We are a married couple in our early 60s, veteran cruisers, and partial to HAL. This was our longest cruise, although we have enjoyed two trans-atlantic cruises. We left Maryland a day ahead and flew to LA. We stayed at the Comfort Inn Cockatoo in Hawthorne (review on Trip Advisor). After unpacking a little, we ate dinner at El Pollo Loco and walked to find a grocery store. We finally found a large strip mall and bought Cokes and a few misc. items for the cruise. The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel, walked to the strip mall again for some exercise, and got the shuttle ($34/2, Super Shuttle) to the ship.
We boarded the “Volendam” around noon and found our room: Lower Promenade deck (3410). Our ocean view room was more a promenade view, and while no one could see inside our cabin, it was disappointing to have to look past the walkers to see the ocean. We had booked a guarantee, so this is the risk we took, but I would not want this deck again. Furthermore, the lights were always on outside our window. Our room did not have a refrigerator, but we appreciated the lighted magnifying/regular mirror on the desk, the good hair dryer in the drawer (along with the dryer in the bathroom), and the tiled bathtub!! This ship has self-serve laundry with free laundry detergent. The ship printed The New York Times digest daily (plus Canadian and Australian versions); copies were available at the buffet and in the library. However, ask at the front desk, and they will deliver it to your stateroom.
For the first 48 hours, we were served our food, a policy we appreciate on HAL. The MDR was not open on embarkation day, but the buffet was an excellent option (free sushi bar). We ate there almost every day, but we would check the MDR’s lunch options before going. We were assigned AnyTime dining and were pleased with the flexibility of eating when we liked and at how large a table. If we wanted to eat with friends, we could make a reservation. On a 21-day cruise, we enjoyed meeting so many different people, as opposed to eating with the same people nightly. The food was superb in the main dining room, and while I never requested the vegetarian menu I had read was available, every night’s menu had several vegetarian options. We were not as impressed with the service; the waiters seemed continually rushed, and we rarely had our water or iced tea glasses refilled without repeated requests.
We tried the Caneletto one night ($10 charge); the food was excellent and the service outstanding. Outdoor afternoon food could be had by the pool: assorted Mexican offerings, delicious guacamole, and pizza. At 10:30pm, a themed buffet opened in the Lido. You can check out the menu in the afternoon. Cookies seemed to always be available, but the ice cream is dished up, not self-serve, so it was available only at meal times. Be sure to read the daily program, for an occasional specialty lunch was served on deck. The tropical fruit buffet was spectacular, with many unusual fruits as well as fresh coconuts carved open upon request. The shrimp bbq was also amazing. But we knew some people who missed these, as they were not announced anywhere but in the program.
Ship activities were standard – but definitely enjoyable - fare, although one thing I had not seen before was “Good Morning, Volendam,” a live talk show with the cruise director and the culinary director. They bantered and always had a guest on. The ship provided a bridge director, a Protestant minister (who conducted Bible studies each sea day, a very welcomed activity and, again, one we‘d never seen before), a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi (who left in Hawaii). Craft lessons, cooking demos, computer classes (go early to get a computer!!), and Dancing With the Stars at sea offered more opportunities to stay busy. Trivia games were so well-attended, we had to arrive well in advance to secure seats for our group and be near enough to the cruise director to hear the questions. HAL’s libraries are well-known for their excellence. The coffee bar (coffee drinks are priced reasonably; desserts and snacks are free) is right there, so be prepared to be tempted. The gym has the standard equipment and classes. Unfortunately, there is no running track, and signs prohibit jogging on the Promenade deck. We made do with a circuit on the sports deck, although it necessitated about fifty times around to equal a mile! Movies are shown daily in the theater (free popcorn runs out early), and if you miss one, it will be shown on the TV the next day. Hundreds of DVDs are available for in-room use; call the desk to have them delivered, or pick one up yourself (much quicker). The King Neptune ceremony to initiate those who had never crossed the equator was great fun.
The lecturers are always good on HAL. We sailed with Destination Expert Ian before, and he had informative lectures on the ports with excellent tips for the do-it-yourselfer (a separate excursion woman had lectures on the ship’s offerings); he is funny, and his travel trivia is not to be missed. The oceanographer and astronomer were especially good; the Iranian refugee not so much.
The evening entertainment is, again, standard fare. Some shows were great, even worth going to the second showing; others, so-so. Shows included a classical pianist, a harmonica player who played with an orchestra and was amazing, a ventriloquist with a Jamaican “dummy” (hilarious; best show of the trip), plenty of singing & dancing, two crew shows, a comedian, and Polynesian dancers from shore. Around the ship, various venues offered classical music (oh, I never saw free chocolates in the Explorers Lounge), a piano bar (very popular), and dancing opportunities.
We had seven port stops. The first was Hilo. We watched the ship come in, and Hawaiian dancers were on our bow to sing a welcome chant and dance the hula; we received leis as we disembarked – a very nice touch. The federal gov’t was shut down, so our plans to hike in the VNP were scuttled. We had rented a car ($40) beforehand from Budget. A shuttle came right to the pier, and it didn’t take long to get the car. We drove to Punalu'u black sand beach, walked the beach, enjoyed the sea turtles, and ate a lunch we had brought (a small food truck there does serve some food). We drove back to Hilo and continued north to see Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots. We found Onomea Dr. for some stunning views and continued our drive along the coast. Back in town, we cruised along Banyan Dr. and walked through the Queen Lilio. Gardens before turning in the car
The next day we docked in Honolulu for a long day (11pm) ashore. We booked a car here, too (Thrifty, $40), and while we found the shuttle quickly, it wasn’t long before we knew we’d made the mistake of getting the car at the airport. We had a long drive and hit terrible traffic. Once on our way, we hiked up Diamond Head ($5/car, hot and humid in mid-October, but we were rewarded with beautiful views) and then began our Oahu Circle driving tour: Hanauma bay ($1 to park, $7.50 to swim); Halona blow hole; hiked to the overlook of the lighthouse at Makapuu Pt (hot, humid, and – really - too long a walk on asphalt for the view); Macadamia Nut Complex (fantastic stop with myriad tasting stations: coffee, plain and flavored macadamia nuts, sauces, etc; outside, we approached a huge bin of macadamia nuts in the shell and could crack as many as we wanted, using their tree stumps and rocks); Kualoa Park (Chinaman’s Hat) where we walked the beach and marveled at the Koolau Mts. on the other side; Sunset Beach; and the Dole Plantation (get the pineapple whip, and stroll through their gardens)before returning the car. The ship had an expansive Hawaiian BBQ on deck, and after that, we went into town to walk around Chinatown and downtown (Iolani Palace and Capitol). It might be easy enough to get the bus to Waikiki, but we were led astray and finally gave up and went back to the ship and watched local Polynesian dancers for the evening show.
A few more sea days, and then we arrived in Pago Pago. Again, owing to the federal gov’t shut-down, our plans to hike in the national park were stymied, so we chose instead to hunt for an internet café. We discovered McDonald's no longer offers it even though your device will show a McDonald network; the public library (a good walk to the left of the ship) charges $5 for all day; but one intrepid woman from our ship found the telecommunications building, and they magically turned on public access, and we used it for free at the market place (easy, short walk right from the ship). We returned to the ship to get snorkeling equipment, walked to the local bus depot, and went to Tisa's Barefoot Bar ($2 each, one way bus; $5 each entry; review on Trip Advisor). The water was warm, and the fish were abundant. We snorkeled an hour or so, and it started to storm, nixing plans to see more of the island on the bus or just walk around. It absolutely poured on the bus ride back, and the driver must have taken pity on us and took us right to the ship instead of the depot, and we got drenched getting on board. The storm continued well into the night, with the promenade deck closed and pools emptied.
Suva, Fiji, was next. We enjoyed the pretty entrance into harbor, and a local native band played as we arrived. With another couple, we got a local taxi driver to take us to Colo-I-Suva Forest Park for $20 each, with him explaining he would show us some sights on the way and wait two hours for us at the rainforest. After having a local guide explain the map to us and tell us the key turns to take on the trail, we enjoyed a beautiful hike past 8 pools and small water falls. The last pool had a rope swing, and we saw several plunging into the very cold water! We took our time with the hike, spending almost 2 hours returning the way we came, although a shorter exit route is available. Our driver stopped at Raintree Lodge for some reason (hoping we’d buy something?) and then tried to get us to stay with him until 4pm. None of us wanted to. He dropped us at the ship, whereupon he told us we owed him another $40 for the extra hour! The other couple with us, having no more money, stood their ground, but – annoyed - we finally gave the cabbie our remaining $10. We changed, ate lunch, and went back out, finding free wifi right by the ship (outside a café providing internet)! We walked then to Thurston Gardens (don’t expect gardens, per se; this is more like a city park) and back into town for some stores (it was Sunday, so most were closed). A Fiji marching band thoroughly entertained us as the ship prepared to leave.
Our plan in Pt. Vila, Vanatua, was to snorkel at Hideaway Island, but getting there proved a test of our patience. With another couple, we tried to get a taxi to Hideaway Island. It is a 5km walk into town, so we were at the mercy of aggressive, loud, and ultimately lying taxi drivers. We finally found a driver to take us, for $5 US each, to the town and insisted he let us off there. We then got a $3US/pp bus (privately owned, red "B" on license plate) to Hideaway Island. It was low tide, so we walked to the small picturesque island and paid 1250 vt (credit card; $15 AU) to use the island. The island has a restaurant, bungalows for longer stays, restrooms, a 650vt hamburger BBQ, coral beach, and beautiful water. We snorkeled and marveled at the number of fish (including a huge school of fish), saw some live coral, and the underwater post office! We laid in the sun for awhile, walked around the island and enjoyed the tidal pools, and took their boat back to shore where we paid $5US to get back to the ship. On ship days, many, many tents line the walkway from the pier, so we wandered through those.
Lifou, New Caledonia, was a very welcomed respite from the madhouse we encountered in Pt. Vila. This is a laid-back, relatively unspoiled S. Pacific island. After tendering in, a small singing group met us at the jetty. We probably could have hired a driver at the pier, but no one was hawking their services, and we hadn’t planned on it anyway. We walked to Jinek Bay ($15 each to snorkel) which is stunningly beautiful. We didn’t pay to snorkel, but nothing prevented us from surveying the water and reef without walking the stairs to the entry point. The grounds are pretty, and we stayed in the shade for a while, gaping at the water! From there, we walked the hill to the church. It gets steep, but the views are impressive, and the small church is open. We walked back toward the ship and further on to a larger church and cemetery, spotting grass huts along the way. We walked a good deal further, but there’s really nothing to see, so we walked to the jetty and wandered the small market there. After lunch on the ship, we went back, and I enjoyed Easo Beach (right by the jetty) while my husband snorkeled (look for sea turtles). As with every island we have seen, the water is unbelievably beautiful.
Last port stop was Noumea, New Caledonia. Dancers with drums greeted us. We needed an ATM (no US or AU dollars accepted), and one was just a few blocks away. While our plan had been to walk the entire way from the ship to Baie des Citrons and catch the water taxi to Duck Island, we ended up buying (500 cpf) cruise ship hop on-hop off (11 stops) bus tickets, walked to the Morning Market for fruit, and caught the bus to the first bay along our walking path. We walked along the marina in clouds and rain showers to Anse Vata, got (for 1250 cpf, each, r/t) water taxi to Duck Island, fearing we'd not be able to get in the water. But the sun came out! Duck Island is beautiful with walkways, bath houses, covered tables, landscaping, and a restaurant. The water was so cold, but we persevered for the best coral we've ever seen and for quite varied fish. We sunned a bit and walked around the island, watching wind surfers. Water taxi back, ho-ho bus back to ship. After changing clothes, we took the iPad and phone to the internet café right off the ship. Even paying for connectivity, we got none (too many people trying), so we walked around the town a bit, enjoyed the promenade, Chinatown, and Latin Quarter and then saw a McDonald's. A $3.50 Coke later, we quickly contacted family members. We were among the last ones to get on board. Local dancers and drummers were entertaining the ship again, and as we stopped to watch, the girls grabbed three of us to dance with them!!
The next day we docked in Sydney, which was the end of the cruise for us. Be sure to get up early to see the entry into Sydney Harbor. It is magical!! We were off the ship by 8:30 (we enjoyed having a last breakfast on board and staying in our room until our number/color were called), breezed through customs, and got a taxi to our hotel. We stayed in the Meriton Serviced Apartments on Kent St., very close to Darling Harbor, Hyde Park, and Chinatown. The taxi fare said $14.50, but we were told $20 – perhaps some extra fee is involved from Circular Quay? Had we not had so much luggage, it would have been easy to catch the train or a bus; the transportation hub is right there.
We enjoyed this trip thoroughly, continue to be impressed with HAL, and the days flew by. We spent three days in Sydney and then flew to Melbourne for ten days. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them.