This is my review of our wonderful trip to Hawaii and cruise on the NCL Star 04-04-04. We are a 38 and 39 year-old couple and their daughter Kayla age 8, (going on 18).... It was our second cruise - our first was summer 2002 in Alaska on the RCCI Legend of the Seas. This was our third trip to Hawaii, and I thought the cruise was a wonderful new way to see our favorite places and some new ones, too.
Throughout this review, I will probably do a lot of comparisons between the two cruises and cruiselines (NCL vs. RCCI). Many of you will tell me you can't compare - I know!!! I just want to say that I didn't spend the whole week comparing the two....... I am just thinking about it now so that people, like me, who have done a cruise on one might have a better idea of whether they would like the other.... We were in category BD (the cheapest balcony) on the Star, in room 8560. On the whole, all three of us preferred RCCI, but we had a wonderful cruise on the Star.
I just want to say that we had a wonderful trip, but this review has several sharp criticisms of NCL in it. I admit that I didn't think much of NCL compared to our previous cruise, but also compared to a general standard in the tourism industry, but I think it's pretty hard to screw up a cruise in paradise. Also, we just made the most of things and enjoyed it at the time. I think my annoyance and even anger at some of NCLs shortcomings really only ripened after I got home and I starting realizing how poor some elements of NCL really are - they seem to be headed in the wrong direction on many elements of customer service. All the same, it was one of our very best vacations and I hope the NCL lovers of this site will not attack me too ferociously....
The good points in a nutshell....
Food: we loved Freestyle and thought the food on the Star was excellent. I didn't mind paying for the specialty restaurants - we enjoyed Ginza twice and le Bistro, but honestly we thought both Aqua and Versailles were excellent and if you are worried about paying extra, I suggest you can eat there plus Endless Summer happily every night. We never waited in a line (we eat early).
Itinerary: We felt very lucky to stay in Hawaii - we probably would have loved Fanning Island, but we really appreciated Kona and Lahaina, our two favorite ports, too. The nicest things about this itinerary are the (for us) smooth seas and the slow speed of the ship keeping things calm. I thought NCL handled the itinerary change very well (we also had a change on RCCI and they were very defensive about it). Of course, we were pleased with this change, but many people weren't. Throughout the cruise, we asked crew members who uniformly said they hated going to Fanning Island - so believe what you will about "the engine problem." (LOL!)
Ship, Captain Crew: (anybody ever play that old dice game?) We thought the ship itself was beautiful, and liked its size and layout. We really liked the captain - although we never met him in person, we thought his announcements were amusing and we appreciated the way he tried extra hard to make sure everyone got to see red lava at night, etc. The Hawaiian ambassador June made the cruise special. We met the F&B Manager at the CruiseCritic get together and he was great.
My husband had nothing but good things to say about the gym - he used it daily and really liked the layout and equipment. We didn't use the spa, but it was beautiful. I thought the shopping was excellent on board - the choice was wide and there was a great range of products at all prices.
We all liked the deck games like ping-pong, giant chess, golf, basketball and shuffleboard. My only criticism is that on port days, the crew's family and friends are allowed to come aboard. That's fine. But, we came back to the ship early a couple days and found the kids pool, ping-pong, etc. totally taken over by some very loud, pushy crew kids who didn't seem to understand that EVENTUALLY, it's nice to let someone else have a turn.
We didn't attend any shows (we aren't show people) but the theater was lovely. We liked the cinema and I went to see two movies - Something's Gotta Give and Lost in Translation. Both full for the 7:30 show, by the way, so go early.
Cabin: Although we much preferred our cabin on RCCI, which was the same class but seemed to be MUCH larger and better organized, we give NCCL credit for a really nice bathroom - WAY nicer than RCCI. More below on the cabin.
On the downside, in a nutshell....
Kids Program: we really thought the kids program was a disaster...shockingly bad in attitude and hugely disappointing to Kayla. RCCI has a 100% better program so if that's important to you, choose them instead. I have posted extensively on this, so I won't belabor the point.
Service and Crew: The service on the Star was VERY uneven, but overall, the crew seemed tired and unenthusiastic and not very friendly to us or to each other. We didn't like the emphasis on buying things all the time...it was really too much. Although we weren't that affected by it, you could see that people were really having a hard time with the shore excursion desk.....I had had so many problems pre-booking shore excursions before we ever got on, that I got fed up and cancelled and just rented cars in each port. It's hard to explain, but when we disembarked from the Legend of the Seas, we felt like the ship was part of us - we had made friends and we loved it so. This time, we just felt the experience was impersonal. Very nice, but not very friendly.
We also had a really, really irritating experience with room service that irked me throughout the cruise and summed up the problem of the crew attitude for me. The evening before the first port day, I stuck the doorknob breakfast order thing on asking for our breakfast at 6 am, with a nice smiley face note on it asking for them to set the tray in the hallway and knock very softly. I didn't want them to wake Kayla. Next morning - No breakfast. At all. Never showed. We were in a hurry to get off so we just grabbed something at the Marketplace. Next night, I did the same. No breakfast. So, I pulled the phone out onto the balcony and called. No record of my order. Fine - I reordered breakfast and asked again VERY nicely if they could just tap lightly on the door - I would be listening. Fine. We hang up and five minutes later, the same guy calls the room, loud telephone rings, but Kayla miraculously sleeps. He tells me he found BOTH my previous doorknob order forms but that, basically, he cancelled the order because he cannot leave the tray in the hall and tap softly - that is too complicated. So, I cancel the order - he understands and but is pretty rude. Fine. Five minutes later, there is, and I am NOT exaggerating, a POUNDING on the door and it's the same guy with the incorrect order of my cancelled breakfast. I swear to god, he just grabbed some food and came to pound on my door to irritate me. The food bore no relationship to what I ordered. So, I asked him to be quiet and give me the tray. He refused, insisting on carrying the tray into the cabin. We ended up standing in the hallway arguing over the tray. It was just absurd. That was the end of room service for me. BTW, I thought RCCI had bad room service, too.
Shore excursions: What a complete mess! I have already posted about all the problems I had pre-booking. We are not shore excursion people. As a general rule, I think you can always do better on your own, but I had been worried about getting to the Volcanoes from Hilo in the time of the original itinerary (7 am to 1 pm in port). So I tried to book the Kilauea Hiking Adventure on-line. When I called to check, NCL said to call back after 72 hrs. Called back, no record. Booked by phone and had to argue with the rep to get her to send me an email confirmation. Good thing I did as she had it completely wrong. Had to call again (all from IRELAND!!!!) and straightened it out and got the right confirmation showing two adults and one child. When we got to our cabin, we found the tickets - for THREE adults. What a pain, but with the new itinerary giving us til 6pm in Hilo, I just decided to cancel and rent a car. Here's a very tiny annoying thing about the Star vs. the RCCI. On RCCI, they put a locked box outside the shore excursion office which is there 24.hrs. On NCL, they have one, but you have to go into the office to see it. The office was closed most of the time and whenever it was open, the lines were so huge and the people inside seemed so irate, I didn't dare go cancel until the very last minute. Still, to give NCL credit, I didn't get charged. One morning I stood in the lobby and watched about 25 people in a row come out infuriated that they had booked on line but there was no record of their excursions - it seems our sailing was particularly bad because it was the first with the new reservation system. The moral of that story is to book by phone and CONFIRM at least twice.
Complaints out of the way, let me tell you about our wonderful voyage.
Anyway, we are Americans living in Northern Ireland, so our trip was a long one, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. We made it extra long by deciding to take our ten-month old puppy back to his breeder in Glasgow, Scotland so that added a day and a ferry ride to the trip. We went to Hawaii on United frequent flier miles after finding out it was the same number of miles to Hawaii as it was to DC (50,000) so Hawaii seemed like better value....
Anyway, we ended up flying from Glasgow Scotland to London (I hr.) then to
Los Angeles (11 hrs.) and, after a five-hour layover, to Honolulu, arriving at 10:30 pm Hawaii time, 26 hrs. after we arrived at Glasgow airport. We took a cab straight to the Hawaiian Village, where we did our customary sticking our feet in the ocean and woo-hoo'ing. (It sounds silly but it's what we do)
Oh, an aside. I am a real Type-A traveler - way over organized, blah, blah blah. I had a little notebook with all our confirmation numbers, etc. which I managed to leave on the plane. My husband Nick just laughed and laughed when we got to the HHV and I found out I was going to be forced to RELAX and enjoy Hawaii without my notebook. A real life lesson for me....
Anyway, back to Saturday night at the HHV. The time change between the UK and Hawaii is 11 hours. I was convinced that we would beat jetlag by going to sleep by 11:30 pm and then sleeping until nearly the 11 am check-out time, but.....oh no.... at 4:45 AM someone called my room by accident and woke us all up. He didn't speak English very well and was talking about bags and taxis, etc, and I was just disoriented enough that I didn't realize right away that it was a wrong number. Kayla, who had lost a tooth on the plane, discovered the Hawaiian tooth fairy gives double dollars, so the excitement proved so much no one could go back to sleep, so, just like in 2001, we ended up walking on the beach at 5 am waiting for the restaurants to open..... Thank God they open at 5:30 at the HHV. Hint: Even if you cannot imagine who might call you, put the "Do Not Disturb" on your hotel phone on the first night...... the jet lag should have been solved, but I ended up being tired for days as a result of the guy mis-dialing.
Anyway, we checked out of the HHV at 11 and took a taxi to the Aloha Tower - we boarded almost right away - maybe after 5 minutes wait. We met very nice people in line, and happily ran into my CruiseCritic buddy LuckyFrog as we checked-in next to each other.
Oh, just wanted to note that we had booked through cruisequick.com whom I love, but I did find that we were very slightly delayed by not having actual cruise documents or baggage tags. But maybe only delayed by 5 minutes because we were there so early. Later on, this might be a big problem, so I recommend actual (not virtual) cruise docs....
We were in our cabin by 11:30 am, but we got right back off the ship, after stopping to make the first two night's reservations at the Teppanyaki and Le Bistro. We had promised Kayla she could use her allowance to buy a Game Boy (so much cheaper in the USA than here in the UK) and she had spotted CompUSA a few blocks from the Aloha Tower. Also, as soon as I learned about the itinerary change, I wanted to leap off and reorganize my rental car reservations from a pay phone, which I did. We had a shave ice at Aloha Tower and reboarded about 2pm and the line was HUGE! We had no trouble reboarding - it took maybe 5 minutes.
Our initial thoughts on our cabin: Although the same class as the RCCI cabin, it was much smaller. That's mainly because the Star's bathroom was so much bigger and nicer. It sticks out so far into the room that the bed/sofa are was crammed. On RCCI, we had the twins-turned-into a queen, with nice end tables with drawers on each side, plus a queen-sized sofa bed on one side and a large desk/vanity on the other. It felt spacious and we were never in each others' way. There was also a dividing curtain. We felt it would be easy to have two kids in the cabin. On the Star, we felt very cramped - there was no way we would have been able to stand having another kid. The closet was okay but there were very few drawers. The desk was in a goofy place, meaning that anyone was sitting at it, no one else could get by. With no end tables or space between me and the sofa bed, I had to crawl out of bed at the foot, which annoyed me. But like I said, every day in the big, nice bathroom, I got over it..... and by the end of the week we were navigating around each other pretty well. The balcony was very nice, with super comfy chairs. The bed was high enough off the ground for our large suitcases. I had brought my bungee cord, but the sailing was so smooth, we found the door stayed open by itself. BD cabins have weird balconies...if it's not much more, I suggest a higher category for a better view.
For those considering a balcony, but not sure. I said the same thing after our Alaska cruise - I loved our balcony and thank goodness we could afford it, but if you can't or if it means not doing something else you want to do to afford it, don't believe all the hype about balconies. Book the best cabin you can and enjoy. You will have a lovely cruise with, or without the private balcony. If you don't have one, just go hang out somewhere else with a view....there are plenty of indoor and outdoor spaces with gorgeous views.
Let me tell you, though, why we loved our balcony on this cruise. For whatever reason, Nick and I never fully recovered from jet-lag and never slept past 6 am. Kayla was fine off the bat and liked to sleep til 8. So, every morning Nick went up to the Marketplace Cafe with our thermal mugs and brought back coffee and a plate of Danish/croissant. Then he and I had a nice, easy morning watching as we pulled into ports and talking about the day. Romantic and relaxing and just plain nice.
Our cabin attendant introduced herself immediately. A nice Romanian girl. I asked her about how she likes working on the ship and she instantly went into complaining mode about the pay, how much she misses her family, how hard she worked. I'm sorry for her...but I have also run a large customer service operation and rule one is that you don't complain about your own problems to the client.... She also blew off my requests for a child-sized life jacket. Her partner, a nice woman from the Philippines was much more professional and really was nice to us later in the week when my daughter was feeling badly after a (minor) sunburn. But, no towel animals...which was also a big disappointment to us. Our RCCI cabin steward was a really good guy and we got to know him well.
I liked the little wheel on the door to indicate "make up room" or "do not disturb."
We toured the ship and hit the pool. We liked the Teppanyaki, but felt the two cooks very disinterested and not nearly as fun as hoped. A tip - the Kobe Steakhouse just outside the HHV gate is MUCH better and there is a two-for-one coupon in the Entertainment book. I'd recommend doing this instead. We did both!
That night Kayla was the only one with energy, but she dragged me around the entire ship on the kids' crew scavenger hunt. She thought this was the most fun ever - I thought it was a pretty clever way for the Kids' Crew staff to avoid doing any work for the evening.
On Monday we wanted to make the most of our only sea day. We love all the pub quizzes, games, etc. on cruises. We did Coffee Morning Trivia (and won mugs!). Nick and I went to the Sushi demo, which was excellent. We picked up Kayla from Kids Crew (-- she'd spent the morning parked in front of cartoons. Blah!) and had all-you-can-eat sushi lunch. Next, flower lei making, napkin folding, and The Friendly Feud game. Later in the day, we did Kukui Nut lay (don't miss this one - June can literally talk for 30 entertaining minutes on the history and many uses of the kukui nut and it became a family joke.) The leis are beautiful, too. Every evening of the cruise, we did the 5:30 pub trivia in the Red Lion. What a hoot! After the first night, we teamed up with a really nice man, Steve and it became a really fun part of every day. It was nice to hear what he and his wife and two granddaughters did every day - it kind of replaced the dinner companions we missed from non-Freestyle cruising. (BTW, Steve had a terrible experience on the Halekula downhill bike trip. The teenage boy behind him went too fast and lost control, hitting Steve, who broke his collarbones and cracked some ribs. Luckily, it was near the bottom and they had a van standing by to take him to the hospital.) I have to brag that we won every night, even when we only got 8 questions right out of 20!
We also enjoyed the CruiseCritic gathering Monday evening and I got to meet the wonderful Seawishes and Ms. Chicken of the Sea - such nice people and we found we had so much in common. All I can say Jeff is that Kayla wishes so badly she was in YOUR third grade class.
Kayla had a quick meal at the Marketplace and Nick and I ate later in Le Bistro, which was lovely.
This is getting long....sorry. ... maybe I'll just stick to highlights in each port!
Hilo - rented a car for Volcanoes National Park. Did the Grater Rim Drive clockwise stopping for quick hikes through the Lava Tube, Devastation Trail, and the site of the big lava flows on the way to the Steam Vents. Kayla did the Junior Ranger program so we stopped back by the visitor center to turn in her book. The Ranger (Michael) was incredible - he spent about 15-20 minutes with her going over every page of her book and activity. The he got on the loud speaker and made everyone stop what they were doing while he awarded her junior ranger badge, poster, booklets, etc. So proud!
We also went to Walmart (the dumpiest of the FOUR Walmarts we visited). It was gorgeous weather all morning but pouring in the afternoon, so we just went back to the ship. Just worth noting, too. Our rental car minivan (Thrifty) was NOT waiting at the pier. I was struggling to call them and the nice Hertz driver came over and told me he would be happy to give us a lift. Really kind and informative guy.
Kayla, by this point, no longer wanted to go to Kids Club since all they did was plop the kids in front of movies she had already seen, so we were at a bit of a loss about dinner. We looked at the menus for Versailles and Aqua, but she didn't see anything she liked. I stupidly didn't realize they might also have a kid's menu, so we ended up eating at the Marketplace which I resented. (I just hate buffets - the Marketplace is actually nice)
Kona - we didn't really know what to do with ourselves in this surprise port. We walked down to Snorkle Bob's and asked where to go. They recommended the SeaQuest boat trip to Kealakekua, which I thought was a great idea as I had a two-for-one Entertainment book coupon, but alas, no space left. Bob's staff recommended just taking a taxi to Kahaluu Beach, which we did. I gotta tell you, we arrived and saw the crowds and I almost told the driver to keep going, but it was great. We saw zillions of amazing fish and huge green sea turtles. Plus there was the nicest snack bar (with showers and bathrooms) with good food and a nice elderly couple playing ukulele and singing Hawaiian songs. A very pleasant place afterall. Nick and Kayla headed back to the ship while I dashed up by Walmart Shuttle to one of the nicest Walmart I've ever been in to buy the Easter Basket fixins in secret. I was sorry I waited, though because the line to get a tender was enormous, not helped by rough seas at the port. (By the way, the tenders are really, really hot inside - no air circulates....so try to get a seat near the entrance.)
Kayla decided to try out kids club again (she really wanted to like it) so she did that while we tried Endless Summer. This one of our favorite meals - excellent service and nice background music. I had my favorite dish of the cruise - their macademia chocolate torte, which was just awesome. We felt guilty, though, when we picked up Kayla since that was the night the counselors made the kids sit completely silently for over 20 minutes as a "game" before turning on the video....
We had a gorgeous view of flowing lava from the ship. It was a bit far away so bring your binoculars.
Lahaina: Our favorite Hawaiian town. I woke up early and could see with my binoculars a surfing school just to the left of the port, so we headed there - Outrageous Adventures. Kayla joined a kids surf class ($55 plus $20 for a CD with about 30 pictures of her) which was one of the highlights of her life. I cannot say enough could stuff about this place - the staff were incredible to her - they had my eight-year old and everyone else surfing well in about 20 minutes. There was a nice shady spot with lounge chairs for parents to sit and watch. Great stuff!
We had prearranged to have lunch with some friends of ours from DC who happened to be in Maui, too. We love Cheeseburger in Paradise and it didn't disappoint. We did all our souvenir shopping in Lahaina (we buy the main stuff in Walmart, but the special stuff - aloha shirts, jewelry, etc. in Lahaina)
Kayla started realizing she had gotten a bit sunburned and very blistered hands from surfing and started feeling badly so we headed back. We ended up bringing dinners from the Marketplace back to the balcony. I probably should have called room service, but I just couldn't take that again!
Kahalui - this was kind of an admin day for us. We had every intention of going up Haleakula, but there were serious clouds up there. We toyed with going to Hana, but I don't like twisty, turny roads and Kayla doesn't like long car trips. (Seawishes later made us feel better by saying how tiring his trip there was - we'll save Hana for when we can fly there and spend a few days) Anyway, we ended up going to Wqalmart and dropping our film. Since we live overseas with the US Government, I have a US postal address - we realized it might be a good idea to mail home a lot of American goodies we can't get - like breakfast cereals, toiletries, and birthday decorations, etc. There's a post office just near Walmart so we mailed home this stuff, plus all our dirty laundry, giving us lots more room to collect souvenirs! My Walmart pictures were great quality, by the way.
We have always had luck spotting whales from MacGregor point so we went down there for the afternoon. I saw one breach very well, so I was happy.
Aqua had steak on the menu so Kayla wanted to go (that's when I found out that it and Versailles have nice kids menus - duh!) Had a wonderful meal with nice family from Pennsylvania.
Nawiliwili - I had never been to Kauai and I just loved it. It was out only overcast day and we went up the North Coast in intermittent rain. But truthfully, I enjoyed having a rainy day. We stopped at Snorkle Bob's to pick up gear just in case, but never used it. We drove all the way to Lee Beach, stopping along the way to marvel at the incredible scenery. We spent a few hours in Hanalei, which I just loved, and had a nice Mexican lunch there. We got back on the Star early and played deck games s we were starting to panic about the cruise coming to an end. Everyone who went on helicopter trips just raved, as did the Tubing the Ditch folks. Maybe next time....
We had a terrific dinner with another family in Versailles. I would say I liked this meal best (so again, if you don't to pay extra fro Le Bistro, don't worry!) I had really incredible seared ahi and excellent cheesecake.
Disembarking - we were doing our own thing, so didn't play to get off until 10 am. I agree with other posters that the "freestyle" final morning stuff telling you to "relax and stay in your cabin" is a crock. By 8:30, the cabin staff were knocking. We told them we would leave at 10. At 9, they came and asked for our sheets. We told them we'd leave at 10. At 9:15, they told us the :must" have towels right that second. We just gave up - went to the Market Cafe for some breakfast and then disembarked. We found our luggage with no problem, but getting a cab was nuts. If we didn't have a porter who knew a taxi driver, we would have been stuck.
The plan was to pick up our car, go to Pearl Harbor and then the North Coast and head back to the HHV in the late afternoon after check-in time. Not what happened.
Now, this is the only point when my missing notebook was a problem. I had written the address of National Rental Car in it. The taxi driver said he knew where it was, but after driving around Waikiki aimlessly, I noticed we were very close to the HHV anyway, so we just got out there. It worked out great. Our room (upgraded to concierge level because of my hubby's Hilton card) was ready and gorgeous. We decided we were way to late for Pearl Harbor anyway, so I cancelled National (no penalty) and we hung out at the HHV and on Waikiki beach all day. Kayla took another surf lesson (good, but not as good as Lahaina). We were supposed to have dinner with the family we met at Versailles the night before, but she called exhausted saying that they had gone on the NCL booked "duck" sightseeing trip all day and the bus/boat broke down and they were stuck most of the day in the hot sun waiting. We had a delicious and entertaining dinner at the Kobe steakhouse, which an extraordinary chef.
The next day, I picked a rental car from Hertz right at the HHV (a much better idea and not any more expensive than national once you ad in taxi fares downtown) and headed to Hanauma Bay. We had a weird experience. When we arrived at 9:00 am (I know, way too late) the gates were closed with a big sign saying "Parking Lot Full" Everyone else just kept driving straight, but Nick made a sharp left down through some field to turn around. By the time we found a place to turn and came back up the gates were open. There was hardly anyone there, so who knows what happened before. We had a great time at the new improved Hanauma Bay. We were last there in April 2001, and it's much better IMHO. The new "buildings" are nice (they look like the Flintstones said Kayla) and although there was a lot of grumbling about having to watch the film before being allowed to go the beach, I enjoyed it. I think people act a lot better there now - we only saw one guy climbing on the reef and we yelled at him to stop and he did. We rented snorkeling stuff there - there were lockers, showers, nice bathrooms, etc. There were definitely more fish this time - we got excellent underwater photos. It was almost too cool, so we didn't stay very long, but really enjoyed it.
We then went to the Sea Life Park where Kayla had a dolphin date at Splash U. I really liked SLP - it was nice and small with excellent, friendly staff and trainers.
We still had stuff to buy so we went to the Ala Mouana Center and ended up just eating there.
On Tuesday, we got up early (not as early as I wanted) to go to Pearl Harbor. The wait at 9 (stupid time to go, I know) was about 20 minutes to get a ticket, which told us to come back at 12:15. I was delighted as that gave us time to go up to the Dole Plantation. We went up, did the maze, and poked around the giftshop and had a nice cool Dole Whip.
We got back just as they called our group. All of us, even Kayla were thoroughly moved by the film and the experience at Pearl Harbor. My great uncle actually survived the Arizona and he just doesn't talk about it, so I was happy to be able to learn so much.
We took the car back after consider time looking for a gas station - tip - get gas on the outskirts of the city - it's hard to find a station in Waikiki and they always seem to be on the other side on a one-way street!
On our last night, we made the pilgrimage back to Cheeseburger in Paradise, Waikiki at sunset. It was a delight. They had an excellent duo singing 60s-70's pop songs and everyone sang along. PERFECT!
Our flight home was eventful and rather pleasant. Our only disappointment was that they were bumping people on the LA-London flight and offering to fly you the next day business class plus give each of you an $800 voucher with United. We immediately asked to be bumped, but were too far down the stampede who also volunteered. All six of our United flights were 100% full, but all took off and landed on time and were very comfortable with excellent, mature crews and great movies.
Our puppy missed us, but had fun with his doggie relations. Our ferry ride back to Ireland was REALLY rough, making us long for - as if we didn't already the calm seas and beautiful sunsets of Hawaii.
Sorry this is so long - I'm writing it as much for me and my scrapbook as anything. If anyone has questions, I'd be happy to answer. Read Less