I recently had the good fortune to sail on Norwegian Dawn's inaugural cruise across the Atlantic from Southampton to New York and I loved the ship. My wife and I have cruised quite a few times, most recently on RCI's Brilliance of the Seas, and this ship is the best yet. If Brilliance takes RCI into five-star territory, then Dawn takes NCL into six-star.
Embarkation at Southampton was slow; one and a half hours is far too long. A lot of time was wasted queuing to get the U.S. visa waiver form and then properly completing it. Why this could not have been sent out with the tickets beats me. The exterior artwork of the ship takes some getting used to; we only got a glimpse in Southampton and New York of the hull artwork but had already seen it on the NCL web site. What the web site didn't show was the painting on Deck 7 inside the promenade deck; it certainly is bright, and somebody said that it had not been completed in time for the cruise. The interior decor is also bright and colorful, from carpets to wall coverings to doors. It was fine as far as we were concerned, and I heard no complaints from our fellow passengers.
We had booked a balcony cabin on Deck 9, and what we got was exactly as the brochure showed. I made friends with a passenger who had a mini-suite on Deck 11 and he said his was equally true to the brochure. Other cruise lines ought to be this honest, and refrain from showing pictures of the disabled persons' cabin in the brochure, which is larger. It only leads to disappointment when reality differs from the picture.
The cabin was fine, but suffered from a lack of drawer space; I think there were only 3 in the whole room. The bathroom was big enough, but again with no drawers, only a single shelf, and sliding glass doors partitioning off the toilet and shower cubicle from the main space. The enjoyment of showering without being wrapped up in folds of plastic curtains was tempered by the lack of water pressure. However, other guests did not complain of the same problem so maybe our shower was faulty. This is entirely possible, since we subsequently found that a piece was missing from the patio door, which made it howl like a banshee in the middle of a force 10 Atlantic gale; checks by stewards on other staterooms revealed similarly missing pieces! The balcony was quite small, with two chairs and a small table, but entirely private. When you look down over the rail, you see the sea -- not sheet steel, as on Brilliance.
The Atrium stretches up about six decks and is wide and expansive over three of them. On the evening of the Captain's Cocktail Party, most of the passengers gathered there comfortably. On every other evening, a small musical group played there for a couple of hours. I lost track of the many public areas and bars. I though they were up on Decks 12 and 13, only to find I'd missed Gatsby's Champagne Bar along with the Casino, Aqua main restaurant, Impressions main restaurant, Le Bistro Restaurant/Art Gallery and the lower entrance to the theatre down on Deck 6. All of these are linked by corridors with cushioned window seats looking out to sea; fine in calm weather, but 18-foot seas can look pretty impressive from that low.
The Spinnaker Lounge at the bow of the ship affords 270-degree views of the ocean and contains some strange designs of seats alongside more normal seating. Go and see for yourself - on the starboard side as you enter! There were also three or four meeting rooms and sensibly sized reading, writing and card rooms, each large enough for 30-40 people. The ship also had a proper library rather than a cubbyhole. The pool area is set beneath tiered sun lounger seating that leads up to an outside bar and grill. The weather prevented me from sampling it, but is probably quite a popular spot in the Caribbean. I didn't find the indoor pool, mainly because it is in the Mandara Spa (where treatments are overpriced) but also because it was often drained due to sea conditions. I do think that the designers got its positioning wrong and it ought to be more accessible.
Fitness fanatics, of whom I am not one, are catered for with a well-equipped gym, jogging track, volleyball court and two golf-driving nets. Kids are also well catered for with their own pool and slides at the stern, along with a kid's center, teen club and video games room. The kids' program must also be well run, since we met one couple at dinner who couldn't drag their daughter away.
Which brings me to eating the NCL Freestyle way. This was our first cruise with NCL, and certainly our first experience of the kind of flexible dining arrangements called Freestyle by NCL. It means you can eat where you like, when you like, and with whom you like. You don't even have to dress up for dinner, but they do quite rightly draw the line at t-shirts.
Norwegian Dawn has 10 restaurants and a buffet restaurant. Of the 10 restaurants, three have a cover charge of $17.50, $12.50 and $10 per person; two are a la carte; and the remaining 5 make no charge. In fact I just thought of another called Blue Lagoon, which is like a diner and open 24 hours a day. On several evenings of our cruise the charges were halved for limited periods, which makes the nominal extra charge very affordable. We took advantage of the offer by trying Cagney's Steak House, and were glad that we did since the food was superb. I have eaten a few better steaks, but not at anything like this price. My wife thought the porterhouse pork delicious which believe you me is quite a compliment!
Most evenings we chose to eat in the Venetian main restaurant, situated right at the stern of the ship on Deck 6 overlooking the wake through tall glass windows. NCL describes this restaurant as elegant, and they are right; if anything, they have understated it. Tall ceilings, classic decor, comfortable seats, reasonably quiet and delicious food - what else could you ask for?
I have saved the best for last because, in our opinion, what sets Norwegian Dawn above the other ships we have sailed on is the Service (and the capital S is not a typo)! The staff on Dawn is the best we have come across. Without exception, they are polite, smiling, happy, helpful, and good at their jobs; this covers all the staff from the ship's officers through restaurant staff and even maintenance crew. The only ship we have sailed on that comes close, and it is very close, is Marco Polo, which is also owned by Star Cruises. I wonder whether this is just a coincidence? We honestly believe that good staff can make up for a lot of other shortfalls in the cruise experience -- not that they had much to make up for.
Nothing in this world is perfect, and Dawn is no exception. The breakfast and lunch food buffet needs greater choice and variety. The only way to get to the Venetian restaurant and shopping area from the Atrium without changing decks or going on deck is through the Pearly Kings Pub or Blue Lagoon diner -- and who wants to eat or drink in the middle of a street? Similarly, a pub without beer is like a ship with no Captain, so running out of draught lager is a shame. Likewise the advertised dartboard was missing, and would whoever stole the mushrooms from the bar billiards table, please send them back. I have already mentioned the lack of drawer space in the cabins and the low shower pressure. And disembarkation [not debarkation as the otherwise excellent Cruise Director Kieron Buffery insisted on calling it] was as slow as embarkation.
In summary, the cruise was highly enjoyable and we were very impressed by the ship. Would we cruise with NCL again? Most emphatically yes, but probably only on one of their newer ships -- I think you have to design the ship with Freestyle in mind and I don't think it could possibly work as well on an older ship with fewer restaurants. You could probably seat every passenger on Dawn at one seating somewhere for dinner, and what other cruise ship of comparable size could boast that? I shudder to think how the staff on other lines would cope even if they tried! Should you cruise on Norwegian Dawn? Make up your own minds; all the above is only an opinion and yours may differ but I say yes, go for it!