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They said it couldn't be done. That was back in 2002, and cruise industry experts were saying that NCL was nuts. Operate a small fleet of U.S.-flagged ships? Hire all American crew? And dedicate it all to year-round Hawaii cruises? Humbug.

But now, four years later, it's all pretty much worked out the way NCL planned.

A bit of history: The Passenger Vessel Services Act, which became U.S. law in 1886, forbids passenger ships from operating itineraries entirely within U.S. waters (for instance, sailing from New York to Miami with stops in Baltimore and Charleston) unless they're built in the United States, owned by a U.S. entity, registered and flagged in the U.S., and manned by a U.S. crew. The law was originally designed to protect U.S. shipping interests from foreign competition, but in modern times -- with U.S. cruise lines commonly building, flagging, and manning their vessels overseas -- its effect has been that vessels sailing the coastal U.S. have had to visit a foreign port as part of their itineraries, even if that port isn't terribly interesting. Why do you think so many ships sail to Nassau?

Enter NCL. In late 2002, the company acquired the unfinished hulls of two ships whose construction had been started in the U.S. by now-bankrupt American Classic Voyages. Intense lobbying in Congress led to a deal in which NCL was able to have these vessels completed at a German shipyard yet still sail under the U.S. flag. As part of the fine print, NCL was also able to reflag the foreign-built Norwegian Sky, renaming it Pride of Aloha and operating it under the company's new U.S.-flag brand, NCL America. That ship debuted in July 2004 and went through several tough months as NCL worked out the kinks involved in hiring and training more than 1,000 new crewmembers, almost none of whom had ever worked aboard a ship before.

One year later, the company introduced Pride of America, the first of the Project America vessels to see the light of day. Themed after her name, America is a shipboard tour of the USA, with decorative themes and art all evoking the country's history and regional cultures.

And now, less than a year later, comes the best of the bunch, the 92,100-ton, 2,400-passenger Pride of Hawai'i.

Which Came First, the Cruise Ship or the Attitude?

To understand Pride of Hawai'i, it helps to understand NCL.

Formed in 1966 as an alliance between Norwegian ship owner Knut Knutson and Israeli marketing genius Ted Arison (who later started Carnival Cruises), NCL spent many years relegated to the industry's backseat behind biggies Carnival and Royal Caribbean. In the late 1990s, though, things began to change. The line started building new ships. It was bought by Malaysia-based Star Cruises. It built more ships. It took the rule book and threw it out the window. Who, it asked, said that cruises had to follow the same formula they had for decades? Do people really need to dress up for dinner? No. Do they really have to eat all at the same time? No. Why not just let them do what they want, and change procedures to make that happen? Why not indeed.

The result has been to turn NCL into probably the most mainstream of the mainstream lines these days -- and I mean that in a good way. At a time when even Carnival is pushing the quote/unquote "luxury" elements of its onboard program, NCL hews to the center, with always-casual dining (and lots of it); bright, cheerful decor that often makes the ships look like playrooms for adults; fun innovations; and an always-casual, laid-back atmosphere. There's no pretense whatsoever. What you see is what you get. In a nutshell? NCL is the kind of cruise line you want to sit down and have a beer with.

So Let's Take a Little Tour . . .

Despite their both having been born as elements of Project America, Pride of Hawai'i and Pride of America are not sister-ships. Instead, NCL used the steel intended for Project America 2 and crafted a sister-ship to its other recent newbuilds: Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Star, and Norwegian Dawn. In terms of layout, Pride of Hawai'i is, in fact, almost a carbon copy of Jewel, though her Hawaii-centric decor and lack of a casino (a mandate of Hawaiian law) sets her apart vividly.

Like Norwegian Jewel before her, though, Pride of Hawai'i gets straight A's for innovation and flat-out fun.

Want dining choice? Like the rest of NCL's recent newbuilds, Hawai'i has ten different restaurants, offering experiences from ultra-casual to pseudo-formal. The main formal restaurant, the Grand Pacific, is decorated to resemble the gilded dining rooms of the old luxury liners, with wood paneling, deco lighting, and paintings from Hawaiian history and legend lining the walls. Cagney's Steakhouse is a faux-1930s-style meatery serving about a dozen main courses, from a king-cut 14-ounce rib eye or 24-ounce porterhouse to grilled mahi mahi and whole butter-poached Maine lobster. Le Bistro serves French cuisine, Jasmine Garden Asian (with attached sushi bar and teppanyaki room), and Papa's Italian Kitchen Italian, with a family-style atmosphere and long bench seating.

Other options include a casual joint for burgers and fish-and-chips, a Mexican/tapas restaurant, a second main formal restaurant, a casual indoor/outdoor buffet, and a coffee bar serving good cappuccino and (at least when I was aboard) delicious little chocolate croissants. Yum.

As aboard all NCL ships, passengers can dine at any of the ship's restaurants anytime during multi-hour lunch and dinner windows. To help passengers determine how busy the various restaurants are, Pride of Hawai'i is outfitted with large computerized "billboard" screens. Placed outside restaurants and in various public areas, each displays a listing of every restaurant on board, its status (open/closed), the type of food it serves, its atmosphere (with photos), how busy it is at that particular moment, how close it is to filling up, and how long a wait there will be if it is filled up. For those who don't like to plan too far ahead, it's a great boon: You can head out for the evening and just decide where to dine on the fly. Maitre d's at every restaurant can take reservations at any of the other restaurants too, so if one looks like it's filling up you won't have to sprint to catch that last table -- just amble to the nearest restaurant and have them call ahead for you. The same system is already in place aboard Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Spirit, and Pride of America, and will eventually be rolled out across the NCL fleet. A new website and in-cabin TV system are both in the works, and will allow passengers to book dining times either before their cruise or from their cabins.

For after-dinner -- or heck, anytime -- socializing, Hawai'i has a dozen different bars and clubs aboard, including a personal favorite carried over from Norwegian Jewel: a well-stocked, fully functional, kick-ass beer bar that gives most landsmen's pubs a run for their money. Dubbed Tankards Beer and Whiskey Bar, it's a stylish room with comfortable leather chairs and a giant faux still for ambience. On each table are two menus: one for beer and another for whiskey. The beer menu features some out-and-out fantastic brews, such as Coopers Stout, Sam Adams Cream Stout, Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, Pete's Wicked Honey Wheat, and, on draft, Murphy's Stout, Dos Equis, Bass, Stella Artois, and others. All told, there are 46 brews from which to choose, plus a small selection of meads and two non-alcoholic beers. Based on the results my thoroughly unscientific poll of the cruise industry's suds, this list puts Maltings in the #1 position industry-wide for beer selection, beating out the former champ, Cunard's QM2, by about ten brands.

The whiskey menu has a selection of 23 single-malt Scotches (including a number from the Orkney Islands, the Isle of Skye, and the Isle of Mull), seven blended Scotches, nine Irish Whiskeys, seven Canadian whiskeys, and 17 American bourbons including the great George Dickel No. 12.

Maltings is one of three bars clustered aft on deck 6, each separate in theme but connected by a long, serpentine bar. Next door, Mixers Martini & Cocktail Bar is done up in a jet-set theme, while Magnum's Champagne & Wine Bar has a vague art nouveau theme. Up top on deck 13, just next door to the steakhouse, the Star Bar is an elegant spot to wait for your reservation. Out in the sun, just above the pool deck, the Balitlai Bar & Grill serves beer, frosty drinks, and burgers, taro burgers, chicken wings, and other bar food.

On deck 7, the Medusa Cabaret is decorated in an "under the sea" theme, with shell-shaped lights, jellyfish motifs on the supporting pillars, and video screens showing swimming fish, like virtual aquariums. The room is a venue for public karaoke, while three smaller rooms off to the side offer private karaoke ("In case mass humiliation isn't your thing," according to Andy Stuart, the line's VP of marketing and sales) on a first-come, first-served basis. The three rooms, all with monochromatic color schemes, come with their own karaoke systems and a clutch of 70s-style mod furnishings. On deck 13, the Spinnaker Lounge is your classic cruise ship observation lounge cum disco, with dancing in the evenings. As with other recent NCL ships, it's partially furnished with incredibly fun free-form furniture, including undulating orange lounges and chairs that look like a cross between a sea anemone and Barney the purple dinosaur. Too fun.

A large two-deck theater and an entertainment stage in the Aloha Atrium round out the indoor entertainment choices.

In the stern on deck 7, the huge shopping center is surprisingly fun, stocked with Hawaii-centric clothes, knickknacks, and even a selection of Hawaiian music and books, including classics like Mark Twain in Hawaii, Jack London's Stories of Hawaii, and books on Hawaiian history, religion, legends, cooking, and royalty.

Toward midship, the large pool deck is decorated in NCL's now-signature small-c carnivalesque style, with carousel-style awnings above the hot tubs, a waterfall-fed pool, lampposts in the shape of palm trees, and a large waterslide that's fun for all ages. ("That's absolutely the easiest and cheapest way to keep kids entertained morning and night," says the line's president and CEO, Colin Veitch. "Adults too.")

At the forward end of the pool deck, the fitness center is large and extremely well-appointed, with dozens of fitness machines and a large aerobics/spinning room. Further forward, the Ying & Yang Health Spa features twenty treatment rooms (three designed for couples' treatments); a relaxation area with heated, tiled lounge chairs and a whirlpool with massage jets and underwater recliners; and separate men's and women's thermal suites featuring hot tubs, scented mist showers, and oceanview saunas.

Cabins shipwide are decorated with bright Hawaiian colors, wood paneling, and enough storage space for a week in the tropics -- which is exactly what you need. At the top of the food chain is the sprawling Garden Villa, a concept first introduced aboard Norwegian Star in 2001. Covering an almost incomprehensible 4,390 square feet, they featured private gardens, three separate bedrooms, separate living rooms, extravagant baths, full kitchens, and private butler service. Amazing what money will buy -- and I mean lots of money.

One step down, but equally extravagant and much more social, are the ten smaller Courtyard Villas. Positioned on the same top-of-the-ship deck as the Garden Villas, they offer spacious suite accommodations coupled with access to a villa-guests-only courtyard, a staffed concierge lounge, and a private sundeck with hammocks and shaded wicker daybeds. The courtyard is a stunner, with a small private swimming pool; hot tub; several plush, shaded sunbeds; seating areas with curtained partitions; plants and trees; a small private gym; and a retractable sunroof. Suites (which due to safety regulations open to a hallway around the courtyard rather than right into it) are also knockouts. Each offers a separate bedroom and living/dining room; a huge, gorgeously appointed bathroom with oceanview whirlpool tub and shower; large private balcony; and floor space that ranges up to 660 square feet. The larger Courtyard Penthouses also offer a separate children's room with fold-out couch bed and second bath.

The Folks That Make Hawai'i Tick

Like Pride of Aloha and Pride of America before her, and in compliance with the demands of her U.S. registry, Pride of Hawai'i is staffed entirely by U.S. personnel -- a startling departure from the cruise industry's foreign-staff norm. The first time a bartender asks, "Hey, how ya doin'?" you get a weird little jolt of unreality, like somehow you took a wrong turn on your way to the ship and ended up in your neighborhood hangout instead. On the one hand, it takes away some of the sense of "travel" you get with an international crew; on the other, you are in Hawaii, and Hawaii is in the United States, so when in Rome . . .

After the staffing debacle that attended NCL's first Hawaii foray in 2004, the company set up a new training center, brought in outside professional trainers, and increased the amount of training given all new staff, so both Pride of America and now Pride of Hawai'i were able to debut with a much more polished, professional staff in place. Part of the credit for this can be placed on sheer numbers: Now that NCL America has been in operation for two years, it can draw from a large pool of trained staff. For Hawai'i's debut, fully 50 percent of the crew had already worked aboard Pride of Aloha or Pride of America, while newbies had gone through roughly sixty days of screening and training.

Recruiting and training their all-U.S. staff has been, according to CEO Veitch, "like eating an elephant: You do it mouthful by mouthful, piece by piece." But the results show.

And the Judges Say . . .

Pride of Hawai'i is NCL's most fully successful ship to date, the apotheosis of everything the company has been working toward for the past decade. She's stylish, comfortable, and above all fun, and is definitely the megaship of choice in the Hawaii market. We give her a solid five-star rating. Good going, NCL.

Pride of Hawai'i sails year-round inter-island Hawaii cruises from Honolulu, visiting Hile (Big Island), Kahalui (Maui, two days), Kona (Big Island), and Nawiliwili (Kauai, two days). Published prices start from $999 per person (double occupancy), though rates as low as $799 are sometimes available.

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