Sparkling white under the bright Hawaiian sun, the historic S.S. Monterey, framed by a cloud-dabbled sky and tall, skinny coconut palms, rests at anchor off the coast of Kona. A gentle breeze filled with the bouquet of ripening pineapples, exotic greenery and ocean spray sweeps across the open decks, ruffling the hair of a snoozing sunbather.

The grand old Matson Lines ship, with its wide promenades, cozy lounges and comfortable cabins, was christened in 1956 when Ike was President, the Dodgers were the darlings of Brooklyn, a flight from San Francisco to Honolulu took 10 hours, and Hawaii was a sleeping outpost somewhere in the Pacific.

Now, newly refurbished after spending 10 lonely years in San Francisco Bay as a favorite gathering place for seagulls, the 600-passenger S.S. Monterey, owned by Aloha Pacific Cruises, has returned to the crossroads of the world and in September 1988 began offering weekly inter-island cruises.

Proudly flying Old Glory and sporting an American crew, the ship is a double-barreled value. Visitors can enjoy the famed "aloha spirit" while afloat and on shore.

The cruise offers the opportunity to see the islands through the "back door," an adventure that most people have never experienced. Passengers won't waste valuable holiday hours in airports dragging luggage from island to island. If you're flying American Airlines, luggage is checked dockside at the end of the cruise, a tremendous convenience.

But Hawaii's newest floating hotel takes a back seat to the volcanoes on the Big Island, Kauai's Waimea Canyon, Hana by helicopter, snorkeling in a marine reserve off the Kona coast, riding horseback through sugar cane fields or bicycling down Mount Haleakala, all accessible via the best shore excursions offered anywhere.

The ship leaves for Nawailiwili, Kauai, amidst a shower of streamers and music every Saturday evening from the Aloha Tower in Honolulu, cruising past the sprawling skyline and city lights that twinkle on as if by a magic wand. An excellent island trio sings and plays authentic Hawaiian music on deck while guests dance to another band in the main lounge.

Dining is under the stars on the Veranda Deck, buffet-style, or in the main dining room. Pop down to the movie theater, listen to piano music in the Palm Terrace or sit on deck and enjoy a spectacular harbor backdrop slowly fade to darkness.

Sunday morning Kauai awaits and you feel eons of years removed from the mainland and work-a-day job pressures. The island is what you think Hawaii should be, lush and flowering, surrounded by a boisterous sea and filled with parks, plantations, deep dramatic canyons and wide open spaces.

The shore excursions cover almost every aspect of each port-of-call. An expert, usually a native who was born and raised on the islands, presents a brief lecture detailing each excursion.

Passengers can explore Waimea Canyon which cuts 14 miles across Kauai's western end, a seven-hour outing which includes lunch and a plantation tour. The tour to Fern Grotto, a natural amphitheater tucked away in a rain forest, and Hanalei Bay, where the movie "South Pacific" was filmed, is quickly sold out.

You can kayak with a guide into Huleia National Wildlife Refuge, flightsee by plane and helicopter, or tour the island at your own pace with a rental car and drop by the lovely Stouffer Waiohai Beach Resort where each night the sunset is a happening.

Avid cruisers can remain aboard and begin the day with aerobics, watch a morning movie, relax in the ship's library and enjoy afternoon tea in the lounge to live piano music. Dinner at 7:30, jackets for men.

Monday morning, passengers awaken with a smile on their face to the full cruise experience. The Monterey sails from Kauai at 5:30 a.m., arriving in Lahaina, Maui, Tuesday at sunrise, a glorious day and night at sea and time to get your sea legs and become acquainted with the ship and crew.

The afternoon brings a rain squall and a flickering Gauguin rainbow as the ship moves past southern Oahu and the northern coast of Molokai, which is draped with a misty veil across the precipitous thousand-foot cliffs. We count 20 waterfalls and think about the parched sailors of old who might have set anchor under one of them in order to savor an icy shower.

In the evening, the captain's champagne reception followed by a festive dinner and a live musical show featuring island music are highlights.

Another highlight is the ship's cuisine. Executive chef Stephen Simmons, who has worked at the Casa Madrona Hotel, Campton Place Hotel and Stanford Court, all in the San Francisco Bay area, is preparing American Pacific cuisine blending California style with a simple but elegant presentation.

The fresh fish is from Honolulu, vegetables from California, pasta and pastries are made from scratch, no flour-thickened sauces and they don't open cans in the kitchen. Breakfast is a buffet.

Dining room service was slow and disorganized but the delightful plates were worth the wait. Hopefully, the ship will tighten up the serving staff or mercifully clean house and begin anew. Service throughout the rest of the ship is friendly and efficient.

Maui, everyone's favorite island, is reached by a launch which deposits you in front of the historic old Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, Hawaii's old whaling capital. In 1901, the Inn's rules were: If you wet or burn you bed you going out. You are not allow to give you bed to you freand. If you can't keep this rules please don't take the room.

Book the helicopter ride to Hana and soar like a bird over tall ironwood trees, deep canyons carved through volcanic mountains, powerful waterfalls and pretty ponds.

Below, a brown-haired billy and his harem of nannies scatter along the bluff, possibly descendants of the goats originally introduced by Captain Cook. The pilot, wearing shorts and looking as if he could have flown missions for James Bond, takes us along lava flows and points out a large sea turtle swimming near a reef.

The copter chugs along a marvelous coastline seldom seen by mainlanders, past quiet coves and inlets with clear blue water sparkling like diamonds, into a rain forest alive with blooming African tulips.

At Hana, where old Hawaii still lives, we said goodbye to our pilot and toured the area by van, stopping at Hasegawa's General Store, in business 78 years. Harry, one of the second generation sons, claims he was born on the second aisle next to the corn flakes.

A stop includes Waianapanapa Cave and State Park, a little known fern grotto and one of Maui's most attractive areas. The narrow, two-lane road is why Hana remains pristine. It runs through bamboo forests, past black sand beaches to Uncle Harry's roadside fruit stand, which is in Keanae.

Uncle Harry Junior makes the banana bread, Uncle Harry Senior makes the coconut candy. Auntie Joanne makes the ornaments and niece Charmaine makes necklaces. It's the other side of Maui and an affectionate look at island culture.

Cleverly, the ship docks on both sides of the Big Island. First port-of- call is Hilo, a working city with little traffic, a rugged coastline and few sandy beaches. The people say they are 25 years behind the rest of Hawaii and hope it stays that way. The Hilo Layman Mission House & Museum was built in 1839.

Keep an eye on your watch and remember the ship waits for no one. If you miss its sailing in Hilo, you will have to rent a car and drive across the island to Kona, which is not a bad idea and is actually one of the shore excursions.

Another spectacular shore excursion is a helicopter ride south to the eastern flank of mighty 4,090-foot high Kilauea Crater, which has erupted more than 40 times since 1983, and over an eerie moonscape of textured lava flows, huge cinder cones and a spine chilling lake of boiling lava a hundred feet deep.

Beyond is an underground lava tube which is a rushing river of lava, glowing bright red and seen through a break in the thin crust called a skylight, as it flows seven miles to the sea. The eruptions have added 70 acres of land to the Big Island since November 1986.

In contrast, Waipi'o Valley, one of Hawaii's best kept secrets, is choked with greenery. Best seen by four-wheel-drive vehicle, the deep, imposing valley has an ancient trail system and a lovely rock-strewn river which, beneath the soft light, looks like a Japanese watercolor. Waipi'o is where the Chinese once grew rice, the Hawaiians taro, from which poi is made, and the Portuguese raised cattle and pigs.

In 1946, a 40-foot wave or tsunami hit the valley, a backlash from an Alaskan earthquake, followed by two 20-foot waves. The valley has remained pristine because of its inaccessibility and the threat of another tidal wave.

Today, only 25 families live here, along with wild razorback pigs, which feed on avocados, and wild horses which can be seen grazing in a marsh, their tails, long and unruly, riffled by the sea breeze.

After exploring Hawaii's back roads and hidden crannies with a guide who was born and raised on the island, dinner on ship and a stroll on deck under the night sky, Hawaii is at its best.

Aloha Pacific Cruises offers seven-day cruises 50 weeks of the year. Shore excursions include golf and tennis programs, pre- and post-hotel packages and an air/sea program with American Airlines. Call your travel agent, or for promotional brochures, contact the line at 510 King Street, Suite 501, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, (800) 544-6442.

*The Carrolls live in southern California.