Over the years we’ve always found Oʻahu – the historical ‘gathering place’ for Islanders – our favorite in the Hawaiian Islands. We have visited Maui, Kauaʻi, and the Big Island of Hawaiʻi over the years but there’s just something about O’ahu that calls to us. It’s not the biggest island in the chain (the Big Island of Hawai’i gets that nod), but it is by far the most populated, with fully two-thirds of the population calling Oʻahu home. Honolulu, the state capital, is located here. You might gather correctly that Oʻahu is the most bustling of all the islands, and thus not always the favored getaway for those who seek simply a quiet beach and the ability to decompress from the stresses of everyday life.
We are not those people. An adventuresome balance is what we seek, and that’s why O’ahu is our go-to island. It’s quaint and unhurried in so many places and so urban in Honolulu. The island’s world famous Waikiki Beach is a favorite for many, as is the much more laid back North Shore with its many beaches and storied sites of international surf competitions like Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach.
While we like heading to the countryside for a drive to the North Shore and other environs, we prefer to plant ourselves at the 22-acre oceanfront Hilton Hawaiian Village at the north end of Waikiki Beach, a place many readers may have seen on episodes of Hawaii Five-0. It’s a great location that’s much less crowded than tourist-centric Waikiki proper, with a great view of iconic Diamond Head as a bonus. Everything mainstream Waikiki has to offer is easily accessible by trolley or a pleasant 10-minute walk along the beach. Must-see Pearl Harbor is a short car or bus ride away. Over the years this place has been a home away from home during our visits.
Our latest adventure began at the Hilton Hawaiian Village as usual but continued with a cruise aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America, the only ship offering year-round, seven-day intra-island cruises to the four main Hawaiian Islands. Sailing round-trip from Honolulu, the ship provides passengers 100 hours of port time to enable memorable experiences on each of the islands visited. While not our first Hawaiian cruise – we did this on the former American Hawaii Cruises’ SS Constitution in the 1980s and again on the Norwegian Star in 2003 – a Hawaiian cruise was calling us. It was time to do this again.
We boarded the Pride of America shortly after the ship underwent a nearly month-long update in dry dock with major ship-wide enhancements to its public areas, restaurants, and all staterooms. We looked forward to this ‘all-new’ ship and its updated offerings and were not disappointed.
Among other things, this cruise is one of the gastronomic pleasures with 15 restaurants and 12 bars and lounges to fit varying tastes and desires. There were new menus reflecting both traditional cruise fare and trendier cuisine. With menus in the two main dining rooms changing daily, there is no chance of being bored. Because of NCL’s ‘freestyle cruising,’ you can make reservations to dine at a time of your choosing or optionally show up without a reservation, though sometimes there will be a wait. Beyond these dining rooms are other included restaurant choices like the convenient Aloha Café buffet, East Meets West Grill, Cadillac Diner, and Key West Bar & Grill. Room service meals are included in the cost of the cruise and can be ordered 24 hours a day. A room service fee of $7.95 is charged except for coffee and continental breakfast delivered in the morning, which is free.
If you want to step out to something special beyond dining in the already-special Skyline and Liberty main dining rooms, there’s the opportunity to experience more upscale specialty restaurants featuring Italian, Japanese, French, Brazilian, and steakhouse fare that come at an additional cost. We experienced them all and truly enjoyed our fine dining at Jefferson’s Bistro, La Cucina, Moderna Churrascaria, and Teppanyaki. What stole our hearts, though, was Cagney’s Steakhouse with its fantastic steaks, chops, chicken, seafood, and sumptuous desserts. It’s worth mentioning that deserts served at all of the ship’s dining rooms are top notch.
Of course, a cruise isn’t all about food. There’s plenty to do on board the expansive ship, which packs a lot of activities within its 919-foot length…for reference, that’s about three football fields stem to stern. We enjoyed entertainment at the Hollywood Theater and the ship’s nightclubs and bars, culinary demonstrations, arts and crafts, wine tasting, lectures, cappuccinos at the John Adams Coffee House, and just some time out for reading in the library. Staying on board one port day and catching some sun and relaxation poolside with a bottle of champagne and Maui Style potato chips was a decadent getaway in its own right. To work off some of the food, there’s the Pulse fitness center on deck 12 and a walking/jogging track around the ship on deck 6.
As enjoyable as the Pride of America is to experience, let’s not forget that we are in the Hawaiian Islands, after all, and there’s plenty of paradise to take in every day. There are lots of opportunities to do just that. After leaving Honolulu, the ship docks the next morning at Kahului, Maui and stays overnight. The next stop is a day in Hilo, Hawai’i and then a day in Kona, also on the Big Island. The following morning finds the ship docking overnight at Nawiliwili, Kauaʻi. The overnights at Maui and Kauaʻi allow spending plenty of time to explore and enjoy shore excursions, of which there are many to choose from at each of the islands visited.
Shore excursions are pretty diverse, typically ranging from 3 1/2 hours to 8 1/2 hours at easy to moderate activity levels. Longer tours up to 11 1/2 hours are available on the first day when the ship is in port overnight. Tours can be booked on board the ship or months in advance of a cruise through Norwegian, with shore excursion costs ranging from $49 to $549 per person, the latter for a more extensive helicopter tour. Prices are reduced for children. While you can also book tours from independent operators without going through the ship, if official tours coordinated through the cruise line return to the ship late you won’t be left behind.
You can choose everything from visits to waterfalls, rainforests, and volcanos to more active experiences like surfing, zip lining, kayaking, snorkeling, and ATV adventures. Among our favorites are visiting otherworldly Haleakala Crater on Maui, Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and Waimea Canyon on Kaua’i. Since cruise vacations begin and end on O’ahu, those staying before or after their cruise should consider a visit to the North Shore or a hike up Diamond Head, the latter an activity on your own or through an independent tour. Visits to historic sites are always high on our list, and we did these on our cruise, including St. Benedict’s Painted Church in Kona on Hawai’i, the museum at Old Lahaina Courthouse in Lahaina Town on Maui, and the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor on O’ahu. Of course, there’s always the option of skipping excursions and simply walking around a port town. We did that while docked in Maui by taking a short walk to Kalapaki Beach and hanging out for the day.
The ship leaves Kaua’i on the last day and treats passengers to a slow cruise past 15 miles of the gorgeous and rugged Nā Pali Coast as it heads back toward Honolulu. There’s one last memorable dinner and evening on the ship, then the task of leaving packed luggage outside your stateroom for a late-night pick-up and early morning transfer to the cruise terminal. Along with others, it’s hard not to smile with a lingering ‘aloha spirit’ while carrying luggage and memories from the terminal while heading to the airport or, preferably, at least a few more days in paradise.
We found NCL’s Pride of America to be a perfect way to visit the four main islands in the Hawaiian Island chain without the need for additional flights, transfers, and packing. It is by far the most relaxing way to experience the islands, and we will be returning, for sure.