Dawn Princess Review (New Years sailing) w/comparisons to other cruise lines
We have finally returned from our much awaited Dawn Princess New Year's Cruise. We were a party of 6. My husband and I, late twenties, my best friend and her husband early thirties and my parents, in their sixties. It was the first time on Princess for all of us, having sailed RCL, Celebrity, Carnival, Norwegian and other now defunct cruise lines. I have never had a bad cruise, but I have found them to be (as I'd like to call it) different degrees of wonderful. I found my Princess and Norwegian cruises to be on the lower scale of wonderful and my Celebrity, RCL and Carnival cruises to be on the higher scale of wonderful. This was my ninth cruise. People always ask what my favorite cruise line is. I honestly don't have one. I think there is value in sailing a variety of lines. They each have their strengths and weaknesses but they all offer a good cruise. I am also asked to compare cruise lines, so I ranked the various lines by category. Of course this is only my opinion, take it for what it is worth. 
Embarkation- I thought embarkation was best on Princess. We arrived to the terminal about 11:00 am. There were already about 100 people on line. They started letting us about 20-30 minutes later. The entire embarkation process took only about 20 minutes. Definitely faster than other lines I have sailed. I seem to remember filling out endless forms before being allowed to board, but on Princess I essentially gave my credit card info, showed ID, received my card and was aboard. Snaps to them for the way they handled embarkation.
1-Princess 2-RCL/Celebrity 3-Carnival/Norwegian
Food- (Dining Room and Buffet) I was most disappointed here. Don't get me wrong the food was good, I had just heard so many raves about how much better the food was on Princess than other lines, that I was expecting far more. I just didn't find that to be the case. Princess food at best was equal to Carnival and RCL and beneath Celebrity.
1- Celebrity 2- RCL/Princess/Carnival 3- Norwegian
I did like Personal Choice Dining. (I had also had this on Norwegian) Personally, I think it is great to be able to choose your dinner time every night. If you return from port late, no need to rush to dinner, you can go at any time. This was definitely a Princess plus. If you ate before 6:30-7 there was no line, however, after those times there was often a wait to get a table. Sometimes it was about 30 minutes or so. There were times when I missed dining with other people as we pretty much ate with the group that we traveled with. However, I was still very satisfied with Personal Choice.
Princess pizza is OUTSTANDING. I prefer it to all the other cruise lines. I went out of my way to try and have pizza daily. As far as the buffets are concerned, I felt Carnival had the best variety followed by RCL. There seemed to be much more of a selection than I found on Princess. I also think Carnival has better hamburgers/hot dogs. A note about the beverage selection, I found Princess to be very disappointing in this area. There was only Orange/Grapefruit juice available for breakfast and tea and water at other meals. I knew this beforehand so we packed 2 dozen Tropicana Twisters. Still, this was a definite negative IMO. We normally drink Kool-Aid, Fruit Punch, Lemonade etc with meals so we missed the availability of nonalcoholic beverages.
Sterling Steakhouse- I'm probably going to get flamed for what I'm about to say next. That's fine! I'm entitled to my opinion. (Donning flame retardant suit) This is probably the first specialty dining restaurant I've passed on in years. We had planned to go until we arrived on board. I didn't realize that the Sterling Steakhouse was inside the casual eating-Horizon Court buffet. You actually paid to eat a few tables away from those dining in the buffet. It wasn't even walled or portioned off. They just sectioned the Sterling section off using a rope and a sign. One of the first nights on board I actually wondered into that section by accident while I was looking for a table. Aside from the addition of a candle, I saw NO difference between the ambiance of the buffet and the supposed 5 star dining experience of the Sterling Steakhouse. Granted, the food may have been extraordinary. I just couldn't see paying for a more upscale dining experience while eating next to a family in their swimsuits and wraps. We were so disappointed we didn't even book.
Overall Service aboard the Dawn was good. I feel Celebrity still offers the best service (as far as mainstream lines are concerned). On Princess we had a few outstanding service experiences, such as the manager who left the Horizon Court and searched for 15 minutes in several other galleys to find some Green tea for me. There were also some "miss" experiences like when one of our table members wanted to order a second dinner item from the menu. He requested to see the menu again to determine what he wanted. The waitress refused and said there is already one of every item on this table. She told him to choose from what he saw.
Activities -I found Princess to be lacking in this area. We found ourselves thinking that had we not sailed together we would have been bored at times. At first I thought maybe it was just the age differential, but my parents (very active seniors) were often bored along with us. The shows left much to be desired; the game room (not card room) was small and had a limited selection. Fortunately we had brought a few board games with us and found others in the card room. (The card room was well equipped) We had board game nights daily to entertain ourselves once the ship died. The night life is also very slow. We were typically up until 2-3 am most nights. The ship was nearly empty after midnight, so was the club with the exception of a few die-hards. I knew Princess was going to be a little slower in that department, I had done my research prior to setting sail. However, it is important to mention for other active types who might be reading this. This is not the "Fun Ship". In fairness to Princess, some of it could just be our sailing. Games and activities are only as exciting as the people and personalities who take part in them. The shows were usually packed but some of the other activities had low attendance. They had most of the typical cruise activities "Love and Marriage" "Pool Olympics", I even took a dance class. It was okay, something to do, it just wasn't memorable fun. Oh yeah, the ventriloquist act was very good and so was the calypso band by the pool.
One advantage that I did think Princess had was in the number of classes offered. I saw so many classes for Ceramics, Photography, Computers, from Photoshop to basic Microsoft Office software. I can't remember being aboard any other ship that offered such a wide variety of classes.
It's hard to compare cabins in some respects. The last cruise on RCL Serenade of the Seas we had a balcony suite. This time we had an inside cabin. Obvious differences exist between the two that cannot be attributed to the cruise line. I can say that the showers were definitely larger on the Dawn. However, they had those, yucky, cloth, stick-to-you shower curtains whereas RCL has doors. The storage advantage goes to the Dawn Princess also. We had more drawers/cabinets than ever. There were smaller TV's on Princess, a huge disappointment to for my husband who likes to watch football on a big screen. (Note there is also no "sports lounge" area on this ship. My husband had to beg the night club to change the channel to football.) As far as cabin décor is concerned, I preferred the RCL and Celebrity to Princess and Carnival and Norwegian.
1-RCL/Celebrity 2-Princess/Carnival 3- Norwegian
Spas/Pools/Hot tubs- Princess did have the edge in this area. I loved the freshwater pools, didn't miss the salt at all. They were also open longer. I liked the fact that they didn't close at 10:00pm. I think as far as appearance is concerned RCL's Solarium pools/hot tubs are the most attractive.
1-Princess 2-RCL/Celebrity 3-Carnival/Norwegian
This probably doesn't matter to most people. It does to me. Maybe because one of my hobbies is interior decorating, I don't know. Prior to our sailing on the Dawn I read a review that described the Dawn Princess as lacking the "Wow factor". I see exactly what the reviewer meant. The public spaces were nice, clean, well maintained but there was no "wow factor". On previous ships I would take 50-80 shots of rooms around the ship, sculpture etc. This time I took about 15 shots. I'm partial to the contemporary, elegantly styled Celebrity ships. RCL's newer ships are definitely a close second. Carnival may be bright and sometimes gaudy, but at least their wild combinations provide a little interest.
1-Celebrity 2-RCL 3-Carnival 4-Norwegian/Princess
Fitness facilities- Satisfactory. My husband and I are health club regulars. We found that they had all the gym basics but we weren't nearly as pleased with the variety of the equipment as we were on RCL and Carnival. They did have Yoga, Pilates and Spin classes, however, many booked up for the entire sailing early on.
1-RCL 2-Carnival 3-Celebrity/Princess/Norwegian
Disembarkation- We were maybe the third or fourth color called and we didn't debark until around 10:30. I think that was the latest we had ever debarked. It went off without any hassles though. Some of our luggage wasn't with our color grouping but we found it without too much trouble. The hassle began when it came time to get a cab (no fault of Princess). Apparently 9 ships were in port that day. It was an awful mess. We waited nearly two hours to get a cab, because there were so few relative to the number of cruisers debarking. I found myself wishing we had either taken an excursion that day or waited onboard until the last color was called. The parking lot was a nightmare.
Ports of Call
Curacao- This was my second time visiting this port. We had planned to go horseback riding out at Christoffel National Park. I called prior to the cruise to see whether the park was opened on Sunday and I was told it was. However, I did not specify whether the stables were open on Sunday's, they weren't. Fortunately we called before we paid the $80 dollars the cab driver wanted to take us there. When we found it was closed, we took a city tour ($15pp). After the 2 hour tour we browsed around in some of the shops. A great number of them closed early because it was Sunday. I don't know how much control Princess has over the times we dock, but I felt sorry for the first time Curacao visitors. Many of the shops were closed, we found a limited number of things to do within walking distance of the ship.
Barbados- We hired a cab in this port. We wanted to go to Harrison's caves and tour the East Cost/Bathesheba/Soup Bowl area. Initially cab drivers cave us a variety of prices ranging from $75 per cab to $120 per cab. So, by all means don't accept the first price offered. We really enjoyed this port. Harrison's caves were very nice. It got a little crowded as we were leaving, so try and beat the ship tours. The East Coast area was absolutely beautiful. Afterwards we found some great art stores. Specifically, the Pelican Centre/Complex. If you are an art/sculpture collector, this is a great place for you.
Dominica - This was our only ship tour. It was awesome. We saw several whales and schools of dolphins. I got some incredible shots. It was definitely well worth the money. Afterwards we walked around and explored some of the downtown areas shops.
St Thomas- We arranged our own Kayak tour through Virgin Island Ecotours. $50pp The ship offered the same exact tour for $80 pp. Ironically, we were on the tour with many people who had booked directly with the ship. It was awesome also. We kayaked through the lagoon (a protected marine sanctuary) about a mile and then most of the group went snorkeling for about an hour. Finally we made the return trip. I don't snorkel but my husband and friends were very pleased with the variety of marine life they saw.
Overall it was a great cruise. For us it got off to a very bad start. We didn't find out about the engine problems until after we paid for this cruise. Even still, I wasn't particularly worried because we knew the ship was going into drydock. We thought the problems would be resolved by our sailing. I don't know if it was or not, what I do know is that our itinerary was still severely impacted, just as those before the drydock. We weren't very concerned when they cancelled Princess Cays, however, Venezuela was one of the primary reasons for selecting this itinerary over the Celebrity Horizon. Also key was Dominica. When they shortened our port time there we were unable to do the 7 hour Boiling Lake hike that had we planned. That was also a deal breaker for us.
I tried to talk to other passengers to get different perspectives of how their cruises were going. I got very mixed reviews. There were some repeat Princess passengers that were very disappointed and said never again on Princess. Then there were others who encouraged us to try one of the newer Princess ships before we really made up our minds. As far as our group was concerned, the majority said this was their first and last cruise on Princess. Although everybody had a nice time, their interests were better matched to other lines. Personally, Princess wouldn't be my first or second choice, but I might sail them again if I there was great itinerary or price.