New catamaran offers exhilarating experience
Hawaii's activity desk agents are like professional tourists: Experiencing the islands' diversions is part of their job, something they do all the time.
If you go ...
What: Hula Kai Morning Cruise
Place: Meet at Fair Wind's office at Keauhou Bay, 78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., by 7:45 a.m. (directions available on the Web site).
When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily
Price: $139 per person (must be at least 8 years old). Price includes snorkeling gear, breakfast (frittatas, croissants, yogurt, granola, fruit, juices and Kona coffee) and lunch (Angus beef burgers, veggie burgers, teriyaki chicken strips, potato salad, tossed greens and brownies). Divers: add $65 if you have your own equipment for a one-tank dive. If you need diving gear, add $75. Divers must be certified and at least 10 years old. Local residents receive 10 percent off all prices.
Call: 808-322-2788 on the Big Island, or toll-free 800-677-9461 from the other islands
Web site: www.fair-wind.com
Notes: Wear a swimsuit and casual clothes that you don't mind getting wet. Bring a cover-up, hat, sunglasses, tote bag, slippers, camera, sunscreen and towel. This tour is recommended for experienced snorkelers and swimmers. It is not recommended for pregnant women or those who have injuries and/or physical handicaps. Hula Kai is available for private charters and will offer a three-hour afternoon/whale-watch cruise beginning next month. Call for details about these offerings and snorkeling tours to Kealakekua Bay aboard the 60-foot Fair Wind II catamaran. Join Fair Wind's Frequent Customer Program (annual membership fee is $20) and you'll receive a free birthday cruise and a minimum discount of 10 percent on every cruise you take. You'll also earn points that can be redeemed for a free cruise. Provide an e-mail address and Fair Wind will advise you of last-minute and seasonal specials.
So when 15 of them checked in a month ago for a tour on Hula Kai (Dancing Seas), Fair Wind Cruises' brand-new, custom-built catamaran, director of sales and marketing Penn Henderson recalls they looked pretty bored.
"Been there, done that; these agents had gone on a lot of snorkeling cruises in Hawaii," he says. "Most of them were dressed in colorful Hawaiian print dresses with flowers in their hair, like they were going to a garden party."
After a short briefing, the agents boarded the 55-foot Hula Kai for a calm, leisurely ride out of Keauhou Bay, the birthplace of King Kamehameha III. Once they were outside the bay, however, the captain hit the accelerator and Hula Kai bolted to 27 mph in less than 10 seconds.
"What an eye-opener that was!" Henderson recalls, grinning at the memory. "Everything was flying -- hair, dresses, flowers! The agents loved it! They got out of their seats, hooting, hollering and holding their hands toward the sky! They were so excited!"
Hula Kai has been wowing passengers ever since it launched snorkeling and diving tours off the Big Island's southwestern coast on Oct. 15.
"A big reason," says Puhi Dant, Fair Wind's president, "is her state-of-the-art Teknicraft design, which allows for smoother cruises at faster speeds than conventional catamarans while providing the additional benefits of minimizing wake and fuel consumption."
Simply described, Teknicraft cats feature a wide tunnel with a high ceiling between their demi-hulls. This prevents waves from slamming against the underside of their deck as they skim the sea. The tunnel also reduces water displaced by the hull, which results in a smaller wake wash -- a plus in light of environmentalists' concerns that the large wakes of conventional cats have caused shoreline damage.
Longitudinal chines on their hulls and tunnel walls deflect water away from the hull, reducing the wetted area and therefore the resistance of the hull. Lower resistance means it takes less power and therefore less fuel to operate the vessel.
Hula Kai can zip along at 32 mph while burning just 15 gallons of fuel per hour in each of its two engines compared with other cats, which can attain a top speed of just 23 mph on 30 percent more fuel.
COURTESY HULA KAI
Turtles are often encountered while snorkeling off of the Hula Kai.
Fair Wind retired Orca, its aging Zodiac raft, to make way for Hula Kai, which Dant says offers the thrill of a Zodiac ride with more amenities. These include two on-board restrooms, freshwater showers, stairs for easy access in and out of the water, and comfortable seating with cup holders and headrests for each guest.
Although Hula Kai can accommodate 49 passengers, tours are limited to 38 to ensure a more relaxing, roomier ride. It's the only vessel that takes visitors out so far, at 17 miles south from Keauhou Bay to secluded Pali Kaholo.
"It's a beautiful, quiet and uncrowded spot," says Dant. "The nearest villages, Milolii and Hookena, are two miles away. Most local residents have not been to Pali Kaholo because of the rough terrain, the 200-foot cliff that borders the site and the lack of access roads; it's pretty much accessible only by boat.
"Even then, it's too far for other tour boats to go, but Hula Kai was designed especially for this type of trip. She can cruise down there and back, fast and smooth, in 40 minutes each way."
According to Dant, the marine life at Pali Kaholo and Ala Haka, the stop Hula Kai makes about halfway between Keauhou Bay and Pali Kaholo, is diverse and abundant. The incredible undersea topography -- including lava tubes, caves and underwater arches resting on an expansive carpet of black sand -- also awes snorkelers and divers.
COURTESY HULA KAI
The Hula Kai zips along at 32 mph, taking Big Island visitors 17 miles south from Keauhou Bay to secluded Pali Kaholo and its underwater paradise.
An avid water sportsman, Henderson makes the trip there on Hula Kai as often as he can.
"The underwater landscape is fascinating!" he says. "There are a lot of lava tubes and little pukas (holes) where all sorts of fish gather."
Black and yellow tangs, butterfly fish, parrotfish, angelfish, spotted box fish, trumpet fish and green sea turtles are common. Dolphins and rays make an occasional appearance, and through April, humpback whales cavorting in the distance provide added thrills.
On a recent tour, a huge school of black triggerfish glided past Henderson. "They looked eerie," he says, "like a massive rippling black curtain."
Otherworldly fields of garden eels often captivate divers. "There's an area about 60 feet deep where they pop up from the sand for as far as the eye can see," Henderson says. "Imagine a mass of curved wands, all waving to their own tune. It's something you'd see in the 'X-Files' or read about in a Ray Bradbury novel."
In short, Hula Kai unveils a wondrous new side of nature.
"Every time we head out on Hula Kai, we know we're going to a very special part of the Big Island that not many people have experienced," says Henderson. "It's the hidden Hawaii we all dream about."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.