Pride of Aloha
by Barbara Altman
July 7, 2006
My 13-year-old daughter and I were on Pride of Aloha from July 7th through July 14th. Just prior to our cruise, I had been reading on the boards at this site about all the problems this ship has been experiencing, and I was prepared for a less-than-optimal experience. I don't think I would have booked on this ship at all if I had read the reviews and comments here before booking. I was particularly concerned because Aloha reportedly had a couple of "sick sailings" in June, with numerous sick passengers and crew members jumping ship right and left (see "sickness on Aloha" on the message boards). As our sailing date approached I was feeling more anxiety than pleasant anticipation.
My fears were mostly unjustified. The good news: things are looking up on Pride of Aloha, at least in terms of service. As far as I know our cruise had a full complement of staff and we never had any complaints about our cabin steward, Roderick, or any of the waiters. I overheard random comments about poor service, but never experienced it myself. Keep in mind, however, that this was my first cruise, and I'm not accustomed to four- and five-star hotels on land. Pride of Aloha's service is comparable to what I'm used to at two- and three-star hotels. Our "superior" inside cabin was perfectly comfortable and of adequate size for the two of us, but I don't think I would have liked having a whole family in there. It would have been pretty tight with two adults and two kids. More drawers would be nice but the closet is big enough and the mini-safe is a nice touch.
For me, the highlight of the cruise was the Hawaiian cultural center and related activities. I really enjoyed Kawika, the Hawaiian ambassador on our cruise. He taught us to hula and to make various kinds of leis. I found him kind and funny, and my love of the Hawaiian islands and people increased steadily during this trip. Hula dancing was a revelation to me: it is calming and centering in a way that reminds me of yoga and tai chi. It's impossible to hula without ending up peaceful and happy. I commented on this to Kawika and he said "Hula is a great unifier."
The food was okay. I found the main restaurants to be better than the Hukilau Café and we didn't try the specialty restaurants. The main restaurants don't cater to kids and my daughter was a bit bored waiting for her main dish, as she didn't order any appetizer, soup or salad. The second time we ate in a main restaurant, I encouraged her to try the chilled soup, which was kind of like a smoothie you eat with a spoon. She liked that. I was disappointed by the quality of the tomatoes in the tomato and mozzarella appetizer: a caprese should be not be made unless with red-ripe tomatoes. The seafood pot-au-feu was wonderful if you like shellfish. It had mussels, clams and shrimp in a delicious saffron broth. Wait times were not bad for the restaurants. The only time we had a long wait was when we requested a table for two. They gave us a beeper, so we were free to move around the ship and didn't have to stand in line. It went off in about 40 minutes, as they had promised.
The Hukilau café was OK for cafeteria food, but I overheard comments that it was disappointing. Maybe to people who have experienced buffets on other cruise lines? We loved the breakfasts in the Hukilau: wonderful waffles, delicious blintzes, tiny apple and cherry turnovers, minature cinnamon rolls. But we were puzzled by how often cream cheese appeared but no bagels. I guess the bagels ran out first? We didn't discover until mid-cruise that there were two additional buffet lines in the Hukilau Lanai at the stern of the ship. Tip: the port line was always the shortest as you have to go through the Longboard sports bar to get to it. At lunch and dinner the Lanai lines had different food, burgers and hotdogs and chili and such, but at breakfast it was the same food, with the addition of waffles.
There was only one shipboard barbecue on our cruise. The food was delicious and nicely presented, better than the Hukilau, I thought. We had one dinner from room service; my chicken caesar salad was very good, better than the Hukilau's, and my daughter's hot dog came with a fruit cup that contained mango, something I never saw anywhere else on the ship.
My concerns about sickness were not realized. A crew member sprayed our hands with disinfectant every time we boarded, and we made use of the ship's hand sanitizer dispensers on a regular basis. We didn't hear about anyone being ill, although there were some people who got seasick on our cruise. The inter-island crossings were extremely windy and unusually rough for July. I wasn't bothered by the ship's motion, as my first trip to Hawaii was aboard a 34-foot sailboat. By comparison, the ship's motion was kind of ponderous and slow; it was hard to walk a straight line but it didn't make me ill. (I didn't get my land legs back until I'd been home for four full days.) It didn't bother my daughter either, but we saw a number of people with a little patch behind one ear, which we found out was medication for motion sickness. It amazed me that the ship's performers were able to keep their balance while dancing and doing acrobatics. The "Sea Legs Cirque" show was most impressive in that regard.
There was one thing about Pride of Aloha that really bothered me and that was the smell. Especially in the stairwells around the restaurants, there was a sour stink that I never got used to. It reminded me of vomit. If a lot of crew members were sick a couple of weeks earlier, maybe they hadn't gotten things fully cleaned up in the crew quarters yet. However, that's just speculation, and I should add that my daughter didn't notice the smell at all, and I didn't hear anyone else remark on it. Maybe I just have an over-sensitive nose.
Shore excursions: We went to the Maui Ocean Center and thought it compared favorably with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's smaller but the tropical reef exhibits are first-rate. We took a Captain Zodiac snorkel cruise from Kona to Kealakekua Bay. Our guides were outstanding and very helpful when my daughter's mask didn't fit right. We were booked for a helicopter tour on Kauai, which unfortunately had to be cut short when the helicopter developed a problem; our money was refunded. I was deeply disappointed but my daughter was not, so I guess I saved a lot of money on a flight that would have been wasted on her. The main reason I wanted to go on the helicopter was to revisit the Na Pali coast, where I went hiking 25 years ago. I didn't know until after booking the flight, that the ship actually cruises past the Na Pali coast after leaving Nawiliwili harbor. The ship also cruises past the lava floes on the south shore of the big island, at night, on the way from Hilo to Kona. That's an awesome sight. Both "cruise-by" events were narrated by Kawika the Hawaiian ambassador.
As a consolation for the lost helicopter tour, I took the Waipi'o valley tour out of Hilo. Our guide was a 74-year-old Hawaiian patriarch named Kele, who was born and raised in the valley. He showed us his taro field and his family's summer house in the valley, showed us where he was for each of the two tsunamis and picked flowers and noni fruits for us out of the windows of the 4WD van. It was an amazing cultural experience, all in all. We skipped the Luau on Maui; I don't drink, and $95 a person seems like a lot of money to subsidize someone else's drinks. I think the Luau to do, if you're going to do one, is at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu, but this itinerary doesn't allow for that; you'd have to board in Honolulu and book a pre- or post-cruise stay on Oahu. We rented cars and did our own thing on Kauai, and on our last day on Maui (our flight out was a red-eye, ugh!).
A few final tips and comments: being a non-drinker saved me a lot of money on the cruise. We picked up sodas when ashore and brought them aboard to store in our mini-fridge, and that was another huge money saver. $35 for a kid's drink discount sticker on the ship card is not worth it; don't buy it. The security people search everyone's bags for weapons (and booze) every time you come back to the ship and you have to go through a metal detector. It's a drag but I guess it's necessary in a post-9/11 world. I had a hard time remembering to bring both my ship card and photo ID whenever I left the ship. I saw people with clear plastic ID holders on lanyards; that would have been a good thing for me. Shuttles for the car rental companies are present when the ship docks at Hilo, Nawiliwili and Kahului. I didn't see them at Honolulu or Kona.
All in all, we had a very positive first-time cruising experience. I was struck by people's openness and friendliness and I learned a tremendous amount about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture. My advice is don't let the complainers scare you away from this ship. It has a lot to offer.