Ferry could put island-hopping on tour itineraries


HONOLULU -- Islanders here got a feel for what the much-heralded, high-speed Hawaii interisland ferry -- still two years from its debut -- will look like when the new Spirit of Ontario I stopped by.

The Spirit of Ontario I, from the same company commissioned to build two similar ferries for use here, sailed into Hawaiian waters en route from a shipyard in Australia to its port in Rochester, N.Y.

Though not an exact likeness of the Hawaii Superferry ships planned for service here (the Spirit of Ontario I is 20% smaller), it gave locals and tourists on four islands a chance to explore a new type of oceangoing catamaran that offers an alternative to ever-increasing interisland air fares.

But for all the hoopla at the ports, not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.

"The ferry has surprised me before," said Frank Haas, director of marketing for the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "We tried [ferry service] for locals," he said, and it did not succeed.

Although he is reserving judgment on the ferry project, Haas said he is for anything that further diversifies the product.

"We are a diverse destination," he said, pointing to the islands' variety of accommodations and activities as an example. "[The ferry] helps diversify transportation. Anything that expands variety is attractive."

The public queued up to board the ship in Honolulu on March 6 for an inspection before it sailed on for similar welcomes in Kauai, Maui and the Big Island. Those who toured the vessel described the passenger area as spacious and the deck quiet, despite the ship's oversized engines.

The ferry's speed (at 45 mph, it will sail from Honolulu to Maui or Kauai in three hours and the Big Island in four) can't beat air service (30 to 50 minutes), but a steady rise in interisland air fare in the last decade and the comparatively low cost of ferry transportation could alter the way locals, tourists and cargo travel from one island to another.

Is the price right?

"[Success] will depend on the pricing," Haas said.

"Air fares have gone up substantially, and the schedules are less convenient compared with where they were historically," Haas said.

The passage will cost about half the price of flying, according to Honolulu-based Hawaii Superferry.

Hawaiian Airlines' "anytime fare" from Honolulu to Maui is $126 each way; from Honolulu to the Big Island, $131; and from Honolulu to Kauai, $106. Aloha Airlines flights are $141 to Maui and $140 to the Big Island and to Kauai.

Initially, the ferry will make one run per day, including weekends, from Honolulu to Maui and Kauai, and three per week to the Big Island. Once the second ferry comes on line, there will be two trips a day to each of the islands. Booking can be done by Web or phone.

Back to the future

"For Hawaii, the new ship is 'back to the future,' as the ships are 21st century descendants of the double-canoe catamarans the Polynesians invented and used to find and populate Hawaii," said Terry White, chief operating officer of Hawaii Superferry.

The four-deck, 340-foot-long catamarans can carry 900 people and 250 cars, trucks and buses on three vehicle decks.

The ships will have multiple dining options, satellite TV, movies and a play area for children. Seating will be airplane-style, with those in Club Class having wider, reclining seats. A high-speed Wi-Fi network will keep people connected.

The two U.S.-flagged vessels will be built in Mobile, Ala., by Hawaii Superferry in partnership with Austal USA, a joint venture of Austal, a leading producer of fast ferries, and Bender Industries, a U.S. shipbuilder.

Construction is scheduled to begin on the first ferry in January. The ship is slated to enter service in late 2006. The second ferry is tentatively scheduled for a 2008 delivery.

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