FALL/WINTER CRUISING

Aloha, Cruise World

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004

It wasn't until its third day of Hawaiian island-hopping that Norwegian Cruise Line's new Pride of Aloha finally found something to silence a boatload of complaining passengers. All it took was an erupting volcano.

Soon after the requisite Technicolor tropical sunset during the ship's inaugural cruise in July -- with the western horizon still sporting a hibiscus blush -- the Pride sailed toward a small orange glow at the surf line of the Big Island's South Shore. In restaurants, bars and staterooms all over the ship, the nonstop baseline grumbling about long queues and slow service finally grew quieter as the little orange glow grew brighter.

"It's lava!" yelled a wiggly boy with his nose pressed against the window in the Outrigger Lounge. Lava it was, and the Outrigger quickly emptied as the crowd shouldered its way out to the temperate breezes at the deck railings. They lined up five deep, the back row a phalanx of digital cameras held up Hail Mary-style to capture a few pixels of Hawaii's geologic splendor. From behind, their many view screens were like a little appliance store window, a dozen tiny versions of the same volcanic action.

As the handsome ship with the giant lei painted on its bow approached at a stately glide, the small blob sharpened into a distinctive vent of lava. Long slabs of molten molasses plopped steadily into the churning Pacific, sending up billows of steam and building American territory one drip-castle splat at a time. More vents came slowly into view, tracing the route of the magma's march to the sea from the slopes of Kilauea volcano. By the time the captain spun the ship around to give the port side a view, the entire hillside was asparkle in orange and yellow sequins against the black shoulders of the mountain.

White lights bobbed behind the flow, marking the halting flashlight progress of hikers across shoe-ripping dried lava toward designated viewing areas. It was more than a mile's walk to the barriers that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park rangers set up to keep hikers well away from the hot spots. No one on the ship, where the lava-watching came with better views and open bars, envied the shoreside spectators. Indeed, many of the passengers had been on excursions to that very place earlier in the day.

"We did that hike this morning, and let me tell you, they are not seeing anything like this," said a big man in a tank top to anyone standing near him. As they watched, a new vent opened up, a sudden flare of pulsating magma that oozed white hot toothpaste across the rock. The viewers on the Pride made fireworks-appreciation noises. "That may make the whole trip worth it," murmured a man from behind his binoculars.

Or not. For as the wonders of geology fell astern, communal awe turned back into collective carping.

"Twenty minutes!" cried a red-faced man at the hostess of the Palace Main Restaurant. "You said that an hour ago." He was nearly shouting, and she -- a petite brunette in a cocktail dress -- looked close to tears as she bit her lip and glanced from her hopeless seating chart to the crowd of impatient, arms-crossed diners surrounding her.

An Unhappy Ship

It's fitting that an act of geology managed to silence the complaints, if only briefly, since the carping of cruise passengers is itself nearly a force of nature. Cruisers tend to be more emotionally invested in their travels than other tourists, and a little good-natured kvetching is as standard to ship life as lifeboat drills and trashy novels. But on the inaugural and subsequent voyages of the Pride of Aloha, it hasn't been a little, and it hasn't been good-natured.

"I've heard more grumbling on this cruise than any one I've ever been on," said Don Derick, an alarm services dealer from Farmington, Conn., on the inaugural trip. He and his wife, Donna, have been taking yearly cruises since 1986, mostly on NCL ships. "Some people are going way overboard with the complaining. But still, something's not right. There's a line for everything. They're running out of things like coffee and butter."

According to industry observers, the first two months of the newly refurbished Pride, which launched its seven-day inter-island Hawaiian service in July, has been one of the roughest cruise debuts in memory. The long-awaited first U.S.-flagged and U.S.-staffed ocean-going cruise ship in nearly 50 years has been marked by reports of staterooms going uncleaned, hours-long waits for meals and overwhelmed workers deserting the ship at every port.

"It was 10 hours before we could get our bathroom door open," said Jennifer Jopling of Plano, Tex., who with her husband, Doug, was on her third Hawaiian cruise, all with NCL. The Pride voyage, they said, cost three times what the previous one had. "They kept telling us to the use the public restrooms. We finally went down to reception and said we weren't leaving until someone came with us to open the door. It was bedtime and I didn't want to go to a public restroom to brush my teeth."


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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