MADGE Schaefer, a Maui resident, can't wait for the Hawaii Superferry to sail into her future.
"No one from Maui wants to live in Honolulu because it's so crowded. But we want to be able to go there to shop or see a show," said Schaefer, a former Ventura County supervisor. "I can't think of a better way to do it than by ferry -- and get a relaxing mini-cruise out of the trip."
The Superferry, a football field-sized catamaran, is scheduled to begin daily runs between Honolulu on Oahu, Kahului on Maui and Lihue on Kauai in July, carrying passengers and vehicles. It will be the only service of its kind in the islands.
With about 100 days remaining before the anticipated launch, the buzz about the inter-island service is growing. There are plenty like Schaefer who are looking forward to it. But there are others like Kauai lawmaker Gary Hooser, majority leader of the Hawaii Senate, who aren't as sure.
"With up to 300 cars and 900 people getting off the ferry daily, the impacts on these small islands would be significant," said Hooser, who is among several state legislators advocating a bill that would require environmental review of the project.
If the legislation passes -- and Hooser is "cautiously optimistic" it will -- "the bottom line is that it will not delay the start of the Superferry," he said. "The environmental impact process will run concurrently with the businesses' operation." However, others dispute this, saying the legislation could delay the rollout.
The first of two Superferry catamarans was launched in late January from a Mobile, Ala., shipyard.
The 349-foot double-hulled ship -- white-and-blue with frolicking manta rays decorating its hull -- will undergo sea trials and make its way to the islands in May. A second ferry is under construction; it is scheduled to begin service between Honolulu and Kawaihae on the Big Island in 2009.
The project has been six years in the making and will cost nearly $200 million by the time the second ship is launched. Passengers will pay $42 to $60 one way; passenger vehicles will cost $55 to $65 extra.
"We're going to put fun back into travel between the islands," said Terry O'Halloran, Superferry director of business development. "Seeing our islands from the sea is gorgeous. It's a perspective people don't get unless they have their own boat."
The ship, with floor-to-ceiling windows dominating the passenger cabin, will be equipped with tables, sofas and flat-screen TVs. Newly released movies and television will be available during the estimated three-hour cruise. The company expects to carry about 400 passengers on each trip and about 110 cars.
"In Hawaii, everyone talks about \o7ohana\f7 -- your extended family," O'Halloran said. "The ferry will give people a chance to celebrate \o7ohana\f7; they'll be able to sit around with family and friends and enjoy the ride. It will be a real Hawaii experience."
Maui travel agent Nija Rosamond of Hawaiibound.com thinks the service will be a boon for tourists. "They'll love it. It will be a fantastic way to island-hop."
The new service will present more competition for inter-island airlines, which are currently slugging it out in a price war, with fares as low as $19 one way.
"We anticipate that the ferry will be costly, slow, bumpy and not much use to our customers," said David A. Banmiller, president and chief executive of Aloha Airlines. Flights between Honolulu and Maui or Kauai take less than 30 minutes, excluding airport and security line waiting time.
Environmental groups have also attacked the plan, saying the ferry will endanger the humpback whales that migrate into the area in winter and will spread invasive species from island to island. Ferry developers say they have worked with community and environmental groups to create a whale avoidance plan and will screen vehicles to avoid spreading invasive species.
Supporters also say the ferry's daily visits will cause less impact than the giant cruise ships that ply the waters of the Hawaiian Islands, unloading 2,000 or more passengers at each port, and the cargo ships that regularly visit each island, carrying vehicles, food and other supplies.
Maui resident Schaefer is convinced the Superferry is a good thing. "We're the only archipelago in the world without a ferry service," she said. "It's time we have one too."