Alii NuiHaving just stepped off the stern of Alii Nui, a 65-foot sailing catamaran, I was headed for the exposed, southern rim of Molokini crater, paddling through the gentle waves in my fins, mask and snorkel.

The vivid pastels and delicate details of the reef beneath me became clearer as the warm Pacific grew shallower and shallower, and a now perceptible host of surprisingly relaxed tropical fish lingered in the rhythmic swell.

Yellow tangs, Moorish idols, trumpet fish and longnose butterflies all made an appearance while I hovered above, hearing the occasional song of a distant humpback whale.

Launched a little over a year and a half ago, the $2.2 million Alii Nui is one of Maui's most impressive luxury catamarans, and on a recent visit to the Valley Isle, the vessel whisked a group of 50-plus visitors and myself out to the Molokini crater preserve, treating all of us to numerous whale spouts and flukes along the way. Unexpectedly spacious, the boat is an upgraded version of a catamaran purchased from a Wailea resort in 2003.

"We really liked some of the features that first boat had," said Jeff Strahn, vice president of Maui Dive Shop, parent company to Alii Nui Sailing Charters. "But we wanted to make it a little bit bigger and bring it up to date, so the new boat is 11 feet longer and 9 feet wider. The other boat was certified for 49 [passengers], and we capped at 36, with a 72% density. The new boat is certified for a hundred, and we cap at 60, so it has 60% density."

"It's a gorgeous boat," said Vanessa Medeiros, Maui supervisor for Pleasant Holidays. "It's great that they have the right amount of customers onboard to really make it comfortable for everyone."

Top-notch eats for both breakfast and lunch accompany each of the vessel's snorkel sails.

"When people get out of the water, we have this huge, huge lunch for them," Strahn said. "Pulled pork and sesame chicken and Caesar salads and big fruit trays; we try to have something for everyone."

Affinity for private charters

While the Alii Nui enjoys a busy schedule of snorkel and sunset sails -- along with whale-watching excursions during Maui's humpback season, December through April -- Strahn said the company regularly charters out the vessel for smaller groups and special occasions.

"Last year we did 100 private charters," he added. "We can offer all kinds of stuff, from upgraded food to premium liquor or even different locations."

Medeiros said the company has regularly gone out of its way to meet the needs of her affluent customers.

"Whenever I've had exclusive clients wanting private charters, they have been very accommodating," she said.

High-end customer service is another Alii Nui staple.

Strahn noted, "Alii Nui means the highest royalty, and that's really the type of service we are trying to provide.

"We want people to feel like royalty and feel that they've had the best of the best on Maui," he said.

Commissionable to agents, Alii Nui snorkel cruises are priced at $129 for adults, $89 for ages 13 to 17 and $79 for ages 3 to 12. Transportation from most of Hawaii's resorts is included and is available from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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