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My wife and I decided to take this cruise to celebrate her birthday. It was to be her first trip to Hawaii and my first in 36 years. We flew in two days before the cruise to visit Oahu, and rented a car at the airport. Despite the 13 hour trip from Virginia, we attended a luau the first evening, and on the second day we drove to Haunama Bay, where I had done my first snorkeling in 1967, and then to the Polynesian Cultural Center on the north shore, almost a 2 hour drive. Roads are not well marked. We spent four hours visiting the villages representing each of the various areas of Polynesia, sampling foods like taro root and tapioca, and attending shows.
On Feb 25 we checked out of the hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian village, and returned our Avis rental to a downtown location, where we caught a taxi for $25 to the pier. We arrived about noon. There were no porters. Once inside the terminal the check-in process, through the Latitudes line, was about 5 minutes long, we were presented lei?s and shell necklaces, photographed, and we were on our way aboard. We were booked in a category BD balcony cabin, 9678, aft on the port side of deck nine. The balcony was very private with no one able to look down from above, equipped with two chaise lounges and a table. The cabin was fully ready, except for a missing TV remote and the packages of Kona coffee for the in room coffee maker, which our stewardess provided promptly. With in the hour they had announced that all decks were open for occupancy. The large refrigerator accommodated a champagne bottle easily. We had ordered the NCL romance package, which is a value that includes champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, dinner in the Bistro with a bottle of wine of your choice, canap?s one evening on formal evening, a 5x7 photo, and for those interested, a cake and champagne party?well worth the $79 price.
We spent the early afternoon exploring the ship, and taking photos of the dining rooms and meeting facilities before the ship was crowded. While sailing full, it does not sail until 8pm due to the later day arrival of flights from the mainland. The ship was spotless, and in excellent shape. At lunch in the Aloha buffet, due to the less than positive reviews we had seen, I watched carefully to observe the staff behavior and general conditions. While the food selections are unlabeled, they are plentiful, with a selection of hot items, pizza, sandwiches, salads, desserts, and free soft ice cream. There were no tables left with used dishes, and staff appeared constantly to clear and wipe empty tables. It was no different than any other line I have been on in my 26 prior cruises. I made a point of speaking to staff throughout the cruise, asking where they were from. I was advised by the assistant hotel director that 75% must be US employees, and the rest US visa employees. They had just gone into the third 6 month contract period, and had major turnover in the dining room staff in December as a result. However, by February, it was not noticeable.
We made reservations on arrival for two specialty restaurant dinners, the Lazy J Steakhouse to eat with a group we were accompanying, and Jefferson?s Bistro, and ate in the Liberty Main Dining Room five nights, as we preferred the d?cor there to the Skylight Main Dining Room. The wait-staff in each of them was exceptional. I noted that the ship attempted to accommodate large parties at single tables, and saw groups of 12 to 24 frequently, even in specialty restaurants, something I have never seen on other ships. However, comments I heard indicated that the service was not as good/prompt for large parties as it was for small tables. We were accommodated at tables for two on the six nights we requested them, with out reservations, and with a short wait only on the optional formal night. Twice we were seated at window tables. The staff were very friendly, and gave us excellent service. I even ordered a bottle of Hawaiian produced wine which, after tasting, I declined and they provided me an alternative with no fuss. On another night, when they were out of the wine I ordered, they provided me a higher priced bottle at no extra charge. I had notified NCL that my wife was celebrating a birthday, and that night they sang to her and presented a large whipped cream covered cake, with no surcharge for it. It was excellent. My only comment was that there were only three entrees on the menu each night, a meat, fish and vegetarian choice. However always available was steak, salmon (a different presentation each night), and pasta. A lamb lover, I was a little disappointed that it never appeared on the menu.
The Japanese restaurant and Italian restaurants were kept busy, although my wife commented that the Italian restaurant looked, at least by daylight, more like an ice cream parlor than an Italian restaurant. The Jefferson?s Bistro was by far the most attractive and comfortable of the three NCL Bistro restaurants we have eaten in. Unfortunately, the menu is always the same, and less than imaginative in French offerings. In the Lazy J Steakhouse we ate with a group of 14 others, and interestingly they served the vegetable accompaniments family style, on plates to be passed. One of the party, all from England, was celebrating a birthday, and one of the waitresses, on request, sang several songs for the group. The group of Englishmen and women observed, from their viewpoint, the food was not served hot enough, and the wine not cold enough to suite the English. Personally, I didn?t notice, and thought it was fine.
There were two productions shows and I have to admit they among the best talent and performances I have see at sea, drawing a standing ovation on the night of the second show. They offered two performances each night. Other nights were juggler/comedians, and game shows. The day activities were lighter, as the ship is in port every day, but in Kauai, where it rained much of the two day stay, they revised the schedule of day activities to accommodate those staying aboard. There were opportunities to dance, and on Feb 28, Shrove Tuesday, they had a Mardi Gras party in, where else, the Mardi Gras Disco, where my wife even won a bottle of champagne. Two comfortable stops were the Pink Champagne Bar, where a pianist entertained in the evenings, and the Lanai Bar and Lounge on Deck 13, where a guitarist/singer entertained. This bar was closed for private functions the first two nights.
On the optional formal night I was one of about only a dozen men wearing a tuxedo or dinner jacket. There were officially one Hawaiian night, one Polynesian night, one optional formal night on Tuesday, and the rest listed as Resort Casual. In fact, it was Hawaiian night every night.
While NCL and NCL America are very strict about x-raying and confiscating any liquor or wine even in checked baggage, they will sell a bottle of wine at the bar for consumption in the cabin. I didn?t try to purchase other alcohol for the cabin. Drink prices, in my opinion, a higher than on other ships, which may be due to Hawaiian taxes, and gratuities are not automatically added, causing me to have to calculate between martinis! I would prefer they automatically add the gratuity, as I suspect may servers get ?stiffed? on drinks, and I wouldn?t have to calculate every time.
The itinerary included a day berthed in Hilo, followed by a narrated sail at night past the coast where Kilauea Volcano is dumping fiery hot lava into the sea. Visibility was excellent. The next two days were spent pier side in Kahului, Maui, including an overnight. In a rented car we drove the road to Hana, and then continued on around the southern end of the island, stopping at the Tedeschi Vineyards before returning to Kahului. Early the next morning we drove the short distance to Maalaea harbor for an snorkeling excursion to Molokini, a rim of an eroded volcano 6 miles offshore. On the way to and from the site we stopped numerous times to view humpback whales surfacing, and occasionally breaching, sometimes less than 200 feet away. After a stop to visit Lahaina, where Island Princess was anchored, we returned to the ship for our sail away to Kona. Kona/Kailua was the only port in which we were anchored and required tendering, as did the HAL Amsterdam. Feeling that the Kona ?strip? was like the Lahaina ?strip? which is like most other cruise ports, we rented a car and drove 26 miles south to a lava covered beach touted as one of the best snorkeling spots in the area. Indeed it was, with absolutely beautiful coral in water of moderate depth, complete with moray eels and a variety of fish. But this harbor, adjacent to the City of Refuge State Park, is where spinner dolphins congregate. In deeper water, at one time I saw 37 dolphin below me, and on occasion they rose and swam within yards of me. A thrilling experience. From Kona we sailed to Nawiliwili Harbor in Kauai were we were pier side for a day and a half, including an overnight. The first day was occasionally rainy and the visibility of the higher mountains was occluded by clouds and fog. However we enjoyed the drive to Princeville and Hanalei Bay, stopping in Hanalei for lunch to enjoy marlin and tuna. The next morning we drove to Waimea Canyon, again partially obscured by clouds, and then back along the features of the southern coast of Kauai, including the blowholes and the beaches at Koloa and Poipu. Then, with a 2pm sailing, we sailed north around Kauai and past the NaPali coast, inaccessible except by sea. Narrated again as we sailed past, the vision was partially obstructed by fog, but the captain brought the ship quite close to the cliffs. We saw whales, again, during this passage. In fact, we saw more whales on this cruise in Hawaii than we did in Alaska.
The ship returned to Honolulu at 7am on the last day. Because of Freestyle debarkation, we were able to leave our carryon luggage in our cabin and enjoy breakfast in the dining room, which was open until 9am. Our flight home was not scheduled until 6pm, so we debarked about 9:30am, and took a taxi to the airport to rent a car. We placed all our luggage in the car and drove to Pearl Harbor to tour the museum and the Memorial. The 80 minute wait for our tour was spent touring the museum. The parking lot is patrolled by security, so we were not worried about the luggage in the car. After the visit, we drove around Diamond Head, and back into Waikiki for an early dinner, as there would be none on the plane. We returned the car at the airport and began our 11 hour flight home.
It was a memorable trip, on a beautiful ship, and a voyage we thoroughly enjoyed. While we left with some misgivings due to the unfavorable reviews we had read, we experienced none of the problems those reviews described, and I was looking for them. One might keep in mind that when a cruiseline brings out a new ship, they take experienced crew from other ships to man it. NCL America has a limitation. They cannot draw much from the rest of the NCL fleet, as the crew of each new ship must be at least 75% US. When Pride of Aloha was introduced, they had service problems, which mostly were eliminated by the time of the crew?s second 6 month contracts. When they introduced Pride of America, they had to take half of the Pride of Aloha crew to staff Pride of America, with 50% new hires. With this Pride of America staff into their third contract period, they will now be affected by the need to staff Pride of Hawaii with 50% drawn from Pride of Aloha and Pride of America. As with any line, I would not want to sail on a new ship until it had been operating 6 months to a year, to smooth out the systems problems and staffing issues. Pride of America has sailing 10 months now, and is an excellent operation, in my opinion. But remember, opinions are like noses, everyone has one, but they are different.