Cruise back to the islands on one of the first ships

HILO, Hawaii — As cruises in the Hawaiian Islands are just springing back to life after a two-year pandemic-related hiatus, Tutu Pele has been far from inactive.

The legendary Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes has been busy flexing her muscles and cleansing the earth at the place where many Hawaiians believe she inhabits – the famous Kilauea volcano in the south-central part of the Big Island of Hawaii.

My late January visit to the summit of Kilauea and the surrounding Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—was one of the highlights of a recent 17-day cruise to the Hawaiian Islands on Holland America Koningsdam.

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Hawaii cruises resumed in January

I was on board the first Holland America ship to return to Hawaii since November 2019. Other cruise lines, including Carnival and Princess, also resumed Hawaii cruises in January.

The cruise, heavy on sea days, began and ended in San Diego. After a stopover on Catalina Island – 22 miles west of mainland California – we were at sea for five days before reaching Honolulu on the island of Oahu. We also visited Maui and spent three days exploring Hawaii’s Big Island – so called because it’s bigger than all the other Hawaiian Islands combined.

We anchored off the coast of Kailua-Kona for two days on the relatively dry west side of the Big Island, home to most of the island’s resorts.

In Kona we toured coffee plantations and hiked through a “cloud forest” on the slopes of Hualālai Volcano, 3,000 feet above sea level. We also visited Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau (Refuge) National Historical Park, where ruling chiefs gave absolution to Hawaiian lawbreakers and defeated warriors.

On our last day in Hawaii, the Koningsdam was on the island’s more tropical east side in Hilo, a gateway to scenic waterfalls and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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Hilo is the rainiest city in the United States, averaging 211 days of rainfall per year. Luckily we had sunny skies, ideal for seeing the snow-capped Mauna Kea volcano. Its summit is 13,803 feet above sea level, making it the highest point in the state.

Kilauea’s Spiritual Significance

Visitors to Kilauea’s 4,000-foot peak can witness a steady eruption of volcanic gases pouring out of its caldera since 1983. The result is an ever-changing landscape of black lava fields, steam vents, underground lava tubes, and basaltic rock formations.

To Hawaiians, Kilauea is much more than a scenic mountain that lights up at night during eruptions. It is a wahi kapu – a sacred place – that has deep spiritual meaning.

Pele, short for Pelehonuamea, is believed to inhabit Kilauea and its even larger but less active neighbor to the west, Mauna Loa. Hawaiians often refer to the goddess as tutu – grandmother – as a sign of affection and respect.

If ever there were an aptly named volcano, it would be Kilauea, which means “spreading” in the Hawaiian language. As late as 2018, Tutu Pele’s burning lava flows caused significant property damage to farms and homes. Another eruption — so far unremarkable — began last September in Halema’uma’u crater, the volcano’s most active vent.

The story continues below.

Kilauea Eruptions: “We Call It Creation”

Kainoa Delacruz, our onboard Hawaiian Cultural Ambassador, told me that despite Pele’s occasional outbursts, most Hawaiians do not fear the deity.

“When she erupts, we don’t call what she does devastation,” said Delacruz, who has lectured on cruise ships for 20 years. “We call it creation. As she burns everything down, she really cleans. It wasn’t seen as a negative thing that she rolls her lava all over everything. We know things will only get better.”

I particularly enjoyed hiking past alien rock formations through one of Kilauea’s many black lava fields. On the way we met several Nene, also called Hawaii gooses. The nene is Hawaii’s official state bird.

We also stopped to see the Wahinekapu Steam Springs, where hot water vapor constantly rises from cracks in the earth. Hawaiians come to the vents to sacrifice pele leis and other adornments.

On the way from the ship in Hilo to Kilauea we stopped at two waterfalls – Akaka and Rainbow. At 442 feet tall, Akaka is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. To see it up close you have to hike an easy half mile on a loop trail.

COVID-19 logs on our Hawaii cruise

Passengers were required to register with the state prior to cruising and upload proof of vaccination. We were then emailed a QR code to show to the local authorities when we disembarked in Hawaii. The state has announced that it is moving towards requiring travelers to do so show proof of a COVID-19 booster vaccination are considered fully vaccinated under the Safe Travels Program.

In addition, Holland America required us to provide a negative, medically observed virus COVID-19 test taken no more than two days prior to departure. We were retested prior to embarkation at the San Diego cruise terminal. Two days later, after our first port stop at Catalina Island, we were again tested on the ship.

Masks were required to be worn throughout the cruise except when we were actively eating or drinking, in our own cabins or on outside decks where we could social distance. We were each given several KN95 masks. From my observations, a large majority of my fellow travelers stuck to the mask rule – even while dancing in one of several music venues on the Koningsdam.

The 2,650-passenger ship — the largest in Holland America’s fleet — was about half full. More than 90% of the passengers on the sailing ship were Americans.

One downside to being on one of the early cruise lines in Hawaii was that the local tour operators seemed rusty. Some of the excursions I took were disorganized and the guides were clearly out of practice – understandable after more than two years with few tourists to sightsee.

But that in no way detracts from the experience of seeing Kilauea and her sister volcanoes in all their glory. It’s been a rough few years for Hawaii’s tourism industry. Now, cruise lines — and tourism dollars — are slowly coming back. And Pele, according to Hawaiian legend, continues to regenerate and breathe new life into her surroundings.

“This current eruption is just an indication that Pele is playing in the front yard,” Delacruz said. “Everything is OK.”

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Scottsdale-based Dan Fellner is a freelance travel writer. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his website at

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