Some people let birthdays pass without a fuss but milestone birthdays create additional reasons to connect with friends and family, celebrate life, and check another experience off the bucket list.
As my 50th birthday approached, it wasn't difficult to choose a Hawaiian cruise as the place to celebrate — out of the cold weather into the balmy breeze and swaying palm trees. Since my daughter's birthday is the week before, she was on board as soon as I said cruise. Then it was all about planning to make it the best possible vacation for both of us.
Lucky me, I had the chance to live in Hawaii for a month during medical school and returned for a conference when my daughter was four with a nanny in tow. But I'd always wanted to cruise the islands in a more leisurely way. This trip allowed us to cruise from Oahu to Maui to the Big Island and Kauai then back to Oahu.
t surprised me to learn that Norwegian had the corner on the market for the week-long cruise amongst the islands. The other cruise lines were able to travel to the islands but didn't give us the leeway to travel between the islands that Norwegian did.
Norwegian it was.
Then it was choosing which excursions to take. I'd done the Road to Hana, but my daughter hadn't. Yes, please. Helicopter ride? Of course. Ziplining? Sure.
After flying into Honolulu, Oahu, a taxi into town allowed us to shop and explore prior to boarding the ship.
First stop: Maui. Our tour guide strategically placed us in the van based on our likelihood of experiencing car sickness. We stopped to wonder over rainbow eucalyptus, snack at the Hana Banana Bread Stand, and take pictures of pretty waterfalls and breath-snatching views of humpback whales breaching in the distance. We stayed at Crown Sand Beach for a scrumptious lunch, my first with rice paper used as a wrap.
Onboard, we enjoyed dining at Cagney's Steakhouse and La Cucina, pampering at the spa, and relaxing on our balcony.
Next stop: the Big Island. Our Hilo excursion included Akaka Falls waterfalls, zip-lining, a barbecue lunch with fresh macadamia nuts, and a quick stop at Rainbow Falls so we could get to the airport in time.
Our helicopter pilot, Ethan, took off to the theme song of Mission Impossible as he flew low and fast, a great start to the flight. We flew over communities then moonscapes of lava, witnessing areas destroyed as recently as 2014, then over the volcano's caldera and around to see the lava coming out the side of the island. Lots of smoke and just a hint of orange. The caldera was cool: edges of lava coming in and out like waves at the beach, a mesmerizing bright orange at 2,000 degrees!
We decided to get our macadamia nut samples and recreate the photo I took in 1999 at the Babe Ruth banyan tree on banyan drive. Life was good.
We sailed from Hilo toward Kona, but a medical emergency on board forced our return to Hilo. It caused such a chaotic day, we never did get to see the coffee plantations in Kona.
Last stop: Kauai. It was important to me to return to Waimea Canyon, the Little Grand Canyon, which I'd visited in 1988. It's surprisingly similar, except for the wild chickens.
We stopped at historic downtown, found the swinging bridge, had a quick walk across it, stopped at a grocery store for chocolate macadamia nuts, and went to the airport. For this helicopter ride up the Napali coast, our pilot, Barrett, chose the Hawaii Five-O song. The bird's-eye view of remote beaches and waterfalls revealed many television show locations.
Hundreds of waterfalls can be seen when raining, less when it's dry
Trivia is part of our lives. We love it. There were several different ways to experience it on board — from progressive trivia to cruise ship trivia (the Pope vs. Britney Spears round got heated as there was no Pope Lonely!) to movie trivia (which I nailed thanks to knowing the 1948 crime thriller Rope).
I found a way to attach my iPhone to the balcony, put it on time-lapse, and capture sunrise and port arrival. Some of my favourite videos.
What Surprised Me In A Bad Way
I didn't know that if you have a suite you can go to the front of the line and ask for the lounge. I hadn't read that memo and spent more than 2 hours waiting unnecessarily.
I had imagined our forward suite with glass walls and a front view. It was actually just behind the bridge. After getting past our initial disappointment, we fell in love with it.
This was the first cruise where we'd "upgraded" our dining choices. The food was excellent but left me with unexpected weight gain.
What I Would Do Differently Next Time
When it was time for our formal night, there was a problem with my gown. I'd recommend trying anything you're really excited to wear earlier so repairs and alterations can be made if needed. My "backup" was perfectly fine, just not as elegant as I would've preferred for my 50th.
Why This Was The Perfect Trip For A 50th Birthday
You're young enough to do anything you want to and old enough to make good choices. Pay the money to go on the helicopter rides. All of them. Go rent the convertible to drive across the island.
Mostly, a birthday trip is about finding new ways to learn and experience and remember the joy in life. And a cruise like this is an easy place for your family to surprise you with the perfect, thoughtful birthday present.
Tips For You To Have A Similar Experience
Planning is key. For us, figuring out which cruise line cornered the market with the most options amongst the islands was the most important.
Then, choosing a cabin. If you can, splurge for a suite, especially with a butler. Being buttled through the trip was fun, and our butler was a nice young woman who adapted to our needs gracefully.
Attend the activities. Whether it's learning how to make the ribbon leis or Kukui nut jewellery, it's fun to learn something new and a great souvenir to take home for yourself and others. I made ribbon leis for all our friends, and then my daughter's graduation.
Buy the photo package. Then be sure to show up for each opportunity.
Go on the Pearl Harbor and USS Missouri tour the first day so getting up isn't so painful when you visit Oahu. When you go to Maui, do the Mt. Haleakala bike ride at sunrise the first day for the same reason.