Ambience and Lifestyle


The atmosphere aboard the SS Independence is truly Hawaiian: "laid-back", intimate, friendly, warm, leisurely, uncomplicated -- an untainted reflection of the spirit of the Islands.  You won't find the brash glitzy casinos of Las Vegas, the crush and noise of Manhattan, the "attitude" of L.A., or the party-'til-you-drop spirit of South Miami Beach.  This is a ship where you can meet as many, or as few, others as you want.  You can choose to participate in the activities and excursions to whatever degree you want.

We actually spent very little time with the other passengers because we were too busy exploring the islands on our own.  The one night I sang karaoke (with Jasmine from the gift shop), there were about 7 other groups of people in the lounge (which was fun, because it drew a lot of shy people who wouldn't have sung otherwise).  I was one of 2 or 3 people using the fitness room and the pool.  The hula and ukulele classes graduated about 10 people each.  This should give you the idea that there is SO much going aboard the SS Independence that no one thing is ever very crowded.  The exception to this was the Hoi Hoi Showplace, which was well attended, but too smoky for my tastes.

Unfortunately (at least in my opinion), smoking is permitted in most public areas in the ship including the cabins. (Fortunately, it is completely prohibited dining rooms.)  If I had my way I would restrict smoking to the bars and to designated cabins only.  However, do NOT get the impression that the ship is overwhelmed with toxic tobacco fumes, it isn't.

Like I said, we were too busy to do a lot of mingling with other passengers.  They were a mixed group.  Most were from the US, but there were other countries thrown in.  Most were of European descent, but there were also Asians, African Americans, and other races.  If I had to guess, I would say that the average age was in the 50's to 60's, but there were also quite a few young families, newlyweds, and even one 60th anniversary couple.  Most people were traveling in small groups, but there were one or two singles.  If I had to take a stab at it, I would say that most of the passengers were near the middle of the socioeconomic scale -- no, I did not see any Thurston Howell IIIs.



Dining


Meals and snacks were available nearly around the clock (there is also free 24 hour room service, which we did not use).  There was a lot to choose from and many choices of where and how to eat.


Breakfast

Breakfast was available either in the Ohana Buffet (open 6 - 9 am) on the Ohana Deck, or in the Hibiscus Dining Room (open seating, 7:30 - 9:30 am) on the Maui Deck.

The buffet offered fresh fruit, yogurt, cereals, cooked-to-order omelets and eggs, bacon, sausage, breads and pastries, excellent coffee, a wide selection of tea, juices, and more. The dining room offered a wider selection of items, served with impeccable skill and attention.  For these reasons we preferred the sit-down breakfast.

Overall, breakfast items were better than good, with our favorites being the omelets and the pancakes.  The only thing that was missing was coffee along the lines of espresso, cappuccino, etc., which I found out could be obtained at the Hapa Haole Bar on the Kama'aina Deck aft (technically open after 4pm, but the bartender offered to open at 7 am if I was in need! --is that service or what!?)


Lunch

Lunch was also offered in the buffet or Hibiscus Dining Room, but due to our busy excursion schedule, we only ate lunch once or twice (the rest of the time we packed muffins and fruit from the buffet to take with us).

The buffet offers more fresh fruits and salads, and an assortment of cooked items including pizza and burgers. Carbonated soft drinks were available from the bar for an extra charge (a policy I did NOT understand). We liked the salad and the burgers.

Our one sit-down lunch in the dining room was excellent, we ordered a cheeseburger and the Hawaiian Mixed Plate (which had far better luau-type food than our disappointing experience with the Polynesian Cultural Center).

Throughout the day there were snacks (pizza, burgers, ice cream) available at all times. There was also a moonlight snack from 10:30 to 11:30 pm in the Ohana Buffet, which consisted of scrumptious leftovers from dinner (I loved it, because it reminded me of raiding the icebox!)


Dinner

Dinner was strictly a sit-down affair. When we made our cruise reservations we were given the option of early (5:45 pm) or late (8:15 pm) seating for dinner.   Since we planned to have a very busy excursion schedule, we chose the late seating and were glad for it.  It turns out that the first night there was open seating, after that we were assigned to a table (number 47) for the rest of the cruise.

There are two dining rooms, the Hibiscus (the original First-Class dining room), and the Orchid.

Each night had a different menu, allowing passengers to choose several items in each of five courses.  (Yes, you can ask for seconds, but even a prodigious eater like me was full well before dessert.) Offerings usually included two appetizers, two soups, two salads, several main courses (one meat, one fowl, one fish, one vegetarian), and desserts.

Over the course of the week, our favorites included the fresh lobster, the Polynesian cuisine, and the cream soups.  Barring dietary restrictions or allergies, I would recommend the chef's selection. 

Our waiter, Solomon, was also knowledgeable about what was particularly good on a given night and what to avoid.  The chef will also accommodate special diets when informed a few days before departure.

With only one exception the food was of high quality, and tasted freshly prepared.  It was well-seasoned, well-presented, and arrived at the correct temperature.  The exception to this were the clear soups, which had a distinctly synthetic flavor.  As an amateur cook, I know that consommés are a laborious process, but you would never catch me cheating. (Note to chef: dump the consommé overboard!)

The wine list was extensive if not comprehensive.  Since we had purchased several bottles of fine wine to enjoy in our cabin, we opted for the 7-bottle Wine Package (I believe it was about $135), which offered a selection of acceptable, but by no means excellent, non-vintage wines.

Service was excellent bordering on impeccable.  Our waiter, Solomon, and assistant waiter, Harry, were very attentive and timed the staging of new courses very well.  Only two little faults on the whole cruise: (1) Solomon was a bit inexperienced with the wine service (then again, he was underage, so how much should he know?) and (2) a second fork or fish knife was not provided with the fish service. Like I said, minor details.

Dress for dinner varied from night to night from Polynesian (Aloha shirts and muumuus) to one semi formal dinner (Jackets with ties, and dresses -- but a lot of people just dressed in dressy-casual clothes).


Drinks

Fancy tropical drinks at the bar were about $5.  The ship offers daily drink specials, too.  As a former bartender, I thought the drinks were a bit weak.  I also packed a bottle of my favorite rum (not available on the ship), which I used to season the fruit drinks readily available from the Ohana Buffet.  Please note that consumption of personal alcohol is strictly prohibited in the public areas of the ship (but consumption of personal cigarettes is not -- strange world, huh?).
Shipboard Activities


Kamana'o (the Cruise Director), Lucian, Jill, Kumu Ipo and all of the other activities people worked their butts off to make sure there was always something to do if you weren't eating, sleeping, or excursion-ing.  Offerings were extensive including game-shows, karaoke, pajama parties, hula, ukulele and craft lessons.

Unfortunately, I only showed up on the first night for karaoke to win some fabulous prizes (including a T-shirt, two mugs and a pen!) -- I was either too busy or too tired the rest of the nights to have any more fun!  I can say that from what I overheard, everyone who was involved in the activities had a great time.  The casual atmosphere and the enthusiastic and friendly staff were much appreciated.

Two "MUST-sees" that could be mentioned here or in the "Excursions" section are the tours of the Bridge and Engine Room.  These tours are NOT well-advertised (thank goodness) and occur just once per trip.  
 

Bridge Tour

The Bridge Tour was led by an Officer Cadet who was knowledgeable about the general aspects of seafaring, but somewhat less knowledgeable about the actual history of the SS Independence itself.  However, it is a good time to ask all those questions that popped into your mind about how your cruise is being navigated, charted, etc.

The Bridge befits the history and classic features of a vintage liner with much of the original equipment and brass hardware, supplemented with the latest electronic equipment. 

The original Engine Room Telegraph (where the Bridge crew indicates to the Engine Room the direction and speed of the ship) is still in use.

Hawaiiana Ship Tour

One "passive" activity that I did very much enjoy was learning about the history and culture of the Hawaiian islands from the artwork and displays located along the corridors and in the public areas of the ship.  I became so enthused by this that I actually wandered through every deck of the ship, eagerly absorbing the information in each display.  These exhibits were created with the assistance of Hawaii's famous Bishop Museum. American Hawaii Cruise Lines has made a great effort to give its passengers "Hawaii without the hype" and have won several prestigious awards from the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau and Onboard Services magazine.
American Hawaii Cruises went bankrupt on 10/19/2001

Because this page is part of diary of my cruise in May, 2001, the information on this page has not been updated and may no longer be accurate.
Engine Room Tour

The tour of the Engine Room also took place once a week.  Sign up is at the Purser's Office.

This is another absolute MUST-see, but is not suited to everyone because of the heat, steep climbs, low headroom, and narrow passages that must be negotiated on the tour.

The Engine Room tour was led by two Engineer Cadets, who were also enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the ship.  You depart from the Purser's Lobby and descend a few decks into the guts of the ship itself.

The SS Independence is, of course, a steam ship.  In fact it is the only steam passenger ship still in regular use in the United States today.  The steam is generated by heating purified water by combustion of crude oil in 4 huge boilers located in two identical engine rooms.  (The SS Independence was designed in the Post-War era with redundant features to be resistant to torpedo attack.  She was light-years ahead of her time when she was built and even today exceeds the safety standards of the very strict United States Coast Guard.)  The steam is then used to turn turbines which are directly connected to the 22 ton propellers by a gear box and huge drive shafts.   (However, the wait-staff in the dining room swear that they have to help man the oars when not busy serving passengers.)
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Amenities


  • Movies.  Sorry, too busy to see one, but they play all day for those of you who came to Hawaii to sit in a dark room.  Titles were fairly current, including Saving Grace, Nurse Betty, and Shanghai Noon, as well as documentaries about the islands.
  • Fitness Center.  A reasonable attempt, and outshines what most hotels offer.  They have a Nautilus-clone machine, treadmills, and stair machines.
  • Self-service Laundry. Machines are free.  Soap and other laundry products are dispensed from a machine at 50 cents a pop.
  • Library.  Didn't use, but would have if given the chance.
  • Hoi Hoi Showplace.  The offered some great entertainment, including "The Coasters". However, it was far too smoky for me or those with me.
  • Gift Stores. They have 3 (or maybe 1, depending on how you count) offering everything from sunburn ointments to clothing.  Prices are extremely reasonable and I would encourage you to look there first, before buying on shore.  If you are lucky, you will meet Jasmine, who is not only a great salesperson but also a great karaoke singer.
  • Also: 23,000 square feet of open deck space; 4 bars, conference center, 2 pools, beauty salon, massage service, photo gallery, medical facility with full-time physician, youth recreation center.


Kids


We didn't bring any children along, even though a lot of parents back home were begging us to.

But, there were quite a few kids aboard, young and old alike (but I'll stick to talking about the official kids, not the young at heart).  I guess I should also say that when I talk about "kids" I mean the kind (whatever age) that are really unable to go around without adult supervision (I guess up to 11 years old or so). 

Since it was my first cruise, I wasn't really sure about just how many kids belong on a ship of our size.  If I had to guess I'd say somewhere between 20 and 40.  My guess may be way out of line, because I think that, like us, a lot of the families with kids (FWKs) were on a choose-your-own-adventure; but, unlike us, most FWKs chose the early dinner.

I was also surprised, or maybe disappointed, that all the kids were so well-attended, either by their parents or by the wonderfully friendly staff.  I say disappointed because I'm not that old that I can't remember how I disappointed I would have felt if I couldn't get into some serious mischief on a big adventure such as a cruise.  (I know I would have at the very least conducted my own self-guided tour of the bridge, engine room, and every nook and cranny I could find.  I would probably have found a way to launch a lifeboat, too! Today's Dr.-Laura-ized kids seem so much more "managed" and "domesticated" by comparison.)

I'm not the authority on kids' activities on board, but I did manage to find that they have their own schedule of events including arts and crafts, storytelling, TV (yes, about the only TV on board is in the playroom), etc.  I'm also pretty sure I saw one FWK bring aboard one of those portable DVD players with the built-in screen.

Thanks to the Scogginses of Ennis, TX, I can provide you with a recent edition of the Keiki Tradewinds, the SS Independence's children's program schedule.  To view these, you will need Adobe Acrobat reader.

  • Keiki Tradewinds Page 1
  • Keiki Tradewinds Page 2
  • Keiki Tradewinds Page 3

Other things of interest to FWKs:

  • plenty of kid-food available (including burgers, pizza, hot dogs)
  • non-carbonated soft drinks (juice-drinks, iced tea, lemonade), milk, and ice water, are freely available from dispensers in the Ohana Buffet
  • I didn't drink sodas on board, so I'm not sure how much they are, but I heard rumors about a flat-rate kids' soda plan ($20-ish?)
  • there are no crows in the crows' nests (I checked)
  • there is no explicit rule against water-skiing from the ship if you can figure out a way
  • contrary to popular rumor, the captain does NOT put bad kids adrift, nor does he abandon them on deserted islands (at least not that I could see)

All in all, I think that all the kids appeared quite happy.