Background: I'm 52, have cruised about twenty-five times (Celebrity, RCL, Holland America, Princess, NCL)and ended up sailing solo on this cruise.
I was somewhat hesitant about this cruise after reading the mixed reviews. I'm also grateful for many of the tips, and hope to share my own. I'm happy to report that I had a very good experience. Yes, there are some frayed edges, but overall it was a terrific experience. Highlights: * great itinerary * friendly staff * very good food * attractive cabin (inside) complete with coffee maker and mini-fridge * large and well-equipped fitness center * embarkation and disembarkation process
Lowlights: * entertainment * constant pushing of paid entertainment * limited room service menu, long delivery time * inconsistent service
SHIP OVERALL: Great public rooms, especially the large library. Too bad that they made the forward space on the top deck into a conference room rather than a bar. It was unused my cruise. I would have appreciated some lounge chairs on the promenade deck.
embarkation/disembarkation: A snap! As noted in other reviews, there was no flair or much of a greeting. Once on board, I had to keep asking directions towards an elevator.
CABIN: I had an inside cabin on Deck 11. It was compact but thoughtfully designed with plenty of space. Bedding seemed better than average. I loved the coffee maker and mini-fridge. My cabin steward, Eston from the Virgin Islands, was gracious and attentive. Note that you need to adjust the color wheel in front of your door to indicate if you want the cabin serviced, no disturbance, etc.
FOOD: This was my first experience of "freestyle" dining. While I missed the spirit of the set table and week-long service by the same staff, I enjoyed the opportunity to dine in different venues. It is a different sort of cruise. Enjoy and explore! Even though tipping is automatic, I left a couple of dollars every time I ate in a sit down, non supplemental restaurant. Those that charge a supplement also have a space for tipping.
Aloha Cafe: The buffet, located on deck 11, had a good assortment of very tasty food. Use the aft outdoor deck for more tranquil dining.It is a great spot to enjoy dessert and coffee after dinner. A plus-- the high-tech espresso/latte/cappuccino machines that grind and brew the coffee at the push of a button. The best coffee on the high seas, and free! Also great-- the pizza! Minus: No trays, so managing silverware, plates, glassware could be tricky, especially as you need to wander from food island to food island to pick up various items. I had no real problem, but I think for older folks or families with small children it would be an issue. I never saw any staff ask to help anyone out, as is the custom on other lines. Cute idea: a kiddie area with lower buffet and tiny chairs and tables.
I noted that often at dinner they served many of the same dishes here that were featured in the main dining rooms.
Skyline/Liberty: These two main dining rooms are on the 5th and 6th decks. I ate dinner in each one once, and walked in both nights without a reservation. The food was very good (especially desserts.) The service the first night was slower, so I mentioned my desire to see the show the second night and my server made sure the courses followed promptly. There wasn't any follow up, asking how I was enjoying my meal, nor did I ever encounter a maitre d'hotel, unlike other ships where they always seem to be circling and enquiring.
Jefferson Bistro: I ate here the first night when the supplement is $7.50 vs the usual $15. It is a nice space, and the servers were friendly but the service was very slow and the food wasn't extraordinary. It took an hour and a half, and I was dining alone! The experience is nothing like the finer dining restaurants on Celebrity or Holland America.
Little Italy: This is a no-supplement venue, so book it ASAP. The servers were great, the food delicious. I recommend the lasagna and the "zuppa inglese" for dessert.
Cadillac Diner: This burgers and fries spot was great for lunch on day. Service was spotty, but it was crowded. The warm brownie is terrific! It is the only spot open later in the evening.
There is also an open-air spot for burgers and fries near the pool on deck 12.
I did find it odd that there wasn't any place for a nibble or slice of pizza later in the evening, much less any midnight buffet the whole week. It was Cadillac Diner or room service. The one time I tried room service I was told that it would be 30-45 minutes-- for a brownie and cup of coffee! I cancelled my order.
ENTERTAINMENT: This is an area needing improvement. The theater is remarkable modest for such a new ship, with just one deck and a small stage. Two comedians performed on different nights; neither was very good. The musical troupe performed two nights. The singers and dancers were as talented as other ship casts, but the shows themselves were very simple. The other evenings, NCL pushed the paid entertainment: a show on board (only $25 but seems cheap to charge), a show in Maui and an NCL luau on Kauai (about $100). I spoke with folks who attended and enjoyed the luau, but it was packed with over 900 passengers. I would have preferred to book my own at another resort.
FITNESS: The facilities are superb, with large spaces, a wide range of equipment. It was never crowded. Classes were minimal, but then you have Hawaii to explore.
ITINERARY: This was spectacular in terms of island hopping. My most sublime moment: sailing away from Maui about 7 PM, with Maui on the left, Molokai on the right, Lanai just ahead and the sun setting. Spectacular!
EXCURSIONS: I have visited the various islands many times,so didn't need to "do" the big sights. Note: At the Honolulu pier, before you get to the NCL check-in, be sure to get the brochures from Roberts and Grayline and a booklet, "Cruise Visitors Guide". Here are helpful web-sites: hawaiicruiseguide.com GoRabbitGo.com (Roberts) GrayLineHawaii.com
The two tour operators have identical bus tours to those offered by NCL at about a third of the price. For example, the trip on Kauai to the Waimea Canyon is $49 thru NCL but just $15 on Grayline and $19 on Roberts, and they meet you at the pier alongside the NCL tour.
I rented a car for one day each on Maui and Kauai and it was a breeze through Dollar. I had joined their free club and my cars were waiting for me-- no lines!
Hilo: get a bouquet at the pier. For $10 you'll have an exotic bouquet that lasts all week. No need to order ahead of time. I paid at the counter as I walked through on my way out, and picked it up later that day just before I boarded the ship. I took the $1 bus into town and enjoyed a local community fair, and walked back to the ship after stopping for a swim.
Maui: I rented a car, drove down to Wailea for a swim, then reserved a 1 PM catamaran sail and snorkel for $45 through an ad in the car rental guide.
Kona: I took the beach bus to a terrific snorkel sight. $10 round trip or $20 if you need to rent snorkel equipment. The bus runs every half hour. The snorkel beach is about 5 miles away so a group could cab it cheaper.
Kauai: I rented a car one day, and explored some favorite sites on my own. I did a one hour tour flight ($99--airventureshawaii.com or 866-464-7864) the second morning--breathtaking! Free pickup and return to the ship. I still had plenty of time to head to the beach by the Marriott, about ten minutes walk or a free shuttle ride from the ship.
I hope it is clear that i had a very good experience. I do think that NCL needs to improve the supervision, as a number of staff are young and new. One server had just graduated from high school! Given that this is the only game in town, book it and enjoy it for what it is--a laid back cruise experience. And cruising the Hawaiian islands is a wonderful way to experience the islands!