Hubby and I recently returned from the week-long Hawaii cruise on Pride of America. Rather than a minute-by-minute report, we thought it best to offer some observations:
The bottom line: This cruise -- and Hawaii -- in general is more costly than cruising and visiting the Caribbean. Practically everything must be shipped to Hawaii, so you pay the freight for almost everything consumed. The cost of this cruise -- in early fall -- is about twice as much as a cruise to the Caribbean in the same time period. By law, this American-flagged ship must have a high percentage of U.S. citizens. That also means they earn at least the minimum wage and overtime (as one waiter explained to us). People who work on traditional cruise ships are almost like slaves -- lots and lots of hours, split shifts, very few days off. Some POA folks (like our cabin attendant) still don't get any days off, but at least they are fairly compensated. It is important to keep that in mind when considering the cost of this cruise.
Pre-cruise: We spent a few extra days before the cruise in Waikiki. This gave us time to adjust for jet-lag and the 10-12 hour flight from Ohio. We have two dinner suggestions in Waikiki: Arancino pizza down a small street called Beach Walk right off the beach. Always a line in the evening, but the pizzas and other dishes are unique and delicious.
There is also a seafood/sushi buffet that is very well known and also popular called Todai. The line is often long but the sushi is fresh and wonderful, and the rest of the seafood offerings are equally good.
Embarkation: We arrived at the dock about 8:30 a.m. We didn't plan it that way, but Honolulu was having a huge parade the day we were to embark, and most of the Waikiki streets were to be blocked for several hours. Our choice: Arrive very early or get caught in traffic and arrive later with the majority of passengers. So we opted to go early and take our chances. People were still leaving the ship when we arrived. The good news: We were permitted to wait inside the large warehouse-like embarkation/debarkation lobby, which had restrooms and was air conditioned. At 11 a.m., we were allowed into the inside entrance area, where there was entertainment. Boarding started at Noon. Unfortunately, our room was not ready until after 3:30 p.m., but we enjoyed roaming the ship and getting a bite in the buffet.
Muster: Best ever. No one was required to wear (or even take) those awkward orange lifejacket-vests. We were grouped in muster areas for the drill, probably by category of rooms booked. We had an aft balcony and wound up in a main dining room, where we were permitted to sit. We still have bad memories of a cruise a decade ago, where we were forced to stand on a hot and sunny promenade deck wearing our life jackets --- and listen to the long muster drill in FOUR languages.
Blast-off: For $25 per person, wife joined in the opening Bar Crawl, renamed Bar Hop to sound more sober. 5 drinks (including one beer and one martini) at 5 bars consumed in 1 hour. It was a fun way to start the trip. Hubby got a bucket of beer and just tagged along.
Itinerary: This is worth the price of the cruise. Inter-island flights are about $200 roundtrip. How else can you see four islands, have a place to sleep and food and only spend $1,600 pp for a balcony - or $1,200 for an ocean-view room? Maui is fun. The beaches are wonderful. Lahaina is an old fishing village, a throwback to simpler days. Kauai is breathtakingly beautiful. Where else but Kona could you visit a coffee farm and a chocolate farm in one morning? Every island brought new wonders and beauty unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Entertainment: Do not miss Toby Beau. They recorded My Angel Baby and other songs you will recognize. This husband-wife team (neither is named Toby or Beau) has been married 38 years and brings the house down with great harmonies and stellar guitar work. Do not show up on time for their shows. Go early or you won't get a seat. We loved the Eagles review.
Food: Alas, a mixed blessing. We generally do not like buffets. Being served is part of the pleasure of dining out for us. But on this boat, the buffets - especially breakfast and lunch - were the stars. Good bacon. Eggs and omelets made to order. Good soup and sandwiches. The coffee was even decent - not made from a syrup. Seating generally was easy to find. We found after a day ashore and a late lunch it was nice to simply pick and choose a few dishes to top off the day. It was usually good and just what we wanted. A made-to-order crepe with bananas and a cinnamon smear was the best dessert of the week. Beware (both a blessing and a curse): You can't get near a buffet --even if you just want to cut through to go to the back of the ship -- without getting sprayed by the very insistent Purell police.
The main dining venues were . . . just OK. Nothing to rave about, and dinner used to be the darling of cruise ships. The first night was lobster night - a small half tail served with a piece of snapper. Ask for seconds and you were likely to get another whole plate of food, not just the tail. We simply wanted another 1/2 tail each and felt guilty leaving the rest to be discarded. We thought the food was nickeled and dimed. Especially in the dining rooms, we got the idea that every penny counted for the investors who own this line. For example, the appetizers (fresh shrimp not an option) were grouped with the salads. The subtle message: Pick one OR the other. You could choose one of each, but the menu didn't invite you to do so.
Alternative dining: The staffers tell you to make reservations early because the specialty restaurants fill up quickly. Half true. Teppanyaki does fill up every night and early. Jefferson fills up during prime eating times. The others, just occasionally and sometimes not at all. There are electronic boards on the ship that advise you of restaurant status.
We had a bad experience at the Jefferson. We made reservations for 8 p.m. When we make reservations in advance, we expect them to be honored on a ship. But when we showed up, the hostess told us people were taking longer than expected and they could not seat us on time. It appeared to us they continued to take people without reservations past the time they should have been saving our table . . . after all, it is $20 a head additional, so why not seat people who do not have reservations - and might go elsewhere and eat free.
When we complained -- and loudly -- they finally seated us (at about 8:20 )-- in a corner all by ourselves (in a newly opened section, available the whole time we waited). However, no one else was seated in this area. There we sat alone like scolded children. Meanwhile, tables in the main dining area were open. When I told the waiter I felt we were being "punished", he called the manager who reseated us in the main dining area (and did buy us a drink). The food was great; the experience left a lesson: Be prepared to wait, reservations seem to only work in favor of the restaurant.
We tried the Italian place the last night, and wished we had tried it sooner and more often. Good food (yummy pizza bread) and great outdoor dining available. We also tried East Meets West for Hawaiian night, which was very entertaining.
The staff: Honestly wonderful. There is a gratuity added to your bill for lots of services, but if you get some service that you are extra pleased with, tip a couple of bucks; it will be appreciated. Tipping early will also save you trying to find "that" person later when tipping comes to mind. We didn't tip a lot of folks a lot of money -- 15 percent is automatically added to each bar tab - but we did leave a few extra tips. We also tipped at the specialty restaurants, even the Jefferson (the waiters and waitresses were not at fault for our seating problems). The room steward responded promptly to all of our requests, so we left him a nice tip at the end.
We ran into one of the senior staff folks while ashore and had a delightful conversation. She was a great ambassador for the ship and the cruise line. Her name is Randi Radja a food manager.
Debarkation: Was smooth and easy. We rented a car after leaving the ship. Great place to keep our luggage and we had the mobility and freedom to roam Honolulu. Had lunch in Chinatown at a great pho house named To Chau (thanks to Frommer) , visited Ala Moana Mall for some last minute shopping and book reading (there is NO place on Waikiki that we could find that sells paperbacks) and then arrived at the car return at the airport at a decent time for our 7 p.m. return flight (ugh!).
If you are planning a trip on this cruise you will enjoy it if you're willing to overlook the little stuff. Bon Voyage!