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Aloha, Cruise World
Norwegian Cruise Line's new Pride of Aloha sails the Hawaiian Islands. But the seas are far from calm.

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."

By the end of the first trip, it wasn't unusual to witness passengers shouting at staff members in the hallway. In the Crossings dining room, as two young servers bused tables after the last dinner, they chanted, "Gettin' off tomorrow and never comin' back." The final indignity for many passengers came at checkout, when those who hadn't read the fine print discovered the cruise line was charging them $10 a day per person -- $140 a trip for a couple -- as a mandatory service charge in lieu of some tipping (you were still expected to tip on bar orders and other transactions). Judging by the purple oratory echoing around the reception lobby, it was a touchy time to introduce a compulsory gratuity scheme.

(Despite published reports that the charge was non-negotiable, NCL President and CEO Colin Veitch said in a phone interview that passengers who have brought complaints to the ship's attention and still feel they didn't get satisfaction may be able to get an adjustment in the 10 percent charge at checkout time. "Agents on board the ship have that authority," Veitch said. And if you don't complain in advance? "We really want this to be an incentive for people to bring problems to our attention so we can address them," he said. "We'll take those on a case-by-case basis.")

After weeks of seeming to downplay the problems -- and driving Internet cruise chatterers into a proper frenzy -- NCL went into emergency response mode in mid-August. Letters of apology began appearing under cabin doors, and the company is offering former Pride passengers a 20 percent discount on a future NCL cruise, has pledged to reimburse half of the mandatory service charge to those who have already sailed, and, for now, has suspended the policy for new cruisers. The ship even has a new captain and director of hotels, and the line promises that "senior management" is aboard every sailing to oversee the overhaul.

"It's been quite challenging," Veitch said. "We've had teething problems. But that's what they are; there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the product or the crew that we have." He asserted that a barrage of new training and hiring efforts are beginning to take hold. "We're not satisfied yet, but we're on a steady upward trend for the last four cruises, based on passenger surveys."

The root of the problem, he said, is the huge chore of building a new crew from scratch. Unlike most start-ups, which draw fleetwide on experienced crew members from all over the world, the Pride of Aloha was obliged to hire green recruits from the United States alone. That was part of the deal when NCL won the right to loop between Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island and Maui week after week without ever touching an international port.

Hawaiian cruises famously tend to include such out-of-the-way stops as Ensenada, Mexico; Vancouver; and Fanning Island, a middle-of-nowhere atoll belonging to the Republic of Kiribati. That's because of a protectionist U.S. law known as the Jones Act, which prohibits any ship from running an all-U.S. itinerary unless it is American-flagged, American-built and American-staffed. That's usually too expensive to be profitable. But NCL, having won some vital congressional wiggle room on the "American-built" part, is trying to make a go of it with American staffs on the 853-foot Pride of Aloha and two new ships scheduled to launch over the next two years.

But in an industry where most employees come from Manila, Jakarta, Kingston and other low-wage labor pools -- workers willing to endure endless shifts and minuscule quarters -- building a crew from the likes of Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York has been tough. According to Veitch, the Pride has lost more than half its crew in the past three months, compared with an attrition rate closer to 20 percent a year in the rest of his fleet. Apparently, crewing in paradise didn't turn out to be all rum drinks and rich widows, as some recruits may have imagined.

"The turnover of our staff is what caught us off guard," Veitch said. "We didn't have enough people in reserve to make up for them. But what's going to happen over time is that people will sort themselves out into the ones who really want to make a go of this as a career."

"Creating an American cruise ship crew out of thin air is quite a challenge," Veitch said. "We didn't have a pool of experienced U.S. workers to draw from. It didn't exist. We're importing jobs, unlike most employers."

It's the Islands, Stupid

There's no denying that the Pride's first cruise ended with a lot of ranting in the "I-didn't-pay-$3,000-to-make-my-own-bed" vein. But after talking to dozens of other passengers, it seemed that the only people who ultimately let lots of little problems ruin their trip were, well, the kind of people who let lots of little problems ruin their trips. It was certainly possible to find people on board who were ignoring the cold eggs and happily grooving to the Pride's If-It's-Tuesday-It-Must-Be-Kauai routine.

The ship leaves Honolulu every Sunday, making the short steam over to Kauai for two days, then on to the Big Island for separate overnight stops at Hilo and Kona, followed by two days on Maui before landing back in Honolulu the following Sunday. In all, the ship spends more than half of the trip tied up at one pier or another. It's all about going ashore.

"It's the only way to do Hawaii for the first time," said Donna Derick, the yearly cruiser from Connecticut, on the ship's inaugural voyage. "Now we've been to all the islands, we've had a tour in every port and we know what we'd like to do when we come back."

Her highlights: the bus-based tour of Volcanoes National Park and Rainbow Falls out of Hilo, the ride through coral reefs off Kona in an air-conditioned, glass-sided submarine, and shopping in the old whaling town of Lahaina on Maui.

"We probably spent about $1,500 on tours, but they've all been good," said her husband. "We spent a lot more than that in Alaska."

NCL markets the shoreside events heavily -- passengers get a lush 130-page catalogue of options ranging from Kona coffee plantation tours to a rim walk around Maui's Haleakala crater to horseback trekking, ATV riding, snorkeling, diving, surfing, dolphin swimming, helicopter riding, sailing and shopping all over the four islands. The ship-sponsored activities all begin and end dockside, which sometimes causes a backup at the reboarding security lines when more than one bus pulls up at a time. But many passengers bypass the excursion catalogue altogether, instead renting cars for an independent day of touring. Hertz, Dollar and the others, no fools they, run constant shuttles from the pier to nearby airport rental stations.

"We've been getting a convertible at every port," said a windblown blonde with an armload of Hilo Hattie bags as she waited to pass through the gangway metal detectors at Hilo. "Today we drove up to Volcanoes, stopped for lunch, stopped to shop. It was just spectacular."

The Pride's itinerary is one that pushes the floating hotel concept to an extreme, basically relocating a thousand rooms from one island to another and turning 2,000 tourists loose each day. What's missing, on a ship that spends minimal amounts of time sailing and never leaves U.S. territorial waters, are such quintessential at-sea diversions as casinos, midnight buffets and nonstop bingo. There was, of course, a daily menu of bridge, trivia contests, crafts and kickboxing, but the choices are modest compared with the dozens-a-day offerings of other cruises.

At night, there are the usual magicians and comedians and splashy revues (and in fact, the shipboard entertainment got good marks even from the curmudgeons). And there was a deck party one night, where beaming staff lovelies in bare-midriff fiesta-wear led rows of Japanese tourists in the Electric Slide. But with shore excursions beginning near dawn the next morning, the crowd had thinned by 11 p.m.

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.

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.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company