2006: If it’s Tuesday, it must be Kauai

Honolulu

As I crossed from the real world – as if anywhere in Hawaii can be called the real world – into the bowels of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of Aloha, I must admit this lifelong Southerner was more than a tad overwhelmed. • The closest I’d ever come to a bona fide cruise ship was a couple of dolphin-feeding excursions and dinner cruises on the South Carolina coast – hardly adequate preparation for walking the plank into a 77,000-ton vessel that would house me, my wife and our 6-year-old son for the next week.

It didn’t help that my first official act on board was to grab a life jacket, head to our cabin’s emergency station and take part in a mandatory lifeboat drill.

Later that Sunday evening, however, as we pulled away from port and I stepped into the ship’s cozy golf shop – a place NCL likes to call “The First Golf Shop at Sea” – I suddenly felt right at home.

The small pro shop – its walls lined with reasonably priced golf balls, shoes and Callaway clubs, its racks stocked with fine apparel – could have been set in any club in America. There was a putting green at the far end, and a computer monitor flashed images and offered information about the courses available for play during the cruise.

I was here to critique NCL’s first-of-its-kind Golf Hawaii program, part of the company’s Freestyle Hawaii cruises. And by the time I had reviewed the week’s itinerary with golf coordinator Judy Audie, my landlubber’s uneasiness had been replaced with pure anticipation.

Since its 2004 launch, the U.S.-flagged Pride of Aloha has been joined by the Pride of America – a new, larger ship launched in July 2005 – and another new vessel, Pride of Hawaii, will be added this summer. All cater to golf tourists, with pro shops where golfers can reserve an entire week of tee times prior to cruising or, in some cases, book rounds the evening before arriving in a particular port.

Island-hopping golfers currently account for anywhere from a couple of dozen to 100 of the more than 2,000 passengers who board NCL’s Hawaii cruises each week, though the company plans to put more marketing muscle behind the program.

“We’ve really just scratched the surface,” said Andy Stuart, NCL’s executive vice president of marketing, sales and passenger services.

These nascent intrastate cruises answer a question that likely crosses the minds of many visitors to Hawaii: How does one efficiently sample the state’s many treasures, golfing and otherwise, when they’re spread across several islands? NCL’s cruise includes a menu of top-name layouts on each island and transportation to and from the courses. Like clockwork, Audie or a colleague met us shipside to deliver and retrieve our rental sets and shoes before and after each round.

“It’s a great way to do it,” said Gary Moore of Hamilton, Ontario, my playing partner for my final round at Makena Resort. “They take care of everything for you.”

Said Stuart: “We try to set it up so it’s effortless golf.”

NCL, of course, also offers a comprehensive package of nongolf shore excursions, comprising dozens of activities (at additional cost) ranging from helicopter tours and horseback rides to a sunrise jaunt up Maui’s Haleakala Crater and trips to the historic tourist towns of Kailua-Kona and Lahaina.

One day I joined my wife and son for a trip in a flat-bottom boat up the Wailua River, the longest navigable river in Hawaii. The boat ride included Hawaiian musical performers and a hula dancer,

as well as a stop at the Fern Grotto, a hauntingly beautiful cavern that forms a natural amphitheater, with a canopy of ferns growing from its lava-rock ceiling.

After sailing overnight to the Big Island of Hawaii, the three of us also spent a day at Volcanoes National Park, located on Mount Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the earth’s most active volcanoes. The tour includes a drive along the 11-mile Crater Rim, walks through an extinct lava tube and the Sulfur Banks – where pungent volcanic gases smelling of rotten eggs seep from the earth – as well as an informative visit to the Jaggar Museum and Hawaii Volcano Observatory. On the way back to Hilo, we stopped by the 80-foot-tall Rainbow Falls and, better yet, the Mauna Loa macadamian nut factory, which offered the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.

But we didn’t have to leave the Pride of Aloha for the week’s most spectacular sights. An afternoon cruise took us past Na Pali, the rugged coastline on Kauai’s northwest shore defined by steep cliffs, lush valleys and waterfalls that flow down to uninhabited beaches. Later, on a nighttime sail past Kilauea,

we watched fiery red-orange lava light the rocks, the steam rising as the lava plunged into the ocean below. The captain nimbly rotated the 853-foot-long vessel 360 degrees so passengers on both sides of the ship could witness the phenomenon.

The golf was every bit as thrilling. In fact, perhaps my toughest decision of the week was choosing which courses to play.

On Kauai – at 5 million years the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and, by many accounts, the

most beautiful – my pick was the Prince Course, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design often called the state’s top track.

A 50-minute scenic drive from port, Princeville Resort is tucked between the Pacific and a mountain range. With a slope of 145 from the tips, the Prince can be a bear when buffeted by the typical ocean breezes. Thankfully, this day had dawned clear and still, though that didn’t seem to make it any

less difficult.

The Prince lived up to its ranking, with the highlights being holes 6 and 7 – a downhill par 4 with the Pacific stretching out beyond it, followed by a challenging, 205-yard par 3 set on the cliffs above Hanalei Bay. And the par-4 12th, with a tee perched on a cliff 120 feet above a narrow slice

of fairway lined by jungle and a grove of ancient mango trees, has to be one of the world’s toughest driving holes.

Hapuna, an Arnold Palmer design on the Kona side of the Big Island, offers similar challenges – not the least of which is getting there. The trip to the course requires a tender ship to the docks – Kona is the lone stop where the Pride of Aloha must anchor offshore – and a 45-minute drive through seemingly endless fields of black lava rock.

A tight, relatively short track billed as one of the world’s most environmentally sensitive courses, Hapuna rises 700 feet above sea level, affording marvelous views of the Kohala coast and the massive Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. It also boasts strong finishing stretches on each nine.

The following day, after an overnight trip to Maui, came a much-anticipated round on the refurbished Plantation Course at Kapalua. We started on No. 10, and though it rained off and on – quite hard at times – for the first seven holes, the sun came out just in time for the finishing tandem of Nos. 17-18.

The camerawork each year during the PGA Tour’s Mercedes Championships simply doesn’t do justice to the jaw-dropping vistas. And though the rest of the course ate me alive, I found some solace in parring the 663-yard, par-5 18th, even though it was the only hole we braved from the tips.

While they don’t get much airtime during the Mercedes, Nos. 5-8 might be the Plantation’s most stunning stretch, beginning with a great risk-reward par 5 and culminating with a lovely par 3, a

203-yard knee-knocker over a jungle-filled canyon.

When compared with the much-deserved hype that surrounds courses like the Plantation and Prince, I frankly had low expectations prior to arriving at Makena South the next day. But with its marvelous ocean views throughout, this Robert Trent Jones Jr. gem turned out to be one of my favorites.

The view from the 15th tee – and let’s be honest, the visually transcendent settings are the calling card of Hawaii golf ­– might have been the most memorable of the week.

To our left was Puu Olai, a 360-foot-tall cinder cone that overlooks Makena Beach. Looming in

the distance were the island of Kahoolawe and the crescent-shaped Molokini crater, and directly in front of us was a 188-yard downhill par 3 that creates the sensation you’re smacking your tee shot directly into the vast blue Pacific. Together with No. 16, a par 4 that plays along the shore and features numerous gnarled kiawe trees, coconut palms and a sloping, two-tiered green, Makena South has back-to-back beauties that stand out even amid the islands’ overwhelming splendor.

As I stared out at the mighty Pacific, snapped a few pictures and sadly pondered the fact that my time in the islands was drawing to a close, I realized that I was completing my Hawaiian golf voyage just as I had started it. Utterly overwhelmed.

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