The black-sand beach at Honomanu Bay, Maui. Picture: Harry Gough

Hawaii is a destination where the reality does match the fantasy: exotic islands with a fascinating history, balmy breezes, a sweetly temperate climate, swaying palms, brilliantly coloured flora, blue blue sea and smiling locals. Add a tourist-friendly American infrastructure and the melodic ukulele music which wafts everywhere and you have a piece of paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

As first-time visitors we decide on a cruise as a good starting point for an overview of the islands before embarking on our own explorations.

Day one in Honolulu comes with all the tropical-island trimmings: a five-star hotel stay on Waikiki Beach, orchid- bedecked cocktails at a thatched-roof beach bar, a spectacular sunset, surfers silhouetted against the sky and Blue Hawaii being strummed in the background.

Couldn't have scripted it better.

The next day, with great excitement, we board Pride of America for a seven-day island discovery cruise.

We sail at sunset, the twinkling lights of Honolulu fading in the ship's wake as we watch from the rails. Then it is time to dress for dinner, decide from the feast what to eat and make our way to the theatre for the night's entertainment. Eating and entertainment, in all their guises, pretty well sum up life on a cruise and it's a fair recipe for a relaxing holiday as the ship sails from one port to another (just make sure exercise is also part of the equation to balance things out). The weather makes it perfect for outdoor dining and we find it hard to prise ourselves away from the relaxed setting of the aft Aloha Cafe for on-board meals.

Maui is our first port of call and the ship docks for two nights, as it does for all the islands on the itinerary.

We choose two shore excursions, venturing into the forest-clad Iao Valley on day one and travelling the spectacular Road to Hana the next.

Iao Valley highlights include the Iao Needle, a pinnacle of rock looming 365m above the valley floor, the Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens with its models of the housing styles brought by the different ethnic groups to Hawaii's shores and an accompanying history lesson. The valley is a former burial place for Hawaiian kings and historic battles have taken place here. The tour includes an open-tram trawl through a tropical plantation and a visit to Maui's Ocean Centre aquarium and marine park.

If you can do only one sightseeing trip on Maui, make sure it's the full-day Road to Hana.

There are travel warnings that the narrow, switchback road is not for the faint-hearted, particularly those with a fear of heights and prone to car sickness. For us it's a not-to-be-missed adventure that provides a superb overview of Maui's breathtaking scenery.

Lush forests sliced by waterfalls and gorges, cliffs plummeting into the sea and squeezy segments of road cut into the rock are all part of this 110km belt-road scenic drive. More than 600 curves and 54 one-lane bridges, according to our guidebook. Equally entertaining is the commentary from our driver on the celebrities who have bought property on the island, along with the chance to glimpse their holdings as we drive past. Willie Nelson, Oprah Winfrey, late actors Bill Bixby and Jim Nabors, author James A. Michener's favourite beach . . . the list goes on. Before-lunch stops include the dramatic Honomanu Bay with its black-sand beach (a startling contrast to the foaming white surf) and resident mongoose population.

Lunch is in the sleepy little town of Hana and while I am pondering what to buy, I see a flyer advertising a Kris Kristofferson concert (KK is a Hana resident) being pasted to the wall of the store. $US25 ($26.70) a ticket.

From Hana we drive on to the cascading rock pools of the Ohe'o Gulch for a half-hour stop. Continuing the journey the highway winds in and out of steep rock-walled valleys to the town of Kaupo where we visit a historic general store to try its marlin jerky. Last stop is the up-country Tedeschi Vineyards, with its tasting room which was once a cottage used by Hawaiian royalty.

Next morning it's big Hawaii Island with its volcanic peaks that fill the horizon as the ship berths out of the old capital of Kona. We take a tender to Kailua Pier and spend the day exploring the town's ocean-front Ali'i Drive with its giant banyan trees. Places to visit include the lava-rock missionary church with its museum and scale model of the missionaries' brig, Thaddeus, Hulihe'e Palace, street markets, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant with its memorabilia from the movie Forrest Gump, and a pretty waterfront complex of shops, galleries, pearl shops and promenades and beach bars. Many of the restaurants and bars that line Ali'i Drive have the ocean splashing against the seawall foundations, making them idyllic spots to try the local Kona coffee, sample some fresh seafood and watch the brightly coloured marine life darting about in the water.

Later that day we sail past the Kilauea volcano to witness the billowing clouds of steam at the point where the lava flows into the sea. There's one more Big Island stop, at Hilo on the opposite side of the island to Kona. Misty tropical rain and the knowledge we will be returning to Hawaii Island make it a good day to go shopping.

Kauai, also known as the Garden Island for its abundant rainfall and lush vegetation, is our last cruise stop and we are dockside again for two days. Kauai has provided the settings to a long list of Hollywood movies, TV shows and surfing documentaries: South Pacific, Blue Hawaii, King Kong, Jurassic Park and The Thorn Birds. The Kauai Movie Book by Chris Cook, about Kauai's filmmaking past, is an entertaining read if you are a movie buff like me. Tours of the island invariably include commentary on the places that have starred on the big screen, along with tales about the cast and crew while they were on location.

Our Kauai excursions take in a drive along the coast to view the Spouting Horn blowholes before winding up through the hills to Waimea Canyon. En route we pass Hanapepe, the location used for the sugar cane town scenes in The Thorn Birds. Another tour takes us on a boat trip up the Wailua River, glimpsing along the way the Cocos Resort where Elvis Presley once floated by on a raft in the movie Blue Hawaii. The Wailua River cruise goes past the "village" where the movie Outbreak was shot to the picturesque Fern Grotto, site of many weddings and proposals. On the way back there's ukulele music and a demonstration of Hawaiian dancing. Everyone joins in.

Given we are on the movie isle there is a fittingly dramatic end to the "reel" of our trip: on the last afternoon of the cruise and before our return to Honolulu for disembarkation the following day, Pride of America travels along the spell-binding Na Pali Coast. Passengers crowd the ship's railings, enthralled by the towering pleated mountains with their deep chasms and ribbon waterfalls, phones and cameras aimed. This is Jurassic Park meets King Kong country.

FACT FILE

For Pride of America and Norwegian Cruise Line, visit ncl.com.

For bookings, also visit travel agents, particularly those with Master Cruise consultants.

The West Australian

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