First, let me say that I really appreciate everyone who has taken the time to post reviews and comments about the Pride of Aloha over the last few months. The positive comments made me feel a lot better about having booked this trip and the negative comments helped me make some adjustments ahead of time to make the most out of my vacation. I had an absolute BLAST on this cruise (Aug. 20-27 sailing), but I'd better offer a few caveats:
1. This was my first cruise. 2. I absolutely love Hawaii. 3. I hadn't taken a full week off of work in 18 months, so I was long overdue for a vacation!
Now for my long-winded comments
My travel agent booked the cruise with NCLA, and then did a separate air/land package for my post cruise stay. (I had previously stayed at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, and wanted to stay there again). I flew in same day, with my flight arriving just under 7 hours prior to sailing. However, when the issues cropped up a few weeks ago with airport security, I started getting a little nervous about whether or not I was cutting it too close for *me* to make it on the ship and for my *luggage* to make it on the ship.
It all worked out fine, but next time around, I will probably book everything through NCLA for the piece of mind -- but pay the premium to be able to choose my own flight.
I was prepared for the worst, but both were a breeze. Turnaround times must be improving, as my room was ready when I checked in, and my luggage arrived quickly. The room *was* very small, with limited storage space, but it was fine for a solo traveler.
It's definitely worth the 20 extra minutes to attend the debarkation briefing.
I was usually out on excursions all day, so I only dined in the main dining rooms once for lunch and twice for breakfast. I had a great experience 2 out of the 3 times. Breakfast in the Crossings was very slow on Maui embarkation day. We placed our order, and the food was delivered in piecemeal fashion, which seems odd for breakfast. We finally got the last of our food, but no one had received the juice they had ordered at the beginning. Someone reminded our server, whose reply was, "We only have so many hands!" (Probably not the best answer from a customer service perspective). Someone at a table next to us asked if they could get their food all at once, and the same server replied that they had to wait for the kitchen to prepare it. If this really was a logistical issue, perhaps NCLA should set up breakfast in courses like they do with dinner.
Most mornings, I grabbed breakfast early from the buffet and ate out on the lanai. I never ran into crowds early in the morning, although I can see how things would get congested later in the day. The buffet line needs to be re-engineered to put logical items next to each other: coffee/cream, bread/butter, etc..
I'm not sure if it was the motion of the ship or the fact that I got up really, really early every morning to watch the sunrise and wasn't quite awake yet - but I managed to end up wearing my coffee every single morning. Next time, I'll bring a bib. :-)
I dined every night at the specialty restaurants. The food was good and the servers were all excellent, especially Shannon (Kahili and Royal Palms) and Hensley (Kahili). From reading prior reviews and postings, it seems that the half-price cover charge is offered (or not offered) at different times for different sailings. For the Aug. 20-27 dates, the cover charge was half price every day for very early (5:30 or 6:00) or very late (9:00 or 9:30) seatings. I've read other reviews/messages where the half price cover charge was offered for all seatings for the first two days - or not at all. Check the Freestyle Daily each day for updates.
Definitely reserve the specialty restaurants ahead of time. The one time I tried to make a same-day reservation (thinking it would be slow, since it was the night of the ship's luau), seating was limited.
I did hear complaints about 45-60 minute waits in the main dining rooms for dinner. I think it's important for NCLA's future to get the service level in the main dining rooms better aligned with what is promised in the marketing materials. Either they need more tables, servers, and kitchen staff or they need to re-word the marketing material that implies dinnertime with freestyle cruising is whenever you want it to be. It's not unusual or unreasonable to wait 45 to 60 minutes at a land restaurant. However, I think that what's causing the frustration for passengers is the disconnect between the marketing materials and reality. All NCLA would have to do is change the materials to say something like, What time is dinner? What time do you want it to be? Just let us know an hour ahead of time, and we'll have your table ready to go. Assuming that NCLA could deliver within the promised time frames, I think most folks would be OK with that.
I can see that the overall level of service from room stewards isn't what would be expected from veteran cruisers. A co-worker who cruised on another line had mentioned to me that his room steward learned the names of everyone in the family and greeted them personally when they passed on the ship. I never even met my room steward the entire week! Housekeeping service was completely skipped one day -- I had an excursion that started at 6:15 a.m., and the room wasn't done when I returned at noon. I was taking a much-needed nap when housekeeping did arrive, so I didn't get up and answer the door...and they never came back. Not a deal-breaker, but a little annoying. (I actually had a similar experience at the hotel I stayed at during my post-cruise stay, when I was in and out all day, and must have missed the housekeeping staff several times. The difference was that they left a phone message that afternoon to let me know they were unable to make up my room because the do not disturb sign was out -- and they provided a number to call if I needed anything.) Another day, I didn't get any washcloths although housekeeping was quick to correct the situation when I called.
Since I had been forewarned about some of the service issues from reading reviews and message boards, I was able to head off some potential problems by packing a few extra items. I brought a travel size of wet wipes, air freshener, my own pillowcase, and throwaway beach and bath towels. The towels were a bit of a pain to pack, but it was nice to have them in reserve on days when housekeeping wasn't up to par and leaving them behind at the end of my vacation freed up a bunch of room for chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. :-)
Another note on towels: I had read complaints that beach towels were difficult to find for folks who were heading out on early morning excursions. On this latest trip, they always had beach towels available at the passenger gangway.
ITINERARY / EXCURSIONS:
Since I was traveling solo, I decided to book all of my excursions through NCL, even though it was more expensive.
Kauai - I did the helicopter tour on the first day, which was a great experience. I'd never been in a helicopter, but our pilot was excellent and the flight was very smooth. I picked the first flight of the day, since I'd read that visibility is usually better in the morning, with more cloud cover in the afternoon. Of course, it turned out to be exactly the opposite the day I went! There was a lot of cloud cover first thing in the morning (which cleared up later in the day), and we were unable to get into Mt. Wai'ale'ale. The good news is that for some reason, there were only 3 of us booked so everyone got a window seat on a 6-seater plane. Interesting aside for those planning to take pictures: they had a professional videographer, who mentioned that light colored clothing will reflect off the glass if you are trying to take pictures. I'm sure he says that to sell videos, but after I heard that, I put on the black jacket I was carrying and zipped it all the way up&and ended up with some great photos. The second day, I did the Hollywood Movie Tour, which was a little pricey compared to other tours, but was a good way to hit the highlights of Kauai.
There is a nice little beach area (and an ABC store!) within walking distance off the pier. I think it took 10-15 minutes to walk, but I believe there is shuttle service available as well.
Do not miss the sail-by of the Napali Coast - this was one of the highlights of the week for me!
Hilo - I did the hike through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park NOT the lava viewing adventure, but the other hiking tour. With this tour, they will take you out to the lava flows if possible but we weren't able to see flowing lava that day, because it was too far out. Our guide said he wouldn't be able to get us back to the ship in time. Definitely dress in layers for this tour and bring a hat. I'd heard it was often cold and rainy, but it was actually pretty hot the day we were out there.
Kona - This was the only tender port and a lovely little town. I booked the Captain Zodiac snorkeling excursion, which was excellent. As an added bonus, we saw dolphins both on the journey out to the bay and on the return trip! I read a good piece of advice on the boards prior to the trip, which was to ask for a kickboard to keep from getting too tired while snorkeling. One other thing I would add: remember the name/number of your boat. I needed to jump back in to trade out my underwater camera for another one, and had a hard time figuring out which boat had my captain on it (and my stuff!) I didn't want to embarrass myself by jumping into the wrong boat!
I had lunch at Huggo's on the Beach, which turned out to be a much farther walk than I expected. Great view, though&and excellent food. For dessert, I stopped by Scandinavian Shave Ice - have them add frozen yogurt to your order for a really excellent treat.
Maui - On Day 1, I did the Beach Day at Kaanapali, which was beautiful&but it was a very hot day, and I lugged far too much stuff around! (Book, CD player, towel, sunscreen, change of clothes, etc.) I wish I'd traveled a little lighter that day.
On Day 2, I did the Haleakala & Maui Ocean Center tour. The ocean center was enjoyable, but Haleakala was a bit of a bust. The weather was extremely cloudy, and views were limited. I'm sure this would be spectacular on the right day however, be sure to dress VERY warmly even if you are not doing a sunrise tour. The brochure says that temps are 10-15 degrees cooler, and recommends bringing a light jacket. Our driver had a thermometer on the bus, and he said it was just over 50 degrees. That was without the wind chill factor&and the wind was absolutely howling that day! Our driver did make the trip worthwhile - Duane was very funny and was a wealth of knowledge about all things Hawaiian: history, agriculture, music, you name it.
I didn't see or hear of any lingering problems with illness following the sick sailings back in June and July. Automatic sanitizing dispensers had been installed at the entrances to the ship and to the restaurants. Sometimes the supply ran out, which staff needs to be more diligent about. I started carrying a bottle of sanitizing solution in my purse to make sure I always had some.
I really don't care for the tipping policy on NCLA, even though I understand that Freestyle Cruising doesn't lend itself well to the traditional way of tipping at the end of a cruise. My problem is that in the outside world, if I receive service from a waiter, a hairdresser, or a cab driver, we all speak a common language in terms of the appropriate amount to tip. I know AND my service provider knows if I am leaving a standard tip for the expected level of service, an excellent tip to acknowledge exceptional service, or a less than standard tip for poor service. With NCLA, while the literature says that tips above and beyond the standard service charge are not necessary - my guess is that they are *expected*. I would rather NCLA instead provide a suggested tip by staff responsibility perhaps with different suggested amounts for waitstaff depending on the meal and the location. This would have given me a better feel for whether I was tipping appropriately for the level of service provided and it would probably be good feedback for the staff as well.
A couple of issues caused some confusion among passengers. First, you can't walk all the way across Deck 5. You have to go up a level, walk across, and then go back down. Also, passengers enter and exit the ship from Deck 5 in Honolulu, but from Deck 3 in the other ports.
I wasted quite a bit of suitcase space packing sundry items (Dramamine, cortisone, cold medicine, etc.) that I never used. The ship does have these kind of items for sale in the gift shop, although they were expensive and the gift shop is only open for a limited number of hours.
IN CONCLUSION (FINALLY)
Would I take this trip again? YES!! What I really wanted out of this cruise was a way to get a sampling of what all the Hawaiian Islands have to offer, so I could pick one or two islands for a more extended visit later. As it turned out, I loved them all! I will probably do this cruise again (after I get my vacation fund replenished) and will pick all different excursions for a completely new experience.
Feel free to contact me with any questions: LunaTEKKE@cox.net.