My husband and I sailed on the Dawn as our 26th cruise. We have cruised the Mediterranean, Baltic, Caribbean, Alaska, and Asia on Carnival (1), Disney (1), Princess, Royal Caribbean, NCL (4), and Celebrity. We have also traveled widely throughout Europe and Japan, so you can judge that we are experienced cruisers and travelers in general.
Demographic: In terms of this cruise: me. 65, reasonably mobile, and chubby. There were a handful of children on board, some truly ancient people, quite a few elderly running along a continuum of disability, and a few dozen younger adults, but for the most part, the average person on this voyage was my age and shape. This, of course, influenced the dress and behavioral norms on the cruise. Yes, I did see the odd person with fuchsia hair or orange hair and the odd drunk, but for the most part dress and behavior was conservative.
Embarkation: It seemed to take forever, but it actually involved an hour's wait. We got there about 12:30 and were on board shortly after 1:30. NCL handled the volume of people well, with those who were waiting seated in rows of chairs and called by row. Of course, there were people who cheated, seating themselves in areas that they should not yet have been in or entirely skipped the rows of chairs and directly got in the last line for check-in, but most everyone was orderly and considerate.
Food: I would give A's to the breakfast and lunch buffets. The breakfast buffet had all the major players including omelets, and the food-- even the potatoes-- was warm. We always ate when the buffet opened, as we are early risers and there were few people around then. One of NCL's strong suits is its breads and rolls, and they were good at all meals. Lunch was fantastic. I could not believe how many choices we had. The possibilities boggled the mind. You could eat in the Blue Lagoon (which used to be better), Bimini Grill, pool grill or you could have a regular hot lunch, pasta, pizza, wok food, Indian food, hot dogs and hamburgers and chicken kebobs, even barbecue. It was the best lunch buffet I have ever seen.
That said, I do prefer the food station arrangement over a single line. There are always those who appear to have died standing up in the food line so motionless are they. In a few cases I felt like grabbing the spoon and putting food on their plates willy nilly, just to move them along! There were also the people who walked over to the children's eating area and removed full plates of cookies out from under the "for kids" sign. Somewhere on the Dawn there were cookie-less children.
I also have to say that I was happy to see skim and regular milk and half and half offered at every meal in the buffet as well as the usual lemonade and ice tea but also two flavored waters. Apparently, the flavored water was a big hit, as I saw one woman filling up a half gallon jug-- yes, a half gallon jug-- every day-- much to the chagrin of a grimacing waiter.
The only change I would make at the buffets is that I would drop the girl who yells, "Washie, Washie, Happy, Happy," over the side of the ship. Is there anyone not annoyed at that expostulation yelled in a terminally perky manner at 6:30 in the morning?
Now we come to dinner. It was usually not inedible. The only time it was inedible was when I was rash enough to order the Kung Pao chicken breast with (3) peanuts and fruity sauce. What I got was a pressed mass of chicken shaped like a breast but which did not look like chicken meat and did not flake like chicken meat. The texture was disgusting. Now, chicken technology has been mastered by KFC, by Cracker Barrel, by Long John Silver's, and they don't have head chefs in all their outlets, so what's up with this? I felt like hunting down the guy they introduced on the first night of the cruise as being responsible for our food and forcing him to eat that Kung Pao travesty. I had steaks in Aqua and in the Venetian. They were so thin as to be very nearly transparent, but they weren't inedible. They were just flavorless. A bottle of Worcestershire, of A-1, or a marinade would help. Ditto on the pot roast but it was saved by gravy. The turkey was turkey roll, a beast that does not exist in nature. No cranberry sauce was served although it was served the next day on the buffet where they carved a real turkey breast. Did the sauce refuse to accompany the turkey roll and hold out for the real McCoy? No shrimp cocktail was ever offered. Lobster was served the first night. Lobster tail. A small lobster tail. My husband tried the snapper and said it was ok. The French onion soup was missing both cheese and onions. Maybe there were two spoonsful of chopped onions, but the soup was mostly broth a quarter of an onion walked through with a small slice of rye bread.
Yes, I could have eaten in the premium restaurants for dinner, but I do not eat there because I disapprove on principle of premium restaurants on ships. They have led to the so very mediocre meals we are served at dinner in the dining rooms today. The cruise lines want to force us into the premium lines by giving us pressed chicken breasts. You go! I won't.
The Aqua is the smaller restaurant. I don't know why it was named thus when there seemed to be a lot more red than aqua in the room, but --. The Venetian is the very large restaurant with gorgeous hand-blown Venetian glass feather chandeliers. Just lovely. Not as attractive as the equivalent restaurants with the Romanov or Hawaiian themes, though, in my opinion. Service seemed much faster in the Venetian than the Aqua.
Desserts were very average overall, the high point being the flourless chocolate cake, my personal favorite, and the nadir being some of the reputed mousses which lacked the very texture of a genuine mousse, resembling instead foamy aftershave.
The Ship: Is just like the other NCL ships we've been on what with certain elevators not going to certain floors, needing to go to one floor to walk down a staircase to get into a restaurant on a different floor, needing to enter the internet room by going down one floor and walking up another. I'm thinking NCL did not want to pay for a new blueprint and has used the same one over and over.
These ships are chopped up into small areas. The atrium was packed every time someone was singing in there. You had to sit up on other decks and look down or line the staircases, etc. I think the effect they are going for is cozy but it's just uncomfortable. There were people standing five and six deep behind the lounge in the atrium watching a show. They were told twice that chairs were on their way, but they never made it.
And while I am on the subject of chairs, I would like to say something about the chairs I encountered on this ship. I did not sit in all of them. I was going to walk around the last day at sea, on a quest to find a comfortable chair, but I took a nap instead. So bear with me and forgive me if I missed a haven of comfort hidden on the ship, but as far as my experience goes, the chairs on this ship were not made for American behinds, and it is mostly American behinds floating around out there on the NCL ships.
Take the chairs in the buffet. They are ice cream chairs. Little round seats on little wickery legs. They didn't look as if they would support half the people on the ship. Ditto on the bar seats. I saw a man who must have weighed 300 pounds haul himself up on one of those, and I held my breath. He didn't stay long though. He must have realized he was in peril.
Then there are the silver vinyl internet chairs. Narrow, teetering, easy to topple much like the high, narrow stools in the mini-suites which I nearly rolled off of three times. The chairs in the Stardust Theater are just dreadful. Narrow as heck, they slope down, so that you have to keep scrunching up to stay in your seat. High arms, too, and no place to put a drink. The chairs in the Spinnaker are an improvement but still were not wide enough to welcome half the behinds on the ship. I did think the chairs in the Venetian were excellent: wide, sturdy, velvety. Who could ask for anything more?
The stores were perhaps a little better stocked than on most ships, but the prices were set for Donald Trump, not Jane Doe. $12 for a extra large Cadbury bar. On the last day they brought out good quality tee-shirts marking each port and the ports as a whole. They were reasonably priced at $17, buy 2, get one free. When I got home, I washed and dried them. They shrank somewhat but not terribly.
Cabin: We were in a mini-suite, cabin 11122. It is not huge, of course, All cabins on NCL seem smaller to me than those on other lines. That's why we get a mini-suite when we go on NCL. Plenty of storage. A coffee maker and fridge. Bathtub. One of those partitioned bathrooms with the toilet behind a screen that must make it hard for some larger sized people to enter the area.
The first night we came back from the shows and found our room had not been made up. Even more, the steward was still halfway down the hall! It was then 9:30. I wondered just how long it would take him to get to us, so I went to him and got ice and a schedule and called it a deal. This is the first time in 26 cruises that our room had not been made by the time we got back from dinner, much less shows. The second day he arrived to make up our room shortly after noon; the third day, shortly after 1; the second day-- seeing a trend here?-- it was 2:30. I was beginning to wonder if the two room cleanings were to be merged, if he were going to make up the bed, leave the room, re-enter and turn down the bed.
We told the steward that we hoped he could get to our room by 8:00 p.m., and he did. But how can it take from 8 a.m. when he started cleaning until 3:30 to get 13 rooms cleaned? What was he doing all that time? He did keep our room clean and gave us ice most of the time. He filled our requests for an additional pillow and additional towel. He just wasn't up to par with the other room stewards we have had. In his defense, he seemed mentally slow, so perhaps that accounts for it.
The bed I found most uncomfortable. It was very, very hard. And the pillow situation was bad. There were two mega-pillows, big square pillows, that were of no use for sleeping. The pillow would have been as far down as your waist had you tried to sleep with it. And there were two very thin, very, very thin other pillows that raised your head maybe Â½ inch from the mattress.
Entertainment: NCL really gets its use out of its performers. I think for the most part the entertainment was good or very good. Jose and Patti seem to know every song known to man and are very popular. I enjoyed them the first couple times, then Jose's very bad impersonation of Neil Diamond started to get to us, and we skipped Neil Diamond night. Him doing Neil for every song would have sent us round the bend. Here's the thing: they performed 18 times in 6 days. Ditto for Jump, another musical group with good voices and pleasant personalities. 18 times! And they did not know as many songs by far. I did not care for the piano player who tickled the ivories from 4-8. That's a lot of tickling. I thought his voice was decent; I just didn't care for his style.
The production shows that I saw were very good. I didn't go to Bollywood, having heard bad stuff about it from cruisecritic members. I don't really like circuses anyway. The best of the production shows was Band on the Run. I liked the songs and the energy very much. All four of the main singers were very good. The male dancers were much better than they usually are on ships.
Now we come to the worst of the entertainment. NCL did not include individual comedians who I generally like. Instead they have the very sophomoric group, Second City, whose members think they are hysterically funny. Everything they did was dumb. It was not funny; it was annoying. Like watching a class clown who thinks he's a hoot missing the mark entirely. Ditch them! People did laugh, but it was later in the evening and the liquor had been flowing. I am sure they sounded at their best if you were drunk.
Shore Excursions: We took the Calypso Tram around Belize. It was an hour long and was okay. Nothing great, but then, I did not expect it to be. We then went to the craft market directly across from the entrance to the tourism village. I would encourage you to buy there the same things you will see in the tourism village. The latter will not benefit the locals. Yes, you will have to put up with vendors but so what? The people of Belize are terribly poor. Give them a break. They can't compete with the cruise lines. I also encourage you to try Moho chocolate with lime juice and chunky salt.
We also took the Salsa and Salsa excursion in Cozumel. It would be great for a girls' night out. Be aware that although it sounds like you practically get lunch, you get very little food other than tortilla chips and the salsas you make, some of which you won't like. Other than that, each couple gets 2 tortillas with cheese between them and cut into four pieces. So each person is getting one tortilla. Then later you get two tortillas filled with chicken per two people. So again, you are getting one tortilla with a dab of chicken. You do get a few margaritas and, surprise! What happens with people drink but aren't eating? I would not say that drunkenness was a real problem, but a number of women were indeed drunk. I would not take my grandsons there. The resort where the Salsa and Salsa event was held was beautiful on a sunny day and the presenters, charming.
In Costa Maya we took a tour with Native Choice. I am in favor of supporting locals. Let me preface my review with that, as I am not trying to deter you from taking the tour. But I don't see a whole lot of difference between boarding a bus with 30 other cruisers and eating lunch with 30 other cruisers on a private tour than doing the same on a cruise ship tour. We were told several times that only we out of all the other cruisers were going to a real Mayan village. Well, yeah, but... the much vaunted real Mayan village we did not see more of than driving by a few huts and a school. What we saw was a Disneyfied Mayan home that was purpose built for this tour. We did get to make our own tortilla and say "Good morning" in Mayan, but that was about the extent of our "interaction with the Mayan people." They did not speak English from what I could tell. Lunch was fine: chicken, veggies, tamales, and for dessert, very small cups of custard, fruit and mashed pumpkin. A very good hibiscus tea, too.
We did see Chaccoben ruins in groups of ten which was nice. But the tour guide would simply not shut up. It was as if he had to tell us every last fact he knew about the Mayans. Most everyone was bored witless and wanting to get on the bus. The ruins are quite extensive. Once at the Mayan village, when it was already after 1 o'clock, we were all hopeful of eating, but he droned on for another half hour while we made tortillas, until we were ready to charge the food that had been sitting there all that time.
The silliest thing to me was that before we could make tortillas, we were told that we had to all line up to wash our hands at two sinks that were hanging off a bathroom out back. Like elementary school kids. I know we were going to make a tortilla, but we were the ones going to eat our own tortillas not cook for others. If we wanted to wash our hands, that was our business, as far as I was concerned. Plus, after 30 people dry their hands on the same two towels, how clean can they be?
Disembarkation: It looked like 1/3 or more of the passengers chose walk-off at 7:30, so there was a lengthy line that did not clear for over an hour. We were the second group off after them and did not get off til 9:15, so don't plan to take an early flight out of Tampa. We went through very fast at 9:15 simply because so many people had already exited. Valet parking is well worth the extra money. We had a ten hour drive ahead of us and wanted to get off quickly. That allowed us to leave as quickly as possible. We were on the road at 9:20.
Final word: The midship elevators are just plain too small. The sign says they can take 20 passengers. If they can take more than 15, I would be surprised. What makes things worse is the total lack of manners on the part of most of the passengers. They simply refuse to step to the back of the elevators to let others on every time. I almost applauded when one ancient lady with a walker shoved her way on, forcing people to step back. A man who hadn't wanted to let the two prior passengers on said to her, "Really???" But she happily ignored him, and there was plenty of room for her.
Overall: I would give the cruise a B. We booked early and got a very good rate. I have nothing huge to complain about. The cruise was fine.