Tropical Topicals - or How We Spent 11 Great Days on the Pride of Aloha December 1 -12, 2007
Our Travel Background: We have been on NCL/NCLA 3 times now, though this was our first on NCLA. This was our second trip on this itinerary, and third in Hawai'i, and number 11 overall. We have at least 2 more scheduled with NCL/NCLA. We traveled with my brother (hereafter DB) and sister-in-law (DSIL or is it DSiL??), both of whom have cruised before, though not to Hawai'i and not on NCL. They have both been to Hawai'i before as well. We booked with an agent I found on Cruise Compete, Jean Farmer. We got a great deal at the time of booking, and I never found a lower price in my on-line research over the six months from booking to departure. We did not get any up-sell offers.
Air Arrangements: We booked air ourselves through Delta. Again, I feel we got the best deal available as I checked regularly from purchase through departure. We flew Northwest to Hawai'i and Delta on the return. The return flight was special since they served a hot dinner soon after takeoff and a breakfast snack shortly before landing in Atlanta. All food/snacks were free, not for sale! We had a flashback to the way airlines used to treat passengers!!
Overall Impressions of the Ship: The ship is very pleasant overall, with lots of Hawaiian decor and artwork. It is easy to get around and has an intimate feel to it. The ship has a cultural exhibit area on deck 7 with very interesting displays, and a video that changes daily. Strongly recommend both. The crew was very friendly, and 99% per cent greeted you cheerfully when they passed you around the ship. All were very helpful when addressing any customer service issues. The ship rocked and rolled some, particularly on sea days to and from Fanning Island. We were not bothered by the motion and heard no reports of others that were. There are two pools and four hot tubs in the main pool area on Deck 11, with the usual poolside entertainment, bars etc. The duo that played throughout was quite good. There is also a splash pool and another hot tub on Deck 12. This is a great vantage point to sit and soak and watch the waves or islands. The best vantage point for docking or departing photo ops is on Deck 11 forward. You need to go through the Outrigger Lounge to get to this primo viewing space.
Our Cabin: We were in outside cabins on deck 8 forward, small, but very nice. Neither the smallest nor the largest outside cabin we have been in. The bed was very comfortable from the start, and we did not need to have any changes made. The room steward, Levinia, was first-rate. She was very responsive to our wishes, and generally invisible, which is good. The room was always clean and her turn down service left us with more chocolate mints than we could eat. She only made towel animals on request though.
Shipboard Issues we Encountered: Most issues were minor and are mentioned only in passing. ? We had a problem with the A/C when we first checked in. We called it in to the Reception desk and mentioned it to our room steward who also called it in. We left for a meal and when we returned there was a completed work order from the repair man and the A/C worked from then on. ? We also had a problem with hot water a couple days into the cruise. Again we called it in and the repair man was there within 30 minutes +/-. It was fixed in under 5 minutes. ? As reported in earlier CC reviews there is definitely a "smell" in the rear of the ship. IMO it is more like olde/backed up laundry water than sewage, though that distinction could be lost on some. Definitely not sweet smelling! The smell was evident on and off for most of the cruise. There was some discussion and more than a few noses were wrinkled but that was it. ? A personal gripe was that from the first day (December 1) the ship sound system played Christmas carols, and not Hawaiian music. I would have preferred more Hawaiian music or at least Hawaiian artists doing their Christmas repertoire. It was a bit like being in a suburban mall instead of on a cruise to Hawai'i. Lost track of the number of times we heard "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Grandma got Run Over..." I was rooting against Grandma after a few days! ? There was some wrong info in the Freestyle Daily. The sunrise times were "PM" versus "AM" for more than a week. The times for the restaurants were off for the sea days as well. I'll give more on that below. ? The dress code was not enforced at dinner in the two restaurants (Crossings and Palace) despite signs and notices. We always dressed up just a bit, pants and Aloha shirts for me. Shorts, tees etc. were let in apparently without regard to posted restrictions against. No flagrant examples such as bathing suits observed though.
Embarkation: This went very smoothly. Pride of Aloha (hereafter PoAl) was docked at Pier 10 near the Aloha Tower. Pride of America (PoAm) was at Pier 2. There was a very zealous NCL employee herding guests as we went through security to either VIP, Latitudes or regular check-in lines. This prevented my DB and DSIL from getting in line and processing with us. However, at least one of the couples in front of us in line was not Latitudes and they were still processed at the Latitudes window. All in all it took us 20-30 minutes tops from arrival to finish. Note, you or your driver need to make sure your luggage gets to a stevedore. Just a small but apparently critical procedural point, with you pointing out which bags are yours and making sure they are tagged for your cabin. We did and our luggage was to our cabin door about 90 minutes after we got there. We ate, explored the ship a bit and then got off and had a fun time shopping and taking pictures in the Aloha Tower Marketplace. For this I was glad that PoAl was at Pier 10 versus Pier 2.
Horror Story: The only really bad story we heard involved lost luggage. A couple we met did not receive theirs the first night or the next day. PoAl arrived in Hilo and docked a short way from PoAm which left Honolulu about 10 minutes ahead of us. When the couple's luggage was still not delivered and PoAl was less than an hour from sailing from Hilo (for 2 sea days, Fanning Island and 2 more sea days!!) they called Reception. They were told that their luggage had in fact been loaded on to PoAm the night before (thus my Note above). The luggage was sitting in the pier area adjacent to PoAm. And, though it was quite obviously NCLA's fault, a "policy" prevented NCLA from delivering the luggage to the couple's room. They had to scramble to get their luggage and work it through security.
Not So Much a Horror Story: While we boarding in Hilo, a passenger ahead of us had trouble when their passenger card was scanned by the local-hire security person aboard PoAl. The ship's security officer checked on the problem and discovered that the poor passenger was in fact supposed to be on the PoAm, one pier over! At this point we had been checked for photo ID and ship ID 3 times and no one had noticed that the passenger was in line for the wrong ship!!
Ground Transportation in Honolulu: Based on recommendations from CC forums I pre-booked us with VIP Transportation for Airport to Hotel and Hotel to Ship transfers. I was not that impressed with my choice. The VIP Trans. porter somehow missed us on arrival though we did eventually meet up near the baggage carousel. He was sure surly, and surely not filled with Aloha. We waited several minutes in the bus/van pickup area for a van to arrive and for us to get loaded (aboard the van). Still, at that point we were back in Hawai'i and happy to be there!! The trip to Waikiki took well over an hour. It was Friday evening (C)rush hour on Nimitz Highway and Ala Moana Blvd. Another Note, this traffic was not unusual, as every time we took this route during our trip it was veerrryyyy sllooowwww. Strongly suggest all allow 1 hour or more to get from Waikiki to Pier or to/from Airport. The VIP Trans. pick up on Saturday afternoon to go to the pier was about 20 minutes late, and again we got stuck in traffic on the way. The driver was a great guy though and we talked at length about Hawaiian music. In the future (yes we will definitely return) I will go back to using Charley's Taxi or TheCab for Airport to Hotel to Ship transfers in Honolulu.
Hotel in Honolulu: We stayed at the Embassy Suites both before and after the cruise and loved it. We had stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village the last several times. ES is a long couple blocks from HHV towards Diamond Head and therefore that much closer to the heart of Waikiki. It is new, the rooms are suites (obviously), it has a great pool/spa area on the fourth floor, a super breakfast buffet with made to order omelets, and good evening managers reception with wonderful local music that we love. There are great restaurants on the same block and at least 4 ABC stores within a coconut's throw of the hotel. The valet parking is steep at $25 per day, but there is unlimited in/out privileges. The front desk and bell staff are all great, and very customer friendly. They immediately make you feel welcome. Cautionary Note, there is construction (with the usual noise) of a Trump Tower underway across the street from ES which looks like it will block the view from one or both ES towers towards HHV.
And now the Weather (no Sports highlights tonight): This merits a separate topic because we were so fortunate on this trip. We experienced a bit of rain almost every day, usual for Hawai'i, especially in December. However, either before or after we arrived at every port, each island experienced record rainfalls! It had no effect on us or our trip though. After PoAl left Hawai'i for Fanning Island the islands were hit hard by rain, there was local flooding in a lot of places and some extended power outages. We heard stories that the PoAm had problems in Maui. Honolulu had extended power outages severe enough to cancel/delay the Pearl Harbor commemoration. When we returned to Hawaiian waters, the weather cleared up for the rest of the time we were there. The 11 days of the cruise were all mostly sunny, which the cruise director seemed to take personal responsibility for delivering. (I wonder what he does when it storms.) Kona, which usually gets under a foot of rain a year got 11 inches in 2 days just before we arrived. Then again we heard that Kona experienced a 3.9 earthquake after we left as well. So depending on your view we were either good or bad karma for the locals.
Meals: We ate all our evening meals in either the Palace or Crossings restaurants. The food was uniformly very good to great. It was perhaps the best food I have had on a cruise. My DB said that it was better than on his recent HAL cruise. There wasn't anything we ordered that we didn't like. The presentation of the food was near picture perfect. Since the meals were so good in these two restaurants and because we heard that the food in the specialty restaurants was not special, only good, we decided to stay with the Palace and the Crossings. Getting the food was an entirely different story. The service with few exceptions was glacierly slow. The wait staff were all pleasant and eager to please but.... the delivery process is broken down somewhere on PoAl and needs to be fixed in both restaurants. The last few days we finally found a waiter and assistant combo that IMO are what you should expect. Ask for Mercy and Sam in the Palace. They are pleasant, efficient, and knowledgeable. Tip (not to be confused with a Note), if you know when want to eat, make a reservation. There are many busy periods where the wait to get to the hostess is 20-30 minutes, and then you may have to wait longer to be seated. We ate nearly all breakfasts at either the Hukilau Lana'i or the Hukilau Cafe. The food in both was uniformly good to very good. There is a difference between the two restaurants though they are adjacent. The menus can vary and the hours are slightly different as well. The Lana'i has an omelet station and waffle station. Ice cream is available in both the Hukilau Cafe (extended hours) and the Pacific Heights ice cream bar (more limited hours). They usually have two very good flavors of scoop ice cream and soft serve in the Hukilau Cafe, plus toppings of course. Yet another Note, to follow up on my "issue" concerning the Freestyle Daily from above. On the first sea day, the FS said breakfast in the Crossings started at 7:00 AM. In fact the restaurant opened at 7:30 AM. When the manager(s) saw the crowd gathering at the door, they came out, apologized and explained the situation. A few minutes later they brought out coffee and pastries for all in line. And they opened up a few minutes early. Great customer service!
Excursions: We did not use any NCLA excursion. Because of our experience with traveling in Hawai'i we rented a car in every port (except Fanning Island) and explored on our own. I did reserve a car with Roberts GoRabbitGo in Hilo. I did so because it was cheaper than other rates. However,... there is no organization to the process there in Hilo. Roberts doesn't do anything but make a reservation for you. When I found a Roberts rep on the PoAl pier I was referred to a Hertz rep in the PoAm pier. When I found the Hertz rep, she gave me a number and told me where to wait for the shuttle. This wasn't very efficient at all. I rented from Budget in Kahului and Kaua'i, and Thrifty in Kona. Kona was the easiest because Thrifty (and Dollar) are in the King Kam hotel, about a 2 minute walk from the tender dock. Budget had shuttles that ran to the airports in Kahului and Kaua'i, and both worked well. I made all these decisions based on availability of shuttle service and rates. It turns out that despite calls to Budget's 800 numbers and local numbers that shuttle service was available in ports where the 800 Budget people on the phone said there was no shuttle service. In both Fanning Island and Kona we used tenders to go ashore. In both cases we were told to get tender tickets, but since we got going early on we never had to use tickets. Be aware that that might change depending on passenger volume and when you leave ship. We did not attend any port lectures except for one given on Fanning Island.
Ports: Honolulu: We climbed Diamond Head again and loved it more than ever. We took TheBus to and from. This meant a bit of extra walking though to/from the bus stops. Yes, another Note, since we went on a Saturday, the buses did not run as frequently as during the week, and it meant longer waits. We also went to the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, a favorite of ours. We drove though you can get there on TheBus. A free admission coupon is available in one of the small tourist coupon books. We also drove to the Dole Plantation and the North Shore. We had a shave ice at Matsumoto's which might have been the 2nd best we have ever had. (See my comments on Kahului below). We had dinner at Chai's Island Bistro in the Aloha Tower Marketplace. We went there for the music (Brothers Cazimero) but the food was great as well. Hilo: I followed the great advice of a wonderful CC poster who provided detailed directions of how to see the Puna district. (Warmest Mahalo to You for your advice!) We saw Lava Tree State Park, tidal pools and great views. We ate at a small roadside lunch stand before heading back towards Hilo. We did not walk across the lava beds to the black sand beach across from the luncheon stand though as we were full, could not see the beach, it was quite hot, etc. etc. Then we drove to Akaka Falls State Park. Since it was so late the falls were in shadow and the sun was in our eyes, so we didn't get any rainbow effect from the spray, but it was worth the trip. Fanning Island: We went ashore early, got our passports stamped, bought post cards, walked around English harbor side, saw the NCL school & children singing and dancing, shopped at the straw market and then settled down on the beach. We thought the beach facilities were better than those on any Caribbean "private island". We loved just sitting and soaking and eating and sitting some more. A serious Note, if you are so inclined, please check CC forums for lists of items needed by the people of Fanning Island. There is someone on every cruise taking supplies to the island or contact Reception aboard the ship. Kahului: We drove the road to Hana and enjoyed the beauty and every turn, bridge, and waterfall. Two calorie related recommendations: Try Half Way to Hana for a great shave ice. (We finally made it to Matsumoto's on O'ahu and think that Half Way to Hana is at least as good.) It is a little stand on the right side of the road, (surprise), half way to Hana. Also about MM 28 or so, about 6 miles from Hana on the left side of the road is a little cluster of shops. In the middle of the group is a stand selling kalua pig or fish tacos. Very, very tasty and almost worth the trip by themselves. Kona: We drove north on state route (SR) 19 from Kona along the coast to several state and national parks/sites. The highlights were Lapakahi State Historical Park and Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. Then we drove up SR 270 to Hawi for a great lunch and ice cream. We went further up SR 270, stopping at the original King Kamehemeha statue and on to the bitter end of the road at the Pololu Valley Overlook. We then returned to Kona on SR 250 over the hills/mountains with great views down to the coast for miles. Kauai: Rented a car again, made overnight parking arrangements just up from the pier at the Aloha Market Place. The first day we drove east from Lihue along SR 56 to Hanalei. We stopped at many overlooks and historic sites including Opaekaa Falls. A strongly recommended highlight of this drive is the Kilauea Lighthouse and wildlife sanctuary. We followed the road to the bitter end again in Haena State Park. This is at one edge of the Na' Pali coast area. We stopped for lunch in Hanalei on the way back to the ship. Very early the second morning we drove to Kokee State Park and Waimea Canyon. Stay on the road all the way to the bitter end and the Kalalau Valley overlooks on your way up. There are two spots in the state park that overlook the Na' Pali coast. We got there early as the clouds usually roll in mid-morning and frequently obscure the views. We stopped at the Waimea Canyon overlooks on the way down. These overlooks are as far as the tour buses go and IMO if you don't make it to the overlooks in the state park, you've missed a great view of the Na' Pali coast. This is the same coast that the ship cruises by on the after leaving Nawiliwili for O'ahu. We hurried back to drop off the car and return to the ship for the 1 PM sailing.
On Board Entertainment: The shows were uniformly great, better than we were used to on cruise ships. The comedian, juggler, musician, and revue shows were all well worth it. We took in every performance by Joe the comedian. The piano bar is also a good place to relax. Don't ask the piano player to do "American Pie" though. Introducing acts for the shows was the only time we saw the cruise director, which was just as well. IMO he oozed fake sincerity. He always sounded like he was auditioning to be a 1960's Top 40 DJ.
Disembarkation: We did not attend the presentation as it was held at an awkward time when we were ashore or just getting back on board. The process is as simple as it could be. Decide when you want to get off the ship. Then pick up the appropriate color coded luggage tags in the Reception area. We got up early as we were heading to the swap meet. The gangway doors opened about 7:35 AM and we were off the ship in a few minutes. We waited in the pier reception area about 20+ minutes for our luggage and we were gone. If we had chosen to carry all of our luggage we could have been on our way even sooner.
Overall Impression: This was perhaps the best cruise we have taken so far. We especially love the itinerary. The Pride of Aloha is a great ship. If time permitted we would have stayed on board for another cruise. In fact we did take advantage of the NCL booking/deposit program, so we will be going somewhere on NCL/NCLA again soon. Aloha!