Three years might sound like a long time in terms of business cycles, but it seems like yesterday that NCLs Pride of Aloha was getting off to a start in Hawaii.

With the christening of the Pride of Hawaii last month, NCLs Hawaii fleet is complete. Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, Star Cruises chairman, said it was a day I have looked forward to for four years.

Now NCL America has three ships in Hawaii. All three homeport in Honolulu, spend the better part of two days in Maui and call at Nawiliwili, Kona and Hilo. They sail by Kauais Na Pali coastline and night-cruise past Volcanos National Park on the Big Island. Passengers can hike, sunbathe or surf on any voyage. And, most likely, the weather will be the same, no matter the ship.

So, which ship to pick? Each has its own personality and, most definitely, its own decor. The Pride of Aloha is all Hawaii; its tall, Polynesian-themed atrium is still one of my favorites.

For a dose of Americana, no better place to go than the Pride of America, which expends considerable onboard energy paying homage to the mainland.

The Pride of Hawaii is the most NCL of the three, meaning that its most closely tied, layout-wise, to other new Norwegian Cruise Line ships.

The ships floor plan isnt as distinct as that of the Pride of America, which is a unique, one-off vessel. But from a branding perspective, similarities among ships is not a bad thing. If you can walk on the ship and know within the first five minutes where the coffee bar is vis-a-vis the alternative restaurant, you feel at home.

The Pride of Hawaii is nearly identical to the Norwegian Jewel in layout, so for those who have seen the latter, yes, youll feel right at home on the former. However, there are some specific touches that make the ship Hawaiian, starting with a floral decor on the hull.

Here are a few tips gleaned from an introductory trip from Los Angeles on the Pride of Hawaii:

" Selling up: Say a client walks into the office and announces he has upwards of $26,000 to spend on a family cruise in Hawaii. Help him right into a three-bedroom Garden Villa, 5,750 square feet of exclusive views, gardens, hot tubs and mod living spaces. No matter how many times I see the villas, they never fail to impress. Judging by the oohs and aahs of the travel agents around me on walk-throughs, Im not alone.

There are other ways to sell up, too. Theres a new cabin that doesnt show up on NCLs online deck plans. Its a one-bedroom nest wedged above the Garden Villas at the very top of the ship. Called the Black Diamond Suite, its outfitted almost entirely in purple. (On the Norwegian Jewel, this room is a dedicated concierge lounge for the Garden Villas. On the Pride of Hawaii, the concierge is in the Star Bar, one deck down.)

There are also 10 two-bedroom Courtyard Villas, which ring an exclusive outdoor pool/lounge and have private balconies.

Still too pricey? I spent two days in a minisuite outfitted in a circa-1970s, retro style.

Coasting at sea

 

" People-watching vs. Na Pali: Get to know Bar Central, or, as NCL Executive Vice President Andy Stuart called it on the intro cruise, Bar City. Its basically one long bar, broken into three themes: beer, cocktails and champagne. This is a prime meeting spot and is great for people-watching, as several of the ships restaurants are nearby.

Better yet, head for the stern and the outdoor bar at the Aloha Nui Lanai buffet, which affords amazing views of Hawaii. Its a perfect place to nurse a beverage and drink in the Hawaiian landscape.

" Dining out: I ate in the teppenyaki room at Asian restaurant Jasmine Garden. I love Asian-fusion cuisine, and the food was good; the teppenyaki, where chefs grill food right in front of you, is always fun. However, Ive heard that Papas Italian Kitchen makes some great meals. Italian food in Hawaii? Sure, why not?

As for the best views while eating (apart from the Aloha Nui Lanai), check out the tables by the big windows at the Blue Lagoon restaurant and the Paniolo Tapas and Salsa restaurant.

" Service: One major difference between the Pride of Hawaii and the Norwegian Jewel is the formers all-American crew.

Crew training has come a ways since NCL Americas early days. On our cruise, the crew was very friendly and, as Stuart said, trying desperately hard to please. Yet as nice as they were, the lunch/dinner stretched a little long, and there were mix-ups with appetizers and long waits for drinks.

Despite a training course and a pipeline of new crew ready to fill in gaps, turnover is still high. Theres a good chance that some of the people filling your water glass and profusely apologizing for the delay will be new crew settling into routines. So relax and go with it. Its Hawaii, after all.

To contact Rebecca Tobin, managing editor of the print edition of Travel Weekly, send e-mail to [email protected].

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