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A Whale of a Lot of Land Excursions : Choices for passengers ashore in Hawaii range from windsurfing to hovering over a volcano.


LAHAINA, Hawaii — From the ship's anchorage offshore, we get a whaler's eye view of this rowdy old port off Maui's west coast. The cloud-wreathed hills rise behind the stalwart wooden buildings that were copied from New England towns by homesick missionaries and whalers.

By squinting across the rail toward the turn-of-the-century Pioneer Inn, blotting out the modern condos and the glut of shop signs, we can see something akin to the town that Mark Twain and Herman Melville visited over 100 years ago.

In the 19th Century, as many as 400 whaling ships would anchor in Lahaina Roads, disgorging 1,500 brawling sailors.

Today, the great whales are back, safe from harm, and they frolic off the Maui coast from late November to early May, while the whalers have been supplanted by Japanese and mainland tourists who throng the main street in search of the perfect T-shirt.

Cruise passengers have the best of both worlds in Hawaii--the option of taking an easy look to shore from a comfortable deck chair, with a good book and a cold drink close at hand, or joining in an excursion with transfers to a helicopter, bus or small boat.

The ships almost always cruise within sight of land, with frequent ports of call, and it's usually possible to arrange for a rental car on any of the islands through the shore excursions office on board.

Active sports ranging from scuba diving, snorkeling and kayaking to bicycling and tennis can also be booked from the ship. A 2 1/2-hour windsurfing beginner or longboard sailing class in Maui, for example, costs $55 per person when booked through American Hawaii Cruises and is limited to a maximum of three persons per instructor.

Lush and humid Hilo on the Big Island is the kickoff point for perhaps the most popular, certainly the most exciting excursion--a one-hour helicopter ride over Kilauea Volcano ($149), particularly thrilling when it is erupting, which is often. The chopper flies over the volcano so that you can look down and see the molten orange lava boil up from the gray crevices, with tongues of flame darting around inside. Then the pilot will usually fly along the eight-mile lava flow as it creeps down the hillside, covering what was once a major roadway and a suburban housing tract, until it slides into the sea with a hissing sound and a fat plume of steam.

The island of Kauai, back on the itinerary for American Hawaii ships after recovering from Hurricane Iniki's extensive damage last year, offers some of the most dazzling scenery in the islands. A one-hour helicopter tour of the rugged Na Pali Coast ($135) also flies over Waimea Canyon and Hanalei Bay, where many movies have been filmed on the golden sand beaches.

Also on the Kauai agenda are a half-day bus excursion to Waimea Canyon ($28 adults, $19.50 children), a full-day motor coach and riverboat excursion to Waimea Canyon and the lushly romantic Fern Grotto ($50 adults, $35 children), and four-hour Hanalei sea and snorkeling tours ($83.25 for adults, $62.50 for children by power catamaran; $73 for adults, $52 for children, powered by Zodiac inflatable landing craft).

American Hawaii's 798-passenger sister ships Constitution and Independence sail the islands year-round, departing every Saturday from Honolulu's Aloha Tower. Families with children get a break aboard both ships most of the summer, with kids 16 and under cruising free when sharing a cabin in the "I" category or above with two full-fare adults. The exception is during sailings between July 3 and Aug. 14, when kids travel for $129 each when sharing the stateroom with two full-fare adults. The adult full fare ranges from $1,575 (an I-category "economy inside" cabin) to $2,495 (for a suite) per person, double occupancy.

Princess Cruises' recently renovated 900-passenger Fair Princess offers 10-day repositioning cruises from Honolulu to Vancouver, British Columbia, May 10, and from Vancouver to Honolulu Sept. 27 that will also call in Nawiliwili, Kauai; Lahaina, Maui, and Hilo, the Big Island. Fares range from $2,090 to $5,640 per person, double occupancy, including air fare.

To get brochures about these sailings, contact American Hawaii Cruises at (800) 765-7000 or Princess Cruises at (800) 568-3262.

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