Hawaiian islands cruise: NCL's Pride of America review

The locals are clearly happy to see us. As we make our way by tender from ship to shore on the Big Island, a pod of wild dolphins keeps pace with us. The ringleader jumps out of the water to welcome us with a splash, earning an enthusiastic round of applause.

After a two-year pause due to the pandemic, the April return of NCL's Pride of America cruise around the Hawaiian islands is cause for celebration. The only cruise line to offer year-round seven-day inter-island Hawaii voyages, NCL's itinerary visits five ports on four islands in one week, including two overnight port stays. With more than 100 hours of shore time and no sea days, the week-long cruise is perfect for active travellers eager to get off the ship to explore Hawaii.

It's one of my favourite stopover destinations, though I rarely have time to go beyond the familiar comforts of Honolulu. I'm curious to discover if another island could hold more appeal than Oahu. The well-known conveniences of cruising - unpack once, planning and logistics taken care of, meals and drinks included - makes the discovery process easier than co-ordinating inter-island flights, rental cars and hotels.

Departing from Honolulu at sunset on Saturday night, it's Mai Tai o'clock before we've even pulled out of the harbour. Launched in 2005, the ship has a vintage vibe, particularly in Pink's Champagne Bar. Wearing a colourful fresh flower lei around my neck, it feels right to order a frozen mango daiquiri. If the 80s call, I'm not giving my cocktail back. It's delicious.

After working my way through more island classics — Pina Colada, Orange Crush, Blue Hawaii — it's high time for more than liquid sustenance. Dinner tonight is in Cagney's Steakhouse, a surf-and-turf extravaganza followed by classic apple pie and ice cream. It's as American as, well, apple pie, just like the waiters.

As a US-flagged vessel operating solely in US waters, 75 per cent of the crew must be American.

Faced with labour shortage challenges as the cruise industry revs back into full gear, several of Pride's restaurants and bars are closed on this voyage. Recruiters are focused on finding several hundred more staff by Christmas. Until then, the crew-to-guest ratio will be limited to a level that ensures good service.

Included in the fare is the main dining room, Skyline, the buffet, an outdoor burger bar and Cadillac Diner, a 1950s-themed comfort food pitstop. For a small fee, upscale dinner options can be enjoyed at Cagney's or Jefferson's Bistro, a French restaurant. Bookings should be secured as early as possible; on our sailing, the for-fee venues were at capacity every night.

I wake up in Maui on Sunday morning, excited to have two full days to explore the second largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. The Best of Maui shore excursion is a good place to begin, with stops at the outstanding Maui Ocean Centre, lush 'Iao Valley State Park and a plantation tour where coconuts are husked in record time. The real prize, though, is the plantation gift shop where I continue the time-honoured tradition of overly enthusiastic shopping while on holidays. The pineapple salad dressing, passionfruit taffy and coconut earrings I'll probably never wear seem like such a good idea at the time.


On day two, I head straight for the historic, arty Maui neighborhood of Paia. It's a former hippie town that's been made famous by celebrities and musicians, including Willie Nelson, KISS frontman Gene Simmons, Woody Harrelson and Mick Fleetwood, many of whom have opened restaurants and stores.

For the next two days, we're on the Island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island. The first stop, Hilo, is on the wetter side of the island. Sure enough, it's drizzling rain as we tour the botanic gardens, waterfall and King Kamehameha Statue. By the time we reach the calm, inviting waters of the beach park, the sun has come out. More adventurous guests head off to see Volcanoes National Park, the rainforests and bubbling basalt lava rock pools known as the Boiling Pots.

The next day in Kona, there are more options than hours, with tours departing for coffee plantations, deep sea fishing expeditions, hikes to see ancient petroglyphs and visits to a former royal palace. For the water lovers, there's snorkelling, swimming and glass bottom boat tours.

Finally, Kauai is our home for the last two days of the cruise. Known as the Garden Island, its quieter pace and verdant green interior encourage deep relaxation. My last visit here was almost 20 years ago, when a sulky two-word review in my diary notes - "so boring" - reflected my younger self's need for constant fun and excitement.

Perhaps the island has changed in the ensuing two decades or, more probably, I have, but in any case this time I appreciate the natural beauty much more. Pride of America is the only ship allowed to stay overnight on Kauai. Make the most of the evening with a sunset dinner somewhere lovely like The Beach House Restaurant.

As we leave Kauai and head back to Honolulu, we have prime viewing of the stunning Napali Coast. Its towering cliffs and mountainous shoreline are extraordinary. If they look familiar, it's from all the blockbuster movies, including Tropic Thunder and Pirates of the Caribbean, that have been filmed there. Raising a Mai Tai to the glorious Fanta sunset, we toast to a beautiful week, well spent.

Avid cruisers who love the ultra-modern amenities on new mega ships will notice Pride of America is from a different time, before famous designers created cabins more comfortable than many people's homes and Michelin-starred chefs designed the menus. You won't see waterslides, rollercoasters or casinos. She was, however, spruced up during her pause in service, with significant enhancements including new carpeting, furnishing, bedding and hot tubs. On this ship and this itinerary, it's more about the destination.

Did I find an island I love more than Oahu? Not really, but I sure had fun looking. Would I do this cruise again? Absolutely.



Spend a few days pre- or post-cruise in Hawaii's capital city to enjoy Waikiki beach, sunset luaus and plenty of shopping temptations. Here you'll find the most interesting museums and historic sites in Hawaii, including Pearl Harbor, Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design, and Iolani Palace.


The former hippie town of Paia is now considered the hippest place on the island, with the kale smoothies and hundred-dollar dream-catchers to prove it. Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac recently opened a gift and memorabilia store, imaginatively called Mick's House of Fleetwood. For the celebrity treatment, dine at Montage Kapalua Bay, a luxury resort on the north shore.


The Big Island's quieter side is found in and around the town of Hilo. See the highlights on the Hoppa On Hoppa Off trolley tour to a waterfall, botanic garden, King Kamehameha Statue and Big Island Candies factory. Finish with a swim at one of the beach parks lining the shore. Hikers will want to go with the lava flow at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.


Shore excursions include visits to coffee plantations and traditional fishing villages, as well as deep-sea fishing, snorkelling and a glass-bottom reef tour. The Big Island's commercial centre has cafes, shops and breweries to check out. An open-air trolley tour along the coastline gives a good overview of the beaches and resorts. Even better, it's free to ride.


Go green on the Garden Isle with an excursion to Waimea Canyon and the lush Wailua River. Hop on a riverboat to reach Fern Grotto, which has held sacred significance to Hawaiians for centuries. If active discovery is more your lane, tee off at one of Kauai's prized golf courses. Book a table in advance (preferably at sunset) at The Beach House Restaurant.



A seven-night Hawaiian cruise on NCL Pride of America in November 2023 costs from $3295 a person, twin share. It departs from and returns to Honolulu, with stops in Maui, the Big Island and Kauai. Wi-Fi, taxes, gratuities, beverages, shore excursion credit and specialty dining package are included in the Free at Sea offer.

Phone 1300 255 200, see ncl.com


Shake off the pre-cruise jetlag with a couple of beach days in Waikiki. Rooms at the oceanfront Moana Surfrider from US$429 ($600) a night. 2365 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu. See marriott.com


Hawaiian Airlines operates regular direct flights to Honolulu's main Daniel K. Inouye International Airport from Sydney. See hawaiianairlines.com.au.

Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of NCL and Hawaiian Airlines.