A bit about me: I've become an avid cruiser, and this was my 19th cruise since I started in 2007. This was my 6th time on NCL. (And the title of this review refers to the very stressful time at work right before I took this trip!)
DAY 1 -- BOSTON
I arrived into Boston the night before the cruise and stayed at the Westin Waterfront, which is only a half-mile from the Cruiseport Boston terminal. It's a very nice hotel, adjacent to the convention center, although there's nothing else in the immediate area.
I walked to the cruise terminal where I met up with Jake, my buddy for the cruise. Jake has Platinum status on NCL, and we were immediately directed to an available agent to check in. It was 11:15 am and embarkation had not yet begun, so we were assigned to boarding group #1 (due to the Platinum status). Boarding started about 30 minutes later. Cruiseport Boston was recently renovated and it's a pleasant place to start a vacation.
Jake and I sailed the Dawn on an 11-night Caribbean cruise in January, so we were quite familiar with the ship. Although it's a bit older than the fancier ships of late, it was recently refurbished and it is very well maintained; plus it has all of the features you'd expect of a modern cruise ship. We headed to the very ornate Venetian dining room for lunch, which is the nicer of the two main dining areas. (The other one, Aqua, sadly has the bland decor of a Denny's with tile mosaics scattered along the walls.) It seemed that most passengers headed up to the Garden Cafe buffet for lunch, as the Venetian only had a handful of diners. The lunch menu had a wide range of options, from salads and sandwiches to hearty entrees. I had an appetizer of calamari followed by a NY strip steak.
An announcement was made at 1 pm that the cabins were now available, an hour earlier than what was originally stated. We had an oceanview cabin (5630) with a picture window. (The cabins on Deck 4 have porthole windows.) Everything in the room was in order, and we had no issues throughout the week. Our friendly stateroom attendant Owen (who always greeted us by name!) kept everything in excellent condition.
Since our bags were tagged with Platinum priority tags, they were delivered within the next hour, and we were completely unpacked before the 3:15 safety drill. It was a warm, sunny day in Boston, so our sail out was especially nice as we passed by Logan Airport and the harbor islands.
Jake and I took advantage of a dining offer that NCL had recently introduced: pre-book reservations online for Cagney's, Le Bistro and La Cucina, and save $8 per person. In addition, we had a coupon printed off of NCL's Facebook page that offered a free bottle of wine in any specialty restaurant on the first night of your cruise. Tonight's dinner was in Le Bistro. I recalled the excellent meal I had here in January, and despite my understanding that I should try something new, I ended up ordering the same items: "Les Quatre Cornets" (salad-filled mini waffle cones), escargot and "Duo de Canard" (duck breast and duck confit). All were delicious!
We went to the Star Bar for the nightly "GLBT Informal Gathering" and met several other passengers. Later we went to the Spinnaker Lounge, where the "celebrity DJ" was spinning. In January, the celebrity DJ was awful -- but this time, it was DJ Suga Ray, and not only did he spin a great set of music, he was also very friendly. DJ Keith, Dawn's resident DJ, was also back since we saw him in January, and he remembered us. Between the two of them, we knew we were in for some great music this week!
Another familiar face was Liga who works in the Dawn's photo department. This was Jake's third time sailing with her, and my second. She was able to hang out with us several nights in Spinnaker. We also chatted with Paul Scally, the Cruise Director. This was my third time sailing with Paul Scally -- the first time was on my first NCL cruise on the Pearl, when Paul was the assistant CD; and the second time was on the Spirit. Something I really enjoy about NCL is the loyalty of its staff and crew, and being able to see them again on future cruises!
DAY 2 -- AT SEA
A nice, sunny day at sea. We had breakfast in the Venetian, which had an extensive breakfast menu. Then Jake hosted the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet in the Star Bar, where the captain and the entire senior staff showed up and introduced themselves. (NCL staff always makes a strong showing at the Cruise Critic gatherings!) Afterwards we did a fun cabin crawl / poker game. The highlight was seeing one of the Owner's Suites, which was a sprawling 721-square-foot suite with a large living room, a dining alcove, a bedroom, a large bathroom, a dressing area and two balconies. (Sigh...some day...)
Another highlight of the day was the martini tasting at Gatsby's, for which I joined a few other Cruise Critic passengers. I actually didn't know how much it cost when I sat down and handed over my key card. There were about 40 participants, and the event was hosted by one of the bar managers who described each of the five martinis. They were very sizeable portions, and by the end I was feeling quite happy! And when the bill came, I was pleasantly surprised: the tasting was only $15!
Following an early dinner at Venetian, we saw the first full production show: Band on the Run. This is an energetic song and dance show featuring disco and classic rock music. The production cast included two male and two female singers, and unfortunately they were not very good. One male singer, a blond-haired young man with incredible abs, was clearly cast for his looks and not his singing ability. But the excellent dancers and the show band compensated for the singing -- in fact, the musicians sometimes drowned out the singers, which wasn't a bad thing at all...
After the show, we went to the GLBT gathering in the Star Bar. About ten of us were sitting in a group near four other passengers who had obviously been drinking quite a bit. As we chatted, we kept noticing them staring at us and making somewhat loud, homophobic comments. One member of our group was a police officer who had earlier met the Dawn's head of security. He excused himself and contacted security -- in no time at all, two security officers were there and made their presence known to the drunk, rude passengers. They left shortly thereafter. It was a wonderful response from the Dawn's security team!!
DAY 3 -- BERMUDA (1st Day)
This day started earlier than anyone on board had expected -- an announcement came over the speakers through all passenger cabins at 5:00 in the morning: a teenager was missing and the staff was trying to locate him. A second announcement came about 15 minutes later. I had trouble falling back asleep as I was dreading the next step: making everyone muster so that the crew could do a head count and sweep the ship, in case the kid had jumped/fallen overboard. (Thankfully, that was not the case. We later heard that he was found in another passenger cabin.)
Due to the restless night, I decided to sleep in instead of getting up to watch our arrival into Bermuda. When I woke up, we were already docked. We had lunch in the Venetian where we got to see Dewi, one of our favorite servers from the January cruise! (Also working today was another favorite server, Michael.)
After lunch, we got off the ship and explored the Royal Naval Dockyard area. I had been to Hamilton once for only one day, so the rest of Bermuda was new to me. This area is a combination of historical sites and shopping; the dominating feature is the Bermuda Maritime Museum which exists within an old fort. Also here are several restaurants/bars, a glassblowing studio, a mall, several specialty shops and a large pharmacy with a lunch/coffee counter. You can also catch buses and ferries to other places in Bermuda; however, since today was Sunday and the next day was a public holiday, transit services were running on a limited schedule.
Tonight's show was Duo Volgyi, two American aerial acrobats. While their routines were excellent, the overall show needed some polishing: my recommendation would be to scrap the video segments and instead take advantage of the live show band to entertain the audience during the costume changes.
Late dinner at Moderno, a Brazilian-style steakhouse where they keep serving you meat until you flip a card from green to red. Everything served was tasty with the exception of the garlic beef (it was dry). We stuffed ourselves! But then we went to Spinnaker's and danced it all off.
DAY 4 -- BERMUDA (2nd Day)
We slept in after last night's revelry, then met up with Liga and took a taxi to Horseshoe Bay. (Because the buses were running on a limited holiday schedule, we decided to use taxis today. Cost was about $33 each way.) Horseshoe Bay has a long and wide arcing beach, with restrooms/services at one end. It was very pretty, but the surf was unusually rough due to a tropical storm located to our south. We found an alcove just east of the bay which provided some shelter from the pounding surf, and enjoyed the warm water and pink sands.
After an early dinner in Venetian and the Signature Chocoholic Buffet in the Garden Cafe, we left the ship and checked out the Harbour Night festival which is held every Monday night in the summer. Vendors set up their tables by the harbor, and a stage hosts live entertainment from local groups and the performers from the docked ships. (RCCL's Enchantment of the Seas was also docked here tonight.) On most other cruises it's very unusual for a ship to be docked overnight, so it was nice to have opportunities to do shoreside activities at night and not have to worry about being back in time for a sailaway.
Back on board, we saw Extreme Vegas, a high-energy illusionist and acrobatic show performed by a married duo: Justino and Daniela Zoppe. The show was fantastic, and the illusions kept you scratching your head wondering how they were done. And something you never see on a cruise ship: the final act involved fire! Real, actual, burning hot fire!
We knew that many of the ship's crew go out on Monday nights to the nearby Snorkel Park beach club, so we met up with Liga and joined them. The crowd was fun and the music was loud -- a great time was had by all! I left the party a little early so that I could get some rest before tomorrow's adventure.
DAY 5 -- BERMUDA (3rd Day)
After a quick breakfast in the Garden Cafe, I took the nonstop ferry to St. George. After disembarking the ferry, I was passing by a man dressed in colonial attire when a woman pulled up in a car and asked him, "Are the ferries running today?" He replied (in perfect character), "Madam, fairies don't run -- they FLY!"
Armed with a walking tour from a guidebook, I explored the town's sights: the recreation of the ship Deliverance, St. Peter's church, Somers Garden, etc. A highlight was seeing a daily re-enactment of the "dunking of the town gossip" -- amusing yet also somewhat disturbing. After returning to the ship, there was a lively scene on the pier with DJ Keith spinning and the activities and housekeeping staffs dancing as passengers returned. We left Bermuda at 5:30 for a lovely sail through the channel.
After a nap, we went to the Star Bar to hang out with new friends, followed by a late dinner at the Venetian -- prime rib night, very tasty. I watched the very funny and entertaining Dancing with the Dawn Stars in Spinnaker, then went to sleep at 12:30 am -- the earliest time yet on this trip!
DAY 6 -- AT SEA
A very nice day at sea today. After breakfast, we watched the Q&A with Captain Paul, Chief Engineer Patrick and Hotel Director Les. (Les is retired from NCL after many years of service, but occasionally fills in for vacationing hotel directors.) I appreciated their enthusiasm during the Q&A, because I'm sure they're asked the same questions week after week.
A very relaxing afternoon followed, and the only activity we participated in was the Latitudes appreciation reception in the Stardust Theater. While we sipped complimentary drinks, the future cruise consultant showed a short promo video about NCL's next ship, Breakaway, and gave out some raffle prizes.
We stuffed ourselves for dinner at Cagney's, NCL's steakhouse restaurant. I started with crab cakes, forgetting that I didn't care for them on the last cruise because they had too much breading filler. But the delicious clam chowder, 16 oz. T-bone steak and espresso nut brownie with macadamia ice cream saved the meal!
Tonight's main show was the "V" or variety show. In this show, the opening and closing numbers are pre-produced, but the singers and dancers decide on their own acts for the bulk of the show. While this setup should have highlighted the singers' talents, it seemed to exploit their weaknesses instead. The beautiful blond haired singer with the rock-hard abs continued to disappoint. The show was balanced out by good dancing and aerial acrobatics.
Cruise Director Paul Scalley's origins are in stand-up comedy in London, and he did a late-night comedy show. I've been on 18 previous cruises and have heard a lot of cruise ship-based humor, but none of it compared to Paul's riotous observations and good-natured ribbing about ourselves at sea. The packed house loved every minute of it.
And tonight was the White Hot Party in Spinnakers! It was the largest turnout I've seen for this party on an NCL ship. DJ Suga Ray kept the music going with selections that were well-suited for the younger, Boston-based crowd. DJ Keith took over at 1:30 am and the party was still going strong when I left an hour later.
DAY 7 -- AT SEA
Today was a recovery day from last night's revelry, and I slept in until noon. (Just as well, as the weather was cloudy with showers in the morning. The sun returned in the afternoon.) After I grabbed a bite at the Garden Cafe, I went to the International Crew Talent Show. The show featured several soloists and a few dance numbers. (It's sad when a member of the ship's kitchen staff is a far better singer than anyone on the production cast.) The show ended with Fountains, a comic routine that involves the cruise activities staff dressed in togas spitting water on each other... (It's actually very funny!)
Tonight's dinner was in La Cucina, NCL's Italian restaurant. Coming from an Italian family, I am very picky about Italian food. (You'll never see me eating at an Olive Garden!) And I'm happy that La Cucina always exceeds my expectations for a cruise ship Italian restaurant -- in this case, focaccia bread served with olive oil, pasta e fagioli, tomato and fresh mozzarella salad, and seafood fettuccine were all very good.
The final production show of the cruise was Bollywood, an Indian-culture-themed performance that consisted of a love triangle and a battle of good-vs-evil. I was a bit lukewarm about the show when I saw it in January, so I was very delighted to see that the entire show has been revamped since then! The new show cut out most of the singing (with this cast, thank goodness!) and relied on the strengths of the dancers and acrobats to keep the audience entertained. It was a very refreshing reinvention of the show! Following the show was the staff and crew farewell, which allowed all of us the opportunity to give a well-deserved standing ovation to them!
We caught the "adults only" Second City improv show in Spinnaker, after passing on their show earlier during the cruise. (We did hear that they're still doing the same comedy sketches that they've been leaning on for years.) Improv comedy can be hit or miss, but on this night they did a pretty good job. Following this was the Quest adult game show, and I gotta say that it was the raunchiest one I've ever seen! I won't go into details, but no one was spared. In fact, after the show I overheard some passengers who had played talking about it, and one young gentleman joked, "I just did some things that I've never done before, and I want to go to the farthest corner of this ship and crawl into a fetal position." But for those of us who were not playing, it was very entertaining. Bravo.
We had breakfast in the Venetian, which does a limited breakfast menu on the last morning. Then we collected our carry-on bags from the cabin (we had put out our checked bags in the hall the night before) and hung out in the Star Bar. Since Jake is local and I was staying in Boston for an extra day, we were in no rush to get off the ship. Once the last group was called to disembark, we made our way down to the atrium and said our last goodbyes to some of the fantastic staff and crew we met this week. A funny moment ensued when we entered the terminal and our two checked bags were sitting all by themselves, as we were among the last passengers to leave the ship!
SUMMING IT UP
In my review of the Dawn in January, I gave it five stars overall. While I really enjoyed the cruise and the experience this time around, I'm going to knock off a star only because I still see room for improvement. NCL has a great product, but there are some recurring weaknesses that I think they can address:
There are still too many broadcasts over the PA system advertising revenue-generating activities. I know this revenue is important to the success of the company, but give your passengers some credit -- we know how to read the newsletter. Or find different ways to target your audience without annoying the entire ship with minutes-long commercials over the loudspeakers. Based on what I've heard from other NCL passengers, this is probably their #1 complaint.
And #2 would be the main dining rooms. The cuisine could use some upgrades. While the specialty restaurants are very good (and of course revenue-generating), you should concentrate on encouraging/enticing your customers to eat there, instead of forcing them to eat there...
A few smaller issues:
Consider offering a separate beach towel (of better quality than the pool towel) to guests for going ashore. (Some other lines do this.)
You still have those do-not-steal hangers in the closets. I hope you don't put these on Breakaway. We can be trusted with regular hangers.
Can you add CNN to the television offerings? Getting all of my news from only Fox News and MSNBC for an entire week has made me a raving left- AND right-winger. I need some balance between the two ends of the political spectrum.
But overall...thank you for another amazing vacation! As I've said before, your staff and crew are your strongest resources. Keep them happy, and they will keep us happy!