In November 2003 my wife Anne and I visited Hawaii for the first time – what better way to see the Hawaiian Islands than by cruise ship? We thought a cruise would be a good way to sample four of the major Islands (Oahu, Hawaii, Kauai, and Maui). We also stayed two precruise nights at a Waikiki resort. Despite a rare storm that caused us to miss two of the Islands (Kauai and Maui) we still enjoyed this cruise very much and we want to return!
by Tim Larison, CLIA Master Cruise Counsellor (MCC)
In this report I will describe the different aspects of our trip. I will include some suggestions (preceded by the word TIP) that perhaps will help you in planning your Hawaii cruise.
The Ship (The NCL Star)
As a travel agent I have had the opportunity to take four cruises in 2003 – two Princess cruises, one Disney cruise, and this Norwegian Cruise. This was my first NCL cruise and I was pleasantly surprised by the NCL Star. She is a new ship (built in 2001) and she was just as nice as the newer ships I have sailed on with Princess and Disney this year. The NCL Star had some features, particularly in the dining area, that were unique and made our voyage even more enjoyable.
As part of the travel agent training group I sailed with, we were booked in a basic inside stateroom on deck 9. Though the stateroom was small the space was very well laid out. My wife and I had plenty of room for all of our clothes and to store three suitcases. There were two small desks in the room and small nightstands next to the bed. I tend to need alot of table space in my stateroom for my laptop computer, papers, etc. and I had plenty of room. The shower in the bathroom was larger than what I have seen in comparable staterooms on other ships. One different feature was a liquid soap dispenser by the sink and in the shower – there were no small complementary bars of soap but rather you got liquid soap from these dispensers. There was a hair dryer above one of the desks in the room that was adequate for our needs – if you wanted a more high powered hair dryer you could bring your own and plug it into one of the outlets. We liked our location on deck 9 (stateroom 9575). I particularly appreciated being just down the hall from the Internet Cafe, as I frequently checked my email throughout the cruise (more on Internet access below). We were a short walk away from many of the restaurants on deck 6 and 7. We often just used a staircase to reach the upper and lower decks but we found the many elevators to be fast and efficient, too. Unlike other cruises we have taken it seemed we had several stateroom attendants rather than just one. On other cruises I have had our stateroom attendant introduce himself or herself to us on the first day of the cruise – on this cruise we did not get to know our stateroom staff as well. The stateroom staff were courteous and friendly though they didn’t seem to be as available as what we have experienced on other cruise lines.
The NCL Star was recently selected the “best dining cruise” on a Travel Channel “Best Of” Special. If you make good use of the specialty restaurants onboard I can see why. This ship had 10 different restaurants. Some of the restaurants were specialty restaurants with a $10 to $12.50 per person cover charge. Two of the specialty restaurants had no cover charge. Two of the main dining rooms featured NCL’s well known “freestyle dining” – you could eat whenever you wanted to in the evening hours (i.e. no fixed dining time). As a travel agent I wanted to try out all the specialty restaurants so I could pass on my opinions of them to my clients. With this approach we only ate in a “freestyle” dining room on one night, and we ate at specialty restaurants for the other six nights. I describe each of the restaurants we ate in below.
Teppenyaki Room: This was my favorite restaurant on the ship and my wife’s second favorite. We liked it so much that we ate here on the first night of our cruise and again on the sixth night – the only evening restaurant we ate at twice during the week. In this restaurant you were seated around a grill and watched the chef prepare your meal for you. This was similar to the Benihana restaurant chain and the Teppenyaki room that my family has eaten at many times at Hawaii. We found the food to be just as good if not better than the Teppenyaki style dining rooms we have eaten at in the past. Particularly outstanding was the shrimp – I love shrimp and order it any chance I get. The shrimp here was as good as I have had anywhere. The menu said that you would get 6 shrimp with your meal – I received a generous portion of 9 or 10 large shrimp with each meal. The shrimp entree was well worth the extra $10 cover charge.
My wife ordered a steak dish the first night but had a taste of my entree. She liked the shrimp so much that she ordered shrimp the second time we dined here. Another interesting feature of the restaurant was to watch the chefs make fried rice for you (at the Hawaii Teppenyaki restaurant they have white rice only). We were also served stir fry vegetables. The dessert selection was limited. We had our choice of “green tea” ice cream, coconut ice cream, and fresh fruit. We each had green tea ice cream which was ok – I would have preferred an ice cream option with more traditional choices (i.e. chocolate or vanilla!).
Overall the Teppenyaki room was a great feature of the NCL Star and very unique – I have not seen another Teppenyaki style dining room on any other ship. I highly recommend eating here!
Our Grade: A Worth the $10 to $12.50 Cover Charge? Yes! TIP: Space is limited at this restaurant so this is a good one to eat at on the first night (where many people are eating at the sail away barbeque)
Le Bistro (French Cuisine)
This was my wife’s favorite restaurant and my second favorite. My wife is a big steak lover and the Filet Mignon we had here was excellent! I am not a big steak fan, but even I appreciated the tasty, tender, and large portion of Filet Mignon we were served here. There were other choices on the menu, too, but the Filet Mignon is the signature dish of this restaurant. The other outstanding feature of a meal here was the chocolate fondue dessert. My wife ordered this and was given a large plate of fruit to dip into a pan of hot chocolate. There was more than enough fruit for both of us. This was the best dessert we had all week!
The restaurant had a more intimate atmosphere than the Teppenyaki room and the other restaurants on board. If you wanted a quiet romantic dinner for two this was a great place to dine.
My Grade: A My Wife’s Grade: A Worth the $12.50 Cover Charge? Yes
TIP: This was another restaurant were reservations booked quickly – make your reservations early if you want to eat here.
The Soho (Pacific Rim Cuisine)
This was another of my wife’s favorite restaurants, while I did not rate it as high. My wife really liked her Beef Tenderloin dish here. I ordered shrimp and found the portion to be not nearly as generous as the Teppenyaki room (5 midsize shrimp). This was the only restaurant I had eaten at all week where I still felt somewhat hungry after the meal. If I were to eat here again I would try the Beef Tenderloin like my wife had. The atmosphere was pleasant – not as nice as Le Bistro but another good place to have a private meal for two.
My Grade: C+ My Wife’s Grade: A- Worth the $12.50 Cover Charge? No for me, yes for my wife
Endless Summer (Hawaiian Cuisine)
I liked the open atmosphere of this restaurant – around the Grand Atrium on deck 8. We sat next to one of the large windows and we had an incredible view of the open sea as we ate. Being next to the atrium this was not the most quiet restaurant. I found people walking through the restaurant as they wanted to get from one side of the ship to the other (though most of the foot traffic was one deck below on deck 7 in the atrium area). The ribs we had here were good (not great).
Our Grade: B No Cover Charge but we both felt it was worth a reservation to eat here
La Trattoria (Italian Cuisine)
I am Italian (though the name Larison doesn’t sound like it – that’s another story). We felt the food here was good, but it didn’t match up to the Italian Specialty restaurants I have experienced on other lines (Disney’s Palo and Princess’ Sabatinni’s were superior). The menu selections were limited compared to other cruise line Italian Specialty restaurants. We both had Chicken Parmigian which was very good. Our salad before the meal was excellent. This specialty restaurant seemed to be more of an afterthought for NCL. The restaurant appeared to be part of the buffet at one time (same table and chairs) which was later converted to a specialty restaurant.
Our Grade: B No Cover Charge but we both felt it was worth a reservation to eat here
Specialty Restaurants we didn’t try:
Ginza (we ate at the Teppenyaki area of this restaurant instead) and the Sushi Bar (we are not Sushi eaters!)
The Sushi Bar seemed empty most evenings – I rarely saw anyone eating there. I did hear from another passenger that the Sushi Bar was very popular for lunch one day where they offered unlimited Sushi for $10 per person. Another passenger I talked to said he enjoyed Ginza when they couldn’t get into the Teppenyaki room.
Versailles: This was the main “freestyle” dining room. We loved our breakfasts and lunches here. If you have read my past cruise reviews you know that I always recommend eating breakfast in a ship’s sitdown restaurant as opposed to the buffet, and this cruise was no exception. I’d much rather have cooked to order eggs and omelets rather than the standard buffet scrambled eggs offering. For breakfast and lunch we were always given the option to eat alone or with others. We ate with others most of the time, and we met some very interesting people! On one morning before an early shore excursion we did choose to eat alone and we had a wonderful table right by the window (table 5). The dining room had one of the nicest atmospheres on the ship. We did not eat dinner here during the week. One other feature of this restaurant was a fabulous “chocolate buffet” on the afternoon we visited Fanning Island. I have never seen so many chocolate desserts in one place!
Grade: A (for breakfast and lunch) No Cover Charge
This was the other main “freestyle” restaurant on board. We ate here for dinner only once during the week – Wednesday night for Lobster Night. TIP: If you are choosing one night to eat at the freestyle restaurant, Lobster Night is the one to pick! Lobster is served at all the restaurants that night, so there is no need to pay the extra cover charge for a specialty restaurant. The lobster tails I had here for dinner Wednesday night were excellent. I liked the atmosphere of Versailles better when comparing these two freestyle venues. Aqua was not open for breakfast or lunch. My wife rated the Orange Roughy she had here as very good. I am not a big fan of “freestyle” dining (I much prefer a fixed seating time). For dinner Wednesday we ate early and had to wait about 5 minutes for a table. I heard from other passengers that there were longer waits between 6 and 8 pm. TIP: If you eat here or at Versailles try to eat early or after 8 pm to avoid a wait.
Grade: B+ No Cover Charge
Market Cafe: We only ate here for the opening buffet. The food was OK. As I said I try to avoid buffets on ships and prefer to eat at restaurants with wait service if the time permits. I noticed the buffet wasn’t open as many hours as the buffet on the Princess Cruises I have been on. I did see that the Market Cafe had a cooked to order omelet station for breakfast, so perhaps it is a better breakfast option than your usual buffet food.
Other dining areas:
The NCL Star had a free ice cream stand by the kids club open from 1 to 4 pm on most afternoons. This is at the extreme rear of the ship and hard to find if you are not looking for it. I appreciated the fact that they offered low fat sherbet in addition to ice cream – the pineapple and orange sherbet I had here was excellent! We never ate at the Blue Lagoon, open 24 hours. From other passengers I heard that they had excellent Fish And Chips at this restaurant.
Overall dining experience:
We were very pleased with our dining during the week. I know some people balk at paying the cover charge for specialty restaurants on cruise ships. We thought overall the extra cover charges on the NCL Star were worth it. Even though we tried all the specialty restaurants the total extra dining charges for us was less than the cost of one shore excursion. If you are watching calories, most restaurants offered “Cooking Light” menu selections. This was a nice feature I have not seen on other lines. The service we received from the wait staff in the different restaurants was excellent. The servers were courteous and we rarely had to wait very long for our food. Dining is a big part of the cruise experience for us, and the NCL Star certainly got high marks in this area in our opinion.
This cruise featured three shows from the Jean Ann Ryan Theatre Company. The tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber was the best – with several memorable songs being performed from Webber’s Broadway Musicals. Particularly impressive was a rousing rendition of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. The lead singers in the Theatre Company had excellent voices and this was “live” music (not lip synched music I have seen on other lines). The “Fame” show the second night was not as good (most of the songs I did not recognize). The “Cirque” show the last night had very little singing but some impressive acts from the Chinese acrobats who were part of the show. I found the comedian onboard, Fred Klett, to be only average. Whether a comedian is funny or not is very subjective. We ate with one couple who agreed with me, while another passenger I talked to was raving at how funny Mr Klett was. I will say the comedian’s act was very clean, suitable for all audiences, which was nice to hear. On this cruise there was only one comedian (on the Princess cruises I have taken there are usually three or four). The cruise director was an ex-comedian, himself, and to me he was funnier than the full time comedian onboard! There was also a magician show, and a “beat of Polynesia” show. We saw enough Polynesian dancing at the Polynesian Cultural Center before our cruise so we skipped the Polynesia show.
There were a wide variety of activities and lectures on board. My wife and I played trivia several times – one of the most enjoyable times was playing “tv show” trivia where a theme song from a tv show was played and we were asked to name the tv show. On one day we participated in three different trivia contests and finished second each time. Finally on the next day we won a trivia contest. As a reward we had NCL Bookmarks, Frisbees, and water bottles to take home with us. My wife attended a Hawaiian Arts And Crafts class with June and reports it was very worthwhile. In my wife’s class they made weave leis. Earlier in the week other types of crafts (including a bead necklace) were made. These arts and crafts activities were well attended and got high marks from the other cruisers I talked to. With a wide range of activities offered we were never bored during the “at sea” days.
NCL charged a steep 75 cents per minute for internet connection time. On the first day of the cruise there were a couple of packages you could buy – 100 minutes and 200 minutes – for a reduced rate. I bought the 200 minute package and I was surprised at how quickly I used the time. I found the Internet Cafe to be well run compared to what I have experienced on other ships. The access time was good, and the internet connection was up most of the time. NCL also allowed you to access the internet from your laptop at the same rates if you had a WiFi card (you could also rent this card). You could not mix the laptop time with the time in the internet cafe – it was either one or the other if you bought a package of time. Even though I had my laptop with me I chose to use the Internet Cafe instead, especially since the Cafe was so close to our stateroom. TIP: If you think you will use the internet at all I strongly recommend that you buy one of the packages on the first day of the cruise. NCL throws in some extra minutes if you buy a package at that time.
We arrived early on Sunday to board the NCL Star – we were glad we did! We checked our bags at around 11:30 am and we were about 20th in line to checkin for the cruise. Unlike other cruise lines I have experienced, as soon as you checkin for the NCL Star you then can walk right onto the ship. We were on the ship in no time. I heard from other passengers that those who arrived between 1 and 3 pm had a much longer wait – one or two hours. TIP: Arrive early to the port to avoid the long lines in the afternoon. There’s an opening buffet you can enjoy once onboard, and we liked having the extra time to explore the ship. Disembarkation was very smooth. Our flight did not leave until 11:30 pm so we chose a shore excursion on the last day. Our luggage was efficiently loaded onto our tour bus, and we were left at the airport with our luggage around 7:30 pm. Our tour met in a theatre onboard and we were escorted off the ship. Others who did not have a tour left the ship by a color coded system.
As I said we encountered a rare storm on our trip (the local papers said the sea conditions were the worst in the last 15 years). This caused us to miss Maui and Kauai on Friday and Saturday. Instead we had an extra day at sea on Friday and a extra day on Oahu on Saturday. We were disappointed to miss two of the Islands but we made the best of the situation. We always enjoy “at sea” days so one extra day at sea, and more time on this wonderful ship, was a good alternative. With the extra time on Oahu we also took an additional tour (the Deluxe Circle Island tour) that we really enjoyed, Below I’ll describe our experiences on each Island.
Oahu – Outrigger Waikiki:
We were very glad we had arranged for two nights before our cruise at the Outrigger Waikiki. Hawaii was a 3 hour time difference from our home in Denver and on the first night we found we were ready for bed at 8 pm. The next night we stayed up until 10 pm, and by the time we started the cruise on Sunday we had no problem staying up until 11 pm or later. Another travel agent we talked to flew in the day of the cruise and she said she had to go to bed at 7 pm the first few nights because of the time change. So my TIP would be to spend the extra dollars for a pre-cruise night or two before your cruise – you’ll get more enjoyment out of the cruise if you have adjusted to the time change. We loved the Outrigger Waikiki! We were right on the beach (you can see this in my pictures) and we had a ocean view from our room. We stayed on the second floor in a newly renovated area. We found the breakfast buffet at one of the hotel’s restaurants (Duke’s) to be excellent (including made to order omelets). We really liked the easy beach access we had, and we found the beach area by the Outrigger not too crowded with a variety of activities offered (surfing lessons, outrigger canoe rides, etc). I found the soundproofing in the room to be lacking but otherwise our stay here was very enjoyable.
Polynesian Cultural Center: We visited the Polynesian Cultural Center on our 2nd day. This is Oahu’s top tourist attraction and one of the top attractions in all of Hawaii. The PCC is like a Polynesian “Hawaii” – with 7 different Polynesian Islands represented in different areas of a large park. At each Island cultural presentations were given which we found interesting. We saw an excellent “Dolphins” movie at the large screen IMAX theatre in the complex. At dinner time there was an option to attend a Luau or a standard buffet, followed by a 2 hour evening show. The TIPS I have for the Polynesian Cultural Center: 1. With 7 Islands and a limited amount of time, don’t miss the Samoa show! We found this one to be the best and the most entertaining. The Samoans were also the stars of the nighttime show, with an amazing fire dance act. 2. If you buy the transfers from your hotel your guide will give you the option for an additional $10 per person to have him escort you through the complex in a small group. We did this and we thought it was a good deal – we would not have seen as much or learned as much without our guide. 3. If you buy the all day package, the tour starts immediately after arrival with no time for lunch. I would recommend eating a late breakfast, and then eating a snack or two in the afternoon as you tour the different Islands (each has a snack stand). We didn’t eat lunch before and we found ourselves getting quite hungry on the tour before we finally had a snack at Samoa around 1:30 pm.
Pearl Harbor Arizona Memorial and USS Missouri Tours: We did this tour on our extra day on Oahu on Saturday. The Arizona Memorial visit was very moving. I was impressed with the 25 minute film summarizing the political atmosphere of the time and the attack. After the film you board a boat to be taken to the Memorial. At the Memorial itself you have about 15 minutes to honor the dead and see the submerged Arizona. I had heard you could see the ship still leaking oil and this was true – I saw several blobs of oil rising to the surface. Almost equally impressive was a visit to the USS Missouri next door – the ship where the Japanese signed the surrender papers to end World War II. It’s not every day you get to walk around a Navy battleship. Seeing the crew quarters and the large guns of the Missouri was very interesting. My only criticism of these tours was the cost if you book it through NCL – $77 per person. The Arizona Memorial is free to the public, and the Missouri costs around $15 to $20 to tour, so the $77 charge is a bit steep. TIP: If you are spending pre-cruise nights on Oahu before your cruise I would recommend visiting Pearl Harbor then, rather then on NCL’s organized tour. There was a Pearl Harbor Shuttle from our hotel for $8 per person – with the admission price to the USS Missouri and the free Arizona Memorial tour you will spend alot less in seeing these sights on your own.
Deluxe Grand Circle Island Tour: We booked this tour when our ship returned to Honolulu one day early. Originally we were going to do the Pearl Harbor tour on Sunday before our return to the airport. With our early arrival in Honolulu on Saturday we instead rescheduled the Pearl Harbor tour for Saturday, and did this tour after we disembarked the ship on Sunday. This tour cost about the same as the Pearl Harbor tour, and I thought you received much more value for the money. We saw the Dole Pineapple Plantation, many scenic beaches (Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, the Banzai Pipeline, and others). We had a wonderful buffet lunch at the exclusive Turtle Bay Resort included in the price – the best buffet we had on the whole trip. We visited a Macadamia Nut farm, and we had a couple of hours in Waikiki to eat dinner on our own and to shop. Overall I thought this tour was a great way to spend our last day in the Islands. Our flight did not leave until 11:30 pm, so this 9 1/2 hour tour was a good way to get in a few last hours of sight seeing. NCL handled all our baggage for us and dropped us off at the airport – very convenient.
The Big Island (Hilo)
Island Hoppers Volcano Flight: This was the best shore excursion we experienced on our whole cruise. We were treated to a one hour flight over an active volcano in a small plane. We booked this excursion independently. The cost was only $89 per person – much cheaper than the $189 per person “Circle of Fire” Helicopter Tour you can book through NCL with similar views from the air. After disembarking the ship we found a number of taxi car drivers right by the port, and the drive to Island Hoppers was only a $5 cab ride. The plane we rode in only held 4 people. I was seated in the co-pilot’s seat while my wife Anne was in the back seat. The pilot provided running commentary of the sights we saw, and even adjusted his flight plan when I asked if I could get a picture of our ship from the air. TIP: If you want to see an active volcano from the air yet not pay the expensive prices of a helicopter tour, the Island Hoppers scenic flight is the way to go!
Akaka Falls State Park: We met a friend on the Big Island who drove us to this park for a short 15 minute hike. The views were breathtaking. We were surrounded by lush greenery and towering water falls on our short hike. The hike was very easy – it gave us a taste of Hawaii landscaping without much physical effort. NCL also has an organized shore excursion to this park. Fanning Island – We purchased the Napali Beach Experience from NCL ($20 per person) and we found this excursion well worth it! Napali Beach was one of the most beautiful, peaceful beaches I have ever seen. Anne and I were the first ones to arrive at the beach, and I quickly secured a beach side hammock for a short nap. Anne enjoyed floating in the ocean on a float (no extra cost). There were also sail boats and bikes you could rent for $15. The only problem with Napali beach was that we were not there long enough! There is no food on this part of Fanning Island, so we stayed at the beach for two hours before returning to the NCL complex on the Island for a outdoor barbeque. Another interesting part of Fanning Island was the chance to see a native cultural virtually untouched by the modern world. There is no electricity on the Island and the natives live a simple life. The NCL staff had many amusing stories to tell of their encounters with the natives. One staff member told how he had thrown out a video tape, and the next day had found one native had retrieved the video tape and had made a skirt out of it. NCL will not be visiting Fanning Island on its 7 day “Pride Of Aloha” sailings starting in July of 2004, but the 10 and 11 night Norwegian Wind cruises will still visit the Island in 2004. Our visit to this Island was better than we expected. We love “at sea” days so the two extra days to get to and from the Island from Hawaii were not a problem for us. TIP: Spend the extra dollars for the Napali Beach Experience. The main beach on Fanning Island is very crowded in contrast to the more private Napali Beach. Napali reminded me of the beautiful adult beach I have visited at Disney’s Castaway Cay Private Island.
We really enjoyed our first visit to Hawaii. Like many of our fellow passengers we were disappointed that we could not visit two of the islands on our original itinerary (Maui and Kauai) but we did not let that spoil the trip for us. Missing those islands gives us another reason to take another Hawaii Cruise in the future!