My wife and I decided to take this cruise to celebrate her birthday. It was to be her first trip to Hawaii and my first in 36 years. We flew in two days before the cruise to visit Oahu, and rented a car at the airport. Despite the 13-hour trip from Virginia, we attended a luau the first evening, and on the second day we drove to Haunama Bay, where I had done my first snorkeling in 1967, and then to the Polynesian Cultural Center on the north shore, almost a two-hour drive. Roads are not well marked. We spent four hours visiting the villages representing each of the various areas of Polynesia, sampling foods like taro root and tapioca, and attending shows.
On Feb. 25, we checked out of the hotel (the Hilton Hawaiian Village) and returned our Avis rental to a downtown location, where we caught a taxi to the pier for $25. We arrived about noon. There were no porters. Once we were inside the terminal, the check-in process, through the Latitudes line, was about five minutes. We were presented with leis and shell necklaces, photographed, and we were on our way aboard.
The Cabin We booked a category BD balcony cabin, 9678, aft on the port side of Deck 9. The balcony was very private, with no one able to look down from above. It was equipped with two chaise lounges and a table. The cabin was fully ready, except for a missing TV remote and the packages of Kona coffee for the in-room coffee maker, which our stewardess provided promptly. The large refrigerator accommodated a champagne bottle easily. We had ordered the NCL romance package, which includes champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, dinner in the Bistro with a bottle of wine of your choice, canapes one evening on formal evening, a 5x7 photo, and for those interested, a cake and champagne party -- well worth the $79 price.
We spent the early afternoon exploring the ship and taking photos of the dining rooms and meeting facilities before the ship was crowded. When sailing full, it does not depart until 8 p.m. due to the later-day arrival of flights from the mainland. The ship was spotless, and in excellent shape. At lunch in the Aloha buffet, due to the less than positive reviews we had seen, I watched carefully to observe the staff behavior and general conditions. While the food selections are unlabeled, they are plentiful, with a selection of hot items, pizza, sandwiches, salads, desserts, and free soft ice cream. Staff appeared constantly to clear and wipe empty tables. It was no different than any other line I have been on in my 26 prior cruises.
The Crew I made a point of speaking to staff throughout the cruise, asking where they were from. The assistant hotel director told me that 75% must be U.S. employees, and the rest U.S. visa employees. They had just gone into the third six-month contract period, and had major turnover in the dining room staff in December as a result. However, by February, it was not noticeable.
Dining We made reservations on arrival for two specialty restaurant dinners, the Lazy J Steakhouse (with a group we were accompanying), and Jefferson's Bistro. We ate in the Liberty Main Dining Room five nights, as we preferred the decor there to the Skylight Main Dining Room. The wait-staff in each was exceptional. I noted that the ship attempted to accommodate large parties at some tables, and saw groups of 12 to 24 frequently, even in specialty restaurants, something I have never seen on other ships. However, comments I heard indicated that the service was not as good/prompt for large parties as it was for small tables.
We got tables for two on the six nights we requested them, without reservations, and with a short wait only on the optional formal night. Twice we were seated at window tables. The staff was very friendly, and gave us excellent service. I even ordered a bottle of Hawaiian produced wine which, after tasting, I declined, and they provided me an alternative with no fuss. On another night, when they were out of the wine I ordered, they provided me a higher priced bottle at no extra charge. I had notified NCL that my wife was celebrating a birthday, and that night they sang to her and presented a large whipped cream covered cake, with no surcharge. It was excellent. My only comment -- there were only three entrees on the menu each night, a meat, fish and vegetarian choice. However, always available was steak, salmon (a different presentation each night), and pasta. A lamb lover, I was a little disappointed that it never appeared on the menu.
The Japanese and Italian restaurants were kept busy, although my wife commented that the Italian restaurant looked, at least by daylight, more like an ice cream parlor than an Italian restaurant. The Jefferson's Bistro was by far the most attractive and comfortable of the three NCL Bistro restaurants we have eaten in. Unfortunately, the menu is always the same, and less than imaginative in French offerings. In the Lazy J Steakhouse we ate with a group of 14 others, and they served the vegetables family style, on plates to be passed. One of the party (all from England) was celebrating a birthday, and one of the waitresses, on request, sang several songs for the group. The group of Englishmen and women observed, from their viewpoint, that the food was not served hot enough, and the wine not cold enough. Personally, I thought it was fine.
Entertainment The two productions shows featured some of the best talent and performances I have seen at sea, drawing a standing ovation on the night of the second show. They offered two performances each night. Other nights there were juggler/comedians and game shows. The day activities were lighter, as the ship is in port every day, but in Kauai, where it rained much of the two-day stay, they revised the schedule of day activities to accommodate those staying aboard. There were opportunities to dance, and on Feb. 28, Shrove Tuesday, they had a Mardi Gras party in (where else) the Mardi Gras Disco, where my wife even won a bottle of champagne. Two comfortable stops were the Pink Champagne Bar, where a pianist entertained in the evenings; and the Lanai Bar and Lounge on Deck 13, where a guitarist/singer entertained. This bar was closed for private functions the first two nights.
On the optional formal night I was one of maybe a dozen men wearing a tuxedo or dinner jacket. The schedule included one Hawaiian night, one Polynesian night, one optional formal night on Tuesday, and the rest listed as Resort Casual. In fact, it was Hawaiian night every night.
While NCL and NCL America are very strict about x-raying and confiscating any liquor or wine even in checked baggage, they will sell a bottle of wine at the bar for consumption in the cabin. I didn't try to purchase other alcohol for the cabin. Drink prices, in my opinion, are higher than on other ships, which may be due to Hawaiian taxes, and gratuities are not automatically added, causing me to have to calculate between martinis! I would prefer they automatically add the gratuity, as I suspect may servers get stiffed on drinks, and I wouldn't have to calculate every time.
The Itinerary The itinerary included a day berthed in Hilo, followed by a narrated sail at night past the coast where Kilauea Volcano is dumping fiery hot lava into the sea. Visibility was excellent. The next two days were spent pier-side in Kahului, Maui, including an overnight. In a rented car we drove to Hana, then continued around the southern end of the island, stopping at the Tedeschi Vineyards before returning to Kahului.
Early the next morning we drove the short distance to Maalaea harbor for a snorkeling excursion to Molokini, a rim of an eroded volcano six miles offshore. On the way to and from the site we stopped numerous times to view humpback whales surfacing, and occasionally breaching, sometimes less than 200 feet away. After a stop to visit Lahaina, where Island Princess was anchored, we returned to the ship for our sail-away to Kona.
Kona/Kailua was the only port where we anchored and required tendering, as did the HAL Amsterdam. Feeling that the Kona strip was like the Lahaina strip, which is like most other cruise ports, we rented a car and drove 26 miles south to a lava-covered beach touted as one of the best snorkeling spots in the area. Indeed it was, with absolutely beautiful coral in water of moderate depth, complete with moray eels and a variety of fish. But this harbor, adjacent to the City of Refuge State Park, is where spinner dolphins congregate. In deeper water, at one time I saw 37 dolphins below me, and on occasion they rose and swam within yards of me -- a thrilling experience.
From Kona we sailed to Nawiliwili Harbor in Kauai were we were pier-side for a day and a half, including an overnight. The first day was occasionally rainy and the visibility of the higher mountains was occluded by clouds and fog. However, we enjoyed the drive to Princeville and Hanalei Bay, stopping in Hanalei for lunch to enjoy marlin and tuna. The next morning we drove to Waimea Canyon, again partially obscured by clouds, and then back along the southern coast of Kauai, seeing features like blowholes and the beaches at Koloa and Poipu. Then, with a 2 p.m. sailing, the ship proceeded north around Kauai and past the NaPali coast, inaccessible except by sea. Our view was partially obstructed by fog, but the captain brought the ship quite close to the cliffs. We saw whales, again, during this passage. In fact, we saw more whales on this cruise in Hawaii than we did in Alaska.
Heading Home The ship returned to Honolulu at 7 a.m. on the last day. Because of Freestyle debarkation, we were able to leave our carry-on luggage in our cabin and enjoy breakfast in the dining room, which was open until 9 a.m. Our flight home was not scheduled until 6 p.m., so we debarked about 9:30 a.m. and took a taxi to the airport to rent a car. We placed all our luggage in the car and drove to Pearl Harbor to tour the museum and the Memorial. The 80-minute wait for our tour was spent inspecting the museum. The parking lot is patrolled by security, so we were not worried about the luggage in the car. After the visit, we drove around Diamond Head, and back into Waikiki for an early dinner, as there would be none on the plane. We returned the car at the airport and began our 11-hour flight home.
It was a memorable trip, on a beautiful ship, and a voyage we thoroughly enjoyed. While we left home with some misgivings due to the unfavorable reviews we had read, we experienced none of the problems they described -- and I was looking for them. One might keep in mind that when a cruise line brings out a new ship, they take experienced crew from other ships to man it. NCL America has a limitation. They cannot draw much from the rest of the NCL fleet, as the crew of each new ship must be at least 75 percent U.S. citizens. When Pride of Aloha was introduced, they had service problems, which mostly were eliminated by the time of the crew's second six-month contracts.
When they introduced Pride of America, they had to take half the Pride of Aloha crew to staff Pride of America, with 50 percent new hires. With this Pride of America staff into their third contract period, they will now be affected by the need to staff Pride of Hawaii with 50 percent drawn from Pride of Aloha and Pride of America. As with any line, I would not want to sail on a new ship until it had been operating six months to a year, to smooth out the systems, problems and staffing issues. Pride of America has been sailing 10 months now, and is an excellent operation, in my opinion. But remember, opinions are like noses -- everyone has one, but they are all different.