Norwegian Cruise Line is riding the post-9/11 "America First" wave with its NCL America division, the only cruise line that can offer sailings solely in the Hawaiian islands. With its third U.S.-flagged ship entering the NCL America fleet recently, NCL is certainly the leader and expert in the intra-Hawaiian cruise market.
NCL also deploys the foreign-flagged Norwegian Wind, which can cruise Hawaii as long as the ship also sails to the distant foreign port of Fanning Island. The other three ships -- the Pride of Aloha, Pride of America and newest addition, Pride of Hawaii -- can and do cruise only in the Hawaiian islands.
My pre-teen daughter Alex and I recently cruised Hawaii aboard NCL America's Pride of America; we were impressed with the ship's itinerary, breadth of shore excursions, all-American decor and Freestyle Dining options. Since our cruise was unfortunately filled with rainy, cool weather, we had more time aboard ship, which afforded us opportunities to experience some of the Hawaiian cultural programming NCL offers.
Island-Hopping An NCL America cruise is the best way to see the Hawaiian Islands. With five ports in six days, the Pride of America (as well as Pride of Aloha and Hawaii) visits the four main islands -- Oahu (embark/disembark in Honolulu), Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Cruising allows you to see the highlights of Hawaii economically, without having to hop on a plane to fly to each island.
Another plus about cruising Hawaii is that you get to witness a few of nature's free shows from your vessel. One night, we passed a volcano and were able to watch it spewing lava, which glowed fiery red in the dark night. Another day, we saw many whales breeching along the undulating and secluded Napali Coast of Kauai. The spectacular cliffs of the Napali Coast are only accessible by sea, so we felt privileged to be up close and personal with them.
I strongly suggest staying in Honolulu at least one or two nights prior to boarding the ship. Since we're from the East Coast, we did that a few years ago (we also stopped two nights in San Francisco en route) and it eased the jet lag. We did not have the time to spend in Honolulu or San Francisco this time, and it was a bit of an adjustment since we flew all day on Saturday and then early Sunday morning we were whisked off on an excursion. NCL does sell packages at resort hotels on Waikiki Beach.
Adventures Ashore NCL offers a myriad of shore tours in Hawaii to suit every taste, from bus tours to very active excursions. Some of the active choices include biking down a volcano, snorkeling on each island, kayaking to a secluded waterfall for swimming, hiking with a guide in rainforests, horseback riding, riding a helicopter over volcanoes, zip lining amidst tropical foliage, and whale watching in Maui.
When it comes to deciding on an excursion, your pocketbook will probably be your primary guide. All these tours are wonderful but also rather pricey, especially if you are a family of four or more. Since so many excursions are very active (with minimum ages sometimes of eight years) or are a bit sedentary (bus tours), this itinerary is better suited for grade school children. While Caribbean cruises offer many opportunities to hop a cab to a beach where little ones are in their element, there aren't many beaches near the ports of call except in Honolulu. One day we opted for the Kaanapali Beach Break in Maui, involving a 45-minute bus ride to a resort hotel where we stayed for four hours. This would have been a long day for my four-year-old son, who did not come on the cruise with us.
Unfortunately, our beach break day instead turned out to be a shopping day at nearby Whaler's Village since once again raindrops were falling by the time we arrived at the beach resort. We also did a lot of shopping in Lahaina, a cute town on the island's western coast. The cruise line offers a reasonable shuttle transfer to the town and since the weather was dreary, we shopped until we dropped.
A reasonably affordable idea for a family of four is to rent a car in various ports along the way. We did this on our first Hawaiian cruise in Kauai, and it worked out well since we were able to drive the breathtaking Waimea Canyon at our then-toddler son's pace. Many of the car rental companies have shuttle vans to take you to their rental office from the cruise piers.
All-American Decor It was an unusual sensation to step aboard the Pride of America, since I had assumed it would have a tropical, Hawaiian decor. Instead, we were surrounded by the presidential, all-American atrium. Once we got used to the American theme, which ran throughout the ship, we really loved it. The atrium is very impressive; it has a huge granite presidential seal in the floor with all the states on it, a mural of the Capitol building behind the guest services desk, and an impressive white staircase lined with red carpeting. The latter effect was very charming -- reminiscent of the all-American decor on the American Queen steamboat.
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All the lounges had themes of American cities or famous American persons. For example, one of the venues for music and dancing was named the Mardi Gras lounge and featured lots of green, gold and purple. The Skyline restaurant represented New York City's art deco period, while the Jefferson Bistro was handsomely decorated with colonial drapes and murals.
My daughter loved to remark on the huge photographs that covered entire stairwells. Each stairwell featured a different American city or famous landscape such as the Grand Canyon. Overall, we found the American theme tastefully done, and it prompted many enthusiastic discussions between us.
Even the ship's main conference was tastefully decorated. The Diamond Head auditorium/conference room, in fact, is the largest at sea. NCL America is capitalizing on the fact that American companies can deduct the cost of NCL America conferences at sea. This is not allowed on other cruise ships, since foreign-flagged vessels are not privy to tax write-offs.
Freestyle Dining Pride of America, like all other NCL ships, features Freestyle Cruising. The main component of Freestyle Cruising is the variety of choices in dinner venues. Not only do passengers have the option of dining where they want, but also with whom and when they want.
Unlike most cruise lines where passengers are assigned a specific dining room and dining time, NCL's Freestyle Cruising operates like a resort hotel. Passengers have the choice of 11 different dining options; five of these do not incur an extra cost, while most of the others have a $10 per person cover charge. The restaurants that are free include the Aloha Café (buffet), Cadillac Diner (burgers, fries, wraps), Little Italy, and Skyline and Liberty restaurants, which are akin to main dining rooms on most ships. Those incurring a fee are: Jefferson's Bistro ($10 per person), Lazy J Steakhouse ($15), Teppanyaki (a la carte pricing), and a trio of small Asian restaurants in the East Meets West venue: East Meets West, Sushi in East Meets West, and Shabu Shabu in East Meets West (all $10 per person).
Our favorite was Teppanyaki which is like a Japanese steakhouse. The very entertaining chef playfully joked around with my daughter, which added a lot of fun. We also loved the food and Alex particularly enjoying the marinated steak. All week long, we admired the Georgetown-esque, colonial decor of Jefferson's Bistro. Finally on the last night we enjoyed a appetizing meal there. However, the service was extremely slow. I understand from other passengers that this was the case on other nights, too, making it too long a meal for kids to sit through.
Overall, we enjoyed the food aboard Pride of America very much. We especially relished dinners in all the restaurants and the lunches in the main sit-down dining room. One area that needs improvement is the Aloha Café buffet. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, the buffet options were limited and not too appealing to me. I prefer the lighter fare that many cruise lines offer these days, especially at lunch. Instead we found a lot of heavy meat and potato type dishes.
In order to enjoy Freestyle Cruising to its utmost, I recommend making dinner reservations for the whole week soon after you board. You can call a central phone number listed on the Freestyle Daily newsletter to make all your reservations. Those who didn't were often waiting around for a table to open up during the popular hours between 7 and 8 p.m. NCL recently installed plasma TV dining reservation screens fleet-wide. These are located in prime public areas so that passengers who don't have bookings can instantly see which restaurants are empty, filling up or crowded. This saves passengers time running around to already full restaurants.
On-Board Programming NCL does a good job of bringing Hawaii on board its NCL America ships. All the Hawaiian ships have a Hawaiian Ambassador -- a Hawaii native who offers short, daily talks about Hawaiian culture and topography. The Hawaiian Ambassador presides over a number of cultural activities such as hula dancing lessons and various types of lei making. We particularly enjoyed the kukui nut lei making class and we proudly wore our necklaces to dinner a number of nights. The ribbon lei making was much more challenging.
We missed, however, the Hawaiian dance show that NCL had on the Norwegian Wind a few years ago when we cruised Hawaii and Fanning Island. This was a huge hit with kids of all ages and far superior to the dance show I saw on land at a luau. I think NCL should consider bringing a Hawaiian stage show back to all its NCL America ships as a way to showcase the exciting culture of the region.
Pride of America featured an interesting Hawaiian cultural area with a number of big display cases that give a cultural history of Hawaii from the days of Hawaiian royalty to the "boat days" of the early 1900s - when hordes of passengers arrived by cruise ship - to the heyday of Hollywood's fascination with Hawaii in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The area is prominently located above the atrium deck so that all passengers had the opportunity to view the historic photos.
Like all NCL ships, Pride of America offers a youth and teen program for children from two to 17 years old. Hours are extensive on sea days and participation is free, while on port days there is an hourly fee for children to stay at the program. The attentive counselors oversee plenty of interactive games for the grade school kids and lots of story times and face painting for the little ones.