NCL's newest vessel to ply the Hawaiian Islands gets a full inspection from FTF's admiral and falls short on “aloha-ness.”
Frankly, cruise ships that ply the Hawaiian Islands have a hard time competing with the destination itself. Who has time to explore the ship and take advantage of the on-board programs for kids and adults when some of the best excursions in the industry await on shore? During a recent sailing with my 13-year-old daughter Chloe, however, an unusually rainy weather pattern derailed many of our outings and gave us time to get to know the Pride of America, whose long-awaited debut got even veteran cruisers excited.
Purpose-built for Hawaii, the ship offers much of what Norwegian Cruise Lines is famous for: Freestyle Dining, an unpretentious ambience and even some surprises we weren’t expecting. The cruises sail roundtrip to the four major Hawaiian Islands from Oahu.
Quick and easy. Rather than line up outside in the sun, the Honolulu cruise terminal offers plenty of room to wait inside, and staff keep the line moving quickly.
Tip: Oahu gets short shrift on the Hawaii inter-island cruises, which is too bad, since it offers some of the best activities in the state. I recommend arriving a few days early or tacking on a post-cruise stay so that you can – at the very least – take in Pearl Harbor, the Polynesian Cultural Center on the north shore, and maybe even a surfing lesson on Waikiki Beach.
Don’t expect an in-your-face Hawaii theme on this ship, unlike the Pride of Hawaii which, along with the Pride of Aloha, also offers inter-island cruising in Hawaii. Here the dÃ©cor honors all 50 states, from the Central Atrium designed to resemble the U.S. Capitol Building – complete with a glass dome – to the SS. America Library, Newbury St. shops and South Beach pool. There are plenty of whimsical notes in the outdoor dÃ©cor, as well, including statues of lifeguards at the Waikiki Bar and giant faucet and shower spouts that actually spray water.
Splurge on one of the ship’s six Family Suites, which offer balconies and 360-square-feet of living space divided into a living room with sofa bed, separate bedroom with two twins or a queen and a den with a single sofa bed. Or stay in an ocean-view balcony stateroom like we did, with two twin beds, plenty of storage – even enough for Chloe’s shoes — and a sitting area with a TV, desk/vanity.
Much has been said and written about the service on NCL’s Hawaii ships, particularly when the Pride of Aloha debuted in 2004, and a lot of was negative. In order to sail in Hawaii without leaving U.S. waters, the ships are required to employ all-American crews, and NCL has been quick to admit that this posed some challenges at first. The good news is that the cruise line has ironed out most of these problems, and on subsequent Hawaii cruises I’ve been on, including this one, we found the service to be just fine.
Rave: The unusually bad weather during our cruise was a challenge to the staff. One of the most popular on-shore evening activities, a luau in Maui, was rained out, leaving the kitchen staff with the task of preparing hundreds more meals than expected for dinner. The evening went off without a hitch. In addition, automatic refunds were issued for canceled excursions, and when possible, passengers were given options for alternate activities.
Freestyle Dining is what NCL is all about, but in speaking with people outside the industry, it appears that not everyone understands the concept. One misconception is that there aren’t any complimentary dining venues on NCL ships, but, in fact, they all do have restaurants where meals are included in the cruise rates. The Pride of America offers free dining at the Liberty Restaurant and the Skyline Restaurant, both featuring everything from steak and seafood to vegetarian dishes. The Aloha CafÃ© operates complimentary buffet meals throughout the day and evening, while small children can dine at the Kids’ CafÃ©, equipped with small tables and chairs and a kid-friendly buffet set lower so they can access the food themselves.
That said, there are numerous specialty restaurants on NCL ships that serve restaurant-quality meals for a surcharge. The Pride of America features the Teppanyaki room, where the chef chops and flips the food for you as he prepares it; East Meets West for Pacific Rim/Asian Fusion cuisine; Little Italy for Northern Italian specialties, the Lazy J Texas Steak House for surf and turf; and Jefferson’s Bistro, a version of NCL’s signature French restaurant. We loved the 50s-style Cadillac Diner on Deck 6, where we sat in a red Cadillac and ordered burgers and shakes – there is a charge for the drinks but not the food – served up diner-style. With the exception of Teppanyaki, which has a la carte pricing, the specialty restaurants charge from $10 to $15 per person.
Tip: There are eight restaurants altogether on the ship, and to help passengers figure out where to eat, the ship offers a system of computerized panels by the elevators that show when restaurants are open and what the wait time will likely be. Just keep in mind that if you have your heart set on a particular specialty restaurant, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead.
After years in the children’s program, Chloe finally graduated to the Connections Teen Club, where she played games like Scattegory and enjoyed the juice bar and video jukebox. For younger children aged 2 to 12, the Rascal’s Kid’s Center features a jungle gym, movie room and computer terminals. Children can also check out the Rascal’s Kid’s Pool, complete with a mini-slide, and the Blast Off video arcade on Deck 13. High-energy older kids might also enjoy the volleyball/basketball courts on the Sport Deck.
The Santa Fe Spa and Fitness Center is so decked out with exercise equipment and specialty classes, such as aerobics, yoga and Pilates, that it’s hard to find excuses not to work out. The spa, operated by Hawaii-based Mandara Spa, tempts cruise goers with all sorts of Island-themed treatments – including my favorite – a hot stone massage.
Rant: Although not listed on the spa menu, the salon offers hair braiding. We called to get a price and were quoted $4 a braid, but when we received the bill, we were charged $5 a braid, and the salon staff said they had no record of quoting us a price on the phone. Although only $1 difference, it adds up when you are talking about a head full of braids, so the total bill with tip was about $80 vs. the $40 or so we typically pay at a resort.
Play & Learn
Some of Chloe’s favorite activities on the ship included the new bungee jumping station – where kids jump up and down on a trampoline in a harness – and the gyroscope, where kids spin around and upside down in an amusement park-type capsule. The “rides” are offered only at select times and are closely supervised. There are also several swimming pools — South Beach on deck 11, the more tranquil Oasis on Deck 12 as well as the Rascal’s Kids pool – but because of the rain, I often gravitated to the new Conservatory, a quiet garden-like space perfect for curling up with a good book. The ship also offers some Hawaii-themed programs, such as lei-making with kukui nuts and hula classes, but not as much as I remember from the Pride of Aloha and the Pride of Hawaii.
The beauty of these cruises is that the ship overnights on each of the four major islands. The ports are Hilo and Kona on the Big Island (one night each) and two days in Kahului, Maui; and Nawiliwili, Kauai. Because you have so much time on shore, passengers can – and usually do – take advantage of more than one shore excursion at each port. In past Hawaii cruises, we’ve tried zip-lining in Maui, kayaking and “tubing the ditch” along flooded irrigation ditches in Kauai and snorkeling from just about every kind of vessel out there. Because of our rainy weather, we weren’t able to ride horses in Kauai, as we’d originally planned, but we did jump on Captain Zodiac’s snorkel tour in Kona. Passengers cling to an inflatable zodiac with their feet while the boat zips past spinner dolphins (or, in winter, past migrating whales) to the Captain Cook Marine Preserve for some great snorkeling. We also tried the kayak waterfall tour in Hilo, where we paddled in double kayaks to a series of small waterfalls. With a nod to the weather, we also signed up for the Kaanapali Beach Day in Maui on the theory that if it rained, we could shop at Whaler’s Cove next door. It did, and we did. We also took part in the Lahaina on Your Own excursion, where we ran between the raindrops through the quaint Hawaiian town, pausing to shop and eat along the way.
The ship featured an assortment of evening shows, including America’s Beat, a dance review that traces U.S. history through song and dance, as well as an appealing crew performance that showed off the talents of the staff. The ship is also equipped with a movie theater, where we caught a few first-run movies.
Rant: We love the Polynesian hula and music shows NCL offers on its other Hawaii ships, but our Pride of America cruise didn’t offer it. We strongly recommend attending one of the luau shows offered as shore excursions in order to get the real flavor of the destination.
Price & Details
Rates vary by season. In 2007, for example, prices in July started at $1,399 per person for an inside stateroom but dropped to $1,099 in August and $999 in September. Call: 866/234-0292 or www.ncl.com.
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