In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit up front that my family got such a good price on the cruise that we could have almost put up with anything and still considered it a bargain.
I traveled with my husband and two teenage children, and we booked a last minute cruise (six weeks before sailing). I had actually wanted to take this cruise ever since I read that NCL was launching the service, just because it seemed like a brilliant way to see Hawaii. And, indeed, it really is. If we were to have tried to see this many islands by hopping planes, we would have spent half of our time in the airport and the other half packing our bags. It was our first time in Hawaii, so we really wanted to see all of the highlights.
After a horrendous flight by Northworst (including a mechanical cancellation that got us to Maui a day late and missing one of our bags) we were at our ship at the crack of noon. Of course, since all the hotels have an 11 or noon check out, so was just about everybody else. The line that snaked through the unairconditioned port terminal was long but, to NCL's credit, it moved fairly quickly. After living in the same clothes for two days, and lugging our heavy baggage through the hot, humid check-out line, I was in no mood to have a family photo taken in front of a backdrop of the ship. The cheerful NCL rep was also in no mood to take "No, thank you!" for an answer. After three polite declinations, I had to be more forceful until the young man let me pass w/o a shot (this, by the way, was just a picture to be sold, NOT the picture to be used for ID purposes. I dutifully smiled through my sweat for that one!)
We also were all handed a letter while we waited in line to the effect that the previous sailing (which actually overlapped with ours, since we were embarking on Maui) had about 10% of the passengers complain of intestinal disorders. "Oh, no," I thought, "a plague ship!" The letter offered a refund of the fare paid if anyone chose not to sail. Well, after spending mucho dinaro on the flight out there and using up the remainder of my vacation time, I wasn't going to back out now! And from the lack of anyone getting out of line, neither was anybody else.
Because we booked so late, we ended up with cabins on different floors. That didn't bother us...we knew we were last-minute-lucies. Both were inside cabins, and were identical. The positioning of each cabin was nicely close to the elevators w/o being right next to them.
The beds were as many others described...set up as one queen bed. It really wasn't a big deal, since our kids have traveled with us for many years and, in any hotel, we usually end up with my daughter and I in one bed and my son and husband in another. However, I thought it odd that no one looked at the passenger manifest, noticed the adult/child set-up and thought "Hmmm, maybe they would like these separated into two beds" before we got there. I did ask our stewardess to have them separated, however it took two days for it to be finally done. Considering the extra precautions they were taking due to the illness on board, I figured they were pretty busy and cut her some slack on that.
Now, to stop the complaining! Everything else on the cruise worked very well. The rooms were, as mentioned before, small but well laid out. The bathrooms were tight (and I'm not petite!) but again, well designed, with room for everything. A mom and teenage girl can have a lot of bottles and necessities and we found a comfortable place for everything. The convertible-to-handheld showerhead made the small, round shower perfectly serviceable, but just don't drop the soap! There is not enough room to pick it up w/o stepping outside the shower.
I followed the previous advice to bring a power-strip for cell-phones, iPods, etc and was glad I did. One warning for those powering up rechargeable items...they will unplug anything left plugged in when they clean the rooms. I'm sure it's a safety measure, but it's frustrating when you expect your camera to be recharged by the next morning. Always check and replug it back in if you have to.
I brought a travel hairdryer, but found a much nicer one in the drawer of the dressing-table (mine was a real wimp). We always straightened up before we left for the day, since we didn't consider it very nice to leave the cabin stewardess to pick up our own stuff. The room was always cleaned, and our personal items were seldom moved far from where we left them. The safe was easy to operate and worked each time. The water pressure was fine and we never lacked hot water (except the nights they were doing maintenance on the water system, and had to shut the hot water down between midnight and 5AM...they warned us in advance, and I was sleeping, so I didn't care!)
The dEcor on the ship appeared fresh and bright. Nothing seemed old or run-down. The elevators ran quickly and the carpets were clean. I really liked the cultural center (were a casino would have been) and my husband liked the map on the wall near the Outrigger Lounge that showed our route.
Having been forewarned by Cruise Critics about the food, we went into this endeavor with the idea that this will be more like a floating Holiday Inn with food included, rather than the sumptuous fare found on most cruise ships. For that reason we were not disappointed. The food was perfectly serviceable. The service in the main dining rooms was prompt and, while occasionally inexperienced, was perfectly capable. I was hoping for more Hawaiian flair in my meals, and chose the seafood options when possible. We did try the Pacific Heights restaurant and, to our surprise, discovered it still didn't offer much in pacific rim selections. We were there on the half-price day, so maybe they didn't offer their best, but we really didn't see any reason to pay more when the food was very similar. And they didn't even offer a salad, like the main dining rooms.
Because we were up and dressed early (still on central time!) we usually got breakfast before the crowd got there. This is the only time where the extra precautions due to the intestinal bug were a little inconvenient. We couldn't simply get ourselves a cup of coffee from the urn, but had to wait for a rubber-gloved server to get it for us. Same with the buffet line...what we would usually have just served ourselves, we had to hand our plate to a server to scoop it up for us. Minor inconvenience, certainly, to avoid ruining one's long-awaited trip with a stomach virus, but it did slow the lines down. After the first day, I learned to get my cold food from the line first, then head to the omelettes made to order station. I liked the selections of Hawaiian-inspired yogurts (guava and pineapple...don't get that in the Midwest!).
Because we boarded in Maui, we did feel that Oahu was a little short-changed. One day certainly didn't give us enough time to see much. Of course, since the cruise is really designed for a Honolulu embarkation, I assume they felt most people would see a little of Oahu before and after their cruise. As it was, we climbed to the top of Diamondhead, but never got out to the Arizona Memorial. Of course, the little excursion we had to take in between to find the Hard Rock Cafe for our teenagers probably had something to do with slowing us down. Waikiki was pretty, but a parade was planned for that area the day we were there, so the car-rental agent advised us to stay away that afternoon if we didn't want to get stuck in a traffic jam.
I wasn't thrilled about wasting a half-day to sail from Kauai to Hilo at first, but as tired as we had gotten ourselves from the first three stops (Maui, Oahu and Kauai) I was starting to look forward to an afternoon of just lounging around. And what a lounge it was! The sail past the Na Pali coast was one of the highlights of the trip. My teenager and I reserved our deckchairs early by leaving our beach towels on them in the morning, but eventually I ended up joining my husband in the bow of the ship, since the view was so nice and clear from there (the deckchairs were behind some salt-sprayed glass wind-blocks that obscured the view).
We spent most of our time on Kauai snorkeling. We drove to Tunnels beach, where we heard the water is crystal clear there. It was, but it was also just a little bit rough that day. Still, a giant turtle swam right under my son, and that alone made the day for him. Get disposable, underwater cameras if you plan to do this. The cameras keep both of my kids busy chasing fish. On the way back, I showed them the outline of Puff, the Magic Dragon in the mountains (a friend had gone years ago, and showed me pictures). They thought it just looked like mountains (back to not-easily-impressed I guess), but I saw it anyway.
Our favorite island, however, was the Big Island. We had planned to visit Volcano National Park, then go on a little water-fall search from Hilo. Big plans, but we never got beyond the park...it was just too fascinating. I loved seeing the hardened lava flows, and the steam as the fresh lava hit the ocean was awesome. We went through the lava tube (remember to bring your own flashlight, since the really interesting part is unlit!) and just walked out on the lava fields, remembering how we saw the eruptions on television a couple of decades ago.
Then there was the sail around the live volcano as we headed to Kona. Even our not-easily-impressed teenagers were like little kids watching the red lava flow down into the ocean. It was one of those sights one never expects to be able to see live. The tender to shore in Kona, took a little more time than we would have liked, but it was handled professionally by the crew and, lets face it, the entire ship wanted to get an early start, so we were all there at once.
We rented cars in each port and, since the excursions were pretty pricey for a family of four, we took off on our own, guide books in hand. We rented our cars in advance, and most of the major rental agencies had shuttles waiting just outside the ships. Thrifty and Hertz seemed to be the ones I remember seeing at every stop. We often used Enterprise, however, since DH has a company discount.
One thing we thought would be a special treat for the kids was to rent convertibles on a couple of the islands. Unfortunately, most of the time it was so windy, the kids asked to put the top back up. Then, they had to climb out of a two-door backseat the rest of the day. The compacts we rented (that were usually upgraded to standard or midsize for free) worked out better.
We came back to the ship too tired most nights to partake of the entertainment offered. We were lucky to get our dinner in before we fell into our beds.
We were pleasantly surprised at how many families were sailing. Of course, the early June time period almost guaranteed a larger number of children than is common on a cruise, but this particular cruise seemed to attract families (like ours!) Still, I seldom saw kids running amok, and the two little boys riding the elevators on our first day were so cute, we really couldn't find any fault with them. The hot-tubs always seemed to have room, although often filled with children, but I just never seemed to have the time to hop in. The hot-tub and small, waterfall pool combination in the stern looked especially inviting, and didn't seem to be discovered by the kids.
All in all, it was a cruise I would easily do again. As long as one approaches it as a great way to see the islands, a floating hotel w/ meals included, one is less likely to be disappointed. It really is the best way to get a taste of each island...maybe while considering which island you would like to come back to and spend a week.
Oh, and that nasty stomach bug? No one in my family caught it, but NCL took $150 off everybody's cabin bill for the inconvenience. Worked for us!