The promise is indeed true: Passengers aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America—the only ship offering seven-night cruises year-round in Hawaii—can enjoy nearly 100 hours in port on four different islands. The ship resumed sailing on April 9, 2022, after a two-year COVID-19-imposed hiatus, with guests embarking in Honolulu every Saturday to spend two days each on Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii (aka The Big Island), overnighting in port on the first two and getting 10 hours each in Hilo and Kona on the third. The schedule allows for plenty of time to explore, whether you’re a first-timer or a returnee looking to revisit favorite places.
That said, there’s definitely some strategy required to maximize your on-island experience. Having just returned in mid-May from my second Pride of America sailing (the first was in 2006 not long after the ship’s debut), I’m happy to share advice that can help you enjoy your Hawaii experience.
Know what you’re getting
First, a bit about Pride of America. The ship, which carries 2,186 passengers at full occupancy but is sailing at 50 percent capacity through at least November 2022, is 17 years old and unique to the NCL fleet. It features a distinctly Americana theme—the main reception area resembles something straight out of Jeffersonian Washington, D.C.—with décor that’s kitschy and colorful rather than contemporary and neutral.
There are bubblegum hues in Pink’s Champagne Bar, for instance, and a riot of vivid bead-inspired colors in the Mardi Gras Cabaret Lounge & Nightclub. There are two pools, multiple hot tubs and lots of appealing outside deck space—including the Aloha Lanai Bar aft on deck 11—ideal for sail-away cocktails at sunset.
Entertainment onboard is more low-key than on other NCL ships, which are known for their Broadway musicals and high-gloss production shows. Aboard Pride of America, performances are limited to vocalists, comedians, movie screenings, and game-show-like contests.
Cabins are on the snug side, especially bathrooms, but NCL did an extensive soft goods renovation (carpets, upholstery, wall coverings) during the COVID-19 hiatus, so cabins, hallways, and some (but not all) public spaces feel refreshed.
Unlike all other Norwegian ships, which are staffed by an international crew, Pride of America is required to have a 100 percent American crew; staffing up since the relaunch has been problematic and NCL has opted to keep five of the seven specialty dining venues and several bars closed. As of early June, only Cagney’s Steakhouse and Jefferson Bistro are open, along with complimentary dining venues Skyline Main Dining Room, Aloha Café, and Cadillac Diner.
NCL expects to add crew members and open additional restaurants and bars in the coming month but doesn’t anticipate being at full capacity with all venues open until late November or December. Demand is high for this itinerary—most sailings are already sold out through late 2022—and cruise fares are loftier than on many other NCL sailings, starting at around $1,500 per person for an Inside Cabin and $2,799 for a Balcony Cabin. For the best value, book when NCL is offering a Free at Sea promo that includes a complimentary beverage package, Wi-Fi, and specialty dining as well as discounts on shore excursions since this can save you a bundle.
Plan activities with the itinerary in mind
Having done this cruise twice, I highly recommend having a pre-planned strategy. Doing so will help you see more at your own pace—and it can even save you money since shore excursions are pricy—especially if traveling with a family. My suggestions:
Day 2 (Sunday)—Kahului, Maui: Since you’ll overnight here, this is the day to rent a car and explore independently. An Enterprise location is just a 10-minute walk from port (at 40 Hana Highway) and it’s open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There are also multiple rental car options (several open until 11:00 p.m).
Visit the summit of Haleakala National Park (admission: $30 per vehicle) first thing in the morning; the 10,023-foot dormant volcano is clearest in the early hours and the views are astounding. Then make your way back down amid the lush volcanic slopes of Upcountry, stopping at Ali’I Kula Lavender Farm and the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) town of Makawao, home to artisan boutiques and the century-old T. Komodo Store, which has a bakery known for its cream puffs.
Next head to historic beachside Paia. If you love seafood, reserve a table (at least three months in advance) at Mama’s Fish House for some of the freshest catches imaginable—yes, it’s pricy, but totally worth the splurge.
If you skip Paia and head toward the historic town of Lahaina and the Ka’anapali resort area, another terrific lunch option is Seascape at the Maui Ocean Center, where you can dine on unique island-inspired dishes such as Kalo Poke Nachos and Ulu’ Ulua Pie (made with breadfruit, macadamia nuts, coconut, and honey). You don’t have to pay admission to the Maui Ocean Center ($39.95 for adults/$26.95 for children) to dine, but if you love aquariums consider a visit; the new 3-D “Humpbacks of Hawaii” immersive experience in The Sphere is captivating.
Further west, stop in historic Lahaina, which is home to a massive 149-year-old banyan tree along with galleries, shops, and restaurants. If you plan a late rental car return at the airport, which is open later than near the port, enjoy sunset on the western end of Kaanapali Beach by the Sheraton Maui Resort to witness the nightly cliff diving ceremony from Black Rock before returning to the ship in time for dinner.
Day 3 (Monday)—Kahului, Maui: You could keep your car for a second day (you’ll need to scope out overnight parking options) and explore Maui’s other resort area, Wailea, or the lush Io Valley. Or you can use the second day to book an excursion, either one offered by the ship or one booked independently, keeping in mind that all-aboard is 5:30 p.m.
I did NCL’s 9.5-hour Road to Hana excursion ($239 per person) on my 2006 cruise and it’s super-scenic with access to black-lava coastline, waterfalls, the picturesque town of Hana and the Seven Sacred Pools at Ohe’o Gulch. Best of all: You don’t have to drive the 620 twisting hairpin curves and 59 narrow bridges of the Road to Hana yourself—just make sure to medicate if prone to motion sickness.
If you’d rather dive into a snorkel adventure, two top catamaran excursions are the six-hour Molokini Crater & Turtle Snorkel ($249 per person) or the 8.5-hour Lanai Sail & Snorkel ($229). I did Molokini—an offshore crescent-shaped crater that’s home to more than 250 species of tropical fish—on my first visit to Hawaii and enjoyed it. Some fellow passengers I spoke with on the recent cruise did Lanai and encountered lots of sea turtles and spinner dolphins.
Day 4 (Tuesday)—Hilo, Hawaii: One of the island’s top attractions, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (admission: $30 per vehicle), is an easy 40-minute drive from Hilo, so I recommend renting a car (Budget, Enterprise, and Hertz all operate here) and heading there first. Inside the park you can peer down into the smoldering caldera from various viewpoints (the one at Volcano House is panoramic and there’s a misty ambience at the Steam Vents). You can even enjoy a short hike to see petroglyphs and/or the Thurston Lava Tube.
But one of the most dramatic spots in the park is 18.8-mile Chain of Craters Road, where you can drive amid stark lava landscape created by thousands of years of Kilauea’s eruptions. Note: NCL offers a Volcanoes National Park excursion ($129 per person), but it only visits several spots along the crater rim and not the lava tube or Chain of Craters Road, so to really experience the park, a car rental is the way to go.
Return to Hilo and visit its other main attractions: the Japanese-style Liliuokalani Gardens along with 80-foot Rainbow Falls and/or 442-foot Akaka Falls before returning your car and re-boarding the ship before 5:30 p.m.
Day 5 (Wednesday)—Kona, Hawaii: Kona, located on Hawaii’s drier, lava-laden leeward side, can be a day to slow down. If you didn’t snorkel in Maui, you can book the ship’s Big Island Snorkel excursion ($199 per person) for a 4.5-hour morning sail along the coast to a reef near Red Hill, with breakfast and lunch included, and afterward stroll from the tender pier (Pride of America anchors offshore and passengers need to be tendered to the pier in lifeboats) and hit Kailua-Kona’s shops and bars.
There’s also a Hertz rental car nearby if you want to explore the scenic Kohala Coast and the cowboy town of Waimea—just remember that the last tender to the ship is at 5:00 p.m.
Day 6 (Thursday)—Nawiliwili Harbor, Kauai: This might be my favorite port because this compact-yet-dramatic isle is easy to explore via rental car. Since Pride of America overnights here, I’d suggest renting a car (nearby Lihue airport has a half dozen options) and heading south to see the town of Koloa and the sunny beachside resort area of Poipu; stop by the Spouting Horn for picturesque black rocks and dramatic sea spray.
Continue west to Waimea Canyon State Park (admission: $10 per vehicle and $5 per person), where a winding road leads to one of the island’s most magnificent natural wonders: a 10-mile long, 3,000-foot-deep canyon awash in red and green and nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
From there, head back east and then north for stops at Wailua Falls and the charming town of Hanalei, where you can grab lunch and enjoy views of Hanalei Bay and the verdant green peaks of Kauai’s legendary North Shore. There are several scenic beaches—including Secret Beach, Lumahai Beach, and Tunnels Beach—along the way, but parking is roadside, access can be tricky via steep trails and swimming isn’t advised due to rough surf. The views, however, are incredible.
Reservations are now required to drive to Ke’e Beach, where the Kalalau Trail along the Napali Coast starts, but no worries: Pride of America does a sunset sail along the spectacular cliffs on day 7.
Day 7 (Friday)—Nawiliwili Harbor, Kauai: Today, the ship departs at 2 p.m. (all aboard is 1:30 p.m.), so if a bit of adventure is your thing, there are several morning hiking and kayaking excursions ($149 to $209 per person). Or you could book a relaxing massage in the onboard Mandara Spa. If you’re heading directly to the airport from the ship on Saturday, you can also do some last-minute souvenir shopping by walking about 10 minutes from the port to some shops near Kalapaki Beach—or simply enjoy a dip in the bay’s calm water.
As the ship sails from Nawiliwili Harbor, be sure to be on deck to enjoy amazing views of the lush Garden Isle—with the best still to come just before sunset as Pride of America cruises past the towering cliffs of the Napali Coast. Don’t miss that!
Maximize your pre- and post-cruise time on Oahu
While this itinerary visits four islands, first-timers should plan for at least two nights on Oahu—home to Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head. Fly in early, book a hotel in Waikiki and try your hand at surfing or outrigger canoe paddling. If you feel energetic, reserve a time (early morning is best) to hike to the summit of Diamond Head for panoramic views. Or visit Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum to experience the royal Hawaii of old.
NCL offers a convenient way to explore must-see Pearl Harbor with a six-hour post-cruise Pearl Harbor and Honolulu City Tour ($109 per person) that concludes at the airport (for passengers with flights departing after 4:00 pm). Other options: Grand Circle Island ($169) and Explore Oahu’s Famous North Shore ($109) tours, which also include airport drop-offs.
My top advice: Don’t wing it, since tours sell out and rental car availability is limited. With some strategic pre-cruise planning, a Pride of America itinerary offers a convenient (unpack once) and enjoyable (plenty of time to sightsee) way to experience Hawaii.