Aloha Island Hopping & Spy Hopping

By Lisa TE Sonne

Kayaking in the largest ocean of the world,  and the great staff were always offering tropical treats.Expansive cobalt ocean blues, black lava fields, tropical island greens, and two snow-capped mountains were all in view out my airplane window as we approached the Kona Airport, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

“We are the only state in North America today to have a blizzard warning,” said the driver that met me at the airport. He narrated as I sat in the air-conditioned car, looking at beaches and resorts out one window and volcanoes with snow through the other window. I inhaled the pungent sweetness of my plumeria lei, a welcoming necklace of flowers.

“This island has 11 of the 13 ecological zones on the planet. You want alpine, desert, mountain?”

I wanted ocean. I was here to cruise the Pacific…well, actually to “un-cruise.” I was about to meet my fellow passengers for island hopping from the Big Island of Hawaii to Maui to Lanai to Molokai. The outermost of the main Hawaiian islands, Oahu and Kauai, would have to wait for a different trip.

There would be 28 of us passengers on the inviting Explorer – two couples from Canada traveling together, four couples from Germany traveling as a group, two sets of girlfriends (one in their 30s, the other in their 60s), some male and female single travelers, and three generations of an Oregon family – from Grandma to eight-year-old Mollie, who would charm us all.

Luxurious Explorations

Hiking on the island of Lana'iWe were all off on a soft adventure journey of snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking–very soft, since we had a full-time wellness instructor, a full-time pastry chef, and 13 other wonderful staff to take care of us. An onboard bar, piano and library existed to entertain us. My suite had a bay window and bathtub with Jacuzzi jets. We were each to get a complimentary massage.

We were also off to live up to our ship’s name, exploring nature and other cultures.

You would have thought my first full day would have been the peak day with  morning yoga and stretch group on the bow (with humpbacks spouting on the horizon), three gourmet meals, snorkeling with dreamy warm waters and tropical fish, a massage that dissolved my shoulder travel knots. Drumroll please, a nighttime snorkel with underwater flashlights above a manta ray feeding station ended the day. The winged beauties did their own rolls through the waters about 30 feet below us.

Close Encounters

Courtesy of videos, Lisa TE Sonne, Do not use without permission. On Day Two, we joined up with Captain Zodiak to zoom out to a popular snorkeling site, known as Captain Cook’s. When humpback whales spouted out on the horizon, we raced toward them, then cut the engine as we got close to the legal distance you must respect. But the humpbacks don’t know the legal code.

As some breaches and spouting got closer to us, someone suddenly spotted a huge dark shape underwater heading toward our boat. I handed my GoPro underwater camera to Buddha, a skilled and funny boatman who knew how to hang over the rubber tube to video the whales, while I clicked stills of the above waterline action.

A mother and baby humpback swam under our boat while the male escort propelled his mass vertically out of the water to “spy hop” — to take a look at the humans who were screaming and gasping at the proximity of awe.

I could have gone home happy that night but am so very glad I didn’t. Between fantastic meals, we could snorkel with sea turtles while hearing whale songs, or learn to SUP (stand-up paddle board), or kayak in the world’s largest ocean — and then there were the memorable shore excursions.

Traditions Beckon

Maui magic for me was the “Wayfinders” — those who use the stars as a compass, like early Polynesian voyagers, to navigate double-hulled canoes they have helped build. Those who are continuing the traditions have a center we visited on a Lahaina beach, where they build their long distance crafts and offer lessons in how to paddle and chant as a team for a taste of the ancient ways. I loved the sense of rhythm we created as we glided through the sea.

Molakai, a less touristy gem, was once known as the island of Father Damien’s leper colony, but now combines a legacy of old Hawaiian life with a beautiful hike to a waterfall and natural swimming pool. We were invited into the sacred Valley of Halawa, which may be the first Hawaiian settlement of the Polynesians, more than 1,400 years ago. The blowing of a conch shell announced our arrival, and a return blow welcomed us to walk further in to be part of a traditional greeting ceremony. Our hike took us through taro terraces, sacred lands, and tropical forests with hibiscus flowers, to Mo’oula a 76-metre waterfall cascading into fresh waters that invited swimming.

The People Made the Difference

On small ships, the crew and fellow passengers can be a more influential part of the trip than on a large cruise ship. This bunch was delightful and stellar. The “Mikes” (captain and chief mate) shared their knowledge of the waters, and even let me steer briefly. Bosun Jenn, Engineer Troy, and 2nd-mate Christian all made things run smoothly on the Explorer and on the skiffs we took out daily to look for even more whales. Expedition Leaders Flora and Laura were top notch and fun, in and out of the water. Chef Steve and Pastry Chef Kiley received daily gratitude from smiling, sated passengers. Wellness Instructor Paul led classes each morning before breakfast, helped passengers throughout the day, and gave complimentary massages. Hotel Manager Tamryn and the charming stewards (Darcy, Spencer, Emily and Donnie) were all a pleasure to be with and looked out for the extra details that make a trip fantastic.

In retrospect, two great Hawaiian words come to mind: Aloha, meaning “love” as a way of life and as well as a hello greeting and goodbye parting, plus mahalo meaning “thank you.” I have cause to say both: Aloha and Mahalo!

For the whale video:

Lisa Sonne, author of My Adventures: A Traveler's Journal, has previously written and produced Discovery Channel’s Extreme Hawaii show, and Hawaii segments for Your Mind & Body television series. The book she was working on while on this cruise is now out: The Happiness Handbook: Simple Simple Ways to Change Your Life for the Better. For more go to

Un-Cruise Adventures also offers their special kind of small cruise adventures in Alaska, and the Sea of Cortez off Baja California as well as themed cruises.

 For more on Hawaii:

The non-profit to support Maui’s Voyaging Society:

Halawa Valley on Molokai:

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