Wife and I are 37. This was our 9th cruise including a 12 day transatlantic and a 14 day southern Caribbean. We've cruised Holland America, Celebrity, Carnival and RCL, finding the first two the best. Last cruise was on the Carnival Glory and before that the RCL Mariner. These ships are just too big. There's no customer service. We were glad to see a ship that only had 2000 guests.
I initially wrote a huge long review because we'd learned so many things that weren't in the reviews, but it's really long, so I cut it down to this (still long). If you want the unedited version, email me, email@example.com with cruise review in the title.
Here we go. The Fodor's Hawaii book is better than the frommers. Library didn't have revealed, but you need to research before you go, especially if you've never been to Hawaii, like us. We planned to take the robertshawaii.com official airport shuttle listed in the Fodor's guide. Unless you want to get to your hotel 2 hours later, take a cab. It'll cost you about $25 with a tip, but you'll save at least an hour.
The problem is this isn't really a shuttle, it's a bus. A big bus. We came out from the baggage claim and after 20 minutes a rep showed up and said the “shuttle" was on the way. 10 minutes later it drove by us, completely full of people. 20 minutes later, another one came and we got on. 14 stops later, it was our turn to get off the bus. It was still half full. It's easy to imagine that the last person would have been on the bus for more than an hour for a hotel no more than 10 miles away. If it was during the day, it would have been even longer as Honolulu's traffic is as bad as LA's.
The ship doesn't leave until 8pm and you can get there early and leave again. We did this and saw Waikiki, diamond head, some huge mall and all of the aloha towers attached to the pier. You just need to get on by 730. Enjoy your day, don't just sit on the ship. We didn't even get there until 5, breezed through security and put our stuff in our room and went back off to a bar in the towers.
It rains a lot on Hilo and it did our day. Couldn't see the crater at all so we did the chain of craters road and good thing, it was packed on our way out. Go to the end where the lava blocks the road. There's no parking lot, so getting there early helps as cars parked along the road went back about a quarter mile by the time we left – on top of the walking you need to do to see the lava on the road. Live lava was closer than ever too, but the wife didn't want to hike 2.5 miles to see it.
Hilo actually has a lot to see besides the crater park. Get your guide book or the rental car book and see everything you can. We saw so much I can't believe it, and it rained nearly the whole time. Rent from whoever you want. Thrifty was slammed at every port and the blue chip line was longer than the regular line. We did mostly Alamo since we get SWA points with them. Never more than a 15 minute wait at the counter, though the vans to get you could be very frustrating. They were nearly always taking only the driver, meaning you needed to come back and get your passenger. If there was just two of you, this would suck. In Hilo, we took a cab because the airport was close and someone said we just missed the Alamo van.
Be done eating by 9 because the ship goes south to sail by the live lava flow pouring in the ocean. You'll see it from both sides of the ship. You can't get a good picture but binoculars make it really spectacular. Awesome nightcap.
Maui the next day puts you on the east side of the island. Rent a car here for sure. If you want to do hana, do it first thing. We drove it all the way to the end, the seven pools (can't go further, huge rocks block the road). The $10 fee for the seven pools state park is also good for the crater park, you can do both in the time you're there.
This trip is about the landscape and for the car guys, an awesome road. There's nothing in hana and there are side trips everywhere. There are also tour buses that can take you if you don't want to drive and that's acceptable as it's an old road, every bridge is a one lane and it gets so crowded later in the day. Driving this road with an average speed of 20mph at night – scary considering half the people couldn't stay in their lanes during the day.
There's not enough free parking by the ship, so get there early or you'll be parking far away. We got there at 530 and watched the kite-boarders and the sunset. There's nothing to do in the town, though a grocery store and mall with a free shuttle is close if you need something.
Forget BYOB as they were shaking every container, even opened the lid and sniffed my wife's fountain drink! Security is through 3rd party, not the ship. They look through everything you have. They have metal detectors so all I can guess is they're looking for booze. Wouldn't want anyone to miss the highest priced drinks in the cruise industry.
Book any of your tours in Maui when you get there, tons of operators and way cheaper than the ship. We did a Molokini and turtle watching thing and still had time for the crater later in the day. Be sure you see the west side, this is where the Maui everyone talks about is.
Kona is the only tender port and it will eat a lot of your time. Long story short, don't rent a car here. It was a pain in the butt because the airport is far and its road is under construction. Reportedly there's good shopping and whatnot, just plan on that. But if you want to do a beach, Honokaope bay or Hapuna beach state park are incredible.
Kauai is everything you've heard and read. Do your helicopter tour here. We did it first thing and it was great because we previewed everything and the pilot gave us a great agenda where to go in the rental car. This also worked out as we got the car about noon after the helicopter and returning it at noon was spot-on for a 2pm departure the next day.
You must see the north shore. The beaches there were awesome. Everywhere we stopped had great snorkeling and beautiful beaches. Don't be afraid to just go down a road that looks like it goes to the water.
The ship leaves at 2 so it can cruise by the Na Pali coast which is only accessible by water. Around 4pm on the port side, the ship will come around and get very close. It's a shame to leave such a beautiful place early, but this, combined with the sunset that came later, made for an incredible close to an incredible trip.
So what about the ship? It's really nice, clean everywhere except our cabin and the crew was usually pretty good. Never saw our cabin guy the whole time, our bathroom was absolutely gross and was only partly cleaned up after we left a huge note he couldn't miss on the 3rd day. Never cleaned it again after that either.
Freestyle is the biggest crock ever. Because of the reviews, everyone runs on to the ship to make reservations. Duh, isn't that what you'd do on a non freestyle?! NCL must have acknowledged that it wasn't working because you couldn't book more than 36 hours in advance for our trip. This did get us in the sushi bar, which was well worth it, others weren't so happy with the other pay places.
We did the main dining room only one night because of waits. By the second night you either needed to eat by 8 at the buffet or sign up early as possible for Mexican or pasta because they were better food than the main rooms. At 9 the buffet closes, there's only the main rooms and Mexican or pasta with a long wait. The whole feeding thing was a complete mess and can really piss you off. Better have one or two of their $5 beers and wait for the Denny's quality food.
The gym was great with TVs for each cardio machine and dumbbells up to 85 pounds. The pool area was nice, band was way too loud as always and had NO service, especially cleanup service. This area appeared to be the least manned with food stuff everywhere in the afternoons.
By day 3, there were enough people sick that there was no self service on the food, everything had to be served to you, no touching (even salt and pepper shakers were removed!). That makes lines even longer and was probably due to gross cabin bathrooms like ours as the ship was mostly clean. Getting water, iced tea or coffee now has to come from a bar because they locked up the buffet area when it wasn't open. The bartenders were real happy about serving you too. No tip in it.
Last are the $10 a day tips. Came to find out on the last day when I went to adjust them because of the cabin and lack of main dining room use, that low and behold, they're not adjustable. It's now a service charge, not tipping. Obviously, everyone was doing what I was doing and NCL just put a stop to it because their overworked, demoralized crew were working 14 hours a day for nearly nothing. This really did piss me off because I had left tips everywhere and I felt like I paid twice. All this after waiting nearly an hour in line because there were only 2 people at the desk.
For departure, the easiest way to go is to carry your own bags and go when you want. NCL lets you get off as early as 730, but you can also go when you're ready. If you have a late flight, and the earliest we heard of was 1pm, take your time. The airport won't check you until 2.5 hours before so you'll be babysitting your bags if you get there too early. The Easy Fly service will handle this for you at $20 a person but if you have more than one bag, you pay even more. Overall, getting off was really easy.
Overall, our expectations were low going in and that's the reality. I think maybe this is isolated to the Pride ships and the American crew requirements. We've never done NCL before and a friend swears by them. They'll likely never get it right unless the prices go WAY up so they can hire enough crew and keep them. Our inside cabin was $499 before tax and we got what we paid for. Those paying more really didn't get what they paid for and a better cabin here just makes no sense with the ship docked everyday.
Would we go again, yah, now we really know what to expect and how to work around it. Would we recommend it to someone? Only if we knew they had a really high tolerance. Parents, older people and families, no. The cabins must be the smallest ever (you can't even sit straight on the toilet!) and the service level is really lacking. But can you imagine what it would cost to see 4 islands in 8 days without NCL's monopoly?!