Hawai’i In Depth With ASC’s SAFARI EXPLORER, Part One

Seattle-based luxury expedition cruise operator American Safari Cruises placed its 36 passenger yacht SAFARI EXPLORER in winter Hawaiian cruise service this past winter. Peter Knego joined the ship on one of her seven night treks from the “big island” of Hawai’i to Maui via Moloka’i and Lana’i.

American Safari Cruises

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2012 unless otherwise noted…

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mauna Loa and vog.

After a relatively pleasant five hour flight from LAX, our plane began its descent.  Just as the “turn off all electronic devices” announcement sounded, the snow-capped dome of Hawai’i’s Mauna Loa volcano poked through a morass of “vog”. Vog is the Hawaiian equivalent to mainland smog, albeit with volcanic ash versus the fumes of cars and industry. Magnificent Mauna Loa is considered the world’s tallest mountain since the 13,680 foot peak continues another 16,400 feet to the ocean floor.

Bags, of course!

Moments later, I was in Kona’s mostly open-air, 1990-built international airport, snatching my luggage from a motley sea of golf bags.

PRIDE amidst Palms.

American Safari Cruises representative John was standing by to whisk us off to adjacent Kailua-Kona, where fellow passengers had use of a day room at the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel. Anchored off shore, the only American-registered mass market cruise ship in existence, NCL America’s PRIDE OF AMERICA, silently beckoned.  Although I had made three prior “big ship” cruises around Hawai’i aboard the classic liners INDEPENDENCE and CONSTITUTION and cherished the experience, a far more comprehensive and intimate Hawai’i was in store for the upcoming week.

Kamehameha Beach Hotel.

The King Kamehameha has its own small, private beach and pool area in a once sacred cove frequented by its namesake. The charming downtown Kailua waterfront is only steps away and offers visitors a variety of restaurants, bars, shops and cafes.

Hawai’i highway lava tube.

While my fellow passengers enjoyed Kona, I was heading some forty miles up the coast to Kawihae harbor to get some photos of the unoccupied SAFARI EXPLORER’s public rooms and accommodation. En route, John shared an almanac’s worth of info on the Big Island’s history, Captain Cook, and even the lava tubes (long tunnels created by trapped gases in the lava floes), one of which was conveniently located off the highway.

First glimpse of SAFARI EXPLORER.

After passing through the security gate at Kawihae, I caught my first glimpse of the SAFARI EXPLORER. The sturdy looking 697 gt ship has a raked bow, dark blue hull and low profile that contains, from top to bottom, three passenger decks: Bridge, Cabin and Main. Originally built as a private oceanographic research vessel in 1998, she later served as a Christian training ship.

SAFARI EXPLORER at Kawihae.

In 2008, the 145 by 36 foot vessel was bought by American Safari Cruises, completely gutted and rebuilt with accommodation for 36 (40 with additional lower berths) guests for luxury expedition cruising. There are fifteen crew members, including Captain Scottie and Engineer Tom, a chef and pastry chef, two naturalist/guides and an incredibly friendly and efficient staff that share tending bar, waiting tables, cleaning staterooms, assisting on tours and general maintenance of the ship.

SAFARI EXPLORER's cruise director Debi.

Cruise director Debi, a veteran of Princess and Premier [she was aboard REMBRANDT (ex ROTTERDAM) when the company shut down in 2000 and also worked on the OCEANIC, ISLANDBREEZE (ex TRANSVAAL CASTLE, etc.) and SEABREEZE (ex FEDERICO C)], showed me several different cabins. I then had a chance to cover all the public spaces on the handsome, well-appointed SAFARI EXPLORER.

SAFARI EXPLORER Wine Library, facing forward.

Main Deck houses a cluster of rustic, wood-toned public areas that include a dining nook, a bar/lounge and a handsome wine library stocked with a “cellar” of included-in-the-fare vintages, a few very special extra-tariff wines and a reference library brimming with Hawai’i and Alaska books.

SAFARI EXPLORER wheelhouse.

The ship also has an open bridge, which is a particularly handy vantage for breaching whales and spinning dolphins. The wheelhouse is especially large for the EXPLORER’s size and even has an alcove with a table and chairs.

Cabin B110 facing starboard.

After documenting, I settled in to Cabin B10 on port Cabin Deck. Nine such Category B Master Cabins feature warm wood tones, a small closet with shelves, a large drawer under the Tempur-Pedic mattress-topped queen-sized bed, a flatscreen TV with DVD player, a comfy chair, a sink with vanity, an unfolding shelf for laptops, a table and two large towels for deck and beach use.

Cabin B10 bathroom.

Master Category bathrooms have a toilet, storage shelves, a shower and built-in dispensers with high quality EO brand natural and/or organic shampoo, conditioner and bath gel.

Welcome spread.

Once everyone embarked, the EXPLORER cast her lines and slowly sailed into the whale-and-dolphin-infused seas off the Kona Coast. At 6:00 PM, we all gathered for a welcome cocktail. I was the only ASC “virgin” as all of my fellow passengers, who hailed from across the U.S. and the U.K., were loyal repeaters.

First fish.

Paired with included red and white wines, the first dinner began at 7:00 PM with homemade bread and a tasty salad made from local, fresh ingredients, topped with a roasted macadamia nut and balsamic dressing. The main course was a beautifully cooked ono fish in olive oil and pesto sauce, accompanied with farm fresh asparagus and mashed garlic potatoes. Chef Mike had made an excellent first impression.

Chocolate torte.

For dessert, there was a flourless but nobly rich chocolate torte prepared on board by dedicated pastry chef Alexandra.

Pillow cookies.

Meanwhile, our cabins were turned down.  Each night, along with a pair of Hawaiian cookies, there would be a new thought for the day. Tonight’s:
“O ka pono ke hana ‘ia a iho mai na lani” — “Continue to do good until the heavens come down to you. Blessings come to those who persist in doing good.”

Port Cabin Deck, facing aft.

With a long day of travel behind us, most called it an early night. SAFARI EXPLORER anchored in a cove off Kona and rode out the gentle swells under a voggy but balmy sky.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Continental shelf.
Yogurt and cereal.
Coffee and tea station.

For early risers, usually at 6:30 AM, there is continental breakfast in the dining nook that includes Yoplait brand yogurt (both Greek and “regular”), an assortment of cereals, fresh fruit (ranging from succulent pineapple to Hawaiian mandarins, papaya and mango), freshly baked muffins (with each day, a new flavor), toast, iced hibiscus tea, a nice assortment of bagged teas and coffee (real coffee — not the reconstituted syrup mixture most cruise lines serve).

Spinach and cheddar frittata.

Breakfast time is announced the night before and depending on the day’s activities, is either at 7:30 or 8:00 AM. Each morning, Chef Mike provides a new “special”, ranging from spinach and cheddar frittatas to eggs Benedict, banana pancakes or French toast. The special can be accompanied with breakfast potatoes (rich red-skinned Hawaiians seared in olive oil, seasoned with red sea salt and rosemary), sausage and/or bacon. And if the special does not appeal, one can always order an omelet or eggs.

Snorkel gear.

At 9:00 AM, we assembled on aft Main Deck to select our snorkel gear.

Donning mask.

On its Hawaiian and Sea of Cortez itineraries, ASC provides each guest with a mask, snorkel and fins.

Snorkel storage for B10.

When not in use, the gear can be stowed in a convenient locker near the stern platform.

SAFARI EXPLORER in Hawai'i's Opihale Bay.

Soon, we were all “skiffed” to a dive spot off the rugged lava coast of Opihale Bay. The first of many snorkel adventures yielded some nice coral gardens and schools of bright yellow tangs, a native fish that prompted Jacques Cousteau to nickname the region the “Gold Coast”. Other sightings included parrot fish, longnose butterfly fish and even a spotted eel.

Captain "Scottie" and the SAFARI EXPLORER.

Prior to lunch, Captain Scottie, who has been with ASC (and, specifically the SAFARI EXPLORER) since 2008, took me for a short ride alongside our diminutive ship as the vog began to gradually burn off.

Basil tomato soup and a chicken with feta focaccia

Upon our return, a delicious lunch awaited.

Coconut cream pie with kiwi sauce.

Even lunch is capped off with a generous portion of freshly-baked dessert.

Hawai'ian fo'c'sle.

The SAFARI EXPLORER then headed back up the coast to her next anchorage in Honomalino Bay.

Lava caves.

We had a choice of riding a skiff or taking out sea kayaks to explore lava formations and caves.

Grotto to EXPLORER.

I opted for the skiff so that I could bring both video and still cameras without either getting too wet.  As the SAFARI EXPLORER gently bobbed on the near horizon, we darted across the surging, crystalline blue water for an up-close view of the caves.

Kayaks and caves.

We converged with the kayakers in several dramatic sea caves, crabs scurrying over the shiny red and black lava surfaces.

Lava hydra.

One lava formation looked like a multi-headed hydra.

Lava tube.

There were a number of lava tubes, some of which are thought to be miles long. The bones of ancient Hawaiian royalty (even in death considered sacred and full of mystical powers) were often placed deep in the recesses of these tubes by a specially-selected “commoner” who then had to die in order to keep the location secret for eternity.

Sea tunnel.

Before heading back to the ship, Captain Scottie drove us through a small tunnel formation.

Skiff wake.

The skiff joined its twin in tow off the stern of the ship as we motored off to our next destination, a fertile feeding ground near the Kailua-Kona airport.

Spinach salad.

An early dinner began at 5:00 PM with a delicious spinach salad drizzled in a lemon and olive oil dressing. Main courses included fresh fish (sword fish) and meat selections atop risotto and caramelized onions.  Dessert would follow but on this special eve, not until much later…

Katie's Manta demo.

As the sun’s rays grew dimmer, we were joined by Katie, who specializes in an entirely different kind of ray. The visiting naturalist explained how manta rays feed by opening large mouths to catch krill and phytoplankton that are funneled into their tiny digestive tract. The currents off the Kailua airport create a convergence of of the tiny organisms that in turn lures feeding rays and other fish, which then attracts a gaggle of snorkelers and scuba divers.  Soon, we would be part of that gaggle.

Donning wet suits. Photo by Nitakuwa/Karl, courtesy of ASC.

Although the waters of Hawai’i are far from cold, we were provided with some rather tight-fitting wetsuits, which is probably why dessert was postponed until after the expedition.

Blue lagoon. Photo by Nitakuwa/Karl, courtesy of ASC.

We boarded the skiffs and buzzed out to the eerily lit lagoon. I was feeling pangs of guilt for not having an underwater camera but another nice ASC touch is that at the end of the cruise, thumb drives with photos and video taken by stellar guides Karl Faivre and Nitakuwa Barrett were given to every guest.

Manta miracle. Photo by Karl/NitaKuwa, courtesy of ASC.

Pods of scuba divers rested some forty or so feet on the bottom, their lights shining up through a field of bubbles. Meanwhile, we snorklers clung to wide surfboards, each rigged with three bright lights that shone down into the water. Within minutes the first rays appeared, each with its own distinct under-markings. They began a voracious feeding fest and swept in an ever-spiraling ballet through the bubbly, brightly lit water underneath us.

Feeding frenzy. Photo by Nitakuwa/Karl, courtesy of ASC.

And when the mantas were elsewhere, shiny fish darted underneath us.

Magical manta. Photo by Nitakuwa/Karl, courtesy of ASC.

Cheered on by our underwater gasps and chortles, one fearless manta seemed to come closer with each approach. Eventually, the lights dimmed as the divers and other snorkelers retreated while the sated mantas moved onward. We were among the last to depart.

Wet suits peeled away, we returned to a mouth-watering panna cotta and shared stories well into the evening.

Tonight’s pillow thought: “He ma’ona moku” — “A satisfaction with the land.” This is said of a person contented with what he has as a chief is satisfied with his domain.

End of Part One. Much more to come.

Special thanks: Martin Cox, Debi Heins, Page Saurs, Sarah Scoltock

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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