Apologies in advance for the length of this review. I hadn't intended it to be so long, but the POA and Hawaii are a very different kind of cruise, and as I went on, I found there was a lot to say about both the ship, the crew, and the cruise. Hope you find it helpful if you're considering booking this cruise.
Just the two of us, late middle aged (she's 50's, I'm 60), active, and we enjoy doing our own thing when we travel. We aren't big “joiners”, and don't generally do tours or excursions unless it's something we feel can be best done that way. We are long time NCL cruisers, and have been on about two-thirds of the ships in the fleet. Our preference is for the smaller ships, with the Pearl being our favorite. We've had cruise experience on other lines as well, principally Royal and Carnival.
Flew into Honolulu a day before the cruise, both to get over jet lag, and to insure we didn't miss the cruise departure through travel problems. I'd *strongly* recommend doing at least this much, because the jet lag (we had a 5 hour time difference from our Dallas home) will really get to you, and I can't imagine trying to deal with it on the first night and day of the cruise.
We had deliberately decided to “do” a Waikiki beach-front hotel, so we splurged on the Outrigger Waikiki. Hotel was nice, with a reasonable view of the beach, and easy access to it. Waikiki, of course, was packed and very touristy - it's worth seeing once, but I don't think I'd stay there again.
A little different than other ports & embarkation procedures, but very efficiently run. We got to the pier about noon, and found it very uncrowded, presumably because the ship doesn't sail until 7 pm, and “all aboard” is at 6:30 pm.
There were no porters outside, which surprised us. You take your bags into the terminal, and after a check of your ticket & ID, you hand your bags off to a man at an xray machine. Then you get handed the usual health form, and go through another ticket and ID check, before you go through the usual magnetometer gate, and have your carry-on bags x-rayed.
At this point, since were sailing in a suite, we were directed to the separate suite check-in area. We were processed reasonably quickly, but then had to wait about 15 minutes as the ship was not yet open for boarding.
The general check-in area looked as if it was running very smoothly. There were quite a large number of individual check-in desks against the wall of the terminal, and then an area where guests were seated in groups (A, B, C, D) to wait for their group to be called for boarding. There was entertainment going on in this area while people waited.
After a short wait, our concierge came in and introduced himself, then took us in the first group onto the ship. We went to the Napa Wine bar outside Cagney's where the concierge asked us to have a seat. He then gave us a little talk about aspects of NCL's suite life, presumably for those who were first-timers in a suite. He introduced us to the shore excursion director, as well as to a woman who booked specialty restaurants, and told us to contact them if we needed help in those areas. This put us off a bit, since he made it sound like he didn't want to be bothered with those things, and that's very different from the way the concierge works on other NCL suite cruises that we've been on. This was our first taste of the “different” service on POA...but see my comments on this later in the review.
Once the concierge had made his presentation, we were free to go into Cagney's for lunch. After lunch we roamed the ship a bit, but the cabins on decks 11 to 13 were announced as ready very soon after, and we headed to our cabin at about 1:30 pm.
By the way, our bags showed up outside our door at 2:00 pm! We were surprised and very pleased to see them there...easily the earliest our bags had been delivered on any NCL cruise.
POA is a very different design from all of NCL's other ships. Outwardly, she's not classically pretty; like all recently built ships (POA was built in 2004/2005) she looks more like a floating office building than a graceful ship.
Inside, POA feels much more spacious and open than other NCL ships. In particular, you notice that the cabin deck hallways are wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The main deck public areas (on decks 5 and 6) are also very open and decorated in a style that feels more “formal.” In that sense, it almost feels like a throwback to the days of big liners criss-crossing the world's oceans. We both liked it very much.
On deck 6 there is an enormous and well-stocked library, something that most new ships don't have. It's a shame that this space probably doesn't get much use due to the nature of this cruise itinerary. If there were sea days on this cruise, the library would be a wonderful space to use. There is also a decent sized game room, which did see some use during the cruise. Finally, there's a tiny Internet room and a separate photo studio. I can't see the need for a portrait studio like this, and in fact I never saw it open or in use. There is a separate photo gallery on deck 5 where all the cruise photos are displayed.
As for connectivity, I can't imagine that they sell much wireless Internet service on this ship. Because you're in port so much, your phone will have pretty much constant connection, and if you have cell phone data for your laptop or tablet, that will work fine too. I normally buy a package of minutes through the ship for most cruises, but saw no need to do so on this cruise. We were only ever really out of connection range on the overnights between the islands.
The theater is unusually small for a modern ship. It has only one level, on deck 5, with no balconies on the deck above. The space where the balconies would have been on deck 6 is occupied by a “cabaret” space, with a bar and dance floor.
All the restaurants are clustered in the aft end of the ship. The two MDR's are stacked one on top of the other; Skyline MDR on deck 5, and Liberty MDR on deck 6 above. Because of the layout of Cagney's and the Cadillac Diner, you can't walk down deck 6 to get to the Liberty MDR, unless you go outside onto the Promenade deck. To access the Liberty MDR from inside, you either go down to deck 5 and walk the length of the art gallery and then back up a flight of steps (there's also a flight of steps inside the Skyline MDR), or you use the aft elevators to go directly down to deck 6.
As mentioned, Cagney's steakhouse, and the Cadillac Diner (“comfort food”) occupy the width of deck 6 just aft of the midships elevators. Below them on deck 5 are the Asian restaurants, and the Jefferson Bistro.
The buffet, Italian and Churrascaria restaurants are all at the aft end of the ship on Deck 11. The buffet is considerably smaller than those on other NCL ships. There is an outdoor eating area extending off the back of the buffet and as small kid's buffet and eating area. Bars are scattered throughout the ship, and they all seemed to be large and pleasant.
This ship has a huge fitness center, easily one of the biggest I've seen on the NCL ships we've been on. It's extremely well equipped with treadmills, ellipticals, and weight machines, but sadly, only one rowing machine. My wife made use of the spa, on Deck 12 with the fitness center, and said it was very nice, although a little difficult to find.
The promenade deck is very nice, wide and open, and circles the whole ship. The turn at the bow is, of course, inside the ship's hull, but the turn at the stern is very open, without the usual chest high metal bulkhead, just a normal railing. Because most of the ships balcony cabins are recessed behind the line of lifeboats, the promenade deck is very sunny, and very windy.
There are two pools and several hot tubs on the smallish pool deck (deck 11). It feels very crowded because there's a bar, another juice bar, and a performance stage sharing the same space. The ship does have a *lot* of sun deck space, though, on decks, 12, 13, and 14. The huge sun deck on deck 14 forward is a great place to go for the cruise-by of the Na Pali coast.
This ship has the most restrictive smoking policy of any NCL ship we've been on. As non-smokers, we think it's great, but I'm sure smokers don't much like it. The staterooms and public spaces on the ship are all non-smoking, and this includes the new electronic vapor cigarettes. You can smoke cigarettes and electronic cigarettes on the balcony of your stateroom. Cigar & Pipe smoking is permitted only at the open air Waikiki Bar on deck 13, and even then, not around food or sports areas.
The Crew & the Service:
There's been a lot of discussion on these boards about the crew on the POA, and whether or not the service is as good as on other NCL ships.
Here's the lowdown on the crew, given to me by the ship's Latitudes director. According to her, 75% of the crew are required to be either U.S. Citizens or hold valid U.S. Green Cards (work permits for foreign nationals). I'm assuming that means that the remaining 25% can be foreign nationals, although it's not clear to me how they work on the ship without a “Green Card.”
This results in some humorous moments. Those members of the crew who don't appear to be “American”, or don't speak with an “American” accent, are obviously instructed to tell you where in the U.S. they are from. Thus, our MDR waitress one night, who spoke English with a definite accent, introduced herself as “Georgia, and I'm from Atlanta. So I'm Georgia from Georgia.” I'd say her heritage was probably Filipino. Our cabin steward, who's ancestry is from Guam, did the same thing.
So, is the service on the POA different than on other NCL ships? Yes. Is it worse? No, it's just different. Thinking about this, I realized that it's because the service on the POA is more like what you would encounter in hotels and restaurants in the U.S. It has that typical, American, never-met-a-stranger, open, friendly feeling...the “we're all buddies here” feeling, as opposed to the “You're the guest and I'm here to be of service to you” feeling. I don't think this is a bad thing, it's just that it's not what you get on other cruise ships, and because it's different than the other ships, it does make it stand out.
The Shows & Entertainment:
Here's where my review becomes “non-traditional,” because we're not traditional cruisers when it comes to shows & entertainment. We simply don't care to go to the shows on our cruises, having sampled a few on our earlier cruises, and having found them all to be about the same. I'm sure this applies to the POA as well. The shows seemed to follow the usual pattern, and I'm sure they're all just fine.
Because of the nature of this cruise, you're really only on board for breakfast and some dinners. As suite passengers, we were entitled to the Cagney's breakfast and lunch options, and made full use of at least the breakfast option. We only ate lunch at Cagney's twice, on embarkation day and on the last day, leaving Kauai - the rest of our lunches were on land in the various islands. In any case those two meals at Cagney's are always excellent. About the only thing that disappoints is that the Cagney's lunch menu hasn't changed all that much in the years we've been cruising NCL, and it never changes during a cruise. NCL could do better in that regard.
We ate one dinner in the Liberty MDR, early in the cruise. It confirmed our feeling that NCL's MDR food service has gone downhill a bit in the past few years. The food was ok, but nothing outstanding and definitely not as good as it used to be. Seating was fast, and the service was reasonably quick and efficient. I did notice on most nights the line for the Skyline MDR would form early, often way before the MDR was scheduled to open.
We had one dinner and one breakfast in the buffet. Both were adequate, with breakfast being the better meal. We were surprised at the small size of the buffet, and the relative lack of options for dinner. For instance, I'll usually sample the Asian or Indian food on the ships buffets, as it's usually fairly good. In this case, there were only 3 dishes in that food section, one Indian, one Thai, and one Chinese. They were, at best, fair. Even the usually reliable pizza was a disappointment, although the burgers were adequate, with several varieties including a veggie option.
We ate two dinners at Cagney's, and they continue to do an excellent job. The recent upgrade in the cuts of meat they use has resulted in a much tastier and tender steak. We also ate a dinner each in La Cucina and East meets West, courtesy of our NCL Latitudes status. We felt the food in those restaurants was good, although not on par with Cagney's.
Overall, we felt the food was acceptable, but, aside from Cagney's, nothing to write home about. We definitely have the feeling that NCL has made some cuts in quality and variety in their food service over the years we've been cruising with them, and it shows.
Cabin & Cabin Service:
Wonderful, but we expected that, having decided to pay for an Owner's Suite on this cruise. The cabin (12502 on the port side of the ship, towards the bow), was possibly the largest and most comfortable owners suite we have ever been in - not that we do that often, as we generally cruise in Penthouses.
One of the nice things about this cabin and it's location is that there is virtually no traffic down the hallway outside the cabin. It's a dead end hallway that goes towards the Ship's bridge, and there are only a few other cabins in the hallway. We heard nothing from the hallway, and almost nothing from the cabins above or below, other than the occasional screetch of a chair being dragged across the balconies above us. There was, however, a lot of plumbing noise in the bathroom wall, presumably from the suites above on Deck 13, which were added during the 2013 refit of the ship.
It could be argued that this is not the cruise take in a large suite. Since there are no sea days, and since you're probably going to be off the ship almost all day, every day, you're really only in the suite at night. We did enjoy having the space to relax in, and the luxury of the huge balcony with our own hot tub..that was truly wonderful when we'd come back after a long day ashore. Also, as a port side cabin, we had an excellent view of the Na Pali coast cruise-by. We would not have been able to see any night time volcanic activity from our balcony on the sail around from Hilo to Kona (the island is to starboard on this sail-by), but there was no activity at the time of our cruise and the ship did not sail that route..they went north around the island.
This brings me back to the question of the level of service on this ship. We have long felt that NCL's “Suite Life” was one of the best in the mid-line cruising industry. On all of NCL's other ships that we've been on, we've had wonderful treatment from our Concierge and Butler...constant check-ins to see if we needed anything, offers of information about the ports and options in them, and so on. This was not the case on the POA, and at first (as I mentioned earlier) we were somewhat put off by it.
I will say that over the course of the cruise, I had occasion to deal with our concierge a few more times, and things did improve with him from our initial meeting at the start of the cruise. When I called him for some dinner reservations, he quickly took care of them himself, which is what I would have expected. He also was quick to explain and provide priority tendering at Kona, and a quick and efficient escort to the head of the check out line at the end of the cruise. We also often saw the concierge in Cagney's in the morning, which is normal for most ships. However, the relationship didn't have the same feeling that we've had with other concierge staff on other ships. This maybe a cultural thing, or it might just be this particular concierge.
The Butler did a good job, and was pleasant enough when we saw him, but we only saw him if we happened to be in the cabin when he came to deliver something. He was quick to respond to a request for more Lavazza supplies, but then seemed to ignore that part of his job after that request at the start of the cruise. It came down to a sum of little things like that - for instance, the fruit bowl: On other ships, the butlers have always kept this bowl constantly supplied with fresh fruit, which we enjoy. On this ship, we had to ask to have the bowl replenished, and then it was just some fruit left shrink-wrapped on the Lavazza counter. None of this is awful, but it's definitely not up to the standards of NCL “Suite Life” that we've experienced on other ships.
Ports and Excursions:
What can you say? You're in Hawaii, how could that be bad? We took no excursions, either through the ship or other operators, except on disembarkation day in Honolulu. We rented a car in every port, and it was quick and mostly easy everywhere. I've posted a port by port summary of the rental car experience on the Hawaii ports of call board.
Our goal was to really use the cruise to get a feel for each of the islands we visited, and we did that with sightseeing. We didn't spend much beach time on this cruise, because there's so much to see on the islands, and the water was generally chilly as you'd expect in the “winter” months.
We did do the Smith's Family Luau (booked directly with them online) in Kauai, and enjoyed it. Food was good, drinks were strong and free, and the show was good with a wide range of Polynesian dances demonstrated. Something everyone should do once, right?
Quick & efficient. We'd left our bags in the hallway the night before, as is normal. After a last breakfast in Cagney's we met our concierge on Deck 5, and he took us straight to the head of the check-out line, swiped our cards, and we were off the ship. Of course, there's no Customs and Immigration procedures to go through, and our bags were waiting down in the terminal.
Since our flight did not leave until 6:00 pm that evening, we'd booked the “Pearl Harbor and City Tour” through Roberts. This had the advantage of getting us to Pearl Harbor, a bit of sightseeing around the city, and our bags rode on the bus with us, with a drop off at the airport at the end.
Our driver, “V” was a nice guy, with a good line of talk on the tour and lots of information. Including us, there were 18 people on the bus, and V already had our Arizona Memorial tickets with him when he picked us up at 9:00 am. They were for a 10:45 am Memorial tour, so we headed straight to Pearl Harbor. We were very lucky in that our 10:45 am shuttle out to the Memorial turned out to be the last one for the day - the weather was windy and the water getting rougher, and the Navy decreed that shuttle boat operations would cease after our trip.
The rest of the tour was fairly generic, with stops at the Iolani palace & King Kamehameha statue, a a tour through the Punchbowl national cemetery, a buzz through Waikiki, and, after all the hotel drop-offs, a short drive around the Diamond Head area and through the high rent district on the north shore.
We were at the airport by 3:30 pm, which fine for our 6:00 pm, flight, except that the flight was now delayed until 10:30 pm! That was about the only negative from the whole trip, but we managed to get onto an earlier flight so it all worked out.
All in all, we'd recommend the POA Hawaii cruise as a great way to get a taste of the islands. We weren't at all disappointed, and we're both ready to go back, although we won't do the cruise again. Now that we've seen the islands, we'll pick one and go back and stay at that island for a while. We've already got a list of the things we didn't get to do or see for each island, and we're already wishing we were back!