Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Grand Hawaii Cruise - Part 5

Continuing our grand Hawaiian journey with Norwegian Cruise Line and Virgin Holidays, aboard the only year-round ship to sail purely in Hawaii, Pride of America…

Pride Of The Fleet

So, we’ve been focusing primarily on the destination so far as we have sailed from Honolulu to Kahului (Maui), Hilo (the Big Island) and Kona (also on the Big Island), en route to Nawiliwili (Kauai) and then back to our starting point on the island of Oahu.

But what about our travelling vehicle for the week, I hear you ask? Well, the Pride of America is an eight-year-old member of the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet but a very different proposition in many ways. She is the only American-flagged vessel, which means she carries primarily an American crew and therefore conforms to the Jones Act, which prevents foreign-flagged ships from sailing just in US waters.

All other vessels to Hawaii have to call at a Mexican or other foreign port to comply with the Jones Act, which prevents them from operating the kind of unique 7-day itineraries the Pride offers.

That, in turn, means she can feature overnight stays in Maui and Kauai and still cover all four main  islands in a week. Hence this is a singularly Hawaiian vessel, with the onboard style and ambience to match. None of the other 200-plus cruise ships in the world can do this.

With that advantage in mind, this modern 2,000-passenger floating hotel (it is, really, a resort in all but name, as virtually all of the sailing is done at night) is still an attraction in its own right, with a terrific range of restaurant choice, plenty of entertainment offerings and, of course, Norwegian’s distinctive Freestyle system, whereby guests can choose where and when they dine and avoid any of cruising’s traditional formality and rigidity.

This is not a dress-up cruise in any way, shape or form (although you are free to don jacket and tie or evening gown if you so wish), and the ultra-relaxed Hawaiian style is perfectly at home with the Freestyle ethos.

The Pride is also a stylish little (if 80,400 tons can still be called ‘little’ these days) cruiser, with some subtle, small-scale rooms and décor and an easy-on-the-eye overall design concept that puts a lot of her glitzy brethren to shame (witness the two-storey central atrium, which is a far cry from the huge, multi-storey offerings on many other ships of a similar size).

For dining choice there are the two main dining rooms, the Skyline (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and the Liberty (dinner only), with the latter offering a slightly more intimate and upscale style. The extensive Aloha Café is the buffet alternative for all three meals, while the small-scale Cadillac Diner offers menus around the clock and 24/7, meaning the old Midnight Buffet is a thing of the past.

Another lunch alternative can be found at the on-deck Key West Bar & Grill and Ocean Drive (counter service), while those happy to pay a little bit extra for excellent sushi and Asian noodles can also enjoy the East Meets West restaurant (with a la carte pricing).

Finally, the dinner choice extends to a full 11 options, with the above four joined by East Meets West (Asian, at a $15 supplement), the Lazy J Steakhouse (which is also used for breakfast and lunch for Suite guests, plus an elegant dinner at $25/head), Little Italy (tasty Italian, at a $15 supplement), the Teppanyaki Room (Japanese ‘Teppan’-style dining at $25/head), more Asian at Shabu Shabu (a $15 supplement), the Sushi bar (a la carte) and the signature French restaurant of Jefferson’s Bistro (at $20/head).

Just in case anyone loses track of the alternatives, there is also 24-hour room service and a 24-hour Pizza delivery (at $5 extra). It is a fabulous array and, while the main (no-extra-fee) dining is certainly a fine choice, we especially like the excellent Chinese fare at East Meets West, the Italian splendour of Little Italy and the true gourmet style of Jefferson’s (see bottom picture).

As an additional note, a big April 2013 refit of the ship, which will completely remodel Deck 13 with its rather empty spaces and add more suites, will provide the additional choice of a Brazilian Churrascaria restaurant while the Lazy J will be transformed into Cagney’s, the truly superb steakhouse currently aboard Norwegian Epic.

Entertainment simply is everywhere on this ship, which is another Norwegian trademark. From the small-scale (art auctions and pub games around some of the nine bars) to the music-orientated (with the likes of singer/guitarist Tim Dion in the Napa Wine Bar, pianist David Pellegrene in Pink’s Champagne Bar and the Hawaiian Kama’aina Duo, plus pool deck band The Wave and a resident DJ), and on to the grand shows at the Hollywood Theater.

These latter have featured some big-stage productions and the resident singers (notably for the excellent Frankie Valli tribute show, above), plus visiting band Toby Beau and comedian Noodles (who have also appeared in the Mardi Gras second show-lounge). Pool parties, karaoke and a crew show complete an impressive line-up, ensuring there is always something for everyone.

Our favourites? Definitely the Frankie Valli/Four Seasons show, plus Tim Dion for an excellent range of music in the Wine Bar, with his distinctive voice proving a great reason to just sit and listen.

Elsewhere, Hotel Director Tony Winkler keeps everything humming along with smooth Austrian precision while Cruise Director Scottie belies his youthful looks with a polished approach to the entertainment quotient. Concierge manager Thomas is a real gem while other staff to catch our eye include bright young waitress Siraya at the Lazy J each morning and Stephanie in the Skyline dining room.

Our cabin steward, Francis, also deserves a name-check for seemingly always being ready with a cheery greeting when we leave our cabin, which always turns out to be spotlessly clean and tidy when we return, as if by some sleight of hand that puts him in at least two places at once.

Everyone is unfailingly polite and efficient, though, and the spirit of Aloha comes through in almost every aspect of the ship.

But, for all her charms, Pride of America does have to take second place for much of the time – to the magnificent islands of Hawaii.

Because, we must confess, we have spent just about every moment in each port of call off our maritime ‘home,’ with the opportunity to really get under the skin of these amazing isles, even in just seven days.

Being second-best to a destination like this is no real handicap, though. And, with the forthcoming refit due to spruce up the few areas of the ship that are showing her age (notably on some of the outer decks), it seems clear the Pride will continue to provide a great experience for some time to come.

Next up: Coffee Country on the Big Island.