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Come Aboard My Hawaiian Cruise
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Editor's Note: In early 2008, NCL transferred Pride of Hawaii to Europe, renaming it Norwegian Jade. According to the line, the dramatic move came as the result of "substantial 2006 losses." Pride of Aloha, referenced in the piece, has also since been moved out of Hawaii. That ship has been given its original moniker of Norwegian Sky and will sail short Bahamas cruises out of Miami.

For this East Coaster (and veteran Caribbean traveler), Hawaii has long felt exotic, tropical and mysterious. Chalk that up to the gorgeous images you see everywhere of voluptuous women swaying in grass skirts, deserted beaches framed by palm trees, and the towering resort hotels that line Honolulu's Waikiki Beach.

It's also easy to figure pop culture into Hawaiian fantasies: Who can forget Elvis Presley in "Blue Hawaii," or the 14-year run of CBS' "Hawaii Five-O"? What other destination lays claim to "The Brady Bunch" (the Hawaiian episodes were some of the classic sitcom's most popular) and "Mama's Family" (everyone finds love in paradise during a two-part special after Mama wins the trip on "Jeopardy!")?

Then there's the music -- falsetto vocals and dramatic sliding and plucking on the slack-key guitar -- which instantly evokes a dreamy, relaxed state. But what truly sold me on the long trek to Hawaii from New York (it is an equally long -- if not longer -- journey for those elsewhere on the East Coast and in the Midwest) is its resurgence as a place to cruise.

While cruise lines have long visited Hawaii, most sailings depart from a West Coast port (such as Vancouver, Seattle and San Diego), make the five- or six-day (all at sea) trek to the islands, spend a few days in the actual region, and then return back to the U.S. Total time? Fifteen days or so. I don't have that much time to spend on just one getaway. Plus, as much as I love the occasional sea day, my reason for cruising Hawaii was to see Hawaii -- not sail a multi-day Pacific crossing.

And that's where Norwegian Cruise Line comes in. Via its U.S.-flagged subsidiary, NCL America, it's able to offer seven-night voyages roundtrip from Honolulu that focus on ports of call (with nary a sea day in sight).

For me, the choice was between its two principal seven-day vessels: the relatively new Pride of America and the even newer Pride of Hawaii, just launched in 2006; Pride of Aloha, its first NCL America ship, will be transitioning to a longer itinerary. Both were created and designed with Hawaii in mind (lots of cabins with balconies, cultural themes, etc.). I love the line's ultra-flexible Freestyle Cruising concept, which allows passengers to dine when, where and with whom they choose. And the shore excursion program seemed to be exceptional, with a wide variety of active excursions from surfing (more on that later) to biking down the side of a volcano.

The deal clincher was the chance to book one of the ships' Courtyard Villas. These special staterooms are tucked into an exclusive "boutique hotel" scenario within the vessel, perfect for families needing an all-encompassing suite or, as in our case, romantics who want to indulge in a bit of luxury.

Ironically, the trip didn't unfold precisely as planned (yes, quite like life itself). Due to work issues, Mike, my fiance, was forced to bag on the trip and I wound up sailing solo.

Setting out on the trip I naturally had concerns mingled with anticipation. Does Freestyle Cruising coddle single travelers -- or leave them out in the cold? Would the promise of derring-do in the shore excursion catalog deliver on my expectations? Would I feel lost in my suite, complete with separate living and sleeping quarters? And would this do-it-yourselfer who is more comfortable using a ship's launderette than sending bare necessities out for cleaning adapt to butler service? (Well, I'll answer that one right off the bat ... damn straight I did!)

And, ultimately, did Hawaii itself meet my high level of expectation?

Come aboard....

Planning Ahead: Don't Skip Out on Oahu

Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, is the typical embarkation port for inter-island voyages -- especially my trademark seven-night itinerary on Pride of Hawaii. In my pre-travel research, I learned that a lot of passengers skip out on Oahu and its myriad attractions, flying in the day of embarkation and flying out the day we return.

What a waste! I wanted to see more than just the airport and cruise terminal, so I added a two-night hotel stay. To get the best possible feel for the island, I decided to head to its North Shore for one night (famous for its surfing), and then back to the urban yet beach-y Waikiki for another (imagine an American Rio de Janeiro).

Why not hit the asphalt in style? Amidst such gorgeous natural beauty, I felt the urge to splurge on a convertible. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face as I drove the country roads between the North Shore and Waikiki on my own time. I booked a rental car in advance on Hertz's Web site from their new "Fun Collection" -- a premium line of roadsters, convertibles and even Hummer H3's. In fact, it couldn't be easier to rent a car at every stop in Hawaii; agencies operate in each port (though you may need to take a shuttle to a nearby airport). But supplies, so to speak, can be limited (and prices high) so book before leaving home.

Tip: In ports where ships often overnight (on Pride of Aloha, Pride of America and Pride of Hawaii that would be Kauai's Nawiliwili and Maui's Kahului) you can rent your car for two days -- and park at or near the cruise terminal overnight.

Hawaiian Immersion on the North Shore

After picking up my white Mazda Miata at the airport, I immediately learned a lesson: Unless you are traveling alone with one small bag, ask for something with more trunk space (like the Ford Mustang or Toyota Solara), or arrange to pick up your speedy, sexy car after dropping your stuff off at your hotel. Try as I might I could not fit my rolling suitcase (Pepto-Bismol pink -- it's an eye-catcher!) in the anorexic backend of the Miata. It sat shotgun, wearing a seatbelt, of course. There wouldn't have been room for Mike if he did come!

Top down and radio tuned to Hawaiian melodies, my suitcase and I set off from Honolulu for the North Shore. While you can drive via freeway through the center of the island, as the GPS on my cell phone suggested, I consulted Hertz's map to find a more scenic route. You can circumvent the entire island on a two-lane road that hugs the coast (mostly Kamehameha Highway; it changes route numbers along the way) in about four hours, or do the semi-circle -- my choice -- from the Waikiki Beach area to the North Shore in two or less.

I chose the North Shore, a collection of small villages and low-key beaches, because I thought it would offer immediate immersion into Hawaiian culture. There are few big resorts aside from Turtle Bay, which in addition to its enviable location on 880 oceanfront acres also boasts one of the nation's top golf courses (many televised tourneys are broadcast from there!). It didn't hurt that the normally pricey resort was offering a $199 per-room special, which I found on their Web site.

All along this route are scenic lookouts and beaches where you pull over, park your vehicle next to other rented Jeeps and convertibles, and take pictures or simply sit and enjoy the scenery. The most memorable part of the drive was stopping just before sunset at a quiet, deserted stretch of beach. As the sun dipped behind the palm trees and below the water, the entire sky turned pink and then purple.

Next Stop: Waikiki

On the road again toward Waikiki, stop two of my two-night pre-cruise stay, roadside stands along Kamehameha Highway beckoned, offering freshly caught seafood (prawns and shrimp mostly, but also crab and mussels). You can judge who's good by the lines that stretch around the wooden shacks. Most menus offer some variation of shrimp (or larger prawns). The crustaceans are cooked to order on a grill in sauces; garlic and sweet and spicy are two common offerings. All platters come with rice to soak up the extra juice.

After leaving Oahu's bucolic and rural side behind, arrival in Waikiki was a bit of a culture shock. The beach scene comprises mile after mile of families with kids in inner tubes and active types toting snorkel gear, kayaks and canoes compared to just a handful of beach bums and surfers. Tourist playground Waikiki is like a big city that just happens to be on the water: a place to see and be seen, shop and eat, soak up sun by day and hit the clubs by night -- definitely a more energetic vibe.

As well, Waikiki Beach is chock-a-block with nationally known resorts, from the big-budget Halekulani (a great choice for couples) to family-friendly properties like the Hilton Hawaiian Village. But I picked the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort for a couple of reasons. First, Hertz has an office right in the lobby, which meant I could drop off my rental there (you don't want to be saddled with a car if you're staying in Waikiki). Second? Cruisers who book their hotel through NCL get on-site check-in via a special storefront in the lobby. You simply drop off your luggage before 8:30 a.m. on embarkation day; it's sent straight to the ship, and coaches bring passengers to a special entryway at the pier away from the crowds bogged down with bags and documents.

Before settling in at Waikiki, however, I took a quick detour. Just east of Waikiki is Diamond Head. The mountainous crater, flanking Oahu's southeast coast, is the byproduct of a volcanic explosion that occurred some 500,000 years ago. Early British sailors mistook the glistening calcite crystals embedded in the lava rock for diamonds, and gave Diamond Head its incorrect name in the 1800's. Hiking its 540 ft. is a must for first-timers.

The cost to park and climb Diamond Head is $5. It's hot ... drops of sweat were already beading my forehead. The .7-mile hike begins with a paved trail that leads to a series of relatively steep and often uneven and rocky switchbacks (there are railings to hold on to) up the side of the mountain.

After climbing two steep staircases about two-thirds of the way to the top, the heat and exhaustion just about undid me. But the folks passing me by -- on their way back down -- provided encouragement ("it's worth it!") and I persevered. Was it worth it? Oh yeah.

The summit is so narrow that only about a half dozen or so people can stand on it simultaneously but what a view! The sight of the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly, the glittering Honolulu skyline with its glass and steel skyscrapers, and the sandy shores of Waikiki Beach was so picture perfect it felt as if I'd stepped into an aerial postcard.

Cruise Ship Quarters

Gorgeous as Oahu had been so far, I was (of course) dying to see my ship ... and my unusually luxe new digs. Check-in really was a breeze. The Courtyard Villa was larger than most New York City apartments, and decked out in electrifying pinks and oranges, with sleek dark wood cabinetry. The sitting area includes a table with four chairs, a bar area and a couch fronting a flat-screen television with a DVD player. Of course there's a balcony. The bathroom is amazing, with a shower and a separate tub (there's another flat-screen television here); a master bedroom behind dark velvety curtains features a queen-size bed and yet another flat-screen with a DVD player.

Was it too much space for just me? The pink suitcase had its own place to live -- a spare bedroom with a television and pullout couch! At the end of the cruise I was still finding light switches. I even had massaging shower faucets and dual bathroom sinks... and while it was amusing at first to go back and forth between the basins, I eventually set up shop at just one.

The Villas are identical to the ship's Penthouse Suites. What separates the Villas from the penthouses, though, is that they surround a private courtyard shared by all Courtyard Villa guests (though those in penthouses, and owner's suites, are able to come utilize it)! The space is gorgeous, with a sleek pool, a Balinese bed, a whirlpool tub, a treadmill and a Stairmaster; one deck up is an exclusive sun deck with wicker loungers and a hammock. In the mornings, pastries, fruit and juices are set out for al fresco breakfasts.

The Courtyard was fine for grabbing a muffin on busy mornings -- but no match for the sit-down breakfast in the Star Bar (an annex to Cagney's Steakhouse), exclusive to Courtyard and Garden Villa guests. I had crab cakes and eggs benedict, with a mimosa to boot, but everything on the menu sounded equally decadent including creme brulee French toast. A private luncheon is also served here, with excellent chicken or steak Caesar salads.

Ultimately, my luxury accommodations offered a nice change of pace (it was great to have a place to "escape" to after a long day in port) -- but I am a people person and, traveling alone, was glad to be able to blend right back into the "mainstream" fun whenever I felt like chatting up some new friends.

Sailaway

As Honolulu's skyscrapers and coconut trees shrank in the distance, it hit me that we'd be in port the very next morning -- and every morning after that! The destination-intensive, sea-day-free itinerary begins in Hilo, on the "windward" or Eastern side of Hawaii's Big Island. Next we'd travel to Maui where we'd overnight, giving us two days on the island. The ship returns to the Big Island for a call at Kona, then we'd wind up the trip with another overnight -- this time on Kauai.

One big surprise: Despite the islands' proximity to one another (the greatest single distance between any two of the larger ones is the 80 miles from Kauai to Oahu), each port of call was completely unlike the others. In Kauai, the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, it's all about nature. Only three percent of the island has been developed for commercial and residential use; the rest are agricultural and conservation lands. Maui is a blend of urban sophistication (shops, spas and restaurants) and lush landscapes.

Hilo and Kona may both be located on the Big Island, but that's the only commonality. Kona's sunnier and dryer than Hilo to the east (though high in the hills above the port city of Kailua, coffee grows abundantly). Hilo, on the other hand, is wet and verdant -- and home to Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. That was our first stop....

Volcano Day: Hilo

When faced with a volcano, your instinct should be "run for your life," right? Well, not in Hilo! Kilauea has been erupting continuously since January 3, 1983. Pride of Hawaii's shore excursions roster is loaded with tours that take you out of town to see it up close: bike or hike in Volcanoes National Park, take a helicopter ride above the action, or actually walk on toasty land newly formed by lava. In my case, I joined about 10 shipmates on a tour above -- and beneath -- the volcano.

In 1990, from April through December, lava from Kilauea buried Kalapana, a former fishing village; the red-hot lava cooled into black rock, which marks what's now mostly a ghost town. On a tour there, I spotted a handful of buildings that were spared when the lava flow diverted or split in such a way that they did not catch fire. Diehard residents still live in them (one is even a bed and breakfast), and drive all-terrain vehicles over the lava rock to get to and from the market, etc.

The beach that exists now is made up entirely of black sand, formed by ash. After the eruption, an elderly woman (who's since passed on) would walk over the lava rock toward the beach every day and plant coconut trees in the ashy black sand in an effort to add color to the area. Now there is much life sprouting above the destruction, both eerie and comforting.

For the second part of the excursion, Phil, a bearded eco-guide who looked more like a rock star than a spelunker, took us down into a damp, dark cave system that is actually a series of lava tubes inside Kilauea equipped only with hardhats and flashlights. "If it starts getting warm in here," he joked, "just let me know!"

We wore gloves and to avoid damaging or altering their natural state were not allowed to touch the different stalactites and stalagmites formed by old lava flow, but we could view them as well as swirling whirlpools frozen in time. Up on land, in fact, there are spots in the lava rock where pineapples had gotten stuck as the lava cooled, leaving permanent indentations.

My day of volcanic activity, so to speak, was capped off back onboard Pride of Hawaii as the ship sailed that evening past Kilauea -- first starboard side, then port. In the darkness, watch carefully for the glowing lava exploding as it hits the ocean; off to the right of the cone, what I thought were houses lit up in the hillside were actually pockets of flaming lava peeking through crevices in the gigantic mass of rock.

The Big Island, already the largest in Hawaii (twice the combined size of the others in the chain), is still growing because of the lava that continues to pour out of Kilauea. In fact, over the last decade Kilauea has formed over 500 new acres. It is one of the few places on earth where landmass is being created.

Courtyard Living

Back onboard, I was getting used to the doting that comes with this caliber of accommodations. Once I was settled in, my concierge offered to help me secure reservations at Pride of Hawaii's specialty restaurants, and also book treatments at the spa. My butler Dennis taught me how to use the high-tech coffee machine and also asked me what I would like stocked in my fridge. Diet cokes, sparkling water and skim milk for my coffee ... all replenished throughout the week, no questions asked.

Dennis was particularly obliging when I came down with a cold. There's nothing worse than getting sick while you are traveling alone, and having nobody to care for you. I wanted chicken soup. "Done." Oh, and Dennis, can you throw in a sausage pizza from Papa's Italian Kitchen, too? "Of course." He sent Annie, my cabin steward, by with extra pillows and tissues, and I spent the rest night undisturbed, propped up in bed blowing my nose and watching chick flicks on TV. It was the perfect remedy, and I was back in action by the next day.

The Courtyard Villa experience was that of a luxury cruise within a mainstream voyage -- but even with the heightened level of service and beefed up amenities, there's still a sense of the same casualness that NCL is known for. It's not white gloves and "yes madam" ... but it is a lovely indulgence if you want pampering.

In fact, I was surprised by just how private it was. I imagined that guests would be out and about, maybe even a bit snooty. But every time I ventured out to the whirlpool with my sudoku puzzles, or lay on the hammock for sailaway, I was alone. I even asked Dennis whether some villas were sailing empty. "No," he assured me, "it's always like this. It is your own little world up here."

To Luau, or Not to Luau

The Pacific Paradise Luau offered in Maui was no doubt the most hyped excursion of the whole cruise. Not only were there special fliers and in-cabin commercials created to promote just this one tour, but there were also announcements by the cruise director over the PA system giving periodic updates like "more tickets just became available!" The general vibe was if you didn't go to the luau, you were not one of the "cool kids."

And though I imagined the luau experience as sitting on a beach watching hula girls dance in the sand and a big pig roast over crackling flames, it wasn't like that. By the time we arrived at the Maui Prince Hotel, which hosts the shingdig, hundreds of cruisers -- was it the entire ship? -- filed past a parade of buses onto a vast green lawn near the hotel, where plastic tables and chairs faced a raised stage. Here, performers hula danced, sang and ate fire. Premixed blue Hawaiians and mai tais sat in plastic cups lined up for self-service.

I sat at a table with four couples, one celebrating their honeymoon and another their 25th wedding anniversary; we drank mai tais, ate heaps of roasted pork from the buffet and even tried the poi (a purple paste of dubious taste made from taro). In the end, while the luau wasn't culturally accurate, it did deliver on one important premise. It was a rollicking good time, plain and simple.

Culture Onboard

For many folks, Pride of Hawaii was simply a floating resort and method of transportation from one isle to another. But the ship really is a destination in its own right. First of all, it is stunning, an explosion of color and classy yet whimsical design, with vibrant public rooms featuring rich wood veneers. The fantastic Kumu Cultural Center, along the corridor on Deck 7, tells the story of the islands from their volcanic origins to modern day Hollywood depictions through postcards, letters, movie posters and photographs.

One of the biggest pros of this itinerary is also, in a way, a con: There are no sea days. While the port-a-day cruise offers an intensive look at the islands, I did miss having a day or two to kick back and enjoy life onboard. And the busy days plain wore people out. Second-seating productions were generally half empty, because people turned in early, and the Bar Central complex, which houses a Champagne bar, martini bar and whiskey pub, hit its peak during pre-dinner cocktails ... and then croaked.

I did carve out time for some shipboard activities. A Hawaiian ambassador sails onboard every voyage and teaches local customs like lei making. There are also hula lessons held throughout the week; most of the movements relate to nature (reaching in the air to symbolize the moon, or waving your arms gently for the sea). While I recall very few dances now, I do remember the songs well and sometimes sing them to myself when I'm doing dishes.

The Excursion I Thought I'd Hate....

Kauai's Mudbug & Waterfall Safari wasn't my first choice. It probably wouldn't have been my second, third or fourth, either. The whole point of the Mudbugs is to drive an all-terrain vehicle through puddles of muck and get really filthy. I wasn't digging it. Plus, the tour isn't meant for solos -- two people have to team up.

But when a fellow solo passenger needed a Mudbug buddy, I decided to be a good sport. Actually, he convinced me to join him by saying, "You'd pay just as much to get covered with mud at the spa." Good point. So there I was in my newly purchased water shoes, an oversized T-shirt, camouflage pants and a helmet -- harnessed into a completely open ATV. He gave me a wicked grin. "This is going to be fun!"

It was! A caravan of 10 Mudbug pairs set off for the 11-mile ride through thick vegetation (this part of Kauai was the backdrop for parts of the original "Jurassic Park"). I saw the first mud puddle up ahead and as we sped toward it I forget I had goggles on and instinctively closed my eyes ... but not my mouth. So not only did I not see anything but I also ate dirt.

For the next, much larger puddle, I remembered to hold my lips together and my eyelids open. The mud literally enrobed the vehicle in a big brown shockwave and suddenly I was completely drenched. Once I was dirty, it didn't matter how big the puddles were or how fast we hit them. In fact, the bigger and the faster, the better! Sometimes the things you least expect to be fun make a lasting impression.

Sailing Solo with Freestyle

Freestyle Cruising was both a pro and a con for someone traveling solo. I'd hoped that I'd make some new friends and plan meals spontaneously. However, the eats at the specialty restaurants are markedly better than the conventional dining rooms; the challenge there is that they're popular. Butler or no butler, you're better off making advance reservations.

I found a way to make it work for me. On my sailing, the peak dinner hours were between 7 and 9 p.m. (monitors throughout the ship's corridors reveal how busy each eatery is). As long as I was willing to go early or late, I was seated at the restaurant of my choice without a reservation.

If you are traveling alone or in a small group that wants to meet new people, Teppanyaki may just be the ticket; you are seated with other diners around a hibachi table. At Teppanyaki I had some of the best food (steak and scallops) and conversation ("What's really going to happen on 'Lost'?") of the trip.

Other suggestions for meeting people to dine with are to simply smile and say hello. Chat up people at the pool bar or during onboard activities. Chances are, even if it is a couple or family traveling together, they won't mind teaming up with you for a meal or two -- let's face it, eating with the same people every night does get boring, even if they are loved ones. If you hit it off with a person or group on one of your shore excursions, make plans to get together for at least a drink -- you might make lifelong friends.

The Excursion I Thought I'd Love....

Surfing and Hawaii go hand in hand like skiing and Switzerland. So when I saw an excursion that involved surfing lessons on Kauai, I didn't hesitate to sign up. How could I go all that way and not at least try the quintessential activity?

The first step was to lie flat on our stomachs on our boards and paddle out toward the instructor. He would physically turn our boards around for us, lead us into a good wave and yell, "Stand up!" In two swift motions (any more, and you'll surely lose balance), you were to push yourself up on your hands and feet as if doing a push-up -- and then hop up, arms stretched out, in the center of the board. We practiced a couple of dozen times in the sand, and then carried our boards down to the beach for the real deal.

I gathered up all my courage and went racing into the icy cold Pacific Ocean like some deranged Gidget wannabe ... and got knocked over by the first big wave, swallowed what seemed like a gallon of salt water and felt miserable. I couldn't heave my ample bottom back up onto the board. How was I ever going to get to the "two swift motions" if I couldn't even paddle out toward the instructor? I retreated to the beach in shame.

The instructor, bless his heart, would not let me sit it out. He grabbed hold of my board, swam me out and positioned me in such a way that I actually did get picked up by the oncoming waves -- and was suddenly zipping along at breakneck speed! With the roar of the waves I could barely hear him screaming "stand up!" behind me, and when I tried I of course plunged into the water.

I wiped out continuously, but I actually started to laugh and hurry back out rather than gasp and recoil in terror. Just before it was almost time to call it a day, I finally rode a wave to the beach on my knees. The rush that carried me back to the beach was awesome! All I can remember thinking as I literally flew toward the shoreline was "all that is between me and billions of gallons of rushing water is a long skinny piece of foam."

Everyone who can swim and is relatively physically fit should give it a go (participants must be at least 8 years old and able to swim). Oh, and bring $10 for the photo -- even if you look ridiculous (as I did) you'll want to buy it.

Cruising the Na Pali Coastline

Don't miss this highlight: After departing from Kauai, the ship cruises past the island's Na Pali coast -- a rugged, remote, breathtaking landscape. The lush green mountains rise straight from the blue water and time has eroded the cliffs in such a way that it looks like majestic cathedrals had been carved out. Every picture I snapped was trumpeted by the next, as new waterfalls and beams of sunlight appeared.

While Courtyard Villa "residents" can enjoy a private showing on their sun deck, there are plenty of other great spots to watch the scenery unfold. The camaraderie on the lido deck was just as special, and the experience certainly wouldn't have been nearly as memorable if I'd been on my own balcony -- I brought out a bottle of Champagne I'd been sent and shared it with some new acquaintances.

Adventures Ashore

I have to credit Pride of Hawaii's five-star shore excursions menu for making my in-port experiences so memorable. Every tour I took -- even the ones I was feeling iffy about -- was fantastic. On Maui, I went snorkeling among giant Hawaiian green sea turtles; in Kona, I toured antique and modern coffee farms and indulged in more than my fair share of the caffeinated drink for which the area is famous. For next time, I've got my eye on cave tubing in Kauai, a culinary tour of Kona and whale-watching on Maui. And maybe I'll finally get to take beginner's scuba!

Tip: If you are unsure about anything, just ask: Shore excursion staffers test out tours first-hand and can make recommendations and answer any questions you might have -- hugely helpful for first-timers.

Final Thoughts

After spending my last day in Honolulu paying my respects to Pearl Harbor, I boarded my flight home with a big box of pineapples and a camera bag full of high-resolution memories. Would I sail this ship and trip again? In a heartbeat.

The question is: Would I sail this ship again ... solo? It is important to remember that without the guaranteed small talk that comes with dining at the same table with the same people every night it helps to be outgoing. On my first of two trips to the spa, I met a woman from Los Angeles who also happened to be traveling on her own; we sat in the hot tub and swapped stories about our trips. Oddly enough, on my second visit there, I ran into her again! After a good laugh about our obvious spa addictions, I invited her to have dinner with me and a couple I befriended that morning on an excursion.

The days were so jam-packed that there wasn't much time to feel lonely. When I got ready to turn in at night, though, I did feel a little bit like a mouse in a mansion in my Courtyard Villa. The pro was obviously having some "me time"; it's not everyday I get to relax in a bathtub set in windowed alcove high above the sea. The con? There was nobody to recap my day with -- or share in my joy of towel animals (they were exceptional, especially the cute little crab that sat atop my bedroom TV for the duration of the cruise).

Though I am still not entirely used to the idea of having a butler and concierge at my disposal, I certainly managed to adapt! At the beginning of the week, I felt almost guilty for dialing my butler's direct number with a request. What if he was busy? But I got over that; because he always showed up with a smile, he convinced me that it made him happy to make my trip extra special. And that's something that cruisers -- and travelers in general -- want more and more as they vacation. Myself included.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor


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