Embarkation & Cabin:
We flew out of LAX on Delta Airlines early Sunday morning and took a taxi straight to Aloha Tower ($16 + tip, 10-15 minute ride). Check-in began at 11:20am and we were in our stateroom before noon. Right before the embarkation photos were taken, ladies were given orchid leis and men received shell leis. There's a shuttle that runs from Aloha Tower to various locations in Waikiki for those that want to get off the ship and get back on later (we did not) - I believe the cost is $2 each way. Taxis and The Bus are other options. The Aloha Tower Marketplace itself has several shops and restaurants. Everyone had to be onboard by 7:30pm.
We booked a Cat F guarantee and ended up in a Cat. C (outside) on deck 8 aft. For those thinking of booking a balcony or suite, I would hesitate to recommend the aft cabins. A few of the days in port (perhaps during refueling?), we would notice the smell of diesel on the outside deck areas in the aft of the ship and also inside the ship around the aft staircase. It didn't affect our cabin or any of the public rooms, but I would imagine there would be similar diesel smells from an aft balcony. The shower door was great, much better than a curtain, and they have the most powerful hair dryers I've ever used on a ship so no need to bring your own even if you have long hair.
Dining & Decor:
We've cruised on NCL since freestyle before and found it very convenient again. We dined at Versailles, Bistro, and Endless Summer one night each, and the rest of the time at Aqua. I know the menu and galley are the same for both Aqua and Versailles, but the food just seemed to be a little bit better at Aqua. Plus we preferred the ambience of Aqua and it seemed that most people couldn't find the small entrance to this restaurant so there was never a wait. Aqua is also open for lunch on embarkation day if you'd rather sit down than eat at the buffet. On all other days, Versailles was open for breakfast and lunch, and on busy days they would open up Aqua for overflow. We didn't use the buffet except for a couple of breakfasts - it was packed most of the time and usually difficult to find a table unless you got there early. The deck BBQ was good especially on Friday afternoon when they have the grilled jumbo prawns, but again not enough seating around the pool deck. We would usually just take our food up to the Bier Garten where there were always empty tables (bratwurst was available up here on two afternoons during the week). The Blue Lagoon was a good spot for a quick lunch/snack without having to wait in a buffet line. I also liked being able to grab a coffee or juice/iced tea here anytime since it's open 24 hours. Several of the lounges had some snacks/hot hors d'oeuvres available in the evening and each one had different beers on draft. Latitudes members can get 20% off drinks ordered in the Spinnaker Lounge (although they don't tell you this until mid-way through the cruise). Dinner reservations for all of the specialty restaurants can be made for the same or following day by visiting the reservation table set up in the atrium or dialing from your cabin. On the first evening a 50% discount off the cover charge was given for all three extra charge restaurants up until 6:00pm, and the same was offered on several other nights but only for Ginza (and excluding teppanyaki). There were also a couple of days where $10 all you can eat sushi was offered. I didn't partake of the sushi - living in LA I'm used to good sushi and was a little wary of the quality of sushi on board. Food highlights and recommendations: Bistro (escargot, mushroom soup, filet, and chocolate fondue), Italian night in Aqua (carpaccio and veal), Endless Summer (lomi lomi salmon, ribs, and pineapple mac nut pie), Friday afternoon deck BBQ (prawns, prawns, prawns), and fresh fruit outside by the pool during breakfast and lunch (the papaya and pineapple were delicious but they ran out of papaya by the 4th day).
The ship layout can be confusing for the first couple of days. There are several areas of the public room decks that just stop and you have to go up a flight or down a flight of stairs to access another portion of the deck. We learned that the forward staircase is blue, the mid staircase is red, and the aft staircase is green and this helped us figure out where we were. The pool area is hideous - there is just no other way to describe it IMO with the ugly slides and fake palm tree columns (at least they've learned and not done the same with the sister ship Dawn). Some of the other rooms are also a bit over the top to me but I thought the pool area was by far the worst offender. The specialty restaurants and Aqua were nicely done as were the indoor pool/spa facilities and the bars on deck 13. Favorite spot on board: the forward hot tub on deck 13 between 5:00-6:00am - it's just you and the ocean.
Our cabin steward and his assistant were very efficient. We didn't see much of them, but our room was always clean and anything we requested was brought right away. Dining room service ranged from acceptable to very attentive with one pair of waiter/assistant waiter who probably shouldn't be in the service industry. We mentioned this to the head waiter that evening after dinner so hopefully these two will receive some re-training. We noticed that the wait staff is rotated amongst the dining rooms, so it's difficult to recommend anyone in particular. Aside from the two dining room servers mentioned above, every crewmember we ran across greeted us with a big smile.
On Board Activities & Entertainment:
Do try to attend the lei making classes and hula classes offered by the Hawaiian Ambassador, Cathy Foy. She is a great instructor and brings Hawaii to you on a cruise where you see very little of Hawaii (more on that later). The lei making classes were especially popular so try to get there early. Toward the end of the cruise there were over passengers 400 attending - we made kukui nut, orchid, and ribbon leis during the cruise. Also the dance cast of Tihati Productions were outside on the pool deck several afternoons teaching palm frond weaving, but these were not as fun as Cathy's classes.
For those familiar with NCL's Sports Afloat program, you can no longer earn a T-shirt. It now costs $20 to join their program, and you get a T-shirt, sports bottle, and unlimited access to all of the fitness classes. Otherwise, the classes are $5 each except for walk a mile and beginning yoga which were free. And of course the fitness center itself and the indoor spa pool/hot tubs are still free. The fitness center had a good variety of machines and was never very full.
We did not see any of the production shows in the Stardust Theater but did enjoy the two performances in the Spinnaker Lounge by the Tihati dancers (one show was different Polynesian dances while the other show was more hula). Also there are two get togethers each week for Kama'ainas (Hawaiian residents) but mainlanders are welcome too and they play Hawaiian songs and perform some hula. We enjoyed listening to Charles and Shawn in the atrium and Butch O'Sullivan in Las Ramblas each evening.
The Pacific Whale Foundation had a several lectures in the cinema on whales and other marine life. There was also a different movie shown every day in the cinema in addition to the in cabin movies. The library was open limited hours but they did have multiple copies of all of the Wizard Publication guides in their most recent editions (aka Maui Revealed, Big Island Revealed, and Ultimate Kauai) which I highly recommend for exploring the islands on your own. They have the most detailed maps and driving directions of any guidebook and mention a lot of out of the way places that other books never mention - like did you know there's actually a tunnel where you can hike from the east shore of Kauai and end up on the north shore?
Weather & Seas:
I don't know if this is the norm, but on our cruise the days at sea were really cool and windy (much like a Mexican Riviera cruise going in and out of San Pedro). Some days, you could hardly walk on the deck without feeling like you'd be blown over. It was only warm at sea when we got closer to Fanning Island. We did have anywhere from light showers to downpours in each Hawaiian port so maybe it was just the weather that week. The day at Fanning was gorgeous, sunny and breezy and not too hot. Seas were rougher than any cruise I've been on before including the Caribbean, Pacific Coast, and Alaska starting from Sunday night until Friday morning. By the time we approached Maui, it was much calmer. We were fine (didn't take any medication or bands) but did overhear several people saying they felt seasick.
As I mentioned earlier, you will have very little port time in the Hawaiian Island, less than 24 hours total. This is not a cruise that I would recommend to anyone unless they enjoy sea days and don't mind not seeing much of Hawaii. Having been on multiple trips to Hawaii and stayed on each of the islands before and studying the itinerary prior to our cruise, we still were not fully prepared for how short the port times really are when you factor in time spent getting off and back on the ship (we went thru metal detectors, a hand search of our bags, and three I.D. checks before being allowed to re-board at each port), picking up and dropping off a rental car, and having to be on board half an hour prior to sailing. If you understand this, you will be OK.
I highly recommend renting a car so you can go at your own pace and see things that interest you. It's really easy to get around each of the islands. We reserved our cars online prior to our trip and at each port the rental car shuttles are usually waiting at the dock (if not, just remember to bring the local rental office phone number to call and they will send one right away). They shuttle you to the rental locations at the airport only a few minutes away on each island.
Hilo - Our arrival was at 7:00am instead of 6:00am as posted on the NCL website and documents (no explanation why). Expect it to be raining in various degrees in Hilo anytime of the year. NCL distributed disposable rain ponchos at the gangway which were greatly appreciated as the rain was pretty heavy that morning. We rented a car from Dollar, waited about ten minutes at the dock and a short ride to the airport where we picked up the car. Only took a few minutes to process our paperwork and pick up keys to our car. Note: check your car carefully (we did not as it was pouring rain); our car had a small scratch on the bumper which I suspect was already there, but they made us fill out a damage report anyway since we didn't check. We rent cars often and have never had a rental agency make such a big deal about such miniscule damage - seems counterproductive on their part. If you've never been to Volcanoes National Park, GO THERE. It's about a 40 minute drive from Hilo and you'll have just enough time to see the highlights. Since we had visited the park last year and the time in port was so short, we decided to see some other sites closer to Hilo. We drove up to see Akaka Falls north of Hilo - there are actually two falls here, Kahuna and Akaka, and you can see both of them by taking the circle loop through the park. On your way from or back to Hilo, take the 4 mile scenic route off of the highway (look for the sign). This is the "old" road before the highway was built - it's meandering and narrow in areas and you'll see beautiful, lush rain forests. One of the biggest botanical gardens on the island is also up in this area, but we decided to head south of Hilo to see Lava Tree State Park. There is loop trail that goes through this park and around some of the tree form specimens. While interesting and unusual, it's not really a must see if you're short on time. Neither of the two parks I mentioned require a great deal of time.
Maui - we were on deck around 9:00am watching for whales. The ship sails up the channel between Lanai and Maui with Molokai in the distance, past Lahaina, and around the north side of Maui to dock at Kahului. This is prime whale watching territory in winter season. At this time of year, we only saw three whales and couldn't see enough of them to tell if they were humpbacks. Before anyone can go ashore in Maui, each passenger (U.S. citizen or non) had to present proof of citizenship at the immigration desk set up in Dazzles. I had heard this was not a requirement on one of last month's cruises so I don't know if it's new or random. The entire process took about 2 hours and you were assigned a time to line up according to your excursion departure time or cabin deck. When you presented your proof of citizenship, they checked your name off of a list and gave you a voucher which you then had to turn in at the gangway before being allowed off of the ship. The wait wasn't too long, but it just seemed unnecessary considering each passenger's proof of citizenship had already been checked at embarkation. Luckily the immigration officers embarked by vessel out of Lahaina, so by the time we docked in Kahului, almost everyone had been cleared (we were given the OK to go ashore around 1:20pm). We debated whether to rent a car on this island and ended up just taking the shuttle to Lahaina. The NCL shuttles ran continuously and there was very little wait if any. In Lahaina, we just walked around and did some shopping. There is a shuttle that goes up to Kaanapali for $1 each way and leaves from Lahaina Cannery Mall. For those that are interested, the schedule can be found at http://www.lahainacannerymall.com/shuttle_schedule.html The drive to Lahaina took about 40 minutes and the drive back about an hour due to traffic. The ship's luau (which we did not attend) is at the Sheraton in Kaanapali.
Fanning Island (Republic of Kiribati pronounced "kiribas") - this port received the most mixed reviews, we thought it was a picture perfect South Pacific atoll (think Bora Bora without the island in the middle), others thought it was a complete waste of time. All of the swimming is in the inner lagoon and the water has beautiful varying shades of blue depending on the depth. We did the Napali beach excursion for $5 which I highly recommend. They take a limited number of people by tender to this beach. It is far less crowded than the main beach and you do not have to swim in a roped off area. You can take the morning or afternoon excursion - I recommend morning as your time will be longer (I suppose if you paid them $10 you could stay all day). There are no restroom or food facilities (you can buy drinks though) on this side but you can tender over to the main area and back. There's a 10 minute walk on a flat unpaved trail to get to/from the tender drop off area to the beach. NCL has beach chairs/umbrellas set up and a beach mat is included in the cost. Watersports rentals are only available from this beach not the main beach - they had paddle boats, kayaks, and hobies. They don't rent snorkeling equipment as there is nothing to see around the beach area and it's too dangerous (according to NCL) to run excursions to the reef due to currents. The lagoon is very shallow and calm, and you can walk pretty far out from the beach and still be in waist deep water. Sign up for this excursion using the Dive-In form, it's not listed on the regular shore excursion form. Around noon, we took a tender to the main area, had lunch, and did some shopping. Items for sale were mostly shell products, items woven from palm frond, and maps of the island. There's also a store that sells local stamps and coins. I purchased two Republic of Kiribati coins, one from 1979 (date of independence) and one from 1989 (tenth anniversary of independence). NCL has beach chairs set up here too but it's much more crowded and the roped off swimming area is very small. They also have volleyball courts, bicycles for rent, restroom facilities, and picnic tables. There were a flew flies but we didn't find it to be a problem and it wasn't any worse than your average picnic outing. The local islanders performed on a stage set up near the beach. This was our favorite day. Gifts: Many people have been talking about bringing gifts and the one thing we wished we had brought (which I would never have thought of) were strings and replacement parts for acoustic guitars and ukuleles. We saw one musician playing a guitar with only four strings and he was missing two of the bridge pins. Bet that's not easy to find on the island. So for those of you wondering what to bring, there's an idea.
Kauai - this is the only island where you will have a full day. We docked at 8:00am and everyone had to be back on board by 6:00pm for a 6:30pm sailing. The captain said that they would have liked to stay even later, but the port authority will not allow ships to exit Nawiliwili harbor in the dark. Again we had pre-reserved a car with Dollar and they had two shuttles waiting at the dock to take us to Lihue airport which is only a few minutes away. Registration was quick and we were off to the north shore. I love the north shore of Kauai - it's so lush and gorgeous. I've never driven the road to Hana on Maui, but I can't imagine that it could be any prettier than the north shore of Kauai. We drove all the way to the end of the road past Hanelei, Haena, and over many one lane bridges to Ke'e Beach. This is where the 11 mile Kalalau trail begins. This trail runs along the coast and is one of three ways to view the Na Pali cliffs - the other two ways are by helicopter or boat. We planned to hike in only about a mile or so to see the views. It's possible to hike the first two miles to a beach (not recommended for swimming) and another two miles inland to a waterfall without a permit. The first two miles will take you about 2 hours roundtrip not counting stops along the way. After the hike we went swimming at Ke'e Beach. The water here is protected by a reef and is like a calm swimming pool (at least in summer). We didn't bring snorkeling gear but saw many people snorkeling here. Then we drove back toward Lihue, stopping at some of the caves along the road, walked around Hanalei, had lunch at Bubba's Burgers, and stopped at the outdoor fair in Kapaa (I think it's every Thursday through Sunday) where we bought some fresh plumeria leis. We wanted to spend some time at Kalapaki Beach (closest beach to the pier and where the Marriott hotel is located) but it started to rain so we just had some drinks at Dukes and returned the car.
Disembarkation:We had a flight out of HNL at 12:50pm so had a leisurely breakfast and waited to disembark when they called the final group of passengers around 10:00am. I can't remember when the first group of passengers were called. If you have a late flight, there is a luggage check at the pier for $5 a bag or it may be easier to just rent a car and return it to the airport. Security at the Delta terminal took quite a long time due to the fact that there were several international flights departing around the same time and they had two terminals of passengers funneling into only three metal detectors. I don't think this is the case with every terminal because we had flown out of a different terminal at HNL around the same time of day in March and the security line wait was only 10 minutes, but just be prepared for a possible long wait.
We had a great time and enjoyed the cruise but feel that it may not be for those that really want to experience the Hawaiian islands.