I have to start out by saying that all the negative reviews of this cruise had me somewhat concerned about doing it, but figured it was a great way to easily see the islands with limited time available. It never ceases to amaze me that someone can have such an completely opposite experience, but that is why we all have our opinions I guess, and you can never rely on other people's reviews alone to decide whether or not to do something.
To give you some background, this cruise was myself and my husband. We are 33 and 55. This would be my third cruise and DH's 2nd. All previous cruises have been on NCL.
Our cruise was embarking from Honolulu on February 23, 2013. We wanted to spend a couple of days in Waikiki before the cruise. We had been there a couple of years before and had a wonderful land vacation, so figured it was a great add-on to our vacation.
We had a mid-morning flight out of O'Hare direct to Honolulu at around 10am. It was a completely full plane (777). The flight, besides being long, went smoothly. It always seems the flight to a vacation destination is so much easier than the return flight home! Our flight left a few minutes late, but with the tradewinds Hawaii had been experiencing, we arrived on time or maybe even a couple minutes early.
We had arranged for a van to take us to our hotel, and when we arrived in Honolulu, and our transportation was already there waiting at the airport before we even got our luggage. We had a relatively quick ride to Waikiki and our hotel, the Sheraton Waikiki Beach.
We had specifically chosen the Sheraton because it has a central location, is right on the beach, and seemed to have one of the best pool areas (husband likes to sunbathe). We ran into a slight problem when we went to check in. The hotel did not have a record of our reservation even though had received confirmation emails and even an offer to upgrade to the "club". We had booked the room directly with Starwood, by phone, and we are Starwood Preferred Guests. I simply showed the clerk the confirmation of our reservation using my phone. It took some time to get everything squared away, but they straightened it all out. We got an upgrade (supposedly) to a "mountain view" room, but I don't think there could be much difference between mountain view and city view. It did have a sliver of ocean in view too. They also gave us complimentary dinner at their buffet Kai Market and a bottle of champagne. Like most of the hotels in the area, you pay a daily "resort fee" as well. That provided us with wireless internet service, phone calls, 2 free drinks, and some other little things we did not take advantage of such as borrowing an mp3 player with Hawaiian music on it.
The first night after we brought our things to our room (which was pretty good size with a nice balcony) we went to Hula Grill at the Outrigger Waikiki for a couple of mai tais before the end of happy hour. After that it was over to the Yardhouse (one of our favorites) for drinks and truffle fries. We then walked to Island Vintage Coffee for a vintage kona mocha - the best frozen coffee drink ever! Then it was time for a walk on the beach and a nightcap at the Royal Hawaiian beach bar - one more mai tai.
Our reservation (SPG promo at the time of booking) included a $20 breakfast credit each day at either Kai Market buffet or Ingredients (a little deli-type shop in the hotel). We had breakfast there - egg and bagel sandwiches, oatmeal, that kind thing. Simple but served the purpose and allowed us to spend only $10-$12 for breakfast each day for the two of us. We then made an attempt to find a sunny spot by the pool, but it just wasn't bound to happen. It was cool and windy, and then it started to rain. We decided to shower and had some items to look for at International Marketplace. We found the items and bartered some deals and then we walked up and down the street and looked in some of the shops. We went to subway for a cheap lunch. We got stuck in some more rain, so we went into the Royal Hawaiian shopping center. We looked in some of those shops then enjoyed some happy hour drinks and returned to the hotel to use our free dinner buffet tickets. It was an alright buffet with an asian theme. I wouldn't have paid the $55 per person they charge, but for free it was fine. We then went out for a night cap and another Vintage Kona Mocha.
Friday we again tried to sit by the pool in the morning after breakfast. Wind and rain and clouds again. We decided to just get ready and we did some reading in our room. Then we went to Cheeseburger for lunch. I had a turkey burger that was very tasty with sweet potato fries. Husband had a spicy chicken sandwich with sweet potato fries. Good place for a decent lunch and not overly expensive.
We had a happy hour meeting planned for our roll call members from Cruise Critic who would be in Waikiki on Friday as well. We were meeting at the Yardhouse at 3pm. We got there a little early and had a drink at the bar. When everyone else arrived we got a table to talk and get excited about our cruise the next day. It was very nice. It was a small group, only 6 of us total. Once everyone left to go about their plans for the evening, we stayed for a little longer, had some pizza, then it was back to Island Vintage for another Kona Mocha (yes, we were addicted).
We decided to call it a night a little early so we could get up and get in a breakfast and pack up everything to go to the ship.
We had asked for a late checkout since we didn't need to arrive at the ship too early. 11:00am was standard and they gave us until 12pm at no charge. If we had wanted to stay until 2pm we could have paid $25. We arranged for a van at 12 and headed down to the lobby at about 11:35. I found a coupon for Dole Whip for Buy one large get a small free. I was interested in trying it, so we each got one from the coffee shop (Peet's) on the Sheraton property. We sat at one of the outside tables and waited for our van which arrived momentarily. He was early but told us to take our time finishing our ice cream, which was delicous by the way and highly recommended. We finished as quickly as we could and headed for the port excited to begin the next part of our vacation.
The arrival at the port was a little confusing. We unloaded our bags from the taxi and then there is nothing telling you where to go. There are porters, but they didn't approach us, we had to ask them to assist. I felt it was the best option since they take your bags, and I was right! The line of people checking their luggage and getting luggage tags was LONG! We were able to breeze right by into the much much shorter line for security.
We then got in another line for pictures with grass skirted guy and girl and our leis of course. Everyone adored our stuffed gorilla travel companion in his new Hawaiian outfit.
Then it was off to another line to get our ship cards. It didn't take too long, and we were able to board the ship right away. I think our time from leaving the hotel and getting on the ship was no more than 1 hour.
Rooms were available when we walked onboard, so we dropped off our things and went to check out the pool deck. Luggage was delivered within the next hour. We went directly to be outdoor aloha cafe bar and ordered up a round of drinks. The weather was beautiful and there was a nice rainbow in the sky. The cruise portion of our vacation was off to a great start!
We had our cruise critic meet & greet right after the muster drill in the card/game room. They had coffee, water, and cookies for us. I think there might have been 7 of us total, but the officers we met couldn't have been nicer. They told us about the upcoming dry docking of the ship and that they would be having a large container loaded on the ship in Hilo. It was done by crane and was stuff for the construction work they were doing. They invited us to meet with them again towards the end of the cruise to give our feedback, but we got busy in our day and didn't make it. I can't commend the officers of this ship enough -- they remembered us and greeted us every time we saw them around the ship. The food and beverage director offered to help us get in a specialty restaurant if we had any problems. Chris, the bar manager, took time out to chat with us on several occasions throughout the week. He even bought a couple of drinks for us over the week. What a great guy!
Cabin: We had an inside cabin. It was very small, but had adequate storage space. We made due just fine. By going with the inside cabin we had enough money to spend the three days in Waikiki before the cruise and we really didn't have to scrimp on anything. We splurged when we wanted. Besides, we figured we wouldn't spend much time in the room either (we didn't). We also had a great cabin steward named Lyn. She was very friendly and did a great job. She obviously saw our stuffed gorilla and she made him fun towel animal friends each day. The second to last day she made a monkey and when we told her our animal was a gorilla, she made a gorilla the last day. It was very cute. She filled up our ice each day even though we didn't really use it. The only minor issue I can say we had was that our shower didn't drain fast enough for my husband's liking. He called for maintenance and it was fixed that same day and we had no further problems.
Officers and Crew: As I said before, I can't compliment them enough. I had read so much about how the American crew just doesn't care and the service was terrible. I just could not disagree more. I would say 98% of the crew went out of their way to provide wonderful service. Those who stood out were: Chris (bar manager) and James (Bartender at Gold Rush Saloon). We also enjoyed talking with Silas the Cruise Director. The only negatives on the staff were the main dining rooms seemed a little disorganized a couple of the nights. We didn't go at peak times (5pm was pretty busy, we ate closer to 9pm usually), but it seemed there were a lot of new staff. The head servers were good, the helpers just didn't really seem to know what was going on sometimes. There was confusion as to who was taking drink orders, etc. Also, the bartender/barista at the coffee bar in the evenings - Amber. She was nice to us, and my husband liked her, but she seemed to me to be the most miserable in her job as anyone I have ever seen. I don't mean for it to sound like a complaint - she was kind and accomodating to give my husband extra to-go cups for his morning coffee so he could get it from the buffet and return to our cabin, she just didn't seem happy. She is probably the only person I saw who was like that. In fact, to the opposite end of the spectrum, there was a server in the buffet who was in charge of wheeling around the coffee cart at breakfast. He always chimed out with "Coffee - it will make you happy and sexy and smiley." He really cracked me up every morning.
Food: This was probably the weakest part of the cruise. I wouldn't say it was bad, but it could use some improvement.
Buffet: The buffet seemed crowded especially in the morning, but it was convenient. The food was fresh. My husband got really watery grits one day (they were fine all other days) and the last morning the juice was either gone from all dispensers or very watery. The fruit was very fresh and delicious and there was a lot of variety even though the same foods were served each day, you had your choice of just about every breakfast food possible.
Main Dining Rooms: The main dining room food wasn't that great. Exceptions were the soups were good. I enjoyed the Broccoli soup and the cream of mushroom was especially good. The deserts weren't bad. My favorite is the apple cinnamon pie with vanilla ice cream. I always add on the ice cream because what is pie without ice cream really? I like that the deserts are not overly large -- just the right size. The salmon wasn't bad, but the beef dishes I tried were not so good. We ate in the Skyline dining room twice and Liberty once. Like others have mentioned, I wasn't impressed with the daily selections, and it would have been nice to see some more Hawaiian options offered. The only Hawaiian dish I recall was barbequed ribs -- not something I was interested in trying.
The diner was alright. Good milkshakes - they cost $3.50, but no malt. My husband had wonton soup and he said it wasn't very good but edible. Fish and chips were alright. My husband had a burger that he said was fine.
The sail-away barbeque in Kauai was pretty good. Burgers, Chicken, pasta salad and some yummy blondies/brownies. We felt this was one of the best meals we had on the ship. Enjoyed it very much.
We ate in one specialty restaurant - East Meets West. It was basically Chinese. I had crab wontons and beef & broccoli. Husband had hot & sour soup and cantonese noodles. We both thought it was alright, but not anything special.
I don't expect gourmet when food is being prepared for thousands of people, so it was fine for us. Wouldn't change my opinion of the cruise one way or another. We did enjoy a few meals off the ship in ports also so we didn't try all the options available on the ship. There could be really good things we missed out on. I might be interested in trying Jefferson's Bistro next time -- heard some good things about it.
Entertainment: We didn't really see too much of the entertainment offered. We usually ended up heading to bed early each night as we were up at 5:00am each morning. DH did participate in the "Dancing with America Stars" one evening and he enjoyed it. Other cruisers who attended the show complimented him anytime they saw him through the rest of the cruise. He placed 4th I think with his crew partner. We saw the band at the pool on the last day and the Jimmy Buffet tribute. Both were entertaining. We didn't make it to any of the other shows.
Ports & Excursions:
Maui - did the Lahaina on your own transportation the first day. Then took the public bus from Lahaina to Kaanapali beach. It was pretty but windy. Sand pelted you and coated any sunscreen you tried to apply. Didnt stay long. Lahaina is cute. We walked in a few shops and got a shave ice before catching the bus back.
The second day I (husband stayed on the ship and sunbathed) did the Molokini Crater snorkel which was with Pacific Whale foundation. It was through the ship. It was a nice excursion. Water a little cold, but a rented wet suit top helped. We saw several whales. The excursion stops at two snorkeling spots - Molokini Crater and Turtle Town. I liked turtle town a little better and saw a few turtles. After the snorkeling they provided us a nice lunch of grilled chicken or veggie burgers. They had other snacks and beverages along the way as well. A very nice excursion I would highly recommend. We were told by the bus driver that brought us to the harbor from the ship as well as one of the ship guides that we would be brought by the bus up to their shop before returning to the ship. However, our bus driver drove right past.
Hilo -- we did mountain biking at Volcano National Park. This was arranged through the ship. We rode in a van up to the VNP museum house. This where you can see the smoke coming out of the volcano. There is a shop inside the park house and a small informative museum. We then rode bikes for a total of 8 miles with several stops for pictures and sights along the way. At our last stop we were given snacks of granola bars or chips. This snack was kind of disappointing for a 6+ hour excursion. The guides were great. They gave us at ton of history and information (probably a little more than we needed, but if you are into that kind of thing...) It was cold up there though, so I would definitely recommend warm clothes if you do this excursion. They do provide windbreakers and water bottles (with water and you get to keep the bottle). On the way back we stopped at Big Island Candies. We tried a few samples but didn't end up buying anything. Very expensive but delicious cookies.
While back on the ship in Hilo we saw a ton (well I did anyway) of whales while having a drink at the Aloha Bar all the way aft on deck 11. After we left Hilo we sailed by the lava flow. They did announce the time to be port side for pictures. You do sail pretty far away from the lava, so you need a good zoom to get decent pictures. I got one or two alright ones. It was quite a sight to see the several rivers of lava flowing.
Next port was Kona. This was probably my favorite of the ports. It's a cute little town with all kinds of little shops and restaurants. We first did an excursion booked through the ship. It was the Atlantis Submarine. It's a pretty short sub tour right there in the harbor. It's a little tight quarters in the sub. Pictures really just turn out ok. You are taking them through triple paned glass of course. The sub goes down as low as 100 feet and they go past a couple of shipwrecks. We saw a lot of fish, but that was it. Later in the afternoon I saw a whale make its way through the harbor. It would have been cool to have seen that when in the submarine. Taking a ship excursion gets you priority on the tender and that was nice. We met in the Hollywood theater and after a few minutes we went right on to a tender and over to the pier. After the sub we walked around some of the shops. We were hoping to find a place to snorkel to see turtles, but didn't find anything walk able. After that we made our way up to Kona Brewery & Pub. We enjoyed a couple of refreshments and some pizza (it sure wasn't Chicago pizza!). Would definitely go there again. On the way back to the ship we stopped for a coffee drink and got back in line to tender back. We had to wait a little while for the tender this time and it was packed, but it was pleasant enough and well organized.
Kauai -- this is the one port where had nothing planned. We headed over to Duke's at the Marriott a short walk from the ship. Cruise Director Silas was heading out at the same time and he walked with us nearly all the way and talked, it make the walk go by so fast! The beach in front of the Marriott is very nice. We enjoyed some beverages at Duke's and had grilled Mahi Mahi sandwiches for lunch. After that we walked back to the ship. The second (short) day we just parked out by the pool and had a fun day on the ship.
After leaving the port in Kauai we had a sail-by of the Na Pali Coast. The Hawaiian ambassadors narrated during the sail by and it was very informative. You actually get pretty close -- at one point only about ' of a mile away. I was able to get some great pictures and saw a few whales too.
Sadly all good things must come to an end. Back in Honolulu we were up pretty early to shower and pack up our stuff. We went to breakfast at what seemed like the same time as the rest of the ship! Our flight home wasn't until about 8pm so we took our time and debarked at about 8:45 or so. The officers and cruise director were all there thanking everyone for cruising with them.
Inside the port building there is only one elevator, so if you carry off your own bags which we did, you have to wait some time. Small bags you could take on the escalator, but ours were just too big we didn't feel comfortable.
We had arranged for our bags to be stored with Aloha Luggage and they would meet us at the airport when we called. It was $50 for four bags, but considering we didn't have to haul them, get a day room for more $, or take a taxi back to the port for pickup, it was worth it. You do have to prepay the fee and they give you a receipt tag thing you turn in when they bring your bags to you. We had planned to cab to Waikiki for a few hours and the gentlemen with Aloha Luggage recommended we walk out around the corner to the bus stop to save some money. We thought it sounded like a great idea so that is what we did. Turns out they had cut the bus schedules back, so on the weekends it runs only every hour. We waited about 40 minutes and decided we were wasting too much of the day so we got a cab. Another couple from the ship was waiting to do the same thing and we offered them to share the cab which they did, so in the end it only ended up being about $3 more than the bus would have been.
We did our souvenir shopping on that last day (some stuff at the ABC stores) and cookies from Honolulu Cookie Company. We had lunch at Duke's in the Outrigger Waikiki. For around $15 per person the lunch buffet wasn't bad. It didn't have a lot of choices, but a nice salad bar, some prepared salads and a few hot entrees. The teriyaki chicken was good as was the potato salad. We then had our last vintage Kona mocha. We bought a couple of pouches of the mix to make this drink at home. You have to get your own syrups to make the Vintage one though (macadamia nut and coconut). I ordered them when I got back home and we tried it. It came out pretty much the same. Yum!
With just about two hours to spare we went to the Yardhouse for a few beverages. We arranged for the same driver that brought us to the port the week before to take us back to the airport. He was right on time -- highly recommended. I believe the name is Kings. Alex was our driver and we enjoyed talking with him. Once he dropped us off we called Aloha and they arrived with our luggage in probably 5 minutes!
There was a long line for security but it went pretty smoothly. Then we took the long walk to our gate that was in another building. Unfortunately there is nothing around that gate to eat except a Quizno's. We ended up each getting a sandwich for dinner (we must have been a little early because the place got mobbed later). It was ridiculously expensive -- about $38 for 2 sandwiches and 2 waters!
Our flight home was pretty much non-eventful. I hate those overnight flights though, can't really sleep at all. We got back to Chicago at about 8am Sunday morning and arrived home to about 6 inches of snow in the driveway. Yuck!
Overall this was probably our best vacation! I would highly recommend this cruise and can't wait to do it again!