Hawaii Trip Review 06/21 – 7/12/11
We were really looking forward to this cruise because it was our first chance to see Hawaii. Plus, as travel agents we've booked this cruise for a lot of our clients, but we were not able to provide them first-hand personal information about it; only that which we had gained via reading reviews and talking to those who have actually done it. We heard many dismal comments, especially about the ship, food, and service, and we felt it was important for us to do it and decide for ourselves whether the many negative reviews were justified or not. After all, this is a very unique cruise that only visits U.S. ports and it was obvious to us many people were comparing it against regular cruises and what they like or don't like instead of critiquing it on its own merits. This being our 41st cruise and the fact we've been to many different places around the world on all of the major cruise lines, we figured we would be able to provide a fair and honest review to our clients based on our past experiences. Hopefully, you'll find this review helpful in deciding whether or not you'd like to try this one-of-a-kind opportunity.
Tuesday, June 21
We were supposed to fly out of Dulles airport on Monday, but there weren't any seats available. Our son works for United Airlines, so while we get to fly for free, we have to fly standby and that can very often create problems; such was the case on this trip. Today, we got up at 3:30am EST and managed to get a flight to Los Angeles, but once we got there, all the flights to Honolulu were overbooked for the rest of the day. We had to purchase a reduced-rate standby ticket on Hawaiian Airlines to Honolulu, but it wasn't scheduled to leave until much later and, after spending 5-1/2 hours flying to LA, we had to sit around the airport for 8 hours awaiting our next flight. Luckily, we were able to get on the 6:00pm flight and got to Honolulu around 8:30pm local time.
There were over 250 people on the plane and Nancy was the only one to get a lei! While we were in LA, I ordered a lei and transfer to our hotel on the internet and they were there to meet us at the gate. After all, if we're flying into Hawaii for the first time, then she should get a nice lei. I couldn't believe she was the only person on the entire flight to have a lei waiting for her when we got off the plane. (Says a lot about her husband, huh?)
Note for future reference: We got there in the evening, and all the vendors were closed, but if you arrive earlier in the day, there are vendors available selling leis, so you don't have to order one. Having someone meet you at the gate with a smile and a lei is the best way to arrive in Hawaii! There are several vendors online where leis and transfers can be ordered.
There was a lovely young lady holding a sign with my wife's name on it and Nancy was very surprised to see it. The lady had a beautiful lei that she placed around Nancy's neck, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and added a warm welcome to Hawaii. (I ordered the deluxe lei with three times the number of flowers as the regular lei.) She escorted us to the baggage claim and then to the shuttle that took us directly to our hotel. While researching on the internet, I found shuttle services are cheaper than taxis and the price was about $28 for the two of us, versus about $35 for a taxi.
We arranged a 4-night stay at the Hilton Waikiki Beach, which is about 3 blocks from the beach. Luckily, our room was high enough (12th floor) that we could see the beach from the balcony. It was beautiful. The hotel was very nice and the bed very comfortable. We had an in-room safe, a big 36 inch flat screen TV, and a nice refrigerator. The bathroom was well-appointed and while there wasn't a bathtub, there was a nice big shower.
After checking in, we took a walk to find some place to eat and happened upon Cheeseburger in Paradise, which we had heard was highly recommended. While the food at this particular place was mediocre, we were tired and really didn't care. After all, it was about 5:30am our body time and we had been up for 26 hours so we were more than ready for sleep.
Wednesday, June 22
We went to bed around 11:30pm Honolulu time and slept for 10 hours, so when we awoke, it was still early in the morning and we were ready to go exploring. We heard the one place to visit on Wednesdays, Saturdays, or Sundays was the famous Honolulu Flea Market that takes place at Aloha Stadium, which is where the NFL All-Star game is held each year. We asked the concierge about taking the public bus over to the stadium and were told it would cost $2.50 per person and take about 45 minutes. Off we went and grabbed the bus to the flea market. The concierge was wrong on his estimate as it took 1-1/2 hours to get there! We didn't have to change buses, but wished we would have done some more research on transportation as riding a public bus for 90 minutes is not my idea of fun in the sun. We later found some shuttle companies providing service for $5 per person each way and taking only 20 minutes.
The flea market is quite amazing and not something to be missed, plus it's not crowded during the week. It goes all the way around the stadium and in some places is two and three rows deep. They have everything imaginable and is the place to go for souvenirs, apparel, and everything Hawaiian. We walked around the entire stadium for a couple of hours and bought several goodies to bring home. We wished we had bought more things there as the prices were very good and we saw items we did not see anywhere else in our travels. So lesson learned; if you see something you want, buy it, as you may not see it again.
After the flea market, we took a shuttle back and, as I said, at $5 per person sure beat taking the public bus.
It was a fairly hot day, so when we got back to the hotel, there was only one thing on our mind – going to Waikiki Beach! It was all it was suppose to be – beautiful water, beautiful scenery, and of course, all the beautiful people! The surf was wonderful – they said on the news it was better than it had been for weeks and all the surfers were taking advantage of the great conditions. Having been a surfer in my teen years, I really wanted to get out there and enjoy the waves, but alas, at 61 the body wasn't what it use to be and I had to live vicariously through those much younger. I did take a picture from our hotel room that showed a set of 8 waves breaking at the same time – something I had never seen before – it was quite amazing and very enticing. I showed this to a long-time surfer who lives on Maui and she couldn't believe the picture saying she had never seen or heard of this.
We spent the evening shopping around in the International Market and found a couple of very nice matching his and hers Hawaiian shirts. (Anyone visiting the islands is obligated to buy Hawaiian shirts! But make sure they are Made in Hawaii!! And shop around because prices definitely vary for the same brand name and style.) The vendor was a local who had lived there all his life and very helpful. He gave us some great information, including a couple of places to eat that he highly recommended.
Thursday, June 23
We rented a car from a local vendor – all the major ones wanted too much money, so we ended up with a rent-a-wreck, it did the job and we were able to spend the next two days seeing what we wanted to see. At about $100 for two days, it was a bit more than we expected to pay, but that's what we got for not pre-planning.
Note for future reference: If you want to rent a car, do so at the airport as the prices are much cheaper. However, taxis to and from the airport are not cheap, so plan accordingly.
Today, we decided to drive around the southern part of the island and found some beautiful beaches. We wanted to climb up to the top of Diamondhead, but chose not to as it was hot and it's quite a climb to the top of the crater, deciding instead to spend our energy seeing the rest of the island.
A few hours into our travels, we eventually made our way to Kāne'ohe, which is on the other side of the island from Honolulu, where we wanted to find one of the hole-in-the-wall joints our local Hawaiian friend at the International Market told us about. It is owned and operated by Dean, who is a formally trained chef. He worked for many years in a 5-star resort and had had enough of working for other people. He decided to open his own small restaurant called Dean's Drive-In. We stopped at a gas station to get something to drink and although I had my GPS, I asked directions and the first thing the lady asked me was, "How do you know about this place? It's just a small place where locals eat and not where tourists go." She was really surprised to see a tourist wanting to go to a restaurant only frequented by locals. We finally found it and it was definitely an out-of-way place that one would easily miss unless they knew exactly where it was. They only had 4 tables, yet we were the only ones sitting down and eating. While we were there, many locals came in to carry out their dinners, but no one stayed to eat except us. Nancy ordered the Ahi cakes and I had teriyaki beef – both of which were absolutely wonderful! I'm not crazy about fish, but the Ahi cakes were out of this world! This is truly a gem in the dessert and not to be missed when in the area.
After touring around for several hours, we finally made our way back to Honolulu and spent some more time on the beach. Parking is at a premium and our hotel wanted $25 for the night, but we found a place that charged $10 and was only about a block from our hotel.
Friday, June 24
We got up fairly early, swung by McDonalds to pick up some quick breakfast and headed over to the USS Arizona Memorial. They open at 7:00am and we got there at 7:45am. While we thought this was early, our tickets were marked for 10:45am. I talked to others who had gotten there at 7:15am and got tickets for 8:45am. So the lesson here is to get there before 7:00am!
In this area, you can pay a fee to tour the USS Bowfin, which is a Word War ll submarine. But having seen one before and having been on a new Dallas-class submarine while in Norfolk with our daughter, we really weren't interested in seeing this one. You can also drive over to Ford Island and see the USS Missouri, which is an amazing battleship that was the stage for the surrender of Japan and also saw duty during the Vietnam war. If you've never seen a battleship, this is one to visit.
The visitor center is completely brand new, having been re-dedicated on the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor after a $58 million rebuild and opened on December 7, 2010. It is impressive and informative.
After waiting 3 hours till our turn, we went into the auditorium to see a 20 minute movie on the attack of Pearl Harbor and the destruction of the Arizona. It was very well done and very interesting, not to mention very moving. Afterwards, we boarded one of two boats provided by the Navy for the short ride to the memorial.
Having served in the Navy for 6 years, including a year fighting in Vietnam on river patrol boats, and having a daughter serving in the Navy and currently on a 6-month deployment, seeing the memorial was very heart-wrenching for me. Truly a very emotional experience. Words cannot describe how I felt during my visit, except to say this is one excursion everyone needs to do once in their lifetime. During our 3-week stay in Hawaii, this was the only 'have to' on our entire trip and it was worth the wait.
After we returned from our 20 minute visit at the memorial, we got in our car and headed around the north side of the island. We stopped at the Dole Pineapple Plantation for the obligatory tour and sampling. Have to admit, I like pineapple, but the ones we had in Hawaii were the sweetest and tastiest I've ever had anywhere. Afterwards we drove to the North Shore of Oahu. As I mentioned earlier, I was a surfer in my teens and had always wanted to visit the Mecca of surfing, but never got the chance. Here it was 40 years later and I finally made it to one of the most renowned surfing spots in the world. Unfortunately, the really big surf hits the North Shore in the Winter and we were there in the Summer, so we didn't get to see what made the North Shore famous. In fact, being Summertime, there were no waves at all! But then again, we also didn't get to witness the incredible traffic jam as well! The North Shore is relatively small with only a two-lane road and VERY few places to park, so the Winter is incredibly overcrowded. But all in all, it was nice to at least see the places I had always dreamed about visiting; Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and the legendary Pipeline.
We stopped at a little roadside place called Fumi's that came highly recommended by one of the locals we met and were told this was the best fresh shrimp on the island. To look at it, you would normally not give it a second thought and drive right by as it looks like a real hole in the wall. But they raise their own shrimp in the huge shrimp ponds behind their restaurant, so when you order a shrimp dinner, they are alive until about 5 minutes before you eat them - they just don't come any fresher than that! Fumi's is one of many places like this in the area and their shrimp dinners are absolutely wonderful! We ordered a combination of coconut shrimp and garlic butter shrimp that came with rice and a small salad. We also got some delicious corn on the cob and diet Pepsi. Everything was fantastic! At about $12 per serving, it was well worth the cost and something I highly recommend. Another place just down the road called Giovanni's is equally as good, but it's popular because it was highlighted on TV and in some magazines, so it's often very crowded.
We continued our journey around the north end of the island, stopping at several places to take pictures and sample their wares, including a macadamia nut factory and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
After we returned to our hotel, we dropped off our car and again visited the beach to enjoy a nice swim in the lovely waters of Waikiki.
After dark, we walked around the area, visited the International Market once again, and enjoyed a beautiful evening in Honolulu. We had a coupon for Chili's and there happened to be one close by, so we had a nice dinner, albeit basically the same as back home except Nancy said their fresh fish was very good.
Saturday, June 25
We asked for a late check-out and were told we could do so at 1:30pm. We didn't have to be on the ship until 6:00pm for a 7:00pm departure, so we weren't in a hurry. We asked the front desk clerk if we could check our baggage and go to the beach. She said this was not a problem and we could shower when we got back. So, off to the beach we went for another couple of hours of fun and sun.
Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel and they gave us a regular room for free where we could use the shower and change. Totally unexpected and very much appreciated. Needless to say, we would definitely recommend this hotel for its service, hospitality, ambiance, and location – the Hilton Waikiki Beach (also known as the Hilton Kuhio by the locals since it's on Kuhio Street and not to be confused with the Hilton Hawaiian Village which is also on Waikiki Beach).
We found a coupon in one of the local guidebooks for a shuttle service to the cruise port for $7 per person, so we called them, made a reservation, and waited while we checked our email, and took care of some business. They arrived about a half hour later and off we went to begin our next adventure.
Since it was relatively late in the day, about 5:00pm, and the ship wasn't scheduled to leave until 7:00pm, there was no line and check-in was relatively quick and painless. They provided a flower lei for the women and a shell lei for the men, adding a nice touch to welcome us onboard.
They hold their lifeboat drill around 4:30pm, so it was a blessing to us that we missed it.
Once we got onboard, we made our way to our balcony cabin on Deck 8 on the port side (#8622).
Note for future reference: Everyone had always said and posted the starboard side was the place to be on this cruise, but I'm here to tell you it really doesn't matter. In fact, often times the port side is better than the starboard side. This was especially true when we departed Honolulu and when we cruised the Napali Coast after departing Kauai'i. When sailing from Hilo to Kona, the ship stops by the volcano and does a 360 degree turn, so both sides of the ship have the same opportunity to see it at night. We didn't get to see the volcano because it was not active, so it really didn't matter during our cruise. Both sides have advantages and disadvantages, but neither is better than the other and I don't care what anybody says about it!
The cabin itself is not much different than most cabins we've been in – smaller than some, bigger than others. We had a balcony, which was really nice to have around the Hawaiian islands. The bathroom was small, as usual, but workable. Storage was adequate. The TV was small and old with very limited channel selection. The bed was comfortable and had plenty of room underneath for storing our 3 suitcases. Our cabin steward provided nice thick bathrobes for us to use. The only negative was that he needed to provide more ice in our bucket of beer, but other than that, he did a nice job. Overall, it was fine – nothing special, but no major complaints. After all, with being in port every day of the cruise, we weren't in our cabin all that much anyway. So if money is an issue, go with an inside cabin and save the money for sightseeing. For the few times it's nice to be outside, you can go on the Lido Deck and enjoy departures, sunsets, and cruising the Napali Coast. But if you can afford a balcony, it really is nice to have on this cruise.
The ship itself was inaugurated in 2005, but feels much older as it's not a good design, especially the main elevators. There are four of them in the middle of the ship, but only two go down to Deck 3, which is the disembarkation point when in port. This creates a problem when everyone is trying to get on and off the ship. It would have made much better sense to have all four elevators go down to Deck 3. The other two stop on Deck 4, so to get these, you have to walk up one flight after boarding the ship. All the elevators are very small – having a maximum capacity of 13 people while in reality only about 8 people can fit in them comfortably. And when you add suitcases, only about 4 people can get in each one, which can make for a long wait when first getting on the ship. There are also only 2 elevators in the aft part of the ship where the dining rooms are – again, not very good planning.
The other poorly designed area was the main pool. It looked as if it came off a ship that was built 50 years ago. The other pool in the back of the ship was nothing more than a square pool about 10 feet wide. Overall, the pool areas were not attractive nor user friendly. But then again, there was only one half day when these areas were really used by the masses and that was on the last day when we left Kauai'i at 2:00pm.
However, with all that said, the ship is very nicely appointed on the inside with a wonderful American décor. The main show lounge is large and comfortable. The two-story main dining room is very nice. We liked the Cadillac Diner, which is open 24-hours a day. They had only a few shopping areas onboard, but carried everything you would need. There is a rather large jewelry store that was actually too big, especially considering the small size of the ship. It's a well-known fact there's no casino on this ship, but that's never a problem for us. Although the ship was clean in all areas, there were signs it's due for refurbishment; railings needed sanding and painting, rust noticed in a lot of areas, and it was just showing signs of wear and tear throughout. There were no unwanted odors, the air conditioning worked well, and we did not hear of any problems with the plumbing, so we had no complaints. The few problems I have mentioned were all minor and did not distract from our overall experience.
They were offering a reduced rate at all the specialty restaurants for the first night of the cruise, so we made a reservation at the Lazy J Texas Steakhouse for 8:00pm for $15 per person (normal rate is $25). Everything leading up to the main course was good and we expected the steak to be equally good. I should first say that I love a good steak and as most people know, there are basically three cuts of steaks from which to choose; select, choice, and prime. Prime cuts are what you'll find at upscale restaurants and in the specialty restaurants on most ships. They normally serve choice steaks in the main dinning rooms on ships, but lately, due to the economy, I feel a lot of them have now gone to select steaks to save money. Rarely have we gotten a really good steak in the main dining rooms on most cruises anyway, but some are definitely better than others. On the NCL Pride of America I have always heard that the food was mediocre at best, but I really expected the specialty restaurants to be good based on our experiences with other NCL ships. Needless to say, we were disappointed to find the steaks were not that good in Lazy J. In fact, most main dining rooms serve better steaks than this specialty restaurant. Nancy ordered a filet mignon and I ordered the New York, both cooked medium. And while they were cooked correctly, the quality was just not there – they were dry and we could tell they were previously frozen, plus it was obvious to us these steaks were choice cuts at best. Overall, a disappointing meal given we had to pay extra for it.
Sunday, June 26
The bed was very comfortable and we slept well, but the pillows were terrible – very flat and in desperate need of replacing. Last night we asked for 6 more pillows, which were delivered to us in short order, but they, too, were no better than the rest. We even put two pillows in one pillow case to try and solve the problem, but to no avail. We asked if they had any others from which to choose and were told they were all the same. We were resolved to handle this problem later in the day.
Most people were in a hurry to get off the ship, but we wanted to avoid the rush and took our time, so we went to the main dining room for breakfast. This was our 41st cruise and the one thing I've learned is that no matter what cruise line we're cruising with, no one seems to do a really good breakfast like restaurants back home. This was no exception; while it wasn't bad, it was just average for a cruise.
Today we were in Kahului, Maui. As with every port, we reserved a rental car and these two days would prove this was a wise decision. We rented it through Dollar Car Rental and the price was $17 a day! With taxes, the total for two days was $40 – such a deal considering where we were about to go. Dollar has a free shuttle that took us to the airport where we got a nice Ford Focus – perfect for the drive ahead.
We hooked up our GPS, typed in Hana, and away we went down the famous Road to Hana. It's 52 miles long with over 600 curves and 54 bridges, almost all of them one-lane – definitely not for those who don't like to drive on narrow curvy roads or who get motion sickness, that's for sure. We made several stops along the way to see the scenery, take pictures, visit waterfalls, and enjoy black sand beaches. It really is a beautiful drive.
Since it was a nice day and the weather was good, we drove about 8 miles past Hana and found the gravesite of Charles Lindbergh. (Without a GPS, this is an easy miss as it's off the main road and there are no signs pointing to the site.) We were the only ones there and took the opportunity to show our respects to an amazing American hero. We were glad we made the side trip.
On the way back to Hana, we saw an elderly lady hitchhiking, so we stopped and offered her a ride. This proved to be a good decision as she had lived there for most of her life and was full of wonderful information. She even pointed us to a place where I could buy a cheap, but very nice handmade lei for Nancy – at only $4 it was really beautiful and very fragrant. She also routed us down a road less traveled by tourists that went by several beaches, which were awesome. When we got to Hana, we dropped her off and thanked her for all the great information and insight on what life is like on that part of the island. We went up to the Hana Ranch Restaurant for lunch and had an absolutely fantastic cheeseburger and our first Bikini Blonde Lager, which is a very good local Maui beer.
If you want to take a tour to Hana, they can run from about $75 - $100 per person, so renting a car for $20 a day is a very cheap way to do it. Like others who have done it and survived always say, "Been there, done that, don't need to do it again." My sentiments exactly. The mountains, waterfalls, beaches, and scenery were magnificent, and we're glad we did it. We really enjoyed the experience, but don't need to do it again.
Unfortunately, the only way back to town is via the same road, so getting to Hana is only half the fun! There are now 52 miles and 600 curves yet to drive! (The main road does continue around the other side of the island, but about 10 miles of it is dirt road and car rental agencies don't want you doing it.)
When we got back to town, we found a Costco and made a stop to pick up a few supplies. Next door was a Walmart, where we found a couple of nice pillows and cases to make us more comfortable in our cabin. This turned out to be a very good investment – they were normally $12 each but were on sale for $8 and were not a major investment. (We later bought a vacuum-storage bag in order to bring them back home with us as we had plenty of room in our suitcases.) So lesson learned; we will do like we did in Europe and compress our memory foam pillows into storage bags and take them with us!
I take my laptop with me when I travel so we can still conduct business and stay in contact with our clients while we're gone from the office. We usually find a nice bar that has free wi-fi, get a couple of beers, and take care of the day's business. This sure beats paying the high price for internet service and beers on cruise ships! We've done this everywhere we go, including Europe. Today we found a great little restaurant to meet our purpose and while checking email, we couldn't help but see and smell the wonderful pizza they were serving that was baked in a wood-fired oven. We decided to give it a try and found it to be very good. Needless to say, we weren't hungry for quite a while afterwards and had dinner on the ship in the main dining room late in the evening just before closing. We sat at a table with two other couples and we all agreed that while the service on this ship was very good, the food left a lot to be desired.
And while I'm on the subject of service, I'll say contrary to the many reviews I've read about the lousy service on this ship, we found it to be very good in every area. When NCL first started this new service in Hawaii, they had many problems and the service was rated very poor by everyone. At the time, they were required to have an all-American crew. Later, NCL went to Congress and asked for an exemption, which was granted, so they now have a 75% American crew and 25% foreign crew. This has helped greatly. We thoroughly loved all the crew we dealt with. They were always upbeat, very cordial, and always willing to help. It was also fun meeting staff that came from all different parts of the U.S. instead of the usual cruise where you meet staff from all different parts of the world. While the service in the past may not have been all that good, the current service has improved and we had no problems or complaints, only compliments to the crew.
Monday, June 27
Today was our second day in Maui. We woke up a little later than planned and found the main dining room had already closed for breakfast. Instead, we went up to the buffet to see what was available. I've read reviews where people always said the buffet on this ship was overly crowded. While it was crowded, I did not feel it was more crowded than a lot of ships we've been on and was actually less crowded than others. And while we only ate breakfast in the buffet a few times, the crowd or lack thereof, will depend greatly on when one goes up there, but we never found it to be a problem.
My normal breakfast consists of two eggs over easy, home fries, bacon or sausage, an English muffin, coffee, and orange juice. I usually don't vary much from this as I find it filling, but sometimes will get a bowl of fruit and occasionally a pastry. My vice is a chocolate covered donut, but will hold back to only one or two during a cruise, if they have them. They didn't on this cruise, so I substituted a cinnamon bun, which is another vice I have. While it looked really good, it was like most food on this ship and was just so-so – lacked the flavor I expected. Nancy usually has a bowl of oatmeal, yogurt, fruit – all the good stuff you're suppose to eat. It really irritates her that I eat wrong and don't gain any weight, while she eats right and gains weight. What can I say – I just have a high metabolism.
Okay, so I walked up to one of the three stations where I could get an omelet or eggs made-to-order and asked for two eggs over easy. I kid you not – I watched this guy screw up 7 eggs! He broke every one while trying to cook them in the pan. He never did get it right. (Guess that's why they have him working at the omelet station!) After waiting quite a while, I told him he needed to practice and left to find someone else to cook my eggs. While this time she at least didn't break the eggs, she didn't understand the concept of 'over easy' getting them pretty much over hard instead. We only went to the buffet three times during our cruise and the second time I finally found someone who knew how to cook eggs properly.
We didn't have to walk very far as they provide free parking close to the ship for those who rented cars. We loaded up and begin our drive up to the top of the Haleakala crater.
We started at sea level and ended up at 10,000 feet, so it was quite an uphill drive. The road was extremely curvy and very scenic – just had to watch out for all those bicyclists making their way down the mountain. We drove above the clouds and found the crater to be absolutely amazing! When we viewed the pictures later, it looked as if someone had painted the pictures – the color, contrast, and depth was incredible. Definitely a must-see when in Maui.
After we came down the mountain, we drove north of the city quite a ways and enjoyed some truly magnificent scenery.
Since we had already been in Hawaii for a week, we needed to take care of some laundry and found a self-serve laundromat that was right around the corner from the bar we visited the night before. We dropped a load in the machine and drove around to the bar to use their wi-fi and check our email again. Sometimes those GPS units can be very helpful.
We then returned the car and went back to the ship where we had dinner in the main dining room. As usual, the service was good and the food was just okay.
Tuesday, June 28
This morning we chose to try the breakfast in the Cadillac Diner and it was basically the same as the main dining room, but better than the buffet, plus I got my eggs perfectly done over easy as ordered. At least it wasn't crowded and we enjoyed humming to the music from the 50's.
Today we were in Hilo and since we were only in port for the day, we got off the ship early to make sure we saw and did everything on our schedule. We walked off the ship and only had to wait a short time before the shuttle to Dollar was there to take us to the airport. Imagine our surprise when they brought out a brand new Ford Mustang convertible! Things were looking up!! Unfortunately for us, it rained most of the day and we never got to put the top down – go figure! Couldn't have gotten one of these when we were driving all those curves back on Maui, but hey, I got to drive a new Mustang for a day.
We hooked up the GPS and off we went to see Kilauea. Wouldn't you know it, we've always wanted to see one of the most active volcanos in the world and finally get the chance only to find that Pele, the goddess of fire, dance, lightning, and volcanoes, has been sleeping since April!! We kept wondering what we needed to do to wake her up, but figured perhaps it was wise not to do so – never know what she might do to get even with us – wouldn't want her waking up angry!
We drove to the top of the crater and through the mist, we were able to see the steam and smoke arising from the middle. We drove around and wanted to see the lava tube, but the crowds were incredible, so we bypassed this area and headed to the end of the road where the new lava had been flowing. It was all quite amazing to see even if there was no lava currently pouring into the sea, plus the weather was much nicer on this part of the island.
We made our way back to Hilo and stopped at the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Company where we bought some of the best chocolate covered macadamia nuts we found during our trip. Unfortunately, they were too good and we ate what we had bought for gifts, requiring us to buy more later on. Those, too, may not make it to the intended recipients!
Wednesday, June 29
Today we were in Kona and again rented a car, only this time we used Budget because they had an office right by the pier. Other car rental places were at the airport and did not provide free shuttle service. We were not about to pay around $60 each way for a taxi and were glad Budget was close by.
This was the only port where we did not have a particular plan in place as to where we wanted to go or what we wanted to see, so we just played it by ear. This was also the only port where we were tendered, which was not a real unpleasant experience as we didn't have to wait very long getting off or on the ship as they used enough tenders to keep people moving.
There are a couple of beaches right near the pier for those wanting to swim and not go too far or do an excursion. There is also plenty of shopping and restaurants around the pier, so there's no need to rent a car unless you want to see the countryside.
We walked one block to the Budget office and off we went to see what Kona had to offer.
We drove about 35 miles north, stopping at a few beaches and seeing the sites. Then turned around and came back to town, where we stopped at the Maui Brewing Company brewery and enjoyed some lunch and a couple of beers while checking our emails. We then drove about 30 miles south of town to see the sites. Thanks to our GPS, we found a small coffee company off the beaten path. We spent about 45 minutes talking to the owner who gave us some wonderful information about coffee in Hawaii. There was no one else there, so she just kept going on and on about the beans, growing, harvesting, roasting, varieties, pests, diseases, weather, etc. She also talked about cocoa beans and chocolate on the island. All quite informing and fascinating. All the while, we enjoyed some of their wonderfully delicious coffee. We purchased a couple of pounds of their best Kona coffee and headed back to town.
We took the back roads until we found the place closest to the Captain Cook memorial across a small bay. In order to get to the memorial, you have to take a boat or have a 4-wheel drive vehicle if you want to approach it from land. We decided to do neither and just saw it from a distance.
Afterwards, we made our way back to town via other back roads where we did some sightseeing and shopping before returning the car and going to the ship.
Tonight we were invited to have dinner with John O'Hara, who is the Hotel Director on the Pride of America. Spending two hours with him was very interesting and we learned a lot while asking him every question you can imagine. Needless to say, I took the opportunity to mention the situation with the pillows and suggested they seriously think of replacing them. Hopefully, that suggestion will make it nicer for those coming in behind us and that NCL won't wait until refurbishment. The next day he sent us a note thanking us for having dinner with him and gave us a complimentary dinner at the Jefferson's Bistro specialty restaurant.
Thursday, June 30
Today we arrived in Kaui'i for 1-1/2 days. Luckily, we had pre-reserved a rental car because several of the companies did not have anymore to rent. We were picked up at the pier by the Dollar shuttle bus and taken to the airport, where we got a brand new Ford Fusion with only 16 miles on it. It was very nice with leather seating and all the latest gizmos.
Waimea Canyon is called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and was one place we had to see. At 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and over 3,500 feet deep it is quite an amazing site. The colors and waterfalls make this a wonderful place and the drive up was great.
Note for future reference: We were told if you ever want to do a helicopter tour while in Hawaii that Kaui'i is the one island to do it. We looked into doing this but at a minimum of $175 per person, was a little out of our budget. One of the major attractions that can only be seen by helicopter is the Manawaiopuna Falls, which is more famously known as the Jurassic Falls because it was featured in the movie Jurassic Park. But if you have the money and are visiting Kaui'i, this is an excursion you should plan to do as this is one of the most beautiful islands there is in Hawaii. It's easy to understand why more movies were filmed on this island than any other island in Hawaii.
We spent some time driving around, seeing the sites, and doing a little bit of shopping. As usual, we found a nice little local bar, drank a couple of beers, and took care of some business on the laptop before heading back to the ship.
Unfortunately, there is no place to park near the pier in this port, so we were forced to park at a restaurant close by and pay $10 for the night. This was better than where they recommended, which was $15 a night. After parking, we still had to take a complimentary shuttle to the ship, as it was a little too far to walk on a hot day.
Thanks to John O'Hara, we had reservations at Jefferson's Bistro for dinner tonight. We ordered a nice bottle of wine and had what can best be described as a below-par meal for a specialty restaurant. As we had come to expect, the service was very good, but it was obvious to us that the food was previously frozen – not bad, but just lacking in flavor, freshness, and moisture.
Friday, July 1
Since we were only in port for half the day, we chose to drive north to visit some little towns, sightsee a bit, see a couple of waterfalls, do a little shopping at some flea markets, and just tour around Kaui'i for a while. We returned the car around 1:00pm and the ship departed at 2:00pm. When I asked one of the crew why we were leaving so early, he advised we would be sailing by the Napali coast before turning around and heading to Honolulu. We grabbed a quick lunch and headed to our balcony to watch the world go by as we cruised north. Being on the port side of the ship was much better than the starboard on this part of the cruise as we got to see the magnificent coast line in full sunlight from our balcony. While we sat in the shade, the starboard side was in the hot sun. The Napali coast is truly an amazing place, but can only be seen by water or air. When we got to the turnaround point, the sun was starting to set, so while those on the starboard side enjoyed the coastline in fading light, we were treated to a wonderful sunset.
As with a lot of cruise lines, they had a drink special whereby if you buy 4 beers, you get the 5th beer for free. We bought this special a couple of times and enjoyed beer on the balcony. Another good point was they never checked the water bottles we had in our backpacks and we were able to enjoy cocktails on the balcony as well.
Tonight we chose to bypass the main dining room and instead just enjoy a nice meal in the Cadillac Diner. While we had become accustomed to the food just being average and this was no exception, we enjoyed the variety and had a good time.
The entertainment on board was okay – some good, some not so good. But after 41 cruises, we're really not into attending all the entertainment anymore. Pretty much seen it all, so tonight, being our last night, we chose to pack and spend a quiet romantic evening on the balcony watching the stars instead of watching any of the entertainment.
Saturday, July 2 – Friday, July 8
We were hopeful we could get to the airport in time to catch a 9:30am flight on Island Air from Honolulu to Kapalua Airport on the west side of Maui. We were lucky to get off the ship by 8:00am and found shuttles outside waiting to take people to the airport – cost was $5 per person, which really beat the taxis and cruise line shuttles. We had plenty of time to check in and wait for the plane, but we weren't sure we would get on the flight as we were flying standby. Although the flight was sold out, we again got lucky and two people did not show up, so we managed to get on the plane. This is a small twin prop plane that only holds 30 people and does not fly very high. Our faces were glued to the windows as we got an excellent view of the islands during our 30-minute flight.
We had originally made reservations at the Westin Resort Hotel and Spa on Ka'anapali Beach for only a few nights because of the cost. But I was fortunate enough to find a company specializing in selling timeshares people can't use and want to rent out at the last minute. A studio unit at the Westin Resort Villas North on Ka'anapali Beach normally rents for $1200 - $1700 a week, but I managed to find a unit for $499 for a week and couldn't believe our luck – it was for the exact week we needed it. One week there was less than a few days at the resort. Plus, the unit had a full kitchen and we were able to cook our meals and save even more money.
When we arrived at the airport, we found we were going to have to take a taxi. While the Westin Resort has a complimentary shuttle, it does not service the villas, which is strange given the resort is further away. It just so happened, the shuttle was there to take a family to the resort and the driver was kind enough to take us to the villas. Needless to say, I gave him a very nice gratuity.
We got to the villas around 10:30am and found we could not check in until 4:00pm. We checked our bags with the bellmen, walked around the property, took pictures, and then took the free shuttle into Lahaina for some grocery shopping. We found a nice little Mexican restaurant in the mall and while we ate, enjoyed a wonderful hour-long hula show by a local group who was performing in the center of the mall. We shopped around for a while and then picked up groceries for our stay. By the time we got back to the villas, it was 4:00pm and our villa was ready for us. It was really nice with a very comfortable king-size bed, a wonderful large bathroom with a big shower and a large Jacuzzi tub. The full kitchen was stocked with all the utensils we needed, including long-handle grilling tools. There was a large 42" flat screen TV with about 100 channels and a Bose stereo clock radio. It also had a washer & dryer, in-room safe, iron & ironing board, dishwasher, microwave, coffee maker including Kona coffee, stove, and full-size refrigerator with icemaker. The balcony had two chairs and a table that overlooked the pool and a view of the ocean. The beach area was very nice and the snorkeling was outstanding, so we really enjoyed our week there. All-in-all, it was quite wonderful.
I won't go into a day-by-day description of what we did, but we spent a lot of time on the beach just relaxing and enjoying the beautifully clear water. We went into town a couple of times, but only ate out twice during our stay. Instead, we bought some great steaks, awesome shrimp, and local ground beef that we cooked on the outdoor Jenn-air gas grills provided for guests at the villas.
A couple of weeks before our trip, we booked reservations at the Feast at LeLe luau for July 4th, figuring this was a most appropriate time as we could enjoy the fireworks in Lahaina along with our luau. This turned out to be a very good decision because, as usual with most luaus, they were sold out ahead of time.
We took the shuttle downtown and then walked towards the luau. The police had blocked off the main street, which was a good idea given the large crowd of people arriving to see the fireworks. Luaus are a must-do when visiting Hawaii, so this was something we had been anxiously awaiting. Many luaus offer seating that requires you to sit on mats, while others offer mats as well as tables. Some offer buffet style, while others offer full service. This one was relatively small, having only about 100 guests, all of which sat at tables and served each course by waiters. All guests are greeted with a flower lei and a mai tai. Tables are pre-assigned, so imagine our surprise when they sat us front row center by the stage - we had the best table in the entire place. Photographers were onsite, but at $25 for a 4x6 print, we thought this a bit expensive.
The meal at this particular luau is four courses, each representing different parts of the Polynesian culture that make up the Hawaii islands (Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, & Samoa). Plus, they have an open bar and we took advantage of the many local beers and liquor. After each course, there are dances representing each of the four cultures. During the second course, the fireworks started, so they stopped the show to allow us to watch. We got up and walked about 30 feet to the beach where we watched the display reflecting off the calm sea. Overall, a wonderful and very romantic evening, albeit a bit expensive. Luaus run about $100 or so per person, so this one night cost us around $250 with gratuities – not something one wants to do too often. The food was pretty good and each course offered three different dishes from which to choose consisting of such things as chicken, pork, beef, fish, and vegetables.
Our stay in Maui was awesome – we just wish we could have stayed there for another week. If we ever decide to go back to Hawaii, we know of some places we would want to stay for a couple of weeks and not worry about seeing other islands. I now understand why those on the West coast like to go to Hawaii, while those on the East coast prefer the Caribbean. Given the length of time to get there and the costs involved, I also would prefer the Caribbean since we're on the East coast. But if time and money were not a big issue, there's no doubt I would go back to Hawaii in a minute.
Saturday, July 9
We got a shuttle from the Westin Villas to the Kahului Airport for $25 per person that took about 45 minutes. There are two airports on Maui and this one is on the east side of the island and serves the major airlines. The other airport, Kapulua, is on the west side of the island near Lahaina, but is very small and only serves the inter-island prop aircraft. (There's only one runway, which is fairly short, no taxiway, and no real baggage claim. After flying into and out of large airports, this one is a real hoot!)
Once again, we were lucky there were a couple of seats remaining for standby passengers and we got to LAX without any problems. But when we got to LA, our luck ran out. The flight to Dulles was overbooked and we could not get on it, but our luggage did. (Another bad thing about flying standby.) Since it was about 10:00pm, there were not a lot of flights to choose from and we did not want to spend the night in LA. The flight to BWI was overbooked, which left flights to Chicago or Orlando as the only ones available that night heading towards the east coast. We checked for flights from Chicago to Dulles on Sunday and they did not look promising, so we decided to chance it and fly to Orlando.
Sunday, July 10
We arrived in Orlando only to find all the flights to Dulles were overbooked for both Sunday and Monday. We could have rented a car and driven to Tampa as there was a possibility of a flight out Sunday night, but we decided to just rent a car and drive to Jacksonville to visit our son-in-law and our 2-1/2 year old grandson for a couple of days. Our daughter is in the Navy and currently on a 6-month deployment, so we figured they would love to have the company while she's away serving her country. Too bad our luggage was in Dulles! But having been there many times, we leave a suitcase at their house with extra shoes, shirts, shorts, and toiletries, and in that way we don't have to carry everything back and forth all the time. It wasn't a big deal we didn't have our suitcases with us and asked our son to pick them up for us during his shift at Dulles.
Tuesday, July 12
All the flights from Jacksonville to Dulles were booked until today, so our choice to fly to Orlando and drive to Jacksonville turned out to a good decision. During this entire trip, we did what you should not do when flying standby and that's travel during the Summer and on the weekends. It's the worse time, but it was the only thing we could do in this particular case. So lesson learned – do not fly standby in the Summer or on the weekends, especially to Hawaii!!
We got home about 9:30pm, went to bed about midnight, and then slept for 14-1/2 hours!! Traveling at our age with major time differences definitely take their toll on one's body, that's for sure. Besides, we really missed our nice big comfortable waterbed!
We had a great time and are so glad we finally got to check this off our bucket-list. Hawaii was better than we thought and is definitely some place we'd like to visit again. The Hawaiian people are very special and they are the ones who make a visit to the islands a very special experience.
With everything we did, we can now discuss Hawaii with our clients from a first-hand experience and let them know what to do, what not to do, what to expect, and where to go. This is very important to us as we always want to provide personal insight and information to our clients, which is what separates us from those online sites and large travel agencies who are only interested in 'selling' cruises and not in providing personal service.
The cruise was the main purpose for our trip and we're glad we did it, but it's not something we would want to do again. As we've told our clients when doing this particular cruise, this is not the normal cruise you get when cruising to other places on other ships. This is a unique one-of-a-kind experience that should not and cannot be compared with regular cruises. If you look at this as a 2-star hotel taking you around to the islands, you'll enjoy your trip. If you try to compare this to a regular cruise, you'll liable to be disappointed. I would definitely recommend this to those who have never been to Hawaii and would like to visit 4 of the islands. It gives you the opportunity to see more than just one island without having to worry about flying to each of the islands and going through all the hassles of airports, taxis, hotels, and restaurants. It's also the only one doing a 7-night cruise around the islands – all the rest do either a one-way to or from the West coast, or do a roundtrip from the West coast – both have many days at sea and don't spend as much time in the islands.
I would also recommend reserving a rental car ahead of time in each port. This is one cruise where doing organized shore excursions are not really necessary. We checked to see what was available and felt we did more and saw more by doing our own thing – we definitely saved a great deal of money by renting cars.
While the ship was okay, it's not one of our favorites. The food left a lot to be desired and, quite frankly, was mediocre at best. I know those who love NCL will disagree with me and I'm sure I've irritated some of them with my comments. It simply does not compare to other cruise lines that pay more attention to quality and flavor. We heard many comments by passengers about the food; most were negative, only a few were positive, so it was obvious this was not just our opinion. And it wasn't just the passengers who were not happy with the food. On many occasions, we saw crew members carrying boxes full of food onto the ship. In all our cruises, I've never seen crew bringing this much food onboard. When I asked a couple of them, they were polite enough about it, but hinted the food on the ship was not that good.
In fact, we met one of the chefs at a bar one day while both of us were checking emails on our computers. We carried on a conversation for over an hour and I told him in all honesty we thought the food was just adequate. He was a formally trained chef who has worked at some fancy restaurants, but wanted to try something different, so he thought cruising around Hawaii on a ship sounded interesting and exciting. I thought he might take offense to my comments, but he laughed saying he had to agree with me. He said most of the food was received frozen and the chefs were not allowed to stray from the very strict corporate ingredients or recipes, even in the specialty restaurants. He said it was unfortunate that NCL hires well-trained chefs and yet won't let them do what they have been trained to do. (This was very obvious to us.) They do try very hard to make it look good, which they succeed in doing, but throughout the cruise, the food simply lacked flavor, freshness, and originality. Don't get me wrong, it was not bad and I have no real complaints about the food because quite frankly, it's what we had expected. I just feel they should listen to the chefs and let them put more of their creativity in the dishes and provide fresher non-frozen products. Even this chef told me the food would be much better if it weren't all frozen. Of course, one might believe this is only unique to this ship due to where it's located, but we've found the exact same thing on all 4 of our NCL cruises. However, it's not just NCL, so please don't think I'm only picking on them – after all, this is a review of this one cruise, but we've found the same thing on other cruise lines and we've been a little disappointed in them as well. While we were not totally disappointed in the food in the main dining room because we got what we expected and there were no real surprises, I do have to admit, in my opinion, the specialty restaurants on the Pride of America were disappointing. While they were better than the main dining room, we did expect better from them given the extra charge.
But with that said, and I know I'm repeating myself, the one thing we were very happy with was the service. Contrary to what we've read and heard from others, we thought the American crew did a wonderful job. We gave our compliments to the Hotel Director when we had dinner with him and he was happy to receive our comments because he said they have been trying very hard to improve in that area.
However, I still heard people complaining. I listened to one lady on the phone while we were standing outside the ship waiting for a shuttle in Kaui'i and she was remarking how terrible the cruise was, how horrible the food was, and how bad the service was. Nancy and I looked at each other and said, "Wonder what ship she's on!"
We were on the Celebrity Eclipse in May and it was one of the most wonderful cruises we've ever been on. Everything was great. Out of 41 cruises, it now ranks #2 on our all-time favorite list. Yet even then, I heard people complaining about something or other. As the saying goes, "You can't please everybody no matter how hard you try."
As a Matre'd once told me on a cruise a couple of years ago, "Some people complain because the water's too wet!"
My credo has been, "You will always find what you're looking for, so why not look for the best in everything." In other words, if you want to be miserable, you will be if all you do is look for the negative things. Nancy and I always truly want to enjoy our cruise, so we don't go looking for discouraging things and we don't let the few negative things we do find bother us all that much. Even with the food, we were fine with it, albeit a little disappointing at times, but we had no complaints.
Cruising is definitely one of those things where you can have a great time or a miserable time - it depends on how much you let the small stuff affect you. And, as the book says, "Don't sweat the small stuff - and it's all small stuff." Some people are very detailed oriented when it comes to cruising – they are constantly looking at the little things and judge accordingly. We try not to look at the little things, preferring instead to judge based on the overall experience.
There's something out there for everybody and the fun is finding the best one for you. We, on the other hand, obviously have to try them all so we can tell our clients about them. We can honestly say we've never had a bad cruise. Yes, some have been better than others, but none of them have been to the point we've had to complain about everything or caused us to have a miserable time.
Our worst cruise was still very good in some areas, so like all cruises we've taken, we concentrated on those good things in order not to let the negative things impact on the overall experience. And while there were a few areas on this cruise that could use improvement, we did not let them dictate whether we were going to enjoy the cruise or not. For us, this particular cruise was a positive experience, while I know others on the same cruise had a negative experience. It all depends on one's ability to really relax and enjoy themselves while on vacation. The bottom line is had we listened to all the negative reviews, we may have had second thoughts about doing this cruise in the first place. Lesson learned, opinions are like bellybuttons, everyone has one. Don't listen too hard to reviews as your experience may be completely different than theirs because we're all different people and what one loves, another will hate and vice versa.
Sorry, didn't mean to get off the subject, but this particular cruise tends to elicit more comments (good and bad) from passengers than any other cruise we've ever taken. I just think it's very important for prospective cruisers to understand this cruise is really more about what you do with the opportunity to visit Hawaii than it is about what you expect to get out of the cruise itself. In other words, it's about the itinerary and not about the cruise. Hope that makes sense, but as I said in the beginning, this is not your usual cruise – it is what you make it.
In closing, I would highly suggest to anyone considering this cruise that they plan to spend at least a few days in Honolulu before the cruise. This not only gives you time to get use to the time change, but also an opportunity to see the sights, visit the beach, try some local foods, and appreciate the Hawaiian lifestyle. While the cruise affords one the time to visit 4 islands, it would be a shame to fly in the day the cruise started and fly out the day the cruise ended. Keep in mind that Honolulu is a big city, so if you can, plan to spend some time either outside the city or at one of the other islands. It's truly a magical place with wonderful people and should be visited at least once in everyone's lifetime.
Pete & Nancy Peterson Cruise Planners, Inc. www.storybookcruises.com