Why This Cruise?
I canít think of a better cruise destination than the Hawaiian Islands. The scenery is spectacular, the weather is consistently warm, and itís easy to get around on your own. Plus, the natives are friendly and they speak your language! As a bonus, if you run low on film or are tired of the cruise lines ripping you off for Evian Water, you can duck into the ubiquitous Wal-Marts for all your needs at the right price. These are just some of the reasons we elected to take this 12-day Fall cruise originating in Honolulu and terminating in Ensenada, Mexico.
We had been cruising mostly in the Winter/Spring and decided to opt for a Fall cruise for a change. My initial thought was a 10-day Canadian/New England cruise aboard Silversea, but, as they say in the NFL, "upon further review" (of the prices), I was forced to look at less ambitious itineraries. I was also somewhat concerned about October weather in Canada. Therefore, having done the Caribbean and Panama Canal already, Hawaii seemed liked the logical warm weather alternative. Another plus for the Hawaii option was that it was a great value. The early booking discount for an outside room on this 12-day cruise was $200 less than for the RCI 10-day New England cruise. Plus, casual discussion with fellow travelers revealed that this cruise was aggressively discounted. One of our tablemates booked the cruise close to departure time on a special promotion for California residents and paid $1800 (air included!) for an outside room on Deck 3. OK, it wasnít a prime room, being all the way forward, but thatís still one heck of a deal.
Getting to the ship was a bit of a challenge on this itinerary, particularly if you lived on the East Coast as we did. We were cruise-only, so we opted to fly from Charlotte to Los Angeles, spend the night there, then catch an early morning flight to Honolulu. Since the ship spent the first night in port, we had a fall-back if something went awry with air plans, but fortunately nothing did.
We arrived in Honolulu the next day about 12:30PM local time, picked up the rental car promptly and were at the ship by 2PM. Check-in was easy and quick, even though RCI personnel were working with laptop computers out of temporary facilities in a warehouse adjacent to the ship. We lingered on board only long enough to change clothes, and then we were off. We were able to park our rental car in a lot right next to the ship for free (overnight, too), so we were on the road to Waikiki and Diamond Head by mid-afternoon. After strolling the beach at Waikiki, we headed out to climb Diamond Head where we had some spectacular views of Honolulu and surrounding beaches. We headed back to the ship in time to change for our second seating dinner. We then proceeded to the Viking Crown Lounge where we sipped pre-dinner drinks while looking out on the bright lights of Honolulu and eagerly anticipating the upcoming days. Life is good.
Only two others at our table for eight made it to our first dinner. At this point we confirmed what a good idea the overnight in Los Angeles had been. We were well rested and ready to hit the streets of Waikiki running when we arrived in Honolulu. By contrast, those who had the air/sea package had to come all the way in one day, and there were some serious cases of jet lag for several days aboard the ship. Two of our tablemates opted for sleep instead of dinner the first night, and two others had been awake for 24 hours, having left Burlington, VT at 3AM to catch their flight out of Boston.
Vision of the Seas is a beautiful ship -- newest (and last) of RCIís Vision Class of ships. We had sailed previously on Grandeur of the Seas, a virtual twin to Vision, even though they were built in different shipyards. The difference between the ships was mostly in the interior décor, although the Vision had in-line balcony seats in the Masquerade Lounge, which were an improvement over the arrangement in Grandeur.
On the down side, the Promenade deck on Grandeur was open around the ship, while the Vision had barricades which prevented complete circuits. The result of this was walkers and joggers were all forced to the topside deck where they had to compete for space with the sunbathers. This led to much congestion, particularly at certain times of the day.
Bart de Boer and Kathy West have written excellent SeaLetter reviews of Vision of the Seas that thoroughly describe the ship in pictures and words. Therefore, I will limit my ship remarks to commenting that this is a wonderful cruise ship design, easy to navigate, large but not cavernous, and smooth-riding with many beautiful rooms to choose from. The 1850+ people aboard dispersed easily in the ship, and it never felt crowded. Our room, 3556, was on A Deck, slightly forward of amidships. This outside room was slightly larger than the inside room we had on Grandeur, and was convenient to most of the activities on the ship. This is the first unobstructed-view outside room we have had in six cruises, and I have to admit the light and view of the sea were most pleasant.
Itinerary/Ports of Call
We had booked this cruise almost a year before the sailing. During that time I researched previous Hawaiian cruise reviews and formulated a strategy for the port visits. Paul Jaffeís cruise and port reviews were particularly useful. Based on this research, we decided to forego all ship tours and rent cars in each port and sightsee on our own. This really worked out well and saved money to boot.
As mentioned earlier, we rented a car upon our arrival in Honolulu, thus saving the airport transfer fee and enabling us to tour Oahu during the two days before the ship sailed. We have a book titled "The Most Scenic Drives in the United States," many of which are in the Hawaiian Islands, and we used this book to plan our sightseeing, along with a travel guide by Arthur Frommer.
Our scenic route took us around the southeast corner of the island, past picturesque bays, attractive parks and dramatic overlooks. Just south of Kaneohe Bay, we stopped at the Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden where we hiked through 400 acres of gardens filled with a vast array of Hawaiian flora. We then proceeded toward the North end of the island, passing by the surfing meccas at Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay. After a brief tour of the scenic town of Haleiwa, we headed back toward Honolulu, passing through vast fields of pineapple and sugar cane. Our rental car gave us the freedom to explore much of Oahu beyond the usual tourist sites of Honolulu and it was a most enjoyable day. I dropped my companion Barbara off at the ship, returned the car to the airport and took the city bus back to the ship. Honolulu has a good public bus system with convenient service to all areas of the city from the Aloha Tower area where the cruise ships dock.
Vision of the Seas sailed from Honolulu Harbor at 6PM under a beautiful setting sun and red-streaked clouds. A helicopter hovered over the ship, dropping flowers petals as we left the harbor. The steel band held forth at the pool and the Hawaiian musical group, the Moe Keale trio, entertained pre-dinner listeners in the Champagne Lounge. This is what cruising is all about.
After a quick lunch back on the ship, we walked the short distance to the Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Bay. This is a spectacular hotel on a beautiful little beach with interior gardens and lagoons that rival anything seen elsewhere in Hawaii. Kauai is a beautiful island, and I wish we had a longer time there.
At Akaka Falls, the advantage of visiting the Hawaiian Islands compared to the Caribbean really stood out. Akaka Falls is a State Park, clean and well-maintained, with beautiful falls, scenic Hawaiian flora and fauna, all easily accessed by paved hiking trails. There were no aggressive vendors in the parking lot hawking cheap trinkets, no local urchins jumping into the Falls, and no long lines of people struggling to see the sights between masses of fanny-packing tourists. Plus, entrance to the park was free! How refreshing.
We made it back to the ship ten hours after we left. It was a beautiful and interesting day and drive, but also long and tiring. We were, as the locals say in North Carolina, "all give out" by the time we got back. Fortunately, this was a two-day stay and we were on the second dinner seating, so we made it back in time for dinner, one hallmark of good excursion planning.
We didnít sleep in the next day, but we didnít break our necks getting off the ship, either. We had a nice, leisurely breakfast in the Windjammer Café and then headed ashore to retrieve our rental car from overnight parking. We headed toward the resort area of Wailea where we planned to hike the coastal nature trail. This is a wonderful and easy walk along the ocean, by native Hawaiian plants and close to several mega-luxury resort hotels. We parked at the Kea Lani Hotel, where weekly rate for suites ( with no food included) was more than we paid for our 12 day cruise!
Crossing the Pacific
The next five days were at sea as we headed across the Pacific for San Diego, via Ensenada, Mexico. After seven days of busy sightseeing, it was a real pleasure to sleep in, nap in the Solarium, lie in the sun, listen to the steel band and enjoy all the activities or non-activities that make sea days aboard a cruise ship so enjoyable. We lost one hour a day for three of the five days, but even accounting for this, we couldnít believe how fast the time went by, doing nothing in particular. The seas were smooth all the way across and the weather generally excellent, although it was breezy as we left Hawaii and it did get rather cool on deck as we approached the coast. Vision of the Seas was a great ship for varied weather conditions, as you could move between the open pool, covered Solarium or the wide variety of interior spaces until you found just the right nook for whatever you wanted to do.
Royal Caribbean does a consistently good job with its entertainment, but I thought the shows were particularly noteworthy this cruise. John Davidson, one of the "headliners," was surprisingly good. If you associate him only with "Hollywood Squares," as I did, you do him a disservice, as he is a talented and entertaining singer and comedian. The only disappointment was Carole Lawrence, one of the other "headliners," who was clearly beyond her prime and gave a stale, dull performance.
One musical group we really enjoyed was the Moe Keale Trio, an Hawaiian trio that sang in the Centrum in the evenings during the time we were in the Islands. Their mellow harmonies and authentic Hawaiian songs (at least compared to "Tiny Bubbles") were terrific.
Food & Dining
We had a congenial table for eight with a good age mix. We had one young newlywed couple, another middle-aged couple like ourselves (middle-aged, assuming we are going to live to 100), and a retired couple. The food was typical RCI: good, plentiful, but not gourmet fare. Our waiter informed us that they were using a new menu on this cruise. We found the selections somewhat unusual, in that usually you can eliminate one or two entrées that you donít want and then choose between the other 3 or 4 that look really good. With this menu, most nights we found ourselves eliminating 4 or 5 of the entrées and opting for the remaining one, which usually was quite good. We also found it strange that there were few chicken dishes, although the plain grilled chicken breast was on the "always available" list. (The grilled salmon from that same list was one of my favorites.) The service, as always, was outstanding.
If there was a downside to this cruise, it was disembarkation at Ensenada. Because of the Passenger Services Act, sometimes referred to as the Jones Act, which prevents non-US flagged vessels from sailing between US ports without stopping at a foreign port, we disembarked at Ensenada and were bussed to the San Diego Airport. The ship arrived early in Ensenada and the first passengers were leaving the ship by 8:00. Disembarkation priority was based on flight departure times, with the Los Angeles connections going first. We were scheduled for an 11:45 departure from San Diego and left the ship about 8:15. The drive from Ensenada to San Diego had a few scenic spots at first and then deteriorated rapidly as we moved inland to cross the border with the commercial traffic at the incredibly ugly town of La Costa. At the border we had to leave the bus while it was searched, pass through Customs and then reboard the bus. Between the border procedures and the traffic, it took us a full three hours to get to the San Diego Airport, and I would say that was probably better than average time for this journey. The most frustrating aspect of this whole drill was that the ship sailed from Ensenada to San Diego later in the same day to pick up passengers for its next voyage!
No one could figure out why we just didnít steam a little faster across the Pacific, arrive in Ensenada earlier, and then sail to San Diego for disembarkation. I suspect economic considerations are a factor, but Iím not sure quite how. Despite the logistical complexity of getting from Ensenada to the States, RCI did a great job of organizing and coordinating all the baggage, busses and border crossing.
This was a great cruise that I highly recommend. Of the 12 or so cruises I have taken, I would rate this as second only to a Panama Canal cruise. Hawaii is a great destination, the cruise has a nice combination of days at sea and in port, the ship is beautiful, and the cost was a real bargain. The only downside to this cruise is the relative difficulty getting to and from the ship, and, of course, the Ensenada goat rope. One way to avoid Ensenada is to take another version of this cruise that leaves from or arrives back at Vancouver, Canada, but there are some downsides to that itinerary as well.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a cruise is remembering and reliving the good times. Now that Iím back home, if I have had a stressful day at work, I pop the Moe Keale CD that I bought into the player, and the mellow Hawaiian tunes transport me back to the Centrum where Iím sipping a Gin and Tonic, nibbling on Macadamia nuts and watching the blue waters ripple by. Life is good again.
Photos courtesy of Jon Vassil & Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.
Richard Shipman is a pilot for U S Airways (formerly USAir), a freelance writer and an avid cruise fan. He lives in Concord, North Carolina (just outside of Charlotte) and can be contacted at: RichardShipman@compuserve.com.
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