Maui Arts & Entertainment

PHOTOS: Matson Cruise Era Recalled

April 25, 2012, 5:15 AM HST
* Updated April 25, 1:44 PM
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By Susan Halas

author obrien

Canadian author Duncan O'Brien presented an illustrated talk on the cruise ships of the Matson Lines. Susan Halas photo.

The romance of cruising to Hawaii aboard the luxury ships of the Matson Lines was recalled by Duncan O’Brien at an illustrated talk on April 22 at the Story of Hawaii Museum in Maalaea.

The Canadian, whose own family were frequent passengers on the elegant ships in the 1960s, sketched the historical background and showed a variety of nostalgic photos to illustrate the glamorous era.

O’Brien is the author of the White Ships, a lavishly illustrated book that chronicles the passenger side of Matson, a period that lasted from 1927 to 1978 and included the SS Malolo, Mariposa, Monterey, Lurline and Matsonia.

He called the ships “the first of their kind in the Pacific; the largest and most luxurious of their day.”


The sea voyage from California to Hawaii took five days. The time aboard was filled with the fun and deluxe amenities. These included champagne send offs, boat day festivities on departure and arrival, high tea on deck, dancing in the beautifully appointed lounges and simpler pleasures like shuffleboard and card playing.

1932 dance pavillion mariposa

Dancers enjoy the dance pavillion in this 1932 photo from the SS Mariposa. D. O'Brien photo.


The ships, he said, typically held 600 to 700 passengers and no expense was spared to make these crossings memorable. O’Brien showed a whole host of celebrities from Cary Grant to Elvis Presley who traveled to the islands in style.

He also explained how, in the days before commercial aviation Matson Lines broke new ground in Hawaii tourism. The ships’ passengers not only assured a steady stream of visitors on a weekly basis, but the company soon added a chain of hotels to house their guests in equally high style on the beach at Waikiki.

lurline as troop ship 1945

This 1945 photo shows the Lurline returning troops to the US after the war. D. O'Brien photo.

One interesting feature of the talk was the role these ships played in World War II when they were converted to troop carriers. Texas native Mike O’Brien (no relation) was in the audience and spoke briefly of his memories of sailing with more than 7,000 other soldiers sleeping 14 to a room enroute to military action in Burma.


Though Matson continues today as the primary shipper of cargo from the West Coast to Hawaii, its passenger ships are no longer in service. By the 1970s the lower costs and faster travel time of jet aviation put an end to a period when visiting the islands was filled with music, flowers, and gracious service of the highest order.


matson 1st ship emma claudine 1882

Matson's first ship the Emma Claudine as she looked in 1882. D. O'Brien photo.

1st arrival honolulu 1927

The first Matson ship to arrive in Honolulu in 1927. D. O'Brien photo.

Boat days

Boat Days featuring music, flowers and long paper streamers characterized departures and arrivals. D. O'Brien photo

tea on deck

Elegantly dressed passengers enjoy tea on deck in this vintage photo. D. O'Brien photo.


A scene from the 1950s shows passengers enjoying a friendly game of cards. D. O'Brien photo.

elvis and fans on deck matson

Elvis Presely, shown here with two fans, was one of many celebrities who visited Hawaii aboard Matson Lines. D. O'Brien photo.

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