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I was enjoying my bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy when breakfast was suddenly interrupted by two breaching humpback whales. Within minutes, all 28 guests were standing on Safari Explorer’s bow, watching the morning wildlife show unfold.
Karl Faivre, one of our expedition leaders, soon spotted a small shark hooked to a plastic water bottle. Captain Winston Warr slowed the yacht, both for the splashing whales and to free the encumbered shark.
It was another typical, anything-can-happen day onboard American Safari Cruises’ 36-passenger yacht. What a contrast, I thought, to the structured schedule of the larger cruise ships that anchor off Lahaina, Maui.
American Safari, known for showing guests Alaska’s wild side, introduced its Hawaii itineraries in October 2011. The seven-night cruise between the Big Island of Hawaii and Maui also stops at Lanai for hiking and Molokai for a taste of local culture. Each day, guests experience what this luxury, all-inclusive line does best — exploring lesser-traveled bays, watching for marine life and teaching about the locale.
Safari Explorer carries 12 double and three single kayaks, four stand-up paddleboards and one sailboat. Skiff rides take guests close to spinner dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales. For even closer encounters, snorkel gear is supplied, as are some wetsuits.
Onboard, the ambience is laid-back and casual. When not in the water, clients can spend the entire cruise in shorts, T-shirts and sandals. There’s no need to dress up for the intimate dining room where everyone dines at once.
Depending on the day’s activities, dinner may be at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. It’s preceded by cocktail hour with delectable, hearty hors d’oeuvres served in the lounge/bar. All beverages (except super-premium wines) are included. Guests are free to step behind the bar and help themselves to cocktails, wine or microbrews when the crew is busy elsewhere. There is no room service, however.
The all-American crew of 15 includes two naturalists. A masseuse offers everyone a complimentary massage and teaches yoga daily on the top deck. This deck has several exercise bikes and a dry sauna.
Staterooms are located on all three decks, the majority opening to the outdoors. All have view windows and Tempur-Pedic mattresses on twin or queen beds. There is an iPod docking station, but no phone or Internet access. The flat-screen television is for DVD viewing and posting daily schedules.
Flexibility is the hallmark of yacht cruising, and cruisers should be aware that the planned schedule may be revised at any time as weather, surf and marine life conditions change.
Targeted, inclusive excursions on the Big Island include a thrilling night snorkel or scuba dive with enormous manta rays. Eye-popping daytime snorkeling unfolds at Kealakekua Bay, the picturesque harbor where Captain Cook met his fate in 1779. A rainforest hike leads through guava groves to lovely waterfalls.
Off the shores of Maui, guests have the unique opportunity to sail in a traditional, handcrafted, double-hulled Polynesian canoe. These waters form a marine sanctuary where humpback whale spotting is ideal from mid-December through March.
A two-day call at Molokai highlights Hawaiian culture. Guests hike with a local guide through unspoiled Halawa Valley, visit a coffee plantation or macadamia nut farm and enjoy a feast of typical Hawaiian dishes.
Lanai brings more superb snorkeling and spinner dolphin encounters, as well as hiking and gallery browsing.
American Safari attracts well-traveled, active cruisers — most are American couples of baby-boomer age and older. About 30 percent are repeaters. Due to the intimate nature of the yacht, children under 12 are best accommodated on special Kids in Nature departures.
Safari Explorer cruises in Hawaii from November through mid-May, with summers in Alaska. Seven-night itineraries begin at $4,995 per person, based on double occupancy. Fares are all-inclusive except for tips.