Regular cruisers, my wife and I still had not had the chance to sail the Norwegian Line, so when a July 12, 2013 trip to Bermuda sailing out of Boston, our hometown, came up we jumped aboard. The ship was the Norwegian Dawn, hereinafter, the Norwegian Doom. Early signs of trouble showed up at portside passenger registration, when we were told the ship, rated for 2,224 passengers, had been bumped up to about 3,000 the extra souls on board all apparently children. Clearly, the oil of fresh pressed humanity would soon be oozing out of the Doom's steel pores like sweat dripping down a first time marathoner with 60 pounds still to lose.
Visions immediately sprang to mind of a repeat of the Doom's November 27, 2009 incident when it lost all power while returning to Miami from the blazing Caribbean. The more than 2,000 baked potato passengers endured no running water, electricity, air conditioning or toilets. Add another thousand to that number with this sailing, toss in an extra large pinch of panicky, bawling children and their overwrought patents and the potential for high mayhem on the seas stretched before us like so many ominous Norwegian red Dawns.
If you have ever yearned for an authentic reenactment of your immigrant forbears Coming to America experience, this was the trip for you. Almost every cabin of the Doom was bursting with people, with bunk beds folded down everywhere and elated children bouncing up and down on them like crazed puppies. In our cabin it got no better. The ship's walls were cheap tenement house thin. The two little next-door girls loved to sing and sometimes, their father, who had some pretty decent pipes, also joined in on occasion. It was like shipboard Glee, but of the fever induced kind. I suppose I could have banged on their cabin door, but how often could I do that? These little girls loved to sing their lungs out, AM to PM. Instead, when things got especially raucous I joined in, my crappy voice immediately ruining their dulcet duets and triumphant trios. That usually put a stop to it, at least for a while. Then there were the Ritalin-deprived kids directly above us who continually crashed back and forth down the ship corridor, a cacophonous stampede of desperate little feet with nowhere to exit.
Rounding out the immigrant tramp steamer experience was the ship's food. My early 20th century Italian forebears probably stuffed their cardboard suitcases full with delicious prosciutto, capicola, and Parmesan. Fat chance in 2013, as the ship's security scanners would have confiscated any such tasty goodies. The Doom's buffets were in acute need of a miracle of loaves and fishes. Lines of an hour or more were not uncommon. Better that Norwegian had issued everyone fishing tackle and wished the passengers good luck.
The Venetian, the Doom's main dining room, was a black hole into which any food taste that may have once existed had been sucked into an eager alternate universe. One night I was served a beef dish with a special sauce. Rather than waste the unyielding slice of meat I resoled my shoe with it. As staff apologies I was next served a "sirloin steak," which was about as an accurate representation as a gerrymandered congressional district. One breakfast morning in the Venetian I asked the server whether the pancakes or waffles were better. He said waffles. Out came thin, brown, corrugated cement things that could have cobbled the streets of a colonial era themed mall. The server took them away, he and the chef apparently tasted them, and the server came back to our table with the look of a man about to commit harakiri as contrition. On another evening I tried the rosemary chicken. It had been dead before it was ever alive. The mash potatoes were as cold and lifeless as clueless zombies and the sparse amounts of carrots and peas were metered out with the adoring fetish of an OCD accountant.
The food difficulty, of course, was that the ship was way overbooked, despite what Norwegian might say about this posing no problem. But it was a problem, and a big one. The hapless staff was being pushed to the breaking point. Up on the pool deck hungry lines snaked around the barbecue area and the sweltering pit workers had the look of tortured souls condemned to Dante's innermost circle of hell.
On disembarkation day the, we're-one-big-happy-family illusion started to come apart at the seams like a swollen piñata. We had gone to the Venetian for our final breakfast. We sat near a server station. The place was in an uproar. Servers were screaming into the ship phones connecting them to the kitchen, meals were missing, passengers were pissed, the dining room managers were exhorting the staff to stay calm, telling them to hold it together for "just five more minutes," and strangest of all, big troves of food were suddenly disappearing off the dining room floor. I inquired about what was going on. I was told that every four to six months the US government sends health inspectional workers to inspect food services on the ship. I wondered why this was such a big deal. Shouldn't this be just like any other working day in the ship's kitchens? Apparently not, which prompted a whole new series of thoughts, none of which I cared to think too deeply about.
Rounding out the so last century experience was the ship's Internet and computer services. We had some important ship travel documents stored on our iPad, a common thing to use when traveling. I showed them to ship Customer Services and was informed that that they needed a hard copy, of course, no problem. Just allow me to connect to your wireless network. Sorry, our Customer Service system is hardwired. So, a Customer Service Rep and I trooped up to the Doom's Internet cafe, which has wireless. Uh, sorry, we can't print out from an iPad. I finally ended up emailing the docs to the Rep. What should have been a five minute issue became a 45 minute fiasco.
Were there any high points? The ship's premium restaurants, in particular Le Bistro ($20 per person surcharge) and the Italian La Cucina ($15 per person surcharge) were not simply good, but outstanding. Their food rivaled the best anywhere. But these should be special occasion outings, not routine on board events. We ended up having dinner twice at each restaurant, only eating the Doom's dining room food when we wanted to lose weight. Also the Customer Service Rep who saw my ship document problem all the way through to the end was superb.
Apparently many of those on board were having their first cruise experience and had no way to compare. They thought all this was normal. It's not. If you want to eat good food and drink at low cost there are better choices. If you want a more upscale experience there also better options than the Doom.
Normally, when I get off a ship I leave with warm lingering memories. In the Doom's case I really could use a Men In Black memory erase.