We just returned from our honeymoon which included a week on the POA. All in all we had a really good time.
We are an English couple in our early 30s and have cruised twice before with a budget cruise line in the UK - no longer going - called Sun Cruises in the Med.
The ships are pretty small and fairly basic but the food and service on those was pretty good. We have no experience of other cruise lines but have stayed in a wide variety of hotels across the world from basic to luxurious.
Here are our thoughts in return for all the help and advice we had from others before we went. Our holiday was "self build" rather than a package.
Days 1-3 - San Francisco
Flew with United - OK. Long haul economy is pretty similar whoever you go with in my experience! Stayed at the Orchard Hotel in SF. This place was great. Really comfortable rooms, helpful staff, great location, complimentary continental breakfast and a great restaurant and bar. Went to Alcatraz (impressive) and a fantastic small size (4 people) tour of the Napa Valley with tastings with a company called Wine Country Safari. If you like wine and are planning to go - ask me more about this.
Days 4-5 - Waikiki
Flew into Honolulu. Used Star Limos for our transport. Very efficient, always there early, great service. They charged $140 dollars for airport - hotel, hotel- ship, ship- airport. Stayed at the Halekulani. Fabulous. Wonderful place, rooms, great staff, impeccable service, right on the beach. Can't fault it. Sent us free champagne for our honeymoon on arrival. Even though it's pricey we thought it was worth it. Went to Pearl Harbor -arranged with concierge by email before arrival with http://www.discoverhawaiitours.com. Good tour and guide. We were picked up at 6.45, were there at 7.15, queued for about 45 mins to get tickets and got the 8.45 tour which was better in terms of wait time than I imagined. It was Saturday. Apparently Wednesday and Sunday are busy because of the cruise ships. Had dinner at the Halekulani's La Mer on Sat night - they had no trace of my reservation but made us another no problem. Wow - this was the best food I have ever tasted - great service and a fabulous romantic view right over the ocean and beach.
We checked out at lunchtime on Sunday and were picked up by Star Limo as arranged. Again - he was there and waiting. Got to the pier about 1.15pm.
It was slightly confusing where to go but we located the point where you check bags and were helped out there. We then went into the terminal. Yes, there was a queue. No it didn't take hours. Coming from England and having been in London recently only days after the bombings I am glad there are stringent security checks. I'm not complaining if it takes a little while to go through these. People and carry on baggage was processed efficiently and courteously. We checked our Napa Valley wine we had bought which we could be picked up at the end of the cruise. As we waited there were plenty of today's freestyle dailies to read as well as info like the $10 dollar service charge wasn't to be applied. We also chatted to fellow guests. Latitudes, Marriott and Suite guests had separate lines which looked pretty speedy. Our check in girl was lovely, very friendly. There are big signs about what docs to have ready - so we were quick. Apparently, despite this, some people still don't have docs ready - so perhaps think about this when considering who is to blame for long queues!!!! About 45 minutes later we were heading on board. You can buy leis downstairs but get free flower and shell (for the guys) leis as you head on board.
We went straight to our cabin - 0224 - deck 10 balcony and our first piece of luggage was already there outside the door, the second arrived within minutes.
First impressions of the ship - bright, clean, friendly
Our cabin was a fair size and had been made up as a double as requested. Our honeymoon package greeting letter, strawberries and champagne (we got 2 bottles! - lucky!!) was already there as were our pre booked tour tickets. The cabin was clean, there were some signs of wear and tear - slight stain on the carpet, some scuffs etc but nothing that would cause me to lose sleep. The bed was firm - that's fine by me - we slept great! That day we just explored around. Grabbed some lunch from the buffet - which was fairly limited today - hot dogs etc, (but it was 3ish by then) and grabbed a drink. Bartenders friendly and helpful - asked about specials and soda cards but weren't pushy. Went to the Crossings for dinner - food was ok, service slightly inexperienced - had to ask for spoons etc, but pleasant and friendly. The staff tried really hard but it was clear some were new. From my point of view though on a freestyle cruise as long as people do their best, rectify mistakes and smile then I'm ok with that.
I'm going to split the review now into different sections so you can skip if not relevant.
We ate at Crossings and Palace a couple of times each. They seem to have changed things so that there are 3 different starters, soups ,salads (although some salads may be the same)and entrees plus a special and then the always available steak, salmon and chicken and then several different desserts including sugar free and ice cream. I thought the food was fine, some things were better than others. I never had anything here I couldn't eat and some things were excellent. I guess it's personal taste here. Service was sometimes excellent (Gregory and Andrea in the Palace) and even when clearly new, staff were always willing and polite. We ate at different times - sometimes - 6/ 6.30 sometimes 8/8.30 and never had to wait for more than 5 mins to be seated. Sometimes we ate alone but could also eat on a group table and that was fun to meet new people - and then say hi and wave at them for the rest of the cruise! The wine selections were good and very reasonably priced (although remember the pound is strong against the dollar right now). Timing - depends how much you order - but ours varied form 45 mins to 1 1/2 hours for dinner (when everyone was chatting on the group table). Personally I like to take time over dinner (is it a European thing??) so no problem for me. If you asked to hurry (eg to catch a show) I'm sure they would do their best. The only real criticism I would have is the portion sizes were incredibly inconsistent - my husband (I'm just getting used to saying that!!!) had Beef Wellington one night (tiny tiny portion - like 5/6 mouthfuls) and then the next night I had duck - which was this huge plateful. My advice here is ask what the portion size is and order and extra if you think you'll be hungry.
Breakfasts and lunch - we didn't eat here in the evening. I thought it was ok. Breakfast had a good selection of different items and waffles and omelettes. It's true what they say about walking through the Hukilau Cafe if busy back to the Hukilau Lanai - they have most of the same stuff plus waffles and omelettes out there and few queues. There was always a table when we went . If you can't find one a good tip is to carry stuff through to the Longboard Bar and eat there. Lots of staff clearing tables and helping. No problems with drinks running out as I had seen reported. Go see singing waffle guy on the Lanai - he's great (and even better in the crew talent show!) Desserts were very good. Also here (near the café) is the ice cream bar - quite a good variety of flavours and toppings - bit a bit of a line, so didn't go that often.
Le Bistro and Pacific Heights
We got our free meal with the honeymoon package here - the food and service was good. Fresh Caesar salad at the table as you like it, really good filet mignon (although no sides with it - some veg or potato would have been nice), yummy chocolate fondue in its own individual kettle. The staff then came to sing to us and presented us with cake to take away as it was our honeymoon and did the same for the couple with us who were celebrating their anniversary (Hi Ken and Sherry!).
I thought Pacific Heights was the best food on the ship - the snapper was lovely and our waiter Corey also brought me the battered sesame shrimp without being asked as I was hovering over the two. The Lilikoi creme brulee was great and the service was really nice. Someone near us did get soup spilled on them and the maitre's was immediately over offering apologies and dry cleaning. I only mention this to say that accidents happen and to my mind it is the reaction to that which is important.
Longboard Bar - from 3pm - 3am you can get hot dogs, pizza, burgers, fish and chips - all pretty good. Useful to know, especially if you miss lunch because of a trip.
As we were late that night and missed the Volcano there was free champagne in all the bars - so I was enjoying free Kir Royales all night. (so that was one late departure and a missed Volcano = 2 nights of free drinks).
We did a combination of ship-booked and own tours.
Monday - Kauai - we did the ship tour Movies and Waterfalls. We were on a 14 seater bus (really nice as we got to know everyone and became friendly for the rest of the week with a few) and toured round the Islands seeing movie locations. The bus had a video with lots of clips and the driver (Raime) and guide (Agatha) were knowledgeable and friendly. Lunch of sandwiches etc and drinks were included. We saw some great places and had a fun day. The tour was perhaps at 6 hours a little long and there was a lot of Elvis! Still a good tour and nice that it was so small and personal.
Tuesday - Kauai. Our own tour. We had booked a flight in a small plane (as opposed to a helicopter) with Airventures (Billy Zeffiro) as recommended by someone else on these boards. When we arrived (cab to airport about $10) we found that they had transferred our flight to another company - so our new pilot was Bruce from http://www.wingsoverkauai.com/. I can't say enough good things about this trip. We had booked the trip at $99 each (no extra for people over 250lbs which was good for hubby!) plus a few dollars in fuel charges, tax etc and Bruce honoured this. It was supposed to be 60 mins and I think he was enjoying himself so much that we got about 70 mins. The plane is a Cessna - 3/4 seater but only you go up - no sharing. The briefing at the beginning and safety was excellent - he described exactly where we were going which was basically over the whole island and included stuff you can't see by road. There was a wonderful view of the Na Pali coast. At the beginning he got my hubby to do all the safety checks with him and explained everything brilliantly. There were noise canceling headphones and mics so that we could communicate. Bruce knows so much about the scenery and the island. The flight was very smooth - it's a tiny plane so you do get a few air pockets which is only like the bump you get and the stomach feeling when you go on a gentle rollercoaster or over a hill in the road. I can't begin to describe the views - the whole thing was fabulous and then Bruce dropped us off at the ship after. Take this trip - it's wonderful!!!
Wednesday Hilo - slightly late arriving due to strong headwinds but they held all the tours, we went on the half day National Volcanoes Park Odyssey with the ship. This was a good trip, driver knew his stuff and provided lots of narration and there were plenty of stops. It was amazing looking at the crater and seeing and feeling the steam rising. The walk through the lava tube was good too. Stop off at the Macadamia Nut factory where we spent a lot of money on nuts in various disguises! The only downside was that at the nut factory something had broken so you couldn't see any production through the windows.
Tonight we should have sailed about 6pm and gone past the Volcano. unfortunately something went wrong with an engine so we didn't sail until about 11ish. We were kept updated by announcements and given free rum punches 'til we set sail in the Outrigger - that night the Pride of Aloha band (?) were on and they were good. The Outrigger is a lovely lounge - wish we'd spent more time there.
I was worried we would be late arriving but they took a short cut? and we were only about 30 mins/1 hour late docking. We got down to the tenders at 7.10am as we had booked Fairwind snorkel cruise on our own. http://www.fair-wind.com/ We had to wait until 7.45 am to get off and they started letting the ship tours go first. Someone shouted, hey we have tours booked too and they started to let us on as well (maybe they would have anyway). I think we got the first or second tender. There were taxis at the pier and we shared a cab with some other people at the driver's suggestion. We were at Keahou(sp?) by 8.15 so in plenty of time as check in was 8.30 and the catamaran went at 9am. we had never snorkeled and got instruction and gear as well as a free T-shirt for booking online . Total cost for 2 about $200. The catamaran had plenty of room, they served fruit and pastries for breakfast. We saw a dolphin on the way out who swam along the boat and then jumped out of the water, felt really privileged to see that. The crew were great, snorkeling just fabulous - really warm and clear. There was a great guy Bryce who was making a DVD of the trip )we bought it later to be shipped to us about $80 total - which has the whole trip including bits of us snorkeling and some fantastic deep shots when he went off at lunch with amazing sea creatures on it. Again, no pressure to buy - it just looked great (we could see it on the way back). BBQ lunch excellent. All in all highly recommended. Fairwind are the only co that get a mooring at the site and seemed to be there way longer than other trips that we could see. They have been voted the best snorkel cruise for the last few years by the people of Kona.
Friday - Went on the ship's tour of the best of west Maui. I'ao Valley (spectacular), Tropical Plantation (ok ) and Maui Ocean center (awesome). Again - the driver was knowledgeable and chatty. NCL have bought out Polynesian adventure tours - so all the trips are with them.
Saturday - Chilled out and did a bit of shopping at Queen Kamahanu (I know I've spelt that wrong) Centre.
Ok - On with the review - hope this isn't too long.
Shows - Didn't get to as many as I would have liked (well we were on honeymoon ) but saw a bit of the Polynesian one (I liked it - hubby bored!) and the Comedian was great (Bud Andersen) saw both his shows. The crew talent show (on the lu'au night - we didn't go) was amazing and the finale hilarious.
We hung out at the Blue Hawaii nightclub quite a bit and there were some good games, weakest link etc. Karaoke was on here quite a few times and after making mu husband sing once - he then got a fan club and had to sing on a few nights including the competition at the end/ There were some great singers there (as well as some ropey ones!) all good fun though. I thought the CD Jimmy, and his staff - Gina, Andrew, Fifth, DK Mike were all really good without forcing people to join in.
As I said the Outrigger was good, The Atrium bar was nice (Lisa there made great drinks) and the Longboard was nice and casual. Most barstaff were great, friendly and efficient - you never had to wait long for drinks and there was a good selection. People I remember being good were Annie, Beau, Dave and Lisa - but no problems with any. I was really surprised to see someone say they were surly - I certainly didn't see that (and we drink a lot!!!).
Sadly I never found out who this was but they were efficient. Always respected the do not disturb and no matter when we left the room always managed to get in and clean up. Did a great job and found laundry that had been lost. We left a tip at the end.
I booked 2 lots of treatments - a hot stone massage and manicure and a facial/massage package. I had read a lot about the staff being a bit surly, angling for tips and hard selling products.
1) The spa isn't cheap - but then in my experience most aren't.
2) The staff were great. The manager Debbie(?) was lovely and very helpful when I needed to reschedule. There are guys and girls working there - so if you are bothered about male therapists (or female) then check. Personally the 2 guys who did my massage and manicure were the best - Larry and Dallan.
3) 15% service charge is added on with a space for additional tip on top of that but there was no pressure to tip extra - it wasn't drawn attention to 4)No one tried to sell me anything - let alone hard sell.
So I was pleasantly surprised.
All in all I thought the ship was lovely, the staff on the whole were great (there were a couple of exceptions but that's going to happen anywhere), I loved the freestyle concept and I think you have to accept that you sacrifice the personal formal service for that flexibility, the food was largely fine , speciality charging restaurants better than the main- I don't go on a cruise for the food particularly (but if you do have high expectations here then perhaps this ship isn't for you). The Hawaiian islands are fabulous. We met some great people.
Would I cruise Hawaii again - without a doubt. Would I cruise NCL again -definitely/
Any questions fire away - just hoping to put something back from all the tips we got which meant we were prepared and I think got the best out of this cruise.