Hilo, Hawaii — After a morning hike over the lumpy black lava that had engulfed roads and towns, spilled into the ocean and formed new earth, our small group was headed back in a van to the Pride of Aloha, docked in this small town on the Big Island's east coast.
"So how's the service on the ship?" asked Dominic Vea, our guide.
There was silence. Then someone said, "Not bad." Another responded, "Had better."
Vea said he had heard that passengers bailed out on a sailing earlier in the summer because of poor service and unsanitary conditions. "It's nicknamed the 'Shame of Aloha,' but it's getting better," he said. "At first all I heard were complaints, but each week now it's not as bad."
The next day, in Kona on the Big Island, I took a walking tour of historic Kailua village with guide Desmond Cagampang, a native islander with a passion for Hawaiian history. At the end of the tour, he invoked a prayer in Hawaiian for our safe sailing and then followed up: "You may not have good service, I hear, but please give them a chance. They're American kids. Once the kids learn, they'll be good. I opened a hotel in 1959. I didn't know anything, but we worked and became the best."
Since it started sailing in Hawaii on July 4, the Pride of Aloha has become the talk of the islands -- and the passengers. In the first two months, negative comments about the service, sanitation and food reached such a pitch that the line, NCL America, apologized to passengers, refunded part of the mandatory daily $10-per-adult service charge and gave a 20% credit on a future cruise. In late August the line suspended the $10 fee until the service meets its standards. When it is reinstated, passengers will be able to reduce or remove it, said NCL America spokeswoman Susan Robison.
Hawaii is a potentially lucrative cruising ground but not an easy one, particularly in today's competitive market. Only U.S.-flagged ships can sail solely within the islands, and the last such operation that sailed here struggled throughout the 1990s and declared bankruptcy after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
NCL America, too, has had setbacks with its start-up. The Pride of America, the first newly built large cruise ship to fly the U.S. flag in 50 years, was scheduled to debut in July, but it was flooded in the shipyard and delayed. The Pride of Aloha, formerly sister NCL's Norwegian Sky, was rushed into refurbishment to meet the launch deadline. Nevertheless, NCL America has high hopes for the Hawaiian market and is planning to add two new ships over the next two years.
For now, the 2,002-passenger Pride of Aloha is the only large cruise ship to sail with an American crew within the Hawaiian Islands. Other large ships catering to the U.S. market are foreign-flagged and sail with foreign crews, and, because of U.S. maritime laws, they must stop at a foreign port. (See Cruise News, Page 10.)
It's an expensive move for NCL America. For one thing, U.S. ships must pay federal and state taxes that foreign-flagged carriers do not. Because Hawaii does not allow gambling, the Pride of Aloha cannot have a casino or offer bingo, losing a major onboard moneymaker. And U.S.-flagged ships must abide by U.S. labor and wage laws, which mandate higher pay than on foreign-flagged ships.
It's a more costly cruising market for passengers too. Discounted fares for an inside cabin on the Pride of Aloha run about $1,000 and higher per person for seven days. NCL's foreign-flagged Norwegian Wind has fares starting at less than $1,000 per person for its 10- and 11-day Hawaii itineraries, which include a foreign-port visit. Caribbean cruises of the same length are often discounted to less than $700 per person.
Cabins meant for closeness
All new cruises go through a shakedown process, so I waited several months before seeing how the Pride of Aloha was doing. I bought my fare through a discounter and sailed Sept. 19 on a full ship.
The ship departs from Honolulu each Sunday evening on a seven-day sailing, and as bon voyage parties go, mine was a winner. The barbecue on the pool deck was tasty, and the setting couldn't be beat -- the twinkling lights of skyscrapers at dusk after a rain shower. Next to the Aloha Tower, a landmark that has greeted cruise passengers since the 1920s, Hawaiians strumming ukuleles and dancing the hula bade the ship farewell. A rainbow arced over the scene.
It was much better than the foul odor that greeted me in the corridor to my cabin. Wet towels, an attendant said, as I noticed a couple of cabin doors open for rooms to air. Smelled worse to me. The odor grew fainter but lingered until two days later, when I noticed a cabin door open and the room stripped to the bare floor to get rid of the carpeting. Problem solved.
Two problems I had in my cabin -- the sink faucet sprayed water on the countertop, and the light was out in the bathroom -- were taken care of by maintenance personnel in quick order.