Sailed on the July 6, 2013 POA RT from Honolulu. Of course, Hawaii is the star, but don't believe the negatives: the POA is a fine way to see the islands and the service is no better or worse than any other cruise ship. I don't know what ship the haters are sailing. And you're in Hawaii, how can you lose?
Background: I have been cruising for about 20 years, usually every other year more recently. I leave DH at home and cruise with my extended family: parents, sis and her family, brother. Two previous NCL cruises, two previous Princess, one Celebrity and six RCCL.
Pre-cruise stay: Marriott Beach Club at Ko Olina. This is the same area where Disney's Aulani resort is located. (There are four lagoons at Ko Olina, Marriott has two, Disney has one, the third is not associated with any hotel. Of course, all beaches in Hawaii are public, but this indicates the location of the hotels. ) It is completely fabricated tourist area and I loved it. The rooms were huge with two bedrooms and a full size kitchen, and pricey pricey pricey. The walkways around the lagoon are completely paved, which was great for my wheelchair bound mother. Huge pools with waterslides and waterfalls. About a half hour drive to Pearl Harbor and/or Waikiki.
To the POA:
Boarding: Difficult to assess in general, because Mom was in a wheelchair and visibly recovering from an injury, so we went straight to the handicapped line and boarded. Loved the lei greeting and the photo with cast members from the Polynesia show. When we embarked, cruise director Chris Martin was roaming the boarding hall and introduced himself; that has not happened in my two previous cruises with NCL or any cruises with other lines.
Service: Like I said, I don't know about the haters. Everyone on the POA was friendly and helpful to us. Our cabin steward, Norma, introduced herself right away and immediately procured a shower chair and toilet riser seat upon request (mom and I shared a cabin). Staff members went out of their way to help us when they saw me struggling with a door or a wheelchair (the handicap door buttons are not well marked.)
On the other hand, my sister was in a suite and her butler, while friendly, did not keep the coffee supplies stocked. I have been in an NCL suite before and that is unusual. (it sounds like a silly thing, but when you are paying for a suite, a small thing to ask.) The concierge did provide priority tenders on Kona and the other perks associated with a concierge.
Dining room service was extraordinarily slow on two nights. One was the last night and understandable. The other night was at La Cucina, which was not crowded and where our appetizers took 40 minutes to arrive. We wanted to see an 8 p.m. show and left before dessert. He service was perfectly respectful, just S-L-O-W.
Since we were 8 people, we did make standing reservations at the Liberty dining room at 6 p.m. Our table, except for the last night, was always waiting and our waiter Rasheed was as attentive as any traditional dining waiters on my previous cruises.
Food: I am a vegetarian, so I will relate my dinner companions comments where appropriate.
Main Dining Rooms: The chef's specials were superb, usually fish and very tasty (swordfish, mahi mahi and snapper). The beef teriyaki on the last night was applauded, (as was the coconut souffl). The lamb and one of the steaks were gristly, I was told. For dessert, the sherberts were always fruity and tangy.
Buffet: I like buffets and I liked NCL's buffet. I was disappointed that they had fewer Asian Indian vegetarian (as in only one) option than I had previously seen on the Jewel or the Dawn, but the fruit salad of the day was great. And of course, pretzel rolls. If you're a Philadelphian, eat them with mustard. Almost like home. I believe the buffet was the only option for lunch. For breakfast, see if Modernos in the back of the ship is open, as the buffet is jammed with people trying to stuff themselves before heading out. You would think they were not going to eat for a week. I see this as a passenger issue, not a buffet issue.
Pineapple, even in the buffet, was a must, as it was off the ship. Pineapple in Pennsylvania, even from Wegmans, does not compare. And then there was white pineapple in Kona: more on that later.
Cabins: we were in 11512, port side forward. The cabins were usual cabins, small, plenty of storage space, a place to sleep. The pleasant surprise was the balcony: almost as big as the room, with two loungers and two chairs! I would guess this results from the cabins position between two suites, and that other cabins have smaller balconies.
Shows and activities: saw very few; I like the interactive not so newlywed and dancing with the NCL stars shows, and they were as funny as ever. Frankly, I would skip Aloha Polynesia, particularly if you are doing a luau. The luau will have the same show, with fire throwing guy (yeah, I know it's not Hawaiian, and I really don't care), which the ship does not do for obvious reasons.
If you can go to a lei making class, go. I flunked sewing in junior high, but I was able to make a lei. Great souvenir.
Ports: Maui. Day one, we took the ship's Maui Tropical Plantation and Iao Valley tour. Good half day tour for my mother. The plantation is pre-fab for tourists, but still shows coconuts, pineapples, plumeria, etc. in different growth stages. Iao Valley is lush and impressive, and if we had had more time, could have been interesting to walk around, but very small and crowded with tourists. My sister and her family did the Road to Hana through Valley Isle Excursions and were pleased.
Day two, Maui: used Roberts for a daytime visit to Haleakala. Big tour bus and pleasant driver; good alternative to ship's tour (we couldn't get ship's tour, sold out.) I was content to do the short, not at sunrise, version, and driving above the clouds was certainly inspiring. Also, they ain't kidding: it's cold and windy up there. Sis and her family biked from Haleakala at sunrise, again through Valley Isle. Again, smooth operation, no problem getting to or from ship on private excursions.
Hilo. For both Hilo and Kona, our entire group used Mary Lou's Big Island guided tours. If you would like reasonably priced, tailored to your interest guides, I highly recommend them. Ken, Mary Lou's DH, was our entertaining and informative guide for two days. Our first stop, Volcanoes National Park is a mind bender. The museum was interesting, but I could have skipped that. Do not miss the steam vents, however, with a blast of steam from the active volcanoes that is warmer than any spa. We also saw: Thurston lava tubes (basically a cave) drove through miles and miles of lava fields to an ocean lookout with an amazing view. If we had time (or if that is what you want to do), you can hike through a volcanic crater or two miles to Green Sand beach. Ken has led groups doing both.
After we left VNP, quick stop at the orchid farm (meh, we weren't interested and we left almost immediately, the perk of a private tour) Mauna Loa factory (can always buy more chocolate!) and then to the Rainbow Falls. We then stopped at a black sand beach fairly close to the ship with sea turtles munching calmly on algae among the swimmers. We also asked for local fast food and ate at L&L Drive Through, with rice, macaroni salad and fried fish adorning every plate. And Spam curry on the menu. Health food it wasn't, but it was filled with locals.
Kona: One of the highlights of the trip was standing at Two Step (Honaunau) Bay eating fresh white pineapple from the Kona farmers market after snorkeling for an hour. Neither of which we would have known about without Ken. The snorkeling at this bay is amazing, with hundreds of colorful fish and reefs. Ken showed us Luu Bay (Turtle Bay), but told us we would like Two Step better, and he was right. He also brought the white
pineapple, which can be eaten whole, even to the core. Indescribably good. We asked Ken to take us back to the farmers market when we were done so we could buy our own.
Ken stopped at the painted church (meh, it's a painted church) and by now, knowing us, advised us to skip the actual Place of Refuge park (sand, beach, ocean, can't swim it). Instead we visited Mauka Meadows. Never heard of this one either, but it was a real gem. Peaceful verdant gardens built along a hill where you walk down to a gorgeous infinity pool with a view of the ocean. We sat in a covered pavilion and tasted coffee brewed from beans grown in the gardens. Evidently it is maintained by a wealthy Japanese businessman for Japanese tourists, but we were the only visitors in the entire park. (the one employee we met was Japanese with limited English, but very gracious).
Lihue (Kauai). Spent both days at Kalapaki beach, a small beach tucked into a bay only a ten minute walk from the ship. I took paddleboard lessons from the Kauai Beach Boys located at the beach (five in our party with one instructor). The instructor was patient and helpful, but the seas were wavy and rough and I spent maybe a total of twenty seconds upright on the paddleboard. That was in no way the instructor's fault, and he had my sister and niece riding the waves on their paddleboards after an hour. I cannot imagine just renting the board and going out if you have never done this before: spend the money for instruction. We had lunch at Duke's at the Marriott on the beach, including the Hula Pie (basically a quart of ice cream pie), but the view of the beach was great and the shade greatly appreciated.
That evening we went to the Smith Family Luau. The food was really good for a buffet, but it is buffet food served at long tables with lots of people (made better by the open bar) Hawaiian musicians entertain you, including members of the Smith family. The grounds are lush and well manicured with plenty of strolling peacocks and wild Kauai chickens. The show is well, hokey, but that's a luau for you. And it did have the fire dancer guy.
The next day, one of the highlights: swimming with a sea turtle at Kalapaki! I was swimming by rocks by the shore when I saw one of the rocks move. Then the rock put its head out of the water. No more than three feet from me was a massive sea turtle. I was by myself, as no one was swimming by the rock (or amazingly, posing, as it is a popular spot for posing). I watched silently as he swam, found no algae on the rock, and swam away. Of course, no one can guarantee this kind of sighting, but it made my cruise.
Then the next highlight: the sail-by of the Napali Coast. Port side balcony is a must for this one; the ship does turn around and sail past on starboard, but the port side is leisurely and slow, whereas the starboard races by. And we saw the most amazing rainbow. Can't figure out how to post the photo here, but what an ending to the cruise!
Disembarkation was fine, but we waited until the last group as we had a 1:00 flight, so we had no crowds to contend with.
If you made it this far, congratulations. The POA is expensive, but worth every nickel. Go for it!