My husband and I are seasoned cruisers, but had never cruised Hawaii before. We found a decent bargain on the Pride of Aloha and decided this was the time to try it. Our trip included two nights in Honolulu pre-cruise.
We were met at the airport by NCL reps and taken by bus to the hotel without much problem. The hotel was in the center of town but not on the beach. The beach was just across the street and we were allowed to use a neighboring hotel's facilities, if we so chose. Shopping, restaurants and a cultural marketplace were all within walking distance. Most of the shops were high end, but there were enough products available in the marketplace or pharmacy if you wanted souvenirs, suntan lotion or other items you may have forgotten. We were invited to a welcome breakfast (coffee, juice and a muffin) where we were provided with information on shore excursions both pre-cruise in Oahu and at each port of call. The sales pitch there wasn't high-pressure, but when you were through you had to exit through a number of jewelry stores where the pressure was kicked up a notch. I can easily say "no", but it was not a comfortable feeling.
We did take the all day tour of the Polynesian Cultural Center - a don't miss in Oahu! There was so much to see and frankly we could have spent 1-2 more days and not seen or experienced everything. The tour included a guide, a video, a luau dinner and a spectacular cultural show in the evening. Worth every penny.
On to the cruise itself. Transportation to the ship, transfer of luggage and embarkation went very smoothly. NCL has an express line for Latitude members (past cruisers)so we were on-board within 20 minutes of arrival at the terminal. However, first time cruisers on NCL or any other line should be prepared to stand in line for 20-30 minutes to be processed before boarding. Have your passports or form of ID ready and make sure you have filled out the credit card information in your document packet. They will imprint your card and it will be used for on-board charges. Purchases made on board are obtained by signature and charged to your account. Passengers without credit cards will be asked to put a cash deposit down (usually $300)and will be asked to pay any balances before debarkation. New passengers may not be aware that on-board charges could be significant. All bar drinks, including sodas, are extra. Most cruise lines, including NCL offer a soda program. For a one time charge (approx. $35) a passenger can order unlimited soda during the cruise. Ship photographers are everywhere and photos run $6-$8 for 4x6 photos and up to $20 for 8 x 10 formal shots. If you think you will buy a lot of photos from the ship's photographers, look into the family packages. If you purchase shore excursions, play bingo, purchase anything in the shops, or buy any art at the auctions, that also goes on your account. Shipboard statements can be several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on your spending choices.
The ship is a delight for the eyes, decorated in vivid colors with lots of Hawaiian artwork and murals. There is even a small museum of sorts (The Kumu Cultural Center) mid-ship where you can see artifacts and watch videos of the last volcanic eruption. A nice place to spend a few quiet moments.
The ship has 2 swimming pools and 5 hot tubs as well as a children's pool and teen club. The spa and fitness area are located near the top of the ship. The fitness area is divided into two rooms, one for equipment exercise and the other for classes. It was smaller than some I've seen, and on several mornings it got pretty crowded. They have daily classes, aerobics, yoga etc. There were 5-6 treadmills and 4 cycles and 2-3 weight sets. The spa offers a variety of services; massages, facials, body wraps, etc. and the prices are comparable to other cruise lines and land spas. There is also a salon for hair and nails.
Our stateroom (ocean view) was about standard in size with a small loveseat for extra seating and a desk/vanity with small drawers. Clothing storage was adequate and since you need less clothing in Hawaii and no formal wear due to "freestyle" dining, we had plenty of space. Our room steward was exceptional.
NCL boasts Freestyle Dining. That means there is no assigned table seating. You can eat anywhere you want to, anytime you want to as long as it is within the time allotted for that particular dining area. There are no formal nights and the dress code is more casual. For this Hawaiian cruise it suited the passengers and itinerary well. Personally, I prefer traditional cruise dining (assigned table and seating specification) since it allows one waiter and asst. waiter to get to know you and your dining preferences. It's a personal choice and many passengers prefer free-style.
We had a bad experience with this concept. The first night we went to dinner in the main dining room. It was around 8:00 p.m. and the dining room was fairly empty. There were four of us, each ordering a different entree. The food was served lukewarm at best and there was no attempt by any waiter to rectify the problem. Since the ship is US registered, most of the staff are American and frankly, do not have a customer service mentality. They tended to talk among themselves rather than refill drinks or see if we needed anything. My husband and I tried the dining room once more during lunch with similar results. It was the last meal we had in the main dining room.
The Pride of Aloha has three specialty restaurants; Le Bistro, a primo French Restaurant; Kahili - an Italian restaurant, and Pacific Heights - specializing in pacific rim cuisine and sushi. Reservations are required and each has a service charge of $10pp. However if you reserve a table before 6:00 p.m the charge is only $5 pp. We dined in Le Bistro and Kahili most nights. The menus don't change, but there is enough diversity to satisfy almost anyone. The food and service was much better with Le Bistro being superior in both categories.
Buffets were actually pretty good with specialty stations (such as omelets or pasta stations)to augment the normal buffet fare. The fruit was exceptional. Of course NCL is famous for its Chocolate buffet, held one afternoon between 2-4 pm. Everything you can imagine made with chocolate - at least 5 extra pounds in one afternoon!
Ports of call were plentiful; Kona and Hilo on the Big Island; Nawiliwili, Kauai; Kahului, Maui and Honolulu, Oahu. Tours and excursions were plentiful and varied in price. We enjoy more physical and/or adventurous activities so we took the 22 mile bike ride down Haneakula at Maui and the Zip-line Adventure in Kauai. Both were loads of fun and I highly recommend them for those with a spirit of adventure. You have to accept the fact that everything costs a little more in Hawaii, but these tours were worth it. We also took a helicopter tour of the lava fields and active lava flow at Kona (truly awesome)and a beach day at a resort in Hilo. The ride through the lava fields was incredible. We learned so much about the islands - it isn't just resorts, surfing and shopping.
Entertainment was as expected, some good, some not so good and for any gamblers - there is no casino (due to US registration and proximity to the islands). There were several bars and lounges, an ice cream bar (no extra charge)and plenty of on-board activities.
My one real irritation was with the pre-purchased Anniversary packet. It included breakfast in bed one morning of your choice and two 20 minutes massages. We ordered our breakfast the night before to be delivered at 7:20 a.m. It was 45 minutes late, everything was cold and condiments were missing. Needless to say we went to the buffet. Our room steward complained to the hotel manager, but nothing was done about it. The massages were double billed to our account and it took 5 days to reverse the charges.
Most cruise lines today automatically post standard gratuities to your on-board account. ($10 pp per day to cover waiter, asst. waiter and room steward) We were informed after boarding that on this cruise that NCL would not post gratuities automatically to the shipboard account. I don't know why and we were not given an explanation. Instead there were forms to fill out to recognize specific personnel or groups of personnel (like dining room staff). The systemic was very chaotic, since most cruisers were used to either envelopes at the end of the cruise or auto-posting of tips. This was probably a one-time anomaly and future cruises will have the auto-posting of gratuities. NOTE: if you are uncomfortable with this system, you always have the option of going to the Purser's desk and opting out of auto-posting. Even if you decided to keep the gratuities on your account, there are always gratuity envelopes available to tip anyone not covered by the automatic posting. (Maitre-de, Head waiters, etc.) You can use these envelopes to augment the standard amount if you feel you have received exceptional service and want to recognize it with more money.
Debarkation was fairly smooth and the trip ended without any problems. First time cruisers need to know that the day before leaving the ship you will be provided with color coded luggage tags. You will place your luggage outside your cabin on the last night and it will be picked up during the night. (Hint: make sure you don't pack everything - you have to have clothes to wear off the ship.) The luggage tag colors correspond to the time of your flight with early flight passengers debarking first. Then passengers leave based on deck levels. On the morning of debarkation passengers are asked to leave their cabins and wait in common rooms (lounges, show rooms, etc.) It can be a little congested, and you may be waiting for an hour or more before you are called to leave, so take a book or have great companions to talk to. Once you leave the ship your luggage will be in the terminal based on the color of your tags. If you purchased transfers to the airport, take your bags to the waiting bus and off you go. There will be plenty of porters to help you move your bags from place to place.
The bus ride to the airport is short, but even the bus driver mentioned that all the complaints he heard about were the attitude of the American staff.
Bottom line - loved Hawaii and the tours we purchased. The ship had more pro than cons, but NCL needs to train their dining room staff in true customer service.