For cruise travelers more familiar with the Caribbean than Hawaii, your impression of America's 50th state may be that it's something like the U.S. Virgin Islands' St. Thomas -- a place that feels exotically foreign even if it is part of the United States.
But on our first trip to Hawaii, we discovered that we couldn't have been more wrong. No question, the geography of the islands of Hawaii fulfills the exotic images regaled in film fantasies. But even with a lingering Polynesian cultural base that's, by and large, primarily trotted out to entertain tourists, the rest of Hawaii is resolutely American.
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On my first cruise to Hawaii, aboard NCL America's Pride of Aloha, the first ocean-going cruise ship in 50 years to wave the American flag, I noticed quite a few other differences. And I'll also point this out: While every major cruise line offers some Hawaiian itineraries, NCL America's ships are the only ones to sail year-round. Thus, we detail some of the intriguing disparities that arise simply because of sailing on an American ship -- which must obey regulations not pertinent to those vessels waving a foreign flag.
The U.S. Dollar Reigns
Unlike the Caribbean or even the Mexican Riviera, there's no need to worry about changing money. You may even be able to cash a check at a branch of your own hometown bank, use your Nordstrom card to pick up some tropical fashions or dial the same toll-free 800 numbers you would use at home to pay bills. I even made an outing to the U.S. post office and didn't have to worry about figuring out how to buy stamps in foreign currency.
You Can Forget Your Passport
Disembarking our plane after a long flight (8 1/2 hours from Chicago, 12 hours from the East Coast), for a moment I associated the trip's length with a visit to a foreign country! It was a bit surprising to still be within U.S. confines. While the ambience of the airport in Honolulu is a bit exotic (steamy and warm, orchid leis draped around your neck), the best news is that there was no need to queue up at immigration (this of course does not apply to travelers from Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Europe, alas).
A U.S.-flagged NCL America ship -- in this case Pride of America, Pride of Hawaii or Pride of Aloha -- has one advantage: It doesn't have to do the Jones Act toe-touch in a foreign country, which permits the company to offer seven-night all-Hawaii trips. On the other hand, in order to get that advantage, NCL America must adhere to regulations not required of international lines (everyone from NCL itself to Celebrity, Holland America and Seabourn). The first big difference on our trip, on Pride of Aloha, was that the crew, as required, was nearly 100 percent American. As such, the atmosphere onboard is different.
Cruise Critic member RenieRaider captured the attitude of ship's crew -- especially bar and restaurant wait staff -- in her review of Pride of Aloha: It's "not like the service you may have become accustomed to if you are an avid cruiser. I am NOT complaining I am just giving a heads up ... you will find it more like going to a neighborhood restaurant. ... It's good service but they're chatting with each other, hanging out, playing 'stunts.' It's not the professional non-American style you may be used to."
A big plus is there's no language barrier whatsoever (though I did miss the international ambience just a bit) -- and, as well, I found it fun to ask servers about their home towns. I learned a lot about my own country and enjoyed getting the inside scoop on everything from hip restaurants in Seattle to a fabulous boutique hotel in Minneapolis.
Hilo Hattie: A Shopping Tradition
While I'm generally more interested in picking up souvenirs of the hand-made variety, Hilo Hattie's, the ubiquitous chain of Hawaiian-oriented crafts, clothing and foodstuffs, was a presence at every port. In each place (except Maui) there was a free shuttle to the store, which was generally located in the main part of town (so you could wander off and hit other shops too). In Maui, Hilo Hattie's is located in Lahaina, which is within walking distance if your ship anchors there -- but most dock 45 minutes away.
One oddity about the otherwise quite nice gift shops on our ship was that there was no duty-free, and noticeably absent were stalwart cruise ship bargains on everything from cigarettes and liquor to perfume and cosmetics. Plus, on NCL America ships, you'll also pay sales tax!
This does not apply to ships flying foreign flags ... just like always, they can open their duty-free shops as soon as they are the required distance from port.
Who knew? On our winter cruise (February), one of the most majestic sights we saw was snow dusting the top of Mauna Kea in Hilo, even as we were sweating in shorts and T-shirts at sea level.
Depending on your philosophy about cell phones (love 'em and take yours everywhere, or hate 'em, especially on vacation), beware: While circling the Hawaiian islands, ships are for the most part close enough to land to get cell signals. We heard a lot of lame "hi, just checking in to see what's up" kind of phone calls -- in the spa, the buffet restaurant and the pool deck.
Photo of Kauai taken by Robert Coello.