NCL has a long way to go ...
I just returned from the July 11th sailing of the Pride of Aloha (their second week in Hawaii). This was my seventh cruise, but my first (and last) with NCL. I booked with NCL in spite of my travel agent's warning that I would be disappointed, because my daughter wanted to go to Hawaii in the summer (as a reward for being valedictorian), and they were the only cruise line there at that time. I tried to keep an open mind, but it wasn't long before their deficiencies began to surface (actually almost immediately). Although you always hear complaining on cruise ships, this time I heard more people complaining about more things than on all of my previous cruises combined.
Embarkation seemed smooth enough. We turned over five bags to the porter and saw them enter the cruise terminal. Two were at our room when we arrived. Two came about an hour later. One did not show up until after 10 p.m. (and we arrived at the terminal at 1:30). Many passengers did not see their luggage until they woke up the next morning.
NCL boasts of its "freestyle" way of disembarking. They brag about how you can stay in our cabin until you choose to leave, rather than being "herded" into the common areas once you arrive in your final port. What they don't mention is that the crew doesn't have sufficient time to clean all the cabins for the next sailing - our cabin wasn't ready when we boarded, and most on our level had not been cleaned. We never did get any ice the first day. I finally located the ice machine around the corner (and there was no scoop - something our local soup kitchen would not allow for sanitation reasons).
I have to admit that I prefer the traditional way of dining on a cruise ship. I like getting to know the other people at my assigned table, as well as the waiter and assistant. I also like knowing when I will be eating. The problem with "freestyle dining" as I see it is this: that's the only thing that is "freestyle". They still have the two shows at specific times, so if you wish to see the show, you end up wanting to eat at exactly the same time as everyone else! And the staff in the two dining rooms are extremely slow and disorganized. One night we showed up at 6 p.m. and were promptly seated. It was after 7:15 when our entrees arrived, and we had to skip dessert or miss the show at 8! I really think "freestyle" is a euphemism for "poor and slow service".
NCL is so focused on making extra money at the "specialty restaurants" that the other two choices (the two dining rooms have the same menu so the alternative is the buffet) are rather poorly done. The main dining rooms had the identical menu every night with only a few items changing from night to night. The appetizers, soups, and salads were the same - and the selection was rather limited! When the food did come it was fairly tasty, but oftentimes I had to remind the waiter that my appetizer was supposed to come with a pesto sauce, or the prime rib was supposed to have horseradish with it, etc. That was a first for me on a cruise ship!
Speaking of "firsts", there were many others. First time I ever heard "I haven't a clue" when asking what a particular dish contained! First time I had to get my own coffee refills in the buffet line (and I never got a refill when having breakfast in the dining room)! First time I have seen them run out of coffee at the breakfast buffet! And this one just baffles me: this was the first cruise I have been on where I was actually hungry from time to time. One night I had to skip dinner in order to catch the show. But there is no midnight buffet, and the room service menu sucks. They have the strangest hours for operating the dining rooms and buffet lines. And there are no other alternatives.
Returning for a moment to the breakfast buffet ... Why do they not open it up at 6 a.m.? There is enough jet lag for most passengers that they are up before then the first morning or two. And besides, they sell excursion trips that leave at 7:15, yet the buffet and the dining room only open at 7! One morning the buffet line was all the way out to the whirlpools when it opened! Why was one of the two coffee machines in the buffet line broken the whole week? Doesn't anyone on this ship know how to fix it? And the other line had the juice machine broken for most of the week. One morning I had to go through one line to get juice, then the other line to get coffee, only to discover that the second line was out of cream, so I had to go back to the first line to get cream for my coffee.
And once you do get all your food, good luck on finding a place to sit! You see, they took half of the usual buffet lines and dining area and turned it into their "specialty restaurants" which are only open for a few hours each evening! What a royal waste of space! Usually by the time I found a place to sit down, my breakfast was cold. And forget about someone coming around to fill your coffee. You have to go back into the line yourself. If you happen to be dining alone, you run the risk that someone will clear off your table while you are getting a coffee refill!
My biggest complaint, though, was this: when I go to Hawaii (and this was my third trip), I like to eat Hawaiian food. Where was it? I saw fresh pineapple once and had one piece of papaya on the last full day on board! What did they offer at breakfast? There were stewed prunes, and canned fruit cocktail, and fresh apples, oranges, and bananas. Sorry folks, I can get that at home. Where were the guavas, passion fruit, papaya, mango, etc.? The other thing I really like about cruising is the sorbet. They had none. And their "Sprinkles" ice cream bar is a joke! They offered vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry! And they didn't even have sprinkles!
The other question I have is this: why do they have baby grand pianos in each dining room, and no one ever plays them? There should be something to drown out the excessive kitchen noise! Quite frankly, the dining room experience seemed like an oxymoron. Here we were in elegant surroundings with table linens, multiple plates and silverware, with the waiter dressed up in a dinner jacket - looking all the while like a real cruise ship - and the demeanor of the waiter was like someone working in a Denny's! Their "casual" ambience just went too far. The waiters did not know what was on the menu - one told me he didn't know what salad dressings they had. One man never got his parmesan cheese for his spaghetti because "we couldn't find a grater"! There were excuses galore, but no one seemed intent on fixing the problems!
I think that is the underlying problem - little competition and little incentive to improve. The American staff is a joke - understaffed, under trained, and under-incentivized (due to their bizarre way of "tipping"). And of course that was the final blow. Their brochures specifically say that their tipping scheme is to charge your account at a rate of $10 per day per person. But once you get on the ship they explain that this is merely a "service charge" (for what?), and you should feel free to tip those employees who demonstrate service "beyond the call of duty" (I found none). Talk about "bait and switch"! Then they had the gall to tack on a $5 "contribution" per cabin to the Bishop Museum! I made them take it off my bill.
Notice I did not rate the excursion trips. That's because I didn't take any. Several years ago I had sailed the same itinerary on the S.S. Independence (American Hawaiian Cruise Lines - now out of business), so I knew what I wanted to see. Once you get beyond two people, it is much cheaper to rent a car and see what you want to see when you want to see it than to pay for the excursion trips. By booking the rental cars early I paid about half what the people did who waited until they were on the ship to book a rental car. Between AAA and Frommer's I knew more about the islands than the "experts" on the ship!
Now for the "good things": the two "sail by" events were spectacular. We sailed close to the Napali Coast on Kauai, and the nighttime sailing by the volcano on the Big Island was not to be missed - much closer than we were on the Independence, and it was nice of the captain to stop the ship at the volcano for about half an hour. The other outstanding part of this cruise was the entertainment. The singers and dancers were the best I have seen on any cruise ship by far. Consistently top notch, as were the entertainers in the lounges and bars. Only wish I could have been two places at one time, for they consistently scheduled two entertainment events simultaneously. Other than karaoke and disco, though, there really wasn't much to stay up for. No casino since they never get out of U.S. waters.
Having sailed Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Holland America, I can say without hesitation that, should your plans for an Hawaiian cruise allow you to go when they are sailing, that would be the better choice. I only chose NCL because I had no alternative. But I know now why 98% of the passengers embarking on this cruise were not in the Latitudes line (the one reserved for people who had sailed with NCL before)!