From an overnight preview at Bremerhaven this week, Cruise Critic editor Carolyn Spencer Brown reports on a genuine feeling of excitement onboard. The crew, many of whom had been training on site for two months sans passengers, were finally allowed to don uniforms. Said Veitch at an informal press gathering, "there's a palpable sense of wanting to have passengers to serve."
Other quick impressions from our visit:
What is absolutely most significant about Pride of America is that it's totally unique -- which is a rare thing. It, like Cunard's Queen Mary 2, is not part of a series of identically designed vessels. And while some aspects of the ship will definitely remind travelers of other NCL vessels -- the cabins feature, for the most part, similar layouts and color schemes, and "freestyle dining" is a major part of the onboard experience -- it's also got its own personality.
And that would be? Elegant. Parts of the all-U.S.-themed Pride of America reminded me of a grand resort hotel -- particularly the gorgeous lobby (stay tuned for more details in our Pride of America "sneak preview" -- it launches on Tuesday, June 14).
If the crew seemed excited, so too did folks from all reaches of NCL, who'd traveled from Miami and other places to pitch in and help get the ship ready for its shipyard departure. In addition to Veitch, NCL's president, who was on hand to carefully inspect the ship before formally accepting ownership, we spotted a number of familiar faces, from Klaus Lugmaier, Norwegian Dawn's popular hotel director (he's in Germany to ready Norwegian Jewel, which launches just two months from now); to Manfred Ursprunger, NCL's new hotel operations chief; to Peter Tobler, who runs the company's food and beverage options. We also spotted crew members familiar from earlier cruises on Pride of Aloha -- from the Internet cafe manager to wait staff.
The ship is especially designed for groups and is the absolute best choice in Hawaii for meeting and incentive travel. One highlight is a distinctive meeting room -- it's actually round, with auditorium-style seating and a good selection of breakout rooms. Even better: The business-oriented facility is tucked away on the top of the ship and won't interfere with passengers who are onboard solely for fun and frivolity.
For those who remember Pride of Aloha's quite rocky debut last year, Veitch emphatically makes one point: "We learned from the early days of Pride of Aloha -- what we did wrong and what we did right." Indeed, the biggest change in NCL America occurred last fall, in response to significant problems with staffing and service levels. That's when NCL teamed up with the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education and the Seafarers International Union to create a first-ever on-land training program for U.S.-based cruise staff (check out our up-close and in-depth feature).
As you may recall, the foundling Pride of America has endured a tortured past. Originally the idea of Pride of America -- the first newly built ocean liner to be constructed in the U.S. in over 50 years -- was first put forward by the now defunct American Classic Voyages, which operated American Hawaii Cruises. A contract for the shipbuilding project was awarded to a shipyard in Mississippi and construction of the hull began.
Work, however, came to a stop when the company announced bankruptcy just a month after the events of September 11, 2001. Ultimately, NCL acquired Pride of America and transported the partially built hull to Germany. NCL, which intended Pride of America to be its first, and flagship, vessel to sail under the NCL America all-Hawaii umbrella, revised the original plans somewhat -- stretching the ship and embarking on a major redesign to accommodate its "freestyle dining" program. And it announced that Pride of America would launch in summer 2004.
Unfortunately, while docked at Lloyd Werft, the ship was swamped during a severe storm in January of that year -- and sank to the shallow bottom (water reached up to the third deck, including the engine room). More bad luck followed when the shipyard was forced to file bankruptcy as a result of the accident (on its part, NCL was fully insured), which caused additional delay. That's when NCL was forced to hastily replace Pride of America with Pride of Aloha (the former Norwegian Sky), which resulted in numerous and well chronicled "breaking in" problems.
But the good news is that, finally, the ship is on its way across the Atlantic. Pride of America is slated to arrive in New York on June 15, and will be ceremoniously inaugurated on June 17 before departing on a special "Live with Regis and Kelly" promotional cruise on June 18 with some 1,200 viewers onboard. Pride of America will finally begin "regular" sailings on June 25.
The ship will sail its first all-year-round, all-Hawaii cruise in July. Ports of call on the seven-night itinerary, which departs Honolulu every Saturday, include Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island.