Having lived on the West Coast of the mainland for 40 years and never seen Hawaii, this cruise seemed like the perfect way for my wife and I to get a look at several of the islands. We've cruised once before with Carnival years ago, not a good experience, and several times since with Holland America. HAL is a great line until the last trip, where we felt there was a noticeable reduction in service. In addition, we wanted to try a line that was generally closer to our age group and a little more informal. I am happy to say NCL fit the bill in those terms.
Arrived HNL just after noon on Friday. We were going to get a car and go up for a quick tour of the North Shore, but decided we wanted to relax and headed for the hotel and adjoining beach.
Stayed one night at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort, which was nothing short of amazing. Great grounds, beaches, rooms are nice. Not cheap, but would definitely stay there again. On Friday night at 8, there were fireworks right outside the room.
In Oahu, we did the Arizona Memorial tour through Roberts early Saturday morning. The tour and the bus driver were great. After the memorial, there is a 45 minute city tour with tons of info and had many laughs. I would highly recommend this tour and tour agency (although in fairness, I don't have anything to compare Robert's to).
Embarkation: Arrived at the port at noon, waited in line for a few minutes and were right on the ship. Couldn't have been easier. Nice touch with the champagne or OJ when you board the ship.
Ship-shape: Ship appeared to be well-kept, newer and clean. Certainly bigger than a ship we'd been on before. Really liked the USA theme...thought it was impressive and done very well. NCL has Holland beat in terms of age of ships, that's for sure.
Meals: We'd read some mediocre reviews about food and service. Our first meal at the buffet was terrific, as were most of the meals that followed. Service was also very friendly and even helpful. I don't think it was lowered expectations; we really liked what was on offer every meal, whether the buffet, skyline or liberty. Yes, when everyone is on board, there was a bit of pushing and people in a hurry at the buffet, but isn't that to be expected when there are 2000+ hungry people, none of them wanting to wait in line? I really don't know what more NCL could do except open up another buffet when everyone is on board, and that doesn't seem reasonable. I found that people became more pushy as the cruise went on and joked that they must be thinking we're going to run out of food. So, really not a big deal, but something to be aware of, especially when all the excursions return or everyone is on board. All in all, we looked forward to the buffet. Good soft serve ice cream, if you are in to that, by the way.
I've read a few reviews saying there was no food after 9:30, which is simply NOT the case. The Cadillac is open, and only closes in the dead of night for two hours. If you like burgers and "pub grub", you are in business. While you can't go get prime rib at midnight, there is food available and always room service as a back up. I guess the complaints suggest the buffet suggest it should be open later or there should be other options. I can see that, but we were very happy with what was offered at any hour. We were so full we didn't get a chance to order room service. I've been home a few days and this "only" eating three meals a day is a bummer ;).
We did end up at the East meets West restaurant one night, and I have no room to complain. After all, it was a comp, including wine. so beggars can't be choosers, right? Service was top-notch and the wait-staff funny. The food? Well, I am glad I didn't pay the up-charge. It wasn't bad by any means, and also not worth paying more. It was as good as any area on the ship. I would not have been happy had I paid additional for it, or should I say, would NOT have thought it was worth it. I didn't eat at the sushi bar, but there is a very friendly chef there who you could just tell was a standout among the crew. Seems to love his work and take it seriously, all the while, with a smile on his face.
Up-sell: OK, so the up-sell starts right away, but this is a business, right? At least, I kept thinking that through the first few crew members that came by with the pitch to book the steakhouse, suggesting we take the restaurant tour, a staff member outside an elevator who kiddingly said he would only let us in if we promised to book a table at the Italian restaurant, etc. Yes, I was a little annoyed, I get it NCL, you want me to pay for a restaurant, message loud and clear!
Just keep this in mind, because one way or another, you are likely to get the sales pitch several (hundred) times. Sure, it gets old by day 3, but not complaining, it's easy to listen for a moment and move on.
Cabin: We were on deck 7 forward (more about that shortly). When we first got into the cabin, it seemed small, especially in comparison to Holland America, but was VERY comfortable, clean and the balcony fantastic. This was our first balcony and it would be hard to do without next time.
After having lived in that room for a week, I have no complaints about the room itself at all. The bed was comfortable, plenty of closet space, very functional cabin that I would quite happily occupy again (somewhere else on the ship).
Excursions: We really enjoyed the excursions, although the Molokini crater snorkel was a let-down in terms of fish to see. Fortunately, the second half of the excursion to see the turtles made up for it. The Hilo volcano hike was lots of fun, and the tour guide, Michael was very funny. Really worth the excursion.
We rented a car from Thrifty in Maui. Book your car ahead of time because they will likely be out of cars for those without reservations. We went to the Old Lahaina Luau on our own. Really great..a highlight..eat lots of the pork and be happy. Word of warning, when you get back to the port, yes parking is free, but the parking was filled up when we got back, and we came directly from the luau. So, we had to take the car back to the rental agency and were planning to get a cab to the ship, since the shuttle had already stopped running. Fortunately, a very nice employee, Rose, gave us and another couple who were in the same predicament, a ride back to the ship in her personal car. She says this happens often. So, it doesn't look like there is quite enough traffic to give Thrifty a reason to keep the shuttle going, so race back to get yourself a parking space or plan to return and make your way back to the ship.
We also rented a car in Kuai, and like Maui, the shuttle met us at the port and took us to the agency. Again, book ahead because they said they were sold out to those without a reservation. Prior to the trip, I signed up for Thrifty's free Blue Chip club and avoid the lines! I got this tip on the internet and it was dead on. There is a special line for Blue Chip and the rental contract is all ready to go. Save yourself many minutes by doing this, I promise.
Drove from one end of the island to the other and then had dinner with friends that live on the island. Returned the car that night so wouldn't have to hassle the next day and managed to catch the last shuttle, or should I say, the person behind the counter asked the shuttle to take us to the port to delay picking up more people at the airport to quickly, as the agency was inundated with people picking up cars at that moment.
In Kona, did the Captain Zodiac Raft, Snorkel & Dolphin excursion. FUN! Saw pods and pods of spinner dolphins, and I mean right next to the boat. The boat ride is fast, it's fun and informative. I'd do this again tomorrow, for the dolphins alone. I can't imagine being disappointed by this excursion.
Entertainment: Saw Second City Comedy and really enjoyed it. The improv was the highlight. Good more to have them on board, very quick, witty and entertaining. Also saw the magician who had good tricks, and I thought needed to work on his patter a little bit. I know, everyone is a critic....
Service/staff: Never had a bad experience with any staff member. Whatever problems others might have had didn't find me. Everyone had a smile and seemed to like what they were doing. I wish I could be that happy everyday.
And now: So, it all sounds good, right? Hate to end this way, but here's the bad news: Our cabin, 7516, was located over the Mardi Gras lounge, which is on deck 6 forward. Beginning night 3, it sounded like the speakers were in my cabin and not in the lounge. The bass was thumping, and we could clearly here every word of every song...until well after midnight. Good for a dance party, bad for sleeping. We've never complained about anything like this before (maybe because we've never had to, and along with that, we can take a lot and laugh it off), but night 4 did us in. After all, we saved up hard-earned money to take a big vacation and then are subjected to this when trying to sleep? While I get NCL can't change the layout of the ship and we are in closed spaces where noises are going to be present, this was simply not fair or reasonable, especially when we found out this is a known issue.
The person who answered the phone at the Front Desk took our info and said they would call the lounge, in hopes of the issue being fixed the next night. Fixed it was! It was fixed louder than the previous night. We tried earplugs, but the thumping of the bass went right through the ear plugs. I do not overstate when I tell you the cabin walls shook from the bass vibration.
The next morning, my wife went to speak with the customer service manager, who could not have been nicer. He gave us a little on-board credit and also the comp in east meets west restaurant. I really appreciated that, because he could have taken the info and done nothing. other than to seem like he cared.
Do your research everyone, because I have now seen postings on here about this issue with deck 7 forward. You will come to learn that NCL, or at least the staff on this ship, know about this issue (and certainly gets repeated complaints and has to do many a comp). That's what really adds insult to injury; knowing that I was sunk (excuse the expression) when I boarded. There's even a crew member on these message boards who suggested someone that booked cabin 7522 in January 2010 should change the room due to noise issue. Here's the post, his comments are #2 and if you want to read my tale again, I am #4: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1054834
So, thanks NCL, you deeply colored what otherwise was a wonderful cruise; one I would like to recommend. We have many friends very interested in this cruise and cruising in general. Friends we've sailed with, who are making plans for next year and are likely cruising. At the moment, I am likely to steer them to another line. Not because of the noise problem, as much as the known issue with noise that I walked into and was "rewarded" for. The only way I can do anything about it is by not coming back and taking others with me. Bitter and unreasonable you say? Even after getting comped dinner and a small onboard credit? OK, I am bitter. I wasn't so much until I found out this was a known issue and it was downhill from there.
If you think NCL deserves your money, take the cruise, stay in a cabin away from the lounge and you should leave with a big smile on your face. They are kind of the only game in town in Hawaii right now anyway. Shame that. Competition is good for things like this.