Avid Cruiser Voyages: Hawaii

Ask a few people about their idea of the quintessential island paradise, and it’s only a matter of time before Hawaii comes up. Located in the central Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands are graced with a temperate climate characterized by warm temperatures and long sunny days punctuated by spectacular sunrises and sunsets. By all accounts, Hawaii sounds as if it was tailor-made for cruising, and in our minds, it was, offering up one of the most astonishingly beautiful voyages on the Avid Cruiser Voyages lineup. But Hawaii is not easy to cruise, and to understand the issues cruise lines (and passengers) face in Hawaii, you have to go back nearly a century.

Hawaii offers a unique cruise experience, with a few twists. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

In the early part of the last century, the United States Government passed a law known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Designed to support the maritime industry in the United States, the Act (which is also known less formally as the Jones Act) stipulates that only ships built in the United States, flagged in the United States, and crewed by citizens of the United States can operate between two US ports. Any foreign-crewed or flagged vessels departing from a port in the United States must first call on a “distant foreign port” before they are allowed to return to a US port.

If that sounds complicated, here’s where things get really messy: Nearly every modern cruise ship afloat is built in a foreign country, typically Finland, France, Germany or Italy. It’s not because they cost less to build there (the Euro has proven that), rather, it’s because the Europeans have the technical know-how to bring these enormous vessels out on time and on budget.

Honolulu, Hawaii serves as a popular port of call, and port of embarkation for Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

The cruise lines run into more problems on the staffing front, as nearly every cruise ship afloat employs an international staff, and the ships themselves are typically flagged in places like the Bahamas or Panama.

Taken as a whole, it means if any cruise line wants to operate voyages to Hawaii, it must do so from West Coast ports like Los Angeles or San Diego, in order to make a technical “service stop” in a distant foreign port – in this case, Ensenada, Mexico. Every cruise line, that is, except for one.

In 2002, Norwegian Cruise Line hit upon a stroke of genius: It purchased the unfinished hull of a ship under construction in the United States originally intended for a bankrupt cruise line. Then, the cruise line received permission to have it towed across the Atlantic to be finished at the Lloyd Werft yards in Germany, yet still retain its original US-flagged status. She would become the Pride of America when launched.

Norwegian Sky, still in her Pride of Aloha paint job, was critical to the success of Hawaiian cruising for NCL - despite a rocky start. Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Norwegian Cruise Line also lobbied the US government for an exception to the Passenger Vessel Services Act, a co-rider to the Jones Act, to allow the existing, 1999-built Norwegian Sky to be reflagged and re-crewed in the United States. Norwegian Sky was renamed Pride of Aloha and allowed to make her first voyage – a cruise from San Francisco to her new homeport of Honolulu, with no intermediary stop in between.

What happened next is the stuff that cruise executives around the world have nightmares about.

Pride of Aloha’s first voyages were nothing short of disastrous. The American-based crews didn’t have the same service-oriented attitudes as typical crewmembers from other parts of the world, and many of the American workers abandoned the ship when it reached Honolulu. The first cruise, with press and paying passengers aboard, ended in failure, with guests railing against the numerous service issues on the ship. Despite the overall high ratings for the itinerary, it would take NCL the remainder of the decade to re-establish its brand in the region.

Pride of America: the only large cruise ship in the world able to operate Hawaiian voyages roundtrip from Honolulu. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Today, Pride of America offers weeklong cruises that depart roundtrip from Honolulu. The service issues are gone, replaced with a more international (though still heavily American) crew, better food, and better service than before. Though distinct in appearance on the outside, Pride of America is beautiful, warm and inviting on the inside, and her interior décor reflects the diversity of her adopted homeland. In just a single week, passengers aboard her can visit Maui, Hilo, Kona, Kauai, and of course, Honolulu, with many overnight stays in port to sample the local nightlife that is part and parcel of any Hawaiian visit.

The biggest attraction of all is that you can sail aboard Pride of America at any time; Norwegian Cruise Line has her deployed here year-round.

Pride of America's beautiful interior spaces are designed to reflect the vast country in which she sails. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

But if you crave some relaxation to and from your Hawaiian adventure, the “classic” Hawaiian cruise is still alive and well. These typically depart from Los Angeles or San Diego, but can even operate roundtrip from as far away as Vancouver, Canada. Four to five days at sea are coupled with a four to five day stay in Hawaii, then five glorious days crossing the Pacific Ocean before performing a service stop in Ensenada, which Vancouver-based sailings are exempt from. These sailings are more sparse, and typically make up the winter months of October to April. Some cruise lines do “double duty,” operating Hawaiian voyages interspersed with Mexican Riviera sailings, so if you have the time, you can do both.

There's nothing quite like sunsets in Hawaii. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Whether you choose to sail roundtrip from Honolulu or extend your voyage by embarking on the mainland, Hawaii offers a wealth of activities, shopping and cultural experiences that are sure to delight any cruiser. Because of this, a Hawaiian voyage can be ideal for large family reunions and get-togethers.

After all, who doesn’t like sun, sand, and cruising?