Getting on board. My wife and I sailed from Honolulu on March 16th for an 11 day cruise through the islands of our 50th state! This cruise was purchased by my wife as a 50th birthday gift for me. I had never been to Hawaii and had cruised before on another line (RCL) and so expectations were high! We flew to Honolulu on Saturday the 15th with plans to stay on ship that night and for the Sunday evening sailing. We were told by the travel agent that we must check in on Saturday, but did find out that this was not true. The crew aboard POA said that we could check in up to 4pm the day of sailing. Ultimately this was not a problem but may have allowed us additional flight options. The check in went very quickly and we were able to be on board in about 20 minutes from our arrival at the pier. There were several porters available to handle the bags and give us clear directions. We were on the ship and exploring in not time! Our cabin #4230 was an outside stateroom with porthole but was not going to be ready for a while. We were invited to go to the 11th deck for lunch at the Hukilau Buffet (inside) or the Hukilau Lanai buffet (outside). Both had the same selection of cold cuts breads, and other sandwich makings, as well as pasta salads, and burgers. The lay out of the buffet was very cramped and guaranteed that during busy times there would be a real jam here. We were to find this out in person over the next ten days. The food was very low end buffet quality and the presentation was below what we would have expected on a cruise. This was also to be true future visits to the buffet. At around 3 PM our stateroom was ready and we went to drop off out things. To our great surprise our bags were delivered very quickly and we unpacked. The room was small but had ample space for all of our things, decent closet space and a few drawers. Anything that did not fit we simply used the small night tables. The suitcases were stored easily under the bed. The bathroom was small of course, but big enough considering the limited time we would spend in the cabin. The cabin was clean and neat and well lit.
Housekeeping. We had our cabin made up every other day, and it was always done by 10am or so. The cabin steward would come again each day at around 6pm to turn down the bed etc. We usually left the "Do not disturb" sign on the doors we did not get our mints every day. Our cabin attendant was very pleasant and attentive.
The Food and Freestyle dining.
This was a very big disappointment. The food was banquet quality at best in the main dining rooms. The menus were limited and included an "Island Favorite" each night. In addition there were several other selections that changed each night as well as a few standard entrees that were always available. The quality of the food was uniformly low in the two main dining rooms. Very bland! The menu writers were too good, the food never lived up to the description. I ordered the Wahoo from the always available menu. It came completely dried out and tasteless, obviously prepared ahead and left to sit. The portions of the appetizers salads and soups were very small, prompting many people to order 2 shrimp cocktails etc. The dinner portions were on the small side but not to the degree of the sides. The plating of the food was unappealing as well. The Freestyle Cruising idea is that you did not have a set time for meals or a set table you stay with. When entering the main dining rooms we were asked if we had a reservation. Parties of 5 or more, or people requiring a table for two are encouraged to make reservations. You are allowed to make reservations by phone 1 day in advance, between 9AM and 4PM and from 5PM to 10pm. These are the times we are off the ship, or at dinner and the show. These times also applied to making reservations at the specialty restaurants as well. (more on these later). We agreed to share a table when we ate at the main dining rooms. We were lucky enough to meet some nice people and have good conversations for the most part. However the downside of sitting at a table for 8 is the painfully slow service. You need to allow for at least two hours for dinner!!! The wait staff was fair at best and completely indifferent at worst. We tried to get a table for a smaller number of people hoping that this would speed service, but to avail!! In took forever!!! All of these things made the specialty restaurants seem very appealing. We ate in the buffet for breakfast daily and for lunch on the 2 sea days. Breakfast was a two hour ordeal in the main dining rooms. The buffet was simple with some fresh fruit, rolls and muffins, sausages, bacon etc. There was an omelet station too. The fresh fruit was limited to pineapple, melon, apples and bananas. Until the last three days when there were no bananas. All other fruit was canned. There were very few healthy choices to be made here. No whole grain breads etc. The food quality was poor here, we typically had eggs to order, toast and fruit. It was all we needed, but not up to the standards of other cruises. There are 3 different themed restaurants on board, Kahili (Italian), Pacific Heights (Asian Fusion), and Royal Palm Bistro (French). Each required a cover charge of $10-15 per person. Reservations are required!! Again you could only call between certain times to get the reservations and it was difficult at best to get this done. There would be no answer, or busy signals. We even went to the restaurant and tried to make same day res. The room was empty, maybe two tables seated and the soonest we could get in was over 2 hours later??? The system is clearly not working well, at least for the passengers! The service and food quality at the specialty rooms was clearly better than the main dining rooms. The Italian place was our favorite. The portions were good on the entrees, but the appetizers were still tiny. The menus were limited but included a nice selection. In general the preparation and plating was comparable to a 2-3 star restaurant on shore. The service standard was very good and much more to the standards we were expecting. When there were problems they were handled quickly and effectively. However it should be noted that most of the food was prepared in advance so the quality and flavor was not all it could have been. We ate the specialty rooms 6 nights. The meals here were actually of the quality I had experienced on my previous cruise in the main dining room!
Entertainment. The entertainment on board was OK. Not great. The best was the Cruise Director Doug who was a classically trained vocalist that had been on Broadway. He had a couple of informal singing concerts that were very very good. The other entertainment nights were just average cruise fare at best. The Blue Hawaii had some high energy staff and events that were fun in the evenings after the shows. Another highlight was Toby Beau (Angel Baby) that was on board all week and played several times in various clubs.
Desk staff and general service. The reception staff was very good and well versed in dealing with customers that had issues with the service. We had found out after booking that this ship was going to Asia in a month and much of the crew would be out of work. This had a great impact on the service we received. Some people were great, they were moving to another ship, others were rude and abrupt, they were out of work! The desk staff was always cordial and helpful. The excursion staff was good at selling an excursion, but was full of disinformation!! Little bits of information that were wrong that caused us not to bring a towel, pack a lunch etc. Inconvenient and frustrating. I booked most of our excursions and rental cars online not with NCL. This was on average 30 to 50 percent less expensive and by all accounts better run than the NCL excursions.
Tipping, if you can call it that. NCL added $10 per person per day to your cabin account for gratuity and 15% auto gratuity to all beverages. This is offensive in my opinion considering the level of service we received. The housekeeping and hospitality staff was very good and deserved it, the dining staff and kitchen staff did not. I made sure to tip the waiters in the specialty rooms directly for their good service. So I did feel bad about requesting and having the $110 removed from my cabin charges for tips. There were hundreds of people doing the same thing!
Final points. This cruise is about seeing the islands, and that you do! The ports were wonderful and we had a great time. If you love cruising, and have cruised before, you will probably be disappointed in this cruise! Nothing about it compares favorably to other cruises in terms of service, food, or entertainment. I've been told that other NCL cruises are great and the American crew is the problem with the service compared to foreign crewed ships. An the fact that NCL was moving this ship out of Hawaii in many ways destroyed the attitude of the staff on board. No matter what we said or did there would be no solutions because everyone was a short timer. And it was clear that the NCL had stopped caring as well. NCL may have great ships in service, and excellent staffs on these ships, but Pride of Aloha is not one of them. The fact that NCL allowed the service and quality to drop so far, makes it very unlikely that I would book another cruise with them in the future!