Somewhere off the coast of Grenada while sipping a perfect Martini during Norwegian Dawn's repositioning cruise from Miami to New York via the Caribbean and New England it dawned on me - if you'll pardon the pun - that I was witnessing the (re)birth of a cruise line. I was aboard a brand new ship that seemed to be an innovative hybrid. She is part traditional, part wildly radical in concept.
She is lavishly and uniquely appointed. Her crew is genuinely warm and attentive. Service is efficient yet unobtrusive. In fact I kept wondering if this was NCL. Each time I needed assistance at the Purser, Shore Excursion or Dive-In desks I found the professionalism to be high and a concern for resolving the problem quickly and to my satisfaction.
Cuisine is varied, inventive, tasty and of high quality. There is talented entertainment in every lounge. She's part art museum and exclusive resort. The art on display throughout the ship is literally masterful; her furnishings artful. Norwegian Dawn not only carries works of art, she is a work of art. The attention to detail shows from the quality of her contemporary chandeliers to the now round the clock availability of NCL's famous cookies in Blue Lagoon Café (once only available during 4-5pm snack time).
There's a feast around every corner both visually and gastronomically. Her ten restaurants range from greasy spoon to silver spoon. Passengers can dine amidst impressive neon or impressionists. The Impressionists: Renoir, Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh. One can dine on A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (well, actually a lovely Seurat reproduction) - even on a Tuesday if preferred. Choices range from Mac 'n Cheese to Mignon with Champagne any day of the week. Special requests were honored in the dining room within reason. A fellow diner asked if he could have a white sauce instead of red on that day's specialty pasta in the Trattoria. "Of course" was the reply. I asked if a particular featured ingredient could be omitted from an entrée served in one of the main dining rooms. "Absolutely!" A Maitre D' overheard my comment that maybe we could skip dessert, enjoy some entertainment and then go to another quieter formal dining room solely for dessert and coffee later on. The Maitre D' politely interjected "We would be delighted if you chose to do so."
Cabin décor is plush in every category and range from economically cozy insides to vast apartments boasting two and even three bedrooms with balconies and private decks.
There is very little "old NCL" about the m/s Norwegian Dawn. Had she debuted as the first ship in a brand new cruise line, this vessel would immediately be classified as premium plus. Her hallmarks would be hailed as superior to Holland America. Her chic would easily exceed Celebrity. She'd royally conquer Princess. Her innovations are more universally appealing than rock climbing walls. And her whimsical and bold interiors are more festive and yet classier than the floating Carnival midways.
Norwegian Dawn is that good. She's sexy. She sizzles! Her interiors are seductive.
However, this masterpiece isn't completely flawless. Even a diamond can be imperfect.
First and foremost, as wonderful as Norwegian Dawn is, she must defy the reputation of her heritage. NCL, once the big kid on the block in the 1970's and most of the 1980's suffered some self inflicted stormy seas. The line bankrupted several acquired and much loved cruise lines. In the late 1990's the cruise line nearly dived into the brink itself and shipboard quality across an inadequate fleet suffered. NCL's passenger ratings plummeted as quality took a nosedive and service became nearly non-existent. NCL has disappointed and alienated thousands of dissatisfied passengers who when asked about the cruise line often repeat the mantra "never again." The cruise line does have many loyalists due in great part to the popularity of its former flagship s/s Norway. I count myself included in this category. The great blue dame is my favorite ship.
NCL must somehow convince travel agents and potential passengers alike to give them one more chance. A cruise on Norwegian Dawn is almost guaranteed to convert most into believers.
This leads me to Norwegian Dawn's second flaw - or more to the point NCL's. Anyone sailing with the line for the first time aboard this ship will no doubt feel let down should they sail on her fleetmates, with the exception of near twin and slightly elder sister Norwegian Star. As comfortable, tasteful and satisfying as the other ships in the fleet may be on their own, they can't compete with Norwegian Dawn. Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Sky come closest in style, shipboard amenities and features on a smaller scale by nearly a third. However NCL will need to be inventive and honest when marketing the various other members of its fleet. A cruise on Norwegian Majesty or Sea is not nearly in the same league as Dawn in just about every respect. I'm speaking from experience, having sailed aboard nearly every class of ship in the NCL fleet on roughly 15 of my 33 cruises. I'm even reconsidering my own booking later this year for Norwegian Dream's long repositioning cruise. It may pale in comparison.
The next major flaw I observed was service in the main dining rooms which are completely open seating for dinner. Much has been written about NCL's "freestyle" (tm) concept so I won't detail how it works (a full explanation is available on the line's website: http://www.ncl.com ). Service, while good overall, is inconsistent. I'll provide a real example to illustrate. Prior to this cruise I met several people online that were also aboard. Our group grew as we met others and periodically a dozen or more of us would dine together. We were often offered adjoining tables as the fastest way of being seated. One night we arrived early enough to catch the late performance of the evening's production show. One table was finished and seated in the theater with twenty minutes to spare. The other table was first being served entrees when the final curtain came down after the show's finale.
This is completely unacceptable and I'm not sure what the answer is except that there seems to be a lack of 'extra hands' floating around the dining room. Aboard ships with traditional dining, section captains or assistant Maitre D's usually fill in as needed to keep things moving at a reasonable pace. If this concept exists on Norwegian Dawn, I didn't observe it. I did notice that when dining during off-peak hours service was nearly flawless. It was rare to wait more than three to five minutes to be seated as long as one avoided arriving as the early show was letting out. I was surprised at how many chose to see the 7:30pm show first and then eat a leisurely dinner afterwards. I settled in to a 9pm dining time with some friends during the second half of the cruise. By then the 8:30 rush had ended and tables emptied in anticipation of the late show at 9:30pm.
The final major problem, as I see it (I tend to ignore minor problems that can occur on any ship), is that freestyle dining is not solo cruiser friendly. As mentioned, I had many new friends aboard with whom I dined. But on three port day evenings I found myself on my own as most of them (nearly all couples) chose intensive days of touring and turned in early. I quickly learned that being able to share a table isn't as easy as NCL portrays. Each time I was greeted with "oh, we'll have to open a new table for you" as if it would be a problem. One night I was told in all three main restaurants "I'm sorry, but we don't have any shares available tonight." I was appalled. To make matters worse, one hostess having just told me to wait a few moments returned and asked "will that be a table for two?" I was flabbergasted and she quickly knew it! I wasn't alone in this experience. One of the other guys related a similar story later on in the cruise. NCL doesn't seem to know how to handle singles for dinner although there seems to be a very sensible solution. Each night there's a single get together listed in the daily program for late evening cocktails. Why not list "singles meet for dinner" and vary the restaurant each evening? This was the first comment included on my comment card.
These annoyances notwithstanding, I disembarked Norwegian Dawn feeling well rested with the impression that I had just experienced a very unique and classy ship. I felt that I had received more than my money's worth. I just have one wish - that Norwegian Dawn's newly announced longer ten and eleven day itineraries from New York City will be expanded. Seven days aboard this glamour gal won't be nearly enough. Neither is just one cruise. Next time you are aboard, look around. You just might find me back!