Cruising the Hawaiian Islands Part I: The Good, the Bad, & the ‘Cruisy.’
Having recently returned from an 11-day vacation to Hawaii that included a 7-day inter-island cruise, I am keen to share our experience. This is part one of a two-part blog.
I should state from the outset that my husband and I are not cruise fans. We took a cruise to Alaska directly from the Port of Vancouver in the summer of 2017 and were less than impressed. We struggled to understand what people liked about cruises and vowed to never take another. Despite this Hawaiian cruise being better in several ways, nothing about it changed our minds. So, if you are a cruising fan, my opinions likely won’t sit well with you. On the other hand, if you have never cruised before, my thoughts might help you decide if you ever want to set sail on a big ship.
The Cost of Cruising
Why in general are we not fans of cruising? Line-ups, schedules, poor value for what you get, and cheesy group events. But we decided to give cruising a try again because we thought it would be a good way to see the Hawaiian islands. This was my sixth visit to Hawaii, and my husband’s third, but we had only every been to Oahu. We have enjoyed our Waikiki beach vacations immensely but started to wonder if we might enjoy one of the quieter and less populated islands more. We discovered Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship ‘Pride of America’ is the only cruise ship to sail exclusively within the Hawaiian islands. The ship leaves port from Honolulu, Oahu every Saturday. We departed on December 24, 2022. In seven days, we visited three islands and 4 ports of call: Kahalui, Maui; Hilo, Hawaii; Kona, Hawaii, and Nawiliwili, Kauai. We returned to Honolulu on the morning of December 31. When I include service charges, beverages not covered by our beverage package, and tipping the total cost of the cruise was approximately $11,500CA. This does not include money spent onshore on transportation, food, and activities. Was the cost of the cruise worth it? In a nutshell – no. Here’s why.
If you divide the cost by the seven days we were on the ship, it works out to $1642/day!!! The rooms are no bigger than an RV. A king size bed with just enough room to walk around, a bathroom so tiny it is barely large enough to accommodate one average size person, and just enough cabinet and drawer space to tuck away our things for a week. Thank goodness we also had a balcony otherwise my claustrophobia would have kicked into high gear.
[Image 1: Soaker tub in the Fairmont suite. Image 2: Cocktails at the Fairmont lounge.]
For comparison, the night before we flew out of Vancouver, we stayed at the 5-star Fairmont at YVR. The room included a king size bed, luxury bedding, a soaker tub, a huge walk in shower, and luxury bath products. We ate a delicious dinner in the hotel lounge including speciality holiday cocktails, and we had an eggs benedict breakfast for two with cafe lattes delivered to our room in the morning. The hotel also had a gym and a swimming pool. All this cost us $700 Canadian. And that was a huge splurge for us! The Cruise cost $900 more for a smaller room and far inferior food.
You might be thinking that the night at the Fairmont did not include the transportation to another island. And this is true. But when we investigated, we discovered that Hawaiian Airlines offers very affordable flights between the islands. On average, no more than $100 per flight per person. So, if we decided to fly from island to island, it would have cost us about $800 for 4 flights. Admittedly, hotels and food in Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai are expensive and it is unlikely we would have been able to get away with only spending $700CA a day in any of the locations, but we could have done it easily for $1,000 a day. So, if you do the math, had we planned our own island excursions we could have saved about $3,500CA – live and learn.
The Cruise Experience
Many people will say that they like cruises for the convenience. You get everything you need all in one place: accommodation, transportation, food, and entertainment. And I can understand why that is appealing for some. But for us, cruise ships don’t meet our standards in these areas.
One of the things I like about vacations is luxurious hotel rooms. Truly luxurious ones are rarely in our budget, but for me that is the treat. If I am going to drop $500+ a night on a hotel room, I expect luxury. Cruise ship rooms just don’t cut it. We were only one room grade down from a suite. To upgrade would have cost us at least $5,000 more! So, RV size room at expensive rate, or a larger room for an outrageous rate!
Transportation from island to island was also disappointing. On the Pride of America all cruising is done at night so that the ship arrives at each new port early in the morning. This is great because it gives you a full day to explore at each stop, but not so great because you don’t get to see anything while at sea. I would have enjoyed sitting on my deck or by the pool while the ship cruised between the islands.
Sadly, the ports are also ugly. Every port is in an industrial area. While docked, the unattractive piers made for unattractive views . Twice we had overnight stays. It would have been nice to sit on our balcony and enjoy a view, but at each pier we were facing industrial warehouses.
Nothing has been done to make the piers attractive (or easy to navigate) for tourists. Surprising, considering the number of cruise ships that arrive weekly. I must acknowledge that I am spoiled living in Vancouver. Our cruise port is located at Canada Place, one of the city’s most beautiful locations. Cruisers can step off the ship and access everything they need immediately and easily. Not so in the Hawaiian ports. All the ports except Kona required at least a 2km walk off the pier before arriving at any civilization or services. (I’ll review each port and island in part II of this blog.)
In Maui, we rented a car. It was an overnight stop, so we planned to keep the car overnight and use it in the morning before we had to embark the ship. It turned out that there was no public parking anywhere within a two mile vicinity of the pier. We ended up returning the car the same day and missing out on exploring in the morning. When we were walking back to the ship, we saw another cruiser driving around trying to find a place to park his rental after having dropped his family at the ship. This lack of public parking was a surprising oversight.
The thing I hear people say most often about cruising is how fabulous the food is. However, this has not been our experience. I believe part of the problem is that my husband and I are spoiled. We are very fortunate to live in a place where we have access to the best quality food. Organic meat and poultry, fresh line-caught seafood, diverse fruits and vegetables, local bakeries, and a slew of artisan food crafters are all readily available all year round. We eat diverse, fresh food teaming with herbs and spices and low on salt and sugar. It is rare that any experience dining out lives up to what we eat at home daily. We are also not people who get excited about large portions. I do not need to be served more than I am comfortable eating. More does not equate to better. But we appear to be outliers in this area. People seem to love restaurants that give them large portions and I suppose this is part of the appeal of cruising. You can graze pretty much all day on virtually any kind of food without taking out your wallet. And, with a beverage package you can drink as much alcohol as you like, too. But when I walk through the buffet all I think is that everyone pays more because of all the food that is wasted.
And then there is quality. The food is fine, but nothing to rave about. The buffet that served all three meals plus snacks throughout the day (but not 24 hours) was good. We could always find something we liked to eat. But it was nothing special. And I found it strange that they only had four fruits every day – pineapple, honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon –where were the local Hawaiian fruits?
We mostly ate breakfast at the buffet. We always had lunch off ship because we were out and about doing things onshore. Then we ate most of dinners in speciality restaurants on board. The best meal was at Cagney’s Steakhouse, where both the service and food were spot on. The worst was on our first night at Jefferson’s, the French bistro. The food was awful, no other way to put it. On our final night onboard we had dinner at the Italian restaurant, which was fine. Not the best I have ever had, but far from the worst. And we also ate in the main dining room. They only allowed groups of 8 or more to make reservations in the dining room, so we had to wait in line for 40 minutes to get a table! This was Christmas day, so I was not impressed. Once seated the dining room was so loud, we could barely hear each other. The food was not great. We did not eat there again. I was also surprised that snacks and coffee and tea were not available 24/7.
All in we had seven breakfasts, five dinners, and two lunches on board. I drank eight glasses of wine and had maybe six cocktails. My husband had maybe six cocktails. We had to pay extra for our café lattes every morning because Starbucks was not included in the beverage package. We drank more Starbucks than anything else - $230US over the week. Bottles of water for our stateroom were $6.50US each!!! Again, it did not feel like we were getting good value for our money.
Then there is the entertainment. This I cannot judge. We woke up early every morning, ate breakfast and got off ship to explore. Most people it seems, booked excursions, but we found them to be outrageously priced. And as mentioned, we are als not fond of schedules or group activities. We prefer to find our own transportation and explore on our own. We were pretty successful in our explorations. (I will cover our favourite finds in part II of this blog.) By the time we got back to the ship, cleaned up, and ate dinner, we were exhausted from a full day in the sun. We did go to a couple of audience participation game show nights. The Not So Newlywed game was fun. The cruise director did a particularly good job.
And I managed to trick my husband into singing in front of crowd in the music trivia game. (Which, if you were like us, I am sure you are asking how music trivia became singing!!??)
But we did not go to any other shows. We listened to some of the live music in the common areas and it was okay. A little too loud and glad we didn’t pay a cover charge to hear it.
Don't get me wrong. All of the above is not to say we did not enjoy ourselves. My husband and I know we are lucky to be able to travel and we soak up every minute of it. If something does not live up to our expectations, we simply make a note to do something different next time, but we always find joy and pleasure in what we are doing. We are avid walkers and people watchers, so there are never any dull days. But, after seven days on the Pride of America my husband and I are in firm agreement that cruising is not for us. Lining up to board the ship, lining up to eat, lining up for coffee, small room, mediocre food, second-rate entertainment, and an outrageous price. We believe we can get a much better value for our money planning our own multi-stop vacation. (But Viking River Cruises intrigue me, so I never say never!)
Part II – The Hawaiian Islands to follow.