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Discover hidden Hawaii on an UnCruise Hawaii adventure

The mammoth rays glide up from the inky depths, one by one.

With black wings flapping like Dracula’s cape and cavernous mouths wide open, they rise to within inches of my snorkel mask.

Don’t move,” I will myself on this night adventure on our UnCruise Hawaii trip.

Snorkeling with manta rays in Hawaii is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Snorkeling with manta rays in Hawaii is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

My brain registers – the rays won’t hit me.

Sure enough, with precision timing, they arc backwards at the last moment in a graceful backflip, showing off their creamy white bellies, before swooping back down.

UnCruise Hawaii

Discover the secret side of Hawaii with UnCruise Hawaii

Snorkeling with manta rays is a fitting finale to our one-week Hawaiian cruise – or more accurately, our UnCruise Hawaii trip – aboard the Safari Explorer.

The antithesis of a traditional cruise on a large ship, this 36-guest yacht takes us on an off-the-beaten-path exploration of Hawaii.

UnCruise Hawaii
The sturdy little Safari Explorer in Hawaii

The Safari Explorer is operated by UnCruise Adventures.

I’ve cruised with the line before on another of their “ships” – on a wilderness UnCruise in Alaska with George. This time I’m cruising with my adventurous mother.

In Hawaii, the practical little Safari Explorer visits secluded bays off the Big Island of Hawaii, Lanai, Maui and Molokai.

Hawaii cruise map of our 7-night cruise

Snorkeling with manta rays in Hawaii

Snorkeling at night with mantas is probably the most “touristy” of our excursions (as it’s a popular activity on the Big Island).

We’re in aptly-named Manta Heaven.

Manta rays in Manta Heaven, Hawaii

And the Big Island of Hawaii’s famous night snorkel-and-dive is a surreal experience.

But who the performers are in this underwater manta ballet on our Uncruise Hawaii adventure, I can’t tell.

Snorkelers’ spotlights attract plankton, which attract the manta rays

They have names like Rachel Ray and Sugar Ray and Stevie Ray,” our snorkel guide with Kona Diving Company, Katie Gaab, had told us earlier.

You can identify them by the black tattoo-like markings on their underbellies.

XRay, for example, has a big black “X” on her chest. But I’m too gob-smacked by the whole cast to scrutinize individual tattoos.

What sticks in my mind is Katie saying: “They have no stingers.”

And I can see they also have no teeth – just rows of harmless, internal, radiator-like gills sucking in clouds of twinkling plankton.

Snorkeling with manta rays at night is a highlight of our UnCruise Hawaii adventure!
Snorkeling with manta rays at night is a highlight of our UnCruise Hawaii adventure!

Divers sit 40 feet beneath the water’s surface, shining up flashlights.

Snorkelers float on top, hanging onto surfboard-like contraptions with spotlights shining down.

The light attracts plankton, which attracts the manta rays – who put on a swirling, twirling, whirling show of a lifetime as they feed. Silver swarms of darting Hawaiian flagtail fish add to the dream-like scene.

Water activities on your Hawaii UnCruise

Safety is top-of-mind on these small ship cruises in Hawaii.

The crew expertly helps guests from their 30s to their 80s clamber from the ship into the motorized rubber inflatable boats used to go ashore or for water activities.

We’re in or on the water a lot.

Stand-up paddle boarding by the Safari Explorer on our UnCruise Hawaii trip
Janice: Stand-up paddle boarding by the Safari Explorer

The ship carries kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for our complimentary use whenever we’re at anchor.

The UnCruise Adventures Hawaii itinerary also sees us snorkeling with green sea turtles off Maui and ogling sea caves and lava tubes on a high-speed Zodiac ride along the Big Island’s volcanic coast.

Snorkeling with Pacific Green sea turtles with UnCruise Hawaii
You’ll see turtles while snorkeling in Hawaii!

Talk story with colorful Hawaiians

When we’re ashore, tours connect us with the Hawaiian culture and people.

You’re going to meet some colorful characters,” winks expedition leader Brock Munson.

Auntie Snookie is one of them.

Auntie Snookie blowing into her conch shell

On Molokai – where almost every woman is called “auntie” – she greets us with a solemn chime by blowing into her conch shell.

A spiritual elder with spiky grey hair, she’s decked out in a green grass headband, oversize sunglasses and a cell phone clipped onto her pareo.

We “talk story” with her, learning that the moon goddess Hina gave birth to the island.

Lei making in Molokai

Pretty pink plumerias on Molokai, Hawaii
Pretty pink plumerias on Molokai

We also make leis at Molokai Plumerias farm.

The delicate “Aloha” flower buds must be hand-picked off the rows of gnarled plumeria trees in the morning, assembled into leis then shipped in refrigerated coolers, so they can be worn before the buds die two days later.

It takes about 50 blossoms for a classic lei, and we each take turns painstakingly poking white, yellow and coral buds with a long needle and threading them together.

Smiling UnCruise staff show off their plumeria leis in Hawaii
Smiling UnCruise staff show off their plumeria leis

You can take leis home! Fresh flower leis make beautiful souvenirs from Hawaii or gifts for friends and family

Father Damien’s legacy

Proudly wearing our floral necklaces, we’re walking advertisements for a perfume factory when we later stop at the Kalaupapa Peninsula look-out.

The site overlooks the remote finger of land where one of the more tragic chapters in Hawaii’s history unfolded. More than 8,000 sufferers of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were banished here between 1866 and 1969.

In the early years, they lived without shelter or clean drinking water until Father Damien, a Catholic missionary priest from Belgium, arrived to minister to them and build a hospital.

Sadly, he too succumbed to the disease after 16 years of selfless service.

Kalaupapa Overlook, Molokai
Kalaupapa Overlook

Today, Kalaupapa is still home to some of the last remaining patients who chose to continue living here. Once a year, a barge drops off supplies, and there’s a small airstrip also used for bringing in food.

As an optional day-tour, guests of the Safari Explorer can visit the former mission.

But the only way to get from the top of the world’s highest sea cliffs (on which we’re standing) to the flat peninsula below is by a guided mule ride or hike, down 26 very steep switchbacks.

Canoeing in Maui

We experience more Hawaiiana on Maui.

The plan? Venture out in a large, old, outrigger war canoe, built with a traditional crab claw sail.

Outrigger canoes with crab claw sails
We were going to sail in outrigger canoes with crab claw sails

But nature scuttles that arrangement – there’s not enough wind to power the vessel.

So, instead, we tour the 62-foot Mo’okiha O Pi’ilani being hand-built by the Maui Voyaging Society.

Under construction for 17 years (a labor of love, funded by donation), the double-hulled vessel is a replica of an ancient transoceanic voyaging canoe used by early Polynesians to journey to Hawaii.

The hardy crew will navigate by the stars and sleep on deck, like their ancestors, when they eventually sail it to Tahiti.

Of course, we can’t just look at an outrigger canoe.

Sailing in a Hawaii outrigger canoe!
Let’s go sailing in this outrigger canoe!

Sure enough, we’re invited to jump into smaller outriggers for a paddle out at sea.

We’re given “tourist” paddles with a large hole to make it easier for us. Even then, with a guide in front and a guide in back, it’s hard work, especially when we have to paddle furiously to get through the surf.

A wave washes right up into our canoe and soaks us from our waists down.

I end up as the designated bailer, but it’s a losing battle – great fun, but I’d rather sail on the Safari Explorer.

Onboard the Safari Explorer in Hawaii

Happy hour, UnCruise style

On our cruise around the Hawaiian islands, we’re welcomed back from excursions with a cocktail-of-the-day, like spiked lemonade with fresh mint.

Though snug, our cabins are comfy.

We sit down at communal tables for delicious, healthy, made-to-order meals.

Scallops for dinner on Hawaii UnCruise
Fancy scallops for dinner?

We might tuck into warm-from-the-oven cinnamon buns for an early riser’s breakfast. (Okay, maybe that’s not so healthy. But all the Hawaiian fruits we eat on the ship are!)

And for dinner? Perhaps freshly-caught, simply grilled fish for dinner. Or lamb chops for meat lovers.

Dining onboard the Safari Explorer - lamb chops for dinner
Dining onboard the Safari Explorer – lamb chops for dinner

A young, enthusiastic, all-American crew works tirelessly to make our cruise as enjoyable as possible.

We even get treated to a free massage each.

Authentic experiences on small ship cruises in Hawaii

More activities are offered too on the Safari Explorer in Hawaii.

But whether it’s the private luau just for us (hosted by Auntie Noelani) or hiking to a waterfall in Molokai’s lush Halawa Valley, the experiences are authentic and show us a slice of Hawaii that many visitors don’t see.

Molokai, for example, is so undeveloped it doesn’t even possess a traffic light.

Molokai is untouched!

Still, the manta snorkel gets my vote as the highlight.

If I’m ever lucky enough to watch an encore, I may even figure out who Lefty and Big Bertha and Vicky Ray actually are.

7-Day UnCruise Adventures Hawaii trips

The Safari Explorer sails between the Big Island of Hawaii  and Molokai
The Safari Explorer sails between the Big Island of Hawaii and Molokai

The 7-day cruises around the Hawaiian islands are offered year-round.

The current itinerary covers cruising from the Big Island of Hawaii to Molokai (or the reverse) – calling in at Maui and Lanai.

Interested in visiting Hawaii the UnCruise way?

Small ship Hawaiian island cruises

Operated by UnCruise Adventures, the Safari Explorer offers small ship adventure cruises, where the focus is on your adventures (not the ship).

Details: UnCruise Hawaii adventure cruises

  • 18 smallish wood-paneled rooms, most with outside doors and bathrooms with a toilet and shower only (the sink is in your room)
  • Sun-deck with hot tub (unfortunately seldom used, as it lacks sufficient shade and carries the kayaks)
  • No WiFi, mini-bars or swimming pool
  • Very friendly atmosphere (everyone meets for drinks and appies before dinner inside in the one-room library/lounge/dining room)
  • Dress is casual (shorts and flip-flops are fine for dinner)
  • 14 to 15 crew who multi-task
  • Open ship and bridge policy, so it feels like you’ve chartered a yacht with friends
  • Fares for the one-week UnCruise Hawaii trip include premium wines and liquor, along with most excursions (air fare is extra)

For more information:

See the UnCruise Adventures website.

Read more UnCruise reviews

Costa Rica | This Costa Rica UnCruise immerses you in all of nature’s awe! (And you go through the Panama Canal too)

Alaska | Go wild on an Alaska adventure cruise – see our UnCruise Alaska review.

Washington and Oregon | History, scenery and wine on the Columbia River with UnCruise Adventures

Experience more Hawaii!

Read our posts on:

Maui | Lovers and honeymooners are passionate about all the romantic things to do in Maui for couples.

Family cruises | Aloha! Check out the best Hawaii cruises for families.

Kauai | Learning about monk seals? SUP on a river? You bet! Discover 35 awesome things to do in Kauai.

Water activities | Get wet! From surfing to snorkeling, you’ll love these 7 super fun Hawaii water activities.

A version of this story was published as “Hawaii Un-Cruising” in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine (see a PDF of the article). It won a Finalist award in the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) Travel Writing Competition!

Photo credits: 4, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 1, 3, 7, 12, 14, 16 to 18, 20 UnCruise Adventures

About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Debbra Dunning Brouillette

Wednesday 11th of February 2015

It's so coincidental that I came across your article on Facebook and linked to this version! I am considering an Un-Cruise Adventures cruise later this year or next, either this itinerary or the Sea of Cortes. It was nice to read of your adventures in Hawaii. I think Stephen and I would love either trip, so now...hmm...decisions, decisions.

Janice and George

Wednesday 11th of February 2015

Glad you found our Hawaii un-cruise story! Whatever you choose, you and Stephen are sure to love it :-).


Sunday 6th of April 2014

This looks like a great adventure! I love the stingray without stinger :)


Wednesday 2nd of April 2014

I've never thought of going on a cruise, I'm not sure why but I always thought it isn't my ideal kind of trip. I have to admit that this one seems awesome and I'd definitely join it if I have the chance, thanks for sharing! :)

Janice and George

Wednesday 2nd of April 2014

There are all sorts of cruises - ranging from the traditional big ships to small luxury sailing boats and power yachts, expedition adventure cruises and river cruisers. You might not like one type of cruise, but really enjoy another :-).


Sunday 16th of March 2014

What an adventure! I long to see Manta Rays, I'm a keen scuba diver and have dived in some great spots but have never seen such a beautiful sight!


Tuesday 11th of March 2014

This sounds like it has the intimacy of a river cruise and none of the big ship vibe--very compelling, if I only had some spare change floating around!