A Hawaii cruise offers a convenient way to island-hop as you experience Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the island of Hawaii from both sea and land — but what exactly should you do while ashore? Choosing a cruise shore excursion in Hawaii can be tough since the 50th State offers a wide range of activities, including snorkeling and whale watching, visits to historic landmarks and sacred Hawaiian sites, and scenic excursions to breathtaking canyons and volcanoes. Foodies, fans of Hollywood blockbusters and thrill-seekers can easily get their fix, too.
With an average of eight to 10 hours on each island — although some cruises do stay overnight in select ports — it’s possible to enjoy experiences that not only explore Hawaii’s best-known natural, cultural and historic sites but also satisfy your own personal interests.
While shore excursion offerings, itineraries and prices vary by cruise line, here are our overall picks for the best Hawaii cruise shore excursions and what you can expect to pay.
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Prices may vary among third-party sellers, and from cruise line to cruise line. To account for that, we are using the following price key to help you get an idea of the costs to expect for each tour.
$ = under $70.
$$ = $70-$140.
$$$ = $140-$200.
$$$$ = over $200.
In This Post
Pearl Harbor on Oahu. GLOWIMAGES/GETTY
Pearl Harbor, one of Oahu’s best-known sights, can be tricky to visit on your own because the historic World War II memorials commemorating the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing by the Japanese are located on an active military base with stringent security protocols. (No bags of any size are allowed and phones and wallets must be carried in a clear plastic bag or in a pocket.) A guided tour will get you into Pearl Harbor in a hassle-free manner and make it easy to visit the multiple sites — the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Missouri battleship, USS Bowfin submarine and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum — with the required reservations already arranged.
Some cruise lines offer multiple Pearl Harbor excursions with variations in the sites visited, so be sure to read tour descriptions carefully. If your cruise begins or ends in Honolulu, Pearl Harbor visits are often offered on embarkation or disembarkation day packaged with a hotel or airport transfer. Other Pearl Harbor shore excursions include a Honolulu city tour that visits Diamond Head Crater and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
Important to know: Most Pearl Harbor shore excursions last five to seven hours and are appropriate for all ages. There is quite a bit of walking involved and some stair climbing is required to visit the USS Missouri, where the formal surrender ceremony by the Japanese took place on Sept. 2, 1945, ending WWII. The somber USS Arizona Memorial, where 1,177 sailors and civilians died (many of them entombed in the sunken wreck) is reached by a short boat ride.
Related: Shore excursions: What new cruisers need to know
Diamond Head Crater hike
Diamond Head Crater, the photogenic volcanic landmark seen in many images of Waikiki Beach, isn’t just amazing to look at — it’s also incredible to climb. Active cruisers can take on the challenge during a guided Diamond Head adventure hike to its 763-foot summit. The payoff? Stunning 360-degree views of Waikiki, downtown Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean.
This excursion requires you to ascend a series of moderate but sometimes uneven switchback trails followed by a walk through a narrow 200-foot tunnel. You’ll then climb up two sets of steep stairs (76 steps and 99 steps, respectively). Those who choose the more difficult route to the summit will need to climb the 99 steps and an interior spiral staircase to reach the historic lookout bunkers. If you choose the easier route to the summit up the scenic Loop Trail, you’ll then descend into the bunker and down the spiral staircase and 99 steps. You can also retrace your steps and descend on the Loop Trail.
Important to know: Book an early morning tour if it’s offered, since temperatures escalate quickly by midmorning; wear sneakers and a hat and bring sunscreen and water. The hike is about 1.6 miles roundtrip and takes 60 to 90 minutes depending on the group and the number of people on the trail; total tour time is three to three and a half hours.
Oahu’s North Shore tour
If you’ve visited Honolulu before or simply prefer scenic locales to cities, a good option is a tour that whisks you away from the bustle of downtown Honolulu and Waikiki and through the Ko’oalu Mountains to the immersive beauty of Oahu’s North Shore. This lush and dramatic coastline is known for the big waves that pound its beaches from October to March and for its waterfalls, sugarcane fields and historic fish ponds. The region is visually stunning and its small towns offer a chance to sample Hawaiian cuisine, especially garlic shrimp, and shop for locally grown products such as macadamia nuts and pineapples.
Highlights include big-wave surfers riding the famed Banzai Pipeline (during winter months); the Byodo Temple, a Buddhist shrine built amid towering green peaks in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii; the waterfalls of Waimea Valley; and historic Haleiwa Town.
Important to know: North Shore excursions are typically five to seven hours in length with at least half the time spent on the tour bus. On sailings that end in Honolulu, some cruise lines offer panoramic North Shore tours combined with an airport drop-off (available for those with flights departing after 5:00 p.m.).
Iolani Palace and Hawaiian Monarchs tour
If Hawaii’s royal history intrigues you, some cruise lines offer excursions that visit Iolani Palace, the final residence of the islands’ kings and queens, and other sites of royal significance. Constructed in 1882, Iolani is the only royal palace in the United States; it was home to King Kalakaua, who built it, and his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani, who was imprisoned there after the U.S. annexed Hawaii. A circa-1883 statue of King Kamehameha I, who unified the Hawaiian Islands in 1810, and Kawaiahao Church, completed in 1842, are also nearby in downtown Honolulu.
Other royal sites that might be visited on a more extensive tour include the Pali Lookout, where Kamehameha I conquered the island of Oahu in 1795, and Mauna Ala, the royal mausoleum where six of the last eight Hawaiian monarchs are entombed.
Important to know: Most Iolani Palace and royal-focused shore excursions last about four hours and combine a bus tour with a self-guided audio tour of the palace.
Related: 10 cruise ship excursions to avoid
Road to Hana on Maui. WINGMAR/GETTY
Experiencing Haleakala Crater is on many Maui visitors’ must-do lists and there are several ways to visit the slumbering 10,023-foot-tall volcanic peak that dominates the island’s landscape. (Don’t worry – it last erupted in 1790.) A few shore excursion options require that your cruise ship overnights in Kahului, the main port, or Lahaina, or has a late sail-away time.
Haleakala means “House of the Sun” and perhaps the most surreal experiences are tours at sunrise or sunset (available on sailings that overnight in Maui). To experience sunrise high above the clouds you’ll need to depart the ship before 3:00 a.m. and wind your way up Haleakala’s curving roadway in total darkness before watching the sun brighten the horizon and illuminate the vast 3,000-feet-deep crater with its dramatic orange-hued cinder cones. In contrast, a sunset tour lets you survey the crater and then watch as the sun disappears below the clouds and the night sky fills with twinkling stars. If you just want to experience Haleakala’s scenic slopes and crater in daylight, panoramic sightseeing tours are also available.
If you’re more adventurous, there are also Haleakala downhill biking tours, which transport you by minibus to an elevation of 6,500 feet and let you ride 14 miles down the switchback road on Haleakala’s slopes amid the farms of Upcountry. Most bike tours do not offer access to the summit and crater.
Important to know: Haleakala tours typically last four to seven hours. Because of Haleakala’s high altitude and volcanic nature, they aren’t recommended for anyone with respiratory or heart problems. Temperatures are much cooler (45 to 65 degrees) at the summit, so bring a sweater or jacket.
Road to Hana
Driving Maui’s legendary Road to Hana, a narrow, twisting, 52-mile route with more than 600 hairpin curves and 59 one-lane bridges, takes considerable concentration — but a Road to Hana tour on a professionally driven minibus frees everyone in your travel group to relax and enjoy the epic scenery along the way. Most cruise lines offer full-day excursions to Hana, a low-key hamlet located on the island’s east coast amid jagged volcanic rocks and black-sand beaches.
Besides the thrill of this one-of-a-kind drive, which takes two to three hours to navigate, a Road to Hana excursion offers a chance to experience Maui’s splendid bays and lush landscape of lava pinnacles, tropical fruit trees, giant ferns and rushing waterfalls. Highlights include the black-sand beach at Wai’anapanapa State Park, Pua’a Ka’a State Park and the Seven Sacred Pools of Ohe’o Gulch with its multiple cascades and soothing natural pools.
Important to know: Road to Hana excursions typically take nine to 10 hours, include lunch and aren’t recommended for anyone prone to motion sickness. Sites visited vary by cruise line and some tours allow time for swimming.
Molokini Crater snorkel
Maui is home to one of the premier snorkel spots in Hawaii: Molokini, a mostly submerged crescent-shaped volcanic islet located about 2.5 miles off Maui’s southern coast. This protected marine conservation site is reached via a scenic catamaran sail, during which guides will outfit you with snorkel gear and provide instructions for exploring these crystal-clear reef waters teeming with colorful sea life. Some excursions also visit Turtle Arches, lava formations known for frequent sea turtle sightings, and during humpback season (December to April), it’s also possible to spot whales in the area.
Important to know: Molokini Crater snorkel tours are generally four hours long and all equipment, as well as breakfast, lunch or snacks and beverages, are provided. Water conditions can vary, so if seasickness is a problem, take that into consideration before booking.
Related: Ship-sponsored vs. independent shore excursions on cruises: Which should you book?
If you’re cruising Hawaii between December and April and you’re fascinated by whales, Maui offers a terrific opportunity to see pods of humpbacks in their winter playground. More than 10,000 of these charismatic giants migrate here annually to mate and give birth. Their activities — tail slaps, breaches and calves swimming alongside their mothers — are all on display as you venture out in a whale-watching boat, or perhaps a more adventurous Zodiac. Most tours are led by naturalist guides, and in some cases a portion of the cost is earmarked for conservation through the Pacific Whale Foundation.
Important to know: Expect to spend about three hours at sea as guides search for whales; sightings, while likely, aren’t always guaranteed. Water conditions can also vary and seasickness is a possibility.
Waimea Canyon on Kauai. KARL WEATHERLY/GETTY
Waimea Canyon tour
Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is a 10-mile-long gorge known for the dramatic red and green hues of craggy cliffs that extend up to 3,000 feet below its rim. Located within Waimea Canyon State Park, which now requires reservations for individual visits, this scenic treasure can be viewed from lookout points.
A shore excursion that allows for about 30 minutes of viewing and picture taking is certainly the easiest way to see the canyon from a cruise ship. These tours include lots of scenic touring during the 90-minute drive each way between the cruise terminal and the canyon; many stop at the Spouting Horn blowhole or small towns in Kauai’s Koloa district.
But there are caveats, namely that rainy conditions on Kauai, which is Hawaii’s wettest island, can fog in the gorge and make for a disappointing outing. Kauai’s driest months are April to September.
Important to know: Most Waimea Canyon excursions take four to five hours; some longer Best of Kauai excursions combine a visit to the canyon with a Wailua River cruise to the Fern Grotto.
Related: Best time to cruise Hawaii
Hollywood in Hawaii tour
Fans of “Jurassic Park” probably know that much of the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie was filmed on Kauai — but a number of other big-screen and TV classics were, too. Movie-set tours are popular excursions, especially for film buffs. These tours take place on minibuses or motor coaches outfitted with TV screens, so you can watch snippets of Hollywood movies where they were filmed and, in some places, get out and snap photos yourself.
Besides “Jurassic Park,” other movies and TV shows filmed on the island include “Tropic Thunder,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Six Days and Seven Nights,” “Blue Hawaii,” “South Pacific,” “Donovan’s Reef,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Fantasy Island” and “The Amazing Race.”
Important to know: Most movie-set excursions take about five to six hours and primarily involve scenic touring — so even if you haven’t seen the movies, it’s an entertaining and comfortable way to sightsee Kauai.
Wailua River cruise and Fern Grotto
Price: $$ – $$$
Kauai is home to Hawaii’s only navigable river, the Wailua River, which offers access to one of its lushest hidden spots: the Fern Grotto. This excursion combines a relaxing cruise with insights into Hawaiian culture and entertainment in the form of Hawaiian song and dance. The tourist boats that navigate this peaceful river through Wailua River State Park are run by a local family with members providing commentary.
Access to the Fern Grotto, a natural lava-rock cave covered with lush tropical vines, requires a 10-minute walk along a mostly flat, paved and shaded path. Upon arrival at the Fern Grotto, photo ops and additional entertainment await. Wailua River cruise tours also generally stop for picture-taking at Opaeka’a Falls, a 151-foot cascade that plunges into a secluded pool.
Important to know: Most Wailua River and Fern Grotto excursions are three to four hours long. Tours that combine those sights with a tour of Waimea Canyon last about seven hours and include lunch.
Rainbow Falls cascade over a lava cave in Hilo. PRAVEEN P.N/GETTY
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
While Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist attractions, is accessible from both cruise ports on the island of Hawaii, it’s a quicker trip (about 30 to 35 minutes’ drive each way) from Hilo. Most cruise lines offer excursions, but almost all of them are just a basic introduction that only touches on what this 505-square-mile national park has to offer.
The main activity involves visiting several viewpoints and steam vents on the rim of Kilauea Crater with a guide who offers commentary on this active volcano’s history, geology and current status. It’s unlikely you’ll see molten lava, and most tours do not drive out along the famous Chain of Craters Road. Some tours, however, do include a walk through the 500-year-old Thurston Lava Tube.
Other longer and more costly excursions of up to seven hours combine a visit to the national park with a helicopter flight-seeing tour and/or stops at various waterfalls or gardens near Hilo.
Important to know: Standard Hawaii Volcanoes National Park tours are about four hours long, and many also make a stop at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Visitor Center for tastings and shopping. The walk to the rim of the Kilauea crater is mostly on gravel or dirt pathways, but some areas overlooking the crater have potential trip hazards. Also, because the crater emits volcanic gases, these tours aren’t advised for people with respiratory issues.
Hilo waterfalls and gardens
Hilo’s location on the island of Hawaii’s lush leeward side makes it a mecca for cascading waterfalls and verdant gardens. Cruise ship excursions that visit several falls or combine a visit to a single waterfall with a stop at a botanical garden, tropical zoo or orchid farm are popular.
The two major falls near Hilo are the 100-foot Rainbow Falls, which earned its name from the prismatic effect that takes place on sunny mornings, and the powerful Akaka Falls, which is reached via a walk through a tropical forest and tumbles a breathtaking 442 feet. Other tour stops could include Hilo’s Liliuokalani Gardens (the largest Japanese garden outside of Japan), the Nani Mau Gardens or the Pana’ewa Rainforest Gardens and Zoo.
Important to know: Waterfalls and gardens shore excursions vary in length from four to seven hours, and participants should expect to be on their feet for a good portion of the tour. Rainbow Falls is easily accessible from the parking lot. To see Akaka Falls, you must navigate quite a few steps and walk a half-mile circular path.
Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions
The island of Hawaii is home to Volcano Winery, the southernmost winery in the U.S. If sipping vino is a favorite pastime — and you have a curious palate — an excursion here could be a relaxing way to spend a few hours. Volcano Winery, which is family-owned and located at an elevation of 4,000 feet, specializes in tropical blends by mixing distinctive local fruits such as yellow guava and even tea and honey with grape varietals that include Pinot Noir and Cayuga to produce uniquely flavored wines. It also produces some 100% grape wines.
Important to know: Excursions to Volcano Winery are generally three hours long and include a tour of the winery and a tasting.
Snorkeling off Kona’s coast. JAMES R.D. SCOTT/GETTY
Kona Coast snorkel
For passengers who didn’t get a chance to snorkel in Maui, the waters just off Kona’s rugged lava coast offer another excellent opportunity to spy on Mother Nature’s underwater handiwork. Most cruise lines offer a snorkel excursion by catamaran that will allow even novices to don a mask and fins and behold the intricate coral and dazzling reef fish that call the area’s tranquil bays and coves home. Dolphin spotting is also possible.
A more adventurous option is a snorkel tour by Zodiac, which combines the thrill of zipping around in a 24-foot motorized raft with enjoying up-close views of coastal caves and lava tubes — and some snorkel time, of course.
Important to know: Most catamaran snorkel excursions are appropriate for all ages, last about four hours and include either breakfast or lunch; all equipment, including flotation aids, is provided and some catamarans are equipped with a diving board and waterslide for added fun. Zodiac excursions are more physically demanding and are not recommended if you have back or neck problems; you also need to be able to climb back into the raft via a small four-rung ladder.
If you’ve never been in a submarine, Kona offers a chance to see the area’s abundant sea life as you venture 100 feet below the surface of the Kona coast’s crystal-clear waters. The Atlantis Submarine (also operating on Maui and Oahu) is U.S. Coast Guard-certified, fully air-conditioned and offers individual viewing portholes.
Important to know: Atlantis Submarine excursions last about one and a half hours and are not recommended for anyone prone to claustrophobia or motion sickness; you must be at least 3 feet tall and able to climb a vertical 12-step ladder into and out of the submarine. Excursion costs vary widely from cruise line to cruise line.
Kona coffee tour
Kona is famous for the coffee that grows in its rich volcanic soil, so if you want to taste a cup of Joe right at the source, this port is the place to do it. Cruise lines offer a variety of coffee-themed excursions; some are geared to education about the farming and production process while others focus more on sampling the goods and buying souvenirs to take home.
Some foodie-focused tours combine coffee sipping with locally grown chocolate tastings and visits to Kona-based breweries, while other full-day excursions pair a visit to a coffee farm with a cloud forest tour or a tour of Kona’s top historic sights and a snorkel in Kealakekua Bay.
Important info: Kona coffee excursions are mostly three to four hours long. However, costs vary widely depending on the type of excursion, from a simple tasting room visit to a farm-based roasting experience.
Place of Refuge and Painted Church
History buffs will find plenty to love on this guided bus excursion, which visits cultural and religious sites along the Kona Coast. Three key locations are on the itinerary, the first being Kealakekua Bay, where legendary Captain Cook met his demise at the hands of local Hawaiians in 1778 and is memorialized in a monument.
Nearby is the second stop: St. Benedict’s Painted Church. While the outside of this small Catholic church built in 1899 looks traditional, the inside dazzles with the artwork of Father John Velghe, a Belgian priest who drew the murals in an effort to teach local Hawaiians how to read.
The third is Pu’uhonua O Honaunau, which means “Place of Refuge at Honaunau.” Built in 1650 and carefully restored, this cultural site is an ancient Hawaiian religious sanctuary where the bones of Hawaiian chiefs were once stored. It later became a place of refuge for defeated warriors.
Important to know: Place of Refuge and Painted Church excursions are typically three to four hours long and involve a minimal amount of walking.
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Featured photo by Naomi Rahim/Getty Images.