A newcomer is sailing the waters around Hawaii. Until late last year, American Hawaii's Independence and United States Lines' Patriot, both operated by American Classic Voyages, were the players. But American Classic Voyages filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in October and ceased service. Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Star entered the picture.
The only catch: Norwegian Cruise Line is a foreign-flag ship, so it is required by federal law to call at a foreign port in the middle of a cruise that begins and ends in Hawaii. The ship's itinerary each week allows a passenger to board in Honolulu on Sunday, call in Kona on Monday, spend Tuesday at sea, sightsee Wednesday in the Republic of Kiribati, spend Thursday at sea on the way back to Hawaii, call in Lahaina on Maui on Friday, spend Saturday in Nawiliwili, Kauai, and return to Honolulu on Sunday morning. Passengers may also board in Maui on Friday and disembark there the next Friday.
The Star called in Los Angeles in early December on its way to its year-round home port of Honolulu, and we joined about 1,000 travel agents and media representatives for a three-day cruise off the California coast.
The 2,200-passenger, 91,000-ton Star has 10 restaurants, and in the casual spirit of the Hawaiian Islands, a passenger need never don a tie, let alone a tuxedo.
About 18 months ago, Norwegian Cruise Line introduced "freestyle cruising," aimed at a younger traveler who doesn't like structured, traditional cruising.
NCL has abolished the idea of assigned dinnertimes and tables or, as senior vice president of sales and marketing Andy Stuart says, "spending the whole week in one restaurant with one waiter." Instead, passengers may eat when and where they please, but sometimes paying a surcharge for the privilege and usually needing a reservation for the popular times and venues. They also are automatically billed $10 a day per person for gratuities (except for children younger than 4) but may make adjustments to this amount by telling the reception desk.
Traditional dress codes are gone. There are no designated formal or semiformal nights. Instead passengers wear what they please, within limits. "We enforce our rules of no jeans, no T-shirts and no baseball caps at dinner," Stuart says. "Before, we had a dress code but didn't enforce it. [The new system] has actually smartened up the dress in the evening."
Another popular feature of freestyle cruising, Stuart says, is that passengers need not vacate their cabins early on departure morning but may occupy them until they want to disembark. (The only requirement is that passengers leave the ship while customs and immigration officials are still on duty.)
The Norwegian Star should delight cruisers in Hawaii who were accustomed to smaller, older vessels. All cabins include two lower beds that can convert to queen size, a divided bath with large shower, TV, mini-refrigerator, safe, hair dryer and coffee maker.
The less expensive accommodations measure as much as 170 square feet, the standard industry size for new ships, adequate but not spacious. Inside (windowless) cabins start at a brochure price of $1,629 per person, double occupancy, for a seven-day cruise; an outside cabin with window but no balcony starts at $1,789 per person, double. Early booking discounts may lower those fares considerably; ask your travel agent.
Mini-suites and suites range from 229 to 5,802 square feet. The latter two are jaw-dropping suites, each with its own living room and dining room; three separate bedrooms, each with a luxury bath whose glass walls face the ocean; and private rooftop terrace and garden with gazebo, outdoor dining table, whirlpool spa and sunbathing area. Each villa is priced at $28,000 for the seven-day cruise. It can accommodate six adults and even a child or two on sofas or foldaway beds, so this could be the ultimate luxury getaway for a small group of family or friends.
The 10 restaurants include two large dining rooms, the opulent Versailles and the cool and elegant Aqua, each with its own menu; the Market Cafe buffet and the Blue Lagoon food court, both open 24 hours; La Trattoria, a casual red-checkered-tablecloth Italian evening eatery tucked into the corner of the Market Cafe; and Las Ramblas Tapas Bar & Restaurant, serving Spanish-style appetizers. These restaurants are free to passengers, and only La Trattoria requires a reservation.
Four other eateries serve dinner with surcharges that start at $10 per person. They include Endless Summer, a big, airy restaurant serving Hawaiian food; Ginza, an Asian restaurant with a sushi bar; and Le Bistro, with traditional French dishes and tableside service. The SoHo Room offers high-end contemporary cuisine a la carte or a fixed meal for $14 without wine, $25 with a glass of wine served with each of three courses.
There are ice cream bars, hamburger grills, indoor and outdoor bars and lounges, including an English pub with giant sports TV and karaoke rooms.