First a little background:
This was our 5th cruise. My wife and I have had the opportunity to take our children along on the last 4 cruises. Jay is 16 and Julie 13.
We have gone with a large group of 400 plus each and every year, sponsored by a radio station in Milwaukee. The travel agents do a wonderful job and it is almost effortless. Of the 400 plus I go with a group of approximately 18 being a mixture or friends and family.
We flew out of Milwaukee on a non-stop flight. It was a charter and really went smooth. We had free drinks as soon as we were in the air so that made the flight seem not as long. Prearranged transfers to the Hilton Hawaiian Village went smooth. The HHV is a huge complex located on the end of Waikiki Beach. It has everything you would need. Although prices were high it was expected being in Hawaii. They have fireworks at night, a huge pool, penguins, pink flamingoes, water sport rentals etc. I was in the Tapas tower built in 1982 and it was in wonderful shape. I found a reasonable coffee shop just outside the HHV.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and found a excellent place to get some pizza within the HHV complex. It was called Round Something?? Pizza. It's nothing fancy but delicious. Easy to carry back to the room if you so desire. Other restaurants are real pricey so that is why I'm bring it up.
Saturday was the ProBowl and it was outstanding. Being there for the opening ceremonies in a outdoor stadium with thousands of people on the field and four F-16's come overhead in a fly by was something I'll never forget.
We went to a Luau at Paradise Cove that night. It was about a 1/2 hour drive from Honolulu. The setting was perfect on the west coast of the island. They have you do corny little games like throwing spears and rolling rocks. They did a presentation in a circular outdoor arena with dancing and a reenactment of digging the pig out of the ground. I could be wrong but it looked fake. Friends next to me said it was probably a plastic replica. Then we sat down for dinner. It was ok but nothing to go back for seconds. Then they put on a show and although I felt the actors/dancers really had there heart in it, mine wasn't.
Sunday we went on a tour to the Arizona Memorial. It is a must see and the National Park Service does a pretty good job of moving the crowds through. My suggestion is go early and remember there are NO cases, purses, bags of ANY kind. We then did a 45 minute city tour that was very interesting.
Ok, lets get on board the ship!
With our group we had pre registered online with NCL. That was helpful because we were on the ship in 15 minutes maximum!! Luggage came in bits and pieces but we had it by 6pm. We had a Penthouse Suite in the front of the ship. It was outstanding with the interior done with a lot of class. This particular suite had a dining and living room table although they were all in one large cabin. The balcony was huge. We had a party of 18 people and a butler in our room and some had to resort to the bed but it was fun. Our children were in a regular balcony room and it reminded me of the ones on the Sky and also sized similar to the Destiny's. Some complained of creaking but ours never did.
I headed for food and drinks as soon as we got on board. At 4:30 pm they did the lifeboat drill. That was the first time we didn't have to go out on the decks but had us meet in lounges etc. We sailed on time at 8pm. The first night we ate in the Endless Summer. This used to be a pay restaurant but it was changed as I understand it to relieve pressure off the main dining venues. ( Aqua and Versailles ) This restaurant is excellent, so good we went there twice. Ask for Louis to be your waiter and you will not be disappointed. The second time we went there two ladies from India served us and they were equally pleasant and efficient. I didn't get their names. I had different meals each time and my wife loved the seared tuna. The fish chowder was so good some people were ordering it as a meal so you would get a large bowl. Everything was like it was cooked to order and came out hot. Louis introduced us to a new system NCL has. My wife drinks wine, I don't. Instead of ordering by the glass he suggested ordering the bottle. They would save whatever you didn't drink with your cabin number to identify it. It gives you approximately two extra glasses of wine instead of ordering by the glass. Sure enough when we went to the Le Bistro the next night we simply said we have a bottle in storage and it was at our table in less than 10 minutes. We did it several times and it worked fine.
Monday we arrived in Hilo instead of Kona. I would rather dock for sure versus wondering if weather and tenders could possibly keep us off an island. I had a 8 passenger van reserved and a friend had a car waiting. We took the Thrifty shuttle to the airport (7 minutes) away. When I got there I jokingly said do you have a school bus I could rent. She then told me she had a 15 passenger van so I took it for $150. We all piled in and it was a gas. Off to the Volcanoes National Park which was a 45 minute drive. I'm very glad others suggested going there. It was wonderful and everyone loved it. Stop at the main info building to get maps and ideas on what you want to do. We circled the crater rim stopping at all if not most of the sites. There was a road you can drive down to the bottom but I must have missed that sign. A local cab driver had mentioned to me he takes his customers down there so it must be worth it. I suggest you see the different views then get your group back into the car to the next one. That way you can see much more. Someone I met on the ship also drove down to another area near the sea but he had a convertible and I had that huge van with a lot of people so I had to take it kind of easy. I have a really neat way to enjoy the Thurston Lava Tubes. It was suggested to me by someone else and it was really cool. The Thurston Lava Tubes are for the most part well lit with floodlights. At the end of the tubes there is a sign with a swinging gate that tells you if you want to go further you can but you need flashlights. You need to be careful going in there but it is real safe. You will proceed further into the unlit tubes. Go as far as you want but we went where we couldn't see the natural light anymore. Then turn off your flashlights and you will have some very memorable pictures in the tubes. One of the members in our group said he got some real neat pictures on his VCR. Our pictures just came in and they came out nice, very different.
Monday night we ate at Le Bistro. It was optional formal night and also lobster night. What I thought was neat was there was lobster EVERYWHERE on the ship. The were grilling it out by the pool along with almost every restaurant. My filet mignon was good as was the lobster. Natalie didn't like her chicken dish. We didn't say anything as there was plenty to eat with the lobster.
Tuesday was at sea. Lots of laying around at the pool. They set up these huge grills and make steaks and ribs and etc. everyday. They were delicious. I ate ribs almost everyday along with other things. These grill stations free up the Market Place Buffet and also relieves the pressure everywhere else. Endless Summer was so good Sunday we invited 10 more from our group to join us. Again a great meal and good service.
Wednesday was Fanning Island. I got off on tender #4 I think. It really didn't matter as I think almost everyone who wanted to get off was on the island by 10:30 am. We took one of the ships lifeboat/tenders to the island and one of the (2) 200 plus passenger catamarans back. (More on that later) I went right to the bike rental shed and there was more than enough bikes. $10 for the first hour and $5 per hour after that. I recommend the bike at first because you can cover a lot of ground. You can always drop off the bike and do the beach/walk around and shop later. All those things are real close by. Yes, there are flies but they didn't seem to be that bad and they didn't seem to land on you. I brought along a can of off and never touched it. We started out by riding down to the primary and elementary schools. We brought along balloons, bubbles and candy and it was a big hit. Yes, the people are in poverty but that is how they live. They were very friendly and didn't ever beg or bother you. Yes, it is a long way to go to see it but there is no other alternative until the useless laws are repealed. Deal with it or go on a ten day Hawaiian cruise that still puts you at sea 4 days! I didn't eat from the food provided by NCL. I would suggest eating breakfast on ship and then lunch also on ship. We got on the island by 9:30am and was heading back at 12:30 pm. We didn't lay out at the beach so add some time for that and you will have done everything there is to do. Bring singles onshore with you . The natives aren't going to cash travelers checks and not much is over $10. On the way back we took the large catamaran tender. When we got close to the ship the tender kept bobbing up and down. The crew had to improvise with the walkway. Luck would have it when my wife and daughter tried to cross the gangway the entire gangway rose 3 feet in the air suspending them up there. Luckily my son grabbed Julie and I made Natalie jump off. They were more scared than unsafe but the reason I bring it up was the water appeared very calm. The crew did a great job with the conditions. I say nuts to the guy who complained a month ago about how he couldn't get off at Fanning even though it seemed ok to him. I believe that was the time someone on the crew injured their leg. If they say it's too rough believe them.
Wednesday night we had the best and most entertaining dinner on the cruise. We reserved the entire Teppanaki Room at 7:30pm . All twelve of us were served by two quality young ladies in Japanese garb and the cooks put their souls into cooking for us. The food just kept on coming and it was outstanding. We gave the servers and the cooks $20 in cash each as an extra tip for their efforts. It was worth it seeing their faces in appreciation for the extra tip.
Thursday was a day at sea with the usual laying out by the pool. We ate at Soho that night. Three of us had the live lobster. I had mine sent back as it was undercooked and way too small of a portion. The Maitre d' tried repeatedly to have me reorder or try something else but I didn't want anything. The others in our group felt the value wasn't there but didn't say anything as to whether theirs was cooked properly. Natalie had a lobster medallion dinner with pasta. She said some of the lobster medallions were good and others not. My opinion on this restaurant is the items are overpriced. This was the only restaurant that was disappointing to me but out of 14 restaurants that isn't bad. Maybe I hit it on a bad day.
Friday was Maui were we docked instead of tendering. I rented a car and took a cab to the car rental place rather than wait for the shuttle. The cab was only $10 with the tip. We headed out on Highway 36 ( the road to Hana ) . First stop was a town named Paia ? which is a hippie town that takes you back to the 70's. Stopped at Hoopanki Beach to see wind and kite surfers and breathtaking views. Further down we went to a place called Twin Falls Park which had a neat pool you could swim in. I tried to head up into the mountains but every road sign looked like it had the same name and there were lots of forks in the road so we drove back through Paia to have a early dinner then back to the ship. From everyone I talked to it was better than going into Lahina for strictly shopping. Friday night we ate in the Versailles restaurant and had a marvelous waiter named Dingo. Another one to ask for when you go there if you want a great waiter. The food was delicious.
Saturday was Kauai. I rented a helicopter from Island Helicopters months before the cruise at a considerably cheaper rate than on the ship and other tour operators. It was the first helicopter ride for all of us and was one of the most incredible things I have ever done. It is a must do in Kauai as 80% of the island is not visible by car or bus, plus you see it all in 1 hour. Their is a Marriott Hotel near the ship with a nice beach and all the rentals etc that comes with it. I opted for the ship and all the comforts it provides. The girls went shopping at a mall right next to the Hotel and free constant shuttles took them there and back.
All 18 of us went to dinner in the Aqua Restaurant. Another outstanding meal served by a man named Santos. For him to put up with our group deserves an award! Debarkation was smooth and you can store your luggage for $5 a piece and pick it back up by 7:30pm.
Some thoughts on the ship:
I really enjoyed freestyle dining. For the little bit extra it cost at the specialty restaurants it really didn't matter as it gave us an opportunity to make reservations when and if we wanted to. A lot of people stuck to the "free" restaurants which there are so many you won't have to eat the same meal ever. In my humble opinion there really isn't anything to complain about. The dinners in the "free" restaurants had outstanding food and service. I have a peculiar habit of observing people and workers in action. I'm a manager so it's hard not to be observing even on vacation. Throughout the entire cruise I never saw so many management people present then on this cruise. They were either training, guiding or simply observing. Each and every meal had the Maitre d' come up to our table to simply talk and see if everything was ok. The captain walked through Soho the night we were there talking to people. The main chefs were out by the pool making sure the grill operation was going smoothly. I watched staff spend hours on a perch watching the entire pool area. I met Rob the Assistant Food Director who was all over the ship making sure everything was going smooth. He deserves credit for the effort he put in to see that everything was going running smooth. It seemed to me like they are on a mission to make sure this concept works and that everyone is happy.
The ship is huge with so many places to eat, drink and relax you can't do it all in a week. I figured the card room would be empty so I had a poker game organized during the days at sea. It was packed with people using it so we had to play out on our own deck. Things like a library, cinema, basketball courts etc were things I never got to. I barely made it to Las Ramblas for free hors d'oeuvre and two for one cocktails. Take the Karaoke Bar as an example. We had a gas but they also provide private rooms for up to 12 people to make a fool of yourselves in private.
The food was great throughout. Yes, I didn't like my live lobster but so what, they took it back and I didn't starve. Out of every other meal I had I was very pleased. I was real confused when I heard people say oh I wish the weather was better. I don't know what they were drinking or smoking but we had partly cloudy days with the occasional rain shower that lasted for 15 minutes. I liked it when it clouded up as you didn't burn as fast. The seas were calm with minimal rocking. I heard people complaining about Fanning Island. We loved its authenticity. Were these peoples heads in a bag when they read where they were going and how long they would be on each island? If you don't like what NCL offers stay on the regular Caribbean cruises that visit the same islands and sell you jewelry and t-shirts. Wow, not one person wanted to braid my ladies hair on this cruise. I'm not a lackey for NCL so save your breath. I'm simply a realist who spends more time enjoying my vacation than finding something to complain about.
I only went to one show and really liked it. Previous posters complained that the seats in the Stardust were too close together and your knees would hit the chair in the front. I totally disagree because there was plenty of room and the sight lines made every seat a good one.
We were spoiled with a Penthouse suite in the front. NCL really does a better job than Carnival Suites in size and class when it comes to that type of cabin. Arnie the butler was there when we needed him and Ann the concierge was a big help.
Elaine in the Internet Cafe was also helpful setting up an account and gave me some real good tips on were to go in Maui. Her Internet access was easy to use.
Can I suggest as you go to dinner or even lunch bring some cash with you. When you find that waiter that gives you real good service tip them an extra $10 and ask for their table the next time you return. The last day of the cruise I went back to Dingo and Louis to give them something. and they were pleasantly surprised.
I even tipped my room steward and his helper extra as he did a great job. I liked the idea of the tips coming out on your sail and sign card because it made things so easy. I went down early Sunday morning to correct an item on my bill and there were very few in line so I am assuming there wasn't a lot of cheapskates trying to eliminate their tips. So many times on previous cruises you would see empty seats in the dining room the last night because people were too cheap.
I think NCL has a great idea with Freestyle Dining. In my opinion all the petty gripes would go away if they simply made all the restaurants no additional charge. Can it really cost that much more to make a filet mignon in Le Bistro vs. a regular dining room. Then all the whiners who feel they can't afford $10 for a different meal in a unique setting would have nothing to say and people could still enjoy the concept of dining when they want.