BACKGROUND/OVERVIEW -- This review/travelogue is broken down by day for easier navigation and includes a review of our three day precruise stay (12/30/04-01/02/05) that was booked through NCLA. The actual cruise ran from 01/02/05 to 01/09/05. I conclude with a "Conclusions" section, and try to make a few comparisons with the other lines I have cruised.
So that you may understand where these views are coming from, I am an early 30s college professor and my wife, who is nearing her mid 30s, works in the social work field.
This cruise was booked approximately 13 months in advanced and we were originally scheduled to sail on the Pride of America. We were eventually reaccommodated on the Aloha, but our TA had to fight to get us a midship cabin as we were rebooked in a forward cabin even though we had a midship cabin previously.
This cruise was taken in celebration of me graduating with my Ph.D. and earning tenure at the college where I teach. It also provided me with an opportunity to explore the island that I was born on.
Up until last year, our cruising experience was limited to four cruises on three different lines. Then last year we took a number of weekend cruises, which increased the number of cruises under our belt by a third. While I love cruising, my wife is less of a fan. As such, we have cruised as much as I would like, but more than she would like.
Our first cruise was 11 years ago on RCI's Viking Serenade, and was followed by a cruise on Carnival, RCI again, Princess and three more times on RCI before this cruise. Last year alone, I cruised on RCI's Monarch of the Seas three times as the port was convenient, the cruise was short and the price was right! Thus far, we have cruised Baja California, the Mexican Riviera, the Western Caribbean and Alaska. This was our first cruise to Hawaii, and I still have desires to cruise to Bermuda and the Panama Canal.
Keep in mind that these are my opinions only and may differ from yours. Feel free to comment and ask questions. Also, I haven't had the time to proofread this review, so please be kind when notice typographical errors, fragment sentences and/or spelling errors. However, I didn't want to wait another week to post this review.
DAY ONE (SAN-SFO-HNL) -- Today began with a 5 a.m. wakeup call. Getting ready for the airport and packing those last minute essentials. My father-in-law picked us up promptly at 6 a.m. Although our flight wasn't until 9:22 a.m., the Holiday Bowl Parade was today near the airport, so we decided to play it safe. With traffic minimal, we arrived at the airport before 7 a.m.
Having checked in online, we simply needed to hand our bags over to the porter. With time to spare, we wandered through one of the gift shops before hitting Starbucks to use the gift card I received for Christmas. With coffee and pastry in hand, my DW and I proceeded through security -- a process that took approximately 10-15 minutes.
Although our plane boarded on time, it was delayed in taking off by approximately 30 minutes, resulting in us arriving in San Francisco approximately 15-20 minutes late. Having heard our connecting gate number onboard, we rushed to the bathrooms and then to our connecting gate only to find out that our 11:50 a.m. flight was now scheduled to depart at 1:15 p.m. Unfortunately, no reason was given, but I'd guess it was weather related given that it was San Francisco.
When we received our flight schedule from NCLA, I expected, perhaps feared, that there would be a weather delay in San Francisco as it is not an uncommon occurrence. This also speaks to the benefits of a direct flight. Had our precruise trip not spanned the holidays, I would have booked on my own. In retrospect, I probably should have.
NCLA charged about $425 pp, roundtrip including transfers. However, since we booked a year in advance and with airfares last season averaging $600, it seemed prudent to purchase through NCLA. However, Aloha Airlines began direct service from San Diego and had direct flights to Honolulu for $376 in October. Although I could have cancelled with NCLA, I didn't want to "eat" the $50 pp penalty. Again, in retrospect, it probably would have been a wash once transfers were added into the figure.
As I am writing this review, United Airlines announced that they chose to hold our flight from SFO to HNL because a flight from DFW was delayed nearly two hours. Although the DFW plane is not ours, the gate agent announced that 55 passengers connecting to our flight were on board, so the airline opted to delay our departure to allow for their arrival.
Boarding for our second flight began on time, but we didn't actually leave the gate until approximately 1:30 p.m. and were not in the air until nearly 2 p.m. for the 5+ hour flight.
Because we were on board a 777 aircraft with 2-5-2 seating, we had attempted to get two seats to ourselves. However, none were available and we were assigned an aisle and the seat next to the aisle in the center row of five seats. This, of course, had to be done by me by calling United directly as NCL does not preassign seats and my travel agent failed to do so for me. In addition, there was little availability for two even when I did call a month in advance. Fortunately, there was only one other person in this row, on the opposite aisle, so we actually had two additional seats to ourselves. As a result, we had a little more room to stretch out.
United had decent in-flight programs to help pass the time, which consisted of NBC programming, TLC's "In a Fix," and the movie, Elf. All entertainment was provided without an additional fee. In addition, a hot lunch was offered in addition to repeated beverage service. There was also a game on board for passengers to guess the exact time at which the airplane was at the geographic halfway point between SFO and HNL. I came close -- I guessed 2:35:35 p.m. (Hawaiian Time) -- when the actual time was 2:25:11 p.m. Unfortunately, it was not close enough to win the gift basket being offered as the prize. All in all, it was an uneventful flight except for when the flight attendant had to chastise the passengers for "lighting up" in the lavatory. Why they didn't confront the culprit directly I don't know.
We did get to see one of the islands, perhaps Molokai, but didn't get to see much because of clouds. Landing at Honolulu International Airport, we taxied for a bit and then finally reached the gate. Unfortunately, because of the size of the aircraft, it took nearly 25 minutes to get off the plane as there were over 300 people (if my math is right) who had to get off of the plane in front of us.
Upon exiting the jetway, there were two people to greet us. One was holding a sign bearing my wife's name and the other was bearing a generic sign for Pride of Aloha. The women holding a sign with my DW's name was a "lei greeter" that had been prearranged by me. After she got "leid" we went to the NCL representative who introduced himself and escorted us to baggage claim.
Because of the size of the aircraft, two luggage carousels were being used, which made hunting for bags a bit challenging. Further, it took a very long time before our luggage appeared -- approximately 1/2 hour after landing. Once our luggage was in our possession, the NCL representative escorted us to a Robert's van/bus. Although we had a slight wait for the driver, he eventually showed. Apparently, he was looking for two other couples on our flight who ended up making their own transportation plans.
Another Robert's employee traveled on the van with us, and we were able to ask about restaurants. He stated that if we wanted to avoid the "tourist traps" along Waikiki Beach, we should head to Kalakaua Avenue, where he pointed out several eateries "where the locals go," which included Chinese, Mexican and Hawaiian restaurants.
Because there was a parade in Waikiki this afternoon/evening, the last block or two to our hotel was very congested. As a result, the driver ended up going into the hotel through the exit, rather than waiting 15 minutes in traffic to get us to the front. While this did get us to our hotel faster, we ended up being dropped off at the tour entrance, which meant that we had to carry our own baggage into the lobby even though porterage is included in the precruise stay.
Checking in was painless and simply involved providing the front desk with a credit card, picture ID and voucher from our ticket booklet. We then schlepped our bags up to our 11th floor, mountain-view room.
Hungry, we headed down into the lobby. However, before we left in search of food, we stopped by the Outrigger Activities Desk to book a shuttle tomorrow morning for the Arizona Memorial. Although we had the option of two times, 6:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m., we opted for the earlier time to minimize waits in line at the memorial. Further, we wanted to have time to visit the USS Missouri as well.
Leaving the lobby, we headed down Lili'uokalani Avenue to Kalakaua Avenue. After walking a few blocks, we ended up back on Lili'uokalani because I had an Entertainment Book Coupon for the Royal Yakiniku restaurant. Unfortunately, what the coupon was good for was limited in selection. I ended up having the teriyaki chicken, which was served on a sizzling platter. Although it was good, the amount of chicken was somewhat limited for $10.50 and a cup of steamed rice cost an additional $1. However, it was good and was cooked with onions and bean sprouts. I could have also cooked the chicken myself as the restaurant has grills at the table, but I opted to have the chef cook the meal instead.
My wife had the seafood noodle soup for $12.50, but requested it without calamari. The soup was miso-based -- you actually had two choices of the base -- and contained noodles, shrimp (3) and scallops. Again, it was good, but she expected more than three shrimp, especially since she didn't get any calamari in it. Tax and tip were automatically added to the bill, which appears to be standard at this restaurant when coupons are used, according to the menu. All in all, the meal for the two of us cost us slightly less than $18, including tax and gratuity. Not bad at all for a touristy area, especially when I spent that in New York for a Reuben sandwich.
Wanting dessert, we stopped by the McDonald's at Lili'oukalani and Kalakaua. Two dipped cones and a large Diet Coke cost $6. We then strolled the Waikiki beachfront and ended up stopping in two of the larger ABC Stores. They seemed to have a good selection of general merchandise, although I thought their prices on Hawaiian shirts was a bit high. However, this is the place to go for sunscreen, drinks, beach mats, sandals, etc., if you are in need. Further, they had a fairly good selection of beachwear. In addition, they had boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts for $1.99 and plumeria for $3.99.
After purchasing a bottle of water to have in the hotel room, we continued along Kalakaua Avenue to the Hyatt Regency -- a very nice hotel with a great selection of shops including Coach, Fendi, Oakley, etc. In addition, they have a Something Hawaii shop along Kalakaua Avenue which offered a good selection of merchandise. Postcards ran 25 cents each or five for $1. We ended up buying a postcard to send to my wife's grandparents and some Mauna Loa tropical fruit and macadamia nut fruit mix.
We returned to our hotel by way of the beach itself, which was lit by tiki torches. There were quite a number of people sitting on the beach and we enjoyed what appeared to be a banyan, plumeria and a selection of other trees. We also witnessed a spectacular lightning storm signaling the impending storm. Our driver from the airport had told us that winds as high as 60 MPH were expected by tomorrow, and the Outrigger representative said the storm would probably last a day or two, but should be gone by the time our cruise left on Sunday.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Pacific Beach Hotel to locate our pickup point for tomorrow's luau. We also visited the pool deck of our hotel, the Radisson Prince Kuhio, located on the 10th floor. I was curious to check it out as they had a number of drink specials, which included a pitcher of mai tais for $8 from 4 to 7 p.m.
Back in our room, we opened our bags and prepared for bed. Also, needing to get up before 6 a.m., we made sure to get everything ready that we needed. We then perused The Weather Channel, which was not updated unfortunately, and went through the Pleasant Hawaiian magazine. If you want a real good walking map of Waikiki, it can be found in this magazine.
For those interested in the Radisson, the hotel offers a nice room at an affordable price. Although the lobby recently underwent a major remodel, I have to admit that the pictures online where much more spectacular. The rooms themselves are nice and have king sized beds, two chairs, a safe ($3 per day), a lanai and a wet bar like area with coffee and a coffee maker. A refrigerator is also provided. The room was tastefully decorated with a pineapple print bedspread and a number of lights that all had dimmers. Although the bathroom was functional with a combination shower/tub, I'll admit that it needed a bit of an update. The marble tile, while clean, looked a little aged.
DAY TWO (HONOLULU) -- Although I hadn't planned on getting up until 5:45 a.m., I ended up waking at 4 a.m. I'll blame it on my body being on California time as the bedding at the Radisson is quite comfortable. However, my DW had no trouble sleeping, so I decided to get up and work on this review. Having brought my Palm Pilot and keyboard along, I decided it would be better to keep up with this review rather than trying to write it after the fact from chicken-scratched notes.
At approximately 6:15 a.m. we headed down to the lobby for our 6:30 a.m. shuttle ride through Ilima Tours (booked through Outrigger Activities). Although the shuttle was there as scheduled, we had trouble with the second pickup because the people were not there as they were supposed to be, so the driver had to hunt them down. My personal opinion is that the driver should have simply left them and not offered a refund. After all, why should an entire group be held up by one or two people?
Fortunately, there were only two pickups today, counting ours, but for some reason we went by another hotel to meet up with another Ilima shuttle. Waiting for the second shuttle to fill, we went to Pearl Harbor and arrived a little after 7 a.m. Although we beat the second shuttle, the driver stated that we had to wait for that shuttle as we all needed to get in line together.
The line was quite long, but moved quickly once tickets started to be handed out at 7:30 a.m. Our tour group received #6, which meant a 9:15 a.m. tour time. Had we had more time, I would have gone to the USS Missouri; however, we instead visited the museum, toured the complex and walked outside to view the Bowfin, Missouri and Arizona Memorial. Because it was hazy, pictures from a distance did not turn out very well.
At 9:15 a.m., we entered the theater and watched the movie about the events that led up to the attack. We thought the film was very well done and enjoyed the narration from Stockard Channing (at least that's who we think it was). After the film, we took the ferry over to the memorial. Sitting on the starboard side, I was able to get some very good pictures of the memorial as we arrived.
The memorial was a fascinating place to visit and sorrowful as well. It was both sad to know that so many were buried below, but also fascinating to see the remains of the vessel and to watch the leaking oil float to the surface. The oil droplets took on a rainbow quality to them offering a beauty and serenity that was unexpected.
To avoid the crowds, I simply went to the areas where no one else was. Although I took a number of pictures, many did not come out well because of the clarity of the water. While the gun turret came out well because it was above the surface, it was very difficult to get a picture of anything below the surface because it was hazy and offering a bit of a reflection. However, you could see fish below and it was interesting to realize that the remains of the Arizona have bred new life in the form of an artificial reef.
Returning to the Visitor's Center, we realized we had an hour to wait because the second driver told us to be back at 11:15 a.m. even though we were done by 10:30 a.m. Having done everything at the Visitor's Center, we simply wandered to kill time.
Although we had wanted to do the USS Missouri -- I even had an Entertainment Book coupon for it -- we simply didn't have enough time as we had a luau scheduled this night. Thus, we headed back to Waikiki. Arriving at our hotel, we journeyed on foot to the Waikiki Trolley office to pickup our trolley tickets that I had purchased on the Internet. The four-day, unlimited pass ran $45 for the two of us as a 2-for-1 special was being offered online. However, at this point, I am unsure if we'll get our money's worth as we were unable to use it last night because of our late flight and we'll have little use for it on Sunday when we leave for the POA. Nevertheless, a one-day pass runs $25, so we should break even given the special.
Wanting a quick bite, we went to the food court at the Waikiki Shopping Plaza. We then wandered back through the International Market Place and other shops along Kalakaua Avenue, picking up souvenirs for family members. Our favorites were plumeria for my father-in-law (his request) and a wooden postcard with a bird of paradise on it (my grandparents-in-laws favorite flower).
Throughout today, there were threats of rain, but never more than a few drops here or there. Nevertheless, we carried light raincoats with us just in case. Walking the entire stretch of Waikiki, we came across Waikiki Beach Marriott, so I went inside to find the NCLA desk.
Arriving at the NCLA desk, I asked if we could check in for the ship there. I was told I could, but that I would need our voucher book, ID, credit card and the passenger preregistration forms. Going back to our hotel to get these items, we returned and were able to precheck in for the cruise.
Since I had preregistered online, I simply had to provide the printed copy of what I had done. Why they don't have this information available, I'll never know, but it was still nice to precheck in. They were even able to take our security photo!
After check in, we headed back to the beach to actually enter the water this time as we had changed when we went to get the info necessary for check in. Although the water was clear, I have to admit that it was a bit cold for me. Afterward, we returned to our hotel by way of the Coconut Cafe, wanting to try a shaved ice.
The Coconut Cafe is located on Kuhio Avenue on either Ulunui or Ka'iulani Avenues. They serve a huge shaved ice, which is definitely big enough to share. We were also given the option to get shaved ice with ice cream in the middle. This was soooo gooood! The flavors we chose were mango, coconut and passion fruit. Plus, when mixed with the ice cream, it had a creamsicle flavor.
Returning to our hotel, we checked out the pool area and then headed to our room to get ready for the luau. At 4:30, we proceeded to the Pacific Park Hotel for our pickup, which was about a block away.
The escort was easy to spot because he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with Germaine's Luau printed on it. Further, you couldn't miss the crowd of people. However, when we checked in, I did think it was weird that he had to hold on to my credit card to process it once we got to the luau. Why they didn't process it in advance I'll never know.
The bus trip from Waikiki took approximately 30-40 minutes, taking us to a beach beyond Pearl Harbor. During the trip, the escort, Cousin Elrey, entertained us with jokes, stories and the meaning of Hawaiian words. He also went over the menu for the night's dinner, and discussed the type of entertainment that would be provided.
We were one of 12 buses that made it to the luau, and I'd guess there were several hundred people at this luau. My best guess is 500-600 people, but I may be wrong. Once you are dropped off, you are given shell leis -- the ones you can buy 3-for-$.99 -- and a picture was taken. Although the picture was taken with the beach as a backdrop, it was already too dark for the beach to be visible in the picture. The pictures run $20 in a frame and booklet and can be purchased on the return trip to Waikiki.
Besides dinner, which I'll discuss shortly, three alcoholic drinks were provided and they were not short on the alcohol. Now, there is an interesting gimmick here. The drinks provided are eight ounces in size; however, if you buy a souvenir glass in the gift shop, you can have that glass (16 ounces) filled using the same coupon. Thus, you get twice as much if you are willing to spend $8 on a souvenir glass. Sodas, coffee, ice tea and water were complimentary, although you could also buy souvenir glasses to get larger sizes of these as well. Dinner began after the pit ceremony and the raising of the pig. It was served buffet style and tables were escorted to the buffet in a preselected order. The lines seemed to move fast and the food in general was good.
Among the offerings were steamed rice, pineapple, pineapple coleslaw, potato-macaroni salad, pork, some type of beef in type of BBQ sauce, lomi lomi (sp?) salmon, rolls, cake and some type of coconut milk dessert which looked like white jello.
While everyone was eating, the show began and was quite interesting, featuring what I would assume is traditional luau performances. There were Polynesian dancers, hula dancers, a fire knife dance, singing, etc. Enjoyable in all.
The show and dinner lasted about 2 1/2 to 3 hours and another hour or so for transportation. Thus, we were picked up in Waikiki at 4:45 p.m. and were returned at approximately 9 p.m. All in all, I think the luau was a pretty good value considering that the buffet, entertainment, transportation and three drinks were included. Using an Entertainment Book coupon for a 25% discount, the luau ended up costing us $39.75 per person. I figured the three drinks and the buffet alone were easily worth $25-$30 in general, and probably more given Waikiki prices.
Not having enjoyed dessert at the luau, we walked down what we began calling the "Waikiki Strip" (Kalakaua Avenue). There was definitely a crowd tonight as it was New Year's Eve and because there were a number of street performers. However, we managed to make it to the Baskin Robbins at the Waikiki Shopping Plaza's food court as my wife wanted to try the "birthday cake" ice cream she had seen earlier in the day.
Making our way back through the crowds to our hotel, we were grateful to arrive as we had had enough of people for the day. There was simply too much bumping and shoving along Kalakaua Avenue because of the crowds gathered around the street performers, which made it difficult to pass.
Although our hotel was offering a complimentary champagne toast, balloon drop and confetti gun for New Year's Eve, we decided to call it a night and had a quiet rest of the evening in our hotel room.
Although it threatened to rain today several times, it never really did. We'd experience a few drops, and then it would stop. However, we did fear that it would "open up" and were grateful that it did not as the luau was outside.
DAY THREE (HONOLULU) -- We awoke today to heavy downpours. Although we had planned on doing Diamond Head today as it was one of the few touristy things open today, we decided against it due to the weather. Instead we decided to make this our shopping day, so we took the Waikiki Trolley's Yellow Line to Sam's Club/Wal-Mart. Although we had a 4-day pass on the trolley, the single trip price on this line is only $2 each way, making it an affordable and convenient way to travel.
Arriving at Wal-Mart, we discovered that Sam's Club was closed, so we started by having lunch at the L&L drive-in located inside Wal-Mart. After splitting a fried shrimp plate lunch, we wandered into Wal-Mart's souvenir section. Although Wal-Mart does have some very good prices, in general I did not find them significantly less for all things that we were looking for. In general, the postcards ran about the same, although Wal-Mart had a better selection of large postcards shaped like each of the islands, which I purchased for my scrapbook. I also found some Hawaiian note paper and stickers I had not seen elsewhere.
Plumeria ran about a $1 less as did the macadamia and pineapple brittle. However, chocolate dipped macadamia nut clusters were slightly more expensive than the ABC Stores. We also picked up a little Hawaiian dress for my niece and some zip ties for me as I needed more for our luggage. I also found these cable clamps which would later come in handy for keeping all of our shopping bags together.
Just as an aside, let me say that this was a very interesting Wal-Mart as it had its own parking garage in front. Further, there is a special escalator for shopping carts in case you have to park on an upper level. And most surprising, the Sam's Club is located on the second level, directly above Wal-Mart.
Finishing at Wal-Mart, we reboarded the trolley and headed to Ala Moana Center. We entered through the food court, which was huge, and did not see a single table in site. This place was very crowded because of the weather.
We actually walked the entire mall window shopping and stopping in some of the stores as we went. Unfortunately, the mall is partially open air, so everyone was gathered near the doorways of shops making it difficult to get by.
Among our purchases were pastries for tomorrow's breakfast at a grocery store located in the center and some dessert items from Alan Wong's Pineapple Room. We would later have a Pineapple Whip and a custard filled Portuguese donut.
Returning to the trolley stop, we found a huge line and were actually told that it would take one to two hours and that we should really consider taking the city bus. Now, I may have over-reacted a bit, but quickly and civilly replied, "I'm not taking the city bus when I spent $45 on a four day pass to ride this trolley when I've only gotten $4 of value so far." The employee's response was simply, "I understand that you don't want to waste your tickets."
In all, the wait was probably 20 minutes at the most as it appeared that they were running trolleys more frequently than the scheduled 10 minute intervals.
Now, if you are going to take the trolley during bad weather, dress accordingly. The trolleys are open-air, so only about 1/3 of the trolley offers any protection from the rain. Fortunately, we had brought ponchos with us knowing that it might rain. Although we had originally bought them for our Alaska cruise, we found they worked in Hawaii just as well as they were light, compact and provided an adequate level of waterproofing.
We returned to Waikiki and got off at the Royal Hawaiian. We shopped our way back to our hotel, stopping at the Galleria and buying chocolate macadamia nut clusters at one of the ABC Stores.
Although we had had reservations for Cabanas at the Mandarin Oriental, we cancelled our reservation earlier in the day when I called and was told that the meals may be moved into the ballrooms because of the weather. Since we had made the reservation based on the local -- dining under an individual cabana on the beach -- we canceled our reservation and decided to dine locally.
Back in our hotel early this evening, we decided to take advantage of the hotel's happy hour special as they offer a pitcher of Mai Tais for $8. Unfortunately, we found the pool bar closed because of the weather, even though it was in a covered section and lots of people were out there. Knowing there was another bar in the lobby, we headed there and asked for the Mai Tai pitcher special, but were told it would be $24. I declined, went to the front desk and asked where I could get the advertised special and was told that it was not offered when the pool bar was closed. Go figure!
This was actually the third time the front desk would annoy me. When reviewing our bill the previous night, I noticed that we were charged $3.13 for the in-room safe that we did not use. When I called to have the charge removed, I was told that I could dispute it during checkout rather than having it handled right then and there. Then this morning, I noticed our paper had not arrived, although the other side of the hall had their papers. So going downstairs for breakfast, I stopped by the front desk and asked why we didn't get a paper, only to be told that they had "run out!" However, this person at least was willing to remove the safe charge without me having to wait until tomorrow.
Later this evening, I would request a later checkout (less than an hour), only to be told that I would have to call back the following morning after 6:30 a.m. Now, I don't know if this is normal, but it became very frustrating to be told, "Later, tomorrow, at checkout" all the time. If the person I talked to couldn't handle the request, he or she should have directed me to the person who could.
Dinner tonight consisted of McDonald's even though we had originally planned to eat at Cabanas tonight beachside. Although there is obviously no comparison, McDonald's was convenient and easy. Further, it wasn't all that crowded, which was good as we had had our fill of people at Ala Moana and the crowds there.
Although we, like most people, have been to McDonald's before, this one had items that the ones back home didn't. Thus, we tried a Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich and a Quarter Pounder with Swiss and grilled onions and mushrooms. All meals also came with pineapple, which we would save for breakfast the next day.
After dinner, we went to another ABC Store as I wanted a couple of 20 ounce sodas for the first day on board. While there, my DW also found some sunglasses. Having left her sunglasses at home, my DW had been looking for sunglasses since Thursday, and finally found a nice, inexpensive pair this evening. We then returned to our hotel.
Our last evening in the hotel was uneventful. We watched a little television, packed what we had unpacked and tried to get an updated weather report to see if Diamond Head might be a viable option tomorrow. We also called home using our calling cards as 800 numbers were free from the hotel. We found it very difficult to find an accurate, updated weather forecast. Even though the hotel had The Weather Channel, the 36-hour forecast was always "unavailable." So we called my mother back, after having talked to her earlier, and asked if she'd look up the weather on her computer. Although rain was expected in the early morning, it was expected to clear by 9 a.m., so we planned for Diamond Head. However, the ultimate weather test would be to open the lanai door and step outside. It seemed more accurate and reliable than anything we could get officially in Waikiki.
DAY FOUR (HONOLULU & EMBARKATION) -- Today, we awoke to see partially clearing skies and the sun for the first time since our arrival to the island three days ago. Excited, we promptly prepared for our journey to Diamond Head. We also had to set our luggage just inside our hotel room's door as it was scheduled to be picked up today at 9:30 a.m. for transport to the ship.
With everything packed and our carry-on bags separated, we headed down to the front desk to have our room keys reprogrammed as they had granted us a "late" checkout. According to the front desk staff, the keys automatically expire at 12 noon, so we needed to have the keys reprogrammed if we wanted entry back into our room.
We then headed to the "Waikiki Strip" to catch the Waikiki Trolley's Blue Line. Because of the crowds at this stop, the trolley company had an additional trolley brought into service doing an express route to/from Diamond Head.
If you had asked me yesterday, I would have said that the trolley was a waste of money, especially since the Ala Moana and shopping lines (Wal-Mart, Ross, etc.) are only $2 each way. However, today the trolley proved convenient and I was impressed that the company was running extra trolleys to keep up with the demand.
The trip to Diamond Head took approximately 15 minutes and dropped us off directly at the entrance gate, unlike The Bus, which drops you about one mile away. Paying our $1 admission, we proceeded to the comfort station and then headed up the trail.
Although it had rained yesterday and possibly even this morning, the trail was not as wet as we would have expected. In fact, some of the dirt portions may have been more packed because of the rain. However, there were some small puddles on the trail and portions of the trails that are solid rock did get a bit slippery. Fortunately, there is a hand rail.
The trail definitely provided a workout, but was fairly gradual. It was very similar to walking on a treadmill set at an incline of 10 to 15%. At times, we would be passed and at other times we would pass others, so it was easy to keep a convenient pace.
Although it was cool today, I would recommend bringing water just in case. Also, there are no bathrooms on the trail, so make sure you go at the comfort station located at the base of the trail before you head out. Also, be prepared by wearing appropriate shoes. I saw a number of people walking the trails in flip flops and heals. Although they did make it to the top, I have to assume it was difficult.
The only real killer on the hike is the last straight staircase. I did have to rest briefly at the top, although my DW had no problems as she does the stair mill -- an escalator-type stair stepper at the gym. What made this stair difficult was the steepness and the sheer number (99) without a landing. Further, it was very narrow with only a hand rail on one side, making it difficult to climb up while others were coming down.
The final staircase was a spiral one, not at all difficult except for the narrowness. It was difficult to get up while people were trying to get down. Further, if you wanted for people to pass, water and mud would drip on you from above as the trail was wet from the previous rains. In addition, the steps are made of open grates, allowing mud and water to drip from people's shoes.
Believe it or not, I find the top to be the hardest part as you have to navigate two steps and then crouch down to get out of the outlook. There was also a bottleneck here as only one person could go at a time, so you had to alternate with those trying to get down.
Although I don't find it difficult to navigate a 3 1/2 to four foot opening, I didn't want to do so on my hands and knees because of the mud and water. As a result, I had to crouch and do a type of crab crawl to get outside, Difficult, but not strenuous. Had it been dry, I would have just crawled out on my hands and knees. Returning to the entrance of Diamond Head, we had about 20 minutes before our trolley, so we headed to the Diamond Head Lookout where the trolley would also pickup. We were returned to our hotel promptly at 12 noon, giving us about an hour to freshen up before our bus to the port.
Stepping into our hotel room for the very last time, we were quite surprised to see someone else's luggage in there with POA post-cruise tags on them. Calling the front desk to ask if this was normal as we had been granted a 1 p.m. checkout, the receptionist stated that they would send someone up right away to remove the bags. However, no one ever came to collect them.
While we didn't mind that the luggage had been delivered there, we would be concerned if we were the owners of those bags. Personally, I would be concerned if my bags had been delivered to an occupied room. Who knows what people might do to your luggage especially when it's unsupervised.
We were glad that we had requested late checkout as we had worked up a sweat at Diamond Head. Further, we had gotten some mud on our legs and shoes, so having the room let us clean those.
Grabbing a few bites of what we had left from breakfast, we headed down to the lobby, While my wife sat in the bar to catch the Charger's score on the sports ticker, I checked out at the front desk, wanting to pay my bill, an entire $2, in cash rather than have it show up on my credit card bill.
Although the NCL bus was scheduled to pickup at 1:10 p.m., it arrived 15-20 minutes early and left for the port by 1:05 p.m. The drive to the port took maybe 15-20 minutes and everyone gaggled as the ship came in to view. Being dropped off next to the terminal building, we proceeded through one of two sets of doors.
Each set of doors had two x-rays and metal detectors going. However, the line moved very slowly as the x-ray technician was also the person who had to search the bags if anything "inappropriate" was spotted. They definitely needed two people as the technician had to stop the line to search the luggage before she could x-ray additional carry on baggage.
Security was taken seriously and I saw more bags being checked manually than on any other cruise I have been on. However, I did have some doubts about one of the technicians when she had to ask her supervisor if water blasters (a large water gun) were allowed on board. I would assume that the rules were pretty straight forward and that any of the personnel would know that answer without asking. By the way, the water guns were allowed onboard, so let's hope they are responsible children.
Once through x-ray, we proceeded to the separate Marriott check-in line as we had preregistered there. Although the line didn't seem to be appreciably smaller than the regular line, I have to assume it moved faster as all we had to do was pickup our room keys. What I did enjoy, however, was that the agent explained what the key was used for (room key, charges, boarding pass) and stated that a photo ID was also needed to get back into the port when returning. Although I already knew this, I'm sure first time cruisers appreciated this and it was done and said better than on any other line I have traveled on.
Heading up the escalators, we were leid (shells for me, orchids for the DW) and had our boarding photo taken. I did hear someone ask if they could bypass the photo opportunity, but the photographer stated that he had to take everyone's picture.
Stepping onboard the POA, our key cards were swiped and our encoded photos were checked. We then stepped into the atrium for the very first time, to see a lot of young American faces asking us if we needed attention. I'll have to admit it was somewhat awkward seeing so many young Americans, as we are use to being on ships with international crews. Knowing that we were on Deck 8, we took the atrium elevators to get there. Because they are glass enclosed, we were able to get a nice view on the journey up and I must say that I was quite impressed with the atrium. It was quite beautiful. Although the sails and tikis looked a bit gaudy in pictures, it really comes together well in person.
Heading to our cabin, we did come across two buckets in the corridor that were collecting dripping water from the ceiling above. Finding our cabin (8047, oceanview), we stepped inside to take a look around. From hotel to cabin was one hour. Just as an aside, your room key does not have your cabin number on it, so make sure that you either memorize it or write it down somewhere.
I found the cabin to be quite roomy with a love seat that comfortably sat two. The only thing missing from the room was a coffee table, which we later found was collapsed and stashed under the bed, perhaps to give us more room. I also found the bathroom to be well laid out and roomier than some as the toilet is set at an angle as to not encroach on the space in front of the sink.
In general, I would say the room is equivalent to those found on RCI's Rhapsody of the Seas. The layout was nearly identical. Obviously, for those of you who have cruised RCI's Monarch, the room is larger. Although the shower is smaller than the Monarch's, I found the overall bathroom layout more functional. Further, since the shower on the POA is round, it was actually wider, although shorter, than the one onboard the Monarch.
We also found our honeymoon/anniversary package waiting for us when we arrived. On the desk were chocolate covered strawberries and a bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, the champagne was not chilled and champagne glasses were not provided. A letter explaining the program was also included. So on our way to explore the ship, we stopped by the reservations table to make our reservation.
Although we were told that reservations could only be made 24 hours in advance, when I told her that we had the package, she stated I could make the reservations for any night. I also told her that I wanted to make a reservation for another restaurant, and went to clarify when I could make that reservation, she stated that she could make both of them then. A pleasant surprise that would keep me from having to make the second reservation later in the week.
On our way out, we saw a display set up for the specialty restaurants so we stopped to look. One of the staff was there and explained the restaurants to us. When we said that we had already made the reservations, she asked which restaurants we would be dining at and then explained the menus to us. She also stated that in Kahili, all of the pastas are made fresh onboard as are the sauces.
Wanting to grab a bite to eat, we headed to the buffet on Deck 11. Making our way through a small line, we came to the hand cleaning station and really liked that NCL provided one. For those of you who don't know, the hand cleaning station is an automated dispenser that releases an antibacterial gel. All you have to do is rub it into your hands to kill any germs and/or bacteria that may be on them.
Having seen passengers eating some very large shrimp, we knew what we wanted, so we grabbed our plates only to see that the shrimp had been removed. Really wanting shrimp, we stood back to wait as the person handing out the plates stated that they should be bringing more up in 5 or 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the shrimp never arrived and it was replaced by lox. We would find out later in the buffet that many items were replaced rather than restocked throughout the day. Thus, if you see something you want get it then as it may not be replenished once it runs out. The buffet selection was quite good and included pizza (the pepperoni was a bit spicier than I like), beef stew, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and a very good grilled fish. Off in a corner, you could also get a freshly prepared Caesar salad and two kinds of soup (a crab/lobster gumbo and a peach/strawberry concoction).
We opted to sit out on the lanai portion of the buffet to find that that buffet had the shrimp we so desperately desired. This buffet also had grilled burgers, hot dogs and brats, as well as seasoned curly fries.
Although selection was a bit more limited than other cruises I have been on, I find the over all quality to be quite good and a bit better for lunch than say RCI. Plates were promptly cleared, with you usually being asked first, although one person did remove our plate without asking and we were not done with it.
Although we did pass the "soda table" while entering the buffet, I had not planned on getting the program as I didn't think that I would use it. However, during lunch, I decided to do so, figuring it would be convenient and I do like soda. Further, my DW thought it was a reasonably good value given that it was unlimited. And although the program was slightly more expensive than Princess, it was significantly cheaper than RCI. Thus, I went up to the Lanai bar and asked to buy the soda card. I was told that the waitress would take care of it, so I handed her my card and told her I would like the program and a Diet Coke. She then told me to go back to my table and she would bring it to me.
So, I did as instructed only to have her come over with my receipt with no Diet Coke, She then explained how the program worked and clearly stated that gratuities were not included in the program, although they were optional. I then asked if tipping in cash would be the way to go, and she said, "That works." Therefore, I did not write in any type of tip on the receipt and she said that she would return with my Diet Coke. Unfortunately, we left before the Diet Coke ever arrived as I got tired of waiting. Not a great start to the soda program.
We went back into the buffet to get dessert, only to find that all of the plates and bowls at the dessert station were extremely hot. So much so, that it was difficult to hold them. By the time my DW had gotten to the ice cream person, the frosting on the piece of cake she had gotten had already melted. Further, they were serving ice cream in hot bowls. While fruit was being carved at an adjacent station, we could see that the women cutting the fruit was having difficulty keeping up with the demand and could have definitely used additional help.
We decided to eat poolside so that I could go to the Breakers Bar for a soda. While I did finally get one, my ice cream was half melted by the time I actually got it. Fortunately, later in the day sodas would be acquired more easily and quickly, especially at dinner. Returning to our cabin, we did find that one of our bags had arrived, so we went to unpack it only to find that we only had three hangers. Later on, I would call the number provided for "Stateroom Service" as we would not see our cabin steward this evening. However, I would later find that this was also room service and that they take messages for the room stewards. In the message (I also left a note) I requested more hangers and an egg crate pad for the bed as it was extremely hard. Both would be provided, although the steward left the packing for the egg crate on our desk rather than disposing of it in the trash.
The 4:30 p.m. Muster Drill was uneventful as usual and I was quite surprised that our names were not checked off. We would later return to our cabin after the drill to see someone stick his head out of his cabin and say, "Oh, good. The drill's over. I guess we can come out now!" On RCI they check you off on the station's roster and have the cabin stewards check all of the rooms during the Muster Drill.
Storing our life jackets, we headed to the 5 p.m. "Ports of Call Lecture." A number of free prized were given and some of the shops and shuttles available on the various islands were discussed. The presenter also had a number of items from the shops, some to display and some to give out as prizes. After the talk, we returned to our cabin to find that our TA had provided us with an onboard credit. Unfortunately, the amount of the credit was not provided on the card.
Taking the card to the Reception Desk, we were told that they thought it was a $25 credit given the order number, but they weren't sure and that it would be posted on Tuesday. Either way, it was a nice gesture and better liked than wine or champagne as it can be used for anything. At 6 p.m., we attended the "Kauai Excursion Briefing," but found it to be uninspiring, so we left only to find that we had just missed sunset. This was somewhat disappointing given the weather of late, so we opted for a walk around the deck instead.
We would later check out the shops and attempt to spin the wheel of savings only to find out that it had to be spun before embarkation. At 6 p.m., you have to make your purchases first, and then spin the wheel. Personally, I thought this should have been clarified in the daily as I would have gone down during embarkation had I known.
The shops were very nice, but a bit on the pricey side. However, most ship shops are and it was nice that they could be open while in port. We also stopped by the arcade, which was significantly cheaper than RCI for game play.
Dinner took place in Crossings with a relaxed dress code the first evening. We went to dinner about 7 p.m. and were promptly seated at a table for two. Service was efficient and a bit more casual/friendly than on other ships. However, I actually enjoyed this style as it was easier to engage the waitperson. Of course, since the restaurant was not crowded, this may have had something to do with it as well.
My DW had the Mahi Mahi with a mango relish that was very good. Although we passed on the featured selection, a coconut and macadamia nut encrusted fish, I wish we had tried it in retrospect. I had the spring roll appetizer (good) and the French onion soup (good). I also had the steak, which was good. For dessert, we both had the macadamia nut crème brulee, although my wife initially wanted the macadamia nut ice cream. However, when she ordered it, she was asked if she had a second choice in case "they were out of it." This would become a theme of the week with the wait staff asking for a "backup choice" in case they were out of something you ordered.
After dinner, we pretty much called it an evening as we had to get up early the next morning for our movie tour. Further, we weren't all that interested in the poolside party.
DAY FIVE (KAUAI) -- Today we awoke at the pier in Kauai. The morning began with breakfast in the buffet, as would each morning to come. Although we had planned on trying the dining room at least once, the buffet proved to be easier and much more efficient. Unfortunately, the selections never changed and it did grow trying by the end of the week.
The buffet offered traditional breakfast fare: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pastries, toast, English muffins, bagels, juice and fruit. In addition, a waffle and omelet station were set up on the lanai portion of the buffet. Although the waits were not too long for the waffles, you needed at least 10 minutes to make it through the omelet line. You could also get eggs cooked to order here if you liked.
After breakfast, we headed onto the pier to await our 8 a.m. pickup. Not seeing the van, I asked an employee who said that the movie tour company will have someone there with a sign so we just waited inside the pier building. A few minutes later, I got a call on my cell phone from the movie tour telling me that they had sent the wrong van to the pier and that it was lacking the appropriate permit to enter the pier area. They stated they could either go back to their office and get the correct van or they could meet us outside the pier.
We decided to meet the van outside of the pier, but began to wonder if they even had the appropriate permit as we remained in the same van all day and never switched to the "correct" van. In the end, we would have to be dropped off at the end of the day about a block away from the pier as the driver got yelled at for parking illegally when he picked us up.
The tour itself was very good, but a bit pricier than it was worth. However, I must admit that seeing the clips either before or after the stop helped bring the location to life. Stops included the falls used in Fantasy Island and The Amazing Race, the entrance to Jurassic Park, and the like.
We opted for the 4x4 tour in the hopes of seeing parts of Kauai that we would normally not see. Although this was accomplished, we did not get to see the scenes from Indiana Jones. However, you do not get to see the area used for Jurassic Park unless you do the 4x4 tour.
Although we are not Elvis fans, we truly enjoyed the visit to Coco Palms Hotel. We were actually able to go onto the grounds and inside one of the restaurants. Unfortunately, the grounds were quite flooded, so access was limited. It was reported, however, than an investor plans to rehab the hotel and bring it back to life. I hope they do given the history of the hotel, but realize that there is a lot of work to do at a great expense.
The driver was very knowledgeable about the movies and about the island in general. In all, there were 10 people on this tour in a van that probably held 13 passengers. A good boxed lunch was provided that included a soda, water or juice, chips, pasta salad and a turkey sandwich.
We returned to the pier about 3:30 p.m. and returned to our cabin briefly before heading back to the pier to catch the Wal-Mart shuttle. Unfortunately, the Wal-Mart shuttle stops running at 4 p.m., although they do not advertise this. In fact, we only figured this out when the Wal-Mart shuttle driver unloaded his passengers, quickly closed the doors and drove off without saying anything. Fortunately, one of the other tour drivers was able to tell us why the driver drove off.
We ended up catching the shuttle to K mart instead as that shuttle runs until 6 p.m. Picking up a couple of items for my mother -- she wanted a couple of muumuus -- and I wanted some batteries I thought I had forgotten to pack and later found. We also discovered that this K mart was set up like the Wal-Mart in Honolulu with an entire area devoted to souvenirs.
Returning from K mart relatively early, we returned to our cabin briefly and then grabbed an early dinner. At no point during the cruise did we ever experience a wait and in most cases we were seated by a window when we requested it.
Returning to the pier, we got ready for the optional formal night, but decided to remain resort casual. However, we did take the opportunity to have our pictures taken throughout the ship. Unfortunately, it would take the photo department two days to develop the photos only for us to discover that the photos themselves were scratched and were out of focus. Just to clarify, however, it was the photos that were scratched. All of the backdrops appeared to be in pristine condition and looked brand new. In the past, others have reported that the backgrounds were damaged, scratched, etc. This was not the case; the photos themselves were scratched (bad processing?) and out of focus.
We headed to dinner between 6 and 6:30 p.m. and were seated immediately. Tonight I had the Avocado Caesar Salad (fair) -- they made a better one in the buffet at lunch -- and the lobster (very good) with a steak. My DW also had the lobster, which she said was very good. I finished with the soufflE, which I would have most evenings. The soufflEs were always very good.
Service started out well in the dining room, but quickly faltered. Although other tables were offered assistance at removing the lobster from the shell, we were never given this option. Also, there were lulls in service. Although service would be acceptable throughout the cruise (except for one lunch), it was far from polished. However, I did found the Derrick (the red headed Irishman from Boston in Crossings) and his assistant did a very good job. In fact, the second time I sat in their section my Diet Coke was quickly replaced without my asking.
The show tonight was the Polynesian Dance show. It was good, but we had been to a luau a few days earlier. As a result, it was not all that different than what we had already experienced. Thus, we called it a night about halfway through the show.
DAY SIX (KAUAI) -- We began today like most days in the buffet for breakfast. Although the selection is uninspiring, it proved fast and convenient. However, finding a seat in the buffet or on the patio could be difficult at times, so we often ended up in the sports bar as it provided additional seating.
When time warranted, we did opt for the freshly made waffles or the omelets. However, the omelet station did backup at times. While I don't believe the wait was probably more than 10-15 minutes on the busiest days, we usually didn't have the additional time to wait. As usual, standard breakfast fare was available and we often partook in the oatmeal and the freshly carved fruit. However, we did find that the carver often had trouble keeping up with demand, especially when it came to things like papaya and pineapple.
After breakfast, we headed down to the pier for our tour to the Fern Grotto. While agents held signs and expertly guided us to the appropriate buses, we were delayed when one of the agents discovered that there were more passengers than there were seats. Over-hearing the agent speaking with the driver, I heard the agent state that NCL had sold extra tickets on the tour without informing the company. This would prove to be a problem in other ports as well, and always caused the last bus' departure to be delayed. If you're one that wants to get on and go, make sure you arrive at the pier early and get on one of the first busses.
While the Fern Grotto was interesting and beautiful, this was the one tour I believe was over-priced in comparison to the other tours purchased through NCL. All of the other tours proved to be a good value, except for this one. Given that the boat ride and admission to the grotto only runs $20 a person, the additional $32 charged per person for transportation and a brief tour to some waterfalls was seriously overpriced. Nevertheless, one pays for convenience and I didn't want to hassle with an independent tour on a short day.
Upon return to the ship, the bus made a brief stop at a strip mall located near the ship -- perhaps a five minute walk. As passengers disembarked the bus, the driver thanked each of them for keeping Kauai green through their patronage. We skipped the shopping opportunity and returned to the ship so that we could grab lunch before the 1 p.m. cooking demonstration held in Le Bistro.
Since we had one hour before the cooking demonstration, we opted for lunch in the dining room. This was the only time we received terrible service and bad food. As far as service went, we had to ask for everything: butter for the bread, dressing for the salad, etc. While my DW had a very good chef salad, I had a pasta dish with seafood that was terrible. Service was so poor, that I had to ask for my dessert to go -- a very good chocolate tort/mouse -- which I carried up to the cooking demonstration to have later since I skipped most of my lunch. Fortunately, the waiter did provide a cover for the dessert that I had to carry throughout the ship.
On a positive note, the cooking demonstration was one of the best I attended on any ship. In addition, after each dish was prepared, the wait staff would bring samples out to all of the attendees. The dishes included a shrimp cocktail, a pear flambE (dessert) and a seafood dish.
The cook was more than willing to answer questions and also mentioned that there was an onboard pizzeria, which I had forgotten. Given the response from the audience, I'd assume that most people had either forgotten or were unaware of its presence as well.
After the cooking demonstration, we headed to the Outrigger Lounge for the Hawaiian arts and crafts event -- kukui nut leis. Unfortunately, we had already set sail and we only stayed a few minutes before leaving as the ship was rocking wildly. Returning to our cabin by way of the Reception desk to cash some traveler's checks, we noted that the staff were handing out motion sickness pills like candy. Although my wife is prone to motion sickness, having a midship cabin helped to mitigate the effects of the movement. Thus, we spent the time with our nut leis assembling them by ourselves without directions.
The leis were very nice and it was a free activity. For an additional charge, one could purchase shells and other additions to put between each of the nuts. Otherwise, one simply needed to tie a small knot between each of the nuts or leave the upper part of the lei without nuts.
By 3:45 p.m. we had reached the Napali Coast and had either slowed or changed course enough to limit the amount of experienced movement. The Napali Coat was beautiful, reminding me a lot of Alaska. We even had some whales off the port bow, although we really only witnessed the blowhole spray despite announcements that the whales were breaching.
During our stay out on the promenade, we began talking with a woman from Michigan who proved delightful. This was her first cruise and she had asked about our cruising experience and mentioned some terrible reviews she had read prior to our cruise. During the conversation my wife commented on other cruises and once again mentioned how she liked Freestyle cruising and the flexibility of dining when you want with whom you want. We probably talked for well over an hour while sailing past the Napali Coast before we had to end the conversation as we had a 6 p.m. reservation in Le Bistro.
As an aside, I must admit that I was surprised that the maintenance crew opted to varnish a portion of the railing on the port side of the ship today. Given that this was scenic cruising of the Napali Coast, I would have thought they could have waited until the evening or the following day to varnish the railing.
Le Bistro was included as part of our Romance Package, which proved to be a good value overall as it also included champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, wine with dinner and a photo. In addition, we received canapEs in the room today as we were leaving, but they were removed by the cabin steward before we could enjoy them. Further, the refrigerator was too small to store the canapEs within -- it was the smallest/shallowest refrigerator I had ever seen, but it was nice to have a refrigerator for drinks and water.
Le Bistro was nice and had some good views being high up on the ship, but it was awkward watching people walking by on the track during dinner. Service was also slow, with dinner taking 2 1/2 hours to complete.
We started by ordering wine, which the waiter knew was included in the package. Upon ordering, however, the waiter asked if we had a "backup" choice in case they were out of our first choice -- something I was unaccustomed to hearing on a cruise but use to hearing on this one. Fortunately, we ended up receiving the wine we wanted, which was $4 more after the wine credit was applied.
Between the two of us we had French onion soup, escargot, salad, filet mignon and a pasta dish. Unfortunately, I wouldn't rate the food better than fair to good and must admit that I had a much better filet and much better escargot in the main dining room on RCI's Monarch of the Seas last month. Given that this was an "extra charge" restaurant, I had expected the food quality to be better.
We finished the evening with the chocolate fondue, which was good but not exceptional. Paying for the wine and leaving a tip, we headed to the Friendly Feud show, which was lackluster and poorly organized. Leaving halfway through, we got a very good seat for the production show, "Hey, Mr. Producer." I'll have to admit that this show was the best production show I have ever seen on a cruise ship. The performers were truly talented both as dancers and as singers. Their renditions of the Broadway tunes were the closest to the originals that I have ever seen off Broadway.