We chose this cruise because of all the days at sea. Titled "Hawaii Circle Cruise" the emphasis is definitely on cruise rather than Hawaii. Though we enjoyed our time in the islands, we spent more time getting there (and back) than touring. We knew this going in and were ready for the relaxation cruising affords-- no phones, no internet (unless you want it) and no TV. No access to work activities. Relaxation!
Embarkation at San Diego was quick and easy. We parked across the street at the Holiday Inn on the Bay (covered parking at a great rate, plus walking distance to the port). The port has an efficient drop off system set up. I dropped Mom and the bags off at the port, parked the car and walked back. Once inside, the line moved quickly. Within about 5 minutes we were through security and registering for our ship's cards. The ship opened up for new passengers a little after 11 (the paperwork said to arrive at noon). In order to facilitate embarkation, the 200 or so of us who arrived early all received number cards. Seats were provided for waiting (we didn't have to wait).
On board, staterooms were ready. We were in 2536 which is slightly forward with all the usual HAL amenities (bathtub, DVD player, plenty of storage). Our stewards, Raz & Win, were wonderful. They were friendly but discreet. They always put our mail in the room, made sure we had 2 daily planners and found extra blankets when we were cold.
LoveHAL organized a Cruise Critic meet & greet. The captain, the hotel director and the cruise director all took the time to attend (and stayed afterwards to talk to individual passengers). On our last day, we received a letter from the Guests Relations officer thanking us for our participation in the CC M & G, as well as other activities. Many thanks to Marty for organizing this event-- it was nice to meet people and recognize them throughout the cruise.
On board, we had a lot of fun. HAL was trying out a new idea-- calling it the Aloha Explorations series. Besides the wonderful HAL travel guide, Kainoa, whose talks about Hawaii (whether ports of call, history, culture or geography are NOT to be missed-- but get there early because seats go fast!), HAL engaged a team of people to share Hawaii with us: Henry Allen (an extraordinary ukelele and steel guitar player), Paki (a great public speaker that taught dance, Hawaiian and crafts) and Heidi & Valerie (the "Hula maidens" who were graceful and gracious, helping out in all the activities and taking the time to share their love of Hawaii with the passengers). Some of the activities including: making flower leis, making ribbon leis (am going to repurpose this idea for next year and make Xmas tree garland), making Wili bracelets, learning to hula, learning to play the ukelele, learning Hawaiian, learning Hawaiian recipes, etc. Amanda, our lovely party planner, also guided a number of these activities-- especially the culinary ones. Hopefully, HAL will make this a regular feature of its cruises. Along with the usual slate of cruise activities (which included multiple trivia competitions, mixology classes (take all 4 to get a certificate), Aloha "Olympics", bingo and more), it was a challenge to decide which activities to do every day. There was also a book club (we read Allen Brennert's "Honolulu") run by our friendly librarian, Chris; it gave multiple opportunities to share a love of books with others on board both within and outside of the club meetings. There was also a guest lecturer who gave lots of information about shipping (the Titanic, pirates, other mysteries); we didn't attend but spoke to many who really enjoyed his talks. With all of this fun on board, there were many opportunities to meet fellow passengers. Michael Headla does a great job of organizing all the fun while we are "out and about" on ship!
The entertainment on board was fantastic! We don't usually attend many of the evening entertainment but things changed on this cruise. We especially enjoyed Ryan Silverman (a very talented Broadway singer who has an unbelievable range and who sang wonderful standards and Broadway classics-- his Phantom performance was one of the best renditions I've heard!), Ryan Ahern who tickled the ivories la Liberace and the Drums of Polynesia show (a local group brought aboard at Honolulu). We also enjoyed the movies (though I think Mom goes for the popcorn!) but wish they'd move the picture up about 18 inches to provide a clearer view to all. I especially appreciated HAL's efforts to make sure that there was something special during each day in port so that those who were unable to leave the ship (we had a number of mobility inspired passengers on board) would also have special memories of their time in Hawaii-- whether this be the barbecue, a Hawaiian party or special Hawaiian entertainment.
On shore, we participated in two excursions, a luau and some independent activities. Our first excursion was through Roberts Hawaii to see Volcanoes National Park. The Roberts website was really easy to use-- it brought up all of their excursions after I listed the name and departure date of our ship. We also booked a trip to Waimea Canyon on Kauai but that port was canceled due to weather. Roberts greeted us warmly as we disembarked in Hilo then introduced us to our guide, Dean, who has an amazing knowledge of the flora and fauna of the islands. He was one of the best guides we've ever had-- friendly and informative without being silly. And, as it turns out, we were the only two people on the tour so we got to take a long as we wanted at each of the stops-- and he threw in a stop to an orchid farm for us, as well. Roberts is charged a flat fee for every vehicle they take into the park and it was only $5 less than what we paid for our tour. It says a lot that Roberts didn't cancel on us but instead gave us the opportunity to learn about this beautiful island.
Our second tour was booked through HAL for Maui: the West Maui Snorkeling tour run through Trilogy. There were 17 HAL passengers on board the catamaran, along with a crew of three. We were served a light breakfast (variety of homemade breads) and lunch (chips & salsa, variety of wrap sandwiches) but by one week into the cruise, no one was very hungry so the crew went home with lots of leftovers! We sailed over to a spot near the Old Lahaina Luau site for snorkeling. Wet suit tops, boogie boards, snorkeling gear (including prescription lenses), life vests, etc. were all included (on many of the other snorkeling cruises, you have to pay extra for any of these). There were lots of first-time snorkelers on board. The crew was very helpful in providing instruction. After about 75 minutes snorkeling (the timing was based on when the last person decided to come back), they let out the sails and we took off on the catamaran across the bay. What fun! Our goal was to find a whale which we did (eventually) about 100 yards out. I will definitely choose Trilogy again for my Hawaii excursions!
We also visited the Old Lahaina Luau in Maui. We took the bus out there (a bit tricky and not much savings: $2.50 each for the bus but only $8 plus tip for a taxi; we shared one back to port). The Luau was lots of fun. They have about 400-500 people but everything was so well-organized, you don't feel like you are part of a crowd. The site is beautiful, the food good and the dancing spectacular. The service was fine, albeit a little overly friendly. (No, I really don't want to hug a half-naked young man goodbye... but maybe others do.)
In Honolulu, we pre-reserved a time for Pearl Harbor using the NPS site. We took a taxi out there and it wasn't cheap ($32). Afterwards, we took a bus to Waikiki (in other direction from ship) which took over an hour but only cost $2.50. This was my third trip to Honolulu but my first to Pearl Harbor. It's a beautiful memorial and a must-see. In Waikiki, we rented beach chairs in front of Duke's (Outrigger hotel) and enjoyed the sunshine (and a little "pineapple juice" from time to time). The water was rough, though, and pretty chilly, so we didn't swim. With warmer weather, though, this would be an easy excursion. Plus, if you take the free shuttle to Hilo Hattie's first, you can pick up some souvenirs and sarongs, then take the free shuttle down to Waikiki. Your trip back to ship from Waikiki can be on the HH shuttle or a taxi (about $20).
Back on board from our day in Honolulu, we learned that the captain had to cancel Kauai due to weather so we had an extra night in Honolulu. Given how rough the seas were for our first few days en route back to San Diego and the mobility challenges of so many people on board, this made a lot of sense (even though people were disappointed). Plus, sailing out of Honolulu during the day was a lot of fun! We saw a sea turtle from up on the sports deck and we got to see the Waikiki skyline, Diamond Head and the mountains from the sea-- a very, very beautiful view.
We heard people complaining about a variety of things while on board (including one man who harangued the dining room captain for 20 minutes about the lack of biscuits & gravy for breakfast) but that wasn't our experience. For me, this crew was exceptional. For example, one of the bar servers, Jesse, who we met the first night on ship, took the time every day to watch out for us so that she could say hello and make sure we were okay. If we were on Lido, she'd bring by glasses of ice water. In the Lido buffet, Dewie, Ni Luh and Antoni were our special friends but everyone was very helpful. The staff would watch out for those who needed an extra hand to carry their plates back to the table. They always had a big smile and kind word for everyone. From the front desk to the maintenance crew (we had a small leak from our air conditioner that was fixed immediately), we couldn't have asked for better service. And this service makes all the difference. We felt like pampered guests but tried not to act like spoiled ones (though I know that HAL spoiled us repeatedly throughout the trip). Many of our fellow passengers also had special relationships with different crew members which is a testament to the dedication of their staff. The staff is exceptionally gracious, attentive and kind. They are also extremely patient. Their extraordinary commitment to the highest level of service explains why 1100 of the 1400 passengers on board had already traveled with HAL before.
This cruise does tend to have days where the ship is rocking and rolling, with passengers lurching from one place to another. It's the only cruise where I've felt slightly "green around the gills" at times (and we've been on several cruises with rough weather). You might want to splurge for the patches or a shot if you are susceptible to the movement.
On our last evening, we went to the Hawaiian sunset hour to see the last hula performance. Two of the passengers who are also Hawaiian musicians were playing with Henry Allen. Paki, Heidi and Valerie danced. It was a bittersweet farewell-- we'd had a great vacation, learned a lot about Hawaiian culture and loved our time on board the Zaandam (especially the people we'd met aboard-- both passengers and crew).
Disembarkation was swift, though there were some delays in processing the non-citizens. Once they found the 6 "missing" people who didn't report, the rest of us disembarked swiftly (starting at about 8:15 AM). Our "scheduled" time was 9:45 but we were off the ship, in the car and leaving the parking lot by 9:15. We bid the Zaandam a fond Aloha!
I would sail anywhere with this crew again. They made this trip special. Mahalo to all of them.