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Golfers can cruise to Aloha State

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Gary Francell thinks Norwegian Cruise Line has an edge over the competition in Hawaii.

The former Texan, now living in Honolulu, loves golf, and Hawaii is home to some of the world's top golf resorts. Staying at island resorts, though, is expensive, Francell says, and even if airfare between some islands costs just $19.95 one way, schlepping from one to the other can be inconvenient.

That's why Francell chose NCL's Pride of Hawaii to ferry him to four of the state's islands. One of a trio of the line's U.S.-flagged vessels that sail exclusively in the Hawaiian Islands, the ship makes day calls in Hilo and Kona on the Big Island; and overnight calls in Kahului, Maui; and Nawiliwili, Kauai. Francell packs his clubs and luggage only once and gets to play hassle-free at 18-hole links that include the Prince Course on Kauai, which Golf Digest named the No. 1 course in the state.

Unlike other lines that deploy ships to Hawaiian ports, the U.S.-flag status of NCL's three vessels gives them permission to ply inter-island sailings without having to call at a foreign port of call. Longstanding cabotage laws require non-U.S.-flagged passenger ships to make at least one foreign port call during a cruise.

Heading to Hawaii on other lines' cruises typically meant hauling from, say, Los Angeles, stopping in Mexico first or, increasingly common now, to Fanning Island, 1,200 miles and a two-day sail away from Hawaii. This restriction not only tags extra days onto a seagoing vacation but also bumps up the fare.

Trouble at sea

On July 4, 2004, when NCL launched its first Hawaii-based ship under the NCL-America rubric, Pride of Aloha became the first vessel in 50 years to fly the stars and stripes -- and allowed the line to claim Hawaii as its own.

But although the 77,000-ton Pride of Aloha since has been joined by two other NCL-America ships -- the 81,000-ton Pride of America and, last summer, the 93,500-ton Pride of Hawaii -- all has not been sunny for the line in thisSouth Pacific paradise.

Service problems have plagued NCL's Hawaii fleet since day one. In addition, competition from foreign-flagged lines has increased. As a result, demand for three ships plying similar itineraries just didn't cut it. NCL decided to tighten its hula-skirt belt and recently announced it would redeploy Pride of Hawaii to Europe starting next year.

The line will withdraw the ship from the Hawaii cruise market after its final seven-day sailing there, which ends Feb. 4, 2008. The ship will undergo a wet-dock in Honolulu where it will be fitted with a casino. (The ship was built without one because gambling in Hawaii is illegal.) It will be reflagged under Bahamas registry and emerge as the Norwegian Jade.

As the Jade, the ship will sail 12-, 13- and 14-day eastern and western Mediterranean cruises, offering departures from Barcelona, Istanbul and Athens; it then will reposition to Southampton, England, for a series of cruises to the Mediterranean, North Cape, Western Europe and British Isles.

The line's announcement called the ship's move to Europe "a temporary retrenchment."

NCL-America will continue to operate Pride of America and Pride of Aloha in Hawaii, with Pride of America continuing its seven-day itinerary from Honolulu. The line already had announced in December that Pride of Aloha'sseven-day itinerary would be changed as of this September, when the ship will assume 10- and 11-day itineraries, offering both inter-island routes mixed with Hawaii cruises that call at Fanning Island. The Hawaii/Fanning Island sailings are scheduled for every fourth Pride of Aloha departure.

Other cruise lines that visit Hawaii seasonally offer similar itineraries on sailings of mostly 10- and 15-night durations. These include Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Silversea. But withonly two ships left in the Hawaii market full time, some experts predict that prices on cruises there might increase.

Hawaii . . . by rail?

Of course, no foreign-flagged vessel is about to fill the breach left by Pride of America. But a Michigan company announced an alternative to seeing Hawaii -- escorted rail/cruise vacations that begin in Chicago. Offered byAmerica by Rail, one option combines first-class continental rail travel to Los Angeles linked with a cruise to Hawaii on the Diamond Princess.

According to the company, the package -- practically a door-to-door option for Windy City residents -- is expected to appeal to seniors and to those who have an aversion to flying, and who have plenty of time. For information onthe 23-day vacation, call 1-888-777-6605 or go to americabyrail.net.

Meanwhile, NCL's ships are designed for the company's signature "Free-Style" cruising -- with multiple dining venues that let passengers dine when, where and with whomever they choose. These include three popularfee-based specialty restaurants: Cagney's Steak House; the upscale French-styled Le Bistro and Jasmine Garden, a culinary complex featuring a Teppanyaki room, an Asian-fusion eatery and a sushi bar.

In a nod to their Hawaii itineraries, the ships' menus include seared macadamia-crusted Ahi sashimi served with wasabi-shoyu dipping sauce; skirt steak with mashed Hawaiian purple potatoes and roasted papaya salsa; andseafood, mango and red-onion ceviche with taro chips.

Ads for the line's cruises quip that sailings include "175 activities for Type A. 900 deck chairs for Type B." For example, active passengers can hike on Maui to the top of Haleakala, the world's largest dormant volcano; thosewho are less active can bicycle down 22 miles from its peak without even putting their feet on the pedals. You can opt for deep-sea fishing in Kona, the billfish capital of the world, according to NCL; or learn to ride thewaves at a Kauai surfing school.

To excursion offerings during Pride of Hawaii's overnight stay in Kauai, the line recently added an evening luau option and dinner show ($95 per adult/$65 per child). At Kilohana Plantation, a 35-acre estate on Kauai,passengers can enjoy Clydesdale-drawn carriage rides and a vintage narrow-gauge railway ride through sections of the historic property, where feeding the farm animals is the draw.

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