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Aloha, Cruise World

During the day, while there aren't as many folks hanging out by the pools and hot tubs as you might see on less shore-oriented ships, the scene would be familiar to any experienced cruiser: ping-pong on the sports deck, a trickle of traffic in and out of the spa, the muffled bass thump of Donna Summer from the aerobics studio.

The ship itself, while small by modern behemoth standards, has been through a stem-to-stern makeover, transforming it from the Norwegian Sky that used to run the Alaska routes into a sort of Polynesian Epcot. The teak-and-tapa Outrigger Lounge, wrapped around the bow with wide Captain Nemo windows, pays homage to native seafaring; the Plantation Club is a fine, palm-filled place to sip a rum punch and recall those happy colonial days when sugar was king and these were the Sandwich Islands; the Blue Hawaii Night Club vaults you into the Hollywood era with outsize Elvises and hula gals. In all there are six restaurants and 13 bars -- but at times, that wasn't enough.


An exterior view of Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of Aloha, the first Hawaiian island cruise of its kind. (Tim Wright - Associated Press)

_____Fall/Winter Cruising 2004_____
Aloha, Cruise World
Baltimore Cruises Cut Back
Cruise Lines

Most of the complaints haven't been about the quality of the food so much as its availability. NCL's signature Freestyle Dining means passengers say goodbye to the venerable cruise traditions of assigned meal times and the great tablemate lottery (as well the Jeeves-and-Bertie rapport that can emerge when you have the same waiter night after night). Instead, Pride diners descend on the harried maitres d' whenever they want -- which, judging from the much-discussed waits, is all at the same time. The ensuing throngs lead many people to rely on the daily poolside grill or the open air Hukilau Cafe for quick meals. Others strategize around the crowds.

"We just wait until the rush is over and it's been fine," said Jennifer Jopling on the inaugural voyage, relishing a plate of broiled ahi tuna in Crossings on the July voyage. She and her husband took most of their dinners there, one of two main Freestyle venues. A surcharge of $12 to $15 a person, though, will buy you a reserved seat at one of three premium restaurants: the pan-Asian Pacific Heights, the Hawaiian Kahili and the French Mediterranean Royal Palm Bistro. These earned grudging praise (the food, not the surcharge), even on the ruthless chat boards.

"The food has actually been very good," Jopling said. "This is a company that knows what they're doing. There's no reason they can't work out the kinks."

The Verdict

So, should you go?

It depends.

If waiting a half-day for your cabin to be ready would shatter your mood and a half-day of snorkeling in the mid-Pacific wouldn't put it back together, then no. You may be better off waiting for this ship to mature or for its bigger, newer sister ships to arrive over the next two years.

If you can wait out -- or ignore -- the shakedown snags and are more interested in a Hawaiian sampler than the ultimate shipboard experience, then yes. The Pride is an increasingly safe bet.

NCL's Pride of Aloha sails every Sunday evening from Honolulu on its seven-night Hawaiian island-hopping itinerary. Posted 2004 fares begin at $1,009 per person double for inside cabins, $1,459 for outside and $1,859 for balcony. Fares in 2005 start at $959, $1,359 and $2,359, respectively. These fares don't include taxes, port fees and the on-again, off-again $10- per-person per-day service charge in lieu of some tipping.

The Pride of Aloha will be joined next summer by the brand-new Pride of America -- the second of three planned NCL ships to work the all-Hawaii itinerary. It will offer three- and four-day cruises as well as the seven-day schedule. Details: 888-625-4292 ,www.ncl.com.


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