By Ernie Roller
2-Night Preview Cruise
Los Angeles / San Diego / Los Angeles
Departed: July 8, 2005
Retuned: July 10, 2005
Category BD (Oceanview with Balcony)
Over 200 Pictures!!: http://public.fotki.com/eroller/pride_of_america/
When I received my invitation for this 2-night preview cruise for travel industry and media professionals, I wasn’t initially excited. I had seen pictures of PRIDE OF AMERICA online and frankly I wasn’t very impressed. Her exterior sported a stubby bow and I wasn’t sure about the stars & stripes “hull art”. The interior pictures unfortunately did nothing to elevate my opinion of the ship. I’m ecstatic to proclaim my initial observations were way off base. I absolutely loved PRIDE OF AMERICA and I think she is probably the most unique new ship to come off the blocks in quite some time. PRIDE OF AMERICA (POA) is in fact a one-off design. She will never have a sister ship like so many newbuilds today that are number 6 or 7 in an ever growing series. This fact alone makes POA something rather special. I also leaned that first impressions are not always correct and not every ship photographs well. I took over 200 photographs of POA (see link above) and I must say they don’t do justice to the ship. She is a ship that needs to be experienced in person.
Things got off to a rough start at the pier. Computers were down and check-in took 1 ½ hours. NCL America did provide a little entertainment to keep spirits up. There was a comedian on stilts dressed up as Uncle Sam trying to keep us all entertained. The entire pier was dressed up with NCL America flags and banners and it looked great. Were the computers initially working things would have gone much smoother. Check-in itself was the usual process. ID’s were checked, credit cards swiped, deck plans and ship information handed out, and a picture taken that is embedded in the magnetic strip of your cruise card. The obligatory embarkation picture was taken, followed by a security screening, then on to the ship. Once onboard your cruise card was swiped and several staff members welcomed you onboard. You were on your own to find your cabin which is fine by me.
Many cabins were not yet ready, which was surprising considering it was almost 3pm. I had heard disembarkation from the previous cruise was delayed, but this was never confirmed. I did go inside my cabin to drop off luggage and have a quick look around. It seemed about half way made-up and I figured the rest would be completed later. There is a nifty dial outside the cabin with a few different settings. You can set the dial to “Welcome”, “Make-up Cabin”, Do not Disturb”, etc. This is a great idea since Freestyle Cruising means you are not on a set schedule. Your cabin steward/stewardess requires a little help to know what your requirements are at any given time, and the dial achieves just that. My category BD standard balcony cabin was small by industry standards, at approximately 178 sq feet according to the NCL brochure and I believe that includes the balcony area. Even so, it was well laid out and attractive with Hawaiian themed carpet, wood veneer on the shelves and closets, and comfy white duvets. Closet space is very limited even for two people, so don’t plan on bringing a lot of excess clothes. Formal nights are not required on NCL America and this is a good thing considering the limited closet space. Cabin amenities include a coffee maker with coffee, ice and glasses, an interactive TV (called Freestyle iTV which was not yet operational), safe, and refrigerator. The bathroom was also on the small side including the shower stall. There was an amenity kit that included lotion, a shoe shine, and shower cap. Soap, shower gel, and conditioner are provided in dispensers in the shower and above the sink. One side of the mirror opens for additional shelves, but space is still pretty tight. The perpetual “hugging shower curtain” is eliminated by having a shower curtain with several steel rods in it that keep it hanging straight. Water pressure and temperature were fine. The balcony was average size (which means it’s not too large), and included a table and two chairs of good quality. Definitely better than the plastic resin that many mass-market cruise lines use. One thing missing in the cabin were master light switches over the bed, and robes. To turn off the main cabin lights you had to get up and go to the switch by the cabin entrance.
Suites were absolutely gorgeous and very well appointed. Be sure to check out the pics! Each one had unique décor so they were not cookie cutter in design or shape. If you can afford one, go for it. They were some of the nicest and unusual suites I have seen on any ship.
A very pleasant surprise were the inside cabins. I think they were about the nicest inside cabins I have seen on any ship. They actually seemed larger than the balcony cabins because of their layout. I liked the fact there were two desks/dressing tables as opposed to only one in the outside and balcony cabins. POA is one ship I would not mind booking an inside cabin on.
Outside cabins had the same setup and layout as the standard balcony cabins. If you can snag one, go for the category CC on Deck 7. These eight cabins have huge floor to ceiling windows and are located directly midship. I would almost prefer one of these over a balcony cabin … almost!
One thing worth mentioning is the cabin corridors. They are probably the widest and most attractive I’ve seen on any ship (including QM2). The corridors have wonderful indirect lighting, subtle Hawaiian music is played, and the carpet is either flower or stars pattern. There is artwork along all the corridors, and one side is a wood veneer which gives them a very welcoming and soft touch. Bravo to NCL for creating corridors that don’t look like they belong in a hospital.
I was more than a little curious about an all-American crew working on a new cruise ship. American’s are generally not used to working 7-day weeks with 12 + hour days. I wasn’t sure if the service would suffer, and I think for the most part it didn’t. The American crew was generally the friendliest I have come across in some 60 cruises. They were young, very attractive, energetic and eager to please. Each one had a story and they were more than willing to share it if you were willing to listen. Personally I greatly enjoyed hearing about their experiences. I know not everyone will appreciate the informality of the crew, but I found it charming. NCL America had some major difficulties with the initial crews on PRIDE OF ALOHA. As many of you may recall, there were reports of massive crew turnover and walk-outs during the initial inaugural period. The two major issues NCL had to overcome were expectations and training. All crew for NCL America now attend the most extensive crew training program in the entire industry. The facility is located in Piney Point Maryland and every crew/staff member spends several weeks there before joining the ship. Not only do they learn the basics about shipboard life and what is expected of them, they discover if shipboard is something they desire. NCL creates an environment at Piney Point that is very similar to what the crew experience onboard ship. The turnover at Piney Point is high, but those that do graduate are the best in their class and more importantly, truly want to be there. This was certainly apparent on PRIDE OF AMERICA based on my personal experience. Service in some areas was a bit slow, but this could be expected on any new ship regardless of crew nationality.
Unfortunately there was one exception, and that is cabin housekeeping. At first I thought the problem was limited to my cabin and section, but after chatting with several passengers the problem seemed to be widespread to all decks and cabin types. I’ve never had such a filthy cabin. Greasy hand prints on all the mirrors; hair and crumbs in cabin drawers; dirty faucets, dirty countertops and dispensers; and even my toilette was never cleaned. In fact there were left over remnants from the previous occupants. I actually used public toilettes the first night onboard as they were spotless (as was the rest of the ship). My bed was never turned down (and never had a bedspread), carpets never vacuumed, the safe was locked shut, the refrigerator was filthy, and even the glasses didn’t look clean. I can only hope the bed sheets were laundered. Tissues in the bathroom were never provided, but toilette paper was. I didn’t say anything the first night as when I first entered the cabin after embarking I figured it wasn’t finished being cleaned. I enjoyed the evening (way too much to drink!) and when I returned the only thing in the cabin that changed was some towels were supplied in the bathroom. Nothing else! The next morning I got up and went down to the Reception Desk. I advised of the unacceptable cabin condition and that I couldn’t even use the toilette. She wrote my cabin number down on a long list and ensured it would be taken care of. A couple hours later I returned to the cabin and it was somewhat serviced. The greasy hand prints were still everywhere but new towels were added and the toilette was cleaned. The sink was still dirty and no tissues were supplied. The bed being made was a joke … she simply threw the duvet back on the bed and didn’t even bother to rearrange the pillows. A bedspread would have been nice. Nothing else was cleaned. Had I been in this cabin for a week I would have had a chat with the Chief Housekeeper and also had all room steward gratuities removed. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel or cruise ship where the housekeeping service was so poor. Unfortunately others had similar problems, but mine seemed to be the most extreme. I also spoke to other passengers who had wonderful cabin service. Spotless cabins, bedspreads, turn-down service, etc. Basically what you would expect. I hope this is a problem that NCL America gets under control, and soon.
Other than the cabin, the rest of the ship was extremely clean and you always saw crew polishing, vacuuming, and keeping things tidy.
The dining choices on POA are numerous. There is really something for everyone. Not all venues are free, but even if you didn’t spend an additional dime on food you would have a vast array of choices. I had absolutely no complaints about food. One night I ate with a large group (12 of us I believe) in the Liberty Restaurant, and the second night I had wonderful sushi in “East Meets West” with another large group.
So what is free and what isn’t? Here’s the skinny.
* Free: Skyline Restaurant; Liberty Restaurant; Aloha Café; Key West Grill; Cadillac Diner (except milkshakes); Little Italy.
* Cover Charge: East Meets West; Jefferson’s Bistro; Lazy J Texas Steakhouse
Something unique being implemented on all NCL ships and currently onboard POA and NORWEGIAN SPIRIT are flat panel dining availability screens. They are located all over the ship in most public areas. I was initially skeptical of these screens, but they are a great feature. NCL actually modeled them after similar software used for ski lift wait times at major ski resorts. These flat panels list each restaurant (free and cover charge) along with the current wait time at each venue. The color will change from green (empty), to yellow (filling up), to red (full, wait involved). The system is linked to every restaurant onboard so any Maitre’d at any restaurant can reserve a time for you at any other restaurant. It’s really a cool system and I believe it can also be viewed on your cabin TV once the iTV interactive system is up and running. If your restaurant choice is full and you don’t want to switch to another dining venue, you are given a pager so you can enjoy yourself in any one of the lounges until your pager goes off.
Lounges / Activities / Entertainment:
POA has a wonderful assortment of lounges, entertainment, and activities. Just like the dining arrangements, there was something for everyone. There are whimsical lounges such as the Mardi Gras nightclub. Elegant and eclectic areas like the Lanai Bar, and sophisticated night spots such as the Napa Wine Bar. Pink’s Piano Bar and the Gold Rush Saloon are also festive choices. There are plenty of quiet areas as well, with John Adams Coffee Bar and the SS America Library ranking as top choices. The SS America Library deserves special mention. This library is huge and beautifully decorated. It’s themed after the liner S/S AMERCA and includes artifacts from this beautiful ship as well as a gorgeous painting of the ship and a very detailed model. The only library that comes close at sea is onboard the QM2 and QE2. Great job NCL!
Unfortunately I didn’t attend either of the production shows. This is unusual for me as I tend to enjoy them, but I was too busy enjoying myself with new found friends to give them a second thought. Both shows received raves from passengers who saw them and hopefully I’ll get a second chance as I plan to book POA for a 7-day cruise later this year. NCL hosted amazing deck parties both nights, and something I’ve never done before was ride a mechanical bull! Yes, one was set up right on deck. The second night they removed the “bull” and set up a mechanical surf board instead. It was great, but I’m not certain if this is a permanent activity or just something special for these industry cruises?
The Santa Fe spa is quite lovely and offers very soothing Southwestern décor. The treatment rooms looked very comfortable and there is a relaxation area as well. There are separate men’s and women’s changing rooms along with single sex saunas, steam rooms, and showers located inside the changing rooms. A nice touch is the “star lit” ceiling in the steam and sauna that changes colors creating a unique atmosphere. I believe there will be no charge to use the steam rooms and sauna. The workout area is large and well equipped, and there are individual flat screen panels above each cardio machine which is a nice touch.
Another unique feature onboard POA is the Diamond Head Auditorium. This is without a doubt the most extensive meeting area onboard any ship. While I would have liked to see an observation lounge in this spot, it does work very well as a circular meeting space. NCL America has high hopes of attracting extensive meeting and incentive groups. There is the added incentive for US corporations to book POA and her running mate in Hawaii for added the tax benefit. As these ships are registered in the United States, US corporations can use the meetings as a tax write-off. This is simply not possible on foreign flagged vessels. I hope the Diamond Head Auditorium becomes a multi-use facility, and as the ship becomes broken in maybe a few of the ship’s activities can be scheduled up there.
Pools / Decks:
Swimming pools are one area that could be improved upon. The pools are not the most attractive (compared to other ships) and are a bit small. The main pool area (South Beach Pool) is simply too cluttered. The Ocean Drive Bar is an excellent and large pool bar, but the rest of the area is lacking. The aft Oasis Pool is one of the smallest pools I’ve seen on a ship, but it’s a very attractive area and I imagine it will be much quieter than the midship pools. Be sure to check out the adorable oversized shower up on Deck 14. It’s one of the many whimsical features that make POA a stand-out.
There is plenty of open deck space and most of it is covered with a blue plastic surface. I would have rather seen teak but that is rare these days, especially on mainstream ships. There is also a full wrap-around Promenade Deck on Deck 6. It’s wide but unfortunately chairs are few and far between.
Special mention goes to the Sports Deck on Deck 14. It’s huge and will prove very popular to sports fanatics. It’s also located out of the way as not to disturb the rest of the passengers.
The good and not so good:
cabin décor; overall ship décor and detail; Aloha Café outdoor buffet stations; Liberty Restaurant; American crew; restaurant choices; inside cabins; the amazing suites; onboard artwork; the dining availability panels; food and overall service; spacious corridors; ship’s overall atmosphere.
Not so good:
cabin housekeeping is poor; small pools, cluttered decks; minimal closet space; slow embarkation; inaccessibility to Santa Fe Spa and gym.
A short note about disembarkation. Since PRIDE OF AMERICA is a US flagged ship and calls at no foreign ports, there is no need for passengers to fill out any forms or clear US Customs and Immigration. This means that very shortly after the ships docks, you are free to go. I saw people disembarking as early as 7:20am, and I disembarked at 8:15am and easily made a 9:30am flight out of LAX. NCL America provided each of us with a commemorative inaugural gift that will make a wonderful addition to my ship collection. It’s an American flag folded into a triangle and framed in a wood and glass case. There is a plaque that reads “PRIDE OF AMERICA Inaugural Season 2005” on the outside and there are hooks on the back for hanging. It’s one of the nicest inaugural gifts I have come across. It was a bit awkward to carry on the plane, but there was no way I was leaving that behind! As we walked off the POA, many of the staff and crew from POA and the NCL Miami office were standing on both sides of the Promenade Deck clapping and cheering as we disembarked. It was a thoughtful and appreciated gesture, not to mention memorable and unique. I think it’s something they should do after every cruise as it really left a lasting impression and made you feel valued by NCL.
What’s next for NCL and some tidbits:
* Look for a new NCL website coming in early 2006. It will encompass a new interactive booking engine for both travel agents and consumers.
* Freestyle will be taken to the next level. Part of this will be the ability to pre-book all restaurant reservations before you leave home on the new website. Basically you will be able to plan your entire dining week in advance. Also incorporated will be the ability to pre-book all your spa treatments and of course shore excursions. The other aspects of how Freestyle will evolve are in the works, but expect innovation.
* Latitudes, the NCL past passenger club is getting revamped. Currently all past passengers receive the same recognition regardless of how many NCL cruise you have taken. Beginning this Fall, Latitudes will have different benefit levels based not only on how many times you sail, but how much you spend as well. Those passengers that consistently book suites will receive higher recognition.
* With the addition of NORWEGIAN JEWEL, PRIDE OF HAWAII, and two additional “Star Class” ships, NCL will have the youngest fleet in the industry. In 2006 NCL is actually accounting for half of all new built tonnage in the N. American cruise industry.
* A new class of ship is currently in development. It will follow the two unnamed “Star Class” ships already on order. Expect innovation and many surprise features.
* All the older NCL tonnage will be phased out of the fleet by 2010 at the latest. This includes DREAM, WIND, MAJESTY, and CROWN.
* Keep an eye out for some interesting itineraries for PRIDE OF HAWAII. Prior to her year round 7-day Hawaii cruising, she will embark on a few trans-Pacific itineraries between the West Coast and Hawaii. Some interesting ports will be included (Hawaii and the mainland) and there is no need to stop at a foreign port since she will be US registered. Her fast 25 knot speed will also make the crossing to Hawaii in a shorter time.
* None of the NCL America ships are permitted to sail in Alaska or the Caribbean. This was a last minute mandate lobbied by some of NCL competitors. Interesting.
* The SS UNITED STATES, currently laid up in Philadelphia and owned by NCL has not been forgotten. I was able to personally question NCL executive Andy Stuart (who BTW is a very dynamic speaker and charming man) about her future. He informed me NCL had created a team to determine the feasibility of bringing the SSUS back to service. Results were very positive and he even spoke of her excellent hull condition. Unfortunately when POA encountered her troubles at the shipyard in Germany, the team switched their objective from the SSUS to getting POA into service. I truly feel the SSUS has a good possibility of being brought back to service after speaking with Mr. Stuart. He seemed to appreciate the value and recognition a ship like the SSUS could bring NCL America. Stay tuned!
* Following the 2-night cruise I enjoyed, the crew of POA were getting a short cruise of their own. Andy Stuart and the rest of the NCL management team onboard (including POA Officers) were switching roles and becoming waiters, bartenders, and entertainers for the crew onboard POA. Meanwhile the crew becomes passengers and can enjoy the hospitality of their superiors on an overnight cruise up to San Francisco. A massive deck party was planned. What better way to show employee appreciation and sustain excellent morale as well? This gesture really helped earn my respect for NCL as a caring company.
* Look for NCL to split from parent company Star Cruises later this year and become public on the NY Stock Exchange. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.
The Final Word:
In a nutshell, I loved PRIDE OF AMERICA and have found a new appreciation for NCL. To be honest, NCL was fairly low on my personal scale up until now. With PRIDE OF AMERICA and the rest of the new ships NCL is building, I’ve discovered what an innovative company NCL has become. They are not perfect (and no cruise line is), but I think they have a bright future and they certainly have earned my support and new found respect.
I wish them great success!
Any questions or comments? Please email me at: [email protected]