The first Polynesian settlers reached the Hawaiian Islands by sea about 500 B.C. and British explorer Capt. James Cook sailed there in the 18th century, so it seemed odd to me on my first visit to Hawaii 15 years ago that I couldn't travel from island to island by sea. Not only the Polynesians and Captain Cook had done it, but Yankee whalemen and missionaries in the 19th century. But in the 20th century, I couldn't.

"Take an airplane," I was told when I asked about sailing opportunities. "Don't be a fuddy-duddy. Who'd want a slow trip by boat? You're living in the era of airplanes."So I hopped on and off planes for a 30-minute flight from Honolulu to Kauai, about 100 miles away, and to Maui, another 100-mile, half-hour flight. When I was in Honolulu, there was Molokai in the distance just 26 miles away. From Molokai to Maui, the channel is only nine miles wide. But by sea there was no getting there from here.

I wondered about the headlands and the palm-edged shores and cloud-wreathed peaks that had left early seafarers gasping at their beauty, but that I wasn't seeing. I did see them from the land, of course, once I had been flown to this island or that, but never from the sea. One should view islands from the sea.

So it was with considerable delight that I learned a decade ago that two former transatlantic passenger ships, the "Constitution" and the "Independence" had been refurbished to cruise the Hawaiian Islands. And last spring I joined some 790 other passengers in Honolulu for a week-long American-Hawaii Line cruise of these waters that the Polynesians, the explorers, the whalemen and the missionaries had sailed.

I cannot say that Pele, the goddess legend says created the islands, was in her best mood. Skies lowered and rain fell almost constantly as the "Constitution" made her way from Honolulu to Maui, Maui to Hawaii and Hawaii to Kauai. To go ashore in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii I wore a bathing suit. There was no point in getting other clothes that wet. And I opted for a submarine fish-seeing tour figuring that, under water, I would be in the right company. (Kona, on the windward coast of the Big Island is renowned for its sun, but we missed it.) It didn't really matter, though, as the 46-passenger mini Atlantis submarine took us down 150 feet to a coral reef in the harbor where schools of zebra-striped fish and surgeon fish and blue-striped snappers swarmed around a diver feeding them stale bread and lettuce.

Of course the Amerian-Hawaii Cruise Line cannot be blamed for the weather, but the season to avoid in Hawaii - the inviting warmth of the climate notwithstanding - is the December to February (and maybe March) rainy season. For the most part, it can be said, even then, the rain comes in quick, heavy showers and is gone again just as quickly, but one shouldn't think Hawaii is all sun.

In Kona, after my submarine outing, I spent an hour indoors at Hulihee Palace, a summer palace for some of Hawaii's last royalty. (An advantage of Hawaii, in any weather, is its large number of well maintained historic houses, palaces and museums - many operated by Hawaii's equivalent of the DAR, the Daughters of Hawaii, descendants of missionaries interested in preserving old Hawaii's heritage.) The palace was rich in Hawaiian antiques and royal memorabilia (including a 180-pound exercise ball that 18th-century King Kamehameha the Great is said to have used and a hatbox made from a hollowed-out coconut tree trunk.)

In Hilo, on the other side of the island, where we had spent the night before, I had gone ashore in time (7:30 a.m.) to see the Monday through Saturday Suisan Fish Auction where hotel buyers poked with their umbrellas at the fish they wanted - red snapper, blue marlin, yellowfin tuna and wahoo. The taxi driver who had picked me up at the ship had also provided a brief tour of other waterfront sights - the Japanese Garden with miniature pagodas and stone bridges and lanterns and bamboo.

A land excursion from the ship took passengers to Rainbow Falls where mist from the 125-foot falls and sun commingle to make the rainbows; ferns grow as tall as trees; elephant ear leaves are carried as umbrellas; philadendron and trumpet flowers grow.

Another possible excursion was to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park where Kilauea Volcano lava is oozing like black tar toward the ocean and one can walk out on the lava flow, feel the heat beneath it; see the destruction it has wrought.

Sailing from Hilo to Kona we watched the burning lava - like a stream of lights - descend the mountain side and splash - with a further explosion of lights - into the black sea.

On Kauai, the Garden Island where "South Pacific" was filmed, fellow-passengers and I rented a car to drive through little tin-roofed villages, past taro fields to the beauty spots of its North Shore where the blue seas thunder in on white sand and rock and ironwood trees grow tall. Had the weather been better, another option would have been a view from a Zodiac raft of this northern Na Pali coast, or from a helicopter.

I spent the afternoon of my Kauai visit wandering the over-manicured, over-fancified grounds of the Westin Kauai Hotel, whose mammoth high-rise bulk I had seen looming alongshore as the "Constitution" pulled into Nawiliwili Harbor. (Happily, an island ruling now says that no more buildings may be constructed on Kauai taller than a coconut tree.)

At the Westin, curious sculptures are strewn around the grounds; Clydsdale horses pull visitors in carriages; Oriental beasts spout water in an artificial pool, and one wonders where the real Hawaii has gone.

On a post-cruise excursion on the Big Island, I spent awhile on the still grander similar resort, the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa where the waterfalls and lagoons and canals are artificial. Trams take one from the registration desk to one's accommodation (or it is possible, instead, to travel on a canopied boat along one of the canals). Art galleries and shops are everywhere. Guests can swim in a pool with dolphins.

On Maui, the land excursions included a bus trip through green hills and effulgent valleys where plumeria and orange African tulips bloom to the Iao Needle, a rock spearing 1,200 feet from the valley floor. Unfortunately, again, rain impeded seeing it with clarity.

Land excursions from the "Independence" or the "Constitution" are an expensive add-on to a Hawaiian Islands cruise (they range from $15 to $125).

As for shipboard time, there are hula, lei-making and ukelele lessons to take take free of charge; nightly cabaret entertainment; good, if not exceptional meals pleasantly served in pretty dining saloons. Cabins are well decorated and well tended.

And I was right. It feels better, somehow, to be sailing through an island chain rather than flying through it.

IF YOU GO: American-Hawaii cruises leave Honolulu on Saturdays year round with double cabin prices for a seven-day cruise starting at $895 per person for an inside or $1,095 for an outside cabin, plus port and cruise taxes of about $50. Alternatives include a three- or four-day cruise combined with three or four days at a resort. Cruise information is available by calling 1-800-765-7000.

Information on Hawaii itself may be obtained from the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 441 Lexington Ave. Suite 1003, New York 10017 or by calling 212-986-9203.