Small ship cruising gets personal for Pamela Wade.

It was while we were rolling joints on the top deck, watching the moon set and the sun rise above the island of Maui, that I had my revelation about this unconventional cruise line.

So, when the yoga session was over, I went straight back to my cabin to write it down: UnCruise is all about connecting with here and now.

In my case, the "here" was four Hawaiian islands, and the fact we began at Molokai was significant. Though it's called the Friendly Island, its locals have resisted corporate tourism, and it has been only through dedicated consultation with community members and elders that UnCruise has been permitted to visit with its ship the Safari Explorer — so far the only company to do so.

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Partly, that's because of the vessel's small size — only 18 staterooms — but mainly it's the company's philosophy of providing guests with uniquely intimate experiences of its destinations. So on Molokai, we were driven by bus along a narrowing road to the far end of the island, to stop at a high lookout over a steep green valley. Here we had to contact its inhabitants "by shell-phone", announced expedition leader Dai Mar, producing a conch. This was, incidentally, the first joke of many that week from the crew, a cheerful bunch of Americans who seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as we did (full disclosure: the joint pun was pinched from Amanda, the wellness instructor).

Our blast on the shell was answered by another from deep in the valley, and we drove on down to spend the afternoon with Pilipo Solatario and his whanau. The oldest living resident of Halawa Valley, Pilipo was chosen, at 5, to be the keeper of culture for his family. Now 77, his enthusiasm is undimmed. After what was — to the two Kiwis on the cruise — a familiar ceremony of challenge, gift-giving and hongi, he set about "talking story": sharing his history.

This included an account of witnessing the destructive tsunami of 1946, when a wall of water swept more than 2km up the valley, with a huge sucking sound and the booming of clashing boulders. "All we could do was watch and cry," he said, choking up again at the memory of the settlement's destruction.

Getting up close and very personal was a feature of this cruise, whether it was Pilipo's passionate sharing of his culture; traditional instrumentalist DJ earnestly exhorting us, at a special pa'ina (feast) to value family; or even Isaac, our shuttle driver on neighbouring island Lana'i, recounting stories of his turbulent youth.

Marine biologist Dai Mar's enthusiasms were equally fervent and, though probably few of us came to feel his adoration for purple sea slugs — "I love these things!" — we were all won over by his defence of sharks, which basically hinged on the fact that we were more likely to die of strangulation by a window blind cord than in a Jaws scenario.

Sharks, in fact, never entered the picture, figuratively or literally, despite our many ocean swims: our focus was on much larger sea creatures. Humpback whales were the biggest thrill, and we spent a day slowly cruising around the deep blue just off Maui, acting like the very worst sort of peeping Tom. Hawaii is the humpbacks' bedroom, where they come to mate and give birth, and we were excited to see the showy behaviour of repeated fin and tail slaps, and some dramatic breaches, white water pouring off their knobbly black hides, all against the unlikely backdrop of Maui's wind farm. We even eavesdropped on them, by hydrophone.

There were three sorts of dolphin, too, leaping and riding our bow wave; but snorkelling brought the best marine encounters. In air-clear water, we spotted dozens of different species, each more brilliantly coloured and patterned than the last, all going about their business right in front of our masks. It wasn't just fish: we watched green sea turtles patiently queuing up at cleaning stations to have their algae nibbled off, an octopus blinking through an impressive series of skin patterns, a sinister crown of thorns starfish easing over the reef.

The star act, though, was the manta ray drawn to the '"campfire" of lights on the sea floor one night at the Big Island. Hanging on to surfboards on the surface, the diamond-bright air bubbles of divers below us fizzing past our faces, it was a thrill to see this huge creature glide into sight, scooping up plankton as it swirled through and around the spotlight before disappearing again into the darkness.

Back on board, at the bar, there was an extra buzz to the evening's usual chatter. Free drinks will do that, of course (everything's included on UnCruise) but by now, Day Five, we were all mates. With only 24 of us in close confinement, on-board life could have got awkward, but another of the benefits of this cruise line is that it appeals to like minds. So, even though the age range for us was 55 to 73, almost everyone was active, curious and outgoing. If it's not enough proof of their character that around a quarter had already travelled to New Zealand, how about this sampling of dinner-table topics: why an orange should be like an apple; comparative beer consumption; quarter horse vs a Clydesdale; how long a blue-eyed young man would last in central Mogadishu without security (informed answer: seven minutes).

Even if the conversation had been disappointing, the food would have made up for it.

Varied, delicious, beautifully presented and always with the option of half-portions — or, alternatively, doubles — the only downside was that, despite all the swimming, kayaking and hiking, weight gain was a given.

Looking back over the week, being a bit fatter was, truly, a small price to pay.

There had been fish, flowers and a feast; music, museums and a manta ray; dice games, dolphins and off-deck diving; lava and leis. Best of all, though, there were new friends, and fun.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

Hawaiian Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Honolulu up to five times a week, with connections to seven other destinations in the

Hawaiian Airlines

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DETAILS
UnCruise specialises in small-ship, low-impact, community-connected travel with an emphasis on activities, the natural world and local culture. Other destinations include Alaska, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Galapagos, Columbia and Snake Rivers, Washington state and British Columbia. Hawaii fares begin at US$3995 per person, double occupancy.

ONLINE
gohawaii.com/nz