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Jason

Three NCL ships to fly U.S. flags

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As part of a bill Congress passed in 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line plans to operate three U.S.-flagged ships in Hawaii.

Pride of Aloha, a 6-year-old vessel, began Hawaii sailings last summer following a major refurbishment. Pride of America's construction began at a Mississippi shipyard; it was completed in Germany, and the vessel's Hawaii itineraries start July 23. Pride of Hawaii, being built in Germany, is expected to enter service next year.

Unlike other cruise ships, which are registered outside the United States, these vessels are not required to visit a foreign port, making island-hopping more practical for vacationers with only a week to spare.

Yet another Hawaii-based NCL ship, the Norwegian Wind, is registered in the Bahamas, and its 10- and 11-day itineraries detour to Fanning Island, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii and part of the Kiribati Republic.

One factor to consider when planning your trip is that NCL's Hawaii-based ships are subject to state law that precludes casino gambling.

NCL's Hawaii venture has not evolved problem-free. A shipyard accident in January 2004 delayed Pride of America's debut for one year. Then, an inexperienced all-American crew got off to a turbulent start on Pride of Aloha. Passengers on early sailings didn't hesitate to list numerous complaints on Internet travel sites. They ranged from slow restaurant service and weak buffet coffee to "rock-hard" mattresses.

When we sailed on Pride of Aloha in May, however, these issues seemed to have been resolved. For Pride of America, Norwegian is putting increased emphasis on customer relations in training the ship's staff and crew.

"We've invested a lot of energy into making sure the ship comes out of the yard with fine service," said Andy Stuart, executive vice president, marketing and sales.

All new recruits spend three weeks at the Seafarer's International Union's Paul Hall Center for Maritime Education and Training in Maryland to prepare for working 10-hour shifts seven days per week. Recruiting is perhaps even more important than training.

"It takes a certain kind of person to work aboard a cruise ship," Stuart said. "Now we make it very clear about the challenges of ship-board life as well as the positives. We show them a crew cabin, and we explain in detail what it's all about. Some people say, 'it's not for me,' and some people say 'it's exactly right for me.'"

Source: Eileen McClelland, Houston Chronicle

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