HONOLULU — The elderly German at our table, who spoke no English, looked up from his plate in surprise as the waiters and waitresses gathered in long rows at one end of the room, but his face lit up with understanding as they began to sing a medley of "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful," and he applauded as enthusiastically as everyone else at the finale.
And indeed, no one aboard the Independence in Hawaii--from those seated at the captain's table, where Commodore Harry T.Y. Wu beamed out from between the Stars and Stripes and the state flag of Hawaii, to the early morning joggers on deck, glancing up to watch the U.S. flag fluttering in the balmy trade winds of Hawaii--could have any doubt they were sailing on an American ship.
Commodore Wu, born in China and very proud of his American citizenship, asks his staff to sing the patriotic songs every week, and raises American flags all over the ship when it comes alongside in port.
"The passengers feel wonderful about it," Wu says, with a grin that suggests he also enjoys it himself.
Wu came over to American Hawaii's Independence "to give it the same spirit the Constitution has," and he seems to function as a combination of stern taskmaster and ebullient cheerleader for his staff. Until a few months ago, he had been captain of the sister ship Constitution from April 20, 1982, when it re-entered service after being rechristened by the late Princess Grace of Monaco. She had sailed on it in 1956 for her wedding to Prince Rainier, and is remembered with a lovely writing room which was renamed the Princess Grace Room.
Many of the Independence passengers, as well as those on the Constitution, which we also sailed on recently, are making not only their first cruise but also their first visit to Hawaii. A lot of them come from the Southeast and Midwest, and they love the all-American ambiance and the cheerful, casual camaraderie of the staff.
They sign up for at least one shore excursion everyday, from helicopter flights over Kauai's rugged Na Pali coast to all-day bus tours to the Big Island's volcanoes, and they come back on board every night with enough enthusiasm to perform in the passenger talent show or hula to "Bali Hai" in a shipboard version of "South Pacific" reminiscent of summer camp.
Some of them are a little bewildered that there is no casino, not even a slot machine on board (Hawaii's state laws forbid it), but the grandiose midnight buffet on Thursday nights with its ice carvings and spun sugar and roast suckling pig has them lined up eagerly, flash cameras in hand, only an hour after second-sitting passengers have gotten up from dinner.
A Few Flaws Found
This is not the slick world of party cruises or Caribbean suntan-and-shopping marathons, nor is it the vanishing bittersweet elegance of transatlantic crossings like "Affair to Remember" (which, incidentally, was filmed aboard the Constitution). Fastidious veterans of the world cruise scene would probably find a few flaws. While the menus, identical for both ships, read well enough and offer a choice of three main dishes nightly, the cooking itself is uninspired; some of the recipes might have come from airline flight kitchens.
Shipboard wine and bar prices do not yet reflect the recently reduced Hawaii state beverage tax, with standard brands of spirits priced from $2.25 to $3 a drink, domestic beer and very modest house wines $1.75 a glass. While dining rooms and show lounges are divided into smoking and nonsmoking areas, we searched in vain for nonsmoking areas in the other bars. ("We don't have anything like that," said a bar waitress in the Independence's Latitude 20 Lounge.)
The entertainers aboard are chipper but nothing to send a post card home about, except for island dance troupes which come aboard in port, and the cruise staffs are pleasantly energetic with a penchant for yodeling out "A-lowww-HAHHH" at frequent intervals.
But all these are minor shortcomings compared to the joy of seeing the lush green islands of Hawaii from the decks of these ships. Both sail on Saturday evenings from Honolulu's Aloha Tower in a balmy breeze, with passengers on deck dancing to the music of an earlier day, and both spend Sundays at sea cruising around Molokai and Lanai. The remaining daylight hours of the weeklong cruise are spent in port in Hilo and Kona on the Big Island, in Lihue, Muai and Nawiliwili, Kauai.
Cabins are comfortable and fairly spacious, and both ships are undergoing redecoration. Only the perfunctory bathrooms give away their origins as 1950s troop carriers. Wheelchair-bound passengers can manage only with some assistance, since cabin and bathroom doors are narrow, but elevators are wide and move efficiently, and ramps are placed throughout the public areas.