Travelers: Jerry and Barb Hoehn Ages: Mid to late 40s (and holding) Cruises: 15 total - CCL, RCI, Premier, HAL, NCL, Celebrity, Windjammer, and Princess. Stateroom: 11022 Category AF Mini Suite. Starboard Side, Forward. As in the past, I'll start my review with a quick summary and then go into detail for those of you brave enough to continue reading my ramblings.
Positives - Ship Design Cabin Concierge Service Cleanliness Price Tender operations Entertainment Freestyle Dining Freestyle Disembarkation The Passenger Mix Room Service Reception Desk Staff
Negatives- Dining Room Service Food in Bamboo Drink Prices Pre-Cruise Hotel Not enough time to do it all!
Summary- Rating on a scale of 1-10 - 9
I had originally decided to rate this cruise a tad higher, but a couple of things still are bugging me a few days after returning. So I dropped it down a notch. While on the cruise, I even thought of dropping it lower because of a few things that were sub par. But the things that make a cruise great were still there. Great friends, a beautiful ship, a hardworking and capable crew, interesting ports, perfect weather, and a comfortable cabin.
When deciding if I had a good experience on a cruise, I ask my wife and myself a few simple questions:
Did I get my money's worth? Yes. Cruise prices are at an all time bargain. I started out with a JJ inside cabin and then did an "up sell" to a category AF Mini Suite. After the AC on the Sun, it would have been hard to go back to steerage. But we were fully prepared to do just that if the right price didn't come along. It did and it helped make the experience more pleasureful. Honestly, I simply couldn't pass up the original inside cabin price. Sailing on a BRAND NEW SHIP for 7 days for less than $500 was just too much for a cruiseaholic to resist. It's like putting a steak in front of a starving man. I swallowed it in one bite! At that starting price, it was not too difficult to "upsell" when the opportunity arose.
Would I go on this ship again? Yes, but not for a while. The ship's crew and specifically the dining room staff and the food preparation staff still have a lot of work to do to get where they need to be. Dinner in most of the dining rooms was EXCRUTIATINGLY SLOW. This was our fourth NCL cruise, all "Freestyle" so we do have something to compare it with. I will get into more detail later, but this could be one exceptional ship once all the kinks are worked out. I'll keep an eye on the reviews coming out of her and once they start to get the wrinkles ironed out, I'm back on this ship again, for sure! More on the ship itself later.
Did we enjoy ourselves? Excessively. Wow, did we ever have fun. Give die hard cruise nuts a gorgeous ship, 7 days of perfect weather, interesting ports, a cooler full of beers and a rented vehicle on St. John's and they just can't help having a great time. Add in the crazy antics of the Cruise Critic message board crowd some great entertainment in the lounges and the occasional exceptional server and you have a recipe for 7 days of cruisie nirvana.
Having sailed on the Sun, the Sky and the Sea, we could see some striking differences in the way "Freestyle" is being implemented. It doesn't work that well on the Sea, but that's because there was no such thing as Freestyle when it was built. The Sky and the Sun seem to have it down pretty well. The Dawn has some unique challenges that I'll get into later, but this ship has the potential to become a "legend" among cruise ships if it overcomes them! My only fear is that the Dawn has tried to take the Freestyle concept to its logistical limits. You'll see what I mean when we get to the dining room.
Tips - A few quick tips for those of you who don't want to read all the rest of my ramblings...
Get to the port early if you want to. They always say they won't be boarding until 1 PM, but the truth is, if the ship gets cleared early enough, they will start boarding as early as 11 AM. But don't expect the kind of priority embarkation for suite passengers you get on the Sun. There is no priority lounge and embarkation seemed a little less organized this time. The ship was a little later clearing both coming and going this time and there seemed to be quite a line outside the security area. Maybe someone else can relate his or her experience with later arrival and non-suite status embarkation.
Be specific when ordering a drink. As I mentioned in my review of the Sun, when you ask for a drink, specify the size and the type of glass you want. If you don't specify, you might get a large expensive drink or a "souvenir glass" which costs considerably more that just a regular drink. Just because the bar staff is wandering the pool deck with the big tall colorful glasses, doesn't mean that's all they have to sell. You can always ask them to bring you a regular drink of the same kind and volume and for a lot less with out the fancy glass. If you want a souvenir, get one. But don't assume you won't get it the next time. If you don't specify, you probably will!
The ship does not dock at the pier in Old San Juan. So be prepared to get a taxi. Sharing the ride will save you money, so make friends! Use the free buses in San Juan for your own walking tour of Old San Juan. Get on the bus and take it to El Morro or San Sebastian forts and then walk down San Juan Hill to the port area. Stop at the visitor's center and get a map with points of interest. It's located at the west end of the downtown pier area. Then make sure you get on the NORTH BUS. When you see the fort. Just get off. It's an easy walk down compared to up. And "free is good" in MrTractor's book. Stay generally towards the harbor side of old town. You'll easily find lots of interesting things. The monument to Columbus, two forts, the statue of Ponce De Leon, the monument to the women who saved the city from the Dutch invaders, the Puerto Rican White House, historic churches and parks, not to mention lots of shopping and breathtaking views. Follow Calle de Christo (Street) down to where it crosses Calle Fortaleza and you'll find several nice outdoor cafés on an old cobblestone street where it dead ends into a famous shrine. Some good shopping opportunities surrounds this whole area. Try the guava coladas at the Mexican restaurant and ask for chips and salsa. They're free, too!
At dinner, try to get there early if you want to catch the evening's entertainment. Slow dining room service was the norm. I would suggest telling your waiter, "We want to be done by 7:30," or whenever and insisting they stick to it. On formal night, we were in the dining room for over 3 hours and never had a chance to see the shows.
Make your dinner reservations for the alternative restaurants early. If you are not a suite passenger, you can only book for the next day. This means the morning of the day before you plan to go, not the same morning. If you are a suite passenger, I would still suggest booking early for the Teppanyaki grill and le Bistro. They get filled up later in the week as people get use to the "Freestyle" concept and want to try something new. A couple of days in advance are usually enough for suite passengers since they don't have to compete with "steerage."
Don't pay extra for Lobster on Thursday. If you go to an alternative restaurant, specifically Le Bistro, on Thursday and want the Lobster, don't let them charge you extra. It's available to the whole ship. Some of the folks we talked to paid extra, while others mentioned it to the staff at the restaurant and were not charged the extra fee for lobster.
Lead Time for Room Service Breakfast. If you are ordering right off the continental breakfast form for room service, service is right on time. They ring you about 2 minutes before they knock, so don't expect to lie there in bed after they call. Get your tip money ready because they are there before you know it! For breakfast, my wife likes to enjoy Eggs Benedict. But it's not on the form. Not to worry. Just send in a written order! I don't know if this works in all categories of rooms, but it sure worked in our mini. Order a special breakfast from room service 20-30 minutes ahead of when you really want it. Each time we ordered it they would call at the time indicated and say, "You ordered such an such. It will take another 30 minutes because it's not on the menu." If you ordered it for earlier, you get it right on time!
Cruise Critics Party- Find other passengers you might like to meet even before you set foot on the ship. Freestyle cruising requires a little different mindset than a traditional cruise. You are not going to be seated with the same person each night and you may find it more difficult to form a bond with other passengers if you don't prepare yourself. I've found one of the best ways to do this is by posting a note on the message boards like the one on www.cruisecritics.com. After we booked, I put a note on the section reserved for Norwegian Cruise Lines topics. Before we left, the post, "MrTractor booked on 2-22-03 Dawn" got over 3,000 "hits" and almost 60 people responded to the call for a get together for sailaway. Not everybody showed up, but those that did had a good time and we became fast friends with most of them. We had a really interesting mix of kids and retirees, people from different countries, straights, gays and there was even a rumor of a "lifestyle couple" that was there but stayed as "lurkers." This sailaway really got the fun started. One notable individual showed up in his tuxedo jacket, shirt and tie with Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes. This was after a "thread" about how much more class suite passengers have than "steerage urchins." Sometimes it's easier to meet people on line before hand than it is on the ship. You can find out a little about them and what kind of interests you may have in common from their messages. Teens are the hardest group to please sometimes, and many posters find out who else has teenaged kids to "hang with" on these chat boards. The teens on the ship all seemed to be having a lot of fun. So unless you are going on this cruise to be alone and have a quiet time with a spouse or loved ones, post your name on one of the boards and have some fun with the other passengers- even before you board the ship! Ah, the power of the internet!
Get The Map- Most folks don't know that a map charting the ship's course is available at the Reception Desk for just $5.00. It shows all the islands of the Caribbean and has a hand drawn plot of the course of the ship during your cruise. It is stamped by the ship's stamp and signed by the Captain. It's dated with your cruise date and makes a great memento of your week on the Dawn. Just ask Traci or one of the nice helpful young ladies and the Desk and they will arrange it. It takes a couple of days for you to get it but it's delivered right to your cabin. The $5 is just put on your onboard account. I doubt if you could buy a map of the Caribbean at a store for less!
When booking a hotel in South Beach on Orbitz.com, if it looks too good to be true, IT MOST ASSUREDELY IS! More on that later.
OK. Drum roll please.........
And now ladies and gentlemen, the full "MrTractor" review of his trip on the Norwegian Dawn.....
(Cue the snazzy show band music).....
(MrTractor enters wearing his black tuxedo, this time with a confetti print bow tie).
Good evening fellow cruisers and thanks for listening! Tonight I'm inviting every one of you to embark upon a voyage on the brand new and beautiful Norwegian Dawn. To a place the weather is always perfect. Where there is no rain, only "liquid sunshine." It's a place where no one can be grumpy or whiny (for long). Sad faces become happy, grumpy people join in karaoke and the Captain sends a bottle of wine with his compliments. Come with me and my fellow adventurers to a place where...
Even the life boat drill can be fun.
So turn on some Caribbean music, get your self a frothy drink with fruit hanging off of it, put your feet up and try to get through this incredibly long but hopefully informative and entertaining review. Since I never take any notes during the cruise, some of the events may be a little jumbled. And forgive me if I forget or misspell a name or two. I am writing this as I decompress from a ten-day vacation and struggling to use what brain cells I have left. Besides, while I'm on the ship, I'm having too much fun to write anything down!
Please, no flames or junk mail. And Sam, no grading for spelling or grammar. This is just one man's opinion. Remember, your mileage may vary. (YMMV)
Getting to Miami- As is our MO, we decided to arrive in Miami the day before to avoid stress about missing the ship. Remember the PRIME DIRECTIVE: DON'T MISS THE SHIP! That applies at embarkation and in port. We took a late flight on USAir out of Reagan National (DCA) after work on Friday arriving non stop in Fort Lauderdale at 11 PM. We had an exit row seat for my 6'4" frame; the flight was on time and uneventful. No major complaints, although I did like the American Airlines new seats on our last flight to Miami better. Since it was so late and the cruise lines didn't offer shuttle service that time of the night, we decided to just jump in a cab. This was not the cheapest option ($75 to our South Beach Hotel) but since we got such a great price on airfare and we wanted the quickest option, this just seemed to be the best way to go. After getting our bags we made the cab ride south from Ft. Lauderdale and then through traffic in South Beach on Friday night (WooHoo! Party!) We arrived at the Beach Plaza Hotel South Beach at the stroke of midnight. This is where things took a serious turn for the worse!
For those of you not interested in our tragic and disappointing arrival in South Beach, feel free to skip to the next divider line. This gets pretty ugly. And I know many of you probably hate to hear a grown man whine... ----------------------------------------------------------
A couple of weeks before the trip, I was looking for a hotel on Orbits.com somewhere near the pier for a reasonable price. It could be in either downtown Miami near the pier or South Beach and it didn't have to be the Ritz since we only planned on being there about 10-12 hours total. We planned to get in late, hit a club or two, get up the next morning bout 9:30-10 am and then get a quick breakfast on Ocean Drive at one of the outdoor cafés. I noticed a pretty good price on a small "boutique" two star hotel on the 1400 block of Collins Ave. This would put us on the beach side of the block and be right in the action. Fantastic, right? Well, we were dropped off at the hotel, paid the driver, dragged our bags in and presented ourselves to the hotel clerk. Keep in mind this is midnight in a strange city carrying a large sum of cash and four large bags of luggage. We weren't from around there. I had talked to some folks on the chat boards that said the hotel was nothing fancy, but comfortable and safe enough for a short night's stay. Besides it was right in the middle of all the clubs and restaurants in South Beach. Cool! I used Orbitz.com to book it. And if I PAID IN ADVANCE I COULD GET THE "SPECIAL PROMOTION" PRICE OF ONLY $58, instead of the rack rate of $200 or the regular low price of $129. I grabbed it like the last piece of chicken at the softball team picnic.
This turned out to be the classic example of a "BAIT AND SWITCH" trick. You know, the one where the auto dealer advertises the brand new car for $6,999 and when you get there, "Darn, we JUST SOLD THAT ONE, BUT LET ME SHOW YOU THIS LITTLE BEAUTY."
Well it seems after making the reservation weeks in ahead of time, PAYING IN ADVANCE, and even calling ahead to tell them we would be coming in late,
..Lo and behold, they somehow MISPLACED OUR RESERVATION!..
About twenty minutes of arguing and fuming ensued.
But all was saved!!...
THEY OWNED TWO MORE HOTELS JUST A FEW BLOCKS AWAY AND..
.. despite the TERRIBLE ERROR on MY PART..
THEY WOULD DO WHAT THEY COULD TO FIND ME A PLACE TO STAY IN SOUTH BEACH AT MIDNIGHT.
You can imagine my utter joy and admiration for the management of this hotel and the Orbitz.com reservation system. The manager and the clerk huddled. I growled. My wife fumed. I thought we were going to have to call a cop. So did the clerk. I showed him the paperwork I printed from Orbitz.com. He took it. My wife glared and steamed some more. He fumbled with his computer and then pulled out a piece of paper and wrote something on it. He nervously handed it to me and said, "give this to the clerk at the front desk when you check in. It's only a couple of blocks down that way." He tried pointing down Collins Avenue without coming from behind the counter. "Just catch a cab and you'll be there in no time"
"What?" I said looking at him through a sneer and then at the paper. It was directions to the other hotel and a note saying that we were to get a room there and that we had paid. At this point I had two choices. Either take the room or sleep on the street. We pulled our bags back out to the street into the carnival-like atmosphere that is South Beach on a Friday night. It wasn't 15 seconds before we had a cab driver waving at us from the other side of the street. Maybe he was in on the scam, too, I thought as he pulled up, blocking dozens of cars from continuing cruising the beach.
We loaded the trunk up with our suitcases. The way the driver threw them in the trunk, the lid wouldn't close. So there we are crawling down the middle of South Beach with the trunk open and all our luggage sticking out. We were certain by this time the next member of the scam team would grab a bag or two and disappear.
The cab pulled up to the front of the hotel and we forked over another $10 for cab fare. We found the lobby and the front desk. We handed the Cubans working the desk our piece of paper from the previous hotel. He asked for a credit card. I said, "This room is prepaid." Then he said OK, but he still needed a photo ID and $2.14 for the in room safe.
Did he just say "In Room Safe?"
Sure enough, I looked at the counter and there, proudly displayed was a sign that read,
"FOR THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF OUR GUESTS THIS HOTEL PROVIDES A SAFE IN EACH ROOM"
The fine print said, "There will be a charge of $2.00 plus tax per room."
Why, I wondered, would I need an in room safe other than to protect myself from the help at the hotel? If someone had invaded my room while I was there, I can assure you I would have opened the safe for them. So it could only have been to prevent theft by the help. Not a good sign. I paid the $2.14. He handed us a room key and said just follow the hallway all the way back and then all the way to the right. We pulled our 5 suitcases up a few stairs and down the hallways to our "room."
The first thing we noticed was that the door handle was broken. After several minutes of trying to open it, we decided one of us had to go back and ask the clerk for assistance. That meant one of us had to stay alone with the luggage in the dimly lit hallway near the rear exit door. We flipped a coin and Barb lost. She would stay with the bags. (Actually, she insisted that I go, since she doesn't speak Spanish.) The clerk explained the "trick" to getting the door open. I returned and got us in. We discovered later that not only was it broken on the outside, but it couldn't be bolted from the inside!
I can only imagine what the prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton must have felt when they were shown their cells. This is the closest I ever hope to get to that feeling. We pulled our bags inside for safety- and because we had no other choice. What we found can just loosely be called a hotel room. The room had a king sized bed that we can only surmise had been recently rented by the hour, no doors on the closet, an afterthought of an air conditioning vent hanging from the ceiling, 1950 vintage rust (I hope) stained bathroom fixtures, and a small shower. There was about 6" between the bed and the dresser, so the drawers were almost unusable. The tap water ran brown for a few minutes before it started to clear. The light fixture above the mirror in the bathroom was a single bare 60W bulb. The small shower had a slimy uncovered drain about the size of a CD. We kept waiting for something to slither out of it. Or stick its head up and have a look around. Then things got really scary. We pulled the curtains at the back of the room to see the "view." Have you seen the pictures of East L. A. after the Watts riots back in the 60s? This was what crossed my mind as I looked at what was an abandoned building and a trash filled alley behind the hotel. A rundown fence leaned against the buildings as if it had surrendered, too.
I spent the next 20 minutes on the phone. I called Orbitz.com. They refused to take any responsibility for what had happened. All they could offer was the number for the reservation company that booked it. Apparently, Orbitz.com really doesn't actually book you, they just supply the web site as a way of channeling bookings to other reservation companies.
I called the number, hoping I could actually find someone willing to help. I started the conversation with, " I'm really sorry you had to be the one to answer this call." I then launched into him. I was feeling so pi$$ed that I didn't even feel sorry for the poor kid. To his credit, he listened to all of it and was very sympathetic. He said there was no way to get another room at that time of night. He promised to call back after talking to his supervisor and to the hotel. I hung up not expecting much to happen before we returned from our cruise. We decided to get some sleep as it was now about 1:15 am.
As I got in bed, the grumbling roar of the air conditioning unit helped to drown out some of the noise from the other rooms. I lay there trying to imagine it was the sound of the waves as they crashed against the hull of our ship. It worked for a minute or two.
Then a deep sense of DREAD came over me. There we were, in a fleabag hotel after being maneuvered there. With nothing but a thin pain of glass between us and the dark back alley, with all our cash, valuables and passports sitting in a safe that I had rented because they said I needed it. I had heard stories about these kinds of tourist robberies on TV. I was certain that someone would be crashing in the window at any moment with a very large knife or a gun. Or for that matter, just come right in the front door since it was impossible to engage the bolt. Our unannounced guests would know exactly where the money and valuables are - that's what the safe is for! With a great deal of politeness and decorum, they would request that the safe be opened so that they might share in our good fortune. I, naturally would respond,
"Of course I won't open that safe, I PAID OVER TWO DOLLARS FOR ALL THAT SAFETY AND SECURITY"
I crawled out of bed, opened the safe and took everything out of it except an old phone card and about $20 in one dollar bills. The rest I hid around the room. When the intruder entered and demanded the safe be opened, at least they would think they got what they came for.
I slipped back in the covers, still wondering how we got there. I was just closing my eyes when my cell phone rang. It was the customer service rep calling back. He had talked to the hotel and they refused any responsibility. His supervisor wouldn't be back until Monday. I would (I hoped) be somewhere in the Caribbean Sea by that time. He promised he would get this resolved and since it was now almost 2 am, I told him I would expect to hear from him when I returned. I said a little prayer and was now too tired to resist the urge to sleep. With the air conditioner crashing against the side of our South Beach ship, I tossed and turned all night.
Miraculously, my worst fears were not realized and we awoke to an absolutely gorgeous south Florida morning. I scooped up all our valuables and our cruise tickets and stuffed them in my safari shorts. Thank goodness for all those pockets. We went next door for some strong coffee and a quick breakfast at a sidewalk café and then crossed the street for a quick beach walk. We slipped into the drugstore for some bottled water and then to the liquor store for some supplies. We returned to the hotel just before check out, grabbed our luggage and stepped to the curb. A cab pulled up as if on cue. I hoped that was a sign that things were about to get better. Thankfully, they did.
OK. I'm back now. Those of you who skipped to this part, welcome back. Those of you who hung in there, thanks for letting me vent! On to the Norwegian Dawn!
Our cab from the hotel pulled into the cruise ship terminal about 11:15 to find many passengers still coming off the ship from the previous week. I had planned a surprise for Barb, a mini suite instead of an inside cabin. So while she was preoccupied with finding the right entrance, I quickly changed the room number on our luggage tags. We tipped the porter and headed to check in. The first person we saw was an NCL rep asking us if we had both our Bahamas and BVI immigration card filled out. We were never sent a BVI card, so we had to stop and fill it our before we headed to the counter. The place was nearly empty, so we stepped right up to the first Latitudes station. They check all the papers, swiped our credit card, took our digital picture for ship security, handed us our back our NCL credit card and we were done. Other than the fact that they could have sent us the BVI card ahead of time, embarkation for us was a breeze. They directed us to the next room, which was a large open area with the usual embarkation photo backdrop, a place to pick up your key card and a stand for juice and water. Looking out the large glass doors and windows, you could just see the large bow of the ship moored behind the Dawn - the Sun. As I entered the room, I asked if there was a priority boarding area for suite passengers. She said, "This is the priority embarkation area." It sure didn't look like the one we had for the Sun. I honestly don't think there was one, unless it just wasn't included with a mini suite. At least for an AF mini, we didn't get the red carpet treatment like we did for the AC on the Sun. But in the end it worked out better for me. It helped me keep my secret.
We were early and there was a travel agent luncheon and a wedding party or two that got on first, so we waited here about 30-40 minutes. While we waited, we chatted up some of the other passengers and watched the bride and the wedding party fidgeting before the big event. I decided it was too late to talk them out of it, so I went back to chatting up the folks around us. There was a nice couple from New York, a family from Pennsylvania. Then I heard someone call "Hey, Mr. Tractor! I'm Deb in New Hampshire!" I can only assume she recognized me from mug shots in the post office or from the pictures on Webshots.com. Either way, we got to meet some of the folks we had been chatting with on the message boards before the cruise. They seemed like a nice All-American family. Little did I know they would turn out to be "Lifestylers." (Just kidding, we all know who they were, don't we?)
They soon announced they would be boarding by the rows of chairs we were sitting in. Luckily we were the second row called. And even although we were about the 250th to arrive, we were about the 50th to step on the ship. I told you things were going to improve.
We stepped onto the ship and were asked for our key card, which was swiped each and every time we went on or off the ship. We stepped to our left to the staircase and this is where we saw the first of dozens of amazing art works on the ship. An original Andy Warhol flower print. We wandered the ship briefly, but I wanted to get to our room as quickly as possible before Barb could figure out we weren't in an inside cabin. We took the elevator up to the 11th floor and headed to the starboard forward location of our cabin. As we moved along the colorfully carpeted hallways, Barb noticed that there weren't any inside cabins in that area. I said, "There must by some mistake." I walked up to cabin 11022 and stuck in my card. Barb said "What are you doing, this isn't our...." Then she realized there was no mistake. The usually suspicious MrsTractor had been thoroughly surprised. This led to some malingering in our room a while before exploring the rest of the ship.
A cruise is a romantic experience to begin with. But MrTractor found on this trip that...
....a fifteen category upgrade from an inside to a mini suite..
...unleashes unbridled passion!
I love it when a surprise really is a surprise. Things were really looking up now!
Time to explore the ship....
The Ship The ship was amazing. It's brand new and seemed to be just about as big as I would want a ship to be. No rock climbing or ice skating, but the ship was filled with great places to dine, sun, drink, walk, swim, sing, dance and view, people watch and listen to music. At every turn while we explored the ship, my wife, who is an interior decorator, would say, "That's just perfect!"
I'm not a ship's engineer or architect so I can't give you an explanation of the relative strength of the hull and bulkheads or any of that technical stuff. And so many others have described the ship in detail, so I won't go into all the rooms and the color schemes. I'll just give my impression of the ship as it relates to this one passenger's expectations.
In terms of facilities, this ship was as near to perfect as you can expect a ship to be!
Design- The layout was great. It seemed easy to navigate with plenty of signage at every turn to help. A fantastic atrium that acted as a "town square" and meeting place.
Choices- This is what makes Freestyle so great and there were plenty of them. So many great dining places and lounges. Quiet spots and party hearty discos.
The Pools- And I'm not just talking about the main pool. The main pool was beautifully tiled with a stadium seating area for lounges that was really neat. Four large hot tubs around it made for high capacity tubbing fun. The forward deck area had a nice quiet area with one large hot tub. The rear of the ship was the kid's pool with slides and play areas that looked great. My wife wouldn't let me try the slide with the dragon, darn it! She said I wasn't (acting) old enough! The spa pool is free and a great little quiet spot. Sit and read while watching the ocean fade off in your wake, then try the reclining Jacuzzi or the regular one. Again, lots of choices.
Deck Areas- There never seemed to be a problem getting a chair even on the beautiful sunny sea days we enjoyed. Then there was the Promenade deck. Colorful artwork depicting the areas just inside the walls gave you festive and upbeat feeling as you walked off those extra calories. On past cruises, when I walked the Promenade, I found myself looking out to the ocean. On this ship, the artwork was the focus of your attention, as there was a new mural to look at every 10 paces or so.
Aesthetics- Ship is literally a work of art, both inside and out. The hull with the Statue of Liberty on one side and dolphins on the other was really distinctive. It wasn't hard to pick out which ship was ours in port! Despite these and the colorful murals on the promenade deck, it didn't seem to detract from the outside beauty of the ship. Inside, the ship was filled with art from great artists. Matisse, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Worhol and others are featured. I admit I am no art expert. The masterpieces in Le Bistro could have been fakes for all I knew. But it was still neat to dine in their shadow. I felt somehow more important just being in the same room with them. And if they were real, you have to say it's not every day you get to sit in a room with over $200 million in masterpieces. Andy Warhols series of prints with flowers adorned the forward staircase and his series on Mao Tse Tung decorated the rear staircase. It was fun to see the progression of colors as you walked up or down. Sort of like one of those flip card movies in slow motion. The color scheme in the atrium and the hallways was very Caribbean, and the lounges were what I would call art deco contemporary. Sort of the Jetsons meets South Beach. But I don't mean anything bad by that. In fact we thought it was great. Check out the fun and wacky chairs in the starboard side of Spinnakers. Getting your picture taken in the big circular one or the zebra lounger makes a great shot on formal night. Especially with several of your new closest friends!
Dining Venues - One of the great things about Freestyle are all the dining choices. This ship had the most of any ship I've ever sailed on. Possibly the most of any ship at sea! The toughest decision we had to make all week was where to eat next. Yet, the dining rooms are where we ran into our only problems with the ship and its ability to please a cruise passenger.
The Venetian is the largest and busiest of the places to eat. It's open for the three main daily meals and hosts the Chocoholic Buffet. The times we ate there, the staff seemed a little confused at times, didn't seem to give the personal service and attention we deserved and, at dinner especially, the meal took an EXCRUTIATINGLY LONG TIME. In defense of the wait staff, it seemed to be more a problem with getting the food to the servers at dinnertime, rather than the staff not getting around to serving us. Granted this was the busiest time of night. But even with that taken into consideration, the water glasses were not often attended to, the table wasn't cleared in a timely manner and the table did not seem to be meticulously set like in other dining areas or on other ships. I can only assume that since this is a "free" restaurant that the least experienced staff is assigned there. Also, I've heard that there is no pre-made food. In other words, when you order a meal, it is made individually for each order rather than having a bunch of orders of say, Beef Wellington, sitting on a hot counter waiting to be picked up. This could account for a lot of the delay in getting the food to the waiters. This was especially irksome when we were trying to get to an activity or catch a show. We missed the juggler one night because it took so long to finish dinner.
We assumed this problem was a result of trying to get dinner at the peak time. So in San Juan, we came back early for a 6 pm reservation at Salsas. The food was slightly above average and the venue and presentation were interesting, but again, it took us over 2 hours to finish. Once again, too late for the 7:30 show time. We went to do other things, and then caught the late show, but we missed the comedian that night and had to catch his show later in the week.
If there is one thing that I can say didn't go well, it was trying to get through dinner at a reasonable speed. We ate at Venetian, Le Bistro, Salsa's, Aqua, the Garden Café, Impressions, Blue Lagoon, Bimini's, and finally Bamboo. Oh, and we had Eggs Benedict in our suite 3 mornings during the cruise. Just write out by hand on the card you leave on the doorknob if you want a special dish for breakfast. See tips above for how to do this.
We had tried the Teppanyaki Grill on the Sun, and although it was fun, we decided we would try the main restaurant outside the grill. On the Sun it was called East Meets West and on the Dawn it was called Bamboo. Some folks complained about the sound of the piano player in the lounge just below, but we found it to be kind of nice to have live music while we dined. My wife who had raved about the rest of the ship, found the décor to be a little cheesy. Fake flowers and neon lighting. The restaurant did seem to be in the hallway, but that but that didn't seem to bother us. The service by our waiter Winnie was attentive enough, although his English needs some work as we had some problems communicating. We had to say things two or three times, as he stood smiling and nodding. The main reason my wife wanted to try Bamboo was for the Peking Duck. She said it was tasty. I decided to be brave and try something different. I started with some sushi, which wasn't bad. Then I went with the Three Kinds of Pork to get a variety. It was served in a unique black lacquered box that was separated into four quarters. The presentation was good, but unfortunately the food wasn't. In three of them were the portions of Thai, Chinese and Japanese Pork and the forth had rice, each in its own individual bowl. It was also served cold. But not on purpose. I had them take it back and bring me another, but by the time I got it, Barb was well into her meal. They also brought a large side of steamed vegetables for us to share, but there was no place to put them in this box contraption. So I had to ask them to bring me a plate. Should I have to ask them to do that? I didn't eat all of it because it was getting late. I suppose I could have ordered something else, but I was already full from snacking earlier, so we left feeling a little unsatisfied.
Remember this was an alternative restaurant we paid an additional $10 per person for. The kicker here is that the next night - guess what was on the menu at the free dining room? That's right, the only reason we chose Bamboo over all the other restaurants - Peking Duck! I won't let this prevent me from saying this is a great ship and a memorable cruise, but the time it took to be served and the experience we had at Bamboo prevents me from giving this cruise a near perfect score of 9.5. I think I've rambled on enough about the dining areas. We did not eat at La Trattoria (an area of the Garden Café converted at night) or Cagney's (a $17.50 service charge for steaks?). Now just a few notes about the food.
Food - a few dishes we liked and where we had them: Escargot (Le Bistro) Caesar Salad (Le Bistro) Chocolate Fondue (Le Bistro) Avocado and Grapefruit Salad (Venetian) Caramelized Pear (Venetian) Lobster, Lobster, Lobster (Thursday night in all the restaurants.) Chateaubriand (Impressions) Beef Wellington (Venetian) Seared Tuna Steak (Venetian) Veal Marsala (Aqua) Fish and Chips (Blue Lagoon) Oysters Rockefeller - (Impressions) Ribs and Paella - Private Island
Our List of "Favorites" - Restaurant- Impressions Martini Bar- Star Bar Quiet Spot- El Dorado Spa Noisy Spot - Stadium Seating at the Pool Excursion- St. John's Island by Private Chauffer (Thanks again Islandfan!) Place to Shake a Tail Feather- Spinnaker Lounge (late) Hot Tub - Recliner Spa in El Dorado Spa Outdoor Bar - Bimini's Best Place for a Beer- Pearly Kings Pub Best Piano Bar - Pearly Kings Pub (if Skip is still there, don't miss him!) Place to Meet for Cocktails and Hors de' oeuvres - Salsa's Waiter(ess) - Miki in Impressions Cocktail Waiter(ess)- Marie in Salsa's (Just off the Norway, our next adventure).
Wine Service- There are no wine stewards on the NCL Dawn. So wine is ordered from your waiter or from the bar staff. The wine we ordered was served at the right temperature, with the right glass and was opened properly. The wine selection was fairly good and the prices were about what you would expect to pay in most restaurants. They had a deal for wine drinkers that was basically "Buy Five and Get One Free." Save all your receipts and the last night turn them in for a free bottle with the NCL Logo on it. I am a Cabernet drinker, but all they had was Merlot or Chardonnay. That's no big deal. This plan isn't quite as nice as the 7 bottles of wine for $100 on our last RCI cruise, but it worked out to be about the same. The last three cruises, I have gotten the free bottle and brought it home. My tradition is that I won't drink it until I replace it with another from our next cruise. Take the five bottles we bought, the one we got from the Concierge, the one we got from the Captain and the free one, that's 8 bottles. I think we spent around $135 including gratuity, so we weren't far off.
Bar Staff- In case you are worried about pushy bar staff, don't be. They seemed to be pretty available, but didn't really get in our face. They wandered the deck with souvenir glasses and buckets of beer, but always seemed to be unobtrusive. See the tips above about ordering a drink. The drink prices seemed a little high, especially for call brands. Order a stinger or a Stolichnaya martini and expect to pay around 6-7 bucks with gratuity. That seems a little pricey. If their goal is to increase onboard revenue, those prices can only encourage more smuggling instead of less!
Disembarkation- Freestyle is the best way to leave the ship. Get up, shower, get some breakfast, walk the ship, see all your friends and then get off when you are ready. The ship was a little late getting cleared, as usual due to someone who has not paid their cash account or a non-US citizen not reporting to Customs and Immigration. There were a number of German tourists onboard and the last few announced names all seemed to be something like "Helga and Bruno Schnortenzumen please report to the Immigrations Desk immediately." It was almost 10 am by the time we got cleared for the first colors to be called. We were in no hurry, so we got the latest color tag to be called, white. We were taking the shuttle to Ft. Lauderdale to pick up the PT Cruiser rental for our post cruise stay. Since we were flying out of there on the way home, it made sense to take the NCL transfer. $15 per person one-way. We were the last ones to get on the bus, so we got to spend the maximum amount of time on the ship that morning, chatting with all our new friends and getting their email and snail mail addresses. I was glad we didn't have to fly out right away. Much less stress. And besides the "Bronze Goddess" needed another shade or two for her tan.
Working With The Concierge- Sarah Rio was our concierge this trip and just like Julie Sedwick on the Sun, she did a superb job. I heard one other passenger from Alabama who will remain nameless (but his screen name on Cruise Critics is BAMA X 2) say that she was difficult to deal with. My experience was quite to the contrary. Let my just offer a few tips to our friend from Birmingham that may help in future dealings with people with an understanding of politesse. 1) Never demand anything. Ask nice. 2) Always use a soothing and polite tone of voice 3) Always express your appreciation for their service both monetarily and with a thank-you 4) Mention the name of the last concierge you had and what a great job they did 5) Understand what they can and can't do for you and don't ask them to break the rules. They are happy to bend them a little, like getting tender passes for your friends or getting you priority embarkation even if you don't have an early flight, but don't ask them to pull the ship over so you can take a picture. 6) Never use phrases like, "What the h - e double toothpicks is the problem, BIATCH!" This leads to a great deal of misunderstanding and may effect the manner in which you are treated.
Here are some of the things a concierge can do for you: 1) Priority Tender Tickets - This only came in handy at the private island on the eastern route, but on the western, it might be more important. On the Sun, the concierge actually met us and escorted us onto the very first tender before anyone else was allowed to board it. On the Dawn, you simply got a white card saying "VIP Tender Pass" and it allowed you to get on any available tender. 2) Dinner reservations - If your cabin category starts with the letter A, you are allowed to make a reservation at any of the alternative, reservation only restaurants at any time, so long as they are available. In lower categories, you may only call the day before. This is extremely helpful with the Teppanyaki Grill in Bamboo or Le Bistro as these can get filled up especially later on in the week. 3) Arrange for transportation - They can arrange for a rental car, or as in our case bus transfers to the airport. We just called and she sent two transfer tickets up to our room and put it on our onboard account. They can even arrange for a rental car in port. 4) Private parties. She can arrange for a private party in your suite if you wish and if its big enough. She can arrange for hors d' oeuvres, a special menu, bar set ups and even servers in white gloves if you'd like. These will incur special charges, so ask before you arrange a party. It cost us around $100 plus gratuity to have a party in our suite with hot and cold food and two bottles of Champagne. Not that bad when you consider it. 5) Suites usually include a bottle of wine or Champagne. If you didn't get one, ask when you get in. They may send one right up! 6) Shore Excursion Tickets - If you haven't already made plans and want to use the ship's excursions, no need to stand in line. Just call and tell them what you want and the tickets are delivered to your stateroom.
We really enjoyed having Sarah take care of all of the things we asked her for and we give her the highest marks. A little Dale Carnegie goes a long way, doesn't it BAMA?
The Cabin- Everything in our mini was new and well decorated. Entering the door, you pass through a short foyer area with a mirror and some shelves to leave those "grab before leaving" items like camera, key card, hats, etc. Just past the foyer mirror was the bathroom door. Our compact, but comfortable and efficient mini suite bathroom had a single large sink with a faucet that looked like it was big enough for a kitchen and it swung out of the way, too. It had a full but not particularly large tub. No whirlpool like in the AC on the Sun and a little tough to fit two adults into- *but still fun trying* - and a separate room for the head. The sliding doors on the shower and head saved a lot of space and made for a lot more usable space. Pass the bathroom door, and you have a vanity with a stool, several drawers, good makeup lighting and several types of electrical outlets. Entering the main room, you have a queen-sized bed pushed together from two twins with end tables against a mirrored wall. On the wall opposite the bed there is an inset mural of a garden scene that made the room seem classier than just a standard balcony room. Past the bed was the sitting area with a large pull-out sofa, two basic chairs, a small dining table, a small double-decker cocktail table, more cabinets, a writing desk an electronic safe and a small fridge. The paneling and furniture were made of glossy cherry wood. The coating on it reminded me of bulletproof glass. I wasn't wild about the plastic look to the wood, but I think the designers may have succeeded in using a material that would survive the many years of use and abuse to come. The sliding glass door to the balcony was large and panoramic. It had a nice locking feature that allowed you to open it all the way or any position in between and then flip the handle to lock it into place. On the balcony were two large aluminum framed mesh chairs and a small table. The deck material was teak, something we missed last time we had a balcony. I think this was because we were right next to the AB suite and our deck was an extension of theirs. Nice of them to share!
This room was a very comfortable base camp. There were only a couple things I would have changed. First of all the heavy opaque curtains that separated the sleeping area from the sitting area, should have gone around the bed instead of just separating the two areas. I realize this is nice for creating two rooms. But my wife likes to sleep right up to the point where she smells coffee. It's less intrusive if room service can enter the room without being able to see who's laying in bed. Also, There was only one outlet for US electrical appliances (unless the ship supplies adapters). Its fortunate that we brought an outlet bar or there would have been chaos on formal night with all the stuff my wife wants to plug in. Hair dryer, curlers, iron, camera battery charger, etc. Whew! At least she looks good when she's done!
The soundproofing was good and we never heard anyone else unless they were on their balcony. The safe, fridge and our key card worked flawlessly. The room number on the outside of the room has a nice feature. It's a color wheel that indicates what you want the room steward to do. Welcome (Green), Do not Disturb (Red) or Make Up Room (Yellow). If you want to be alone in the afternoon, just put up the "Red Light." This is great for those afternoon adult naps just before dinner that have become such an important part of our cruise experience. He, He. But don't forget to switch it back before you leave for dinner. They will not violate your space until they get the "green light". And you won't get turndown service. We made that mistake and had to turn down the bed ourselves! How primitive!!! And no mint!!!!!!
Entertainment- The shows by the Jean Ryan Company were the usual spectacle of dancing and set design you would expect. My wife said the girls showed too much of their glutemus maximus, but that didn't bother me one bit. OuCH! Waddeyesay!? Anyway they seemed a little more extravagant this time possibly because of the larger venue. The main theatre is large, has excellent sight lines and comfortable seats. There is plenty of elevation from row to row so even shorter folks can see over the heads of tall people like me! The larger stage must have inspired Jean Ann Ryan to create a larger production. Bollywood was the most extravagant exposition I've ever seen performed at sea. I say that not really knowing if I liked it, but it wasn't boring! The acrobatics were amazing and the costumes ornate. I agree with some other posters that the "Farewell Show" ending with "We are the world" sung by the crew was a little too schmaltzy, but I guess they we trying to give us a warm fuzzy. It generated a few smiles, but also a lot of smirks and rolled eyes.
Skip Sauers in the Pearly Kings Pub was terrifically entertaining. He can play virtually anything you ask and has an energy and enthusiasm that you'll love. He has a quick wit, so don't get up and leave during the middle of one of his songs. He has a little bit of a rough edge on him compared to the other pianist who plays Gatsby's Roger Carr. Skip took his place in Gatsby's one night for a Billy Joel Tribute. He can play even the most obscure songs by Joel and if you're a fan, you won't want to miss him. He may not be your cup of tea for a quiet cocktail before dinner which is why he spends most of his time in the Pub. But that little bit of an edge from that Auzzie energy was just our style. Ask him to play "Never Say Goodbye" and original tune he wrote about one of the dancers on the ship. Have him tell you the story. It's an exceptional song and you can tell he really loves singing it.
I was a little underwhelmed by the band in Spinnakers at night. It was sort of like the Mothra maidens go disco for K-Tel Records. But, hey, it had a good beat and you could dance to it, so it was still great fun.
The Ports- San Juan- We had been to San Juan several times before so we decided to take off on our own. Four of us Cruise Critics "IslandFan" and "The Suze", "Bronze Goddess" and myself all headed out for the gangway around 11:30. We caught a cab to old San Juan, about a 10 minute, $10 ride from the International Pier (Not the Downtown Pier) and got off near the visitor's center. We looked around for the free buses for a while and when the first one came along, we asked the driver if it went to the fort. He said no, we wanted the North (Norte) bus and that we could catch it just down the street in front of the shopping area in front of the first pier. No problem, we'd wait. Well, not being the most patient person in the world, after about 15 minutes of waiting I suggested just getting a cab. That was not met well with our group, so we decided to wait a little longer. That's when IslandFan and I spotted the DonQ distillery retail store across the street. He and I said we were going to run over there while the ladies waited for the bus. We would bring them back a drink and we would try to keep an eye out for the bus. Not a great plan. The bus still hadn't gotten there when the girls decided they wanted their rum punch right then! They were giving out free rum drinks of all descriptions and giving the spiel about DonQ being the number one selling rum in Puerto Rico. It tasted fine to us. They won't let you leave with your drink anyway, so it was just as well the ladies joined us. We walked back out and decided whichever next bus came next - we were going to get on it. After a few rum punches, it didn't seem to matter as much! We did, even though it was the Central bus. As soon as we got to the back of this bus we looked out and the North bus had pulled up behind us. When we got back there, the bus driver said he was going off duty, but that he would take us the place where we could catch the next North Bus. Of course when we got there, the bus was already almost full. So we jammed our way in to the packed bus. IslandFan thought it would be nice to sing a song since we were all getting to know each other so intimately. This was in keeping with the "Rainbow Camp Counselor" role he seemed to relish later in the week. So naturally I started singing. It seems a French tourist who was standing behind us didn't like my rendition of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" and began scolding me and her husband (who was sitting) decided to chime in, too. I shut up. I didn't want to start an international incident. Besides, she was on the other side of IslandFan and couldn't get a clear swing at me. I think the old girl was mean enough that she could have taken IslandFan best two out of three falls. We got off at the top of San Juan Hill near El Moro Fort and walked past various monuments, statues, churches, museums and various landmarks. When I wasn't' getting chased by French tourists, I acted as unofficial tour guide for the day. It was a beautiful sunny day and the walk down the hill was a pretty easy one. In spite of one more run in with the French woman at the children's park, it was a very pleasant stroll. It seemed she took exception to my getting up on the back of a Dr. Seuss statue at the children's park and getting my picture taken. OK, so maybe I am a little old for that sort of thing, but THAT'S WHAT KID'S STATUES ARE THERE FOR - TO BE CLIMBED ON! After Island softened her up, I think I could have taken her. But we avoided that confrontation by following Calle de Christo to where it dead-ends at a small shrine. There, the guys parked ourselves at the outdoor café for some refreshments while the gals went off shopping. The trip I just described has been our plan since after our first trip when we did the ship's excursion. I get to enjoy the libations, the people watching and the Mexican food, while Bronze Goddess gets to shop. Two more CCers, Bama and TrophyWife, finished their walking tour and met us there. We had another refreshment and then headed down Calle Fortaleza towards the Parrot Club, our favorite drinking hole in San Juan. They make a drink called the Parrot Passion, which is a must. Time for one quick Passion and then down the hill we went to catch a cab back to the ship, this time in a van, so all six of us could ride together. Of course by this time the DonQ, the Guava Coladas, the beer at the outdoor cafes and the Parrot Passions had everybody in a pretty jovial mood. Four of us had made a reservation at 6 PM for Salsa's so we had to hustle a little bit. We made it back to the ship just at dusk and the lights of the big ship against the Puerto Rican sky was worth a last look. We stepped on the ship and got a real warm feeling being back on this beautiful ship. OK, so maybe the rum had something to do with the feeling, but she is a beauty!
St. John/St. Thomas - Again since we had been to this port several times before, we planned to wing in on our own. In fact if the weather hadn't cooperated, we may not have gotten off at all. We've done all the tours, seem most of the beaches, didn't need to buy anything there that we didn't already have of could get somewhere else cheaper. Luckily, the weather did cooperate. And this time we had an expert guide - fellow Ccer IslandFan. I mean, this guy's email address includes "IslandFanUSVI," so I figured we had the right man for the job. We were moored at the main pier this time (not like on the Sky where when we were moored on the other side of town). We met at 7:30 and jumped in the first cab in line. Since there were 6 of us, the driver left immediately even though we were in one of those open-air trucks that could have taken more. We arrived at Red Hook for the ferry to St. Johns in time to catch the 9:00 ferry (That's 9 am local time, I think. I never was entirely sure about the time difference). When we set foot on the island we walked off the pier and took the first right. There about fifty yards on our left was "Island Car Rental." We all split the cost of a vehicle that I would describe as a pickup truck with two benches facing each other on the sides and a red and white stripped surrey top. It could have accommodated 10 people, but with six we had plenty of room. Our first stop was the grocery store to pick up some supplies. I grabbed a case of a variety of the local beers, some snacks, soft drinks a Styrofoam cooler and some ice. Five of us loaded up in the back of our trusty steed, and IslandFan, who we now began referring to as "Driver" got in the cab of the pickup and we headed for the hills. It was now about 9 am ship's time. We had waited long enough. I felt it was time to have the "Cracking of the Beer Ceremony." Bama and I reverently sat as the bottle opener was joined to the first bottle. "Silence, Please" I called to the brave riders. The pop-kerswoosh of the first beer opening on that beautiful day on that gorgeous island was a beautiful thing. Bama turned his head. I thought I saw his eyes moisten. Ok, so maybe it was the wind swirling through the back of the truck, but it was still a special moment and worthy of such a solemn ritual. Apparently, that sound was more like the bugler at the Kentucky Derby for "Driver," because we were "Off to the Races!" Up and down the narrow winding roads carved out of the steep hills we went. Of course this is all ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! At every turn I snapped another digital picture holding on firmly to frame of the surry top with one hand and snapping with the other. "Screen Saver!" I declared at every new turn.
We saw some of the most beautiful vistas on earth that day. Picturesque coves sheltered sailboats calmly rocking in the gentle breeze. They were mostly owned by snowbirds and refugees from the "TYPE A" world we came from. We picked up one lady along the road who looked like she needed a ride. I would say she was in her late fifties to early sixties. She and her husband were living aboard one of the sailboats we saw earlier and she was going to town to get the mail. They had a place in North Carolina along the Intracoastal Waterway for a fixed address. They had just recently come up from Valparaiso, Chile before they anchored at St. John. That sounded so cool, so romantic. After we dropped her off, I wondered if I could be happy doing that sort of thing, or if I would ever have the money. Come on 401K! I wouldn't mind having the chance to think about it!
We stopped at Cinnamon Bay for a nice afternoon of beaching and sunning. The snorkeling isn't as good there as it is at Trunk Bay, but it was less crowded, and the sand was soft and warm. Everybody got a swim and we had a chance to eat the sandwiches we had bought at one of the local sub shops. We were back on our way about 2 pm to Cruz Bay to catch the ferry.
Coming over the last hill we started to hear a strange clunking sound. As we came into the little town, the sound was getting louder. We pulled into the car rental store and we all got out. I looked back and the rear left tire was giving up its last breath of air. It must have been losing air for some time. We were just glad it didn't blow on one of those windy mountain roads! There might have been a few less passengers on the Dawn that afternoon. We slipped into Woody's for a couple of Pina Coladas and rum and cokes and met some cruisies from the Carnival Pride. They watched us for a while and since we seemed to be having a lot more fun than they were, they decided to join the conversation. Yes, even NCL folks can have a "Fun Ship" tm.
Our driver now transformed into "Rainbow Camp Counselor" and led us back to the ferry dock. There we bought tickets on the ferry that takes you right to downtown Charlotte Amalie. "Island Fan" and "The Suze" had their own plan for shopping, so the remaining four survivors headed into town for a last minute look around. We ended up in another one of MrTractor's favorite haunts, "Gladys's Restaurant." Its down a narrow alley and has an old stone front to it. It's tough to spot and I'm not sure exactly how to tell you to get to it. But if you go past the second "Del Sol" store and go up the narrowest alley, it'll be on your left. It was late and the lunch crowd had cleared out. We bellied right up to the bar without the usual wait. I had to have one of those Mango Coladas that Gladys is so famous for. She topped each off with a dark rum kicker and then entertained us by singing her favorite Tina Turner songs while dancing away behind the bar.
Mango Coladas - $4 The Tina Turner Floorshow - Priceless! (For everything else there's your NCL MasterCard) We walked out of the alley to find plenty of cabs ready to take us to the ship. We grabbed one and were back on the ship after about 10 minutes of traffic. What a day! Back on board we made a quick trip to El Dorado Spa for some hot tubbing. Back in our room, we watched the ship pull away from its mooring, then caught a quick nap and a shower before heading off for dinner. It would be an early night tonight. Partly because we had been up early, drank beer all day and had gotten quite a bit of sun. But also because we had signed up for an early Dive In program at our next port, the nearby island of...
Tortola - This was the only ship's excursion we took while on the Dawn. We had never been to Tortola. We usually try the touristy route at our first call on a post, so we can say, "we've been there and got the t-shirt." Our tour met in Dazzles at 7 am and left the ship around 7:30. We filed off the ship onto a double-decker dive boat that took us across the straights toward another little island called Virgin Gorda. Along the way we saw a majestic three masted sailing ship off in the distance heading into harbor. I wondered how the early settlers might have looked at that ship and wondered if it was a pirate, a privateer or a British Man 'o War. We arrived at The Baths around 8:30. As we approached, we saw boulders lining the shoreline. How big we wouldn't know until we got closer, in fact until we got inside and underneath them. They are Huge! We swam ashore through the undertow and regrouped on shore. A short walk brought us to the mouth of a trail that wound through the humongous formations. Tossed up in the air by volcanic or seismic events millions of years ago, they made for a surreal adventure crawling through the passageways. The tourists were conveniently provided for with wooden steps in the more challenging areas, but I would think it would be near impossible for the physically challenged. Once out on the other side, you had a choice of returning to the first beach via the same path, or snorkeling back along the shore to the dive boat. We chose the latter. The snorkel back was nice. Not too challenging, but lots of fish and coral. The Bronze Goddess (aka MrsTractor) was stung by a jelly fish, but a bit of ointment from Diver Ken and she was back to normal, sunning herself on the top deck and enjoying the free rum punch provided.
I'd like to stop and say a word or two about the Dive In staff that accompanied us on this trip. They were terrific! They did a nice job with their little presentation, were very patient with novice snorkelers and seemed to genuinely enjoy doing their jobs. I found out later that two of the girls grew up together and decided to sign on together after high school. I think that's a great idea, since I have heard so many instances of homesickness in the crew, especially the younger ones. And the boat crew wasn't shy with the rum in the free punch either. Great job all you guys and girls!
We were back to the ship by noon. Bama, TrophyWife, BronzeGoddess and MrTractor slipped in for lunch at Blue Lagoon. It was fast and surprisingly good. This gave us the time and energy to head out for more adventure. We stepped off the pier to find plenty of open air taxis. The one we took went to Cane Garden Beach. Nice beach with several nice bars, restaurants and shops. We spent the day there sunning, swimming, enjoying some of the local refreshments and picking up some last minute souvenirs. After all, this was our last port other than the private island before we returned to Miami. We caught a cab back to the pier and were back in plenty of time.
Private Island - We got VIP tender tickets for us a few friends who were unable to properly negotiate the concierge and landed on the island in time to get good seats on the beach. IslandFan said the same tender boat that took him to the island in 1990 was still one of the tenders today. Bama rented a big "party raft" and we tied it up on one of the snorkel buoys. This served as our BaseOps for a day of antics and fun. I had brought a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes with me and we had fun feeding the fish. There were lots of brave ones eating right at the top of the water and just like on the internet a number of lurkers swimming below. A school of yellow fin tuna took up residence under the raft until all the Flakes were gone. We ate drank and sunned the day away, Bama torched the dancers in Volleyball while TrophyWife acted as his #1 cheerleader. "Serves 'em right for singing We Are the World at the Farewell Show", Bama scoffed.
Our last day at sea was spent pretty much like the first one. Sunning, eating, socializing, napping (wink, wink) and then a nice dinner with all of the CruiseCritics gang at Aqua. We packed our stuff and left it in the hallway. Besides being a real pain, I always have a sad feeling during that process. That means our cruise is almost over. We were determined to get the last bit of fun out of it so we ended up in Spinnakers for the final night of revelry. Even the "Lifesytle" couple was there for some last minute fun. We got to bed at around 12:30 and awoke to the "business side" of the Port of Miami since we were on the Starboard side of the Dawn. Our cruise was over much too soon.
Final Thoughts - If you've made it this far reading this world-record-length review, then maybe you'll be kind enough to listen to my last few thoughts.
The ship itself was spectacular. But like most new ships, it will take a while for it to really hit its stride in terms of service and efficiency in some areas. Once it does, though, it could become the best cruise ship at sea - bar none! My only fear is that NCL will do to Freestyle cruising what Princess has done to the "Love Boat" experience. By building bigger and bigger ships, NCL could stretch the Freestyle concept to the breaking point in the same way, in my humble opinion, Princess has diluted their experience with the Grand and Golden Princess. Whiel they are already superior to the older Sea, the Dawn will have to work harder, because of its size, to maintain the same experience the Sky and Sun offer. I'll wait another year or two before I sail the Dawn again to see if they get it right. Even if it takes a little extra effort in some areas, I have every confidence they will!
The ports, the weather, the excursions, the cabin and so many other things were remarkable this time out. But as always, it was the people that made this trip extraordinary. From the sailaway CruiseCritic party with Bama in his tux and shorts, to the streets of Old San Juan, to an amazing tour of St. Johns courtesy of the #1 "IslandFan" and "The Suze", the Baths of Virgin Gorda with Bama, Trophy Wife, Deb, Joanne and their clan, floating on a raft with the "Tres Amigos" and the "Trophy Wives," the "intimate dinners for 18" with Mark and Debbie (also from New Hampshire), our British friends Steve and Ann and their beautiful, well behaved girls (the "Hillybillies"), and, even though we didn't seem much of him, Sam the curmudgeonly retired English teacher that we had so much fun with on the cruise boards.
It is you folks that make a cruise what it should be - great fun and great friends. It could not have been an great experience without each of you along. I hope anyone reading this has the chance to one day meet these folks. You couldn't be sailing with a nicer bunch of people!
After a long excursion to Virginia, our next "re-embarkation" - the SS Norway!
(UPDATE!!! - Due to the recent tragedy involving the SS Norway, our group has decided to try Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas. As of this posting, there are 14 of us going 11/02/03)
Bon Voyage! MrTractor firstname.lastname@example.org