Today's 2,002-passenger, 77,104-ton Pride of Aloha is the first and largest full-sized cruise ship to be U.S.-flagged and U.S.-crewed. This vessel, the former Norwegian Sky, was called into service at the last minute when the ship originally intended to be christened "Pride of Aloha" partially sank in its shipyard dock during construction.
A Pride of Aloha seven-day Hawaiian cruise is a great vacation due to the outstanding itinerary. You are in port every day, and will see the best the islands have to offer. On our sailing, we found excellent food, good entertainment, great tours and comfortable accommodations. There were also foul-ups, messes, confusion and some disappointments -- but not nearly as many as we expected, nor enough to ruin what became the vacation of a lifetime.
Hawaii is not a cheap destination. If you took a comparable resort vacation, you would pay for transportation between four islands, hotels, and three daily meals (which tend to be outrageously priced). As a way to visit Hawaii, Pride of Aloha is a natural. As a cruise experience, she is a ship that will appeal (or not) to different people for various reasons.
Onboard Pride of Aloha
Overall, our experience of a wonderful vacation was confirmed by most passengers we met. First-time cruisers, discovering the convenience of all-inclusive food and entertainment, adored the ship and said they would definitely cruise again.
As an experienced cruiser, I saw it a little differently. Honestly, this ship is not quite up to the service standards of the cruise industry -- but neither are most all-inclusive resorts or hotels in Hawaii. NCL is not unaware of the problem, and for the time being the former mandatory service charge of $10 per person per day has been suspended. The current tipping policy on this ship is "cash on the table" until further notice. In the Mandara Spa what is called the "service charge" is actually the therapists sole salary. If you want to tip them, you need to fill in the "additional tip" area.
How is Pride of Aloha Different?
The biggest difference between Pride of Aloha and other ships is its all-U.S. crew. NCL had big problems with the crew at first, and though they have been largely resolved, a few issues are still being worked out. The first crewmembers tended to be younger, mostly from the Hawaiian Islands, and had never been on a cruise ship before. Now the average age is older (32), and more of them come from the mainland (and a few from Guam). As long as they are U.S. citizens or have a green card (14.5% onboard), they are eligible.
How does an American crew change the cruise experience? One important aspect was my own perception: As an experienced cruiser, I am not used to having my own countrymen serving me. Their very accents, as American as our own, came as a surprise. I never got used to hearing the crew speak American English.
This attitude is not pervasive; I met many crewmembers doing a fine job. Even if they don't behave in the Euro-style, they have a warmth and frankness you won't get from a foreign crewperson trained not to let down the wall between customer and server.
NCL is actually working very hard to infuse European-style service into its U.S. crew -- not an easy task. The line now operates a full-time crew training facility in Piney Point, Maryland, where candidates spend three weeks in simulated cruise ship conditions learning their jobs before they board ship. About 10% of candidates get weeded out here.
Pride of Aloha operates by NCL's "Freestyle" service plan, where dinner seating is open and you get a different table and waiter every night. The food was never disappointing, and at times excellent -- even in the main dining room, where we had been led to believe by message board postings that it was inedible. Another improvement is the wait time for dinner seating; we never waited longer than five minutes. NCL just announced plans to further organize their systems fleet-wide so wait time will be reduced even further.
The alternative dining options, with a service charge of $12-$15 per person, were excellent. The Royal Palm Bistro is our first recommendation, and the Italian Kahili is the runner-up. The Asian-rim cuisine of the Pacific Heights restaurant did not meet our expectations.
The buffets had hot food with ample selection and supply. There are separate stations for omelets, waffles, and fresh fruit including Hawaiian papaya in the morning; and hamburgers, fresh salad bar and carved meats at lunch. One of the biggest drawbacks of the ship is a shortage of available tables (or slow busboys) in the buffet/pool area. During an afternoon barbecue we were swamped in dirty dishes. It appeared that all the focus was on the fine presentation, but service logistics had been neglected.
Our other service disappointment was the room stewards. In their defense, each one (we had three during the course of a week) told us they had been on board less than three weeks. Once again, I kept thinking that if these well-intentioned people could sail on a foreign-crewed vessel just once, they could see how they are supposed to do their jobs.
But this was still a great vacation in spite of these minor drawbacks, and only an overly critical person would let a few minor frustrations override the positive experience of the big picture.
The only potentially serious exception we encountered was the automated wake-up service. It worked great for five nights, but fouled up on the sixth morning and rang at 4 a.m., then failed to ring at the correct hour even though we re-set it. I have a feeling this is a recurring problem, as the front desk is more than happy to arrange a back-up wakeup call. Take advantage of it.
The Beauty of Hawaii is the Key
This itinerary, which only NCL America can offer, is what makes this vacation. Do not wait until you get aboard to start planning your vacation: You are in port every day. Go to the NCL web site after you book your cruise, download the tour booklet, and book your tours online. Even embarkation day in Honolulu has tours available as the ship does not sail until 8 p.m.
Following are two days on the island of Hawaii. Hilo (9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) is first. That night, the ship sails past the live volcano at 10 p.m., as close as a mile from shore, and proceeds to Kona on the other side for a full day in port (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) the next day.
Don't miss the lava show at night. It's a sensational glowing river of gold flowing to the sea, where it generates a continuous cloud of steam, bursting to three times its size every few seconds. Even most natives have never seen this, as ocean currents here are too dangerous for small boats.
You can visit the volcano park during the day, and hike over newly hardened lava to the spot where the lava meets the sea. The ship offers this as a tour, but it is an arduous hike, and one you do not want to rush. I did it myself, only to find that the two-mile hike (with no trail, just mangled rock) only leads you to the nearest spot with live volcanic action - but not the most active spot.
On my hike, I started to feel the heat after 90 minutes. The air temperature increased about 15 degrees. My wind got shorter as sulfur replaced oxygen in the atmosphere.
Day four in Kona offers tours of coffee plantations, horseback riding, snorkeling, swimming, shopping and more. Days five (arrive 8 a.m.) and six (depart 6 p.m.) are in Maui, one of the prettiest islands. The ship docks in Kahului, about 30 minutes from Lahaina, which is one of the cutest and most historic towns in the islands. When you book a tour, check whether it includes free time there; if not, try to make additional arrangements. You can book the 'Lahaina on Your Own' tour for $25 per person (a taxi is about $80) and take advantage of the local tour options when you get there.
Who Should Not Consider this Ship
Pride of Aloha is a beautiful, modern ship providing a convenient, economical and comfortable way to see Hawaii. It is not a ship for people simply looking for the cruise experience. If you find your joy in sybaritic sea-days with lots of onboard shopping and mindless activities like Bingo, this is not your ship. You are in port every day, you cannot gamble, and the usual activities like deck games and reggae bands are sparse. You can find a cheaper Caribbean or Mexican cruise closer to home.
According to local reports, this ship has been something of a disappointment for Hawaii residents. Naturally, they have already seen most of the islands, and the cruise experience itself is not the attraction here - except for seeing the volcano from the sea at night.
You can take a European-crewed ship to Hawaii, departing from Vancouver or Ensenada and sail five days at sea before you reach the islands. Or NCL offers 10 or 11-day cruises on a non U.S.-crewed ship, Norwegian Wind, which sails from Honolulu but makes a jaunt to Fanning Island also requiring four sea days and spends less time in Hawaiian ports.
For me, the U.S.-crew is not a deal-breaker. I even consider it a patriotic act to support the effort. Pride of Aloha is a fine ship, excellent in many ways, and NCL management swears to a commitment to bring the crew up to the highest standards possible. If you must, wait another year for this ship to find its sea legs. But if you are looking to cruise to a new and beautiful destination now and you understand how NCL-America is different, you will not be disappointed.