by C. Dikmen and R. Richardson http://www.cruisereport.com/cruisereview.aspx?id=2822
Hawaii is one of the most desirable travel destinations in the world, especially for Americans. But, most who visit Hawaii may only visit one or two of the islands, usually Oahu and Maui, never venturing out to see the less visited parts of Hawaii. This is especially true if you come to Hawaii as part of a cruise. Cruise ships tend to dock at the larger ports, on the larger islands, with facilities that can handle 1,000 or more travelers at a time. Un-Cruise Adventures takes a completely different approach to Hawaii. A smaller ship allows Un-Cruise to take guests to the hidden gems of Hawaii, rarely seen by tourists. Un-Cruise Adventures Hawaii sailings are meant for those who want to actively engage with the islands and the environment, not simply see the islands.
THE SHIP – SAFARI EXPLORER
Safari Explorer is small by cruise ship standards — very small. The ship only has 18 cabins and a maximum guest capacity of 36. There were 29 guests on our sailing. The ship is uniquely outfitted for discovery and adventure cruising. Three decks make it easy to see action in the water and provide plenty of room for relaxing and breathing fresh air. The Wine Library, salon, and adjoining dining room encourage mingling among guests. The B Deck is the best for whale watching with a wrap around “promenade” of sorts which allows direct access to the bow of the ship.
Safari Explorer anchored off the coast of Lana’i
Safari Explorer is equipped with kayaks, paddle boards, inflatable skiffs, snorkel equipment, wet suits, and hiking poles. All are available to guests on a complimentary basis. A hydrophone provides the opportunity to listen to below-surface sounds. The Un-Cruise website mentions a bow-mounted underwater camera that “pipes the action to the lounge and to TVs in each cabin”, but we never saw the feed from the camera. The spa area located on the top deck (A) aft includes a large on-deck hot tub, sauna, fitness equipment, yoga mats, and complimentary massage. However, the hot tub is only used on Alaska sailings.
Skiffs are used to transport guests ashore and to snorkeling locations
It should be noted that this ship is not equipped with an elevator and really is not a good fit for someone with mobility issues. Guests should be able to navigate stairs and have the ability to get on and off the skiffs, which are used to transport guests ashore. That said, one of our fellow un-cruisers was using a cane in the aftermath of a knee replacement, and she was able to get around the ship and skiffs just fine.
Deck B offers great viewing opportunities, and is good for drying wet swimwear!
The interior public spaces on Safari Explorer are all located on Deck C midships. They are compact, but comfortable, at least for 29 people. The small ‘salon’ was a little crowded when everyone was enjoying cocktail hour, or a lecture. With a full complement of guests, the Wine Library would have to be used for additional seating. The bar is fully equipped and all cocktails, beer and wine are complimentary on Hawaii sailings.
The Wine Library offers a comfortable, relaxed place to sit and enjoy a cocktail
Located next to the bar is a large selection of DVDs available for guest use (stateroom TVs have DVD players). There is a piano and a guitar in the Wine Library, just in case any guests care to entertain others. There is a small selection of logo items for sale displayed in cases in the Wine Library.
ACCOMMODATIONS – ADMIRAL
There are six cabin categories aboard the Safari Explorer: Single; Master; Commander; Captain; Admiral; and Commodore Suite. Depending on the cabin, singles, doubles or triples can be accommodated. Cabins are generally small, but very efficient. The accommodations are not “luxury” by cruise ship standards, but by expedition shipstandards, they are very nice.
Common to all cabins are: heated tile floors in the bathroom; air conditioning; Tempur-Pedic® memory foam mattresses; flat-screen TV/DVD; iPod docking station; view windows (no portholes); private bath with shower. At first, we found the memory foam mattress to be uncomfortable, but it somehow delivers a very good night’s sleep. Storage space is at a premium in these cabins. We had an Admiral category (cabin B1), so we had more space than most, but finding a place to put everything was a challenge. In our cabin, there were two chairs that were probably unnecessary and the space could have been better used with more shelves or a dresser. We just ended up piling camera gear and other stuff on the chairs. The rule of thumb is to pack only what you absolutely need. And, on an Un-Cruise sailing, you really don’t need much. There are no “formal” nights. You can even wear shorts to dinner, so leave your dressy stuff at home.
Admiral cabins are located on B Deck forward just aft of the bow and are subject to noise from the ship’s anchor, so be aware. You may also experience more motion on the A and B decks. Other than the occasional anchor noise, our cabin was very quiet and the AC system worked very well. The bathroom was nicely sized for a small ship and everything worked as designed.
ACTIVITIES & ENTERTAINMENT
The main activity on an Un-Cruise sailing revolves around the destination. If you are looking for production shows, bingo, a casino, you want a cruise, not an un-cruise. But, if you want to get up-close to the destination and its culture, the wildlife and the environment, you have come to the right place. Snorkeling was the most popular activity on this sailing, with outings nearly every day.
Mitch lets Rickee hold a live sea urchin
The ship provides guests with all the necessary snorkel gear (fins, masks, snorkels, etc.). Each guest cabin is assigned a locker on Deck C aft where snorkel gear is stored between uses. Of course, you can bring your own gear, but it is not necessary. Large bins are filled with fresh water where you can dunk your gear when you return to remove the salt water. There is also a fresh water shower located aft on Deck C to rinse the salt water off of you before you return to your cabin.
Lockers are provided to store snorkel gear
All snorkel excursions are accompanied by ship expedition leaders in the water and on the skiff. There is an emphasis on safety and you are never more than a few feet from a trained and skilled staff member. Floating noodles and other flotation gear are available on the skiffs to help you stay on top of the water without fear of sinking to the briny depths. The ship is also equipped with two-person kayaks. We were disappointed that we only had one opportunity to kayak during this cruise. One kayak excursion was cancelled due to rough seas. Kayak excursions were also “led” by an Un-Cruise expedition leader who provided commentary along the way.
Kayaking off the coast of Maui
There are also opportunities for swimming off the ship’s back deck, diving into the ocean from a special dive platform on B Deck, skiff tours of the coastlines, and paddle boarding. There were also some guided hiking opportunities. We went on the hike to the crest of Sweetheart Rock in Lana’i. At sunset, it was the perfect spot for taking some memorable photos.
The sunset hike to Sweetheart Rock in Lana’i provides great photo opportunities
The highlight of the cruise, however, was the night snorkel excursion with manta rays in Kona. Guests were fitted with wet suits and transported to the snorkel site where divers on the ocean floor shine bright lights upward through the water to attract plankton. The plankton are attracted to the light, and the manta rays are attracted to the plankton, their main food source. Guests wearing snorkel gear float face down in the water while holding onto a surfboard apparatus and watch as the huge rays swoop up from the bottom of the ocean to scoop up the plankton, then gracefully roll over just feet from the snorkelers and dive back down to repeat the feeding process. Some of these manta rays have a wingspan of 18 feet or more! I can guarantee you this is something you will never get to do on any other cruise, and it is something everyone must do.
Huge manta rays swim within a few feet of snorkelers
Another popular activity is whale watching. Even though it was a little early in the season, we did spot a few humpback whales in the waters off the coast of Maui.
A humpback whale pokes its head out of the water
As previously mentioned, the B Deck is the best spot for whale watching with its wraparound deck and large bow space, which also happens to be the perfect place to enjoy a beautiful Hawaiian sunrise or sunset.
Guests mingle at the bow to enjoy a Hawaiian sunset
As for on board entertainment, there were a few lectures conducted by the Expedition Leader, Dai Mar, and Expedition Guide, Mitch. We also had locals come on board to talk about Hawaiian culture and about manta rays. The Bilge Rats, Troy and Gavin, who are two crewmembers, entertained us after dinner one evening with their musical talents.
Dai Mar conducts a lecture on sharks
Probably the biggest surprise was the quality of the food on board Safari Explorer. It was amazingly delicious! In fact, I am going to step out on a limb here and say that it was some of the best food we have had on any cruise. We have sailed on three other Un-Cruise Adventures cruises, and, while the food has always been good, it was not at this level. Executive Chef Joe and Pastry Chef Justin were killing it in the galley on this cruise. Each morning, a breakfast ‘special’ was offered. Eggs made-to-order, bacon and toast were always available if the special was not to your liking. At the end of breakfast, Chef Joe would greet everyone and announce what was on the menu for lunch and dinner. Guests were asked to pre-order their dinner selection, which typically included a meat, a fish and a vegetarian option. This was to give the chef an idea of how many of each dish to prepare.
BBQ chicken on pineapple fried rice was a delicious lunch offering
As with breakfast, lunch has a ‘special’ that changes each day. If you do not want the special, the chef can prepare a sandwich, salad, grilled cheese or some other light alternative. We had the special every day for both lunch and breakfast and all were very good. At dinner, Chef Joe pulled out all the stops with some really creative dishes that were expertly presented and delicious. The beef filet with mushroom wine reduction on the first night should have tipped us off to what was to come. For guests who found it impossible to decide on a main course, ‘half-and-half’ orders were accommodated. One evening, I combined the duck breast (cooked perfectly medium rare) and the seared scallops, ordering a half-portion of each. Both were expertly prepared and delicious. At last we found a cruise ship chef who is not afraid to season the food!
Duck breast and scallop main course
Each meal was taken to another level with freshly-baked bread from pastry chef, Justin, that you could spread with the butter that was topped with a sprinkle of Hawaiian sea salt. Bread baskets were returned to the galley empty, I can tell you that. And the desserts were incredible, too. It is rare that I have the opportunity to rave about cruise ship food, but I have to give props to Chefs Joe and Justin. Rickee even ate breakfast and lunch every single day, something I cannot recall her ever having done before on any cruise.
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Every member of the Safari Explorer crew was exceptional. Our Expedition Leader, Dai Mar Tamarack, obviously loves what he does. The same can be said for Mitch, Shane, Amy and the rest of the expedition team. They are very knowledgeable and passionate about the destination and the experience they provide to their guests. Dai Mar was always available to answer questions or give commentary on the local area we were visiting.
Dai Mar leads a skiff tour in Lana’i
We had sailed with Captain Sean in the Sea of Cortez a few years ago, so we knew he was capable. On the first night of the cruise, he informed us of the ‘open bridge’ policy, allowing guests to visit the bridge. We found it to be a great place to do whale watching.
First Mate, Amy, pilots Safari Explorer as we look for whales
On our sailing, the average age was probably in the neighborhood of 50 to 60. My best guess is that the oldest was around 70 and the youngest around 40. There were no children on this voyage. Everyone was generally fit and most were very interested in snorkeling and hiking. On a ship this size, you get to know people quickly and it is not uncommon to make friends and lasting relationships. One of the great benefits of small ship cruising is that you have the opportunity to get to know your ship mates. Most of the folks we met are not typical “cruise” people. They are not here for a “cruise.” To them, the ship is just a mode of transportation to get them from one snorkel destination or hiking opportunity to the next.
Un-Cruise Adventures has tapped into something unique. The “expedition” cruise segment is growing rapidly, and some other cruise lines are now trying to get into this space. But, Un-Cruise is different than all the rest. The ships are smaller, the destinations are more remote, and they are really trying to appeal to consumers who can not see themselves on a “cruise” ship. As stated previously, this is our fourth Un-Cruise sailing, and we have enjoyed each and every one of them. Our Hawaii sailing was no exception. This is a great experience and one that everyone should put on their travel bucket list!