Barrier-Free Travel: Cruising Hawaii

Barrier-Free Travel: Cruising Hawaii
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of Aloha
Cruising is a popular vacation choice for wheelchair users and slow walkers, however, some cruise destinations are just more accessible than others. Take Hawaii, for example. For starters, the eight Pacific islands make up the 50th U.S. state, so shore-tour operators are bound by strict U.S. access laws. Granted, not every shore excursion is wheelchair accessible, however, you’ll find more accessible transportation options in Hawaii than you will in the Caribbean or Mexico.

Pride of Aloha
The bathroom in an accessible stateroom on the Pride of Aloha

Of course, it goes without saying that as an island state, Hawaii is perfectly suited for cruises. Perhaps that’s why Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has two American-flagged vessels stationed there: Pride of Aloha and Pride of America.

The Pride of Aloha first entered service as the Norwegian Sky in 1999, but it was retrofitted and re-flagged in 2004. It features six accessible inside staterooms located near the elevators on decks 8 and 9. The larger Pride of America was launched in 2005, and includes 22 wheelchair-accessible staterooms in a variety of configurations.

The accessible staterooms on both ships feature wide doorways, level thresholds and bathrooms with a roll-in shower, a fold-down shower seat, a hand-held shower head, grab bars in the shower and around the toilet, and a roll-under sink.

Since both vessels are registered in the U.S., they aren’t required to call on foreign ports while they cruise the Hawaiian Islands. This results in an all-Hawaii itinerary with more time ashore, including overnight stops on two islands. This is especially good news for wheelchair users and slow walkers, because with more time in port there’s no need to rush. Passengers can relax and take things at their own pace, yet still have plenty of time to see the sights.

Both vessels sail seven-day Hawaiian Island cruises from Honolulu on Oahu, and the Pride of Aloha also offers a Maui embarkation option. As far as shore excursions go, there is at least one accessible NCL shore excursion in every port. And thanks to NCL’s 2004 acquisition of Polynesian Adventure Tours, all accessible shore excursions feature lift-equipped transportation.

If you’d like to set out on your own, the local gift-store chain Hilo Hattie has free accessible shopping shuttles at all the ports, and Wheelchair Getaways has adapted rental vans available on Maui, Kauai and in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Additionally, the major rental-car agencies can provide vehicles with hand controls with 48 hours notice.

Kilauea Caldera, Volcanoes National Park
The view of the Kilauea Caldera as seen from the Earthquake Trail in Volcanoes National Park

Here’s a port-by-port rundown of some accessible sightseeing suggestions:

Nawiliwili, Kauai

Beautiful Waimea Canyon, the largest canyon in the Pacific measuring 10 miles (16 km) long, one mile (1.6 km) wide and more than 3,500 feet (1066 m) deep is a must while on Kauai. The most accessible place to view the canyon is at the Waimea Canyon Lookout. Although there are stairs to the top of the lookout, there is also a cement path with numerous switchbacks just to the right of the stairs. The path is 38 inches (96 cm) wide, so you do have to be mindful of oncoming traffic, but at the top you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of the canyon.

Kona, Hawaii

Kona, on the west side of the island, is the only tender port on the itinerary. According to NCL’s official policy, wheelchair users must use a manual wheelchair in order to tender, so this is a good port for power wheelchair users to stay aboard and enjoy the ship. Those who do venture ashore will find lots of shops and restaurants around the port, most of which feature a level entry.

Hilo, Hawaii

Volcanoes National Park is a must-see while in Hilo, the largest city on the windward site of Hawaii, and you can do this on your own or on a NCL shore excursion. Your first stop in the park should be the Kilauea Visitor Center, which includes a number of interpretive exhibits. The Volcano Art Center, located behind the visitor center, is also worth a visit.

For a great view, take the Earthquake Trail, left of the Volcano House Hotel. This wide, paved trail was a vehicle road until a November 1983 eruption closed it to traffic. At the end of the trail, you’ll find a few picnic tables, along with a spectacular view of the Kilauea caldera, a 2.5-mile (4 km) wide, 500-foot (150 m) deep pit.

Kahului, Maui

A great way to really see the island is from the air, and Sunshine Helicopters offers a number of accessible flightseeing tours. Wheelchair users are transferred to a portable lift to board the helicopter, and then transferred to the helicopter seat for the tour. Other Maui attractions that offer good wheelchair access include Maui Ocean Center, Maui Tropical Plantation and the Sugar Cane Train.

And if you’d prefer to have some fun in the water, check out Lahaina Divers or Ron Bass’ Maui Sea Kayaking. Lahaina Divers operates a variety of dive trips on their wheelchair-accessible Dominion, while Ron provides kayaking instruction to wheelchair users. Either option makes for a fun day on a beautiful island.

Sunshine Helicopters Accessible Sightseeing Tours
Sunshine Helicopters offers an accessible boarding option for their scenic flightseeing tours of Maui.

If You Go

Norwegian Cruise Lines



Wheelchair Getaways


Hawaii Volcanoes

National Park


Sunshine Helicopters


Maui Ocean Center


Maui Tropical Plantation


Sugar Cane Train


Lahaina Divers


Ron Bass’ Maui Sea Kayaking