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(2012 - Fall/Winter Issue)


Where the humpbacks winter, that’s where you’ll find the Safari Explorer, a small passenger cruise ship owned by American Safari Cruises.

The idea of pursuing adventure in casual elegance on board a 36-guest luxury yacht was most appealing. Our voyage would take us to Lana’i, Moloka’i, West Maui and the Big Island of Hawai’i to mingle with locals and experience Hawaiian traditions and culture.

A Class Act

A ferry transported us from the port of Lahaina, Maui, to Lana’i where the Safari Explorer crewmembers awaited our arrival. It was whale-watching season in Hawaii when, to the delight of both visitors and residents, humpbacks migrate an incredible 4,800 kilometres of ocean from the gulf of Alaska to Hawaii to breed and birth in the islands’ warm and shallow waters. We kept our eyes peeled for sightings of these gentle giants and were not disappointed. In fact, our captain had to carefully navigate his craft to avoid them as regulations forbid boats from approaching within 90 metres of a whale.

Our 44-metre yacht had 18 staterooms, which featured bathrooms with heated-tile floors, Tempur-Pedic® memory foam mattresses, a flat-screen TV/DVD, iPod docking stations and windows (not portholes). Very comfortable quarters indeed.

On-board amenities comprised an intimate wine library, spa area, a large on-deck hot tub, sauna, fitness equipment, yoga classes and a complimentary massage for each of us. Three public decks provided plenty of room for mingling, relaxation and fresh-air enjoyment. A full-beam swim step made it easy to access the water. Adventure equipment included kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, inflatable skiffs, hiking poles, fishing poles and tackle, snorkelling equipment, wetsuits, yoga mats and hydrophones for listening to the mysterious whale song of the humpbacks.   

Crewmembers are carefully selected for their outstanding knowledge, customer service, safety skills, and their genuinely welcoming and enthusiastic personalities. Our expedition leaders were experienced naturalists with advanced training in natural and/or cultural history. Every day, the executive chef and his staff created three exquisite meals and tasty snacks, using locally-sourced fresh ingredients. Fine wines, premium spirits and beers were always included.

Island Encounters

Each island promised a unique experience and being on a small yacht gave us a different perspective of this tropical wonderland.

Lana’i, Hawaii’s most secluded and intimate island, was once the state’s largest pineapple plantation, producing eight per cent of the world’s crop. In the 1980s entrepreneur David Murdock purchased the plantation, suspended pineapple planting and built two superplush hotels. We toured the classy Lodge at Koele—a handsome mix of Old Hawaii plantation, gentleman’s hunting estate and British country manor—and its majestic gardens. Later, a visit to the Lana’i Culture & Heritage Center in Lana’i City provided insight into the history of this tiny, unhyped isle, which has few cars, no traffic lights and only one real road, 48 kilometres of which are paved. In June, billionaire CEO Larry Ellison purchased 98 per cent of the island from Murdock, with plans to transform it into an environmentally-sustainable model, a prospect that has excited some residents.

While Oahu boasts a population of 900,000 and Maui 154,924, residents on the island of Moloka’i number only 8,000. And they’d prefer to keep it that way. We couldn’t help but notice signs protesting cruise tourism. The island is considered the most spiritual (sacred) and home to the oldest civilization in Hawaii, and islanders fear that opening the doors to a small-ship cruise company such as American Safari Cruises will only open the floodgates to the larger cruise ships. Low tourism also ensures the local fishing industry remains strong. There are more fish off the west coast of Moloka’i than all of the Hawaiian islands.

Here, we met islanders and experienced their land and traditions as few visitors ever do. A tour of a local plumeria farm introduced us to the art of lei-making, where we learned that, at the height of the blooming season (spring), 200,000 closed blooms a day are picked and shipped off in insulated boxes with gel packs to florists as far away as Florida and New York. Once open, blooms only last seven hours or so. At Purdy’s Natural Macadamia Nuts organic plantation, we sampled fresh treats from the trees, which produce 68 to 113 kilograms of nuts per tree per year.

But it is Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) for which the island of Moloka’i is probably best known. In 1866 King Kamehameha V attempted to stop the spread of leprosy by signing an act ordering advanced cases to be isolated here. Kalawao was the site of the first leprosy settlement (1866–1932) where many died of pneumonia because of the wet, shady, windy conditions. Kaluapapa Peninsula became home for lepers in the early 1900s when Mother Marianne, following in Father Damien’s footsteps, brought them to the peninsula. The fishing village was relocated some 32 years later so the residents could lead a better life. Today, 17 infected people around the age of 60 still live here. Access to the Kalaupapa Peninsula is restricted and it can only be visited by authorized tour groups.

We chose to spend time with a highly-esteemed elder, Kamu Pa’a Lawrence Kalainia Kamani Aki, in an undisclosed location. Only 14 people live in Lawrence’s community. On site, we met Kyrian from the Netherlands and Isabella from Switzerland who were studying the Hawaiian culture, chants and belief system under Lawrence’s tutorship.

In AD 650, Polynesians made their way to this valley, which is blessed with endemic (only found in this location) and indigenous (here before man) plants, making it a very special place. A few from our group hiked to the Mo’orela Falls, while the rest of us decided to learn more about Lawrence’s teachings, summarized simply as “Aloha, love unconditionally.”

Upon arrival at Lawrence’s property, we were greeted with a lovely scent, which he attributed to his picnic tables made of mango wood. Soon, we were hard at work harvesting, cooking and pounding the taro root—a strong part of Hawaiian culture and a task usually carried out by men because of the strength and endurance required. The end result was a staple Hawaiian dish known as poi, which I did not particularly enjoy.

On the island of Maui, we met Ben who has been building a 19-metre double-hull, double-masted reproduction of a historic ship for the past 12 years. His immediate plans were to set sail soon on a month-long voyage to the Marquesas, and perhaps Tahiti, with a 14-man crew. However, his ultimate goal was to create a floating classroom teaching students about Hawaiian culture.

Aquatic giants

But, without doubt, it was on the Big Island of Hawai’i where my husband and I experienced our most memorable encounters. Rough seas between Maui and Hawai’i had prevented a sound sleep so it was nice to sit back and relax.

That afternoon, as my husband and another passenger snorkelled around the yacht, I observed a humpback pup practising its breaching and tail-slapping behaviours nearby. Suddenly, its protective, mammoth mother joined the pup, surfacing mere metres from the snorkellers, who, until then, had been oblivious to the presence of the young whale. I never saw two people literally take wing and leap to safety so quickly!

However it was that evening’s spectacle we anxiously awaited—an encounter with the great Pacific manta rays, which has been rated as one of the top night-diving and snorkelling experiences in the world. Weighing upwards of 1,360 kilograms, some rays’ wingspans measure more than seven metres and we were going to join them in the water at night.

We headed for a spot near the airport where lights at the bottom of the ocean attract plankton, a manta ray’s favourite snack food. Amazingly, rays must eat three per cent of their weight of plankton per day to survive and we had come to watch the feeding frenzy. Holding on to surf boards equipped with lights, we floated horizontally above these magnificent creatures as they gracefully rolled and flew through the water, with mouths wide open. Some occasionally brushed up against snorkellers, causing squeals of delight by those touched. Indeed, it was a show to behold and a memory cherished to this day.

Travel Planner

American Safari Cruises (innerseadiscoveries.com) offers seasonal excursions to Hawaii; the Sea of Cortes; Alaska; the Columbia and Snake Rivers; and Washington’s San Juan Islands and British Columbia. Meals, bar, drinks and most excursions are included. Tips are extra.

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