I sailed this ship with my husband and two young boys the week prior to Christmas. We had a fantastic time! My husband and I have visited Oahu before, so we only spent one night prior to the cruise in Waikiki Beach at the Hilton Hawaii. It was our second visit to this hotel and it has yet to disappoint. My kids loved the large swimming pool geared towards families. Of course, there is an even larger pool for all adults. And the beach is large and not too crowded. We arrived Friday night, just in time to catch the weekly fireworks display from our balcony. It was hard to leave the hotel on Saturday, but we couldn't wait to get to the ship.
We arrived to the ship about noon. First, you need to get in line to drop off your luggage. The line was long, but moved very fast. I had not pre-printed my luggage tags, but they created them for me with no delay. Then you get in line to go through security and to the main check-in. The wait to get through security took about 1/2 hour, but the wait to check in was pretty quick as they had a large number of employees on hand. Overall, the process was just under an hour, which was not bad given we were probably at the peak of the boarding process. Personally, I would have waited at the Hilton pool another 2 hours and likely faced a shorter check-in, but my family was anxious to get on board.
Once on board, it appeared all services were open to guests. We had lunch at the buffet, which was very busy (again, I would have had lunch prior to boarding the ship). Just as we finished eating lunch at about 2pm, they annournced that all state rooms were ready for guests to enter. That was fast, and much appreciated. Our luggage showed up within two hours of that (except one bag that somehow got lost and arrived about 7pm).
We had two balcony rooms, next door to each other. I found the room size to be plenty big enough, and was impressed with the closet space and the other nooks in the room that allowed us to easily put everything away and keep our rooms clean and organized ( and to give you perspective, I had to pay an excess weight charge on my bag with the airline, yet I had more than enough room in the closet!). And the beds are pretty tall, so there was plenty of room to store our suitcases under the beds.
We spent the rest of the day walking around and becoming familiar with the ship. There are two pools, side-by-side, on the main deck (one for kids), that are small and painted dark. There is another pool in the back of the ship - though small, it was never crowded. There is a tremendous amount of deck space for lounging, and there is a great basketball court that my boys loved. There is a spa that we never used, but looked nice. The gym is amazing with plenty of equipment that overlooked the ocean. It was very clean, and the view makes time on the dreadmill go by fast. And there is a kids club, which I will go into more detail.
We had great experiences at each port. We pre-arranged rental cars at Maui and Kaui. It was so simple to get a shuttle to the airport and pick up the cars. In fact, we took an excursion in Hilo (volcano tours), and while it was interesting, we wished we had our own car to move at our own pace. So we booked a car the morning we arrived in Kona and drove to a beach on the north shore. We never felt worried that we'd miss the ship. In Maui, we attempted the Road to Hana - the drive was not as challenging as we thought it would be, but I would recommend one of the many Ford Mustang's we saw vs. our Jeep Wrangler for better handling. We got a little bored of the mountainess scenery - I mistakenly thought we'd come by beaches along the way - and we were concerned that we'd need to drive back in the dark given the time of year, so we turned around half way. We ended up having lunch at Mamma's Beach House, while expensive, was one of the best seafood restaurants I have been to. We spent the rest of the day watching surfers at a local beach.
We are dinner on the ship each night. We are selective eaters, so we did not care for the dinners at the buffet and opted for the specialty restaurants most nights. East Meets West and Teppanyaki were our favorites The food was fantastic and the staff were very friendly. We ate at Jeffersons Bistro one night - my husband liked his dinner, mine was OK. Neither of us cared for the Italian restaurant. On our night in Kauai, we arrived at the ship too late to arrange dinner at a specialy restaurant, so we went to the Skyline restauarnt. Our server was so friendly and tried to steer us in the best menu selections. But I stubbornly made my own selection and wish I had followed his recommendation.
On our second night, we dropped our kids off at Kids Club (we all went to bed too early the first night for this). They had such a fantastic experience, that they happily went each remaining night of the cruise. I cannot say enough great things about this program. Each night had a different theme - one night was spy night, and the kids moved around the ship solving clues; another night was flash mob night - the kids dressed up in costume and broke out in a song and dance at different points on the ship, including the main stage. My kids still talk about Kids Club and they cannot wait to sail NCL again just for this! And my husband and I apprecaited the time for a quiet dinner and a drink overlooking the water. Complementary Kids Club is open until 10:30pm, but you can pay overtime until 1am. One night, we made the mistake of trying to pick up the boys at 9:30, and they made us come back at 10:30 once the activities were over :) They made so many friends that they would play with each afternoon at the pool. (on a side note, I never once worried about the safety of my kids on this ship - all seaside walls had plexiglass, and our balcony walls were tall enough that I felt safe with my 6 year old boys). Each night, we took turns bringing our boys to the buffet for dinner before Kids Club, but we discovered room service the last night and would recommend that path for convenience.
I have seen many posts about which side of the ship to book. We were port side, and I am glad we were. Both sides have their advantage. In Maui, the starboard side has the better view, which is beautiful. In Kauai, the port side has the advantage - and for my money, I thought the view in Kauai was better than that in Maui. And when we left port in Kauai, the port side had wonderful views of a number of Humpback whales and we had teh closer view of the Napali Coast. But I don't think you can go wrong either side. The most important thing is the vantage point you have, via ship, coming into any of these islands. You simply cannot have this view by plane. I am so grateful for each morning I had watching these amazing islands come into view while enjoying a cup of coffee!
Leaving the ship was easy. We were off the ship and at our airport gate within an hour.
Just a few other thoughts as you plan:
Things I wish I took with me: binoculars for whale watching; an insulated coffee mug - each morning I was up before the family and grabbed coffee at the buffet to bring back to the balcony, but those smally mugs were not large enough.
Things I'm glad I brought with me: my toiletry organizer - the bathroom space is a bit tight and it was nice to be able to hang this on the door hook; a pair of jeans - it got a little chilly in the evening in December.
Also, we had a full moon during our cruise. While I understand this is harder to plan around, it was amazing, when I would awake at 4am due to the time zone change, to sit out on the balcony and watch the ocean.
Hope you enjoy your cruise as we did!