Cruising is not for everyone, but it's certainly for me. There are so many aspects of the experience that I enjoy-- the variety of ports, the fact that your room and luggage moves along with you to the next port, the dining experience, the shows, the hospitality, and the overall cost when compared to other options.
I think attitude is the most important key to enjoying any cruise. This concept was reinforced by my recent cruise to Hawaii on the Norwegian Wind. Many things that could have gone wrong on this cruise did, but our attitude overcame the obstacles, and we truly enjoyed the experience.
So what went wrong with our cruise? First, we opted to go with the Norwegian Cruise Line air package -- a big mistake. This was the first time in eight cruises that we booked our airfare with the cruise line, and will probably be our last. We did not know our flight information until about two weeks before the trip and we would have never booked the airfare at the times that were booked. Our plane was scheduled to arrive in Honolulu just hours before the cruise ship was scheduled to leave. We did not get the embarkation photo and flower lei that my wife wanted. Another problem with such a late flight, three out of four of our bags were lost by United and could not catch up to us until the next day in Hilo. Also our return flight was scheduled to leave Honolulu at 8:45 PM and arrive in LAX around 5:00 AM. I would not recommend going with the cruise air package unless you are able to save substantially on the airfare costs because there are so many uncertainties.
Embarkation Process I cannot compare to other cruises because we arrived so late. There were no long lines. There was about a twenty minute wait before we could walk on board. There were no embarkation photos and no flower leis because we arrived at the ship so late. On an important note, remember your passport for the Hawaiian cruise that visits Fanning Island.
Hilo, Hawaii (Docked) We spent so little time in the city of Hilo. Our goal for the entire day was the Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park. Because all the ports (except Fanning Island) were in American ports we saw no reason why we couldn't tour on our own. On most of cruises we travel on our own in port rather than going with the cruise line. We rented a car with Alamo (Hilo International Airport-ITO). Other rental companies were also available. There was a rental shuttle waiting for us when we arrived on the pier. The rental cost was around $50/day including taxes and fees. The drive from Hilo to the national park was about forty minutes. We first visited the Kilauea Visitor Center to get the latest on flowing lava and an overview of the park. We purchased a road guide to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for $6 that helped us navigate through the park. Highlights of our trip included a great panoramic view of the Kilauea Caldera from the Volcano House Hotel, Thurston Lava Tube (bring a flashlight to explore more of the cave), and Chain of Craters Road (long drive to the coast and best chance to see Lava). At the time we visited there was no flowing lava readily accessible. However, at night when the cruise ship passed by the national park we were able to see the red hot lava flowing down the volcano. For park info visit http:/www.nps.gov/havo/, for current volcanic activity visit: http:/hvo.wr.usgs.gov/kilauea/update
First Day At Sea The days at sea are very relaxing. Some passengers complained about going to Fanning Island, but these days offered us some much needed relaxation time. The cruise ship is required to visit a foreign port while visiting United States ports, according to the Jones Act because the Norwegian Wind has a foreign registry. Note that if you stay in Hilo, opting not to visit Fanning Island, you will be charged $300 per person. There were many activities throughout the day. We enjoyed making our own flower leis (arrive early to get material). The first night at sea was the formal night, the only night I wore a tuxedo. The cruise was very casual in the attire department. Most nights are Hawaiian nights, so bring a lot of Hawaiian shirts or dresses so you would be well prepared for this cruise. For us men, bring some dress slacks to go with the Hawaiian shirts, because Norwegian doesn't like seeing denim in the dining room for dinner. For that matter, I wouldn't even bring denim pants, there is no need for them during the summer's in Hawaii. I wore shorts every day.
Second Day At Sea More relaxing. We made Kukei Nut Leis (arrive early to get material). The nut lei kits were sold for $10 each at a later time if you want to make more leis or if you missed the craft class.
Fanning Island (Tendered) Fanning Island is a tropical paradise, but be prepared to see poverty. We took the opportunity to share some extra kindness to the kids of this little island. We brought some containers of "bubbles" and stickers to give to the little kids. I would not bring any candy because the dental care on the island does not appear to be a high priority.
Norwegian has established a nice resort area, with many beach chairs and tables. The cruise ship brings food for a buffet style lunch. There is really no snorkeling on Fanning Island, but there is a snorkel tour offered by the ship. The beach on Fanning Island is very shallow.
We took the opportunity to buy some postcards and stamps to mail to friends and ourselves. We expect the postcards in a couple of months since Fanning Island mail is delivered via Australia by a supply ship that only comes 2-3 times per year. The post office is a small dilapidated building.
At dinner we were informed that our itinerary was going to be changed. An auxiliary engine was not running so we could not increase our speed sufficiently to arrive to Kauai on time. The reception desk provided us with complimentary satellite phone calls to change our car rentals and cancel our scuba dive trip that we had booked in Maui.
Third Day At Sea Another relaxing day. We made Lauhala Ribbon Leis (arrive early to get material). The ribbon and nut leis are beautiful and add to your Hawaiian dining attire.
Fourth Day At Sea Another relaxing day.
Kona, Hawaii (Tendered) Again, we spent very little time in Kona. We rented another car to tour the island. We are certified scuba divers so we went to Kona Coast Divers to rent our equipment. Then we drove down the coast to the "Place of Refuge" (Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park). The dive site is called "two step" from the easy two step entry. The location is also great for snorkelers. The coral reefs are beautiful, there are so many fish, and even some sea turtles. The sea turtles were on the left side near the Place of Refuge. After diving we visited the historical park.
As a note, we found the best price for 100% Kona Coffee at Hilo Hattie, at about $10 for a 7 oz. bag. At the Royal Kona Coffee Museum and Visitor Center the cost was around $18. (Hilo Hatties has coupons in many of the free brochures that will give you some extra souvenirs based on how much you purchase. We received four coffee mugs when we spent more than $65).
Nawiliwili, Kauai (Docked) We rented another car to tour the island. Our first stop was Wailua Falls, an incredible double cascading waterfall. Then we were off to another shore scuba dive trip. We rented equipment at Seasport Divers (www.kauaiscubadiving.com) near Poipu. The dive site, Koloa Landing, is just about a mile from the dive shop. The entry is an old boat ramp. There were snorkelers present, but the snorkeling was not as good as the scuba diving because of some surface waves. There were many fish and some sea turtles, but the coral was not as beautiful as the Place of Refuge.
After diving we drove along the coast to Spouting Horn that was about two miles away from the dive site. Then we drove to Waimea Canyon -- imagine Grand Canyon covered in green.
Lahaina, Maui (Tendered) Lahaina is a wonderful port city. There is so much to see in walking distance from the tender pier-- Baldwin Home, Banyon Tree, the old Courthouse, and much more. We again rented a car, there was an Alamo rental car shuttle (along with other rental car companies) waiting near the pier. An important note is that Alamo closed at around 5:00 PM and the ship stayed until 8:30 PM, so we dropped the car off late leaving the keys in a drop box, and calling a taxi for our return trip.
In Maui we booked a two tank boat scuba dive with Lahaina divers. The dive was a shallow thirty-five foot dive near an old ruined wharf. The visibility was not the best compared to our other dives on the cruise, but there was plenty to see and a lot of dive time. At the end of the last dive, I was about to surface when a large sea turtle swam up to me and passed right over my head, an incredible experience. The dive site probably could have been reached by the shore with a good swim out.
After the dive we drove to Iao Needle and then off to Hana Highway. We did not have sufficient time to make it all the way to Hana, but we enjoyed the scenic drive.
Honolulu Oahu (Docked) The debarkation process was by far the best of all of our cruises. Norwegian allows passengers to stay in their cabins until their colored tags are called. This was wonderful, no more waiting in the public areas with your carry on bags. This debarkation process should be adopted by all other cruise lines.
Norwegian booked our flight to leave at 8:45 PM, so we had all day in Honolulu. We left on an early bus shuttle to the Honolulu airport, where United allowed us to check our bags early onto our flight. Note that there is a $25 charge for any bags over 51 lbs. We adjusted our luggage to not exceed the weight limits by using an available scale at United.
After checking our bags and receiving our boarding pass we rented another car with Alamo. We went directly to Pearl Harbor, to tour USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine, and the USS Missouri. We spent about six hours there. Then we briefly visited Waikiki beach, Diamond Head State Monument, and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
The cruise line booked our flight so late we did not arrive in LAX until around 5;00 AM on Sunday Morning.
Norwegian Wind The Norwegian Wind is not a mega-cruise ship. The amenities are adequate, but not spectacular. The ship is older but has been remodeled with a large portion added to the center. The ship was kept clean. The ship expansion makes the deck plan unusual. Some cabins are located forward and aft of the main dining room, forcing passengers to either walk through the dining room or go around by taking the stairs up or down and then around.
This was the first cruise we have been on where the crew politely asked us to clean our hands before boarding the ship or eating. There were special dry-wash stations at the entrance to the ship and each dining establishment. At first, I thought this was over-kill, but by the end of the cruise I appreciated the extra precaution to minimize chances of getting sick.
There are two small gyms, one for aerobic activities and with weight machines. I enjoyed the jogging and walking track on deck seven on sea days, where each lap is a little more than a quarter of a mile.
Entertainment The entertainment on this cruise was spectacular. The performers were very talented. I enjoyed the Polynesian dancers, bringing the flavor of Hawaii to us. I think the entertainment was some of the best of all of our cruises. The shows were always packed at 8:00 PM, so if you want to find a good seat go to the 10:00 PM show. We typically went to the late show because we dined late. The comedy show, the magician, the singers, the dancers were very talented. Norwegian put together a great combination of performers.
Freestyle Experience There are some disadvantages to freestyle dining, but I think this concept will become the new standard in cruising. The concept focuses the dining experience on the specific needs of the passenger. Also, if the old-style dining experience is important to you, you can still have a special reservation arranged for 5:30 PM or 8:30 PM. But, I think freestyle dining will become the template for which all others will follow.
The freestyle dining experience allowed us to enjoy the cruise much more. I remember the "old-style" dining forced us to the buffet when arriving late from a port, now dining is available till 10:00 PM. The main advantage to freestyle dining is there is no longer a big rush to make dinner. I used to worry about holding up the entire table when my wife would be running late, now I relax. There are still some lines when the dining rooms open and maybe a little wait, but the dining experience revolved around our needs. We would typically ask for a table for two, but when one was not available we would then be asked to be seated with other passengers. I think we only had to wait about a half hour just once when we wanted to be seated by ourselves, the rest of the time it was almost immediate, especially when we asked to be seated with other passengers. By not being forced to dine in just one dining room, we would check out the waiting times at the other restaurants. I think larger groups will experience a more difficult time getting seated because they have to wait for a larger table to become available and cannot be seated as easily with other passengers. I would suggest that large groups make a reservation.
The new gratuity method almost goes hand-in-hand with the freestyle experience, but there needs to be a little more feedback to encourage good behaviors and discourage poor behavior. I think Norwegian should be more creative in developing another method to have the gratuities distributed. There are comment cards that are available, but I think it's very awkward to take a card to make a negative comment. I did have bad service in the dining room twice during the cruise, but the service seemed to be related to how busy the waiters were at the time. Perhaps there needs to be more assistant waiters. Having the gratuities automatically added to the room charges seems to take away the main feedback tool. Perhaps, Norwegian could allow passengers to complete a form at the end of the cruise that allows us to adjust the gratuity amount and/or shift amounts from dining staff to room steward, etc. Maybe they adjust the distribution of the gratuities based on the existing comment cards, but it's really not clear what method is used. When taken as a whole, I think the freestyle experience was wonderful. Freestyle cruising will become the new standard, in my opinion.
Recommendations If you are reading this review, you are already preparing yourself for a wonderful cruise to Hawaii. Here are my suggestions to make your cruise more enjoyable:
1.) Pack your toiletries in a carry-on with an addition change of clothes just in case your bags do not make the ship the first day.
2). Obtain some maps before the cruise by visiting mapquest.com or your local AAA. AAA also provides a tour book that has valuable travel information.
3). Book a rental car to provide more flexibility in your schedule rather than being shuttled around with the large cruise groups. There is some risk in going on your own, because you may miss the ship, but if you plan the risk is small. I also found the cruise tours to be at least 25% more expensive than those found on shore, but if you have lots of cash and you are risk averse, book through the cruise ship early.
4). If you are interested in touring on your own there are many books on Hawaii that you can purchase at your local bookstore or on-line. There are also many companies on-line that will send you free catalogs with maps of the islands and tour coupons, just order them a couple of weeks before your trip.
5). Hawaiian attire is a must on this cruise. Bring your Hawaiian dresses and shirts. There are many opportunities to get your family portrait taken to remember your trip to Hawaii.
6). If you plan on snorkeling or scuba diving consider purchasing your underwater camera before the cruise. If you purchase 800 film you may want to have the security at the airport "hand" check the cameras.