My family (Parents, two brothers and their wives, and my wife) decided to get together during the thanksgiving holiday aboard the Dawn. The eight of us travelled to tampa the night before and stayed at the marriott fairgrounds/casino hotel.
The hotel was very convenient to both the cruise terminal and the airport. They also served a very good complimentary breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon and waffles. The wi-fi was also complimentary. Overall, not a bad way to go for the pre-cruise overnight stay.
Arriving at the terminal around 11:00 the line to check in was fairly long but the wait seemed to go fairly quickly and we were talking with the check-in people after about 20 minutes. The check-in process went pretty smoothly with two notes.
The first note was that, if you are paying for your expenses with cash (instead of giving them a credit card), you are told to speak with another representative at the check-in desk. I don't know if it is mandatory to put down a cash deposit right then or if you can pay later once onboard.
Which leads to the second note. I only mention it because it happened to three members of my party. The guy who was accepting the cash deposits said that my cruise card was not properly activated in their system. The same thing happened to both my brothers. We had to go back to the check in desk to have our cards re-run through their computers.
With check-in accomplished, we went to the venetian for lunch. This is a good time to speak generally about the food and service in the main dining rooms.
The food was in the dining rooms (aqua and venetian) was good, but nothing was particularly delicious. The lunch menu does not change, and the 3 items (club sandwich, chicken sandwich, and fish-n-chips) were fine. But none of our party found anything we ate there to be noteworthy. Dinners were similar, good but nothing really excellent. Breakfasts were also good, but what can you really say about eggs and sausage?
The service in the dining rooms (aqua and venetian) was, with one exception, fine also. The waiters were obviously stretched too thin. They took our orders (for starter,main, and dessert all at the same time) and then were gone. Nothing extra was ever offered (like condiments or iced-tea) nor did they do anything beyond the minimum required to get the meal served and table ready for the next guests. Again, not a negative really--the food came out as expected and the wait (with one exception) was not too bad. I don't really care for too much chatter with dinner, but just a moment to introduce themselves or to come by after setting down the plate to ask if the food is okay....
The one exception was a dinner in aqua. We arrived at 6:30 and had to wait probably 20 minutes in the hallway for a table, a little dis-organized but still there were 8 of us so that was fine. Our waiter was extremely slow, he'd bring one item then go back for another and then come back to clear something away and then come back with another item. We got through the drinks, bread, starter, and entree slowly until we could wait no longer (we wanted to make the 9pm show) so we left before dessert. The waiter was no where to be found, nor was the maitre-d. We told the reception lady that we were leaving and she called up the maitre-d who apologized for the slowness. But what could he do? The time was gone. Where was he during this slow meal?
The buffet was also fine, the lines moved, there was a broad selection of food and there seemed to always be a place to sit. No trays (seems to be common now-a-days amongst all the lines), and some of the items would run out and there would be a wait until it was replaced. The indian food was pretty good and there was usually a carving station. Again, nothing really stands out as particularly great.
One night we had sushi (at an upcharge) and that was very good. Maybe I'm being cynical but it seems like you now have to pay extra (the upcharge restaurants) to get the great food and service that you used to get in the main dining rooms 'back in the day'.
Port-wise, there were seven ships in cozumel while there are only six spots at the dock. So we drew short straw and had to tender. That process was extremely slow (but handled competently) and really cut our time there short. In fact, we departed 1 1/2 hours late (scheduled for 5pm, left at 6:30pm) because they were still tendering back the last of the people ashore. Maybe 7 ships is too many and someone should re-shuffle their itinerary to a different day?
We took one ships excursion in belize to the alta-hun ruins. It too was good, but not really extraordinary. The road, as has been reported, very bumpy for the last 40 minutes or so. The only part that aggravated was at the end of the tour (about 1:30 pm) the bus drives by the terminal and drops everyone off at hotel/restaurant and you have to walk back maybe 1/4 mile to the terminal. The tour operator must get a kick-back for this, hoping that you'll be hungry enough (no lunch provided) to eat at that restaurant.
Our cabin steward was prompt and efficient even though we never met him/her. The entertainment was also a notch better than most other lines. The two big production shows were very good (bollywood in particular was spectacular) and the comedy troupe was also very good. You do have to get there a bit early if you want several seats all together.
Activity-wise, the cooking demonstration was pretty good although they do not hand out samples in an organized manner -- it was kind of a tasting free-for-all at the end. Any kind of demonstration or class held in the spinnaker lounge was also difficult because the floor is flat allowing only those in the front of the crowd to see what was happening. The dance classes were pretty much worthless since we couldn't see the instructor at all.
The drinks seemed a little pricey but comparable to other lines. Although at one of the pool bars if you forgot to specify 'in a regular glass' they took that opportunity to bring you a souvenir glass for an extra $3. I got burned twice during the week by this.
In the end, the cruise suited our needs as a place to get the family together and the price was in line with all the other competitors. Although nothing really stood out as being excellent nothing really stood out as being particularly bad either. I'm not sure where NCL fits in among the major lines, it is a solid player but I can't point to one area where they seem to excel.