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Cruise Hawaii aboard Patriot

HONOLULU, Hawaii — When is a "new" ship not a new ship?

When it's an 18-year-old vessel on a new assignment.

Does this matter? It depends on a passenger's expectations and reasons for booking a cruise on the ship.

In the case of United States Lines' M.S. Patriot, the point may be important to some passengers, especially those who expected the "new" ship in Hawaii would be brand-new. But conversations and interviews suggest that most cruisers give the fact little weight.

Patriot is the newer and larger of only two passenger vessels cruising the Hawaiian Islands year-round. Built in 1983, the ship on Dec. 9 began weeklong sailings to five ports on four Hawaiian islands: Honolulu on Oahu, Nawiliwili on Kauai, Kahului on Maui, and Hilo and Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Chester Matiasek, a mobility-impaired baker from Cicero, Ill., cruising with his wife and two daughters, declared the ship's age "irrelevant" because "the people are so congenial."

The happiest passengers in the generally upbeat crowd on a Patriot sailing in early January were those who came aboard knowing that it isn't a luxury cruise, but neither is it bare-bones. It's solidly mainstream, with ample frills — plus opportunities to buy more. Additionally, those who booked the Patriot because they wanted to get to know Hawaii, including two young doctors from Montana celebrating their wedding anniversary, weren't disappointed.

The focus aboard Patriot is outward — toward the land — more than inward. The ship itself is secondary, a message telegraphed by the wide array of land excursions showcasing natural and historical Hawaii. There's so much to do ashore, in fact, that it's easy to feel this is a land-based vacation rather than a cruise.

If the vessel — formerly the Nieuw Amsterdam of Holland America Line — could benefit from new drapes or updated colors, it's of small note when whales dance, skeins of lava light the night or a sightseeing helicopter carries awe-struck passengers over Kauai's spectacular Waimea Canyon.

The 1,212-passenger Patriot — at capacity on this voyage — is an offspring of a family of cruise lines that specialize in U.S.-registered classic ships or vessels built to look vintage. Patriot's cousin in Hawaiian cruising, the S.S. Independence, is operated by American Hawaii Cruises, like United States Lines a subsidiary of American Classic Voyages Co., which also operates the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

Until Patriot's arrival in Hawaii, the 50-year-old "Indie" was the only large, year-round inter-island passenger ship. A sentimental favorite but old-fashioned, its base was moved from Honolulu to Kahului to give the Patriot top billing.

Hawaiian music echoes, hula dancers perform by the small swimming pool on the ship's stern and a helicopter rains flower petals on the Patriot as it eases away from the Aloha Tower pier and the sparkle of Honolulu at night.

The vessel quiets quickly. Most people have had a long day of travel from their mainland homes and turn in. The Patriot doesn't pretend to be a party boat, and though night owls have possibilities, throughout the cruise late night will be more like "Silent Night."

In the morning, the Kona coffee in the cafeteria-style Outrigger Cafe is fortifying, and aloha attire is blossoming. Except at formal dinners on two nights, cruise dress is casual. Grazing the buffet line are passengers in Polynesian-print shirts, Bermuda shorts and sneakers that glow with "bought for vacation" whiteness.

A group of women chatting congenially wears name tags emblazoned "Travel Center/Atchison, Kansas."

In winter, says Scott Croft, a spokesman for United States Lines, passengers tend to come from regions locked in the season's chill. They average 50 and older. Summer brings a slightly younger crowd, with more people from the western United States, he says.

Aboard this voyage are the expected snowbirds plus assorted vacationers from overseas, couples celebrating anniversaries, honeymooners and older families. When school breaks, young children and teens are plentiful, but this cruise carries just three teens and three younger children, says Diane Zagorski, youth director. The Graffiti's teen center and Kaleidoscope Kids' Club are hushed.

Passengers will later say that tranquil, verdant and scenic Kauai is their favorite island. But now, as the ship ties up for its first stop, the utilitarian dock at Nawiliwili Harbor barely hints at the island's delights.

Excursions to Waimea Canyon, the island's northern coast and the Fern Grotto are popular, but 115 passengers spring for the $135 helicopter flight over Kauai and return exclaiming "awesome," "incredible" and "wonderful."

Eileen and Ron Weston of San Ramon, Calif., opt for a Kauai Backroads tour led by Mike Hopkins and see cane fields, settings for movies ("Jurassic Park," "George of the Jungle" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" among them), abandoned World War II fortifications, splendid Maha'ulepu Beach and more.

While snorkelers and four-wheel-drive excursionists are off on their own adventures, Barb and Craig Wetter of Lamberton, Minn., and newlyweds Angela and Adam Clemmons of Leland, N.C., are among a group that departs to kayak the lazy Hule'ia River. The more active the outing, the younger the participants.

Motorcoach tours are most popular among older passengers, says Lisa Hills, shore-excursions manager for the ship. Such outings require minimal walking, and participants see pretty sights with little work, she explains. A package containing a week's worth of such tours is offered at a discount.

A program unique to the Patriot, E Ho'a'ano (To Accept a Challenge), allows active travelers to "taste, touch, feel and explore Hawaii," Hills says. Among offerings are swimming with sea turtles and hiking Kauai's Na Pali Coast.

Passengers who remain aboard ship get to know the islands through cultural presentations by kumu (Hawaiian teacher) Haunani Kaui, plus ukulele and hula lessons, crafts classes and programs on wildlife.

The night's festive, formal dinner in the Manhattan Dining Room brings out suits and sequins among cruisers and enthusiastic elegance among dining room staff. Servers seem especially eager to please, and at least one sweeps in to avert spatters by peeling his charges' shrimp scampi for them. The menu is extensive enough to make decisions difficult. Entrees, which include spa dishes, are no-nonsense, low-froufrou American and Pacific Rim (steak, seafood, pasta and more), but they arrive gussied up like five-star fare. And portions are sensibly sized to leave room for sinfully scrumptious desserts.

Otto von Montfort, the Patriot's hotel director (overseeing staff, dining and provisioning), says the dining room menu changes with seasonal availability of foods. He advises passengers not to miss rack of lamb, steak and Hawaiian dishes when they're offered.

Sightseers by the scores erupt from the ship at Maui two days later to board buses for Haleakala, at 7 1/2 miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide the nation's largest dormant volcano.

It's all downhill for passengers who book the 38-mile-long bicycle descent of the huge mountain's flank. Helmeted and herded with care, the cyclists return with superlatives to describe their soft but sublime adventure.

Evening brings an actual taste of the islands. More than a third of the ship's passengers dine on shore at a Patriot-only luau spiced with craft demonstrations, Polynesian entertainment and ocean vistas.

Pacific humpback whales are Maui's special guests in winter, and only minutes from shore at Lahaina, whale-watchers aboard the Maui Princess find themselves being watched when two leviathans and a calf surface to investigate their boat. (As Patriot departed Kauai, a whale, upended in an apparent feeding frenzy near the ship, waved its flukes repeatedly as if in farewell.)

Eight passengers plumb different depths on an all-day visit to Kalaupapa Settlement National Historical Park on Molokai, where Father Damien de Veuster ministered to the lepers of Hawaii. At $236, it's the most expensive among the 70 excursions offered through the Patriot.

Shore excursions provide an excellent opportunity to encounter and enjoy the islands, but they can fatten the cruise's cost.

Passengers spend an average of $180 per person on tours, which average about $50 each, says Hills of Patriot's excursions office. Travelers on a strict budget should rent a car and tour on their own at more-lengthy stops, she advises. "That's the most economical. Maybe (buy a) tour one day, rent a car the next."

The Matiasek family of Illinois rented a car at most stops because it was easier for Matiasek, whose limited mobility makes bus tours difficult. On Kauai, the four Matiaseks drove a convertible. "We saw everything everybody else did for $61," he says happily.

Togetherness was the goal of the merry Dixon family of Texas: parents Tommy and Jo Ann of Houston and sons Bobby and Larry and their wives, Nancy and Janet, of Pollok. "We rented a car and toured ourselves," says Larry. "We were our own tour guides."

As for finding the way among sites, "Some people are uncomfortable driving in unfamiliar places, but with islands, there are so few roads that you're going to get where you want to go," says Nik Bushell of Clayton, Mo., cruising with his wife, Cindy, for their 10th wedding anniversary.

Pele, goddess of volcanoes, rules the Big Island. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa — names branded in fire in folklore and on the front pages of newspapers — deliver blackened proof of a living, liquid Earth.

A day in the cone zone at Hilo is climaxed by a nighttime cruise past a lava flow from Puu'oo Crater. Orange ribbons ooze toward the ocean. Trees flare in momentary brilliance as they're engulfed in the fiery flow.

The Patriot arrives five hours late in Kona the next day. A passenger had become critically ill, and on the advice of ship's doctor Debbie Fletcher, Capt. Mark Zarynoff ordered the vessel to return to Hilo and the nearest medical center.

Shore trips are in disarray. Long lines snake toward the excursions office. But no one complains. "That could have been me" is the attitude.

Only at Kona must passengers be taken to shore in a smaller vessel, and some are deterred by the transfer across a platform bobbing and swinging on agitated waters. Helping hands from crew avert accidents, but passengers stagger clumsily aboard the water taxi.

Patriot cruisers descend in a submarine operated by Atlantis Adventures to see bustling fish life on a near-shore reef 100 feet underwater, but most other excursions have been canceled — victims of the late arrival. Passengers ashore content themselves with Kona's shops and harborside historic sites, a royal palace and stone church among them.

Overnight cruising ends in an early-morning arrival at Patriot's Honolulu home port.