Hawaii by boat: You can get there from Southern California

Times Staff Writer

Question: My sister, 85, wants to go to Hawaii to visit her grandson, but she does not want to fly. Cruise lines and agencies have indicated this is impossible because of federal laws and restrictions that require a stop in a foreign port. Is there a way to do this?

--Earl Gardner, Riverside

Answer: Yes. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap and the vacation won’t be short. But it will accomplish the goal for Gardner’s sister, Jeanette Jones.

In the golden age of travel, passengers could sail to Hawaii. Some of my fondest (and, I hasten to add, earliest) travel memories involve sailing from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Honolulu and back on the old Matson Lines, the Bay Area passenger and cargo company that helped build tourism to Hawaii. These five-day cruises were an elegant introduction to transoceanic travel that no airline trip could ever match, especially these days.

But the tyranny of time meant the waning of passenger cruise service to Hawaii, and by the ‘70s, we bid aloha to our peaceful passage. Jets were in; sailing was out.

The other complicating factor in this case is the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, which says foreign-flagged ships cannot carry passengers from one U.S. port to another unless they stop in a foreign country. And most ships are foreign-flagged. (Norwegian Cruise Line’s U.S.-flagged vessels usually sail among the Hawaiian Islands.) That law virtually eliminates the possibility of a straight shot from L.A. or San Francisco without a big detour to, say, the Republic of Kiribati, that South Pacific hotspot where cruise ships call to satisfy this archaic maritime rule.

I was close to going down with the ship when help arrived from’s message boards. There, a respondent suggested I begin looking at trips that start in a foreign country. Blimey! And olé!

I found a few trips that sail from our neighbors to the north and south: NCL’s Norwegian Sun (departs Sept. 16 from Vancouver, Canada), Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas (Sept. 18 from Ensenada, Mexico), Princess’ Pacific Princess (Sept. 12 from Vancouver) and Celebrity Mercury (Nov. 12 from Ensenada).

The trick is the return, and that wasn’t quite as easy. Either Jones would have about 20 minutes to spend in Honolulu before having to come home, or she could spend about three months there. Celebrity’s Mercury returns to Ensenada on March 16, enough time for a good, long visit and to enjoy the holidays in the islands.

The cost of this round-trip for a solo traveler starts at $3,892; a second person can join on both legs for just $451 more. (Cruise lines generally assume a second person in a cabin, so single supplements can be substantial.)

All it takes to make this voyage is a road trip to Ensenada, a sizable financial investment, a long stay away from home and a road trip back from Mexico. Is it worth it? Only Jones can say. But there are worse ways to spend money, and the opportunity to see family and luxuriate in the smell of plumeria and saltwater, unspoiled by the odor of jet fuel, is, as they say, priceless.

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