Sneak Preview: TravelAge West Goes Onboard the Pride of America

Read a first-hand report with exclusive photos from Germany's Lloyd Werft shipyard

By: Ana Figueroa

Her name is Pride of America, but she was built in Germany. So, that’s where TravelAge West previewed what is surely one of the most anticipated (and costly) cruise ships in modern history. Norwegian Cruise Line hosted a select group of media, plus 100 or so top-producing agents from its President’s Club, on a whirlwind trip to two German shipyards June 2-7. Not only were we destined to be the first passengers aboard the Pride of America, but the first to get a glimpse of the Norwegian Jewel to be delivered in August 2005 and see the early stages of the Pride of Hawaii, set for a Spring 2006 delivery.

Our trip began in Berlin, where a day of sightseeing was capped off with an exclusive dinner at the German Parliament building. The next day, we boarded a charter flight to Bremen, followed by a two-hour bus ride to Papenburg and a visit to the Meyer Werft shipyard. There, we were treated to an up-close look at the shipbuilding process where we saw immense plates of steel welded together by a specially designed laser. A walk into one of the shipyard’s enormous covered docks brought a collective gasp from the group. Off in the corner, covered by scaffolds, cranes and other equipment, was the Norwegian Jewel, her hull painted in vibrant jewel colors and sparkles. Donning hard hats, we boarded a rickety construction elevator, and braved fumes, debris and the screech of table saws during our tour of the nearly completed vessel. She boasts some unique features, such as a cluster of new “Courtyard Villas,” surrounding a private pool and garden-like relaxation area. A group of bars, called “Bar City,” looks like a fun concept, as well.

We also caught a glimpse of the Pride of Hawaii, the third NCL America ship, although there’s not much to her at this point, other than a small forward section.

After an overnight at the quaint Hotel Alte Werft (a former shipyard building), it was off on another three-hour bus ride through the German countryside. When we reached Bremerhaven, on the North Sea, all eyes turned in the direction of the Lloyd Werft shipyard.

The Pride of America was hard to miss.

Her red, white and blue “streamers” and large blue stars painted on her hull were visible as soon as we pulled off the highway into the city proper. The 2,138-passenger, 81,000-ton vessel is the first U.S.-flagged ship to be built in 50 years and the largest U.S.-flagged ship ever. Her story, of course, will go down in maritime history, so chock full of twists and turns many wondered if she’d ever come to fruition.

Starting life as a project of American Classic Voyages (operators of American Hawaii Cruises), her hull was built in a Mississippi shipyard. When ACV filed bankruptcy after Sept.11, NCL shrewdly purchased the hull and transported it to Lloyd Werft to be modified and completed. The story of how the line launched NCL America, a division operating American-flagged vessels with American crews, is nothing short of audacious. Had everything gone according to plan, the Pride of America would have commenced year-round all-Hawaiian-island service in July 2004. But, the ship sank in its berth in January 2004, causing NCL to launch its interisland program with the hastily converted Pride of Aloha, instead.

Even now, the Pride of America wasn’t fully completed on time, a fact that caused NCL to change its original itinerary for the shipyard preview. Our group was first scheduled to board the ship, attend the hand-over ceremony, and then sail overnight to Dover, where she’d be shown off to an additional slew of agents. But, the Lloyd Werft crew was still busy performing finishing touches and punch list items as we boarded for our now truncated stay of 18 hours.

If any travel agents were disappointed in not getting their promised suites, they didn’t show it. On the contrary, most seemed blown away by the ship.

“It’s beautiful, really a showpiece,” said Danny Ching, president of Non-Stop Travel in Honolulu.

Billed as a “celebration of America,” the Pride of America certainly lives up to that promise. The public rooms highlight American treasures, from the Capital Building to California's Napa Valley. Standouts include the Capital Atrium, with its white columns, grand staircase, backlit glass domed ceiling and huge United States seal on the floor. It could double as the set for “The West Wing.”

The elegant Jefferson’s Bistro is NCL’s signature venue, but modeled after the library at Monticello and decorated in a tres chic pale blue. The ship’s two main dining rooms are separated by a flight of stairs, and have two different themes. The Skyline Restaurant pays tribute to the great skyscrapers of America, with art deco lines on pillars, windows and even chair backs that evoke the Chrysler building and other monoliths. The Liberty Restaurant, in red, white and blue, features Colonial-style furnishings, busts of our founding fathers, paintings of historic scenes and sweeping draperies. It seems a tad stuffy for a Hawaii itinerary, where most guests will be clad in flip-flops and shorts, but, that doesn’t matter, considering the number of other dining venues onboard.

The Lazy J Texas Steakhouse, with its wagon-wheel theme, looks like a Western movie set, and features certified Angus beef. The Cadillac Diner pays homage to Elvis and 1950s-era diners (with a menu to match). The Gold Rush Saloon, with a rustic decor that includes wood floors, historic artifacts and animal parts mounted on the walls, could pass for a watering hole along the Klondike trail. And the Napa Wine Bar, with its stone and wood Craftsman-like accents, will make the most sophisticated wine lover feel at home.

As a ship that will sail year-round in Hawaii, the Pride of America appropriately has some Hawaiian touches. The most stunning of these is Pink’s Champagne & Cigar Bar, on deck 6 above the Capital Atrium. The lounge’s design, with its anthurium pattern on the carpet, pink walls and ceiling, lovely plantation-style furnishings and crystal chandeliers is a tribute to the (pink) Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki. It’s one of the prettiest rooms on the ship.

The Aloha Cafe the ship's indoor-outdoor buffet is also imaginative. Instead of the traditional long buffet line, it features a series of food stations, or “progressive food action islands,” as NCL has dubbed them. Whatever the name, the idea of separate locales for carved meats, salads made to order and desserts is fabulous.

The Pride of America features some other noteworthy elements, as well. There’s wireless Internet access in 80 percent of the public areas, as well as in all staterooms. The ship has a tennis court, a new category of inter-connected Family Suites and an art gallery. She’ll also feature a new dining reservation system. Television monitors all around the ship will inform passengers of wait times at all the restaurants, so they can make their plans accordingly.

Perhaps the ship’s most valuable feature is its “meetings and incentive travel friendliness.” As a U.S.-flagged vessel, conferences aboard the Pride of America will carry the same tax benefits as a conference at a land-based hotel. NCL has wisely chosen to capitalize on this, by offering an outstanding complex of meeting rooms onboard. The Diamond Head Auditorium is designed for “meetings in the round,” with seating for 250 people encircling a central stage and huge television monitors. Marketed aggressively, it should rightfully become one of the most sought-after venues for meetings at sea.

Will everything on Pride of America garner rave reviews? Probably not. Of course, it's not fair to criticize a ship that isn't even entirely finished yet, but some potential trouble areas do stand out. The Santa Fe Spa, which could have been Zen-like, with soft turquoise and desert rose colors, is instead a hodgepodge of cactus paintings, tin cutouts that look suspiciously like the ubiquitous Mexican souvenirs and framed embroidered prints that convey a Central American not New Mexican ambience. And a certain film Academy might take interest in the golden statues lining the ship’s Hollywood Theater. They bear a striking resemblance to you-know-who.

Some agents on the shipyard tour did express disappointment with the size of the cabins. A few of the ocean-view with balcony rooms were so tight that only about 12 inches separated the edge of the bed from the corner (curved thankfully) of a built-in storage unit. A larger-sized American couple will have some problems maneuvering around.

Service, which was the bane of NCL in the first couple months of the Pride of Aloha sailings, will certainly be carefully watched on this ship, but the line feels it has taken painstaking steps to ensure smooth sailing in that regard. The staff has, among other things, gone through a special three-week training course, and their ranks have been beefed up to handle attrition, a huge headache for Pride of Aloha. Based on what we observed during the shipyard preview, the staff is clearly enthusiastic and eager to work with passengers. But NCL probably won’t get much slack if things go wrong in the service department.

President and CEO Colin Veitch insisted the line has learned from its mistakes, and it’s hard not to root for him. The ship is presently crossing the Atlantic, with workers no doubt continuing to work on last-minute touches. Plans call for a splashy inaugural in New York City on June 17, followed by a week of taping “Live With Regis and Kelly” onboard. The aerobics room will become a production studio, and the Sport Deck will be converted to a stage for the show’s hosts. Audience members will sail with 20 of their closest friends, courtesy of a NCL giveaway.

Audacious? Bold? Yes. But, that’s typical NCL.