OVERVIEW: Please note, this cruise was booked as a super last minute deal for us. And, driving this was largely a matter of convenience - (we live literally a few miles away from the Boston cruise port) and destination (we always wanted to go to Bermuda and this seemed like the way to go given how expensive everything over there is). Lastly, the itinerary was perfect; most cruises stay at a place for barely 8 hours, allowing time to do just one thing. Staying here for 3 full days was the way to go, and in my opinion, the cruise industry needs more itineraries like this.
As an FYI, our last cruise a few months back was Celebrity Silhouette. We were constantly making comparisons to this ship throughout our cruise on Dawn, and that's a bit unfair. Because of this, it was at times hard to take pictures of and around the ship... But it does help to know where Dawn falls short compared with a premium cruise liner.
This all being said, my review of Dawn needs to be evaluated against these primary criteria (destination, price, itinerary).
ITINERARY: ( A+ ) Its no wonder why this is rated as the top Bermuda itinerary. Many ships come here for just a day or they arrive in the evening and claim to stay 3 days when it's really only 1.5 since they leave in the afternoon on the third day. As noted above, the destination and departure port were a strong driver of us choosing this particular cruise. We rented a scooter for 2 days and easily explored the whole island. IMO this is the best and easiest way to go; just beware left-hand side drive!!
SHIP: ( C ) Dawn is an older NCL ship, and a haphazard one at that. There is no unifying theme, and its very poorly laid out. Compared to Silhouette, it falls very short on details. For example, you have to walk through a smoke filled casino to get to the theatre, or the rug is in poor shape or tearing apart at the seams, etc. The decor is very dated, and while it was refurbished last year, changing the paint job on a car does not make it any younger. If I were flying to Miami for a "cruise vacation," I would have certainly never chosen a ship like this. See more on the POOL section below.
Also, another disappointment was that, compared to every other cruise I've taken, on this one there was no captain’s party (meet and greet for the captain and senior officers) and no event (even in daily newspaper or otherwise) announcing who the hotel director, CD, captain, head chef, etc and other ship VIPs were until the very end of the cruise.
ACTIVITIES/ENTERTAINMENT: ( A ) This far exceeded expectations. Only complaint is that the main seats in the theatre were very uncomfortable and in disrepair, and could have used even more live music than already provided. The comedian Sam Fedele was hilarious and received a standing ovation, as did the acrobats. The Second City troupe was hilarious as well. Bollywood is a must see. All of these received standing ovations and far exceeded typical cruise-entertainment faire. Another surprise was the CD. I would rank Gio among the top 2 or 3 in about 10 cruises I've taken. He's quite a good looking guy I take it, as many ladies were oogling over him, including the one I was with ;). Very energetic and funny, really knows how to help people have a good time. He held an extremely funny newlywed show and taught an informative salsa class. I think he was having an affair with the shopping lady Rachel!
Casino entertainment - I'm not a big gambler but my observations on a few games I’m familiar with:
Blackjack - they use continuous shufflers here, which are very unfavorable to the player. Unless you're playing $25 or $50 / hand, expect to see these instead of traditional decks. First time seeing them on a cruise casino ship. This might be to discourage card counters.
Roulette - American style which has two zeroes instead of one...the additional zero slightly further increases the house's edge.
But overall the vibe on the ship was much more “fun” than Celebrity, which stresses more of the laid-back elegant and contemporary modern luxury, as opposed to doing things like hairy leg contests, booty-shaking contests, and newly wed game shows.
POOL: ( C- ) The pool and surrounding area was very ill-conceived and poorly thought-out. There is not a lot of space for deck chairs around the pool, and one has to go up flights of stairs to find deck chairs if you aren't lucky enough to grab some of the very few around the pool. The water is salty and the pool is 6 feet all around, making it hard to stand up in the water for average people like me. Also, it gets extremely crowded on sea days and there's lots and lots of children running around (not unexpected given timing of cruise). Expect to bump into lots of people while using the pool because it cannot support the # of passengers on the ship.
Difference with Celebrity: NCL makes you put a $25 deposit if you use towels at the pool, likely to deter people from taking towels home. This comes across as cheap and unclassy. Celebrity does no such thing and encourages people to take and use whatever they need.
SERVICE: ( C+ ) My take after doing freestyle cruising is this: it's a lot like the communist system - sounds great on paper but in practice it's a whole other thing. The beauty of freestyle on this trip was that we were free to explore the island and stay out very late (as we did both evenings). So a flexible 10pm dinner time worked out well for us. However, because you have different servers each night, I don't think there is any incentive for waiters to perform, as I'm sure all gratuities go into a pool and are distributed communist style. This kind of system also makes me less inclined to give more than the minimum since no one "performed" beyond. So I would say the service was not bad, but lacked attentiveness and attention to details and promptness, something that was the norm on Celebrity, always.
We ate at a steak specialty restaurant for free (see ROOM section). I would say it was good, but not as 'memorable' and as 'awesome' as some other reviewers have raved about. The service was up a notch and how it should be (probably because tips go directly to them; who knew that incentives matter!). We had to go to a specialty restaurant to get the same service that comes with a normal non-specialty dinner at Celebrity. Had we paid for this meal, I don't think it would've been worth it. I ordered ribeye steak and told them to cook it rare; it came back medium. Still good, but not WOW compared to some of Boston's best steak houses.
PRICE: ( A ) We had wanted to go to Bermuda this summer and had been tracking this cruise for a while, but the prices were a bit higher than we were willing to pay. About a few weeks before sail date, we noticed some major downwards movements. We booked it at a level that I think was the bottom for our category type; I know people who paid 2X or more than what we did for the same thing. This was an extraordinary vacation value for us! But...
ROOM (Inside Cabin 8163): ( C- ) Because we paid so less for an inside guarantee cabin, we received a room way at the back of the ship, right above the Spinnaker Lounge, where parties are held till late night. We could hear the songs and music and had to use earplugs (which didn’t work) to go to bed. The vibration from the bass was super strong each night. We checked with a few of our neighbors and this was the case for them as well (all of them had also paid around what we did … interesting). Also the cabins were paper-thin and we could hear EVERYTHING (yes, everything) going on in our neighbors' cabins.
At first, I felt bad to complain since we paid so little for this cruise. After some encouragement from gf and neighbors (who complained as well), they were kind enough to offer us a complimentary dinner at Cagney’s (their “premium” steakhouse) and a free bottle of wine - something I would value at around $100. Our neighbors received this also. And upon checkout, we found they added an additional $200 in on board credits to our account - WOW! Way to go for NCL to exceed expectations in handling such a situation. Neither expected nor necessary, but very much appreciated!!
Key difference with Celebrity: room was light on details and amenities, we had to call reception to fix our thermostat and non flushing toilet more than once, and soap dispenser and quality of soaps were not so great.
FOOD: ( A ) This was the biggest positive surprise of the cruise. Given NCL's position as a CCL competitor and entry level line, I thought the food would suffer, but some of the dishes were as good as I could expect on a premium line like Seabourn. Even if I paid 2X as much, I would have still felt that the food was up to par for dollar paid. The garden cafe buffet is a bit disorganized and haphazard and not as open and wide as other buffets I've been to, but the generally great quality of food made up for this. More options for breakfast maybe instead of the same things everyday? I thought the regular restaurants were good enough that if I were not offered the dinner at Cagney’s I probably would not have visited any specialty restaurants. Most were empty most nights except the Teppanyaki, which always seemed to be booked solid.
EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION: ( A ) Getting on was easy enough since we just took public transport from our home. We were on board within 30 mins. I recommend carrying your bags on, if you can, to save time. The freestyle concept extends to disembarkation as well as this was some of the easiest getting on and off I experienced ever cruising. From this, we were able to easily take the T and were home within 30 minutes.
FELLOW PASSENGERS: No grade here as this has no bearing...But I would say they are very similar to Carnival passengers...for many this might be a trip of a lifetime or trip of the year. Many were simply blown away at this cruise in some of the categories I rated "C" above. This differs from Celebrity in that the average passenger there is well traveled, usually a seasoned cruiser, and are well into/established their careers. Lots and lots of kids as well. Just my general, non-specific, observations…
OVERALL: ( B+ / A- ) Dawn is the ship to choose for destination, not service or for a premium cruising experience. Dawn lacks on the small details (unifying themes, service, etc). If you can get it for a great price, all the better. For us, the biggest drivers of this cruise were price, ease of getting to the port from home, and destination. If things were different, and I would have paid the asking prices of 2-3 months prior to sail date, I would have been very unhappy. I would have ordinarily ranked this around a C+ / B- experience if the other driving factors weren't so strong.
Note that the mathematical average of all the grades above is a solid B, but I'm using my reviewer discretion and giving the Dawn the benefit by giving it a higher rating! I would consider doing it again if these criteria above all made sense in the future, though probably not anytime soon as I like to explore new places, and probably with friends! I'm glad I got to visit Bermuda this way though and would recommend others to do it bearing all the above in mind.