So, here’s the bottom line: we loved Hawaii but not the cruise. However, cruising was the best and cheapest way to see most of the islands. So, here are our tips and trips on how to get the most from your vacation.
Before Cruising Tips
Get a map of the Waikiki Trolley system. It’s $2/ride. Fully narrated, it will take you to most of the attractions in and around Honolulu
Try the beach just south of Ala Moana/Hilton Village; it’s just as beautiful and slightly less crowded than the main Waikiki beach.
Walk a bit further to get some good food (but be aware – food can be expensive!!) Loco Moco is awesome, but don’t eat it at IHOP or the Wailana Coffee House. We didn’t find it as good as at a local food court (Loco Moco is a traditional Hawaiian breakfast, we’re told: easy-over eggs with a special gravy over a hamburger steak and fried rice. It may not sound awesome at first glance, but it’s GOOD.)
If you like Japanese food, try Sansei in the Marriot hotel. Sit at the sushi bar and talk to the chefs. It’s a bit pricey but very delicious. There are also lots of ramen (noodles in soup) shops all around.
Take the city bus ($2.25/ride). We ended up taking an hour-long ride around the city to get to Sea Life Park, and we got a really good look at the different areas of the city. Very interesting! – If you forgot something, buy what you need at an ABC store. It’ll cost twice as much on the ship.
Investigate Roberts Hawaii (http://www.robertshawaii.com/) or Polynesian Adventure Tours (http://www.polyad.com/) for tours and shuttle service. The normal fare for shuttle from the airport is $10 (versus $35 by taxi) and $7 from hotel to cruise terminal.
NCL’s Cruise Ship: The Pride of America
NCL’s “freestyle cruising” is not for everyone, but there are definite advantages. While we missed some of the “traditional” elements (formal nights and big, Broadway style productions), we did find the laid-back approach to the schedule relaxing. We never felt rushed and we felt we had a lot of choices, especially with respect to dining (although we did pay a bit extra for the “alternative” restaurants).
Get there by 2:00 p.m. At 3:00 p.m., there was a huge line. You’ll also be able to explore the ship with out the crowds around.
Participate in the restaurant tour they offer; there were restaurants we didn’t discover until late in the cruise.
If you like to drink, shell out $20 for the beer tour – 6 different bars/drinks in 60 minutes.
Stateroom & Service Don’t be surprised: the staterooms are small. However, we found ours to be perfectly comfortable. That said, we are quite slender, and it is true that anyone over 200 pounds or 6 feet in height will find the shower very tight and the room a bit narrow. We had purchased a Balcony (BI) and were upgraded afterward to BB, which basically meant moving from Deck 7 to Deck 10. We loved the private balcony and the great view. Storage wasn’t an issue for us – we liked the closet arrangements (with shoe racks and shelving!) as well as the desk, drawers and discrete safe (though it wasn’t as ample as Carnival’s). Our room steward was fantastic; she provided an extra bathrobe for us, and always made up/turned down our room in a timely manner. We also had a towel animal on our bed every day, and she noticed that I use shower caps and body lotion and drank a lot of coffee frequently and left me extra.
Stateroom Tips: We left a cash tip for our steward every few days just to let her know that her efforts weren’t going unnoticed. It’s true that NCL automatically adds gratuity to your bill, but this goes to every one and isn’t received until the end. A little recognition goes a long way on this cruise. Don’t forget to use the “dial” outside your room to communicate with your steward (make up room/do not disturb/etc). Slide your suitcase under your bed! There’s not enough space for it in the closet.
Dining & Service
Dining was a bit of an issue for us. While we enjoyed most of our meals, we weren’t too happy about paying extra for the alternative restaurants – which by normal standards were cheap (between $15-25/person for all you can eat), but still an extra expense. Here are our impressions of the restaurants:
Aloha Café: This is the main breakfast, lunch and dinner buffet. We liked the breakfast buffet, though it was very crowded on disembarkation day. For breakfast, don’t miss the made-to-order omelettes. It was kind of hit and miss for lunch and supper. There is a special section for Indian-style food (with variations on curry and dhal) and Asian-inspired food (with sushi rolls, fried rice and other common dishes). While the main dishes change daily, there is always a made-to-order pasta station and burgers, hot dogs and fries. Don’t miss the made-to-order crepe station – pineapple and rum filling was our favourite. There is also a soft serve ice cream machine tucked away in a corner. Service is sometimes surly but just smile. Servers are sometimes slow to clear tables, so if it’s busy you might have to be content to push someone else’s plates to the side.
Key West Bar & Grill: We ate the burgers (hamburger, turkey burger and chicken breast), hot dogs and fries here when we arrived back on the ship after the buffet had already closed. The fries are great.
Skyline: We ate at Skyline (the main restaurant) twice: the first time we were happy with the service and unhappy with the food; the second time we were unhappy with both the service and the food. If you are hungry, don’t eat at Skyline. You may be seated quickly enough, but service is painfully slow. As for the food, we found it sad that we preferred the buffet to the dishes served at Skyline. The appetizers were okay, but the main dishes tended to be over-cooked and uninspired – this was a catastrophe on lobster night for us! That said, we tend to be pickier when eating at sit-down restaurants; perhaps we should not have applied this rule to the main dining room.
Sushi Bar: You get your money’s worth at the sushi bar. At $15 a person, you can eat all the sushi you want. We’re sort of sushi snobs and we’re very familiar with Asian food in general, so we won’t say it’s authentic or fantastically creative, but it tastes great and a good alternative to the main dining room. If you can, get the mochi ice cream for dessert. It’s a bit too frozen, but it’s tasty. If you’re not a fan of green tea, ask for two mango flavoured mochi.
Teppanyaki: This was our favourite alternative dining venue. At $25/person, it’s a bit pricey but you get a great show with your food. The chef (we recommend Joesen) puts on a great, interactive show which makes the meal all the more appetizing. The menu is rich (we recommend the Land N Sea – jumbo shrimp and fillet mignon or the Shogun, scallops and jumbo shrimp) and you can order more if you are still hungry. It’s also a great time to chat with the other people at the table. It’s very personalized and for us, it was worth every penny. – Room Service The room service menu is limited, but when you’re hungry at 2:00 a.m., almost anything will do the trick. We recommend the chicken strips – it’s a kid’s item, but just order 2 or 3 (you get 3 strips per order).
Dining Tips: Go to the sushi and sake wine tasting if you want an introduction to sushi ($20/person). The chefs “teach” you how to make some of the more common rolls. If you already know a lot about sushi, the sushi portion may bore you, but you will get your money’s worth drinking the sake (5 different mixes). Be nice to your waiters and they’ll generally be nice to you. Don’t have high expectations of the main dining rooms. Get the scallops, fillet mignon and shrimp in the Teppanyaki room. -Have a scarf or sweater on hand; it’s cold in the restaurants. Eat early on disembarkation day: it’ll be crowded!
Entertainment If you have cruised with any other line, you will immediately notice how small the theatre is. What the Pride of America does NOT have is a schedule of elaborate stage productions – so no Broadway-style musicals or jaw-dropping shows. What is worth a watch is the Matt Marcy show (if you like magic mixed with comedy) and Second City (for improvisation). We didn’t care much for the comedian Bill Hildebrandt, and we found our attention wandering somewhat during the tribute concerts (which were performed by the nonetheless very talented Tony Beau). The crew talent show consisted mostly of cover songs performed with mediocre skill, and the game shows (not so newlywed show, etc.) were only mildly entertaining. We heard that there were lots of fun dance parties at different times, but we only attended the White Hot Dance Party, which was touted as one of the hottest dance parties, the Mardi Gras Dance Party and one other night at the dance club. The themed parties started off fun enough (with glow in the dark necklaces, for example), but the DJ’s song choices just confused us. It always started with the obligatory 60’s, 70’s 80’s music – which was fine and gave everyone a chance to groove to the music they liked. But after about an hour, it was evident that the DJ just couldn’t keep people on the dance floor. For example, he played “Cupid Shuffle” and got almost 50 people on the floor – and then immediately switched to the latest Miley Cyrus song – at which almost everyone disappeared. Half an hour later he replayed a song that was popular the first time. We love dancing but it didn’t seem much fun to be out there with just another 6 or 7 strangers.
*ENTERTAINMENT TIPS – You don’t have to get to the theatre an hour in advance like you do on other cruise lines (with the exception of the very first welcome show, where 30 minutes will do). Normally 10-15 minutes is fine. – Come to the night club with a list of song requests if you want to dance to your favourite tunes.
*Other We found the spa too expensive, although if you’re willing to spend the money, they have a very nice couples’ room. We didn’t care for the running track on Deck 6, but we loved the fitness centre, which had many ellipticals, treadmills and bicycles. There was a dance studio, a punching bag, mats, weight machines and a large set of free weights. A great resource. We didn’t care much for the pools – probably because there was always an awesome beach around. The hot tubs were always full. There are two professional photographers every night – and hardly every any lines (unlike the more traditional cruises)!
Onboard Ambience During the day, the ambience on board is very casual – shorts, tank tops, t-shirts and the like. At night, it ranges from the very casual to very formal. What is nice about freestyle cruising is that you can be at ease no matter what you wear. We saw some women wearing sleek, floor length gowns. Though there were not many dressed that way at dinner, they didn’t stand out as odd. However, there were almost no men in formal suits. The most popular outfits in the evening for women of all ages were short cocktail dresses. I found that a dressy shirt over a pair of (short) shorts worked well for walking around the ship in the evening. For dinner, my husband usually wore a sharp pair of jeans with a shirt or polo and I wore my favourite cocktail dress. We didn’t feel like the odd couple out no matter what we wore. Just be aware that it’s cold at night and in the ship so bring something warm if you tend to shiver!
Tips for Packing
Anything goes really, but here is what our packing list would look like if we could do it again:
For both of us: – 2 pairs of swim suits (at least one of which can stand up to strenuous activity in the water) – Flip flops – Running/hiking shoes – Fancy/formal shoes – A couple of pairs of shorts – A couple t-shirts – light sweater and/or rain jacket – work out clothes
For men – nice pants and a nice dress shirt (if you plan on eating in one of two fancy restaurants: Liberty or Jefferson’s bistro) – one or two polo shirts and a nice pair of jeans – something white for the White Hot Dance Party
For women – a pretty cocktail dress – cute shorts or short skirt or equivalent for you! – a sun dress – a swimsuit cover up or casual quick dry tank top and shorts – one or two dressy shirts and a nice pair of jeans – a scarf or light sweater – something white for the White Hot Dance Party
While not necessarily the grand, luxurious experience of other, more traditional cruise lines, the experience aboard the Pride of America is certainly fun. The entertainment and dining options are good, and if you remember to treat the staff courteously and with a friendly smile, they will probably do their best for you. The best part of this cruise is the itinerary, and we think that this NCL cruise is the best way to get a taste of four of the Hawaiian Islands. Of all the cruise lines, NCL has the best itinerary by far.