I benefited greatly from perusing the available reviews before our cruise so I wanted to give back and hope it will be equally useful for others.
First, I've learned it is all important to distinguish between cruise veterans & newbies in these matters. We were newbies - definitely not cruise snobs who may have an entirely different experience and review from our own.
Secondly, I've learned it is crucial to set expectations appropriately for a vacation like this so that when the inevitable negatives occur they are either expected or at least can be adjusted to without much upset. These reviews helped us do that.
The net right up front is that we found we had set our expectations appropriately and we had a great time.
We sailed on NCL's 4 month old Pride of Hawaii 9/25-10/2. We had a starboard mini-suite stateroom which was more than adequate for us with a nice balcony which we made of which we made a lot of use. This cruise was one of their non-standard itineraries in that the 2 Maui days were split between Lahaina & Kahalui as opposed to the normal 2 days in Kahalui. There has also been a permanent change in the final day in Nawilliwilli Kauai whereby the ship sails at 2 PM so as to sail around the whole island to view the Na Pali coast. The literature & even the NCL website did not reflect that prior to our cruise. The NCL Freestyle model fit us very well. The flexibility of eating when/where/with whom we wanted outweighed higher quality cuisine in our case.
I will rate various aspects of the cruise:
Embarkation: Our original plan was to arrive at the pier soon after noon. We didn't make it until 1 because of the terrible Honolulu traffic coming over from the Arizona Memorial and by then there was a 30 yard line to check luggage and then another longer slower line to get your id card. We then walked onto the ship and our stateroom was ready. Our luggage showed up within an hour of our boarding. The whole thing took about 1 hour. So all in all a satisfactory experience. There was someone selling leis at the foot of the escalator in the pier but as soon as you get to the top and turn the corner there are the complimentary leis mentioned in the NCL literature.
Service: despite several critical reviews we had no real complaints about the service. Our stateroom was ready when we embarked and was cleaned and replenished every day while we were out. We had no occasion to complain or have to request anything. Service in the restaurants was a little inconsistent but overall not anything to complain about and was very good on several occasions as mentioned below. Lots of college kids in the crew and they work them hard and they do multiple & diverse things. For example my waiter at Le Bistro one night was stocking the buffet with glasses the next morning and my Teppanyaki chef one night was my omelet chef the next breakfast. Many good and helpful attitudes and a few poor ones. I found that if I courteously persisted I more often than not got satisfaction.
Restaurants: Because of our perusal of these reviews we had decided on dining in the theme restaurants all week. Very soon after we boarded we sought out the dining reservations folks which for us were located in Paniolo's restaurant with wireless computers and made all our reservations for the week. We also found that for the up charge restaurants except for Teppanyaki, if you ate before 6:30 I believe the cover charge was half price. Since we were on eastern time, we tried to eat early every night so we also took advantage of the half price cover. Also, anything other than water or tea is at additional cost. Here is our take:
Papas: Italian themed. Service was not great but certainly acceptable. Food overall was not great but ok‚?¶maybe equal or slightly above an Olive Garden. The Caesar salad made at the table was very good. No up charge.
Cagney's: Steak house. Did twice. Service was good both times. 1st night we both got steaks. My rib eye had good flavor but lots of waste. Wife's filet was very chewy and was sent back whereupon they cooked her another which was good. Unfortunately they offered nothing as compensation and we basically waited 15-20 minutes while they grilled the 2nd one. Sides were very good. On the 2nd visit we tried the tuna steak & mahi mahi which were both very good. The sides are good here and the desserts - especially the cheesecake were good. Normally $15 per person cover.
Paniolo's: Hawaiian cowboy/Mexican themed. Not very good on either service or food. We decided not to return even though we had reservations for a 2nd night. No cover.
Teppenyaki: Japanese steak house in the Jasmine Garden restaurant. We got the filet & shrimp which was good. The chef was a newbie but with a good attitude. Not a great show but the food was good. $20 per person cover.
Le Bistro: French themed. Our best dining experience. We dined with 2 couples we befriended on the cruise including one celebrating their 50th anniversary. Both the service and the food were very good. They made a big deal over the 50th couple. I believe they had bought some kind of anniversary special add-on which entitled them to champagne, special leis and covered their dinner. I believe this was a $15 per person cover.
One night we ate at Alizars, one of the regular restaurants. Food was fine but nothing memorable.
Every morning we hit the Ali Nue breakfast buffet before we headed out for the day. Great selection of fruit, cereals, eggs, meat, waffles & an omelet bar which I hit every day.
Never did lunch on the ship as we were out seeing the island we were at.
After our research we elected to not do the ship excursions but go it alone since I had been to all the islands but Kauai before. So, we rented a car at every port except for Lahaina and did our own thing. Hilo: Spent a half day touring Volcano Natl Park including the chain of craters drive down to the sea - definitely a do not miss. We then went to Akaka Falls which was ok but not worth the drive - about 30 mins north of Hilo.
Lahaina: Tendered port. Been there before so we just tendered in and walked around town. The tender line to get back was 45 minutes - one of the only real aggravations of the cruise.
Kahalui: Went up to Haleakala which we had done before but glad we did it again. Didn't do the sunrise there as we had done that previously. Then, since we were on our own we did the road to Hana which was also our 2nd time. We did it however in a loop - to Hana from the south and then back to Kahului the normal north way. You are not supposed to the south road - especially with rental cars. It is narrow and rough in places and should not be tried if it has recently rained or is raining as there will be impassable places. It's all locals and ranches out there and rather desolate - very much like being in west Texas or Wyoming. I'm told if you need help it will cost several hundreds of $ for assistance or towing so know what you're getting into. Funny thing is we saw dozens of other rental cars doing the same thing we did. Hana is beautiful. The 7 pools are lovely but we were cleared out right after we got there because of possible flash flooding from rain up Haleakala. The other don't miss is the black sand beach just north of Hana which is lovely. Not a great place to swim and dangerous because of currents. On the right, facing the ocean is a neat lava tube you can walk into that we missed our first time there.
Kona: Tendered port. Terrible traffic. We did a Kona Historical society tour of an old Japanese coffee farm that was very interesting. We then drove up north to Hapuna St Park beach which was lovely and spent 1.5 hours swimming. Great fun and the best swimming beach we saw the whole cruise. Allow time to get back to the port from the airport which is where the rental cars are. Took us 30 minutes for 8 miles.
Nawilliwilli: 2 days. We did the Na Pali explorer cruise which offered some snorkeling & a cruise up the Na Pali coast from the south. Same excursion NCL offered but we did it ourselves for the flexibility of having a car and combining it with a tour of Waimea canyon afterwards. Snorkeling was so-so. Had good deli sandwiches, chips & soft drinks for lunch. Beautiful view of Na Pali coast. Definitely one of our top things we did. Waimea canyon was also nice. We did a little bit of hiking at the top. 2nd day we went north all the way to Kee St Park (end of the road) & beach and did 3 miles of the Kalalau trail which is 11 miles long 1 way. I really enjoyed this as you gain altitude fast and see some very pretty scenery. It is a moderately rough and strenuous hike so be in ok condition to do it. We then toured the Natl Botanical garden just down the road towards Hanalie which was interesting. Lots of trees and plants with explanations and history but no flowers. $10 per person. A quick stop and view of Hanalie & beach and then we made a brief stop at the Princeville Resort Hotel which has a lovely setting. Would like to go there maybe someday. The whole island of Kauai is not very commercially developed and the north part, other than Princeville is not at all. We wanted to stop at the Kilauea lighthouse but ran out of time to get back for our 2 PM departure.
For rental cars, the Aloha Center mkt which is about 200 yards from the port sells $10 overnight parking passes.
Disembarkation: We did the online bill review in our stateroom the day before and found a discrepancy that we got corrected at the reception desk. If you arrange the day before to review and sign-off on your bill then you are spared the hassle the morning of departure. We did the express walk-off to get an early start on our last day in Oahu and that worked fine for us.
Honolulu: Came in a day before the cruise and stayed on Waikiki and did the Arizona memorial the morning before boarding. Doing it over we would come in 2-3 days early. We got to the AZ memorial at 8:30 and there was a 70 minute wait to ferry over to the memorial. Took almost that time to go through the museum with the rented audio headsets - $5 per.
After the cruise we went to Diamond Head and did the trail to the top which was short, strenuous and fun. We then toured the N shore with the obligatory but beautiful stop at Sunset Beach. They have these eating places called shrimp trucks in N Oahu - old panel vans that serve grilled shrimp and rice out of the truck and then you eat at an outdoor picnic table. Local color and good food - lots of locals eating there‚?¶.along with lots of wild chickens which can be found all over the Hawaiian islands. We ate shrimp scampi at Giovanni's for $12 per which was very good. Then back to Honolulu for a quick stop at a Walmart for our Macadamia nuts & Kona coffee before hitting the airport and out.
If you're thinking of doing some rental cars I advise booking them in advance as they will run out possibly - especially on the islands other than Honolulu.
Disembarkation: We did the express walk-off to get an early start on our last day in Oahu and that worked fine for us.
They have photographers taking lots of pictures during the week - boarding, dinner, excursions, walk by portraits which are all then posted for viewing and purchase if desired. Unfortunately none of our 3-4 sets of pics came out very well so we left them all behind.
The entertainment on ship was ok. Nothing spectacular and we didn't avail ourselves every night of it. Some of it is provided by NCL employees.
To correct some bad info in some other reviews: at least in the mini-suites there are no coffee makers. There are some laundromats we found but ended up not using. You can't make restaurant reservations online‚?¶.must call or go through the desk at the reception center. You can check your bill online anytime.
There is a bridge observation room forward on deck 11 which is very interesting.
It was our 25th anniversary and we had a wonderful time both on the ship and on the islands. Hope this is as helpful to some as other reviews were for us. Aloha.