We live in Maui and boarded the ship there, no air or hotel experience here. Embarkation was easy, they said to get there at 1:00 p.m., and we arrived at about 12:30 p.m. and found they had already started. We checked in about 10 minutes with lots of happy guests looking forward to their cruise experience. One note: we took a cab which I wouldn't do again. The cab was expensive ($60 from Wailea) and the cab driver was terse to put it politely. I would drive my car and park at the airport, then take the NCL shuttle to transfer between airport and port. Parking at the airport is only $7/day and the NCL shuttle is cheap at $10.
We got a cabin on the 8th floor with a porthole. I suppose this is better than an inside cabin, but I've never been on a cruise in an inside cabin, so I have nothing to compare to. We have been on two previous cruises with balconies. That is really the way to go. I thought I would save some money and get the porthole. The porthole was big (maybe 3' diameter), but it had saltwater spray on it and was not cleaned during the trip. I suppose I could have figured this out in advance, saltwater is a natural part of the ocean-going experience. The amount of time of spent gazing out of the porthole at the ocean was about 3 minutes in the entire week. The upgrade cost was going to add 50% to the price of our cruise, but I would do it next time. The cruise cost was a bargain (about $1000 each) if you consider that this about the cost of staying in Motel 6 in Hawaii for a week, with no other expenses considered like food, or car, or entertainment. If you have not priced hotels in Hawaii recently, you should do that, it will make you appreciate how cheap the cost of the cruise really is.
The room was very small, but liveable. We did not expect the room to spacious. We also spent most of our awake time out in the common areas of the ship. The room had a bed, a small couch, a small makeup table, and a bathroom. It is true there is only one electrical plug-in at the table and one in the bathroom. My wife and I both have digital cameras, IPOD's, hair dryers, etc., but we did not fight over the plug. A good tip I read online was to bring a power strip if you need lots of plug-in time. Another good one is to bring suction cup hooks for your bathing suits to hang up in the shower when wet.
The ship itself was very nice. It was clean and well-appointed. It is true is was not as nice as the Royal Caribbean ships we have been on, but nice nonetheless. There are plenty of common areas to eat, play cards, sunbathe, etc. Since we both live in Hawaii, we were not as interested in the shore excursions as others were. We stayed on the ship most of the time. This turned out to be great. They have a card room that my wife and I used to play cards most days that was usually empty. We also took books to read and sat out by the pool and other common areas to soak up the sun and enjoy ourselves. My wife is very sensitive to cleanliness issues. She detected not a single problem with smells or dirt or anything like that. Our cabin was cleaned twice a day everyday. The crew was also nice. A few overly friendly people and a few underly friendly people and lots in between. Most crew were helpful, looked at you when passing in the narrow hallways, and acknowledged you with an "Aloha".
Now on to the food. We read dismal reviews of the food and service in the main dining halls, so we decided to avoid them. We ate at the Hukilau buffet for breakfast and lunch, and in the specialty restaurants for dinner most nights. The buffet was average, nothing to write home about. However, the food was plentiful, the view from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and out on the aft deck in the open air were great. I think this is what you make it (like most of life). If you are focused on having the best breakfast you ever had in your life and being waited on like a spoiled princess, you will be disappointed. If you are focused on each other, your beautiful surroundings, and having bacon, eggs, and sausage cooked for you, you will have a good time. The specialty restaurants were spectacular. We have been on cruises before, and I can't believe we have never done this. There is a $10 service charge per person, but that was an insignificant fee for what we got. The service was wonderful, and the food better than that. This was a $120 meal onshore served to you for $20. We usually left a $20 tip, bringing the total to $40 for two, a real bargain. We ate in all three restaurants and thought they were all great. The best thing we had was the fried shrimp tempura at Pacific Heights, fantastic! Reserve your spots early, the restaurants get full quickly.
We did go on two shore excursions: the Atlantis submarine in Honolulu and a tour of historic Kona on the Big Island. They both went well. A good tip is to use the ATM-style machine for buying your shore excursions, there is one on deck 5 and another on deck 6. This is was much easier than standing in line at the excursion desk. One caveat: read carefully which tour you are taking. We wanted one tour in Kona and ended up on another. Not sure whose mistake that was. The submarine ride was great and is recommended. It was expensive though. The bus tour in Kona is not recommended because of the tour bus driver. He reminded us constantly throughout the trip that the natives were poor and we tourists were all rich and we should leave our money in Hawaii and go home. I neither tipped him nor acknowledged him when leaving, though both of those omissions were difficult for me. The tour itself was nice, this guy was just a bad distraction. We did go snorkeling in Kona right by the pier and it was great, do this. Lots of fish and a small beach to lay on. We could have done this for nothing, just take the tender in and walk 2 minutes to this beach. And speaking of the tender in Kona, I heard some bad stories about this being rough, etc. NCL must be reading these reviews, because they really did a good job putting us on and taking us off the tender. There must have been eight crew members holding on to our arms and helping us on and off the tender. Even the lady in the wheelchair got on and off the tender okay.
All in all, a low cost vacation that we really enjoyed. We would do this again. We have been on shore vacations in Honolulu that cost twice as much as this that we got the same enjoyment from.