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Copyright © 1995-2002 
Linda Coffman

 

Norwegian Star
July 14, 2002 ~ Hawaiian Islands

By Barry & Lori Cunningham

‘Garden Villa Review’
Also titled "The Voyeur Villa" or 
"Lifestyles of the pretend-to-be-rich and famous"  

Preface
Our first Hawaiian vacation was to be on the Norwegian Star. As many know, this ship was built exclusively to sail in Hawaiian waters and has eleven different restaurants in which to dine and no casino. The itinerary is a good one in our opinion and includes in order Hilo (Hawaii), sea day, Fanning Island (Republic of Kiribati), another day at sea, Lahaina (Maui), Nahwiliwili (Kauai) and back to Honolulu (Oahu).

We of course knew this was not the best way to see Hawaii in its’ full grandeur, nevertheless we decided to give it a try and see what this ship had to offer. It is no secret this itinerary has had mixed reviews in the past. The ship began sailing in the winter of 2001, which is the most turbulent time for wind and waves in Hawaii . Winter is when the best waves for surfing hit Hawaii and that can spell rocky weather for a cruise ship. It just so happens we could not go until the summer and this was probably the best time to go if one does not like uncertainty in the weather.

Hilton Hawaiian Village pre-cruise resort
We arrived two days earlier on the 12th to rest from the flight and enjoy as much of
Honolulu as possible. We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in the Ali’i towers (booked a very reasonable Expedia rate), we ended up enjoying the property so much and still on Arkansas time and exhausted, we never left the property. Had we not had the children we would have forced ourselves out but the amenities are quite extensive and we enjoyed every minute of our stay.

For those not familiar with the Hilton Hawaiian Village, it is the largest resort in Waikiki and has numerous buildings for accommodations and multiple swimming pools, loads of shopping and plenty of restaurants. Some of the restaurants allowed children to dine free with an adult fare and that alone saved us quite a bit of money so one might take that into consideration when booking your hotel. Having heard the food and drink prices were outrageous and expected the worst, we were actually surprised at the rates for food and drink and thought they were inline with any good hotel or resort.

The Ali’i tower has it’s own private guest reception area and check-in, private pool (Very handy!), and other amenities that are geared toward a business traveler. Arriving around 3:30 p.m. via taxi we found a long line of probably 50 people slowly checking in. The separate check-in was a blessing this day though we never saw another line as long afterward. We particularly liked the private pool because people (as usual) started very early to ‘save’ seating around the main pool. It is a wonderful place to stay and well worth the extra dollars spent for a family versus say the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel, of which we toured and dined the last day of the trip.

How a simple vacation turns into an extraordinary,
 expensive, once in a lifetime cruise
 

We traveled with our two children and many friends and family on this trip. Barry’s sister and her travel companion, as well as her companion’s daughter and friend. This fact made us consider looking at possibly booking one of the ‘Garden Villas’ instead of multiple cabins. In the end, it was a no-brainer for a once in a lifetime trip for our friends and family. We had to try the Garden Villas!

The opulence, the space, the Garden Villa!
One of only two aboard, as NCL puts it: ‘Up on the rooftop sits our luxuriously exclusive Garden Villas. These are the largest, most elegant suites afloat. Each villa offers a living room, three penthouse bedrooms, outdoor private garden with hot tub and private rooftop terrace to create 5,350 sq. ft. of secluded spaciousness. NCL's appointments include rich cherry-wood detailing, panoramic views of the ocean, three elegant bathrooms, and discreet butler and concierge service.’

Each Villa sits on the highest level of the ship, the fourteenth floor (nothing else is there but the suites), complete with keyed-access elevator entrance, and staff that serves only the two suites. In addition, there exists a 15th floor accessible from the Garden area that overlooks all of the ship and which is your own private sun deck (complete with 30 or 40 lounge chairs)! This area is approximately 100 feet by 60… large enough to have a huge gathering.

Once the card issuing ceremony was accomplished at the pier, we were met by our concierge ‘Claudio’ who proceeded to escort us to our suite. A brief informal walk-through showing us the various amenities of the suite kept everyone’s attention. He excused himself after giving us his card and his personal direct telephone extension with instructions to telephone him at any time day or night.

We then met ‘Arnie’ our butler, who proceeded to explain his role and the amenities he was to provide. Arnie explained guests receive personal mobile telephones to carry with you at all times onboard with direct extensions to your concierge who arranges dining, shore excursions, or any special needs and his number for in-suite requests. We used our butler ‘Arnie’ for bartending a private party and generally keeping us stocked with complimentary canapés, beverages, etc. We also had direct extensions to the hotel manager, and the food and beverage manager. These telephones are the same ones used by the staff onboard and operate throughout the ship. You may of course call others in your party (three are in each villa) or other extensions from these telephones, in effect having ‘mini walkie-talkies’ with you onboard.

Each villa is given a list for the guests to choose six complimentary bottles of liquor for your bar (and several bottles of Chandon champagne), escorted VIP reserved seating at all shows by your concierge, and VIP tender tickets going ashore that allow boarding tenders at any time. In addition, villa guests receive VIP Immigration status (to be the first in line) as well as an invitation to a VIP cocktail party hosted by the Captain. This party was composed of the other suite guests and the officers, around 40 people attended due to the fact that many brought friends and family.

The layout
There are three bedroom suites with a fold out couch in the living room. To get an idea of how large and spacious these villas are try to imagine the living room of both villas being Royal Caribbean’s entire ‘Viking Crown Lounge’ overlooking the pool. We occupied the port side ‘Thai’ designed villa as opposed to the starboard ‘Japanese’ villa. Very little difference except for the pagoda designs out in the garden and the fact that ours had a large built-in wet bar with stools and the other villa does not. Both have player grand pianos, dining tables for eight, laptop computer with Internet access and printer. Standard Internet charges apply and is sold by bundled minutes or by the minute. The living room was a perfect place for all of the suite guests to generally meet and be together, watching the rest of the passengers from this unique vantage point.

One main entrance leads into a hallway that continues to three bedroom suites each with its’ own doorbell. Oddly enough, the main entrance does not have a doorbell and the staff would come in and out (announcing themselves) freely. One bedroom is near the living area and would likely be labeled the master. All rooms have Bang & Olufsen 27-inch televisions with built in DVD players and act as your personal stereo. Two of the rooms have incredible bathrooms complete with ‘digital’ showers (yes… digital thermostat, water controls, etc.). In addition, they incorporate beautiful dual glass-bowl sinks and Jacuzzi bathtubs that have a 10-inch LCD television to watch while you bathe. Marble floors and walls complete the bath that overlooks the slide and pool area with huge slanted windows. You literally look out over the pool as you brush your teeth in the morning! The glass is very close to being one-way in the daytime as it is nearly impossible to see in, however at night if the electric wooden blinds are not drawn you will be in a fishbowl for all to see. That was always an ‘odd’ treat to watch what other passengers were doing as you prepared for the day.

The second large bedroom opens out into the garden area via sliding door, has virtually the same bathroom amenities, and is as large in square footage as the master.

The middle bedroom is a bit smaller and incorporates sliding drapes surrounding the bed that blocks out all light in the room. Here, the bath is smaller and is much more like regular suites with a bathtub. This room also is the only room that has a game table that seat four as well as a small couch and seating area. Each room has a bar area, refrigerator, extensive storage, seating areas for two to four, gigantic panoramic windows that slant out over the ocean and come complete with pants pressers in the huge closets. The Garden Villa is nothing short of incredible digs for a cruise ship of any caliber!

There is a maximum of seven people allowed in the villa by design to thwart four couples splitting the villa. We can see NCL’s point on one hand, but at the prices being charged, and considering they do sail empty occasionally, we could see some flexibility here might be in order. However, it is a hard rule so far with no leeway. Obviously, it would be nice to throw the kids on the couch and let adults take the bedrooms.

The Garden
The garden itself is an incredible space to say the least. Each morning breakfast was served outside on the large teak table that seats eight overlooking the ocean. Additional teak seating and tables make this area capable of catering to a very large party, and the sunning loungers are massive teakwood with thick cushions.

The garden has a private elevated hot tub covered by a pagoda that could hold four (or more) and was the hit of the garden for us. Evenings were often spent basking in the hot water watching the ocean roll by. Next to the tub is a steam room and shower stocked with towels and robes and acts as a changing area.

From there, you may take the stairs up to the private sunning area. Unbelievable is the only word to describe the size of this area! We had been on the inaugural of the ship and we entirely missed this wonderful spacious private area. A tall opaque wall separates this area from the other villa on the starboard side (a door can be opened to share both villas). This was the supreme vantage point for coming into or leaving ports or for simply watching the world go by. Many nights we found our companions relaxing on the deck in loungers enjoying the stars of the Pacific.

The Staff
Overall, our concierge Claudio was stupendous in his duties. For instance, we had a scuba trip cancelled and he handled squeezing one more into a ‘sold out’ tour at the last minute (on the morning of cancellation)! Although we didn’t personally phone him too often he made his presence felt daily with invitations for the VIP seating at shows, letters concerning VIP tender tickets, information and suggestions about the ports of call, etc. A true professional. For those wondering how the VIP seating worked, the concierge would typically meet you and escort you to the theatre. The balconies closest to the stage were roped off with a sign stating ‘VIP seats’.

Tender tickets were brought to our villa that allowed boarding of any tender at any time, thus avoiding the numbers game and the long lines to get the tickets themselves. What we found most valuable were the VIP immigration tickets. We would meet our concierge at a predetermined time and we were the first people immigration clears. Combining that treat with the tender tickets and we were really feeling golden to be the first off having fun! We only used the concierge for dining twice; we booked the rest ourselves and had no problem at all getting reservations at any restaurant (and yes… before giving them the suite number).

The butler on the other hand, taking care of the duties within in the villa left a tad bit to be desired. Although in general he was seen many times a day and did an adequate job, we found ourselves often asking him to fill ice buckets, pick up trays in the living area, etc. With this many people to take care of, we expected more from him in the ‘details’. After all, six or seven people do not necessarily time their dining, etc. to coincide at the same time.

There were two lovely Malaysian girls that literally sit in a room off the main hallway between the villas and do nothing but wait for the appropriate time to come clean, provide new glasses and the like. When we asked how they liked taking care of villa guests, they jokingly explained they always make ‘working the villas’ out to be very difficult and not desirable to avoid losing their jobs to someone else. In truth of course, they loved it!  

To say the least this is cruising at its finest if you like to be ‘noticed’. Everywhere we presented our card or gave our room number we were taken well care of in all aspects. And each and every time we dined, either a headwaiter, Maitre d' or senior staff member would make a point of coming over to visit and asking how we were enjoying the villa and if there was anything they could do for you in general. If they did not know you by name or face perhaps, the telephones we carried with us gave it away!

There are no other 14th floor guests so it is easy for staff onboard to figure out that you are in a Garden Villa. After all, from our sailing date only around 150 people have occupied the villas. As the House Manager told us one day, "You know you can have just about anything you want don’t you?” We simply thanked him and grinned as we walked away. 

Surprisingly, only the upper staff members know much about the villas. At one point during the cruise, we invited a wonderful bartender that was from the ‘Star Bar’ to come up, visit, and bring a bottle of bubbly for a party we were having for our friends sailing with us. She was stunned at the size and opulence of the villa. Tears almost came to her eyes, as she could not believe that this was all ‘private’ and not a public area. She explained that virtually no regular staff has seen this area and even the maintenance workers must contact the butler or concierge to gain access and that the staff is told when asked, simply ‘those are suites’.  

By the way, each villa has binoculars and a telescope to scope out the activities below and thus the term ‘Voyeur Villa’ comes into play. We found ourselves literally watching all that goes on around the ship. We felt like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Rear Window’, complete with dinner from ‘21’ served in our room by Grace Kelly (well okay… Arnie wasn’t Grace but we’re trying our best to be funny here).

"Let’s eat!  Which of the eleven do we go to tonight?
Let me get the schedule…"

It is a good idea to plan all your possible restaurants on the day of embarkation and make the reservations early. Most complaints we heard about reservations involved people who wanted to dine at peak hours and waited to ask for reservations until that afternoon. However, we did not have any problem at all on the last night booking last minute reservations for six at one of the most popular restaurants.

The restaurants we favored most were the ‘ Soho ’ Pacific Rim Cuisine for their Rice Wine marinated sea scallops, Sautéed Jumbo Tiger shrimp and Szechwan encrusted beef tenderloin. Service was exemplary and the food is simply outstanding in our opinion.

Also, the ‘Le Bistro’ French cuisine restaurant had very nice escargot, cream of forest mushroom soup and a wonderful Mille-Feuille of Seabass and mushroom duxcelles. The Filet Mignon was excellent served with a very fresh béarnaise sauce. The best afloat? No, but wonderful and definitely worth the price of admission.

We heard from our friends that the ‘Aqua’ contemporary cuisine restaurant was fabulous and we missed the chance to dine there. Indeed, the last night we looked over the menu after dinner and regretted not going there instead of our choice the ‘ Ginza ’ for Asian Fusion cuisine. It is almost impossible to dine at all the restaurants. Perhaps if you throw out the Sushi bar and really tried it might be possible to cram in all of them in one week.

We will not comment on every restaurant, because they all have something to offer just about anyone onboard. We did not try the main restaurant and had heard in conversation with others that the food and service was very good. Honestly we were thrilled to be going to the other restaurants and it rarely crossed our minds to deviate and go to the main dining room. After all, in our opinion one of the main reasons to book the ‘Star’ is the many choices in dining.  

Oh yes, the rest of the ship... you mean there is more?

Is she perfect? Hardly. It is true there is not a lot of space to sit in the shade by the pool as the slides do take up a large amount of space. This particularly is a problem when they serve a huge barbecue outside and people are wandering around looking for a place to sit and eat. We loved the barbecue though and it was a nice treat from the regular poolside grill on most ships serving lamb, ribs, burgers, brats, etc. We did not notice crowding at all in most places onboard, except in the shore excursion area where a lot of people line up to book anything they can. We had the impression they did not pre-plan and were shocked that tours were sold out. Plan ahead early for most excursions.  

The shows were decent, well prepared and rehearsed, though not good enough to make us stay through the entire show (we are not big show people). The comedian(s) were funny but not a must see. Adding to the fact there is no casino and we were thrilled to be watching the world go by in and out of the villa and going to sleep early. The piano bar was fun but we tired of the concept rather quickly. Karaoke is not our thing so we abandoned that, though others loved it and seemed to be having a great time. Overall there is plenty to do, though the locations of the bars are a bit odd and by far the best is the German ‘Bier Garten’ overlooking the pool. On several occasions during the week, they served great Bratwursts and all the trimmings. 

As far as the décor goes, there are a million pictures of the ship interiors on the Internet and elsewhere so, we will not go into details. We thought the ship décor was nicely appointed and well thought out.

The dreaded Fanning island!
We enjoy sea days and the trip to
Fanning Island let us enjoy real tropical cruising. We had heard the comments about this ‘fly ridden, middle of nowhere waste of my-good-Hawaii-time’ island and we were anxious to see for ourselves what it was truly like. We encountered that very statement from a young couple coming off the tender from Fanning. Literally, she said "too many flies, nothing to see, it’s a great place to get off, buy some trinkets and get back to the ship ASAP!"

When taking the tender over, you first notice it is a beautiful group of islands. The dock is well covered to keep the line of people out of the sun as they wait to board for the return trip. As we came on shore the group of Kiribati people sitting under a tree in the shade singing really did make us want to sit down and join their song. They truly do seem very happy to see you, not just putting on a show for the ‘tourista’s’.

From the beginning, we were not impressed. We saw hoards of people in the murky water close to the tender swimming at the beach. We thought to ourselves "this is IT?" No one seemed to be having a great time… almost putting up with the bad beach, crowds, and sun.

Our first priority was finding where to book the private beach ‘tour’ via boat. We had a very difficult time finding it, as there were no signs pointing people here and there. After finally finding an NCL employee behind a wooden ‘desk’ and inquired about the trip we were told the last boat had left and there was no way to get there unless we wanted to ride the ‘potty boat’. Then she said, "you really don’t want to do that" (they apparently haul people back and forth to do their business in a small fishing boat). We asked if there was any other place to simply snorkel and enjoy the beach and she nonchalantly said ‘not really’.

At this point, we were ready to get back in line to the tender. Fighting the urge, we instead wandered behind the craft selling area on a dirt path (about a three-minute walk) and what did we find? One of the most pristine, beautiful beaches we have ever seen. A total of five or six people were swimming or enjoying the sun here, and we could not believe our eyes! It was total nirvana for hours. We drifted in perfect water temperatures, comparing the feel of the sand to that of Bermuda . Smooth, soft, wonderful one-degree-off-the-equator island paradise sand. Just like in the brochure.

Except they keep this to themselves. No, not the Fanning people… the NCL staff! We were soon sunning and swimming with the waiters and busboys and maybe one or two guests who happened onto this beautiful stretch of beach. As far as the eye could see, there was unspoiled beach to roam. It is a shame because it really did remain that way all day. Part of us wanted to run to the other side and yell "Hey! Over here!" However, of cours we did not. It was the only place where we could sit on an overturned fishing boat in the shade, looking over the clear topaz waters and have almost total silence except for the sound of the breeze through the palms above. Moreover, most importantly… no flies! Apparently they are totally attracted to the main area and the food and drink that are everywhere along the beach.

On the way back, we noticed a small wooden handwritten sign that said simply ‘beach’ and an arrow. If only they knew. Less than 60 feet further and the crowds would take back a totally different view of Fanning we thought. Today we think it was definitely one of the best beaches we have been to… period. Simply go through the craft area down the dirt path and look left.

As far as the craft area goes, the Fanning people have not yet learned to be rude and bother you with endless chatter trying to hawk their wares. They simply sit quietly, wait for you to approach, and help when you want to buy something. The Hotel Manager told us when NCL first started coming there the natives would sell hats, straw goods, etc. for $1.00 or so, which of course goes a long way in the Republic of Kiribati . Now they are up to 5’s and more for this and that. Still a great deal for goodies. After all, when do you have another chance to travel back in time? The children are really cute and we wanted to adopt one right then and there! Many people brought candy or some small change to give to the little tykes.

Oh yes, we almost forgot about… Hawaii!
As for the ports of call, we offer these comments as constructive criticism short and sweet. First, we might like it better if they reversed the trip entirely. Meaning, give us
Kauai first and work it backwards because if you are active, there is so much to see and do, you wear yourself out the day before you disembark. On the other hand resting for the first few days has its merit so the jury is still out on that topic.

Hilo was the first port of call and we opted to take the Blue Hawaiian ‘Circle of Fire’ helicopter tour. Norwegian Cruise Line uses Blue Hawaiian Helicopter tours for their bookings, however we booked direct on the Internet and saved a substantial amount of money due to their online discounts. A five minute, five dollar cab ride is easy to obtain right on the pier. The flight is unbelievable and well worth every penny! Save your money for this trip as you tour the most geologically active environment on earth, with emphasis on the most current areas of volcanic activity.

After a sea day and Fanning Island we had a fabulous day on Maui . One can truly begin to appreciate the Hawaiian Islands and all they have to offer. This is the longest day you have on any of the islands and the only evening stay until 9:00 p.m. We rented a car to take us along remote beaches and to see the various sites. This was when we began to think of ways to move our lives and business to this remote, exotic American dream (we gave up after considering the time zone difference). Try to imagine the finest Caribbean islands, multiply the serenity times five, and add the fact everyone is an American and there you have it. It is a must to stay and watch the sunset from one of the many beaches.  

Our last stop was Kauai , the most exotic of the larger islands. We decided to take the Napali Coast tour booked through Norwegian. The 3 to 4 thousand foot high cliffs of the world famous Napali Coast are truly one of nature's most brilliant masterpieces. Hollywood has used these magnificent cliffs and valleys as backdrops in movies such as Jurassic Park , 6 days 7 nights, and many others.

Over five hours of the most spectacular scenery awaits you; however, be forewarned this trip is not for those who are incapable of handling a bumpy ride. In fact, most of the group ends up on small 15 foot Zodiacs while we (because of the kids) were placed on a 35 foot Zodiac that had a head and other amenities the others did not enjoy. In addition to the scenery, we were treated to hundreds of dolphins doing flips beside us and chasing our boat. The boat operators take the Zodiacs inside caves and under waterfalls as well. We thought Norwegian did a fine job of organizing the tour and it was a trip well worth the money.

In the end, it seemed that this cruise experience was one of the most fleeting weeks for a vacation. Although we had two days prior and a full seven days onboard, we left wanting more.

Hawaii is truly the jewel of America and enjoying it from NCL’s Garden Villa was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. Next time the ole' family reunion is coming up for discussion, whether it’s small or large… if at all possible, drag your friends and family into the Garden Villa for a week of total spacious pampering that cannot be beat!

Skyscraper ToursFor fantastic photos, visit the Skyscraper Tours web site.
Ahhh... those sunsets!!!


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