Our family of seven (girls ages 9 and 11, boys ages 13 and 15, plus my mom) had a wonderful Hawaiian experience on the Pride of America. I had read six months of somewhat mixed reviews on cruisecritic before I booked the trip, so we were a little worried about the quality of the ship. We were very pleased with the cruise and glad that we did this for our vacation. We have travelled on Princess & Holland America to Alaska, which were a bit nicer in terms of facilities and food quality, but we took the Pride of America to visit the four Hawaiian islands, not to hang out on the ship and critique buffets. Yes, the price is a bit higher than we would have preferred, but everything in Hawaii is expensive (food, gas, rental cars, hotels), plus this itinerary is much better than the Hawaiian options on other cruise lines. I've summarized the trip below, and I will post reviews on tripadvisor of individual hotels, restaurants, and attractions with full details soon.
Airfare-We flew from Houston to Honolulu for $1003 each nonstop on United (July 26th departure). I had been watching airline fares for almost a year, and this was the best price I found. I mention the fare because I couldn't find price data for previous years, so this may help someone decide if this is a good fare. One-stop fares went as low as $950, but with the four kids and red-eye flight on the way back, we decided to pay a little extra for the non-stop option. Both flights ended up being overbooked, so don't expect any last-minute deals. Also, the check-in line for United Economy was horrible. We almost missed our flight despite arriving 2 hours early, so give yourself plenty of time at the airport if you fly United. Our previous check-in two years ago on Continental was quick.
Pre-cruise--We rented a minivan since there were seven of us, but if you are a couple, it's probably easier to skip the rental since parking is expensive in Waikiki and there is a great public bus system (which we used on a previous trip without our kids). We used Hertz for all our rentals, with a AAA discount. After researching many hotel options and getting input on the tripadvisor Honolulu forum, we stayed at the Embassy Suites in Waikiki for two nights before the cruise and one night afterwards. It was a great fit for our family, since it is across the street from the luxurious Halekulani hotel and beach, and in the heart of the Waikiki Beachwalk shopping and dining area. All of the rooms are suites, and we chose a two bedroom/two bathroom unit that had a kitchenette unit (sink, small refrigerator and microwave), plus a living room with a table, flat screen TV and sleeper sofa. The bedrooms are spacious and comfortable and had flat screen TVs. Breakfast buffet is included, which we enjoyed since there are some Japanese options (miso soup, salad, rice with fun mix-in options) plus make your own omelets, delicious fresh tropical fruit, guava juice, and the usual hotel buffet spread. Service was excellent, from the quick & easy check-in and complimentary tropical drinks to the bellhops picking up our luggage in our room and storing it while we explored Honolulu on our embarkation and disembarkation days.
Oahu highlights--Our first day we explored the beach & Waikiki beachwalk and ate an early dinner at The House without a Key, the casual outdoor bar of the Halekulani. We loved the scenic ocean and Diamondhead view, the soothing ukulele music and the talented hula dancer, and yes the food was delicious and reasonably priced for Honolulu. We spent our first morning on the island at the Waikiki aquarium, which is small, but inexpensive, featuring many beautiful tropical fish, an active octopus, and two Hawaiian monk seals. We spent our afternoon and evening at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which we highly recommend as it was a great introduction to Polynesian culture, with lots of fun hands-on activities, great shows, and good food at the luau. The evening show, Ha: Breath of Life, is spectacular with its amazing fire dancers and talented cast. The day of embarkation we visited Pearl Harbor, including the Arizona Memorial, USS Missouri, and Bowfin submarine. I am very glad that we made advance reservations online for the Arizona, as there was a 3.5 hour wait for "walk-in" Arizona tickets the morning we visited. Plan on spending at least 5 hours exploring this important and moving part of American history. I don't recommend this attraction to families with young children as you are not allowed to bring in bags or purses inside the Arizona.
Check-in process: The ship docks in Honolulu harbor, pier 2. There is nothing to see in the immediate area. You must be on the ship by 6pm for the 7pm departure. We arrived around 330pm to avoid long lines and maximize our Honolulu time. I checked in our luggage and filled out paperwork while my husband returned our rental car. We were onboard the ship, and our rooms were ready within 30 minutes of his arrival.
Cabins: We stayed in connecting balcony rooms on deck 9, with our three younger kids adjoining us. My mom and oldest son roomed together in an inside cabin across the hall. Our rooms were nice, not too spacious, but with a nice closet and "entertainment area" with plenty of shelves and drawers for our belongings. The bathroom is small (but what do you expect on a cruise ship?). I appreciated the shelf below the sink, the towel shelf that included several rods for drying towels and wet swimsuits, the built in medicine cabinet, the bathrobe hooks on the door, and the clothesline in the shower. The shower was tiny and our bed was two twins pushed together, which meant both of us slanted down a bit. I do recommend booking a room on the port side if possible since you will get a longer time viewing the Napali coast from that side.
Food: This was our biggest concern given the mixed cruisecritic reviews, but it was better than we expected. No, it wasn't as nice as Holland America or even Princess, but everything we ate was pretty good to excellent. We like to eat at nice restaurants in Houston and when we travel, so my husband and I splurged on the $75/person chef's table, which includes a nine-course meal with six paired wines and an after-dinner drink at a lounge, plus photos. The Chef's table was excellent. It is limited to twelve people per night and sells out. The meal is served in a private area of Jefferson's Bistro, with the ship's executive chef and sommelier explaining the different courses, which were all delicious, and a bargain compared to a similar meal in Houston (which would cost at least $150/person). We highly recommend eating dinner in Skyline on the first night, as this is the more casual venue and offers lobster. Reservations are accepted for parties of six or more and are recommended since both restaurants fill up from 630-8pm. Liberty Bistro is a bit more formal, and offers a slightly different menu. Service was friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable in both venues, but we loved David, our Skyline server, and ate there three nights, one lunch (our day at sea off Kauai), and three breakfasts. Our request for a starboard window view table on the evening of our Napali coast view was honored and gave us a great view of the spectacular coast. The Aloha buffet served a nice variety of good food. We ate breakfast early most days and had no trouble finding a table or ordering omelets. We brought a cooler and Ziploc bags and made sandwiches a few mornings so that we wouldn't have to buy lunch on the islands.
Service--We always had good friendly service-stewards, dining, reservations, etc. There was a glitch with our chef's table reservation because the night changed after we booked it, but we were given a complimentary bottle of wine and they squeezed in a reservation for us at Liberty bistro for the hassle. When I couldn't find my expensive night guard one evening, the steward immediately came over to help. We weren't able to find it that night, but she came back the next afternoon to thoroughly check the room, and we found it. Kids loved having the adorable towel animals on our beds every afternoon.
Activities: We skipped the evening entertainment because we watched the Olympics every night in the Gold Rush Saloon with our kids. The girls and I had a great time making kukui nut, fresh orchid, and ribbon leis at three different classes that were offered plus we learned a lot about Hawaiian culture from the ship's cultural ambassador, Malu. She offered at least two classes a day. We visited the teen and children's areas but opted not to use them as we were too busy on the islands during the day and watching the Olympics in the evenings. We did not use the pool or spa. My husband enjoyed the fitness room and jogging on the deck most mornings.
Disembarkation-was pretty easy most days. Be sure to pick up a boat ticket on tender day in Kona. It was on a different deck than the gangway, so listen to the announcement. (We didn't and then had to go back up two decks to get them.). Give yourself plenty of time to get back on the ship since lines were long every afternoon. We chose to carry our own luggage down on final disembarkation day, but you can choose your disembarkation time and have your luggage brought down for you.
Ports of call--THE REASON WE BOOKED THIS TRIP!!! I booked all of our excursions on my own.
Maui--We loved our private Road to Hana tour with Awapuhi Adventures. Our tour guide, Alicia, is amazing and will personalize your tour to meet your family's needs. She drove us along the scenic Hana highway and stopped at beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and bamboo groves. We enjoyed delicious coconut milk ice cream, banana bread, and coconut candy at little stops, plus she prepared a wonderful salad, hummus and tropical fruit lunch on a local beach while we enjoyed the waves. The kids loved swimming in a sea cave and jumping off small cliffs into a beautiful lagoon plus we were treated to a rare view of a wild monk seal resting on the beach. This was rated the overall #2 activity of our entire trip (#1 for two family members). We rented an SUV and parked it overnight near the ship's pedestrian walkway. We slept in the next day and drove to Haleakala national park our second morning. It is an amazing view, and we had a fun cool hike in Hosmer Grove. Bring a windbreaker as it gets chilly. On our way down we ate delicious scones and admired the lovely scenery at the Maui Lavendar garden.
Hilo--We rented a minivan and drove to Volcanoes National Park, bringing a picnic lunch from the ship. Be sure to stop by the visitor center to get advice on where to visit as conditions and weather change frequently. Everyone loved exploring the Thurston lava tube and viewing the volcanic craters. There are picnic tables at a stop on Chain of craters road, with a nice ocean view. Kids really enjoyed the short hike to the Puu Loa Petroglyphs and seeing the lava covering the road. We had hoped to stop by Akaka falls on the way back, but ran out of time.
Kona-This is the tender port so we took a taxi. We had a wonderful snorkeling trip with Seaquest Kona, which offers 14 person rafts with different options. We chose the five hour south Kona expedition, with three snorkeling sites, fresh tropical fruit and lunch. Only my husband had snorkeled before, but our guide was great and coached my mom and me, who are not strong swimmers. There were spinner dolphins at our first site, and it was amazing to hear them communicate. We were asked not to approach them, but several local snorkelers were swimming near the dolphins. We saw sea turtles at our first two sites, which was a wonderful experience. Our last stop, Kealeakekua bay, had the most fish and had the most snorkelers, but there was plenty of room for everyone. This was voted the #1 overall activity of our trip. Even my mom had a blast! We had a couple of hours to explore after the snorkeling trip, so my husband and kids hung out at the small beach by the tender pier while mom and I shopped.
Kauai--This was the unanimous favorite island of our family. I can't give its rugged tropical beauty justice and am thankful that we had an overnight stop here. We rented a minivan and took the reservations only "family garden tour" at the Na Aina Kai gardens (which was highly recommended on Frommer's Hawaii with kids). This is an amazing place (sorry that I keep using this word) with beautiful flowers, whimsical statues, and one of the best children's playgrounds that I have ever seen (and I have been to 38 states). Both of my teen boys had a blast and my girls were in tropical heaven splashing in the beautiful pools, feeding the koi, playing on the fun creative playground equipment, and exploring the wonderful garden landscapes. We had a delicious shave ice snack, dropped my mom off in the Hanalei shopping area then took a five hour kayak and snorkeling tour with Kayak Kauai. This featured an easy kayak trip down the scenic Hanalei river, plus some relatively easy exploring of Hanalei bay and some sea caves. We stopped at a beach for fun snorkeling and a tasty lunch. We took a doors-off helicopter tour with Inter-Island Helicopter tours on our short second day. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience with spectacular views of waterfalls, canyons, and the Napali coast. We had planned to visit Lyndgate beach and park after our helicopter rides, but they were short a pilot, so we had a longer wait than we expected, and didn't have time. If we ever return to Hawaii, we will spend more time in Kauai.
Post-cruise--We rented a minivan, dropped off our luggage with the bell-hop at Embassy Suites, and were at the Bishop Museum by 1020am. This is a great place to learn about Hawaiian culture. The molten lava and hula demonstration were outstanding. The cafe serves tasty sandwiches and traditional Hawaiian plate lunches. Then we stopped at the huge food-court at the Ala Moana mall because we promised our kids mochi (over 15 flavors!) plus we sampled the delicious varieties of Honolulu cookie company macadamia cookies (great souvenirs). We celebrated our last night in Hawaii (which was also my birthday) with dinner at Alan Wongs. It is expensive, but worth every penny for its creative & delicious Hawaiian food. Kids spent their final morning at the beach while mom and I shopped, then we had our best brunch ever at Orchids, in the Halekulani hotel. If you love seafood, Hawaiian style pork, and sushi/poke, this is the place for you. It is expensive ($57/adult, $28/kids 12 & under) but we weren't planning on eating dinner that night due to our 720pm flight, so it was worth it. After brunch we shopped a little then took a quick trip to Dole Plantation, which is a fun tourist trap.
Overall, we are very glad that we took this cruise and would highly recommend it for families who want to get a "taste" of all the islands.