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West Coast cruisers discover Hawaii's Aloha spirit

Sapphire Princess sails from Los Angeles on a 14-day Hawaiian Islands itinerary in 2012.

As fans of Hawaii well know, the islands are great place to chill out, de-stress and generally slow down. These days, though, more people are doing so before they even arrive.

That’s because they’re boarding cruise ships on the U.S. West Coast, taking four or five leisurely days to cross the Pacific before visiting a handful of ports and then turning around for another leisurely cruise home.

“The pace is very different,” said Erik Elvejord, director of public relations for Holland America. “We’ve found that there’s a core audience among our guests that’s looking for that kind of product.”

They’re apparently in good company as more cruisers have been signing on for such sailings. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, more than 124,000 visitors arrived by cruise ship last year, an increase of 22.9 percent over the year before.

And 2012 promises to be a banner year, as well. In addition to nine Holland America sailings from San Diego — up from six two years ago — Disney will offer its first-ever Hawaii cruises with two sailings from Los Angeles. Princess, meanwhile, will be fairly criss-crossing the Pacific with 27 departures from L.A. and San Francisco.

San Francisco, in particular, is poised to become a hotbed of Hawaiian cruising with Princess offering seven sailings this year — up from zero last year — and eight in 2013. It’s hardly a coincidence that the city is about to break ground on a new $90-million cruise terminal that will open in 2013.

Although still a small market by Caribbean standards, the business is getting a boost from several quarters, including weak demand for Mexican Riviera cruises, the frustrations of air travel and the cruise industry’s embrace of homeporting.

“Mexico has been in decline since about 2006 — before the economic downturn, before the border violence,” said Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy. “The cruise lines couldn’t invest in new ports so all they could do was add more sailings,” a move which further eroded the profitability of the itinerary.

More recently, the problem has been compounded by concern over Mexico’s ongoing drug war, which prompted several cruise lines to suspend port calls in Mazatlan last year. Many have since reinstated stops there but, according to Bay Area travel agent Lynda Turley Garrett, “People are still thinking twice about Mexico.”

Some are also thinking twice about flying. “As airline tickets have become more expensive and fees have become more onerous, consumers have been looking for ways to cruise without having to include the airline component,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president/general manager at CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

That, in turn, may explain the concurrent drop in traditional intra-island cruises, in which visitors fly to Hawaii for seven-night sailings. Offered exclusively by Norwegian on a U.S.-flagged ship, those itineraries hosted 119,000 passengers last year, a drop of 2.5 percent from the year before.

On the other hand, cruising to Hawaii from the West Coast is not for everyone. At 14 to 15 days, such itineraries tend to be expensive and provide only cursory visits to three or four islands. They also take place on foreign-flagged ships, meaning they require short stops, usually in Ensenada, Mexico, to comply with maritime law.

And would-be passengers had better like sea days — lots and lots of sea days, as they typically entail four to five days each way.

Even so, say observers, the market is likely to stay strong for all of the above reasons and, perhaps, for one few might have foreseen.

“It never hurts when a movie comes out that’s set in a gorgeous place,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. “I watched ‘The Descendants’ and thought, oh, I want to go back.”

John Borthwick/Lonely Planet Images

The Hawaiian Islands are the perfect vacation destination for travelers of all types.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.