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   Cruise Travel - Cruise Ships


American Hawaii

SS Independence

Rating:Four Stars
Submit your review hereSubmit your review
Operator: American Hawaii Cruises
Year Built / Last Refurbished: 1951 / 1994
Length / Tonnage: 682 / 30,900
Number of Cabins / Passengers: 406 / 872
Officers / Crew: American / American
Operating Area: Year-round Hawaii
Telephone / Fax: Tel 150 2244 / Fax 150 2244

Review by Mark H. Goldberg, TravelServer.net, Cruise Editor

Hawaii captures you, soothes and enchants you, she lets you hang loose and envelop yourself in the bright colors of her land and sea. Sail the INDEPENDENCE and it won't be long before you're decked out in a loud, colorful Hawaiian shirt and enjoying life the Old Hawaiian Way. Simply because the State of Hawaii is comprised of islands, the ideal way to approach them is from the sea and the best way to see them is by this wonderful old cruise ship. Able to produce a maximum of 55,000 shaft horsepower at 150 rpms, her steam turbines geared to twin screws are a sight to behold. When she was new the INDEPENDENCE showed how powerful that is when she steamed at just over 26 knots on her trials off Cape Cod.

By international rules, when new, the INDEPENDENCE was the eleventh largest liner in the world and certainly one of the fastest. The big question was...would anyone care? For spoken in tones of a flat declaratory to a shrill protest the cry "No one travels in an American ship!" was heard in steamship agencies and smart parties the world over. Experienced travelers and neophytes alike looked upon American ships with a bemused condescension, secure in the "knowledge" that in terms of food and service, those "Yankee" liners just couldn't produce - the foreign liners were better. American ships had a severe image problem. Yet the American twins INDEPENDENCE and her identical twin CONSTITUTION soon proved themselves extraordinarily popular, hosting glittering rosters of notables intent on sailing under the "Stars and Stripes". Movie producers were drawn to them. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr starred in "An Affair to Remember" costarrinq the CONSTITUTION. After United States Lines stodgily rebuffed Desilu studios, American Export sent plenty of material and film footage of the twin liners to Hollywood. Who among us can ever forget Lucille Ball "landing" by helicopter on the after Bridge Deck of the CONSTITUTION? And yes...THIS is the INDEPENDENCE the agent on the pier mentioned when he told a distraught Lucy that she could get to Europe on the following sailing... So great was their popularity that in 1958 American Export Lines sent both ships for major overhauls. Fitting additional First Class cabins, the forward ends of their superstructures were massively altered. For all that, against the ANDREA DORIA and CRISTOFORO COLOMBO and later the LEONARDO da VINCI and the superliners MICHELANGELO and RAFFAELLO on the "Sunny Southern Route", the American liners just couldn't compete.

The results of a projected trio of 20,000 ton express liners for the Mediterranean route, these ships began to take shape as far back as 1940 when American Export Lines, Inc. planned for the future. It would be YEARS before any such ships were built and when they were, there were two, not three. And bucking an American Export Line tradition, the two ships were not given names beginning with "EX" but were instead named for historic U.S. Navy frigates. Had the intended third sister been built, she would likely have been named CONSTELLATION. Asking for input from many quarters, it is Gustavo Pulitzer, famed Italian interior designer who should be given first initial credit for many of the pleasing touches in the ultimate form of these classic liners. Noted American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss in collaboration with the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation deserves credit as the designers of the INDEPENDENCE and her sister CONSTITUTION. With the help of mail contracts and building subsidies to pay the $25,000,000 each ship cost (that's over $150 million each, in TODAY's dollars!) two ships were laid down at Bethlehem Steel Company's Quincy, Massachusetts yards at the very end of the 1940's, the INDEPENDENCE on March 29, 1949, the CONSTITUTION on July 12th. Their plans included many eventual defense and military needs so safety provisions, fire proofing and rapid convertibility to trooping requirements took first place in the design of the pair. And the INDEPENDENCE is still a very safe ship today!

Debuting with a 53 day cruise to the Mediterranean, Red Sea and India in 1951, the INDEPENDENCE got into service before the Italian postwar liners came out and captured the cream of the Italy trade. And even had the competition been less, the INDEPENDENCE and CONSTITUTION would have been hard pressed to meet the enormous costs of operating under the American flag either on their regular Atlantic service or on cruises through the Mediterranean or to the Caribbean. By the late 1960s these American liners were desperate for money and American Export Lines entered into an agreement with Diner's Club/Fugazy to jazz up the twin ships. Only the INDEPENDENCE was actually updated to appeal to a "mod" generation and when she appeared with Harlow's eyes peering out from her halo of a "mod" sunburst on her white hull, eyes rolled in contempt. Before the ship lover knew it, she and the CONSTITUTION were gone from our lives. Withdrawn by 1968, the CONSTITUTION went into idleness at Jacksonville, Florida followed a few months later by the INDEPENDENCE which was laid up at Baltimore with their fleet mate ATLANTIC. Reports of a sale of one or both of the sisters to Chandris came to naught. A plan to operate the INDEPENDENCE on charter by Wall Street Tours, a Manhattan based travel company also went nowhere. Should they find buyers willing to operate them, they would be but shadows of their former selves.

The ships were idle for years until 1974 when fabled Chinese shipowner C.Y. Tung came to their rescue. Buying the pair with an obligation to return them to the control of the United States government in time of war, he had each ship's twin funnels repainted with his signature livery, a red chrysanthemum on buff. Prefacing each ship's name with "OCEANIC", he sent them to Hong Kong. Some work was found for the OCEANIC INDEPENDENCE but none for her sister which now rode at anchor in the shadow of Victoria Peak. For a while in 1975 the OCEANIC INDEPENDENCE shuttled between Lisbon and Angola carrying refugees, mostly civilians fleeing Angola to Portugal Lisbon. Then, despite several good intentions, she was again retired and returned to lay up.

When Matson and later Pacific Far East Line went out of the passenger business leaving the piers at Aloha Tower bereft of passenger tonnage save the occasional cruise caller, C.Y. Tung saw possibilities where others saw problems and investigated the possibility of operating his beautiful OCEANIC INDEPENDENCE as a cruise ship among the Hawaiian Islands. But since Congress thought to protect American ship owners and shipbuilders as early as 1886, any ship operating Hawaii cruises would have to have American registry. American ships sold abroad are ineligible to return to U.S. registry except in time of war. Though American built, the ship was now registered abroad and THAT could have been a big problem for the proposed weekly cruises through the Hawaiian islands. Unanimously approved by both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1979, an Act of Congress brought the OCEANIC INDEPENDENCE back under the Stars and Stripes and allowed American Hawaii Cruises to go into business. The pleasant task of refurbishing the graceful vessel for modern cruising began. Eliminating class distinctions, upgrading cabins on the lower decks and altering the decor to include the soft atmosphere of the Hawaiian Islands, the OCEANIC INDEPENDENCE was ready to begin a new life. Wearing a traditional Hawaiian lei at her stem as she arrived off Honolulu for the first time, she paused off Pearl Harbor long enough to drop a wreath in memory of American forces killed in the surprise attack there on December 7, 1941.

But after that, at least since her maiden sailing on her 7 day cruise circuit of the major islands on June 21, 1980, the gentle Hawaii of the tradewinds reigns supreme aboard this wonderful ship. In the meantime American Hawaii Cruises has changed hands twice and the newest owners, who also own the wonderful MISSISSIPPI QUEEN, AMERICAN QUEEN and DELTA QUEEN decided to upgrade and substantially improve the INDEPENDENCE. In 1994 the ship was withdrawn from service and sent to Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company where she was extensively refitted and prepared to last another forty five years!

Public Areas
Conceived to be an example of luxurious modern American living at sea the INDEPENDENCE still offers relaxed elegance in a bright and airy modern decor reflecting the natural beauty and colors of Hawaii.

The INDEPENDENCE has acres of deck space and both open and covered promenades. The design of the ship includes a pair of wings over the old Sea Isle Club, once the First Class pool. From there you have an eaqle's view of the festivities on the after decks. It's also a great place to see and not be noticed...Just beyond the former Sunlane Club, now called the Ohana Lounge is the big swimming pool and its surrounding lido is the scene of many a party. The main public rooms are the semicircular Commodore's Terrace...aft on Kamaa'ina (formerly Promenade) Deck where evenings are welcomed with a cocktail and a tune from the talented pianist. Next is the Hoi Hoi Showplace where sightlines are mostly good and the efforts of the cruise staff and two Hawaiian dance troupes are shown during nightly shows. Centerpiece of the INDEPENDENCE's public rooms, though, is the Kama'aina Lounge...newly thought out and opened up during her recent refit...so it now extends to the floor to ceiling windows of the former glass enclosed promenade. Tropical in decor it's worth a visit if only to write a postcard home...if you can even remember you had a life before you came to Hawaii.

One deck below are the Ohana Lounge and the Ohana Buffet...the former providing seating for people feasting from the buffet as well as offering a venue for some late night entertainments. Way down deep in the ship is a cinema while in spaces once occupied by Tourist Class public rooms on Maui (formerly A) Deck are the gym and a conference center.

There are generally two sittings at dinner, most breakfasts and lunches are served in open sittings. Down in the 420 seat Hibiscus Dining Room on sailing night there's a buffet. The more intimate 110 seat Orchid Dining Room doesn't operate on Saturday night...it opens for breakfast on Sunday morning. "Aha!" you'll think if you are skeptical of American tonnage - the hot dogs. "There must be something fishy here...Is this an American ship? This is a sumptuous set up and it looks good," you'll think. That's what I thought the first time and every time I've sailed since as I pile on enough shrimp, roast beef and assorted foodstuffs to choke a pig. A steward brightly garbed in an Aloha shirt will escort you to a table and your culinary adventure begins. For a change I cannot say enough about the food in the INDEPENDENCE. Maybe it's because my expectations were low or maybe because the food is so good...in fact the food is usually better than good and I'll spill the beans...one feisty old lady, a Mrs. Gottrocks in her own right...and something of a cruise ship reviewer proclaimed the only cruise ship to serve better food than she ate on the INDEPENDENCE was the SEA GODDESS I, an accolade I surely second.... You will eat so well aboard this ship I'd be surprised if you're able to muster up the curiosity to investigate the midnight snack.

If the lunch buffet doesn't tempt you and the menu in the Dining Room does, GO...even if you feel less than hunger pangs. I remember sitting down and thinking "Drat!, foiled again! No Hot Dogs" - but for simple meals there are great burgers assembled as you like them, a big sandwich and several choices of hot dishes. Every brochure in the business trumpets the praises of the shin's cuisines so loudly that few can really deliver. American Hawaii Cruises has always underplayed its claims to wonderful food though the food aboard the INDEPENDENCE is a treat. Somewhere behind the scenes in this American operation must be a Jewish or Italian grandmother demanding that all hands be overfed!

Underlining the contemporary American way of living, there was so little cleavage between First and Cabin class spaces it seemed that most cabins were interchangeable between the two. And there was a lot of truth in that for 40% of the 1,003 berths in each ship were interchangeable among classes. Only 205 berths were permanently graded First Class, 109 always Cabin Class and 258 full time Tourist Class. That flexible passenger arrangement gave American Export Lines tremendous leeway in following market demands. Highlight of modern American living were cabins convertible to sitting rooms by day. Most cabins are still so equipped and that sofa you use in the afternoon is a very comfortable bed - because it's not a pull out...the sofa back folds down to reveal a thick comfortable mattress. The INDEPENDENCE is a one class ship now offering a dazzling 13 different varieties of private quarters from tiny Category G Budget Cabins (both inside and outside available) to a Category AAA Superior Suite...Category D is the lowest grade for two lower beds but for this cruise...your cabin is not where you will want to be.

Take a look at an outside cabin on A deck forward. Decorated with Hawaii in mind, it has a Hawaiian name as well as a number. It's big enough to sleep four comfortably and the round porthole reminds you you are aboard ship. Once you unpack you will be puzzled by the surfeit of storage space for there are enough closets for a dowager and enough drawers for an apothecary. What is small, though, is the shower...but that good American plumbing is happily in evidence.

American Hawaii Cruises is very "INTO" Hawaii...so much so that one of the most popular employees aboard ship is the KUMU, the Hawaiian story teller....whose job it is to tell the visitor as much as possible about Hawaiian lore, customs and culture... Around twilight time on Saturday evenings, passengers gather in the Hoi Hoi Showplace for a Hawaiian Show, one show aboard ship I'm glad I saw. This extravaganza of Hawaiian music and hula dancing and memories of the "Aloha" that evening will remain with you long after the INDEPENDENCE stops sailing. With the full range of usual cruise ship activities enhanced by some like lei making and ukelele lessons apropos in these parts, it's not hard to imagine how most passengers spent their day at sea. I saw some at breakfast in the Dining Room where the extraordinary personalities of friendly staff broke the ice of a first morning at sea. I saw others at the breakfast buffet while I was on my way to stock up with logoed souvenirs in the ship's signature shop. But a visit to the Navigation bridge of THIS ship always gets me and I always visit...even if only for another look at the framed notice instructing the officer on watch to take the ship immediately to sea in the event of a nuclear attack.

My favorite Hawaiian island is always the one I'm on and I think I'd like to keep with the INDEPENDENCE until I have done every shore excursion the line offers... and at last count there are 56 of them. Getting ready to board the INDEPENDENCE I grin like a hyena even before a lei is placed around my neck and I pause for the obligatory mug shot cruise lines like to sell boarding passengers. Even before sailing the INDEPENDENCE offers a lot of the Hawaii experience but for me one of the best is the moment of departure on this unique American flag ocean liner. Once out of the harbor the ship turns to port and is soon off Waikiki. Sunday - It's not far from one island to the next but Sundays are spent at sea and for most of the day from nearly anywhere out on one of her 23,000 feet of open dock space, you can look out and see islands, Kahoolawe, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, depending upon the circuitous route the Captain chooses to navigate. An active sort, I spent usually spend Sunday afternoons aboard the INDEPENDENCE in a deck chair outside the Surfrider Bar, hardly able to pause later for some fresh popcorn.

When Monday morning comes...be ready for a wonderful time on Kauai, the Garden Island. There should be time for a drive out to Hanalei Bay. If there is a prettier spot than that end of Kauai, its not on this planet. It's vaguely around the corner from the Na Pali coast, a formation of lushly covered steep cliffs shrouding pretty beaches accessed only by boat or helicopter.Compelling is the word for the helicopter trip the line offers for a look at those cliffs which rise majestically from the sea. It's a toss up as to which is lovelier...Kauai or Maui but since the ship arrives at Kahului, Maui on Tuesday for an overnight call, you have plenty of time to check it out and decide for yourself IF YOU CAN! Maui, so deservedly popular with vacationers, exudes a charm of her own. From the jumbled strands of spaghetti paved into a road called the Hana highway, a 55 mile course through landscape inordinately compelling to the majestic Iao valley, Maui is a sensual delight. Never mind that American Hawaii brings a fabulously rousing Hawaiian show to entertain passengers here. It's during the Maui call that American Hawaii offers a shore excursion like no other. Uncommercial in the extreme, it's Tour 32 (at least it USED to be), not a trip for the queasy or the debile. Leaving the ship's side at 3:30 AM, participants follow a tour leader and bike down the slopes from the summit of Mt. Haleakala, 10,000 feet above sea level. MAGNIFICENT!

On Thursday the INDEPENDENCE calls at Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii where you can pick up another rental car and drive it to Akaka Falls, catch another look at Volcano National Park, drive down the Chain of Craters Road and maybe have lunch in town. (Whatever you do...DON'T bother with the buffet at Volcano House...) To me it is near Hilo, sleepy, rainy little Hilo, where the air is gentlest and the breeze softest. Kona on the bright, dry side of this big island is the next port and the INDEPENDENCE anchors there on Friday mornings and the tender gives you flawless views of the ship as it pulls away, runs alongside and cuts across the liner's gently raking bows. Coffee plantations, macadamia nut farms and the Parker ranch are on this side of the Big Island.

After the INDEPENDENCE clears Kona on Friday evening, my lei went into the sea from the after deck. I know that it washed ashore and will bring me back...A week in the INDEPENDENCE speeds by like an hour, drawing all to soon to a close. This gracious GRANDE DAME really does turn on its ear for all time must be that absurd old saw, "No one travels in an American ship" for here in the waters of Hawaii the INDEPENDENCE is deservedly popular, an American ship that wins the hearts of most who sails with her.

Who Goes
The "who's who" of who has sailed in the INDEPENDENCE or CONSTITUTION at some point in the ship's career really does read like "Who's Who" for so many names in that book have been on the ships' passenger lists. It was President Reagan who happily signed the bill to bring the CONSTITUTION back under American registry. He was familiar with these ships and had been aboard the INDEPENDENCE for a Governors' conference back in the 1960's when he was Governor of California. A framed photograph of him and Mrs. Reagan hangs in the ship's wheelhouse. It is said that when he took the helm the ship veered slightly to the right... People demanding nonstop 24 hour a day loud action accompanied by pulsating bass may not enjoy a cruise in this ship (though I'd be surprised if there is ANYONE who doesn't enjoy a 7 night INDEPENDENCE cruise). This ship is particularly popular with people over 40 who seem to enjoy the sock hop, pajama party and other events calculated to please us aging "boomers" but there is a lot here for everyone - from toddlers to great grandpa!.

The first time I set out for Honolulu to take this ship I hoped for the best and expected the worst. Visions of plastic cups, paper plates and hot dogs, motel modern style and indifferent American service filled my dream track the night before my first sailing in this ship. Well I needn't have worried! That cruise was marvelous. Now, after a multi-million dollar refit and plenty of attention to detail, the ship exudes a warm, friendly Hawaiian air. In a nutshell...this ship and her 7 night Hawaii cruise is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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