Winter is the season for whale-watching in Hawaii, which also brings small-ship cruises to the Aloha State, a handful of which run seasonally in Aloha State waters. AdventureSmith Explorations launched its Hawaii cruise in 2011, and each fall a ship that spends the summer in Alaskan waters makes the journey to the tropics for winter and duty in Hawaii.
The Safari Explorer, a 36-passenger converted yacht, is the transport and home for a tour focused on outdoor adventure and some of the lesser-visited areas of the state.
Todd Smith founded AdventureSmith out of Lake Tahoe, California, in 2003, after years of working in the Alaska cruise industry.
"The company I worked for in Alaska in the '90s was doing typical cruises, but having a hard time competing with the other big players in the market," Smith said. "I suggested we do adventure-based portless cruises, get kayaks, great guides, take people out to the seas, and offer something different than what was out there at the time. They bought in and I became a program director."
Later, Smith moved on to work in sustainable travel and ecotourism initiatives before setting off on his own.
"I founded AdventureSmith with those two ideals in mind, wedding together cruising and sustainable travel," Smith said, "Around 2003 small ships and adventure cruises were starting to grow, and we go in at the right time. Over the last 15 years, the area has grown a lot and AdventureSmith has enjoyed riding that wave of success."
The core of the business is Alaska, Galapagos and Antarctica trips, Smith said, and then many clients who enjoy those experiences branch out to AdventureSmith's other small-ship offerings, such as Hawaii.
"It varies destination by destination but our customers in Hawaii tend to be from 40 to 65 years old and well traveled. We get some baby boomers or empty nesters, as well as families with kids up to college age. The folks on the Hawaii cruise tend to have found small ships through another destination, and it's not their first small-ship cruise. ... It also tends to not be their first trip to Hawaii and they are looking to see the islands in a new or different way."
To that end, one of the cruise's two embarkation points is Molokai, one of the least touristed Hawaiian islands, but a place that does offer one of the longest sand beaches in the state (Papohaku Beach), a slower, relaxed pace of life, and some distinct cultural and outdoor experiences, such as a tour of the Halawa Valley from a family that traces its time on the islands back several generations. The tour then goes to Lanai, another of the less-trafficked islands, before heading on to Maui and Hawaii Island, ending at Kona, and can be done in the reverse order as well. The Hawaii cruise starts at $3,995 per person for eight days, including lodging, all onboard meals and drinks, and activities. Four Hawaii visitors who want to island-hop, the cruise offers a good alternative to multiple flights and airport visits.
"This is a chance to do Hawaii in a way that can't be done otherwise," Smith said. "Hawaii is a pretty well-known destination, and it was important to us to offer something special. That's how the itinerary evolved and why we included places like Molokai. Getting the trust and cooperation of the locals there took some doing and evolution, and we continue to tweak our itineraries to improve and focus on places that visitors wouldn't get to see otherwise."
While on board, guests can search for migrating humpback whales, often seen in the channels around Maui, and many of the naturalists with the cruise have seen the same whales at the start of their journeys in Alaska, and offer informational talks. Two of the highlights for many of the cruise participants are the cultural experiences on Molokai and the popular activity of swimming at night with manta rays on Hawaii Island.
"That really hits that adventure target," Smith said of the manta ray snorkel tour. "It really moves people. They have to get a little outside of their comfort zone, you're swimming in the ocean at night, and there's something incredible about being that close to the rays."
While AdventureSmith designs its cruises around enjoying the destination and outdoor activities, the Safari Explorer is more than just transport. The converted yacht features teak wood finishings and memory foam mattresses in the cabins, formal staff-led onboard presentations and activities, a stocked library, hot tub and fitness center.
"All the food and drinks, alcoholic beverages, is included," Smith said. "It's a big part of the experience. On big ships or cruise lines, I think people expect more from the food while it's more of an afterthought for guests on small ship cruises. Most folks are pleasantly surprised if not blown away by the presentation, quality and service of chefs and staff."