So much has been written about this ship (a lot of it negative) that I had some worry about what our week on board would be like. Now that I am home, I can tell you from first hand experience that much of the bad things said about this ship are no longer true, or were horribly exaggerated to begin with.
Embarkation - Could not have been easier. Boarding began at 1pm and we arrived at the port around 2pm. Stevedors were readily available to assist with the larger bags we would be checking in. Our identification was checked by port security and despite a line of about fifty people ahead of us, we were through the security checkpoint (x-ray) in about five minutes. I am a Latitudes member so we were able to bypass the longer check-in line in which your cruise documents are checked, photo ID is taken, ship pass issued, etc. The regular line, however, was also moving quickly. As we approached the gangplank, NCL America staff greeted us with lei's (shells for men, flowers for women) and we had the opportunity to have our photo taken before stepping on to the ship. We had many other opportunities to have our photo taken during the cruise and there was absolutely no pressure if you declined. Simply saying "No thank you" was all that was required.
We boarded on Deck 5 which is where the ground floor of the atrium is located. The atrium appeared smaller than what I expected, but it was lovely. Four glass panoramic elevators rise through the atrium all the way to the pool deck on the top of the ship, and I counted twelve other elevators that you could also make use of. Never during the entire week did we wait more than two minutes for an elevator. If one came along that was full, another was right behind it.
The muster drill was a snap, somewhat like an airplane safety demonstration. I think the entire drill lasted no more than 15 minutes.
Ship layout/design - The Hawaiian theme of Pride of Aloha is evident the moment you step on board. I don't know who was involved in transforming the ship's interior design from the Norwegian Sky into the Pride of Aloha, but it really is gorgeous in many areas. There are framed photos, framed posters, works of art, etc. literally everywhere you turn. The carpets in the stair towers are a vibrant blue, and the elevator lobbies/hallways/etc. have prints of sea turtles, shells, flowers, etc. In my opinion, nothing about the ship's decor was overdone or gaudy. As we boarded, we were each handed a small map of the ship so that we could find anything we were looking for. This was very useful. By the second day onboard, we were able to easily find our way around.
Our Cabin - Our cabin was completely ready for our arrival. It was clean, the bed was made, and the bathroom was stocked. There is a small refrigerator in each cabin and we made use of ours to stock bottles of water, sodas, etc. There was a large window in our cabin and it's exterior could easily become dirty from sea spray. We noticed that it was cleaned at least two times during the week.
Ship's Crew - This is a predominantly young crew, many of whom are away from where they grew up for the first time. I know that the Pride of Aloha went through some big problems with their staff when the ship was first launched, but we found nearly everyone to be overwhelmingly friendly. I never experienced the horror stories others have written about, and only once witnessed what I considered poor behavior between a crew member and another guest. Almost every crew member we encountered offered us a greeting, and quite often, they were eager to make conversation, ask you where you are from, etc. We had great conversations with several of the bartenders and wait staff. Many of them also offered terrific advice on things to see and do during our cruise.
Dining - Choices, choices, choices. We made reservations for all three of the specialty restaurants soon after we boarded the ship. Having sailed with NCL once before, I remembered that the specialty restaurants book up quickly so it's wise to make your reservations as soon as possible. There are also two main restaurants from which to choose, as well as the Hukilau Cafe and Lanai. Food amongst all restaurants ranged from average to excellent.
We always ate at the Hukilau for breakfast. Aside from the standard selection of bacon, eggs, cereals, fruits, etc., they also had made-to-order omelettes and waffles.
The decor in the specialty restaurants (Royal Palm Bistro, Pacific Heights, and Kahili) is stunning. We particularly liked Pacific Heights, for it's Asian flair, and Kahili for it's beautiful view of the ocean. At Kahili, we sat at a window with the ocean no more than 20-25 feet below us. I recommend making reservations for these restaurants while the ship is out at sea, it's just so beautiful.
We also dined at both main restaurants, Crossing and Palace. Both are large, seating hundreds of people. The menus changed nightly and there was always a chef's special dish on the menu.
I know Freestyle dining presents challenges as compared to traditional dining, and service in some of the restaurants was occasionally slow. With "early or late" seating of a traditional cruise, everyone in the dining room gets drinks at the same time, appetizers at the same time, entrees at the same time, etc., and you receive all of your food in a clockwork type fashion. This contrasts with Freestyle where you dine when you want and where you want, but it's a trade off. Logistically, this has to slow things down, especially when many people come to dine at the same time. Be patient and don't freak out at the staff. I watched them work, and they were always moving. Perhaps increasing staffing in the restaurants would help, but I'm not sure.
Lounges/Bars - Like the restaurants, there are many to choose from. The Plantation Club and The Outrigger Lounge were really very, very lovely, and oddly rather underutilized, so it was not hard to find a table at any time. Not all of the lounges were open for service at all times, but you could always go in and take a seat if you just wanted to relax. If you're looking for drinks and the bar in one lounge is closed, another one is open somewhere. There are many more to choose from, each with a different flair. Longboard Bar, for example, has surfboards attached to the ceiling, and Blue Hawaii Bar & Nightclub has a mannequin of Elvis and a hula girl at it's entrance.
Entertainment - I've never been a big fan of the shows on cruise ships, on any cruise line, but we did catch a South Pacific show which was not too bad, as well as some of a Jean-Ayn Rand production. I will say that the crew talent show was a hoot. There are a talented bunch of people working on this ship.
Television in the cabin was limited to a few regular channels, CNN, and two channels which are always showing movies. There was not a "moving map" display so that you know the ship's position at all times, but maybe that will be a future enhancement. I am not going to complain about this as I don't think you go on a cruise in order to spend the entire time in your cabin watching TV.
Fitness/Recreation - The gym is well equipped, comfortable, and everything was in good working order. There are many exercise classes from which to choose from. I did not use the Mandara spa, but my roommate did. She said the staff was friendly, but the service she received was nothing special.
Shopping - The Galleria offers a large amount of merchandise in a large shopping area. Unlike other cruises I had been on, there were no huge price reductions on the last day of the cruise. Prices were middle of the road, as I expected them to be.
Internet Cafe - Expensive, but easy to use and help was always available. I only used it once for a few minutes and it cost over $11. If you have your own computer with wireless access, you may use it but the prices are the same.
Library - Lovely, well stocked, and underutilized. A great way to get some peace and quiet. You are welcome to check out books for no fee, so long as you return them by the last night of the cruise.
Kumu Cultural Center - This is where the casino used to be when the ship was the Norwegian Sky, but Hawaiian law prohibits gambling of all sorts, not even bingo. The cultural center offers a museum quality history of the Hawaiian islands, complete with displays, artwork, crafts, video presentations, etc. Make sure to spend some time perusing the many displays, or just watching a video. It's fascinating.
Ports of Call - I could write pages about how wonderful this itinerary is. Suffice to say, you are never going to be at a loss for anything to do on any island. On both Kauai and Maui, we had more than 30 hours to enjoy the island. Even in Kona where we did not overnight, you can find plenty to do.
Make sure to set aside time during the evening while the ship is between Hilo and Kona. Around 10pm, the ship will idle off of the lava flows where Kilauea has slowly been erupting for years. It is stunning. A good vantage point in which to view this is the deck outside of The Outrigger Lounge, or up at the front of the ship on Deck 12. While you're viewing the lava flow, the Captain will slowly rotate the ship 360 degrees so that everyone can see it. While you're there, the ship's Hawaiian ambassador will come over the p.a. and talk and sing about Pele, the goddess of the volcano. Open your mind a bit while this is happening, and allow yourself to experience a different culture. It's a great moment.
NCL America offers a copious amount of tours and you can book them at the Tour Desk, or via two touch-screen computers located in the atrium. All you do is insert your ship ID card to identify yourself, select the tours you want, and the appropriate charges are made to your cabin. You will, however, pay more to book tours through NCL America than if you were to make your own arrangements. This is not unusual so I'm not going to fault NCL for it. Every cruise line gets their cut when you book tours or excursions on board.
If you want to make your own plans, island guides are available just about everywhere and they are a good resource to plan out your activities. If you have a cell phone, bring it and it's charger with you. We found service with both Cingular and T-Mobile to be good on each island and we used our phones to arrange a helicopter tour on Kauai, and a car rental on Maui.
Disembarkation - A snap. Color-coded tags for our checked bags were available on the ground floor of the atrium the day prior to departure. Each color represents a time window in which you can expect to leave the ship, in our case between 9 and 9:30am. All you had to do was have the bags outside your door by 1am. On departure morning, you may stay in your cabin or in any of the public areas until the color of your tag is called. We decided to stay in our cabin and take our time getting ready. Sure enough, at just a few minutes after 9, our color was called and we headed down to the atrium to depart. We were off the ship within five minutes.
Problems - Only a few. I have already mentioned the occasionally slow service in some of the restaurants. We also occasionally encountered slow service in the bars, or while in a lounge chair on deck waiting for someone to walk by to take drink orders. The slow service was not constant, nor was it everywhere as other reviews have mentioned. For example, every time we had a meal at the buffet, crew members were constantly clearing and wiping down tables so that other guests could use them.
We did have two problems with our cabin. First - When we arrived, the bed was set up as a queen and we wanted it split into two separate beds. I put a call through to the front desk right away and they said they would take care of it, but it probably would not be until the evening. That did not bother me. If something is going to take a while, just say so, and I'm fine. However, dinner came and went, and when we returned to the cabin, the bed had been turned down, the lights dimmed, and chocolates were on the pillows, but the bed was still set up as a queen. I was able to find a cabin steward in the hall, and even though it was not a cabin she was responsible for, she offered to set up the room as we requested. Later, at nearly 10pm, our cabin steward knocked on the door to change the bed arrangement, but it had obviously already been taken care of.
Second - On the third day of the cruise, I was out early to take a tour of the island, and my roommate stayed in the cabin until about 12:30pm. When she left, she put the "Make Up Room" card in the door. At 5:30pm when I returned, the room had still not been serviced. I was again able to find a crew member who quickly brought me towels so that I could shower. Our cabin steward did show up while we were at dinner, to prepare our cabin for the evening, but this was the only time during the day that our cabin was serviced.
Coincidentally, we were invited to a Latitudes cocktail party that same evening and I mentioned the two problems to the hostess of the party. She was very willing to listen and seemed genuinely concerned. The next evening, the manager of housekeeping knocked on our door (with our cabin steward standing behind her) to make sure our cabin was now being handled properly. I very much appreciated this follow up.
Other - During the entire week the crew was constantly cleaning, polishing, painting, vacuuming, etc. The ship is six years old, and despite the refurbishment last year that transformed her into The Pride of Aloha, there are some signs of wear and tear in some areas, but it is otherwise in overwhelmingly great shape.
We had many opportunities to purchase anything (drinks/snacks) we needed while in port. Convenience stores were always within walking distance, and complimentary shuttles were always available to take us to Wal-Mart, K mart, Hilo Hatties, etc. You can purchase supplies on the ship, but you will pay more to do so.
DO NOT bring alcohol on board unless you are prepared to surrender it until the end of the cruise. This policy is mentioned in several places in NCL's brochures and cruise documents, so be warned.
Conclusion - We consider ourselves pretty easy-going, and the problems we experienced were minor and certainly nothing that would ruin our cruise. The ship, as I said, is in good shape in most areas, and really spectacular in others. The itinerary is particularly a strong selling point.
You have to give NCL some credit for venturing into unchartered territory with the NCL America project. This was the first U.S. flagged cruise vessel in nearly 50 years, so there was no ready-made labor market with which to staff it. U.S. flagged vessels require a nearly 100% American crew. I actually found myself constantly looking at the crew members name tags to see where in the U.S. or Guam they were from.
But it all seems to be working. Is it perfect? No. It is, however, good, and it seems to be getting better. Not only would I sail with NCL/NCL America again, but I would also happily again sail on Pride of Aloha.
Please feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.