This was our third cruise, over 30 years....and our 50th state. Hawaii is beautiful. Because of our total unfamiliarity with the state we elected to rely heavily on the organized tours at the ports of call. It was the easiest way for a couple of seniors to learn the lay of the land, so to speak. If we ever go to Hawaii again we'll rely more on car rentals and drive ourselves to places we are interested in seeing and photographing.
In a nut shell....the ship's staff was great. All the crew members were extremely courteous and helpful, without exception. Always going the extra step to assist us.
The ship was NCL's Pride of America. Somewhat of a disappointment. Rather cramped stateroom with a small balcony which was about half the size of our balcony on the Princess Sapphire two years ago. Our safe, where I wanted to store my wife's Ipad, was defective and we had to call for a crew member to come and fix it. At least three mornings we had no hot water in the head. So no hot shower available those mornings. The king size bed was fairly comfortable but the couch (a hide-a-bed) was horrendously uncomfortable to sit on. There was no computer WI-FI available on our deck so, to download our home town newspaper, I had to take the Ipad down to deck 5 or to the library on deck 6 to get a useable signal. Even there it was excruciatingly slow. Very frustrating. Unlike other ships we've cruised on, this one's PA system did not reach into the stateroom. The result was that we missed many announcement that were made over that system. They could be heard out in the passageway....but not in the stateroom.
Nearly all of the time at sea was during the night hours. We did not make any use of the various swimming pools or hot tubs.
Many of the restaurants on board are extra cost. However the two main dining rooms and the buffet are included in the fare. The dining rooms are non-assigned seating. Very interesting to have the option of sitting with other folks from different places and different life experiences. Enjoyable. The service was flawless. The food tasted good but, without exception, it was served to us just luke warm. Never a nice hot meal to be had. A/C was cranked up so by the time we finished our meal the food was ice cold. Very disappointing.
The buffet was a zoo. It is laid out "island" style and everyone is going different directions at the same time trying to locate their choices. Organization was very confusing (Italian dishes on the Oriental counter?). All the cattle were in a hurry to fill their plates and, frankly, it was often bedlam. Princess Sapphire's buffet might have been a bit slower but much less hectic and less chance for collisions and spills. If the food in the dining rooms was only warm....it was worse in the buffet. In fact I think this buffet might stand a good chance of failing a state health department inspection because the supposedly hot items were definitely NOT maintained at a safe temperature on the buffets.
Because we were on a budget....we did not make use of any of the specialty restaurants which had cover charges ranging from $10 to $25 per person. So I cannot evaluate them.
Evening entertainment may have been adequate. First show was at 7 PM and we were never finished with our dinners in time to make that one. Only one program of Broadway musical tunes was of any interest to us. But we were always so tired after our shore excursions we were in bed by 9:00 to 9:30 PM most evenings. So we did not avail ourselves of any of the performances.
When I made our cruise arrangements by phone I specifically asked the NCL representative which part of the year was best for visiting Hawaii. Two years ago we cruised to Alaska and we had only 1 1/2 days of sunshine on that trip. So we did not want a repeat performance. The cruise consultant advised me that time of year was really not a consideration for visiting Hawaii. So we chose the second week of December. BAD CHOICE. Nearly every tour guide informed us that this was Hawaii's winter season and it was the rainy season. Guess what greeted us when we got off the plane and continued through the first two days of shore tours? Yep. You're right. RAIN. But then things cleared up and the weather improved. So I recommend that one not take what the consultant tells you as gospel. Do your research.
Touring by bus is not the best way to go for a photographer. Points of interest and photo opportunities fly by the window and stops for photo opportunities are sparse. But stops at souvenir shops are plentiful. However, it does give one a good experience and a chance to experience different parts of the islands. Especially good information for possible second and third return trips.
Be aware that choice seating for the luau costs extra. This was not mentioned in any of the on-line material from NCL. The result was that we found ourselves sitting at a table on the very back row....most distant from the stage. The performance, music & dancing, was FABULOUS. The food was VERY mediocre....not at all what we expected. I can get a lot better BBQ pork back home in Kansas City.
We strongly recommend arriving in Honolulu at least one day prior to boarding the ship so you can get a good night's rest after the long-long flight from the mainland. Ours was a 9 hour flight from Dallas/Ft. Worth....scrunched up in coach seating. I'm 6' 2" tall and most of that height is in my legs. By the time we arrived in Honolulu we were exhausted nearly to the point of being ill. So that $300 for a night at the Waikiki Marriott was WONDERFUL. I wonder where they buy those super mattresses. Gonna find out.
Finally....we saved our tour to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial for our last day. Our flight home did not leave until 7:50 PM so we had plenty of time. Our choices were Pearl Harbor and a visit to the battleship USS Missouri (where the Japanese surrender was signed at the end of WW II) OR the Visit to Pearl plus a tour of interesting parts of Honolulu. We've visited several battleships in the past so we chose the latter tour. Anyway the Missouri is easily photographed from the memorial because she is tied up at her pier only moderate distance away. Because I'm old enough to remember the events of December 7, 1941 and I have excellent recall of where I was and what was going on at the time....this visit to Pearl Harbor was an emotional experience for me. I requested...and received...permission to place a cell phone call to my closest friend back in Texas who served in Korea and Vietnam....a career army man whose dad served in WW II. Normally use of cell phones is not allowed from the Arizona Memorial but the military guard was not about to turn down my request. It was a good moment.
Despite the weaknesses of the NCL cruise portion of the trip.....our visit to beautiful Hawaii was a wonderful experience.
Oh...and by the way...be prepared for all the increased security measures. This means going through security and inspection of all purchases and camera bags & purses every time you re-board the ship after a day ashore.
Also be sure to take notice of the fact that you'll be charged (automatically) $12.50 per person as a service charge. In other words...mandatory tip for the staff that takes care of you. You probably will be expected to also voluntarily tip other staff who help you but don't have day to day contact with you. For a 7 day cruise this could all amount to over $200 on your ship account...over and above your cruise cost. In the old days these charges used to be entirely voluntary but now are mandatory. It does save the cruiser from having to provide envelopes with tips to the waiters, cabin crew, etc. etc. etc.