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Steven Duncan

Age: 51

Occupation:Computer Engineer

Number of Cruises: 6

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Pride of America

Sailing Date: February 24th, 2007

Itinerary: Hawaii

Summary

I am here to tell you that you can have a great time on the Pride of America. We were very satisfied with the ship, our suite, and the itinerary. Seeing whales, molten lava entering the sea, and the Napali coast of Kauai from your floating hotel is reason enough to pick this trip. Although it is “Freestyle”, you will probably have a better trip if you plan your activities and dining choices before you arrive on the ship.

Embarkation and Airport Transfers

This was handled well with plenty of staff and buses running frequently. The return bus trip was not quite as smooth because the pier fronts one long sidewalk and does not allow for orderly queuing. It was not clear which buses were tours and which ones went to the airport. In the end, we figured it out, and surprise, United was the end of the line, both for the bus drop and the passenger gates.

How Suite it is

The POA has a large percentage of balcony rooms, and for only a couple hundred dollars more per person, we were able to get one of those. Our original choice was room 11530, for $1200 including air. This was a single-wide balcony room. Once you book, you will be contacted via phone or email by an agent from the internet cruise company. A few weeks later, we were contacted again and offered a “suite” for $300 more per person. This was room 11518. We took it, and I’m very glad we did. It turns out that once you are in the suite category, you get several additional amenities and benefits.

First, the room is twice as big. The room itself is easily 20x20 and the balcony another 20x10 on top of that. The balcony easily holds two lounge chairs and a table for four. It is fully enclosed and totally private. Inside, the room is divided in the middle by a sliding curtain that works easily and really provides darkening and privacy. On one side is a king size bed. It was very comfortable, and it wasn’t until the last day I realized the pillow top mattress was actually a layer of egg-crate foam under a quilted mattress pad! When the curtain is closed, the “bedroom” occupants have privacy to access the bathroom and dressing area, which also contains the closet and vanity. Two plush robes and about twenty nice wooden hangers are provided.

In the living room, you have a desk and chair with lots of electrical outlets for all your toys and a network port for your laptop. The dry-bar includes a mini-fridge with lots of room, and get this – a $1000 fully automatic coffee maker. No filters or pouches, just put your cup underneath and press a button. You have fresh ground coffee by the cup in about 2 minutes. An 8-foot couch that converts to a bed, a small glass table and two more chairs complete the furnishings.

The bath is nicely appointed but not too well executed. A tub is certainly a luxury on a cruise ship, and it fills quickly and fits the average person. However, it is also the shower stall and makes for a big step up getting in, which might be a problem for older folks. The sliding glass shower doors are pretty but heavy, a little awkward and don’t really keep the water in. Another glass panel separates the toilet from the sink and once had another glass sliding door which had been removed at some point.

Other suite-only benefits include…

Priority check-in, but the main line moved so quickly we didn’t use it.

A complementary bottle of champagne, a plate of fresh fruit, and a cabin bouquet on arrival. A few days later, a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries arrived. On Friday, we received more fruit.

A private champagne party on the first day to introduce the Concierge and make all your dinner reservations. This took the anxiety away from the whole dinner reservation thing, but you have to know your excursion schedule and commit on the spot. Parties of two can’t normally make reservations for the main dining rooms, but the concierge can do this for you. You will also be seated at nicer tables when he makes those reservations for you.

Another private cocktail party later to meet the captain.

A butler you can call upon if you feel you need him.

Hotel-style bath amenities aside from the soap and shampoo dispenser.

27” widescreen LCD television with DVD player

Dual zone climate control

Digital bath scale (which was extremely dusty and had dead batteries )

Priority disembarkation.

TV and Movies

NCL has one of those annoying interactive, menu driven TV systems we have all cursed at hotels before. To simply watch TV programs requires navigating the menu each time, and each button press takes several seconds to respond with no feedback that anything is happening. There is no direct control over the TV itself, only the signal that is fed to it by the central system. There isn’t even a mute button on the remote!

With enough patience, you can look at your account, book shore excursions and even view a camera located on the bridge. It all works in the end, just frustrating and slow. The selection of TV programs is limited to TNT, CNN, FOX “News” and some sports channels. Four year old movies are run continuously on another channel. The DVD player provided did play the disks I brought made on my DVD recorder in the DVD-R format. Don’t count on plugging your camcorder into this setup, because you can’t change the AV input with the system remote, much less get to the jacks. The 13” TVs in the standard room might be different.

Exercise Room

The workout facility was spacious and had the usual assortment of treadmills, ellipticals, recumbents, and sit-up style bikes, as well as a nice complement of resistance machines and free weights. Sweat towels are provided. Each aerobic machine has its own 15” color LCD TV on a stand. Some much simpler remotes were floating around that would perform simple up and down channel selection without all the complexity of the room system.

Ship Décor and Cleanliness

Yes, it’s all American, stars and stripes and red, white and blue. I did not find the America theme to be too unpleasant, but some of the other décor was really garish and sometimes out of place, like the mosaic theme in the Little Italy restaurant, or the caricature paintings in the Mardi Gras room. There were also some odd splashes of color, like the bright purple chairs in our otherwise tasteful room.

The dining areas were very clean, but the rooms didn’t seem to get the same treatment. Not bad, mind you, just not Ritz Carlton clean. A little dust here, a little mold there, trash in a drawer or under the bed, that sort of thing. Our TV remote was hiding under the bed when we got there, and we found a couple of articles from the previous occupants, both of which should have been noticed by the cabin maid.

Staff and Service

You notice I use the term maid instead of steward. The POA is more like a hotel in that respect. You do not get a boy (or girl) Friday like you do on a traditional cruise. Instead, you get your room made up and turned down at the appropriate times. Towels are refreshed, ice is left and you get everything you need as in a fine hotel. There is that butler who is included with the suite, but it just isn’t the same as having a steward who roams the halls and you can find during certain hours.

Bar service was spotty. Drinks could be strong or weak, fancy or plain, and even rung up wrong depending on who you got. At the beginning of each month, they rotate the bar staff between the venues. More on drinking in the next section.

The big service issue they need to work out is the wait staff, especially in the main dining rooms. On other lines, there is a waiter and an assistant waiter. The assistant is in charge of drinks, condiments, bussing tables, etc. In the Liberty and Skyline main dining rooms, however, all the wait staff has their own tables and although some team waiting goes on, each waiter does all the serving from beginning to end. Most notably, you may have to ask for a beverage other than water, and important condiments such as sour cream for baked potatoes, or creamed horseradish for your prime rib. I know, I know, life is tough and they will bring you these things if you ask. So don’t grumble, just ask if you are not getting what you want! Because the staff is spread thin, there are more tables than waiters in the main dining rooms and the result can be a wait during peak periods. For this same reason don’t make every reservation for 7pm unless you want to spend two full hours at your table.

We did get exemplary, fast, courteous service in the Cadillac diner and some very special treatment in the Little Italy specialty restaurant when we disclosed it was our 25th wedding anniversary. On the other hand, the service at Tepanyaki, the Benihana clone, was ploddingly, painfully slow. Our chef was a novice and though the food was tasty, the show was a disappointment.

Many reviews comment on the difference between the American staff of the POA and largely foreign crews on other lines. Here’s my take. Everyone we met was cheerful, cordial and treated us with genuine respect. In fact, the total lack of a language barrier was a refreshing change on a cruise ship. I think the reason one might feel more pampered on another line is not because of the nationality of the crew, but the fact that your staff is not the dedicated steward-waiter-assistant waiter team who gets to know you and your wishes over the week. But, if you have ever been stuck with a slow waiter or one who makes corny jokes on a 7 day cruise, you know that can be a mixed blessing too.

My last comment on the staff and service relates to the fact that these folks can and do quit before their contacts are up from time to time. If they quit, they get off the boat and are Americans in Hawaii. Foreign nationals on other lines can’t do this as easily so the turnover is far less. Those folks learn their jobs well and adopt a service mentality simply to survive.

In NCL’s defense, they do have quality improvement programs in place. We did see blue-uniformed management staff conducting inspections and training exercises on several occasions.

Tipping

There are no tip envelopes, and no hands out. Aside from the $10 daily service fee, the only opportunity to tip was on the check for your bar purchases and in the specialty restaurants where there was a charge. I never saw any tips exchange hands anywhere else. I hope these folks are making a good wage and getting paid for the hours they actually work, because there is not much tipping going on. I was starting to wish I had brought a pile of $5 bills so I could leave one behind at every table I soiled during my stay. You could tip your maid too, but ours was not the same person all week.

Dining Options

If you have not been on one of these “Freestyle” cruises, it’s is hard to imagine exactly what they have going on there, so let me sketch it out for you. I will say that you don’t have to plan where to eat every meal on the first day, but it will certainly take away some of the anxiety if you do. After all, you are going to probably visit some ports and take some excursions, so why not pencil in your dining as well? This way you will be sure you get to try all the different venues.

There is of course, a buffet. A wonderful buffet, called the Aloha Café. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you could easily eat every meal there. I liked the way that there was a staffer in the center of most every food kiosk to keep things running smoothly. Although many things were repeated, I found a wide variety of items presented throughout the week. Two soft serve ice cream dispensers worked flawlessly. This venue was well staffed and tables were bussed almost instantly. If tables were full, there were more outside the café in the adjoining spaces. If you are there at the absolute peak times, such as breakfast before a shore excursion day, it will be crowded to be sure, but at off times it was a joy and the window seats in this restaurant had some of the best whale-watching views on the ship.

You’ve also got your main dining rooms, the Skyline and Liberty. This is your fancy sit-down and be served meal of the day, open mostly for breakfast and dinner. Try them both to sample the décor, but don’t expect a big difference, as both rooms have the same offerings each day and you may or may not get served efficiently and expediently as described above. Sorry, but long waits and having to ask for beverages and horseradish just takes some of the fun out of a fancy dinner.

Then there are the themed, specialty restaurants that you can read about elsewhere. We tried the Little Italy (no extra charge) and Tepanyaki ($20 per person). These places reminded me of themed restaurants at someplace like Epcot; the décor and food try to be authentic, but you know you are still in the middle of central Florida, and your server is from Kansas. Are they worth it? We missed the Jefferson Bistro, which I heard is the best bet. At Tepanyaki, the service was poor but the lobster, shrimp and scallops alone were probably worth the price of admission.

The poolside grill cranked out great burgers, chicken sandwiches and hot dogs. It was rarely very busy. That server was just finishing a 9-month tour of duty and yet he was still devoted to his job. He was going to take a cruise on one of the other Pride ships as a passenger before returning home!

The Food Itself

For the most part, I felt the food quality was good to very good. Cruises tend to suffer from chewy meat. On the POA, they seem to get around this by cooking the meat very thoroughly so that it is falling apart. The downside of this was that my prime rib, lamb shank and veal all had the same taste and texture. I did not have a steak, but if you wanted a real quality cut of beef I think you would need to get it at one of the specialty restaurants and pay the premium. Aside from the meat issue, I liked almost everything I tried. If you don’t like what you are served, don’t suffer, just ask for something else!

Booze it Up

People drink on cruises, and NCL would like to be your sole alcohol supplier. First, there is no booze in the gift shop like on other lines. They will sell you pints (375ml) for about $33 though room service (which does include mixer). Not a big savings. On other lines, you are allowed to bring wine and beer on from ports, but not here. Don’t try to bring some from home, either, because all bags are x-rayed by NCL and you may end up being called to security for a “secondary inspection”, sure to be embarrassing and no fun at all. With beers starting at $4.25 and cocktails at $5.75, what is a lush to do? A couple could easily spend $300-400 on drinks over the week! The answer is happy hour. From 4:30-5:30pm Sunday-Friday, there are ½ price drink and beer specials in certain bars. The only problem is that the staff can’t seem to agree what is on sale, so take a copy of the daily newsletter and be prepared to set them straight. The specials we had on our sailing were “classic cocktails” (as listed in the bar menu) and “lagers”, which included the delicious Kona Longboard microbrew and certain tropical drinks. They alternated between twofers and ½ price specials. Bar service is also frustrating because swiping the card and printing the receipt is such a major operation. The bartender will usually fill another order or two while your receipt sits on the printer, when all you want to do is get back to your deck chair, book and iPod.

Shipboard fun and shopping

The pools were small and fairly shallow, which is OK, but they definitely were not heated. Maybe in July they heat up a bit, but in February the water felt like 80 degrees. They were, however, filled with fresh water. They hot tubs were not very hot either. I think they were heated when they were being run, but every time I stuck my hand in one it felt more like 90 than the 102 degrees I would prefer.

There were lots of deck chairs in the pool areas, but at peak times they were all full. No problem, just keep climbing up to the next deck and take one off the pile. It’s more peaceful up there anyway. There are actually deck chairs all over the ship if you look. No nudie deck that I could find, but if you have a private balcony and the sun is right, you can sunbathe in whatever clothes you want.

Instead of a rock climbing wall, the POA offers two interesting attractions; a Human Gyroscope and a Bungee Trampoline. I personally tried the gyroscope three times and if you like a thrill ride, it’s a lot of fun! It is open 45 minutes a day; see the newsletter for times. The bungee trampoline was out of service. The gyroscope attendant said it needed a cable, but it didn’t look to be in very good shape and I wonder if they would rather just retire it, perhaps for liability reasons.

The video arcade was modern and spacious. Most attractions were $1.00 a pop. There was also the usual shuffleboard (I think its maritime law), two ping pong tables, and two giant novelty chess and checker boards complete with large plastic game pieces. Fun!

The shopping arcade was refreshingly small, with a notable absence of gold-by-the-inch and tables full of cheap watches and junk jewelry. They did have a shopping event on the last day, but it was their standard fare marked down, not a bunch of junk brought in for the sale. The art auction thing was there, of course, but it was low-key and not pushed like on other cruises I’ve been on.

I am ashamed to say I did not go to one show. I can make the observation that they do not bring in Vegas style magic or dance acts like I’ve seen on other lines. Instead they make do with a few individual artists and a crew show.

Under Sail

Between ports, the Captain gives you a nice little ride to kill time. The winds at sea can create some good motion, so you really know you are on a ship, not just a floating hotel. Some folks might find it a little much at times, but I think it is fun and good for sleeping. The POA also really shakes and creaks at times, and does not seem to have the rigidity of some ships.

Two notable events will occur under sail. One evening, you will sail around the tip of the Big Island and watch molten lava flow into the sea. Don’t worry, you don’t get too close, but you can still smell the sulfur. The Captain will actually pass it and turn around the ship so you get to see it twice. The other event happens when you sail past Kauai’s Napali coast, where Jurassic Park and many other movies were filmed. For this, only the port side gets the action. It takes a good 45 minutes to sail past this incredible scenery. I also saw the most whale action right here.

Ports and Rental Cars

You are in Hawaii, stopping at every major port, so you’d better take advantage of it! You can purchase shore excursions, rent cars, or do a combination of both. Cars are cheap on the islands, and can be had for about $35-45, plus $7-10 in taxes and fees. Don’t forget the $3 gas, going up as we speak! Still, it is a bargain compared to buying excursions at every port. I’m not going to tell you where to go on the islands, but here are some tips for renting cars…

Rent the car on the internet before you arrive. You have one day each in Hilo and Kona, and overnight in Maui and Kauai. Although it is temping to max out the rental car time, it is also nice to have a day to relax on the ship after a day of driving around in Hawaii traffic. The agencies last shuttles return around 8pm.

Make your rental time for 8:30am. Walk off the ship as soon as it disembarks at port, go get the car, and bring it back. The car rental shuttles will be waiting for you and your wife’s hair should be dry by the time you return.

In Maui there is free overnight parking right outside the gate, but the primary lot fills up about 3pm on the first day. There is overflow parking around the corner. There is also a cool beach park on the way to the rental car area where bums camp and tourists kite-surf. In Kauai, day parking is free at the Aloha Center Market (about ¼ mile away) and overnight parking is $10.

We did not rent in Hilo or Kona. You can take a little ¾ mile walk in Hilo to Banyon Drive, home to some hotels and a lovely little park. On your way back, stop at Margarita Junction, a terrible hole-in-the wall bar. Historic Hilo is 2.25 miles from the ship. I would not recommend walking it, but you can rent bikes at the pier. Kona is a walking town anyway. You are only there for the day and the Big Island is so big. Visit one of the internet cafés and catch up on your email.

Internet access

You can plug your laptop right in you room, go wireless in a public area, or use the computers in the internet café interchangeably for a mere .40-.75 cents per minute depending on how many minutes you buy up front. It’s pretty slow; I’d estimate 100-200K BPS on average. On the last day, they will offer 15 and 30 minute packages for 8-$12 that you can use to print your boarding passes. Hint: you will need all 30 minutes. There is a $3.95 connection fee and 50 cents per print job (not per page) fee. The gal in the internet room was really helpful and nice.

Disembarkation

Suite passengers get off first, but you can stay until 10am if you wish. If you rent a car at the Honolulu airport to kill time until your red-eye, you will have to schlep your bags over to the rental car kiosks so grab an abandoned cart right away.

Every time I cruise I hate myself for the wretched excess, waste and resources used up for completely hedonistic purposes. Then I start planning the next one.











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