Warning this is long but very complete/detailed. This was our second POA cruise in Hawaii, the last in 2010. The difference between the two cruises is substantial and that is what I want to concentrate on as well as provide some tips on things to do on this port intensive itinerary where managing your port visit time is important..
All the cruise lines have embarkation down to a science (debarkation not always so much!) but one thing worth commenting on here regarding POA: NCL has added a Hawaiian Ambassador. It's a nice touch. Aside from greeting us as a group in the Embarkation Lounge, I saw her many times throughout the cruise and her role is to enhance your Hawaiian experience with respect to the state's culture and history. She did a great job both aboard and on shore during embarkation. The entire embarkation process was very well organized.
While you can get on the ship really early, like around 11a, don't expect your staterooms to be ready until after 1p and more likely after 2p. Send what you can with the baggage porters and board with as little as possible to enhance your ability to wander about the ship. If you arrive around 11a, there won’t be many there, it’s a breeze checking in, you get a card for your boarding group (we had group A, the first), guided to seats and listen to a nice Hawaiian band between explanations about the boarding process and cruise from the Hawaiian Ambassador. Boarded after sitting about 10—15 minutes. That was nice. Go to the Aloha Cafe (buffet) on deck 11 aft and enjoy its splendor before the crowds show up. Find a seat and eat outside on the expansive aft deck adjacent to the Aloha Café. Next walk around this beautiful ship and get to know her.
POA was refurbished in late 2012 and into 2013. While the ship had an old feeling to it when we sailed with her in the summer of 2010 that was not the case on this cruise. Many upgrades including new or upgraded dining venues. In my opinion, the common areas of the ship were spotless. All in all, felt classy.
There have been several reviews that are not particularly positive about the POA staff overall and that the experience aboard is like one would expect of a stay at a Holiday Inn. I would have agreed with that based on the last cruise we took aboard POA in 2010. No more. I was very impressed with all the crew members and staff I came in contact with.
Historically, POA was manned and staffed primarily by American born, US citizens. As the story goes, when POA first started sailing this route in 2005 with an all-American crew, many of the housekeeping, restaurant and bar staff walked off the ship at its first and second port calls as none of them expected the work demands they experienced. Lots of disorganization ensued and POA got a terrible reputation for service that lingered for years until pay rates caught up with American standards and the make-up of the staff began to change. All of that seems to have been sorted out. In our area at least, most of the house-keeping staff were Asian like they are on most cruise ships.
Overall, service was as good as I have experienced on 5 other lines that I am familiar with and in most cases, better. So, the "Holiday Inn" mantra that seemed to apply before is not even close to accurate this time around. This was a first class cruise in every respect. It fits with how competitive the NCL product has become in a very competitive cruise line industry.
Cabins were fine. Maybe a little smaller than some of the newer cruise ships but they are exceptionally well laid out with plenty of hooks on doors. Something there is typically never enough of. Storage space was excellent as well. We booked a GTY Balcony (7674 was assigned about a month out) as part of one of the best deals with NCL I've ever had (four previous cruises with NCL out of 35 total).
The package offered on this cruise date (January 17th) included Airport and Oahu port transfers, two nights at the Waikiki Marriot Hotel before the cruise, balcony accommodations aboard ship and RT air from Atlanta. The Marriot Waikiki was fabulous. One free Mai Tai cocktail each, both nights we were there. Nice pool bar. Food is expensive. Go down the street to Cheese Burger in Paradise or any number of much less expensive dining options around the hotel or within walking distance.
We usually don't partake in cruise line provided transfers because I just want to get there and a cab is usually cheaper than a transfer. Since the transfers were part of the package, we grinned and went through with it. All the transfers were incredibly well organized, took no time at all and saved us a bundle in cab fares. Well done NCL.
If you see these packages offered on POA by NCL (usually at low Hawaii travel times) jump on them. Great deal! If you stay at the Waikiki Marriot, there is an NCL office there by the front desk. You check in and out there. You don’t have to deal with the throngs of other guests at the front desk. This was a nice touch and NCL had 4 staff at their desk during set times to answer any questions you had about the cruise, transport, etc.
Before this cruise, I had read that the buffet aboard POA was among the best at sea and compared to other dining venues aboard this ship, it was as good, if not better in terms of food quality and choices. I found that assessment to be accurate. We dined there routinely, only ate at Liberty once with other cruisers we met on an independent tour in Kona, Hawaii, and never dined at any of the specialty restaurants. The specialty restaurant have service charges but they are all reasonable, the highest priced at $25pp at Jefferson's Bistro.
While this may not be fair because I did not dine there, I heard one comment that while the food was OK, in Jefferson's, the service was not. On our last cruise aboard POA, we did dine there and the service was, indeed, comparable to Waffle House or the likes of this famous corner restaurant chain ubiquitous in the South. That is too bad because the venue is beautiful and the menu looks inviting. I did hear positive comments about Cagney's (Steak and Lobster) and both Asian venues (one Tepenyaki spot adjoined with what amounts to a nice Chinese restaurant).
Food choices, quality and service were very good in Liberty with the appearance that the staff was working very hard to overcome a historical perception of poor service in the two main dining rooms. Liberty is a little more formal with Skyline less so but keep in mind, nothing is really formal on any NCL ship as a result of the anytime dining theme they tout. And, by the way, I really liked that theme. Makes it nice; you can eat when you want, in any setting you want, wearing pretty much whatever you want. Something was always open.
We like wine. I found the special deal POA offers to be particularly pleasing. You can get any 6 bottles (or more) at a 20% discount. The wine list is extensive and you can find most wines that you find in your local grocery store for under $15 priced at $24-32 on the wine list. If you want something fancy, there is that too. What is great about this deal is that the bottles you order get delivered to your stateroom with a nice towel, wine glasses and a cork screw; you can carry your wine anywhere on the ship, get a wine glass from a nearby bar or in a restaurant and drink to your heart's content. If you don't drink it all on a given night, you can cork it and bring it back to your stateroom or wait staff in any of the restaurants including the buffet, will keep it for you and deliver it to your table the next time you dine there. To my knowledge no other major cruise line does this or if they do offer it in some form, it has all kinds of restriction about where you can drink the bottle of wine you paid for. Nice touch, NCL!
Obviously, this itinerary is port intensive. As usual and not particular to NCL, shore excursions are overpriced. However, I did find that the difference for using NCL's organized tours and those you can self-arrange in advance or at the pier were less than on other cruise lines I am familiar with. Keep in mind that during the off peak months (like January) you can rent a car at a very low price giving you the option, with a little pre-planning, to see whatever you like.
We rented in every port except Kona (we had a pre-arranged tour there) and prices ranged from a low of $35 on Kauai to $65 on Oahu. Just don't try to rent around a major Holiday. A Thrifty agent told me they got $195/d for their cheapest rental during the Christmas to New Year's week. As an aside on this subject, we used Thrifty exclusively. Why? Because they are probably the cheapest rates compared to other majors and you can join the Blue Chip Club and avoid all the lines. While some lines had 10 to 12 people waiting I breezed right up to the Blue Chip desk and was on the road 5 minutes later. Sweet. Keep this in mind.
I also have to mention that at every Thrifty agency we rented from, the staff was extremely pleasant and helpful. I’m sure Hertz, Avis and the rest are good too but I was very impressed with Thrifty’s customer service in the Hawaiian Islands. Good job!
If you are new to sightseeing in the Hawaiian Islands, I recommend the "Revealed" series of guide books. You can get them used at Amazon for a song. Well worth it. On Ohau, if you can work it in (because it is an all-day thing) don't miss the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore (about a 50 minute drive from Waikiki and go the southern route .... ask). One can spend a full day there. It is a non-profit operated by The Church of the Latter Day Saints (The Mormon Church) and staffed mostly by students who attend the extended BYU campus there. All the students who work there are on work/study programs and are authentic islanders form the various Polynesian countries. Very cool! You can spend an entire day there easily. I felt this was a highlight/don’t miss place to go (we went to Pearl last visit. This was way better).
Tip: It seems expensive if you buy tickets in advance or from a hotel concierge for the Polynesian Cultural Center. A whole day trip including unlimited park access with the Luau and show included was quoted to me for $220pp. Wow! Think about a family of four spending $1000 to do that.
Well, you can see the park just fine by doing it this way: First rent a car. Drive up there to arrive at 10:45a (just before the park opens). There is plenty of free parking early. Walk up to the entrance. There will be a sales person there before opening to explain to you how the pricing works. You can buy park admission and a very nice lunch for around $60 each. The lunch is a buffet and it starts at 11a when the park opens. You'll be guided to a table in a large open but covered area and, if you’re quick, you can get your food before the bus-loads of people show up.
The place is huge and in 30 minutes it was full but we had the place and the buffet line to ourselves to start. Now, you won't get the show and while it is very good from what I hear, the country displays and very interesting activities associated with each of them are the heart of the park. Same with the Luau - you don't get it doing it the way we did it - but the buffet is pretty much the same thing. Enjoy. I have to admit, aside from the selling of these Luaus in Hawaii, they seem terribly expensive for light eaters. If you like to pound it down, great, go for one. But if not, this is something you can skip. It is too bad there isn’t some place that just does a show. Maybe there is and I just haven’t found it yet.
Tip: On renting vehicles. Go as cheap as you can for your needs. Don't get convertibles and 4WD Jeeps. You don't need them! In Waikiki parking is expensive even at your hotel. If you can swing a one day rental there, rent for the day and return it (I did use Enterprise here, not Thrifty, because their location in Waikiki was close to where we stayed (The Waikiki Marriot) and was not in a hotel or at the airport where the prices for all the majors were quite high comparably). In addition, they had the latest return time (8pm) of all of them not at the airport (a 50 minute drive from Waikiki and longer at rush hour).
At your other ports of call, Company specific shuttles run back and forth from the pier to the rental location all day long and usually till about 8p for overnight stays (Maui and Kauai). Parking should be figured out in advance if you keep the car overnight. It was available at Anchor Square in Lahaina, Maui. It's $20 and just down the street from the pier within walking distance if needed. A shopping center shuttle runs every 5-10 minutes when the stores open (around 9:30) until the stores close. Nice little place. Reportedly, it fills up early but that was not the case with us. You can stop buy and pick up a permit right after you get your rental car and a spot will be reserved for you. You have to drive back from the airport to near the pier. Not along ways. We didn't do that and it worked out fine.
There is a lot at the pier in Nawiliwili, Kauai. It’s free but the closest lot is full by 5pm. There is an over-flow lot but I never saw it because we returned just in time to get the last one of two remaining spots right at the pier (about 4:35p). A car just behind us got the last one. Security at the pier gate told us when I asked, that if the pier lot was full, we'd be guided to the overflow lot and brought back to the pier. If you have a portable GPS, bring it. We have an old Garmin Nuvi. It worked fine.
Seeing the Islands: We had some excellent, excellent guides on The Big Island in 2010 and Maui and Kauai last time and this time. My email is below. PM me and I’ll give you a list. You have two days in Maui. On our first day, we left Kahului port with the intention of driving to Haleakala National Park with a pre-stop at Grandma’s Coffee house (google this place for directions). It’s not a long day’s drive but be forewarned the drive up to Haleakala State Park takes 50 minutes to go about 12 miles. We decided not to do it as the VOG (haze from volcanic ash) was obscuring the views from the 10,000 foot park overlook. It is also cold up there. Bring a warm jacket (which we forgot to bring!). Grandma’s is fun. I recommend it. The Banana bread and coffee is the best. They also have good sandwiches, salads and usually a dinner special and all is reasonably priced (for Hawaii). On our second day, we did a Hike with the same guide we used in 2010. Fabulous.
Clearly, the best way to see these two islands (Maui and Kauai) is by foot although I will tell you that a Door’s Off Helo Ride with Jack Harter in Kauai, something we did in 2010, is just spectacular. There are other Helo options. All of them are expensive (in the $250pp range) but if you are going to do one, do it on Kauai. There are some very nice hiking trails on both Maui and Kauai but especially on Kauai.
On the Big Island, Hawaii, do not miss Volcano National Park (VNP) but take a pre-arranged, private guided tour unless you don't mid riding on a big bus with 85 of your closest friends. It’s more costly but the place is huge with lots of stuff. You will get your money’s worth with a good guide. We rented a car out of Hilo this time (had a guided tour of VNP last time) and drove off North bound up the eastern shore on Hwy 19 with no destination in mind. The drive is beautiful along the coastline. We turned around after we ate at a little road side restaurant called Tex Drive In in Honokaa. They had great food, priced well and the best pork and cabbage (a Hawaiian staple) and Teriyaki Hamburgers. The place is reportedly famous for Malasada (Portuguese fried doughnut). Yes, they were good, but so was all the other food we ate. A long drive will do that.
Out of Kona on the Big Island, we took a pre-arranged tour. Again, PM me and I’ll tell you about this tour group. It was very good and inexpensive. You tender in Kona. I had read to go to the Pink Champaign Bar early to get tender tickets. I got there at 6:15a. Coffee was available. One other person was there. At 5 till 7, the tour lady showed up, made a brief statement about tours (???) and said the tender coordinator would be there shortly. About 7:15, she arrived and after several frantic phone calls from behind the bar said we could all go to the tender. No tickets necessary! So much for that. This was the only glitch from NCL staff on this cruise so, I’m not going to complain but I lost 30 minutes of sleep and breakfast over that little side show.
But, it turned out great. Went back to the cabin, got my wife, went down to the tender, got right on and was ashore by about 7:30. Needless to say, don’t bother to go to the Champaign bar to get tender tickets. If you go as soon as the tenders are called ready (about 7:15a) just go to deck three and get on. If you don't hear the call or miss it, just go down around 7:15 to 7:30. Nobody will be there.
When you get off the tender and exit the dock to your right, you’ll be looking at several appealing restaurants for Breakfast that have nice porches. Pick the one that no one is sitting in (Paradise Brewing Company). The other one that looks really busy offers a free breakfast for nearby hotel guests. It’s crowded. Paradise was a find. They serve Kona coffee. I had three cups. The stuff is addictive. The breakfast (I had a fruit plate based on a hollowed out very fresh and delicious Papaya, Ann had pancakes) was excellent and reasonably priced). We had a tour with an 8:30a meeting time/place about 100 feet away so this worked out perfectly.
More on Kauai. Hired a great guide here. Just email and I’ll give you contact information. In 2010, like I said, we rode Jack Harter Helos. This time we hiked. Be careful with your abilities here. Kauai is a trekkers paradise with some very demanding trails. Our guide called these Ninja Hikes. First time her husband, an accomplished hiker, took her on one she admitted she cried. That was funny. We did a 3.5 mile RT hike into Waimea Canyon (Hawaii’s Grand Canyon). Moderate difficulty with spectacular views of the canyon. Our guide was also a private chef. Her ex-brother-in-law, formerly married to our guide’s sister, runs an Italian restaurant in Lihui (the town adjacent to Nawiliwili port in Kauai). Went there for a late lunch. Wow. Not cheap but nothing is in Hawaii. Still worth it.
Finally! If you read this whole thing, you are a glutton for travel information. Back to Oahu. Tips: You’ll be able to disembark at 8a unless you walk your own bags off. Then it’s 7:30a. If you are a light traveler, this is a good idea because, like most returning to the east coast of the USA, you will have an evening flight out of Honolulu International. You can tour Honolulu for a full day if you plan carefully in advance.
Disembarkation was very well organized. On NCL, you pick your disembarkation time by picking up luggage tags at guest services. If you want to leave the ship after 8, pick up your luggage tags as soon as they are available. When I went down the day before, 8a were the only tags left! Worked perfectly for us. We got off, picked up our bags and got in line for our pre-paid transfers. The line went quickly as we rode in big buses and we were at the airport about 8:40a. I left my wife at the departure area curbside with our bags and I proceeded to the lower level, departure area, caught the shuttle to Thrifty and was headed back to pick up my wife at 9a. We spent the rest of the day sightseeing in old, downtown Honolulu and then watched some surfing on Waikiki beach. It was a nice day.
The cherry on top was another restaurant find. The place is on Nimitz Blvd, near the airport and is called Nico’s on pier 38. Noted for inexpensive, fresh seafood, the place was packed with locals. It’s not sit-down service. You order at a counter and you’re given one of those ringers that lights up. When it does light up, your food is ready, you pick it up in plastic containers with plastic knife and fork and carry it to your table. There’s a separate full bar with Kona beers on tap. Order here separately or pick-up fountain beverages, tea or coffee at another bar for that purpose. It was really fast. Waited maybe 15 minutes for our order. I had a fabulous Ahi Tuna plate (ridiculously fresh tuna) for $12.95. My wife had shrimp pesto for $11.95. You can’t touch those prices for really fresh, high quality seafood anywhere let alone in Honolulu.
Turned our rental car in at the airport about 4:30p for a 7:30p departure to Dallas, hopped on the shuttle, hit Kona Brewing Company restaurant in the airport for one more Kona Beer and a carry aboard club sandwich and we were on our way back to Georgia. Late afternoon, the airport was empty, no lines, nothing. When we arrived at 8:40a on our paid for transfer, the place was a zoo. Do not go there early and spend all day in the airport if you have an afternoon or evening flight. Get a rental car and enjoy you last day. Sigh. I slept all the way back to Dallas on the first leg. On to ATL easily and on time. All our bags got there (Thanks American Airlines who I never fly and make an effort to avoid them if possible but it was part of the package).The end. Want to go back right now.