There is another way to cruise the Hawaiian Islands if you can't afford the luxurious "love boats" and you don't want just a one-day "booze cruise" or a group snorkeling jaunt.
If you are willing to rough it a bit and have a spirit of adventure, consider a mini-sailing trek. This is a four-day, no-frills sailing trip where you become part of the crew of a 38-foot sloop. It introduces you to blue-water inter-island sailing with a relaxed itinerary that provides plenty of time for snorkeling, cave explorations in a zippy Zodiac dinghy and even casual deep-sea fishing.
This cruise is not for everyone -- but being an expert sailor is not a requirement; you can be a complete novice or a seasoned Chesapeake Bay rover. For those who like sailboats and adventure vacations, and want to see a hidden Hawaii that is off the usual tourist track, this is the trip.
To get this personal and exclusive look at Hawaii, there is a price, and it isn't just money. Passengers pay in extra exertions -- hauling a dripping anchor chain, pulling a whipping jib sheet, taking a turn at the tiller, washing a few dishes and climbing a jungle switchback trail to reach an isolated Hawaiian home.
This cruise means giving up a shower for three days in exchange for bathing under a towering waterfall with a salt-water rinse on the swim back to the boat.
It means giving up a deck chair and being harnessed in and tethered to the deck rail of a sloop in a 40-degree heel, surfing the six-foot swells of the most exhilarating wind and sea in the world.
It means giving up the traditional cabin berth for a sleeping bag on the deck under a glowing Pacific night sky filled with endless layers of stars.
The trip begins in Lahaina, a wonderful old South Seas whaling port on Maui. It sails up the western shore of Maui, across the Pailolo Channel to Molokai -- where you explore the 3,000-foot sea cliffs -- and ends with a long beam sail across the Kaiwi Channel to Kaneohe Bay on Oahu.
The price of $398 is about the cheapest way to do any Hawaii vacationing. The price is so low because the trip is offered by Sea Trek, a non-profit educational organization located on Oahu that also provides marine environmental classes for students from third grade through college. About five years ago they started these excursions to help support their programs.
Sea Trek owns two sailboats but leased a third for our trip and turned us into a three-ship flotilla: five passengers and two crew to a boat, with the paying guests a me'lange from three continents and a rich mixture of ages (19 to 62) and occupations. We had a sugar-cane farmer and his family from South Africa; a banker and his schoolteacher wife from Boise, Idaho; a paper-mill executive from Australia; and several yuppies -- a young woman financial analyst from Boston, a cost accountant for a California winery and an English teacher from Canada.
We had been preassigned to our boats in Lahaina. The South Africans drew the most luxuriously appointed boat, a 36-foot Columbia sloop. They had both a private "head" and a shower. The younger crowd of singles drew the 38-foot ketch, "Stella Neus." We were with the Aussie and the Idaho couple on the 38-foot custom sloop, "Paragon," built for racing and not for tourists. There were no compartments below, only an open galley, a couple of bunks and a porta-potty with canvas curtain in the bow.
Anchoring in Honolua Bay, still on Maui for our first night at sea, we were over the side in a flash, snorkeling among impressive mammoth underwater boulders -- chunks of the towering hillside above us, from which we could hear the diesel horns of the pineapple trucks. It was our last sound of civilization for three days.
By now, we were a team and friends with the other boat people, swimming to their anchorage to pay calls during the cocktail hour and share Hawaiian pupus -- appetizers.
Our pink-plastic squid lure, trolling as we sailed, hooked an aku (skipjack tuna), and for the cocktail hour it was turned into sahimi -- thinly-carved glistening slices of raw fish.
We headed across the Pailolo Channel for Molokai, with its spectacular north-shore sea cliffs lushly green from peak to sea, then past Hawaii's longest cascade of water, the 1,700-foot drop of Kahiwa Falls, to our anchorage in a secluded cove for more snorkeling. We buzzed along the shoreline in the dinghy to explore sea caves and to shampoo under a thundering waterfall.
Molokai's jungle cliffs grew smaller as we sailed westward, changing to dry eroded cliffs ribbed with the stark layers of every lava flow that had formed the 38-mile-long island, now populated by only 6,000. We could see the white church at Kalawao, site of the leper colony where Father Damien served these banished people until he, too, contracted the disease and died in 1889. Now the village has been moved to the other side of the peninsula at Kalaupapa; it is a national park and visited by tourists. Less than 100 patients remain -- they are now free to come and go, their disease controlled by drugs, but many have chosen to remain there among friends.
We spent a morning with Joyce Koinoa, a well-known Molokai native who is passionate and vocal about environmental problems and the need to conserve Hawaiian traditions. She often permits Sea Trek voyagers to visit her hilltop home, at the end of a 500-foot switchback trail.
This fiercely independent, 38-year-old widow has chosen to live in isolation and bring up her six children in the ways of their Hawaiian ancestors. With her friend, Mike, she has spent eight years building an open-to-the elements home. They are 75 percent self-subsistent -- growing their own food, using the sea as their refrigerator and generating electricity from a stream.
Kemo Naki, Koinoa's youngest son, swam to meet our boats, accompanied us on the 100-yard swim to shore, then led us along the narrow jungle trail up the bluff to his home, which has a sweeping view of the coast and the Pacific. Cheerful and funny, he played his guitar upon request and offered rose apple snacks, while his mother described their life as eccentric isolationists: She is teacher, doctor and survival instructor for her family.
They have built a small helicopter pad, but only one pilot has a permit to land -- which he does twice a year to take the family on market trips. During eight months of the year, the surf is too high for any approach by sea and the only exit is a 14-hour hike out over the peak of the island.
Our trip to the bluff was a glimpse of a hidden Hawaii, both its past and its future, that remains as the most memorable episode of the journey. It was worth every sweaty climb, every heave of the anchor rope, every hesitation over the plumbing, every loss of luxury.
After a final anchorage in Kepuhi Bay on the leeward side of Ilio Point, we hoisted anchor for our final long-beam sail to Oahu, 35 miles away. We were the only boats in sight, a phenomenon we had noticed throughout the trip.
Giving ourselves a 45-minute handicap start, we still breezed by our sister craft, getting an extra boost from a stay sail. Just to rub it in, we blew out the "chute," the spinnaker, and beat them all to Kaneohe Bay on Oahu by at least an hour. Who needs plumbing when you can sail like that?