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Imagine you bought a new house. You knew it was a fixer-upper, but with a little effort it'd be your dream house, right? So you hire a contractor. He seems like a nice guy and offers you a good deal. You sign on the dotted line.

Then the trouble starts. The contractor turns out to have been overoptimistic. Then, that big old oak in the backyard gets hit by lightning and takes out the whole second floor. To top it all off, the basement floods so bad you can use it as a swimming pool.

That's pretty much what happened to Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) during construction of Pride of America. Let's review the ship's looong, tangled history:

  • 1997: The U.S.-Flag Cruise Ship Pilot Project is enacted as public law, seeking to resuscitate cruise ship construction in the United States. The project mandates the building of two modern cruise ships at U.S. shipyards, to sail under the banner of American Classic Voyages, parent company of now-defunct American Hawaii Cruises and Delta Queen Steamship Company. As part of the deal, it's decided that AMC may re-flag existing foreign-flagged ships while the new U.S.-built vessels are under construction, and thus develop demand in the Hawaii cruise market.
  • October 2000: The keel is laid for "Project America 1" at Litton Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
  • July 2001: "Project America 1" is approximately 20% complete, though construction has fallen far behind schedule.
  • September 2001: Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
  • October 2001: American Classic Voyages declares bankruptcy. Work on Project America grinds to a halt.
  • August 2002: Norwegian Cruise Line acquires the incomplete hull of Project America 1 and parts intended for Project America 2. It begins petitioning Congress for a ruling that would allow it to complete the two vessels overseas yet still call them U.S.-built ships. This would put them in compliance with the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires ships to be built, flagged, and crewed in the United States if they are to provide service directly and solely between U.S. ports (i.e., without also visiting a foreign port as part of their itinerary).
  • November 2002: Project America 1 and all parts are towed by tugboat from Mississippi to the Lloyd Werft shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany.
  • January 2003: Congress passes the legislation, giving the green light to NCL to effectively take over the Hawaii cruise market in American Classic Voyages' place. The legislation also allows NCL to reflag a third, foreign-built ship and use it for inter-island Hawaii cruises.
  • May 2003: NCL announces the creation of NCL America, a Hawaii cruise operation that will encompass the two U.S.-flagged Project America vessels and the reflagged, foreign-built Norwegian Sky.
  • January 2004: A storm in Germany partially sinks the half-built Project America 1 (now named Pride of America) at its construction dock. The vessel floods up to deck 3.
  • May 2004: NCL reshuffles its fleet. Norwegian Sky is rushed into drydock and reemerges as Pride of Aloha.
  • July 4, 2004: Pride of Aloha sails her first Hawaii cruises, taking over what was originally intended to be Pride of America's inaugural year.
  • Mid- to late 2004: Damage assessments reveal that Pride of America has suffered no damage to her hull, though extensive work will be required to repair and replace equipment and interior fixtures, which were submerged for more than a month.
  • 2005: Pride of America leaves her dry dock in February and begins her final fitting out. In May she undergoes sea trails, and on June 7 she's officially delivered to NCL's fleet.

Pride of America's long, strange trip ended June 15 when she sailed into New York harbor for a series of inaugural events. And that's where we came into the picture.

All America, All the Time

Outside, Pride of America presents a massive, bull-headed profile, her superstructure reaching almost all the way to her bow. Balcony cabins extend all the way forward as well, with pricey suites located just below the bridge, some to port and starboard, some facing the bow with recessed, forward-facing balconies. On her hull, Pride's paintjob reflects her name, with red and blue banners and stars on the ship's white background, echoing both the American flag and the streamers ocean liner passengers used to toss from the decks to celebrate their departure.

The American theme continues once you step into the aptly named Capitol Atrium reception area, whose white marble floor bears the image of the Great Seal of the United States and whose main desk is backed by an image of the U.S. Capitol. Like many other public spaces aboard, the room emphasizes horizontal acreage over vertical. No nine-story atriums for NCL; instead, this one rises only two decks but is exceptionally wide open and spacious.

Unlike last year's Pride of Aloha, which is decorated in Hawaiian themes from stem to stern, Pride of America actually employs minimal Hawaiian imagery despite her intended year-round Hawaiian itineraries. Huge photo images of the islands adorn the landings of one stairtower, a small Hawaiian cultural display takes up a corner of the atrium's second floor, and pieces of small Hawaii-themed artwork adorn some walls, but otherwise the 50th state is represented mostly by island-patterned carpeting and upholsteries -- which are typically replaced every year or two on cruise ships. A hint that NCL might have non-Hawaii plans for the ship in future? Stay tuned, since her U.S.-flagged status means she's currently one of only two large cruise ships legally able to sail all-U.S. itineraries. For now at least you can enjoy Hawaii's own Kona Beer on tap in the (hmmm . . . ) Gold Rush Saloon, with its prospector decor. Shades of future Alaska sailings or shades of northern California? You decide.

Or, maybe it's just a theme. Elsewhere on board, aspects of U.S. history and regional culture are represented in the western motifs of the Lazy J Texas Steakhouse; the urban Art Deco themes of the Skyline Restaurant; the 1950s Happy Days-style Cadillac Diner; the festival motif of the Mardi Gras Cabaret Lounge; and the Little Italy Italian restaurant. Giant photographs of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Mt. Rainier, and other sites adorn the landings of a second stairtower, while manmade America has its say in a third, with photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chicago Skyline, the Vegas Strip, and Miami's Art Deco District. America, the ship (i.e., the old United States Line's vessel SS America) is the motif of the SS America Library, which holds memorabilia and artifacts of the vessel as well as a scale model built specifically for the room.

Americana -- in all its over-the-top glory -- is on display at the Liberty Restaurant, with its greeting statues of George Washington and Abe Lincoln, its stars-and-ribbons carpeting, its soaring-eagle-motif glass ceiling, its glass Mount Rushmore, and bunting-style curtains that give it the look of an old-time political rally. "Mister Chairman, the great state of New York casts all its votes for . . ."

All American Crew, All the Time

Like Pride of Aloha before her, and in compliance with the demands of her U.S. registry, Pride of America 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.

Unlike Pride of Aloha, however, which suffered well-publicized service shortcomings in her first few months of service, Pride of Aloha is extremely well run, her staff friendly, competent, familiar with the ship and her procedures, and apparently comfortable with the demands of long-hour cruise ship life. Credit NCL for setting up a new training center, bringing in outside professional trainers, and increasing the amount of training given all new staff. Credit also the fact that some 35% of Pride of America's current crew was brought over from Pride of Aloha -- a fact that reflects well on both vessels. In recognition of the importance of the ship's all-American crew, Pride of America's June 17 christening was presided over by U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, who formerly served as Chair of the Federal Maritime Commission and Deputy Maritime Administrator in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

All the Food You Can Eat -- American and Otherwise

Like the rest of NCL's modern fleet, Pride of America is all about the vittles. That's in keeping with the line's "Freestyle Cruising" concept, which tossed out cruise traditions like dress codes and traditional fixed-seating dining and lets passengers dine when they like, with whom they like. In addition to two main restaurants (the aforementioned Skyline Restaurant and the mucho Americano Liberty Restaurant) and the buffet (which includes spacious outdoor serving and seating areas), passengers can choose from several intimate, extra-cost options: the Lazy J Texas Steakhouse, where waiters serve in cowboy hats; Jefferson's Bistro, an elegant venue modeled after the president's home, Monticello, and serving French cuisine; and East Meets West, a pan-Asian restaurant with attached sushi/sashimi bar and teppanyaki room. For late-night cravings, the Cadillac Diner serves burgers, shakes, and other diner fare 24 hours, with additional seating right outside on the promenade deck -- a wonderful feature we wish more lines would offer.

Alternative, reservations-only restaurants carry a charge of $12.50 to $20 per person.

For pre- or after-dinner drinks, the ship offers three elegant options. The best is the Napa Wine Bar, which with its stone-pattern walls, box-shaped light fixtures, and light woods and upholsteries straddles the line between Napa Valley casual and hip 1950s lounge. Like the Cadillac Diner, the wine bar offers additional seating outdoors on the Promenade Deck.

Nearby, Pink's Champagne and Cigar Bar spans the width of the ship, with bright Hawaii-patterned carpeting and a contrastingly 19th-century casino-looking chandelier hovering above its piano-bar piano. Because of Hawaiian gambling laws, Pride of America has no casino. If they were to retrofit one in the future, this would make a likely spot.

On Deck 13, the small, intimate, and beautifully designed Lanai Bar & Lounge is the only top-deck lounge on the ship -- a far cry from the huge but rarely used observation lounges so typical in the cruise biz. (In its place is one of the largest dedicated meeting spaces at sea: See "Work, Work, Work," below for more info.)

Fun, Fun, Fun

Pride of America's pool deck, her central outdoor space, is a bit underwhelming, perhaps an admission that whatever the line came up with, it couldn't compete with Hawaii's beaches. Look to the deck above, however, for a couple of fun toys: a trampoline with bungee harness to keep you from flying over the side, and a "spaceball challenger" gyroscope in which passengers, suitably strapped in, can revolve 360 degrees in any direction, like astronauts in outer space. You can recover with a stay at the Santa Fe Spa, with its New Mexico decor, after-treatment relaxation area, and small outdoor "Oasis Pool."

For Kids, the Rascal's Kids Club offers an elaborate indoor jungle gym, a movie room full of beanbag chairs, computer terminals, a large play space, and a protected outdoor splash pool with tube-slide. Next door, the teen center is designed like an adult lounge, with a "bar," dance floor, and games.

Evening entertainment comes in the usual packages: song-and-dance revues at the Hollywood Theatre (its cute entryway painted with dozens of paparazzi angling to take passengers' pictures) and smaller-scale comedy, karaoke, dancing, and other entertainment at the Mardi Gras Lounge.

Work, Work, Work

Up on deck 13, the Diamond Head Auditorium and meeting rooms offer facilities for up to 550 participants, a gamble on NCL's part that Pride of America's U.S. registry -- and thus her qualification for both corporate and individual tax deductibility for meetings expenses -- will draw substantial business business. The auditorium itself is a huge, circular space seating 260, with large ceiling-mounted monitors and the option of partitioning the space into two separate presentation rooms. Five smaller meeting rooms can be used individually or combined. Next door, the Lanai Lounge is a perfect break room or after-meeting cocktail space.

Sleep, Sleep, Sleep

Continuing an NCL tradition, standard cabins on Pride of America are more New York apartment than Texas ranch house -- read: They tend to be on the small side. Inside cabins are only 132 square feet, while standard outsides (without balconies) are only 144. Storage space is limited to a single hanging closet with shelf space and wire baskets, plus several drawers in the main cabin. Bathrooms are adequately sized. All cabins have a dataport to accommodate laptop users. The word of the day is cozy.

New to the NCL fleet is a group of eight 360-square-foot Family Suites, each of which offers a separate living room with double sofa-bed and entertainment center, a separate den with a single sofa bed, a separate bedroom, and balcony.

The Verdict

Like Norwegian Dawn, Jewel, Spirit, and Star, Pride of America is a fun, well-done megaship with a mix of classy and fun spaces, a lively atmosphere, great kids' facilities, and more than enough restaurant and entertainment options to keep things interesting. It's full-on mainstream in a melting-pot, all-American, pass-the-burger-and-fries kind of way, and since that was probably the idea from the git-go, we give it an A for execution. Its U.S.A. imagery, though, often veers a little too close to theme park kitschiness (not to mention overabundance), knocking the overall karmic cruise-vibe-o-meter score down to a B or B+.

Now pass me one of those Kona Beers to wash it all down with, then let's see how it looks. Yum. God bless America.

The Itineraries

After a series of coastal sailings, Pride of America will arrive in her homeport of Honolulu on July 23, where she'll begin offering year-round 7-night inter-island cruises, spending one day at Hilo and another at Kona (both on the Big Island), two days at Kahului (Maui), and two at Nawiliwili (Kaua'i). Official prices start at just over $1,000 per person.

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