Hawaii by sea

When you've got a week, a limited budget and a desire to see as many of the Hawaiian islands as possible, there's only one way to do it.

Take a cruise.

Norwegian Cruise Lines began offering seven- and 10-day Hawaiian cruises last year, filling the gap after two American cruise lines operating there went bankrupt. Norwegian is now the only cruise line operating year-round in Hawaii, offering a way to sample several islands without packing and unpacking every few days.

Norwegian offers several itineraries, but all hit the highlights. On our seven-day trip in April, we docked in Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, Kauai and an obscure Micronesian speck called Fanning Island - a nod to an outdated U.S. law that requires foreign cruise lines operating in U.S. waters to make at least one international stop.

We also experienced a brand-new ship built especially for Hawaii, the 15-deck, 91,000-ton Norwegian Star.

The ship is also the first built to accommodate the cruise line's new "freestyle dining" policy, which allows passengers to eat when and where they want.

The largest vessel in Norwegian's fleet, the 2,240-passenger Star is striking with its rows upon rows of balconies. More than 70 percent of all staterooms have balconies - more than most cruise ships.

Rooms range from $699 per person for an interior stateroom on the edges of the ship to $1,299 per person for a balcony room higher and closer to the middle, where the ship's motion is less noticeable. If you're looking for the ultimate accommodations, check out a 5,350-square-foot Garden Villa - bigger than most single-family homes. It includes three bedrooms with private baths, a living room with a baby grand piano, a private outdoor garden with a hot tub, and butler service. Cost for the suite: about $26,000.

Norwegian occasionally offers cut-rate last-minute deals, usually snapped up by locals. We met one Hawaiian passenger who told us he paid a mere $177 for the week.

The ship appeals to a wide range of passengers. It includes a spa, an Internet cafe, activities for teens and children and a spectacular terraced sun deck. The ship's three pools are not nearly enough for 2,000 passengers, however, especially since they also accommodate two water slides and a splash area for children.

Because the Star was built for NCL's "freestyle cruising," it offers 10 restaurants ranging from sophisticated French to casual buffets. There were no set seating hours. And instead of cash tips for waiters, gratuities were added to the final bill.

We loved the concept of freestyle cruising, but the reality was that there were only a few great restaurants. Getting reservations for our group of six - which could be done no sooner than 24 hours in advance - turned into a daily hassle. There were always long lines at the reservation desk in the lobby, and their phone was often busy. The best restaurants also had $10 or $12 per-person fees.

The cruise set sail from Pier 10 in Honolulu at 8 p.m. Sunday, as a few dancers and musicians sang "Aloha Oe" from shore.

Those who have cruised the Atlantic should be prepared for the somewhat rougher waters of the Pacific. Many passengers wore anti-motion-sickness patches to keep from feeling nauseated. Another downside of the rough waters is that the ship couldn't dock in some of the most popular tourist towns.

On our first stop at the Big Island, for example, we docked in Hilo - a rainy, industrial area - rather than the more popular tourist destination of Kona. My family had booked a helicopter trip over Earth's most active volcano, Kilauea, but a steady drizzle in Kona canceled the trip.

A bad morning turned into a fascinating one, however, when we found Elswood, a delightful native. For a fraction of the helicopter ride, he gave us a tour of the Volcanoes National Park, Akaka Falls, and the island's famous black-sand beaches.

The lesson we learned: You'll often get a better, more authentic experience by booking your own excursions or exploring the islands yourself. It's cheaper, too. Shore trips booked through NCL range, per adult, from $32 ("Historic and Cultural Honolulu") to $169 ("Circle of Fire" chopper ride over Kilauea).

In its promotional materials, Norwegian promotes Fanning Island as an "unspoiled Pacific hideaway visited only by NCL."

The tiny island, population 1,600, does give passengers an opportunity to walk along beautiful beaches and interact with people who have had little contact with the outside world.

Whenever a ship calls, locals declare a national holiday and spend the day selling their wares - woven baskets, wooden figurines and grass skirts - performing native dances, and getting their photos snapped by wealthy Americans.

But many of our fellow passengers questioned whether the six-hour visit was worth the hassle of going through customs and the combined three days at sea (two full and two half days) it took to get there. Most of us, after all, came to see Hawaii.

The truth is that Norwegian has little choice.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, known as the Jones Act, requires foreign-flagged ships to dock in at least one foreign port, and Fanning Island, part of the Republic of Kiribati, is the closest option.

Some cruise lines are lobbying to change the law, which was originally intended to protect the American shipping industry. In the near future however, it seems likely NCL will continue to make its weekly 2,000-mile detour unless - as many passengers hope for each week - rough seas prevent the ship from getting there.

The days at sea did give us an opportunity to explore the ship, which has something for everyone. Every day, there are arts and crafts classes, movies, contests, cooking demonstrations and lectures on Polynesian and Hawaiian cultures.

We also found the evening shows to be of higher quality than those on the other two cruise lines we've sailed, from the magician Ed Alonzo to the musical productions of the Jean Ann Ryan Company. My family especially liked the karaoke bar and the sing-along musician in the Red Lion Pub, who happily played "Sweet Caroline" every night at our request.

Because the Star was built especially for Hawaii, there is no casino on board, a concession to comply with a state law prohibiting gambling on Hawaii-based ships. Instead, the ship offers bingo several times a day.

The food was generally good, from the fresh fish at the sushi bar to the delicious barbecued ribs served at the pool every day. The only restaurant that disappointed us was the Italian one, La Trattoria, which was the lunchtime cafeteria converted with a few tacky Italian decorations and a limited menu.

The service was mixed. The rooms were always tidy and the wait staff was generally prompt. But in several restaurants, the servers were not as attentive as we would have liked. And twice, members of my family were booked on the wrong excursions.

Though we enjoyed the ship, visiting the islands was clearly the highlight. We surfed Kauai's Kalapaki Beach, stood 2 feet from a sunbathing seal, saw humpback whales arc gracefully into the water, visited Pearl Harbor, swam in a waterfall and ate Kalai pig and poi at an authentic luau in Maui.

And while you could probably do some of those things on a land-based trip to Hawaii, only a cruise makes it easy to do them all in one week.

IF YOU GO:

BASICS. Seven-day round-trip NCL cruises of the Hawaiian Islands are offered on the Norwegian Star, out of Honolulu and Kahului (island of Maui). Ten-day round trips out of Honolulu are offered on the Norwegian Wind, which also has 10- and 11-day voyages between Honolulu and Vancouver, Canada.

Norwegian Star debuted in 2001. It can carry up to 2,240 passengers (double occupancy) and a crew of 1,100. It sails under Bahamian registry.

Norwegian Wind was refurbished in 1998. It can carry up to 1,748 passengers (double occupancy) and a crew of 689. It sails in Hawaii only part of the year, under Bahamian registry.

Costs. Rooms on Norwegian Star and Norwegian Wind range from $699 per person for an interior stateroom to $1,299 per person for a balcony room. Multi-bedroom suites are also available.

Ship-endorsed shore excursions vary considerably in content and price.

RESOURCES:

Contact your area travel agency or visit the NCL Web site: www.ncl.com. You can also contact the line directly at 1-800- 327-7030, toll-free, 8:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m EDT weekdays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. EDT weekends.

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