A cruise around Hawaii gives you a unique perspective of the islands, their culture and history, says Sara Macefield

Surf’s up: big wave breaking, Maui. Credit: Getty Images
Surf’s up: big wave breaking, Maui. Credit: Getty Images

When Captain James Cook sailed into Hawaii in 1779, only nine years after stumbling across Australia, he was feted by islanders who adoringly believed this mysterious visitor was their fertility god, Lono.

Extravagant feasts and riotous merry-making marked his arrival, and by all accounts Cook’s crew enthusiastically engaged in their own fertility rituals with obliging Hawaiian maidens.

Sailing into Honolulu nearly 240 years later on board Princess Cruises’ ship Grand Princess, I had a sneaking suspicion that our arrival wouldn’t be quite on that scale, but I was curious for a first glimpse of these distant Pacific isles, more than 7,000 miles from the UK (and a jet-lag inducing 11 hours behind BST).

As our taxi sped towards the high-rises of Waikiki, I noted that the wide roads lined with chic designer stores could have come from any smart American city. But then, in front of us, the bay opened up; an arc of bright golden sand bordering the translucent emerald shimmer of the Pacific Ocean, embellished with small curls of foaming white rollers.

Vibrant kikakapu and yellow tang fish swim off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. Credit: Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB)
Vibrant kikakapu and yellow tang fish swim off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. Credit: Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB)

The water was dotted with surfboards, their riders waiting in hope of the perfect wave to whisk them towards the shore; while surf shacks scattered along the sands offered board rentals and lessons.

Of course the chance to join in proved irresistible and soon my husband, our 12-year-old daughters Dani and Holly and I were practising our best surfing stances as our laidback instructor Winnie launched us into the waves, shouting encouragement.

Needless to say, I soon became an expert at ‘wipe out’ and more adept at quickly climbing back onto my surfboard than staying on it in the first place; but it was certainly exhilarating, a lot of fun, and made for a memorable experience.

Hawaiian figurines. Credit Getty Images
Hawaiian figurines. Credit Getty Images

Of course there is more to the island of O’ahu than surfing – most notably Pearl Harbor, where the world’s attention will be focused next year as it will be 75 years since the base was attacked by the Japanese on 7 December 1941.

Another must-visit landmark is Honolulu’s Iolani Palace, from where Hawaii’s royal family ruled until the end of the 19th century, when the islands became a republic. It represented another chapter in the fascinating history of these outposts, originally named the Sandwich Islands by Captain Cook in honour of his expedition sponsor, the Earl of Sandwich.

Even though the name never stuck, the Union flag did as the Hawaiians adopted it and, much to my surprise, to this day it is incorporated into the canton of the Hawaiian state flag.

As Hawaii’s capital and most developed hub on the island of O’ahu, Honolulu was a welcome first stop as the archipelago takes four days to reach from Los Angeles, or five days from Vancouver, two of the West Coast cities from where Princess voyages depart.