This is my review on the 11/7/04 NCL Dawn 11 day cruise. First some background. My husband and I (late 30's) traveled with my parents. Each couple had a cat. BA verandah on deck 10, midship. (We had booked a BB guarantee and with this unique itinerary, prices never fell and I bet upgrades were not given as often as on the seven day itinerary, as the ship was full with the prime categories selling out well before the cruise date.) My parents have cruised extensively, and my husband and I have been on several cruises on Disney, Princess, Premier, Carnival, HAL etc. Basically between the four of us, the only line in this level that we haven't been on is RCCL. I have to start by saying, NCL totally exceeded our expectations in all areas. This experience was close to what cruising was years ago before it became cheaper and more mainstream. I am hard pressed to find anything to actually complain about, as any of the imperfect parts of this cruise were really not of any major issue. Let me get the negatives out of the way so I can concentrate on what an excellent experience the entire vacation was.
First, the cleanliness of the stateroom was not up to par. This wasn't a glaringly obvious problem, but I did notice it. I think if the head of the housekeeping department went into a cabin and did the things a passenger would normally do, they would realize these issues. For instance, there where smudges on the wall in front of the toilet (from people hitting their heads when getting up from the thing in the tiny room apparently, but more on that later). One would not notice this (or the dirt collecting in the corners of the door sill from the bathroom into the room) unless they were sitting on the toilet, and I doubt housekeeping has done that in a passenger room. Also, some surfaces had dust. Again, not a major thing, but it was noticeable and I mention it because in most other aspects, NCL was so attentive to detail, and this was a deviation from that. Secondly, the rooms are the tiniest in this category that I have seen. The room we were in had a queen bed plus the pull out full size couch. To utilize the couch as a bed, the people sharing the room would have to be extremely comfortable with each other, and extremely close, literally. There would be maybe a foot of space between the bed and couch in this configuration, and getting outside when the couch was open would be impossible. One thing that seems to add to the smallness of the rooms is the inordinate amount of furniture in them. There is the bed(s), couch, a night table, vanity chair, desk like table, chair and coffee table. The bruises from walking into all that furniture will heal long before my happy memories of the trip fade, but it was odd to have all that in such a small room. The storage space is probably similar to other lines, but is in such weird places that it seems much less. There is only one closet, but there were two pull down shelves in it. There were numerous shelves, but they were all high up and most were exposed. Most passengers wouldn't want to spend eleven days staring at their underwear on one shelf and their toiletries on the shelf beneath the coffee table for the whole trip. There is a set of shelves inside the closet, but they are very difficult to get to, especially when one utilizes the closet to hang clothing and store luggage. (Luggage will fit under the bed, but even without it being in the closet, one must twist and push their way into the closet to get to those shelves.) Since they are directly behind the door, I am assuming the designer didn't want a front facing door (separate access outside of the closet) for them since the door from those shelves would hit the door to the room. But in reality, any door, closet or bathroom, being open hits the room door anyway. That being said, we managed for the eleven days and adjusted to the space and storage issues quickly. The only other negative I can think of is the lack of variety and quality of the Garden Cafe (buffet area) food. But, because food is available in so many different venues at basically all times of the day and night, that negative is practically canceled out. In fact my scale says it was definitely not an issue ; ) EMBARKATION: We lucked out and hit no traffic into the city from Long Island despite it being NYC Marathon day. We arrived to the terminal at about 11:30 and by one ish had unpacked and eaten lunch. There was only one other ship in port, so that probably made things easier for our embarkation as well. DECOR AND LAYOUT: The ship is tastefully decorated and although it is quite large, its effective and unique use of space makes it feel much more intimate. For instance, the grand atrium stretches the entire height of the ship and is, well grand, but the actual areas that are configured on each of the floors around the atrium make it seem less imposing. When utilizing these areas (e.g., the Internet Cafe, Salsa, etc.) one feels as if they are in a distinct space and not hanging out in the open vast lobby. The layout makes sense with the restaurants basically being in one general area and flowing into bar areas. One does not need to walk through the casino to get to another area (although passing by it is required to get to the lower level of the main theater, and the smoke issues are apparent). Public bathrooms are abundant and logically placed. The theater and cinema have excellent sight lines, and each public room has its own distinct ambiance. For instance, Spinnaker's Lounge has fun and funky chairs and couches, while the area near Bamboo, the Japanese restaurant has an Asian decor. The promenade is fun to walk along even when one doesn't have the beautiful ports to look at, as the walls have been painted in Trompe L'oil style to illustrate whatever ship area abuts that spot on the inside. The "hanging" pots of petunias painted around the lamps are particularly charming. Here are some tips. If your room does not have a pocket map of the ship in the info materials, get one at the reception desk. Also if you don't want to spend your vacation trying to figure out how to get back to your room, look at the (Andy Warhol) print on the staircases and note which side the title plaque is (for aft and forward staircases) or what side of Marilyn Monroe's mole you are on (midship stairs). ROOM AND ROOM ATTENDANTS I already described the problems with the rooms so I will get into more general things here. The bathroom is divided into three areas, toilet with a sliding door and shower with another sliding door (yes door, NOT curtain!!) with the sink in between. Unless you are an elf or small child, you won't be closing the door to the toilet partition, so here's another tip. If you need that extra inch or two you can have the room attendant remove that door altogether. The wall will still be there, but you will bump your legs and elbows much less often. There is only one small shelf over the sink area and a small area for bottles and such in the shower. Bathroom storage space is at a premium. The liquid soap in the sink dispenser smelled of almonds and was wonderful. Unfortunately the shower gel and shampoo where no where near as delightful. I asked reception for a bar of soap and two oatmeal soap bars were delivered within minutes. The shower pressure is probably not as good as most home showers, but it was certainly adequate, and to be honest, not being molested every night by a shower curtain made me think if NCL decided to have monkeys tinkling out of the shower nozzle, I would overlook that as well, since just having a real shower door made me ignore every other bathroom issue. Here is a hint. If you are used to bath sheets at home, grab a clean pool towel each day to use after your shower. The room attendants (they work in pairs or groups as a team) were great. They were incredibly unobtrusive and efficient and on the rare occasions that we actually saw them, where genuine and sincerely interested in making sure they were doing their best to make our vacation enjoyable. We had fun seeing the towel animals every night as well. The balcony had a small table, a regular chair and a chair with a reclining back. There was ample room to move around with minimal shuffling of the furniture. It was too chilly to use the balcony the first and last nights, but all the other days it was comfortable. The bed...the bed...let me say the bed was incredibly inviting considering it was not my own. I loved how NCL used fluffy duvets instead of a top and bottom sheet and thin ugly blanket. It was very hard to leave that bed each morning...but of course we did for the FOOD I can't mention the food without mentioning the instant hand sanitizer stations. Anywhere that food could be served (even in the casino due to the late night snacks offered there) there were motion activated waterless soap stations. I can't remember hearing of any Norwalk scares involving NCL, and that is very much due to those sanitizers. (Even the kids club requires all children to use them on entering and leaving the area.) I already mentioned the lack of variety on the buffet. After the first few days, we stopped having lunch and concentrated on the breakfast buffet instead, since that ran till 11:30 on port days and noon on sea days. There was always a toast section and an omelet and waffle section. Besides the usual breakfast fare, there was other items like corned beef hash or blintzes to chose from. They alternated between offering French toast and pancakes, and even the flavor of pancakes varied. Bagels, cream cheese and lox where also available. Be aware that the lunch buffet does include a "New York" deli. It was New York in the sense that it did have pastrami, but the portion size of the meats that were served were not like in the Carnegi deli. Also, further down the deli buffet line fresh bacon was always available so you could make yourself a BLT. (Although, I did get quizzical looks from the staff each time I asked for toasted white with lettuce tomato and mayonnaise and nothing else.) There is also always a vegetarian buffet at lunch which was always a (pretty varied) selection of Indian food. Since we like Indian food we did try this on occasion, and although it was tasty, Carnival did better with this genre. The buffet desserts where hit and miss but there was an ample selection. There was little variety though. When not serving lunch or dinner, the Garden Cafe served afternoon snacks or late night snacks. From 3:00 till 5:30 they served what most lines call "tea." Small sandwiches, quiche, another hot dish and fresh baked scones with cream and current preserves where available. The scones where very good. You could always get fresh cookies and hot dogs and hamburgers in the Garden Cafe. The late night snacks were similar with the addition of an "Oriental soup area" which featured a staff member making ramen noodle soup with whatever you liked added to it. (The end of the veggie buffet line at lunch also offered this.) Fresh fruit was available at all times with meal times featuring a staff member carving melons and pineapple to order. We only ate dinner in the Garden Cafe once, and it was just okay. Walking by on other nights revealed that they basically had similar items to what the main restaurants where serving. Hot coffee, varied teas and Hot cocoa as well as ice water, (unsweetened) iced tea (Vanity brand concentrated if anyone wants to know, but I couldn't tell it wasn't fresh brewed), skim and regular milk are available at all times in the Garden Cafe. Breakfast time offers cranberry, grapefruit, orange and apple juice as well. Other less formal venues include the Pearly Kings pub which offered lunch or dinner-time fish and chips and occasional entrees such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or beef and kidney pie. They also have a popcorn machine and generally have fresh popcorn available at movie and show times. The Blue Lagoon is open twenty-four hours and provides waitress service of basic fast food type items. We ate lunch there on embarkation day, and at another time my Mom tried the Won Ton soup and enjoyed it. The Bimini Bar (all the way at the top of the bleacher type seating by the pool) offered hot dogs and hamburgers as well as tasty marinated grilled chicken breast. Then there were the BBQ's. When NCL says pool side BBQ, they mean BBQ in the true giant charcoal burning, Webber kettle BBQ grill type of way. In fact, there really is no need for the Bimini Bar's food, so it doesn't matter that it is so far from the pool. There was a BBQ on deck every day. On sea days, it was typically during lunch time, and on port days it was at sail away. There was always chicken, ribs, hamburgers and hot dogs, all quite tasty. They sometimes added other choices like sausage, and one day they were grilling mussels for a paella station. Caribbean night featured an additional BBQ during late night snacks that offered grilled steaks. They also had fresh fruit and chocolate fondue that night. I still dream of all that liquid chocolate The chocoholic buffet looked better than it tasted, but it was a good time to see the skills of the chefs decorating with food. Hard ice cream with varied sauces and toppings was basically available from noon till midnight. You could also purchase Hagen Dazz bars. The soft serve machine was still not in use during our cruise. Here's a tip. If you (or your child...or husband) must have chocolate milk, add some of the always available chocolate syrup by the ice cream station to your glass of milk. The room service menu was limited, but they will substitute available items if you ask. The one time we ordered, the food arrived quickly, was well presented and tasty. We did not eat in any of the restaurants that charged a cover, but I do want to mention that Bamboo offers an all you can eat Sushi dinner (and sometimes lunch) for only ten dollars. They have a conveyer belt, and you take what you like as it passes. People who are familiar with those types of restaurants from years ago in the city may enjoy that. The only alternative restaurant we tried was Salsa. We attempted to get a table without a reservation but they would only do that very early or very late. The food there was very, very good. The Sangria was good too, and they had pitchers ($25.00) of both red and white. Don't be scared off by the line in the menu that says "ask your server about the hot and cold tappas selection." These Spanish appetizers vary from night to night, and the server will bring you a plate of all the varieties for the table to share. They also offer a sampler plate including all the regular appetizers, so you don't need to choose just one. The food was as good or better than any Tex-Mex restaurant I have been to, and if the idea of that type of food scares you off, they even have meat loaf on the menu. We ate dinner at around 7:00 to 7:30 each night and ate in Aqua most nights. The first time we went there because there was a twenty minute wait at Impressions and the Venetian for our party of four. We did try the Venetian one night, but because of the location, motion and vibration is more pronounced in that area, so although the food was fine, we opted to not eat there again. We found that Impressions always had a wait of about twenty minutes at those times, and the one night we decided to wait for a table since we did want to try that restaurant, their estimate of twenty minutes took closer to forty. The food there was fine as well. Although a main reason we kept going back to Aqua was the lack of a wait, it was equally due to how much we enjoyed the wait staff there. Aqua is entirely staffed by women (actually that is a lie, there is one male in management), and the women who work there spoke to us about enjoying that. We found they worked well as a team and as with all the staff we encountered were genuine and willing to do whatever they could to make our meals pleasant. Aqua and Impressions are the only restaurants that share a galley. There was not one night where we didn't empty the bread basket of the special roll for the night and requested more. The European butter was so much better than what we have at home. There was always a varied selection of appetizers and soups with one type of special salad and a plain salad offered each night. The cold soups were usually great and on the nights that they were too different for my taste, I was still glad I did get to try them. The apple bisque was by far the best cold soup I have ever had. Dinner usually featured two fish or seafood selections, a pasta selection and a beef selection. I found it curious that poultry was not available on the menu most nights. In fact, in all eleven days it appeared once as duck and twice as chicken breast. (If you must have chicken, supreme of chicken breast is available every night, but I never tried that.) Turkey did appear often as an alternative selection in the "taste of section" usually as part of a pasta dish. I am usually a poultry eater, and while I did miss having a different chicken or game bird choice available each night like most cruise lines offer, I found the beef to be excellent every time I had it, and always cooked as I had ordered it. The vegetables and accompanying side dishes were obviously fresh and thought out, not just thrown together and pre-plated like many lines are doing these days. There was always a vegetarian entree, and on many occasions we ordered this or the pasta entree to share with the table. In general, those dishes were excellent as well. The only not so good meal in the dining room was Italian night. The menu finally had chicken (parmigiana) but the sauce was so bland and fake tasting that I didn't enjoy it. There was never a problem getting seconds (and thirds and fourths for some members of our party on lobster night) or getting a second entree. The desserts where pretty good in the dining room. Most nights I had to try more than one (or two or three). There was some sort of souffle each night except for the last night, and cherries jubilee and baked Alaska (the best I have had on a cruise so far) did make an appearance. Optional formal nights (first and third sea days) featured a petit four selection for the table, although these small pastries where not all that tasty. ACTIVITIES We didn't really go to many activities, but could see from the Freestyle Daily's that they were varied and offered throughout the day. We did watch some of the game show activities on TV after they took place, and they seemed amusing. Arts and crafts was available practically every day, but we only went once and the craft (flower combs) was really not that thrilling. There were many classes (some for an additional small fee) offered in the fitness center. Yoga, pilates, spin, etc., was often offered, and a plus to this compared to other lines is that there was usually a class offered in the afternoon or evening instead of just early mornings. The fitness center has a lot of equipment with many treadmills, bikes, (a whole separate spin studio) free weights, weight machines, elliptical trainers, etc. It is open twenty-four hours, so it's hard to come up with an excuse to not keep up your routine if you are used to going to the gym at home. I went one night and used the treadmill, but found it was difficult to stay balanced on it due to the movement of the ship. I did use the indoor lap pool, hydrotherapy pool and indoor hot tub in the spa, and they were great. CASINO There are nickel slots as well as the higher denomination slots, and the usual video screen slots. The casino was very smoky, but aren't they all. Some lines do have a non smoking section, but the casino seemed too small to accommodate that. NCL says their slots are certified 95% payouts. We generally broke even, but one member of our party did win on the quarter machines. ENTERTAINMENT So many people give the Jean Ann Ryan Company shows such high ratings, that I was excited to see what all the buzz was about. The first two shows left me wondering if I was missing something because I was just not so impressed. Three productions shows were offered. The first was Music of the Night, a tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber. It started out great with familiar show tunes that got the audience interested, but then seemed to fizzle out with songs from mostly unfamiliar musicals like Starlight Express and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The second production show was "South Beach Rave." All of us in my party had a hard time seeing the plot to this show which was basically a bunch of Latin tunes thrown together. I was awfully confused when they did an operatic version of Stings "Roxanne." For those first two shows, I felt that although the singing was technically accurate, it wasn't exceptionally pleasing. The dancing however was great. I also have to mention that my party was divided on opinion regarding the singing. Cruise lines show the same production shows generally for six or seven years before having new ones, due to the high cost of the sets and computer programs that run the lighting and effects. Based on the high school like sets and lack of any special effects for those first two shows, I was baffled as to where all that money for the production shows had gone. It obviously all went to the last show, "Bollywood." This show was phenomenal, and coming from a Disney cruise line addict, that is a true compliment. Do not miss this show. In fact, you may even want to see both showings of it. It features gymnastics, contortionists, belly dancing and even trapeze and rope dancing (similar to Cirque de Soile). What the cast was able to do despite the eight to twelve foot seas we were experiencing that night was amazing. I can't describe how much fun it was to watch this show, so just make sure you see it for yourself. We found that the shows on the alternative nights were quite good compared to other lines. The comedian (Dave Heenan) was consistently funny at all his shows as was the comedic magician (Ed Alonzo). The Juggler (Jeff Bradley) was pretty amusing, but the ventriloquist (Philip Hughes) seemed to do the same basic act that any other ventriloquist I have seen does. We did not go to two shows, a violinist show and a trumpet show. We did see the trumpet player at the last variety show, and he was very good. PORTS To my husband and I, a cruise is generally about the journey and not the ports, so I didn't go on any excursions, and he only went on the helmet dive in St. Thomas. (He loved it.) But since this was such an unusual itinerary, I have asked my Mom for her feedback about the ports since mine is limited to my getting off the ship and walking around a bit just to say I was there. I won't get into St. Thomas since most cruises go there. Antigua was a really pretty island but it was similar to other Caribbean islands with people chasing you around to try and get you to take their taxi or let them braid your hair. Mom says she found out that the sugar export they rely on hasn't been going as well as in the past, so they are trying to focus more on tourism and be more like St. Thomas. In Barbados you have to take a free shuttle around the boat basin to get to the port where there are the usual Diamonds International and Colombian Emerald shops. Mom says that if you plan to buy flowers in the port area, order them on the way to your excursion and pick them up on the way back to the ship, or all the pretty ones may be gone. They were reasonable, being only $1.00 for each exotic stem, and since Barbados is early in the trip, even though you can't bring them with you into NY, you can enjoy the flowers for most of the cruise. We did go to Grenada and were one of the first ships returning to the island after the hurricanes. The devastation was obvious with so many of the usual tiled roofs now consisting of blue tarps. Building damage was still apparent, and the pier was not able to be used causing us to tender. We could see that the island had been beautiful prior to all this devastation, so it was kind of sad. They do need tourists there to spend money. Sadder still is that the spice plants they relied on for export were destroyed and many varieties take many years to reestablish themselves. We did buy a bunch of straw baskets filled with different spices, especially nutmeg. Dominica was very pretty and unspoiled with the people of the island being very pleasant with an innocence not seen in all the other over visited ports. The guide on my Mom's tour had a lot of fun telling riddles on the ride back, and she did also say that this island relies on export of different agricultural crops, mainly to England. Tourism is a secondary money maker here, and the island is better off financially than most. Tortolla is another unspoiled island, and many people on our cruise were talking about wishing we had longer time in that port since we left at only 1:00. DISEMBARKATION We arrived in NY a half hour early, yet disembarkation didn't start until 10:15. We were joking that maybe it was because there was a very confused agriculture beagle wandering around customs dazed at smelling all the spices in everyone's luggage from Grenada. (BTW, the spices are legal to bring in.) We didn't check luggage so we just walked right off the ship as soon as the first group was called. NCL doesn't make mention of this being an option, but if you are able to pack light, you may want to try this. We were in our van on the way home by 10:30 ish. SUMMARY My husband is calling this the best cruise ever, and all four of us checked off "definitely" on the comment card question, "would you cruise NCL again." I was amazed at how much this cruise exceeded my expectations. The crew was certainly a big part of that. Everyone worked together, and you could tell they were friends, too. Management was very involved and highly visible, yet it was obvious that staff members were treated with respect and that everyone enjoyed doing their jobs. NCL says every employee uses a model in doing their jobs called "STYLE." It stands for "service, teamwork and 'yes' lead to excellence," and they are so on target with that and went out of their way to accomplish that goal. Freestyle cruising is a great thing, and that word is a great description of our cruise. It was laid back enough and free enough for us to really mellow out and relax yet exciting enough to keep my short attention span amused. Even without the unique itinerary, this would have been an A+++ cruise.