Cruising Hawaii on the Norwegian Star
Story and photos by Paula Hughes Court
Accommodating 2,200 passengers and 1,100 crew members, the $400 million Norwegian Star is the largest cruise ship ever to set sail in Hawaii. Built specifically for freestyle cruising, the ship has 10 restaurants and 14 bars. The seven-day Hawaii itinerary includes stops in Hilo, Hawaii, Kahuliu, Maui, Nawiliwili, Kauai and Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati.
The “Freestyle Cruising,” the theme on the Norwegian Star, is all about choices. The concept works like this: For meals, instead of two main dining rooms with an assigned seating time, you can choose from a selection of 10 restaurants open from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. Dine on Spanish tapas one night, gourmet French the next. Eat whenever, wherever and with whomever you choose.
The choices aren’t limited to dining, either. Norwegian has eliminated the mandatory formal dinners, and personal attire is left up to each passenger’s discretion, with “resort casual” preferred.
Another change introduced to smooth the way for passengers is pre-paid tips: no more scrambling around for cash at the last minute to divvy up among room stewards and restaurant servers. And if you wish to tip more or less than the standard amount, simply contact the front desk to make any appropriate adjustments.
Spirit of Hawaii
Norwegian Cruise Lines advertises its seven-day Hawaiian islands excursion as a “Taste of Hawaii,” and that’s exactly what it is. The actual time spent in port on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii is shorter than most people would prefer. The Norwegian Star makes up for this by extending the Hawaii theme onto the ship. Hawaiian music plays continuously, and a variety of Hawaiian-themed classes, such as hula dancing, lei making, and palm frond weaving, are offered. Also offered are lectures on Hawaiian history, as well as performances by the famous Matangi Polynesian Dancers in the Stardust Theater. A sculpture of Ne Ne Geese, the bird of Hawaii, flies high above the atrium..
Tastefully decorated in primary colors of blue, green and red, the Norwegian Star is a beautiful ship. Our tour guide, Jessica Shonwise, let us in on a secret: If you’re ever confused as to where you are on the ship, simply look down at the carpet: Red carpet means you’re in the middle of the ship, green is aft and blue is forward. The Norwegian Star has 11 passenger decks, numbered from 4 to 14.
The Norwegian Star offers an impressive selection of 10 top-quality restaurants. I highly recommend trying out the specialty restaurants. Yes, there’s a modest service charge of $10-$12.50 per person, but it’s well worth it for a five-star meal. Why not spend an extra $125 per couple for the week and enjoy the very best?
For Le Bistro and Soho Room are staff favorites, followed by Ginza, Teppanyaki and Endless Summer. There’s no service charge at Endless Summer, but still, reservations are required. In fact, all of the specialty restaurants require reservations. The most difficult reservations to make are for Le Bistro, which seats only 66, and Endless Summer. Because reservations can only be made for the same day or the next day, plan ahead. On the first night of the cruise, the specialty restaurants are empty, so this is a good opportunity. Also, service charges are sometimes reduced on the first night since everyone is at the sail-away party. Occasionally, the specialty restaurants open for lunch. Check the Freestyle Daily for times. For a good deal, try Ginza’s $10 all-you-can-eat sushi lunch.
Our first night we dined at Ginza and discovered an exotic fusion of Thai/ Japanese/Chinese flavors along with an impressive selection of sake and sushi. Ginza features an a la carte section, as well as a sushi and tempura bar. Don’t miss the house special, Peking Duck, and the Banana Pancakes for dessert. The service charge for Ginza is $10 per person. We found the servers to be not only gracious, but also gorgeous.
Monday night found us at The SoHo Room. SoHo features high-end Pacific Rim cuisine in a stylish atmosphere with colorful pop art. The specialty here is live lobster. Other menu items include Szechwan Encrusted Beef, Tuna Tartare, Rack of Lamb, Filet Mignon and Stir-fried Lobster. The broiled lobster with drawn butter was the best I’ve ever eaten.
Tuesday night, we dined at the Hawaiian-themed Endless Summer overlooking the Grand Atrium. Endless Summer features true Hawaiian specialties such as Lomilomi Salmon, Bar-B-Que Ribs and Pineapple Cream Pie.
Not to be missed is the Wednesday afternoon chocolate buffet at Versailles. We returned from Fanning Island to find a huge buffet set up with every kind of chocolate dessert imaginable. Since most of the tables were already taken, we each filled a plate and took it back to our balcony where we could view our departure from Fanning Island.
One tip about the chocolate buffet: Don’t book an early dinner reservation for Wednesday night, because the chocolate will ruin your appetite. Unfortunately, we had already booked a 5 p.m. reservation at the very entertaining Teppanyaki Room.
Teppanyaki won the vote as the favorite among the kids in our group. The personable knife-wielding chefs charmed and amazed the children with egg and butter tosses. The kids laughed when they caught the eggs in their hats, and roared even louder when they missed and the egg landed on the floor. Teppanyaki features filet mignon, scallops, shrimp and vegetables grilled Benihana style in full view of diners. The menu in the Teppanyaki Room is a la carte. Most entrees run $10-$12 for an enormous amount of food. This restaurant offers three seatings a night, with the first starting early at 5 p.m.
We dined only one night at Versailles, a formal dining room offering the traditional six-course dining experience, and found the food to be good, though not on the gourmet level of the specialty restaurants. Some of the other guests raved about a few of the menu items: Macadamia Crusted Chicken, Beef Wellington and Seafood Bisque.
For our final dinner, we chose Le Bistro, a fabulous five-star restaurant serving nouvelle cuisine and French classics. The quality of the food rivals that of any land-based restaurant. We ordered Sautéed Foie Gras Appetizer, French Onion Soup and Filet Mignon with béarnaise sauce. Though stuffed, we managed to make room for dessert: crème brûlée and chocolate fondue.
We didn’t make it to La Trattoria, a casual Italian restaurant serving pizza, pasta and other Italian specialties; Las Ramblas Tapas Bar & Restaurant, which serves authentic hot and cold Spanish tapas; or the Blue Lagoon, a 24-hour food-court-style eatery featuring hamburgers, pot pies, wok dishes and, from what I’ve heard, great fish and chips.
For breakfast, my husband enjoyed Versailles every morning, while my daughter and I ate at the kid-friendly Market Café, where action stations serve made-to-order omelets and waffles. For lunch, the 130-yard-long Market Café buffet offered a huge selection of fruit, ethnic dishes, pasta, salads and desserts. A separate buffet showed a good variety of vegetarian choices. Kids even have their own section, complete with a child’s-size buffet, chairs and tables. I was impressed by the quality of food on the menu at The Grill by the Oasis Pool. Besides hotdogs and burgers, The Grill also serves ribs, lamb, and bratwurst.
On the Norwegian Star there’s top-notch entertainment for everyone: the amazing comedy and illusions of Charles Bach, sensational singing and piano playing by Roger Carr, comedy by Kermet Apio, and authentic performances by the Matangi Polynesian Dancers and the China Stars Acrobat Company. Then there are the Andrew Lloyd Webber shows featuring the Jean Ann Ryan Company. Not to mention the theme nights, first-run films playing in the cinema, and the hilarious Not-so-Newlywed Game with Cruise Director Patti Honacki.
We loved our room, a spacious 284-square-foot mini-suite on Deck 11. The room was furnished with two lower beds that could be made into a king, dressing table, bathroom with bathtub and shower doors, and balcony. The couch transformed into a comfortable full-size bed. Outside the door to our room, a neat disk could be turned to signal “make up cabin,” “do not disturb” or “turn down cabin.”
As with all cruises, plan to be back on board 30 minutes to an hour prior to departure. We sailed away exactly on time at every port.
Honolulu, Oahu: Prior to the cruise (and not included in the “Taste of Hawaii” package), we spent two nights at the gorgeous Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort on Waikiki Beach. It was the perfect antidote for a 12-hour flight with a 7-year-old. The resort offers something for everyone: white-sand beaches, snorkeling, pools, and water sports–even warm-weather penguins.
Hilo, Hawaii (The Big Island): Because we were traveling with a child, we opted to rent a car at most ports. Economical cars tend to sell out six weeks in advance, so book early for the best rate. We rented a car from Hertz ($36) and drove up to the truly amazing Volcanoes National Park. I highly recommend this trip for first-time visitors. It offers such unforgettable sights as steam vents and miles of hardened lava flows.
Fanning Island, Republic of Kiribati: This stop is always the cause of much discussion among passengers. Some people absolutely hate Fanning Island, while others, like myself, thought it well worth the two sea days to get there and back for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Many passengers compare the tiny atoll with privately owned islands in the Caribbean and find it lacking. Not enough facilities, they say: The water’s murky. The beach is too crowded. There are too many flies. What they don’t understand is that Norwegian Cruise Lines doesn’t own this island. The residents do. And they don’t want more facilities built or the beach dredged. And I can’t blame them.
Here’s the way to make the most of your Fanning Island visit. Book the Napali Beach excursion for $20, which includes a free T-shirt. You will be taken to a private beach with hammocks, floats and bar service (though no restrooms). Just don’t expect resort-style amenities.
Yes, Fanning Island is beautiful, but the main attraction is the sweet, gracious people who live there, especially the children. Before going on this cruise, I researched the island on the Internet and learned that the children there could use school supplies and books, as well as clothes and, of course, toys. So, my 7-year-old daughter, Claudia, and I brought along about 150 tiny toy animals to hand out to the children we met. Their faces lit up when they saw the gifts, and they graciously thanked us by bestowing many handmade gifts on my daughter: necklaces, bracelets, barrettes and a grass skirt.
On a practical note, Norwegian does a great job of making people as comfortable as possible on an island that doesn’t have electricity, telephones or running water. They set up a barbeque on the beach for lunch and provide clean restroom facilities on the main beach. Afterward, they pack everything back up and load it onto the ship.
Kahuliu, Maui: This stop is a heartbreaker because it’s so short; the ship docks at 1 p.m. Unfortunately, what nobody realizes is that everyone on the ship must clear immigration before they can disembark. Although the process started early, it wasn’t until after 2 p.m. before we could leave the ship (there are always those one or two people who hold up everyone else by not complying). Again we opted to rent a car ($60), and drove straight to the Sheraton on Kannapali Beach. After swimming, we changed and headed to the luau at the Sheraton that we had booked through the ship. The food was good, and the location couldn’t be beat for watching the sunset. The locals perform a ceremony atop Black Rock and dive into the water at sunset. After a quick stop in Lahaina, we hurried back to turn in the rental car and almost missed the ship.
Nawiliwili, Kauai: Kauai is everything you imagine when you picture Hawaii: lush vegetation, clear blue water and rainbows. We picked our car up at Hertz ($55) and drove to Poipu Beach. The gentle tide provides a safe environment for snorkeling at all skill levels. We spotted several species of fish, turtles and eels just a few yards offshore.
Norwegian Star consistently ranks high for their embarkation and debarkation procedures, and I can see why. We took advantage of another feature of freestyle cruising: the choice to stay on board the ship and enjoy our room until 10:00 a.m. Our luggage was waiting for us when we finally debarked.
Future of Norwegian Star
We took our cruise in July 2003. The Norwegian Star will continue the Hawaiian itinerary until May 2004, when she will move to Vancouver for a summer Alaskan itinerary. She then will be outfitted with a new casino and begin cruising out of Seattle. In September 2004 she will begin Mexican Riviera cruises out of Los Angeles.
The Norwegian Star will be replaced in Hawaii by the new U.S. flagship Pride of America, which will begin service in July 2004.
For more information:
Norwegian Cruise Lines