My husband and I took a 10-day cruise on NCL, Pride of Aloha, Jan. 2, 2008. The itinerary included Honolulu, Oahu; Kahului, Maui; Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (big island); Kauai; Lahaina, Maui; Hilo, Hawaii; Honolulu. We chose the cruise having read many of the reviews on this site, and found that our cruise ship experience was largely what we expected. We planned to treat the ship as a moving hotel, and as such it worked perfectly for us, since it enabled us to visit many more islands than we would otherwise have done in ten days. We chose this cruise largely on the basis of the itinerary, and could not have been happier with the places we visited.
The following are some reflections on our experience, and recommendations for future travelers on NCL.
Room: We selected the smallest room available, and were happy with that choice since it was difficult to see what a window or balcony would have added. If we wanted to go outside, we could easily go out on the deck at any time of the day or night. As many had warned, there is very little space to store belongings. We moved the bed over to one side of the room to give ourselves a bit more room for open suitcases along the other side. There's also a little bit of closet space. The bathroom was tiny but user-friendly; we had no trouble with the shower or toilet, and there was a bit of shelf space for personal items. The room was kept clean; there were some spots and stains on the sheets, and the beds weren't very comfortable, but we still slept fine.
Food: As many have written, the food on the buffet and in the non-cover-charging restaurants was nothing to write home about. It was fine, though, and the breakfast buffet was actually pretty good. They always had scrambled eggs, omelets and waffles made-to-order, oatmeal, a selection of cold cereals, and fruit, as well as pancakes, biscuits and gravy, bacon and sausage. The selection of juices was sometimes uneven, but otherwise we had no complaints. Another handy thing about the breakfast buffet was that it included sandwich bread and PB&J, which we used to make lunch to take along on our excursions each day. You can also refill water bottles and pick up small cartons of yogurt at the breakfast buffet. We recommend the outdoor cafe (lanai) for breakfast, as it was much less crowded and had a more pleasant atmosphere than the indoor spaces.
The only time we ate lunch on the ship was the one day that we were at sea, and the buffet was just fine. For dinner, we either went to the buffet, or to the more casual of the two free restaurants, "Crossings." We never had trouble getting in, perhaps because we usually went between 5:30 and 6:30. The selections on the Crossings menu were generally of a higher quality than the buffet, and included at least one vegetarian appetizer and entrEe each night.
Service generally: Everyone we encountered was very cordial and accommodating; we had absolutely no complaints in this regard.
Public areas: Generally clean, but there was an unpleasant smell in certain areas of the ship.
Scheduling/planning: We reserved two tours ahead of time: Pacific Whale Foundation's whale watch in Lahaina and a kayak/snorkeling tour with Aloha Kayaks, in Kona. Both were excellent. We established a schedule that involved waking up around 5:30am and going to bed early, to give ourselves as much time as possible to explore the islands. Speaking of which, note that it is usually possible to get off the ship before the official docking time, and that's worth doing, especially on "tender" days, the days when you take a small boat from ship to port. E.g., on the day we docked in Kona, the time on the itinerary was 8:00am, but we went downstairs at 7:15 and were on the shore by 7:45.
Car rental: We did not register for any of the cruise excursions, but decided instead to rent a car in most of the locations. We rented from Thrifty (sign up for Blue Chip program, which sometimes means a shorter line) and Dollar in each port, and were satisfied with our experience. We never had any trouble getting on a shuttle from the port to the car pick-up location, and sometimes got very helpful tips from the rental car agents about getting around. Make all your reservations in advance, and try to use the same credit card for the reservation as you want to use for the purchase to save time. Additional drivers are a few dollars extra, and we usually found that worthwhile.
We were a bit concerned about getting back in time and returning the rental cars before it was time to be back at the ship. This turned out not to be a problem; we were always back with time to spare. In part we were lucky in not encountering much traffic, but we were very happy with our choice to rent cars and go off on our own rather than signing up for "shore excursions." Here's our schedule to give you a sense:
Maui Day 1: Road to Hana—we didn't run into much traffic, and it was not a bad drive—sights were very much worth the trip. Maui Day 2: Haleakala National Park—went hiking and to lookouts and were easily back by 5:30 Kona: Aloha Kayak tour (4-hour morning tour)—kayaking and snorkeling Kauai Day 1: Napali Coast hike Kauai Day 2: Waimea Canyon hike—up early and back by 1:30. Maui Day 3: Lahaina—whale watching: we had reserved an 11am tour out of concern that we wouldn't get to shore in time, but because we were able to leave on the first tender boat, we changed our tour to 8:30; spent the rest of the day taking a walking tour of Lahaina. Hilo: Volcano National Park
A couple of other notes:
In Kona, make sure you reserve a car (Thrifty or Dollar) that has a pick-up at the King Kamehameha hotel, which is right next to the boat.
Make sure you check the itinerary each day, as NCL is liable to make changes without notifying you. One of our few complaints is that we found out that we had an extra four hours in Lahaina only by accident on the tender boat on the way to port!
Parking: On the nights when we stayed over on an island, parking was no problem. In Kahului, Maui, there was plenty of free parking near the ship. In Kauai, there was somewhat limited parking near the boat: ask your rental company and be sure to register for a parking permit before you leave for the day.
Travel safely and enjoyably!