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Paul M. Jaffe

Age: n/a

Occupation:n/a

Number of Cruises: n/a

Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean

Ship: Legend of the Seas

Sailing Date: December 1998

Itinerary: Hawaii

The following is a review of our cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas on the Ensenada to Honolulu 11-day itinerary. This itinerary is relatively unique as cruise itineraries go. Although we and others have been to Hawaii in the past, most people have never visited the Islands from the vantage of being a cruise ship passenger. I would therefore hope that some of our observations would be of value.

We also wanted to give our impressions of a Hawaiian cruise as compared to a Caribbean cruise on a similar ship. We’ve been on at least 9 Caribbean cruises: multiple trips on eastern, western and southern itineraries. Similar weather and at the same time of the year. Which is "better" and why? Very subjective of course, but we try to address these questions throughout the review.

Getting to the Ship

This turned out to be somewhat of a logistical challenge. An archaic, protectionist US maritime law called the Passenger Vessel Act of 1886 (also known as The Jones Act) states that No foreign vessel shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port. This means a foreign-flagged cruise line (as just about all of them are) cannot sail from one American port directly to another. There must be a foreign port in there as a significant part of the itinerary. This presents no problem on a Caribbean cruise leaving from Florida or from San Juan where just about all of the islands are indeed foreign countries. However, it does prevent sailing from, in this instance, a California seaport such as San Diego, directly to Hawaii.

On the day we were to embark on this cruise, the Legend of the Seas had docked in the early morning hours at the San Diego Cruise Terminal, discharging passengers after just returning from a cruise through the Panama Canal. By 11 AM the ship was gone, sailing empty of passengers, on a 3-hour journey south to Ensenada to wait for us.

Ensenada is a small, smelly, undistinguished Mexican seaport & border town located approximately 75 miles south of the border, about 90 miles from downtown San Diego. Three and four-day RCI and Carnival weekend cruises from LA - San Pedro usually include Ensenada in their itinerary. The reason is, I think, to make the itinerary sound exotic. There can be no other reason. Ensenada has very little on its own to recommend it to anyone. It certainly isn’t exotic.

We elected to start our journey from Los Angeles International Airport. We live in the LA area, and would be flying back into LAX at the end of the cruise. We opted for the RCI $75 bus ride from LAX to the ship. Most passengers flew in directly to San Diego International Airport and paid less for their shorter bus ride to the ship.

The first part of our journey, a 2-hour bus trip ended at the San Diego Cruise Terminal. This is a large, noisy holding area which was already filled with hundreds of waiting passengers, most sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs, when we got there. These people were those who had been bused over from San Diego Airport. Many had been waiting for some hours. A few wisely flew in to San Diego the day before, stayed in a hotel at their expense and toured the city. Free sandwiches and refreshments were available.

RCI was set up at counters to check people in, take tickets and issue the cruise cards that would allow boarding of the ship in Ensenada later. Finally, around 2:30 PM, the first groups of people were allowed to board buses. Boarding was organized by color-coded tags which had been stuck on our shirt when we arrived.

We finally got on our bus to Ensenada around 3:30, about an hour and a half after we arrived in San Diego. The second portion of our bus journey to the ship was going to consume still another 2 hours, plus getting off the bus.

When we finally got to the Legend of the Seas we found ourselves at the end of a long line of about a dozen buses. The ship was tied up to a very marginal-looking dock, very narrow, with limited access. Each bus in turn was backed up alongside the ship. The passengers were allowed off and dock workers removed luggage from each bus belly, slowly, walking one piece at a time, all by hand. No dollies in sight. Each piece was then thrown onto a nearby pile of bags, now six feet high and growing. (We were now in Mexico, after all.) It was cold and raining lightly.

It would be about 45 minutes before we could get off our bus and finally take the gangway to board the ship, around 6:15 PM. The ship was due to sail at 9 PM but in fact left Ensenada more than two hours later. The delay appeared to be principally related to transferring the huge pile of luggage onto the ship. We watched this agonizing process from above, again one piece at a time. Many passengers didn’t get their luggage at their cabin door until the early morning hours, long after the ship sailed for Hilo, 2200 nautical miles distant.

In summary, if there was one major negative in the comparing a Hawaiian cruise to a Caribbean cruise it would be the requirements of the Jones Act.

The Ship

The Legend of the Seas and its sistership, the Splendour of the Seas, are built for speed. We were on the Splendour in the summer of 1998 on the Scandinavia and Russia itinerary. A review with panoramic pictures can be found at our website at http://www.gl-engineering.com.

The Legend of the Seas makes the passage from Ensenada to Hilo in 4 days and 5 nights. Somewhat newer RCI ships in the Vision series take almost a full day longer to make the trip to Hilo. Because of the quicker passage, we were able to enjoy an extra day in Honolulu at the end of the cruise as compared to the same 11-day itinerary on, say, the Rhapsody of the Seas.

Most of the time we cruised at 22Kt. This speed is approximately 3Kt. under the maximum available. Most cruise ships sail at 17Kt.

We were on the Legend of the Seas three years ago at Christmastime, sailing from Acapulco to San Juan, through the Panama Canal. At that time, the ship was only a few months old. We enjoyed the ship then and we enjoyed it now. The ship is kept very clean and elegant and in our opinion has been maintained very well. It is indeed a beautiful ship and we feel it is the equal of any ship on the water today.

Crossing the vast swells in the Pacific in the middle of the winter is different than crossing the Caribbean at the same time of the year. The sea is more active, more stormy. There was "motion" throughout. We have taken many cruises and besides have owned a number of boats over the years. Thus, the motion of the ship didn’t bother us but it was evidently a problem for others. At the outset of the cruise, we saw some folks literally hanging over the rail, and we almost stepped in a few "stomach discharges" here and there throughout the public areas. The was a lot of conversation going on about seasickness. Later, it seemed that people eventually got used to the motion and had a better time of it. All things considered, and although there were 8-12 ft. "moderate" seas most of the time on the crossing, we thought the ship rode the water very well.

The first few days out were quite cool. Air temperature on the first morning was 54 Deg. F. This was a real eye-opener for all of the passengers having to endure a 20 minute lifeboat drill on deck in a 23Kt. plus breeze. The air temperature rose about 5 degrees each day as we got closer to Hawaii. Also, once we got several hundred miles out to sea, we picked up the northeast tradewinds. This provided us with a breeze on the stern almost matching the speed of the ship. With a net wind of zero over the ship, being outside was quite comfortable even though the air temperature was still in the 60s. The poolside chaises started filling up fast by mid-morning. The last couple of days were really quite pleasant with temperatures getting well up into the 70s.

The direction of the tradewinds alone should be indicative of the fact that a one-way westbound cruise can be much more pleasant than going in the opposite direction. Also, in our opinion it’s nicer to start out the trip with those several days at sea to unwind and enjoy the ship’s facilities, before getting to the Islands.

Cruising as a Value Vacation

Our 11-day cruise on the Legend of the Seas cost $113 per person per day including all taxes but exclusive of air fare and bus transfers. Our travel agent had been able to get us a 4-category upgrade when we booked more than a year in advance. Perhaps this accounted for much of the low rate. We always choose an inside cabin feeling that our substantial savings versus an outside allows us to cruise more frequently. Considering this cruise was at the highest season (Holiday) rate with a Hawaii destination, the cost for this vacation was incredibly low.

If you check out the cost of Hawaiian hotel rate brochures, car rental charges and other tourism-related issues, you discover there are essentially two seasons in Hawaii the week between Christmas and New Year’s and the entire remainder of the year. Since this cruise took place during the highest season in Hawaii, it further underlines what a bargain it was.

There were approximately 1950 passengers on board and essentially this cruise was a sellout.

Auto Rental

We and our traveling companions have been to the Hawaiian Islands a number of times over the years. We’ve seen many of the sights. We decided we would not buy any of the shore excursions offered and instead would rent a car at each of our ports of call and go on our own. We made arrangements in advance with Budget Rent-A-Car for a full-size sedan for a commercial rate at $39 per day (plus gas and taxes) at each island. Sharing this nominal cost between two couples afforded a considerable savings as well as allowing us to be more flexible in our sightseeing plans.

We carried our cell phone with us, which incidentally worked OK on every island. When we were ready to get off the ship we called ahead to Budget. We had all of the local office numbers with us. They were waiting for us in every instance when we stepped off the ship.

Hawaii Tourism and Commercialism

It was evident to us in the years since we had last been to the Islands, that an enormous amount of commercial build-up has taken place, especially on the outer islands. Waikiki has always been very commercial…for decades…and remains so. However, elsewhere you see the proliferation of the tee-shirt shops, junk art galleries and frozen yogurt parlors that can nowadays be found everywhere that tourists go, anywhere in the world actually. These places are not hard to find, and having our own car as we did, were not hard to avoid either. We discovered many places on each of the Islands that were really pristine, and by doing some research before we arrived, we knew what we wanted to see and how to get there.

Many people we spoke to on board relied exclusively on the ship’s shore excursions for what they did on each island. It sounded to us that their experiences were largely disappointing at the overrun and "touristy" type attractions they saw including the interminable stops at Hilo Hattie-type souvenir shops. Other than that, these people wandered around (Lahaina is good for doing that) or even stayed aboard ship. Too bad. Hawaii has so much to offer once you get away from the commercialism in certain places. You just have to plan ahead a little bit.

By having a car, we not only saved real money vs. what the shore excursions cost but we also had a lot of control. We felt we didn’t miss a thing and that every day was as fulfilling for us as we wanted it to be. It was important however that you knew what you wanted to do when you got behind the wheel.

Also, no cars were available on a spur-of-the-moment. You had to have a reservation for this prime-time week, at least with Budget.

Dressing up on a cruise

There were three formal nights and two jacket-and-tie nights on this 11-night cruise. The ship has a notice in the cabin letting you know which nights are which when you arrive on board. People we spoke to seemed to feel the third formal night was unnecessary and excessive.

Tuxedos were available for rent. The number of men now wearing tuxedos to formal night dinner has diminished drastically in the last year or two that we’ve been eyeballing this…we would guess now much less than half. Also, some people don’t even attempt to look as good as they can, basically making a statement to their fellow passengers to go to hell. We saw quite a few no-jacket, no-tie outfits on formal nights including one fellow wearing a pullover sport shirt with horizontal stripes! On another one of the formal nights, a husband and wife came to the table wearing the Hawaiian shirts they just purchased. Everyone else at their table was wearing formal clothes.

In our view, this trend towards "dumbing down" is becoming increasingly pervasive in all walks of life and not just on cruise ships. Although many women looked extraordinarily classy, they were seated next to others where the fashion statement for even semi-formal nights seemed to be Mervyn’s markdown. We spoke to a headwaiter about this. He said that whatever may be lacking in the fashion consciousness on this holiday cruise is still better than what he typically sees on low-season cruises. In the off-season they get a lot of large affinity groups traveling, and few if any of these people dress up for anything. The inference was just that they don’t know any better.

Las Vegas comes to mind. If people have the price of admission, they can look any way they choose, even in the finest restaurant in the Bellagio or the Mirage, and nobody is going to say or do anything about it. The only thing that matters to these businesses…and it certainly applies to cruise lines…is money in hand.

The advertising, the rate promos, the cruise value discussed earlier, and certainly the good US economy has made cruising much more of a Joe Six-Pack experience. I think Seabourn and Crystal would bar the door to someone not properly dressed on a formal night. At the other extreme, I think Carnival effectively sets an example for diminished expectations. However, on the mid-value cruise lines like RCI, Princess, Holland-America, etc. I think the cruise line operators are in a real quandary. They certainly can ill afford to turn away someone from the dining room, but on the other hand they create a completely unsatisfying experience for those customers wanting to look their best and share the experience with others.

Hawaii vs. the Caribbean & Mexico

The experience of disembarking at a port in Hawaii is much more satisfying than in the Caribbean or the Mexican resorts. You don’t have the in-your-face onslaught of taxi drivers and hawkers as you step off the ship. It seemed to us that the people we saw, including shopkeepers, were far less aggressive. Other than in Waikiki, crime seemed nowhere near as pervasive as it seems to be in the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica and in St. Thomas. More importantly, the buildings, the stores, the hotels, the streets in Hawaii all seemed better made and far less crummy than you find in the Caribbean or in Latin America.

The terrain is much more beautiful in Hawaii. There is nothing like it anywhere. The beaches are as nice and as anything we had seen elsewhere. We don’t golf, but there are world-class courses everywhere in the Islands. We don’t dive but do some snorkeling. Are there "better" extreme places in the Caribbean or Mexico? Possibly...we have no basis of comparison.

The weather was comparable to the Caribbean for this time of year, and in fact was extremely good throughout our visit. We had one showery day, the last day when we were already off-ship in Honolulu. As much as the Hawaiian Islands are similar, they are all every different from each other, each with their own character. Not so in the Caribbean. To us, the Hawaiian people who service the tourist industry (even in very commercial Waikiki) all seemed quieter, prettier, gentler.

And last but not least, we were still in the good old USA, not a trivial matter to us.

Hilo

We decided a month before leaving home that we wanted to take a helicopter ride from Hilo to the Kilauea Caldera and Volcanoes National Park. We checked on the Internet and located a broker called Hilo Wings who arranges tours with local helicopter operators. We didn’t save any money by planning ahead, but we were assured of a reservation. The ship’s helicopter tours sold out almost immediately. The going rate was about $130-$140 per person for a 50 minute flight. Considering these helicopters cost about $1.3 million and are very expensive to maintain and operate, we felt the price was fair.

The ship docked at 8 AM and our helicopter ride was scheduled for 3 PM. We approached our day in Hilo with some concern. Hilo is advertised as the wettest city in the US, averaging 150" rainfall annually. It was particularly surprising for us than that there wasn’t a cloud in the early morning sky. We were docked next to the SS Independence of American Hawaii Cruise line. The Independence is an old clunker built in 1952, lowly regarded by many, that operates on 7-day cruises inter-island cruises from Honolulu. It is to protect operations like this that the Jones Act still exists.

The port in Hilo is adjacent to the airport, not ten minutes away. We called Budget on our cell phone from the ship and they made it easy for us. Take a taxi over to the airport and they would reimburse us the $12 fare. By 9 AM we were in our car, a Mustang convertible upgrade @ $15 extra for the day, and we were on our way. When we had asked about a convertible at the time we made the initial reservation, we were told it would cost $110 extra for the day. On an availability basis, we got one for far less.

We spent the first part of our day in Hilo driving north to Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls, well worth the drive and the short hike when we got there. We had a Siamin lunch in a small café nearby. Siamin is a Hawaiian food staple resembling chicken noodle soup with sliced pork, a little salty, but actually quite good. We’ve had it before. Later, back in Hilo, we stopped at Hilo Hattie’s in a small mall near the airport and bought some souvenirs. It seemed to be the thing to do.

Then we went to the airport for the helicopter tour. It was really first rate, very well done and quite spectacular. We all enjoyed it fully, so much so that we made arrangements with the same company, Safari Aviation Inc., to take their tour in Kauai two days later. Safari has a nice touch in that they video tape in real time our helicopter ride including views of us seated inside. They have four cameras strategically placed and the pilot chooses the camera with a button on his joystick. They offered the tape for an extra $19. Looking at the video on a big screen TV after we got home, we felt it was a very worthwhile souvenir of the aerial experience.

Afterward, we returned the car, took the Budget shuttle back to the ship and left Hilo soon thereafter, on Christmas eve.

Kailua - Kona

Whereas Hilo is on the windward (wet) side of the Big Island, the Kona Coast is on the opposite, western side. We anchored less than a mile off-shore and the ship provided tender service to get us into town. Although it was Christmas day, pretty much everything was open. I guess with two cruise ships anchored off-shore, the Legend of the Seas and SS Independence, it was an opportunity for business most storekeepers could not afford to miss.

We used our cellphone to call Budget from the ship, and just as we stepped ashore from the tender, the shuttle bus arrived from Kona Airport, 7 miles to the north. Once again we were able to get a 1999 Mustang convertible for a $15 surcharge on top of our base commercial rate.

Unlike the wet and green terrain found on the windward side of the Big Island, the leeward Kona Coast is dry, warmer and desert-like. We headed north on Hwy. 19 through the century-old lava fields that flow down from the now-dormant Mauna Kea volcano to the sea. A unique thing we saw along the way which we had never seen before is what the locals call "clean graffiti". Small, white coral rocks are carefully arranged on the black lava flows to spell out names or social statements just like spray paint on flat walls. Not unattractive actually, and it went on for miles.

Our first stop was the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. This place charges $625 per night for an ocean-front room in the off-season. Since this was prime season, I have no idea what they charge, but it didn’t appear they were suffering for lack of guests. My wife and I often will visit a first-line hotel or resort, one that we clearly cannot afford, but one where we can stay awhile, enjoy the grounds, the facilities, and perhaps even have lunch. We’ve done this many times, worldwide.

This resort was clearly among the nicest we had ever seen anywhere. Rating such places as better than 5-stars and comparing it to others that might have more amenities, is, I think, an exercise in subjective futility. While we were there, we all felt that there may be indeed be a better resort than this extravagant place, but there can’t be very many.

We stayed for about an hour and moved on up the coast another 10 miles to the Westin Mauna Kea Resort on the Kohala Coast. As much as we all agreed that the Four Seasons was the best we had seen in quite a while, we all later agreed that the Mauna Kea was even nicer.

Mauna Kea is a world-class golf resort. Since we don’t play the game, we couldn’t comment on what we saw except that the vistas of the greens were spectacular. We decided to have the Sunday Brunch that the hotel offers on their pavillion. We weren’t there on a Sunday, but they had a special-occasion brunch for Christmas.

The brunch was relatively expensive ($36 per person) but we felt it was simply the most extravagant food presentation we had ever seen. We’ve enjoyed the elegant buffet at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. We’ve had the magnificent Sunday brunch at the Phoenician Hotel in Scottsdale. In both cases, these occasions have remained memorable to us over the years. The Mauna Kea spread was simply better. I had been there more than 25 years ago. It was great then and it is still great now.

After this major chow-down, we drove back to Kailua-Kona, less than an hour away on the excellent coast road. We walked around the many shopping opportunities just south of the tender pier and left a little money behind. Kailua-Kona was not unlike a mini-Lahaina in this regard. Pretty soon it was time to return to the airport to turn in the car, tender back to the Legend of the Seas and sail further west to our next day on the Island of Kauai.

Kauai

The Legend of the Seas docked at 7 AM in the small and intimate Nawiliwili Harbor located next to Kauai’s principal town, Lihui. As commercial marine terminals go, this place was quite picturesque, lined with the jagged green mountains that typify the Kauai terrain. Budget picked us up promptly, and soon we were leaving nearby Lihui Airport in still another Mustang convertible carrying a $15 daily surcharge.

We drove north along the lush eastern shore of the Island and stopped briefly at the picturesque Kilauea lighthouse. From there, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding valley. We proceeded a short distance further west and stopped for brunch at the five-star Princeville Resort on Hanalei Bay. The setting was superb, the scenery magnificent, and the pancakes smothered in macadamia nuts (with your choice of either guava or coconut syrup) were delicious.

You cannot drive all the way around Kauai…the rugged Na Pali Coast gets in the way. We drove back down the way we came to Lihui Airport to connect to the helicopter sightseeing excursion that we had arranged for when we concluded our Hilo ride two days earlier. Once again we were using the services of Safari Aviation Inc., an operation that we would recommend to anyone.

There are some 30 helicopters offering sightseeing trips at any given moment on the island of Kauai. On the beautiful sunny day-after-Christmas such as this, all the choppers were in the air, and all day long. It was a sellout. As much as we enjoyed the volcano tour from Hilo, this trip was even better. In a flight that actually lasted 55 minutes, we saw the Poipu / Koloa resort area on the south shore, we flew way down into the depths of Waimea Canyon, and cruised way down low along the rugged and inaccessible Na Pali coast. We entered several narrow canyons at a very low altitude, and flew in the rain up the slopes of Mt. Waialeale, the summit of which is the wettest place on earth. Our pilot did a terrific narration to the background music of Ravel’s Bolero drumming in our headphones. There is no better way to see and enjoy all the varied vistas of Kauai.

Afterwards, we drove over to Poipu Beach and got a quick look at the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency hotels from the road. We were out of time. We quickly got rid of the car and were back on the Legend of the Seas barely a few minutes before we sailed away for Maui at 5:30 PM.

Maui

My wife and I were married on Maui almost twenty years ago. Although we had been back since, it’s been a few years since the last time. We were looking forward to renewing our acquaintance with this beautiful island. Further, the itinerary would allow us to be there for two full days, overnighting on the ship.

We anchored off-shore Lahaina, and as at Kailua-Kona, the passengers were tendered ashore. The weather was perfect and remained that way. Even the summit of Mt. Haleakala remained cloudless into the afternoon hours.

Lahaina is located just south of the popular Kaanapali Beach hotel area. We decided to forgo the Mustang convertible. Despite the fun part of having an open car, after three days we found the Mustang to be a dreadful car with hardly any room in the front and an impossibly uncomfortable rear seat, even for petite women It rides lousy and is severely lacking in power with four people on board. Since we were driving about 100 miles daily, we decided to finish our trip with air conditioned full-sized cars. We called for the shuttle on the cellphone, and it was waiting for us when we stepped off the tender. We were taken to the Budget office, about 20 minutes from the tender pier, just at the north end of Kaanapali.

Front Street in Lahaina is an artsy kind of place that can typify for some everything that is wrong in Hawaii; lot’s of commercialism, whatever that means. Nevertheless, when compared to similar scenarios in the Caribbean…Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas immediately comes to mind…the people on Maui just seem to be kinder, gentler and far less pushy in trying to pick a tourist’s pocket. Also, if you don’t like it, in just a few blocks you’re really out of town and thus able to enjoy Maui as it should be. Lahaina really is quite nice if you’re into people watching and just enjoy browsing stores for awhile.

Our first stop after getting the car was to drive 30 minutes to Kahului to visit the Price Costco discount warehouse store. We are Costco aficionados at home. While there, we stocked up on all the souvenir items we had been seeing at twice the price in the local souvenir shops, including macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, Island photo books, and lots of made-in-Hawaii clothing such as Aloha shirts, shorts, and long dresses for women.

Incidentally, Costco prices on Maui for the same kind of staples we buy at home in California were about 15-20% high. That’s just the higher cost of living in the Island Paradise.

From Kahului, we drove another 30 minutes south to the Wailea Beach area on the southwest shore of Maui. This is a magnificent part of the island, entirely different from all the craziness of Lahaina and in our opinion an order of magnitude classier than the much older Kaanapali Beach. We stopped at the Grand Wailea Resort, still another super-five-star hotel, arguably regarded to be the best on Maui. We had lunch at their poolside café. We stayed a couple of hours and enjoyed it thoroughly for reasons expressed earlier regarding similar places on the other islands.

After that, we went back to Lahaina and visited an artist’s flea market set up under the huge and famous Banyan tree behind the old landmark Pioneer Inn building.

That evening, we visited some friends who were staying at the Maui Marriott and accepted their invitation to the luau that takes place there nightly. Supposedly, there are three hotels on Maui offering a luau, and the Marriott is said to be the best of them. It was quite good actually, although we’ve been to a luau more than once in the past. Despite it being a lot of fun, it’s not something you want to do too often, something akin to going to the circus or to the Ice Capades.

The tender service back to the Legend of the Seas operated all night long. When we drove down Front Street at 10 PM to get to the tender boat, the street was packed with strolling people and it seemed that every business along the street was still open on this particular Sunday night.

The following morning we drove north on the coast road past Kaanapali. About 10 miles further up the road we passed by Kapalua, to return later in the day. Kapalua is a world-class golf resort on a beautiful part of the northwest Maui coast, just below Honolua Bay. There are a number of scenic overlooks with sweeping views of the Maui shoreline and of Molokai in the distance. There is a lot of surfing activity in this part of the Island as well.

We drove back down the road to Kapalua and according to our custom, we decided to have lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Terrific place and a great meal, but the hotel is definitely understated compared to the other places we had been visiting. Lots of women dining or lounging by the pool alone, probably golf widows at that particular place.

At 6 PM, the Legend of the Seas pulled up anchor and began to sail 150 NM west to our last port of call, Honolulu.

Honolulu

We docked before 8 AM, and began a full day (plus one more night) aboard ship. This was the extra bonus day we picked up due to the extra speed of the Legend of the Seas between Ensenada and Hilo.

The ship was docked at the foot of the landmark Aloha Tower, essentially in the middle of downtown Honolulu, surrounded by tall, modern office buildings. The immediate area has been built up considerably in the years since we were here last. When stepping off the ship, the Aloha Tower Marketplace greets the visitor. This is a very nice, 3-year old shopping and entertainment complex, readily available to the ship passenger as a nearby walk-around destination that evening when we were remaining aboard ship. The super-luxurious Paul Gaugin was docked behind us and sailed away that night.

We contacted Budget and we were picked up by a shuttle a few minutes later. Unfortunately, we had to be ferried to the Budget office on Kalakaua Avenue in the middle of Waikiki, more than 20 minutes away. The neighbor island car rental operations were friendly, accommodating and low-key, but this place was like renting a car in New York City. Among the things to deal with was that they wanted a $30 drop charge to leave the car at nearby Honolulu Airport. The shuttle driver hinted to us that if we made a stink as a cruise passenger they would waive this, and he was right…they did.

Anyway, we got through that and headed off out of town in the car. We stopped at a couple of scenic overlooks: the Punchbowl Cemetery and the Nuuanu Pali overlook. We detoured to the Dole Plantation, north of Pearl Harbor. Many years ago, this was a small roadside operation selling low cost spears of field-ripened fresh pineapple, the best pineapple anyone could ever eat anywhere. Now it is a huge production, bordering on becoming a theme park, with cars and tour buses fighting for available parking space. And, needless to say, the pineapple samples are no longer sold as spears but rather in chunks that taste exactly the same as what you find in any cheap salad bar anywhere. And all this while in the middle of the Dole pineapple fields. Too bad.

We then continued on and drove past huge 20-30 Ft. surf at Banzai Pipeline and at Sunset Beach on the north shore of Oahu. From there we stopped for lunch at the Turtle Bay Hilton at Kulima Point. I guess we had hoped that this place would be similar in luxury to the hotels we had visited on the outer islands. It sure looked good from the outside. We were disappointed. The place was mediocre, the food likewise, the prices high, and they charged for parking even with a validation.

The lesson here is to go for the best. Even though a five-star hotel may be an expensive place to stay, for people who go there just to enjoy the facilities for a while and have lunch, it is often a bargain. The Hawaiian beaches are all public. Even though we didn’t do this, you can bring some towels from the ship and enjoy the public beachfront at the Four Seasons or any of the other places. It’s more difficult and more restrictive to do this in the Caribbean.

We returned to the ship in the late afternoon and it was time to pack up for our morning’s disembarkation. Since we were leaving the ship on December 30th, we had made arrangements to stay on in The Ilikai in Waikiki and fly home New Year’s Day.

We had an opportunity to stroll down Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag in Waikiki. It still has the tattoo parlors and the tee-shirt shops, especially at the western end of the street. Closer to the International Market Place were now several blocks of European designer stores, similar to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Judging by the bilingual signs we saw, these businesses are there mostly to cater to visitors from Japan. The problem however is that due to the Japanese financial recession, tourism from Asia is off a ton…we heard numbers like 50%. Many businesses in Hawaii are really struggling. We saw a lot of Japanese tourists on Oahu but relatively few on the Outer Islands.

The streets were packed with people…the Las Vegas Strip comes to mind…but again we were there in the highest of the high season. Two weeks later, the town may be deserted. Walking down Kalakaua Avenue at night was a very pleasant experience.

Some things you won’t find in the cruise brochure

We’ve taken a cruise annually for the past ten years. We’ve been going more often lately. This particular cruise was the third of four cruises over a two year span of time. We tend to use Princess and RCI mostly, but we’ve been on other cruise lines as well. We feel we have a good vantage point to observe what’s going on in the industry these days. In this light, we wanted to offer the following observations.

While cruise food should rarely be considered fine dining, it has always been reasonably good, certainly much better than what the average passenger would experience day-in and day-out on land. Having said that, we feel RCI food remains OK, but nothing special. The portions are definitely getting smaller, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, there is no shortage of food to eat on any cruise ship. Depending on your assigned waiter, the RCI dining room service can be very good. In this regard, nobody should be disappointed with the dining room experience on RCI when compared to a comparably-priced cruise line.

Our friends who usually get the so-called Drink of the Day say they are definitely smaller than they were in recent memory.

RCI now owns Celebrity Cruise Line. Over the years, Celebrity has prided itself on the quality of their dining experience. Michel Roux is the food designer, and all that sort of thing. Nevertheless, we learned that a typical dinner on Celebrity costs double when compared to an RCI meal. The betting line is that Celebrity will be slowly reducing their food costs (i.e., quality) in the near future, in order to be more consistent with what parent RCI is doing.

RCI has introduced a new "Wine & Dine Package". You can pre-purchase an 11-bottle package…one for each dinner on this particular cruise…for $129.00 (plus 15% service charge). Unless you drink wine with every dinner, it’s really not worthwhile. If you skip a meal or two as we did, you have to catch up. I think it analogous to the car rental agencies selling a full tank of gas up front, a fairly recent policy which is also a moneymaker for them. Unless the driver returns the car on fumes, the rental company is the winner.

On the Splendour 6 months earlier, cappuccino with dinner was free. No longer. In fact, there is now a priced menu on the table listing all kinds of exotic coffees available, all at extra charge.

You get the feeling that any little extras now are considered revenue generators by the cruise lines. You are given the absolute minimum in amenities and everything else builds from there, all at extra cost. Even the bowl of mints that was always there as you exited the dining room is now gone. The ubiquitous Baked Alaska ceremony is now history. Instead, you have a few waiters carry around a fake Babalu rum dessert with a flaming candle stuck in the middle, strutting to the recording of "Hot, Hot, Hot". Then they bring out the real dessert later on a plate from the kitchen. The always enjoyable ceremony of the dining room staff all gathering to sing "Hey, look us over" to the customers is now a lip-sync operation to a recording.

The miniature golf up on Deck 10 is now free. Even at no cost, it seemed to us on this cruise that playing the game wasn’t very popular. It probably cost RCI more to have a person up there to collect money than the revenue they got from the players. Golf is now an unmanaged attraction, and considering the number of children on this particular cruise the course seemed to have turned into a children’s playground.

There is an ATM machine located by the purser’s desk. A sign on the machine states that there is a $5 fee for withdrawing cash which would be in addition to your own bank service fee. Cashing a check at the Purser’s desk may now be more difficult if not impossible; we had no reason to try to prove this one way or the other.

This particular Christmas cruise had a very large percentage of kids of all ages, more than we’ve ever seen on prior Holiday cruises. It most certainly must have something to do with the economy. Everything you have heard about permissive, disinterested parents on cruise ships is true and we saw a lot of it. We even heard a story about a drunk 18-year-old who started a small fire with a cigarette on a galley tour…quickly extinguished…and this was while the ship was 3 days out, in the middle of the Pacific, and a thousand miles from any land! We heard the kid was incarcerated in the ship’s brig for a period of time.

Most ships now have a rule about "saving" pool chaises with towels. Most people ignore this. We saw a passenger hand tip money to a towel boy who then assisted her in saving 10 chaises in the front row from the pool. This was at 8 AM when few people were out yet and there were empty chaises all over the place. On every ship which is at sea on a nice, sunny day, it becomes almost impossible to get a chaise unless you’re willing to play the game. In December, the Snowbirds need to get a trophy tan at all costs.

The purser’s desk had a sign on the countertop that stated the ship was a sellout and no cabin changes were possible. This turned out to be a white lie. We changed cabins after 4 days because of excessive noise. (There was an impossibly loud creaking and banging sound all night long from the motion of the ship. One of the ship’s maintenance people confirmed our complaint.) We learned that there are always cabins available, in most categories, even on this sold-out ship. They just don’t want to be bothered by people nitpicking or looking for free upgrades.

The in-cabin television shows movies and promotional materials 24 hours daily. It also displays a real-time position map, weather conditions at the moment, and a view from the bridge. Some cruise lines still show first-run films in a theater. For example, newer Princess ships all have a cinema. In the past, RCI would compensate by showing an occasional film in their showroom. No longer. Apparently, showing movies to their customers as an entertainment diversion is not as profitable a use of facilities for RCI as bingo or art auctions. If you want to see a movie, you have to see it on the 15’ cabin TV.

We found it easier to get satellite news coverage on the Splendour in the Baltic Sea than on the Legend of the Seas off the coast of North America. Once we got to Hawaii, satellite service improved somewhat but it was never anything special...just two outside stations at most.

We found it necessary to use the ship’s dry cleaning and laundering services on a couple of occasions. We found the prices to be reasonable and the service good.

Tipping has always been a concern to prospective cruisers. The RCI rate sheet recommendations are consistent with the industry.

The cabin door and in-cabin safe locks on the ship are behind the times. On the Splendour the cruise card can be used to both lock & open the cabin safe and also to open the cabin door. On the Legend of the Seas a major credit card is used to set the safe lock. A separate magnetic-stripe card is needed to open the cabin door. The cruise card doesn’t do anything but allow you to spend money conveniently. Thus, whenever you leave the cabin you have to carry three cards along with you.

This cruise occurring as it was over the holiday season, there were a lot of festive decorations on the ship, particularly in the Centrum area. The decorations were well done and added to the spirit of the season.

I carry a Garmin GPSIII with me. It’s a small, portable device that, using satellites, can give the user a precise indication of position and speed. It’s kind of fun to fire it up from time to time to check our position and assure that the captain is still steering the ship in the right direction!

Lahaina is less than 150 NM from Honolulu, and the Legend of the Seas could have pulled up anchor at midnight and got to Honolulu by 8 AM the next day with time to spare. Lahaina is a fun place and presumably a lot of people would have enjoyed the extra time there. Instead, we left the Maui nightlife behind at 6 PM, and, in my opinion, for just a single reason. That is, to get into International waters so that the money-making casino (and gift shops) could open up. Has anyone ever wondered why most cruise ships depart from most places around 6 PM, regardless of the distance to be covered overnight? I’m convinced that’s the reason why.

Once again, a push was made at the end of the cruise by the dining room staff for us to give an excellent rating on the comment card. I have always felt the comment card is a scam perpetrated by the cruise line on the passengers to make them feel better by giving them a venue for registering complaints. It’s possible that even the crew thinks the cards count for something. I for one don’t believe anyone important ever reads or even tabulates the comments. I feel this way because I can’t think of a single change that that cruise lines have done over the years to improve service for the customer that was not in turn revenue driven for the cruise line’s benefit.

If I can add to any of the observations I made in this review, please do not hesitate to send me an email.

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