From the Top (of the ship) Down, Sort Of
Ship's Layout: This ship was not designed by NCL, we were told. It's clear that whoever designed it was not thinking about ease of passengers negotiating the vessel. Some "rock and roll" as we cruised, but negotiable for most.
Deck 11. Pool Deck and Buffet. The outsides of the windows on the sides of the ship were filthy and could use a hosing down.
To minimize your wait in line at the buffet, don't use the first buffet line. Go around to the next one or even the one beyond that. There's no sign as to there being other buffet lines or waffle and egg stations aft. They've improved the "lack of trays" situation by providing large, oval plates. The first buffet line is set up as backward (reversed) as one might expect from someone who doesn't have a clue about cafeteria lines in that the hot and cold beverages are available before the food, requiring juggling of the beverage while you get your food. The cloth napkin available with your plate has a fork and knife. NCL has forgotten about spoons being the preferred utensil when trying to consume liquids (they are available, if you can search them out). There is no silverware available on the aft deck where the waffle and egg stations are located. If you're heading there, pick them up at the last buffet line. Having a hand sanitizer dispenser at the beginning of the first buffet line is a good idea. More are needed throughout the buffet area.
If you're using a lounge chair around the pool, try to find it away from the sound system. The crew must be hard of hearing, cranking up the volume all the way. There's plenty of hustling of alcohol drinks by the waitstaff. The waitstaff is generally quite good. Apparently a great number of the first "contract" group has been terminated. Those there now generally move quickly although efficiency is still a problem (perhaps not at the serving end, but at the dispensing end and the design of the ship). NCL had originally hired many Hawaiians as crew. The newer crew has a mixture of US persons (most quite young) from across the country who were hired and trained (perhaps too quickly) to fill the void. From earlier reviews to the present, service, etc. is much, much better. The kids really hustled and were very friendly. One could easily forgive a few forgotten requests, considering the volume of activity.
Deck 8: Cabins. We were on the Viking Deck (Deck 8) in an inside cabin, which we found to be adequate for the two of us. The pillows are thin and you might ask for extras. Soap and shampoo are in dispensers. A hair dryer was in the desk drawer. The bed was quite hard and was to our liking, but might not work well for others. Test it first and, if it's too hard, ask for egg crate foam. The small sofa was low to the ground, but manageable. The air conditioning was somewhat erratic. The shower water temperature was difficult to regulate, but manageable. Do bring some extra hangers with you. Bringing a clock and a power strip are good ideas (only one electrical outlet in the cabin). Since sailing is done mostly at night (one afternoon was at sea), and we spend little time other than to sleep in the cabin, the savings from an outside cabin was a good idea. TV has several repeats of the presentations (information) by the cruise director the night before. There's really no need to go to hear the live "commercials" that she delivers.
Restaurants: Decks 11 and 5. There are three premium (you pay) restaurants and two where there is no additional charge. We ate at each of the two "no charge" restaurants (Crossings and Palace) for lunch and dinner and also at the buffet. The appetizers and most of the entrees were the same in the "no charge" restaurants on all days and are the same in both of the restaurants. The food and service was was good and the staff was very pleasant. The food at the premium restaurant (Pacific Heights -Deck 11) was different and somewhat better than at the no charge restaurants, and the service was a bit more professional. Was the extra money ($12.50 per person) worth it? For the experience "yes;" for the food difference "somewhat yes," but one can be very satisfied with the food at the "no charge" restaurants. The portions at all are smaller, but one can compensate by ordering more, if there is a need. If you want to avoid a wait, like with most things go early (they open at 5:30 p.m. and you can get to the shows early enough to get the best seats). The buffet food was OK, but nothing to write home about. Breakfasts were the same each day, but there was a great variety until the morning of disembarking when some things were missing on the buffet and the waffle and egg stations did not operate. There are different theme cuisine foods on some nights at the buffet. The cold food is basically the same each night.
Internet Cafe: Deck 7. Quite pricey and the manager is brusque when you question him. Internet was down for half of our trip and was not in service the week before either. If you are going to conduct business, it's better to bring your laptop and use the wireless service (they have both wireless and non-wireless). You cannot download on their equipment. You can rent a laptop and a wireless card if needed.
Nightly Shows: Deck 6. Shows are about an hour long, beginning at 8:00 p.m. and then again at 10:00 p.m. Since we were on morning shore excursions most days, we elected the early shows. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. The shows were good and included native dancers the first night, a magician the next and three shows by the Jere-Ann Ryan troop. If you're expecting Las Vegas or other such professional, professional reviews, you'll feel some disappointment, but by and large they did a good job. Some of the troop also fills in at other position at other shows and events. The cruise director tries too hard to be pleasant.
Shore Excursions: By and large they were excellent. You probably could book them at a lesser price if you do it on your own, but you'd have to arrange transportation and that would add to your cost. Also, many of the drivers on the transportation to the "excursion" location are knowledgeable and provide information about the sights along the way. If you're someone interested in flora and fauna, you'll have a field day. The one excursion we felt was a "rip off" was the glass bottom boat in Kona. All other underwater excursions were cancelled due to murky water (money is refunded with no hassle), but the glass bottom boat operator did not cancel and we saw little in the trip that was abbreviated. If you've never experienced the activity round a coral reef at a depth of 150 feet, try the Atlantis submarine adventure in Maui. Others we spoke with also enjoyed their excursions of all types with no exceptions.
Persons With Disabilities: We were impressed by the number of persons with disabilities that were on the ship and were accommodated. People used motorized scooters, wheelchairs, walkers and canes.
Reception, Shore Excursions, and Premium Restaurant Reservations: Deck 5. Staff was quite pleasant (although I'm sure that some want to tell some "guests" off because of having to repeat their answer to and explanation about the same question to some who just didn't get it). Staff variable in their knowledge of some things, but all in all did a good job. It might be a matter of training in that many crew members were new to the boat. Most who were new acknowledge this and pointed out where the information might be found.
Embarkation and Disembarkation: Both are smooth processes. Board early (it opens at about noon), tour the ship, have lunch. Be sure to have your luggage packed, locked and outside of your cabin door between 9:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. the last night of the trip. When disembarking at the end of the trip, have breakfast either at the buffet or at the one "no charge" restaurant that's open and then leave the boat for your luggage. It was readily available. Suggestion to those who are flying out late in the day might be to take a tour that then drops you at the airport. Saves the hassle and money of getting a cab from the boat or wherever to the airport. Some folks we met took a cab into Waikiki, had their luggage watched for them at a hotel (tipped the bellman) and spent the day on the hotel's beach. If you are taking a cab from the airport to the ship, the price is about $17.00 plus tip for the cab. It's cheaper than the transportation offered by NCL. The airport information on the web is in error, quoting $25 to $27 per person. Cab from the boat to the airport is the same. If taking a cab from the boat to the airport, go to the cab stand at Aloha Tower where cabs wait rather than waiting at the corner of Pier 11 to have a cab called for you.
Tipping: NCL continued to waive the $10 per person tip. Although this was a pleasant surprise, it presented a problem of not having any guidelines about how much to tip. A problem with "free style" dining is that you generally don't have the same people serving you and if you use the buffet there is minimal service where you sit. You'll have to figure out tipping as you go along. Seems that some deserving crew doesn't share in tips at all.
Freestyle Cruising: A great idea for us folks who have outgrown playing "dress up." Of course, if you choose, you can dress to the "nines." In the dining rooms, men need to wear pants, but any shirt will do. Women can wear slacks, skirts, long dresses, whatever.
Things For Sale: There's a fee for most things from the "soda card" (that includes club soda), Internet services, alcohol (of course), shore excursions, pictures, sundries, clothing, etc. Nice thing is that you choose whether you want these things or not and they're not added to the price of the cruise.
All-In-All: A great way to see the islands. You only have to unpack once.