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A tour of the ferry will connect three Hawaiian islands

Times Staff Writer

Fly or ferry? Travelers shuttling between Honolulu and two of Hawaii's most popular islands, Maui and Kauai, will finally get to choose.

Ticket sales are expected to open Friday for the Hawaii Superferry, a new high-speed catamaran the length of a football field that will sail inter-island waters starting in August. (As of Monday, the date hadn't been set.) Base fares start at $44 for adults, each way, for three-hour trips out of Honolulu to either Maui (daily) or Kauai (every day except Saturday).

Going by water won't save time and, given Hawaii's airfare war, it might not always save money. But it may lift your spirits, judging from several hours I spent Monday on the Superferry off Long Beach, where it dropped anchor on its way from the Alabama shipyard that built it to its new Hawaii home.

I toured the $85-million vessel, called Alakai, and sampled its 35-knot cruising speeds and advanced stabilization system on a cruise up the California coast Monday.

During my mostly smooth ride, a humpback whale flashed its tail and dove into the deep a few hundred yards away and I watched the coastline slip in and out of a sunny June haze through floor-to-ceiling windows from a cozy lounge seat.

Stepping out onto the rear deck, four stories above the sea, I marveled at the foamy wake churned out below by four 12,000-horsepower jet engines.

This is one big boat. At 349 feet, it's more than twice as long as the Catalina Jet, the biggest catamaran in the Catalina Express fleet, which ferries tourists from Southern California to Santa Catalina Island. It carries nearly twice as many passengers, 866, and hauls up to 282 cars.

Despite its size, it's easy to find your way around the Superferry because it has only one passenger deck, divided into three blue-hued zones, each with a café bar, tables, chairs and sofa-style seating. It's not Crystal Cruise-plush, but it's comfortable and pleasant.

The biggest area, in the middle, seats 600 and includes a yet-to-be-furnished retail store, video arcade and children's play area. Premium customers, who pay $20 extra, sit in the Hahalua Lounge at the bow with plusher seats, their own service staff and complimentary welcome drink and snack. At the stern is the Surfbreak Lounge, a gathering place for all, with the vessel's only outdoor deck.

I had quibbles.

The ample legroom of some seats in the middle zone vanished when the seat in front was fully reclined. John Garibaldi, president and chief executive of Hawaii Superferry, who was onboard, said he would remedy that by reducing the recline and taking out some seat rows. The bathrooms, with vinyl floors, fiberglass stalls and a little faux marble, were Spartan.

As for the ride, it was gentler than you might expect, especially at higher speeds, when I felt only a slight roll, thanks to computer-controlled foils and stabilizers. When we dropped below 10 knots, there was more roll, although still mild, and the ship shuddered a bit.

Chief Engineer Roy Ryan explained that to achieve lower speeds, he must "brake" the vessel by deflecting water backward, which can cause vibration. Winds and waves can also influence the ride, he added.

At three hours to travel from Oahu to either Maui or Kauai, even a fast ferry is slow compared with the 30-minute trip time (plus airport waits) by air. One-way ferry prices start at $52 per adult ($44 base fare, when bought 14 days ahead online, plus a variable fuel surcharge of $8 and up), compared with airfares as low as $44.90 each way that I found Monday on the Internet for August.

"You may spend a little more time on the water," said Garibaldi, a former chief financial officer for Aloha and Hawaiian airlines who was born in Modesto, Calif. "But the seats are more comfortable, and we don't strap you down."

For an extra $59 to $69, you can bring a car aboard, a big selling point for Hawaii residents, who are expected to outnumber tourists 2 to 1 as Superferry customers, at least initially. Multi-island car renters may be spared repacking and returning another car, Garibaldi said.

Lost luggage? Not a problem on the ferry, he added. And bring all the shampoo you want.

Beyond that, going by sea is "a whole new experience," compared with flying, Garibaldi said. "Seeing islands from the water goes back to the original Hawaiians," he said.

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