First things first - I am well aware of all of the negative things that have been said / written about this ship regarding service levels, etc. and let me say this - while they were not as high as you may find on an international cruise, the crew on board this ship were as helpful, friendly and willing to go above and beyond whenever needed as much as any cruise I've ever been on.
We (my wife, myself, my in-laws and extended family - 9 in all) arrived in Honolulu 1 day prior to embarkation. We lucked out in our home airport (Providence, RI) as it was a very rainy day up and down the east coast and there were delays everywhere. We were originally booked to go through Newark and LAX, but when we arrived at the Continental desk in Providence the agent was beyond helpful. She told us about the potential delays (especially in the New York area) and proceeded to rebook us on a direct flight from Newark to Honolulu. Not only did this eliminate the worry of catching our connection in LA - which we would have missed - but it also got us in 3 hours earlier than originally scheduled! Even though the flight was nearly 11 straight hours it was worth it knowing that our luggage would be greeting us in Honolulu and we wouldn't have to worry about racing through LAX to get our connection.
Since we would only be in Honolulu for a short time prior to our cruise, I was a little concerned that this would not be long enough to acclimate (coming from east coast), especially arriving in the evening as we did, but we all seemed to be ok within a day or 2. We stayed at the Castle Ocean Resort Hotel on Waikiki. Let's just say that it was fine for one night - would not recommend it for an extended stay. But, given that we would be there for only about 15 hours, it was fine - especially considering the price.
Honolulu Given the location, we were able to spend the morning strolling Waikiki and really enjoyed the short amount of time we had to spend there. We headed to the ship around noon. We were checked in and aboard by 12:15 - what a breeze! If I had to guess, I'd say we were among the first 75 aboard - it was so easy and quick!
After grabbing a quick bite at the Hukilau Cafe we sat by the pool and enjoyed the sun. Our staterooms were ready by about 2:00 (all staterooms were ready by no later than 3:00 or so, I'd say), so we headed down to Deck 9. One of our pieces of luggage had already arrived (they all arrived by 4:00) so we began to unpack. We had an Inside Superior Stateroom. It was pretty much what we expected. If we had one complaint, it would be the lack of drawer space - 4 drawers (and shallow at that) for 11 nights for 2 people is not much! We made the best of it and hung what we could in the closet (luckily a previous passenger had left several plastic hangers, so we were able to use those). We decided to meet up with the rest of our party at the Palace Dining Room for dinner. The crowd was quite sparse - we assumed it was due to the time change, people being tired, etc. The service this evening was quite good as our assistant server kept us entertained with her stories (she was from Iowa or Idaho - can't remember which) but she did a great job. The food was quite good - everyone was satisfied. We called it a night and all decided to retire for the evening.
Hilo, Our first full day brought with it a little bit of rough seas as we cruised into Hilo for our fist port day. My wife and I (still on EST) awoke early (5 am) and decided that since we were up we would take advantage of the fitness center. The Body Waves Fitness Center on Deck 11 was excellent. Always enough treadmills and elliptical machines to be used - at one point in the cruise one of the treadmills broke down - we never had to wait and never saw anyone waiting when we were there. Note for anyone who hasn't been on a cruise before: When you are on a treadmill and the seas are rocky, you will have a little more trouble that you would think controlling yourself, especially while running (which I was). After our workout we had a light breakfast from the buffet (Hukilau), watched the sun rise and took some great pictures of Mauna Kea. It's really amazing to look a snow-capped mountain peak while sipping coffee in your bathing suit - a really great way to start our day. Which brings me to the day's activity - our helicopter excursion. We went through Safari Helicopters and let's just say it was perfect! I would highly recommend them - www.safariair.com. Extremely hospitable, extremely convenient and extremely reasonably priced. We did the Deluxe Volcano / Coast Safari. Our Captain - Leigh - did an awesome job narrating the entire trip as well as providing a great soundtrack throughout. We saw several waterfalls and a rainforest on our way up to the Kilauea Volcanic System. On this day we were lucky enough to see a very active vent as well as red lava flow and several craters. From Leigh's perspective we really got an awesome day, considering how much cloud-cover there typically is. We also went along the beautiful coastline and got some breathtaking pictures and video. On our way back we saw the Mauna Loa Mac Nut Factory and fields and flew right into a bit of a rain storm that had swept in - really and overall outstanding experience. Once again, can't say enough about the group at Safari - extremely professional and fun!
Once our helicopter tour was over we headed back to the ship (about a 5 minute ride) because I am a HUGE New York Giants fan and my Father-in-law is a HUGE Dallas Cowboy fan and they were meeting in the playoffs that day. So we booked it back to the ship and headed up to the Longboard Bar. We had a great seat to watch the Giants upset the Cowboys. I was outnumbered probably 5 to 1 by the number of Cowboy fans there, which made it that much more enjoyable. In addition, several of the crew and staff of the bar got very into the game - you would have thought we were at a bar in New York or Dallas and not at a dock in Hilo! After the game we spent some time in the hot tub at the bow of the ship (this seemed to get the smallest crowd of the three) and had some drinks to celebrate. That evening we actually skipped dinner as my wife was not feeling great, so once again, we turned in early.Sea Day 1
We had dinner in The Crossings Main Dining Room. Our server (unfortunately, I can't recall his name) was outstanding. He happened to be from New Jersey and was fairly new on the ship (which we found to be the case with many of the crew), but was extremely attentive and polite. We had a wonderful table at a window and had a great meal - I highly recommend the Thai Noodles and Chicken - it was excellent!
Sea Day 2
Once again, another day of relaxing for the most part. Once again, a little rocky, but not too bad. Since this was our second day at sea and I have trouble sitting still for too long I decided to take a late-morning run on the walking/jogging track on Deck 6. This was not too bad, but a word of caution - as you near the aft of the ship you are hit with a smell that clearly tells you where the ship's septic tank is. And after going past that spot 15 times I was ready to call it quits. That would be the one major complaint I would have on the entire trip.
To break up the afternoon my wife and I, along with her uncle and aunt decided to do the on-ship "Pub Crawl". Basically, this is an event where a few of the ship's crew gather up a crowd (in this case 20 or so) of people and go from bar to bar, causing all kinds of mayhem throughout the ship while all the while getting drunker and drunker. It was a blast! We started at Captain Cook's, made our way to the Atrium Bar, Breakers Bar, Longboard Bar and finishing at the Hukilau Lanai. Throughout our journey we played several games, chugged several drinks and, in general, disrupted the entire ship for a couple of hours. From what we understand, the Pub Crawl doesn't get a lot of positive feedback on the comment cards - we definitely know why. Each bar we entered cleared out in a matter of minutes. As a sidebar, my wife was voted "Most Valuable Drinker" by her peers in the Pub Crawl - we are all so proud! Anyway, this pretty much decided our fate for the evening as we ended up in the Blue Hawaii Night Club for 70's night. My wife ended up singing Gloria Gaynor in front of everyone, her cousin dressing as the Cowboy from the Village People and I, well - let's just say that "It's Raining Men" is now on my Ipod. Hands down, the most fun we've ever had at sea on any cruise.
After rising early (surprisingly easily, given the previous evening's festivities), we got our tender tickets to Fanning Island. One note of recommendation here - get your ticket early! They are handed out in the Blue Hawaii and I was luck enough to be going through as they began the process, so I grabbed a couple. We were able to head down any time after they called the first group. The problem being that they don't have many tender boats for this port (I believe they only had 4 this day) so the process can be fairly lengthy if you don't get a ticket early.
Once we finished breakfast we got in line for our tender and waited for only about 20 minutes or so to get off the ship. Once on the island, we found a couple of chairs on the beach and relaxed for a bit. I took a walk back past the NCL area in English Harbor side and came across several children playing and singing. The children will sing you a song, but you have to give them a dollar. My suggestion is to bring a fistful of dollar bills as there are plenty of donation boxes around the island as well. After that we decided to go eat at the NCL-provided barbecue that was set up in a couple of pavilions. Once again - get in line early. After eating, we caught the 12:15 tender to Na Pali Beach. This is an add-on excursion and, in my opinion, well worth the $25. After being on the very crowded English Harbor beach, Na Pali was a very welcome, secluded, spread-out place to relax and really enjoy the tropical paradise. The do a nice job of only allowing so many people there to make it seem private and, believe me, it does. My only other recommendation would be to not do the water-sports add-on for $15. While you do get use of Hobie Catamarans, kayaks and paddle boats, the surf coming in makes any activity very difficult and futile (especially the kayaks). Other than that - the walk from the boat to the beach is about 2/3 of a mile and there are no facilities on Na Pali beach, but I would still recommend going.
For dinner this evening we decided to try Pacific Heights, the specialty "Asian-Fusion" Restaurant on board. Despite the $10 cover charge per person, my wife and I agreed that this was, without question our finest meal of the trip. Our waiter was extremely knowledgeable, polite and attentive and the food was superb! The setting was also the finest of the trip as we had a window-side seat during a spectacular sunset. Our group of 7 all agreed that this was the best on-ship restaurant, right down to the sushi (an extra charge, but still worth it) that our waiter suggested we try deep-fried - it was delicious!
Sea Day 3
As we began our trip back to Hawaii we once again encountered a bit of rocky seas and the wind was significantly stronger (this was true both days, and is pretty common, as we came to understand) especially on the 12th deck, which is where we typically found ourselves. Since most of us had had enough sun (only 200 miles from the equator on Fanning Island) we mostly napped or holed-up by a window in one of the public areas.
Today was also the day I spent some time in the Kumu Cultural Center. It was definitely time well-spent. While it was understandably abbreviated, it was surprisingly enriching and comprehensive. Covering everything from the migration to Hawaii to the Paniolos (cowboys), right up through some of the entertainers and celebrities that made Waikiki famous, the collection, I felt, rivaled that of any museum. Also, they had daily shows highlighting each island we were at that day. These were concise, informative films and I really enjoyed the ones I did see. I would certainly recommend setting aside time to visit the Cultural Center.
Went to the only show we saw all week - a comedian who was ok at best. Not much else to say, I guess, other than the sight lines in the balcony of the Stardust leave something to be desired.
Sea Day 4
Once again, sunny, warm and windy. Choppy seas. Napping. Eating. Reading.
This evening's dinner brought us to another of the specialty restaurants, the Royal Palm Bistro. Once again, our waiter was top-notch. (It is pretty clear that the best servers are assigned to the specialty restaurants as all of them, assistant servers included, were excellent.) The dinner was excellent; if not long (we were there for nearly 3 hours). It was my mother-in-law's birthday and we had a cake sent over and waiters singing - pretty typical of what you'd find at any restaurant state-side.
Land! Finally! After what felt like forever at sea, we arrived in Maui. My wife and I had not booked an excursion for this day and decided to set out on foot. We didn't find much initially, but were able to book a Whale Watch that left at 12:30 from Ma'alaea Harbor. It was with the Pacific Whale Foundation. Note: If you can find a less expensive mode of transport, it is the exact same Whale Watch through the ship - its $38 pp as opposed to $74 pp through the ship. However, if you take a taxi (which we did), its $40 each way.
We were lucky enough to catch the earlier boat at 10:30 as opposed to 12:30 since we were there so early, and that worked out well. On the watch we saw more humpback whales than we could count. They were breaching, tail slapping, spouting like crazy. All-in-all an excellent day.
Once back in Kahului, we hit the local Star Market for bottled water to bring back to the ship and walked back via the pedestrian walkway. The pedestrian walkway leads right to the Maui Mall, which is an outdoor mall with your typical mall-type stores as well as a Long's Drugs, Star Market and movie theater.
Tonight we had tickets to a special production of Tony 'n Tina's Wedding on board. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_and_Tina's_Wedding) It was performed in the Outrigger Lounge and it was a riot! So much fun! We had so much fun - the cast is extremely interactive and their timing is excellent! The dinner was fairly basic - Cesar salad, baked ziti, alfredo pasta - but not that good. We also had - of course - wedding cake. The production more than made up for it, though! Note: Book early and pay the extra $10 for the premium seats. It entitles you to early entry and better seats (right up front), which gets you more involved in the show.Kona, Big Island
Once back at the dock, I headed right back to the ship for my seat at Longboards for the NFC Championship Game to watch the Giants upset the Packers. Once again, I was outnumbered, probably 10 to 1 this time. Once again, the staff and crew were into the game and it was a lot of fun. By the end of the game, I'm guessing that the bar was close to capacity as there was little room to move.
Nawiliwili, Kauai Day 1
For our first day On Kauai we chose to the Discover Jungle Falls by Kayak excursion. Once again, very fun. We kayaked down the Huleia River - 2.5 miles. It was a very easy paddle, as we were with the wind and the current the entire time. We saw some historic spots and some movie/tv filming spots (Raiders of the lost Ark, MASH, Jurassic Park). We then hiked a wildlife refuge (not a long hike) - not too exciting. After that we hiked down to 2 secluded waterfalls - the second of which we swam in and climbed up onto. Pretty cool considering the amount of water pouring down 50 feet. After our hike back up (Note: bring sneakers you don't mind getting muddy and wet - you will get dirty) we enjoyed our lunch - great sandwiches from a local deli.
For dinner we once again enjoyed the Crossings (our dining room of choice) having the Turkey Dinner, which was very, very good. As a twist we took a local's advice and walked over to the Kauai Marriott (which, in itself is worth the walk - about 10 minutes) and went to a restaurant called Duke's Canoe Club and had the Hula Pie for dessert. Whoa! If you are a fan of sweets and ice cream you'll love it. It's a HUGE slice of vanilla ice cream pie with hot fudge, mac nuts, you name it, it's on there! It can easily feed 2-3 people.
Nawiliwili, Kauai Day 2
Since my wife and I had not planned anything for this day, but still wanted to see more of the island, we decided to take a chance and head down to the excursion meeting point and see if they could fit us in to the Journey to Waimea Canyon excursion. I'll admit that I was skeptical, as we were told it had been sold out. As it turned out, there were 2 seats left - 1 being the jump seat next to the bus driver and the other being way in the back. So, unfortunately we weren't able to sit together, but still enjoyed the trip just the same. In fact, I was the one sitting in the front with the driver and really enjoyed it - best seat in the house! The trip up to the canyon took a couple of hours, but what a view! I would highly recommend going there if you have the time - when they call it the Grand Canyon of the Pacific they aren't kidding. The tour also stopped at a couple of other spots along the way of significance and our driver did an excellent job of narrating the entire trip.
The afternoon was spent cruising along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. Our Cruise Director, Douglas, was supposed to narrate the trip, but had a lot of trouble with the ship's PA System, but it was beautiful, just the same. It was surprising how close the ship gets to the cliffs, which soar up to 3,000 feet high - really a gorgeous sight. Note: We went to deck 6 as opposed to deck 11 - we had heard that 11 gets really crowded. We also got out there early (around 5:00) and secured a spot. We were able to kill time looking for whales (saw a few) while waiting for the narration to begin.
Disembarkation was a breeze - right off the ship, to a taxi and to the airport for our 2:00 flight. (We were actually there at 10:00!) Note: There is an option for EasyFly - take advantage if you can. There are some stipulations, and its $20 pp, but well worth it. You check your bags the night before (leaving them outside your stateroom, as you normally would) and the net time you see them is at you home airport. In addition, the ship prints your boarding passes the night before. Unfortunately, we had to switch airlines in LA, so we couldn't do it (one of the stipulations), but would have if we could.
Overall, an excellent cruise. We were very happy with the ship and thrilled with the itinerary! The ship's crew was outstanding, with a special nod to our room steward, Apolonio (towel animals 8 nights). Pros far outweighed the cons on all aspects of the ship, ports, food, entertainment (forgot to mention the poolside band, who were great every day) and crew.
We would highly recommend this cruise to anyone looking to see more of Hawaii - and for the value, you can't beat it. Without question, the greatest vacation we've ever had!