's more to do in port than lounge on the sand.

You can go for a whale watch or a horseback ride, you can bike down a volcano (in gear only Evel Knievel could love), or tour a tropical botanical garden - and of course there's plenty of snorkeling. "The choice is outstanding," says Ms. Henry, who notes there are three times as many options as when she took the same cruise 15 years ago.

But excursions can add up, especially for an ohana of four, and are not included in the cruise. Prices range from $200 for an adult helicopter tour to $13 for a child on a whale watch.

It's easy enough to rent a car and go exploring on your own, though. One family from the Midwest found it worked best to take some shore excursions and plan some trips on their own. They rented a car on Maui and reveled in the fact that in one day they could spend a chilly morning at the top of Haleakala, a 10,000-foot dormant volcano, and by afternoon be soaking up the sun on a beach.

"In Ohio you can't do that," says Ed Hamann of his family's trip.

The multiple climates and landscapes also impressed Stephen Moore of Gross Pointe, Mich. "Hawaii is so much more dramatic than the Caribbean."

Up, up, and away

Although helicopter rides tend to be expensive, they are one of the best ways to see that drama. On Kauai, for example, you can fly over Waimea Canyon ("the Grand Canyon of the Pacific"), sites where "Jurassic Park" was filmed, and the otherwise inaccessible and stunning Napali Coast.

Another top choice of mine is the rain forest hike on Maui, where knowledgeable guides from Hike Maui filled our heads with flora and covered our feet with those two-toed socks.

What ever you choose, be sure to mix it up a bit. "My kids can't spend another day on a bus," was the lament of one father trying to get his family switched from a tour to a hike the next day.

Punctuating the trip is a nighttime cruise by a lava flow on the way to Kona on Hawaii. It's quite a show, but not my favorite memory. That honor goes to the Fairwind snorkel tour in Kona. After all, it's not every day that a Nebraska-born girl finds herself in fins swimming with tropical fish.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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