Less than two weeks after returning from a seven-day cruise on NCL's Pride of Hawaii, I learned that the ship would leave the islands and be redeployed to Europe next January.

I began to wonder how to write about a voyage on a ship that would be taken out of the Hawaii rotation so soon. I decided it didn't matter, because NCL's interisland Hawaii itineraries are not about the ships, they are about Hawaii. And two NCL America vessels will continue to sail there.

One of cruising's biggest drawbacks is that it's difficult to experience a country during a nine-hour stopover. On a recent western Caribbean cruise that stopped in four nations, I left with little sense of those countries' cultures or people.

But after a seven-day sailing on the Pride of Hawaii that called in five Hawaiian ports with two overnights, I genuinely felt that I had experienced Hawaii.

And that is what is often lost in stories about NCL America and the multitude of problems the company has had running a U.S.-flagged cruise line with a U.S. crew. For experiencing Hawaii, these cruises can't be beat.

The NCL itinerary gives passengers time to explore the islands. The sailing offers 96 hours in port with overnights in Maui and Kauai.

An NCL seven-day Caribbean cruise from Miami on the Norwegian Sun includes 37 hours in port, far less than half the time over the same number of days.

And competing cruise lines in the Islands, which must include a five-day journey to or from a foreign port, simply can't offer that much time in Hawaii. 

On the Pride of Hawaii, for example, Capt. Evans Hoyt spent an evening sailing slowly off the coast of Hilo, so guests could watch red-hot lava from the Kilauea volcano make its way to the coast, where it met the waves in a breathtaking show of sparks and fire.

There was even time to turn the boat around so guests on both the starboard and port sides of the ship could view the spectacle without leaving their dinner table or balcony.

On the last afternoon, en route to Honolulu, Hoyt took the ship around Kauai and cruised along the island's Na Pali Coast, where 22 miles of craggy, lush, green cliffs rose from the blue waters below, exposing valleys dotted with occasional waterfalls, and stained by Kauai's famous red mud.

The islands offer a diversity of landscape that begs to be seen. TW.com photo by Johanna JainchillIn Hilo, after spending a day trekking over newly formed lava fields, some still dangerously hot, to view fresh-flowing lava, our guide drove us to a deserted beach with black, volcanic sand.

Only days later, on the lush island of Kauai, we lounged at the popular, brown sugar-sand beach of Poipu, where a monk seal dozed for hours among sunning tourists and local surfers. 

The cruise also demonstrated the value of the continuation of culture.

Even if I never again want to eat poi, it was nice to know that it was served at every port along the way, and that "mahalo" meant "thank you" everywhere I went.

Plus, the dollar would always be the currency in Hawaii, and my cell phone would never roam.

NCL does its best to make the Hawaiian culture as much a part of the cruise here as its freestyle dining. It is actively recruiting locals to work on its ships, a difficult proposition in a state with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

It begins the cruises with a hula dancing show in one of the lounges, demonstrating different hula styles from the various islands. An NCL employee and native Hawaiian told me that the voluptuous bodies of those Hawaiian men and women were typical Hawaiian bodies. They did not bring on skinny Hollywood-types only to appeal to the tastes of mainland Americans. 

That was not true of NCL's new Lu'au Kalamaku. NCL replaced the luau it offered in Maui with one they created themselves.

The crowd enjoyed the energetic dancing in traditional costumes and an impressive display of fire-spinning and -throwing as the dancers told the story of Polynesian migration to Hawaii.

But the show seemed too geared to mainland tastes. With one exception, the women and men all had lean, chiseled bodies, and at one point, a dancer broke into a Broadway-style love song that was out of place with the grass skirts and leis.

The show is put on at a Kauai plantation and can begin with optional rides through the plantation via a railway car or horse-drawn carriage.

A traditional dinner includes dishes such as lomi lomi salmon, kalua pork cooked in an imu (underground oven) and, of course, poi.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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