What a difference a few months and a different (smaller, and older) ship makes! Not to mention the port of departure, and the itinerary… and, well, EVERYTHING about our cruise on the NCL Dawn that set this cruise apart from our last one on the NCL Breakaway in December (for more details on that ship, see my review at http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=246506).
This was our 17th cruise overall, and our 15th with NCL - we love cruising with NCL, and our impression of the cruise line has only improved since we started cruising just 6 short years ago, and as before, I will be as thorough as I possibly can.
The first thing that I noticed about the NCL Dawn was how much smaller she is than some of the other ships that I’ve been on, and I had to caution myself not to be instantly disappointed – after all, large ships generally mean more stuff, and the size of this ship made it seem that the amount of stuff would be limited. And, to be sure, there were some things missing from this ship that are a staple on other, larger NCL ships. Most notable among those missing things, and perhaps most pleasant, was about 2000-ish passengers, including 700-ish children. And the slightly more classic hull design with a simple Statue of Liberty amid multi-colored ribbons emblazoned on the bow made me smile as I prepared to embark on yet another vacation with my darling wife, and, this time, with my parents.
Provided that the ship does not arrive late due to fog or other weather issues (as ours did), the embarkation process looks as though it will be smooth. Be prepared to deal with some traffic as you approach the terminal building in Tampa, as the ships in port are accessible via traffic circle. Traffic wasn’t bad, but we did have to wait about 10 minutes in it. That said, it was well-controlled. And if you’re driving to the port, there is a parking garage that appears to have plenty of space within about 5 minutes’ walk from the pier.
As it was, our ship did come in 4 hours late due to heavy fog, so the first thing we met on this cruise was a line. The terminal building itself is fairly small, able to hold at most 600 people, all of whom were already inside by the time we got there. We were therefore left to stand in line outside for 2 hours until the guests of the previous cruise finished disembarking and the people inside were able to get aboard. Fortunately we got there early enough that we waited in the shade; the people who got there 15-20 minutes later spent their wait baking in the early afternoon Tampa sun.
That said, the terminal staff were generally helpful and offered to escort people inside to use the restroom as needed, and they set up water coolers next to the line. Once the line started moving, the process was quick, painless, and smooth, and we were in our staterooms within 15 minutes. NCL did make a post on their Facebook page about the late arrival of the ship; however, I only saw it by chance, and only after we had already arrived at the port. RECOMMENDATION: “Like” the NCL page on Facebook and check it before you leave for the port. It may save you some time and aggravation.
As usual, we stayed in a balcony cabin on Deck 9. We chose Deck 9 because historically if we were on the deck immediately below the pool deck, the sound of lounge chairs being dragged around upstairs made sleeping somewhat difficult. The room was older, but not obviously so, unless you looked really closely. The bed was par for NCL staterooms, so comfortable without being particularly luxurious. The stateroom furniture was polished and clean. The one thing I noticed was a severe lack of power outlets – two total, including one rated for electric shavers in the bathroom. Fortunately I brought my laptop, so we kept that plugged in and turned on, and used the USB ports to charge the rest of our tech. RECOMMENDATION: Bring a small, portable power strip if you intend to plug in more than one device at a time.
The balcony was large and spacious, albeit somewhat run down, but that level of rust and wear & tear is to be expected from a ship that’s been sailing since 2002. It wasn’t pristine, but it wasn’t decrepit either, and the experience of being on the balcony was not at all diminished. The balcony was also twice (yes, twice) as spacious as the one we encountered on the NCL Breakaway, and it looked straight down into the ocean, which made it that much more enjoyable.
The bathroom was well-designed and functioned well. The toilet and shower are on opposite sides of the sink, and each one has its own sliding glass door for privacy. It’s important to note, however, that the angle of the toilet and the size of that part of the room may mean that larger people will have to use the toilet with the sliding door open. Regardless, for a 12-year-old ship, the bathroom was in surprisingly good condition, and the shower pressure was excellent, far better than the Breakaway.
This ship has a very classically elegant feel, present throughout all of the public areas. From art on the wall, to polished wood surfaces, to well-maintained furniture and clean carpets, the ship is definitely beautiful. The public areas and hallways are fairly spacious as well, which, when combined with the lower passenger count, makes for easy transit from one part of the ship to another.
First of note is the design of the atrium. In a word, stunning. The atrium extends from Deck 7 all the way up through Deck 12, though most of the activity happens between 7 and 9. There’s a stage-style area with a bar, and an upper landing on Deck 8 at the intersection of two curved staircases that was, at least on this cruise, used by a musical duo for near-nightly performances. The staircases are backed by the main mid-ship elevator bank, consisting of four glass-back elevators. The atrium is busy, but not crowded; the space is managed well, even when filled with spectators. Both sides of the atrium have doors leading out onto the promenade deck.
Elevators on this ship are somewhat old and worn, but well maintained nonetheless. The mid-ship elevators are fairly deep and spacious. However, our experience on this cruise was that people were so eager to get to wherever they were going that they seldom moved to the back of the elevator, making them seem a lot more full and crowded than they actually were. I guess dinner really is that important. The Dawn has three elevator banks, conveniently located and easy to access. The only shortcoming there, as far as I’m concerned, is that the different banks face in different directions, which is somewhat disorienting, and even on the last day I found myself making a left to go to my stateroom when I should have made a right. Contributing to the confusion is the lack of swimming fish on the hallway carpets, which on other ships makes figuring out the direction you’re facing that much easier. But I digress.
The Stardust Theater is spacious, ornate, well-designed, and comfortable. There are entrances on Decks 6 and 7, which makes getting in and out much easier, and the front row always had available seats, probably related to the average age of the guests on this cruise. I could find no fault with the theater, except possibly for the absence of cup holders, which is really no big deal.
The outside decks are also well-designed, though the pool deck looks like an abandoned project with unexpectedly positive consequences. Lounge chairs are plentiful and are set up stadium-style on a graduated platform that resembles Princess’s movie theater setup, except that the Dawn lacks a movie screen. The area surrounding the pool itself is surprisingly clear of lounge chairs, which greatly facilitates walking around. At night the pool area is dimly but pleasantly lit and surrounded by palm-tree-shaped lanterns with blue lamps, adding a soft Caribbean touch to the atmosphere. Deck 7 has a promenade that circles the entire ship (though it’s closed off at the front of the ship, which is understandable but is a missing for anyone who’s ever sailed with Princess). We made it to the front of the ship once, which is accessible by way of the pool deck, and it’s a pleasant, quiet area with excellent wind blocking, the absence of which would make that area completely useless.
Dawn Club Casino is fairly large and has a well-balanced assortment of older and newer slot machines and a decent range of table games, good for the amateur and the passionate gambler alike. If you’re not a smoker, you may find it hard to breathe in there on a busy night, but if you smoke, you’ll feel right at home, with plenty of fellow smokers and ash trays. The casino is located right next to the theater, so you can drop a quick $20-$10,000 on your way into or out of a show. For the drinkers, the casino bar stays open later than any bar on the ship (a point I’ll get to a little bit later).
My late-night hangout of choice was the Havana Club cigar lounge, located between the casino and the Aqua main dining room on Deck 6 and next to Gatsby’s Bar. Of the ships I’ve sailed on (to date 8 of them), the Dawn has, in my opinion, the best cigar lounge. My only complaint was that it wasn’t quite large enough to allow the group of us that gathered there every night to expand much further, to the point that on a couple of occasions we found ourselves bringing in chairs from outside. Gatsby’s bar services the cigar lounge, which features two doors for easy passage, and a large window that gives daytime cigar smokers a pleasantly relaxing view outside. As far as cigar lounges go, the Havana Club is well ventilated, though the smell of smoke does trickle into the hall, so if you object to that, I recommend moving through that general area quickly. Gatsby’s, meanwhile, has comfortable seating surrounding a stage with a piano which features nightly soft lounge music, making it a great place to sit back, have a drink, and enjoy a bit of peaceful relaxation.
I didn’t spend much time in the Spinnaker lounge, but from the times that I was in there, it looked like it had plentiful seating and space for dancing and self-enjoyment. The Pearly Kings Pub, home to nightly karaoke (with an EXTREMELY LIMITED song collection – get on that, NCL!), is also a fun venue to kick back some beers and listen to some (sometimes horribly butchered) tunes.
One downside to the public areas of the Dawn, and a complaint shared by many of the people that I spoke to on this cruise, is that most of them close way too early, probably also due in part to the average age of the passengers. RECOMMENDATION: Get yourself down to Gatsby’s at the end of the night and load up on drinks before last call if you’re a drinker, and don’t forget that the casino bar is usually open until the last gambler goes to bed.
Pools and Hot Tubs:
The pool area on the Dawn is relatively small but not to the point of inducing claustrophobia, and the pools, while small, had plenty of space, probably a result of the non-presence of small children on this cruise, and the presence of a separate, dedicated children-only aquatic area complete with delightfully colorful sea creatures and fun leaping fountains. The one time that I experienced the pool it was partially drained and the crew were doing some maintenance work around it at different points throughout the week, but my wife informed me that when she went swimming on the last day, the pool was full and just as enjoyable. I didn’t go in the hot tubs this time, but to my recollection there were four of them surrounding the main pool, and there was generally room in them. RECOMMENDATION: Even though there are generally available lounge chairs, I recommend getting there early if you’re particular about location. Or get there during the times when your grandparents would go for a meal.
Food and Restaurants:
Food was our primary complaint when we started sailing with NCL back in 2007, and since then that complaint has completely disappeared. The quality and variety of the food in the main dining rooms and buffets has dramatically improved over the years, as I mentioned in my last review. To be sure, there’s room to grow and expand, and one notable missing on the standard, everyday menu, that I believe to be a must, is some sort of shrimp cocktail, but the food is well-prepared, flavorful, and there’s enough variety to make the main dining room a perfectly acceptable alternative to the specialty restaurants and the buffet. NOTE: The Venetian main dining room is slightly more formal and requires long pants and collared shirts for men. Aqua is casual and shorts are perfectly fine. RECOMMENDATION: The soda that we ordered in the main dining rooms was always completely flat when it came from the fountain, so if you drink soda, request that they bring you a can.
Specialty restaurants are somewhat limited on this ship when compared to the newer models, but that makes sense given the age of the ship. Teppanyaki is very small (two cooktops, with enough room for a grand total of 16 people per seating), and when we went we noticed that one of the chefs was experienced and a lot of fun, and our chef was new and pretty inept at most of the standard culinary acrobatics. So half the room got dinner and a show, and the other half (my half) got a backstage show and some awkwardness.
As with any NCL cruise, if you love meat, then you MUST visit Moderno Churrascaria, which in my opinion is the best bang for the buck among NCL specialty restaurants. Whether you’ve never tried a rodizio-style steakhouse, or you go to one two or more times a day, you will have a great meal and may require assistance leaving the restaurant. RECOMMENDATION: When you’ve had your fill of meat, ask them to bring over the grilled pineapple. And don’t overdo the salad bar, no matter how tempting it may be.
For 24-hour food, Blue Lagoon on Deck 8 is a great dining option, with simple but satisfying food at any hour of the day. RECOMMENDATION: GO THERE FOR BREAKFAST. You avoid the buffet line, and it’s a pretty well-kept secret, so there are always plenty of seats. You have the option of table service or buffet down there, and it’s quick, easy, and painless.
In retrospect, it seems to me that the specialty restaurants were originally designed to be an alternative for people who didn’t want to eat in the main dining room, rather than go-to dining venues that offered a higher level of food and experience, given that all of the specialty restaurants on the Dawn are fairly small.
Could be better, could be worse (again, see my review of the Breakaway). The Western Caribbean run is a nice enough run, but the choice of ports isn’t necessarily the best, and that’s not necessarily NCL’s fault. I’ll give more detailed descriptions of the ports in those respective sections, but suffice it to say that the itinerary was more than satisfactory, as was the selection of shore excursions, and NCL is good about identifying and eliminating problem ports. Part of our (very slight) disappointment stemmed from past experience, and I do generally know better than to assume that what happened last time will happen again this time.
I LOVED the entertainment on this ship, and that stands as proof positive in my mind that the smaller ships have better entertainment than the new mega-liners with big-name shows in small-space theaters. There was a different show every night, twice a night, and there were always plenty of seats in the theater. I love NCL’s production cast shows, and this cruise was no exception. All of the production shows were well-produced, well-choreographed, and highly engaging. The singers were excellent, the dancers were excellent, the sets and costumes were excellent, everything was simply excellent. The aerial acrobatics/ballet show was stunning and mesmerizing. And the comedian had me and my wife, and most of the rest of the audience, in stitches. And of course, the ship had the standard complements of silly ice breaker games, for those people who like to participate in or watch others participate in some amusing, good-natured tomfoolery.
The absolute BEST thing that I think NCL ever implemented is the acknowledgement of the staff and crew on the last night of the cruise. I am moved nearly to tears every time. NCL, please NEVER stop doing that. It really shows the shipboard personnel that their daily efforts and sacrifices are appreciated, and that experience, in my opinion, is reflected in everything that they do, which makes for a much better cruise for us guests. RECOMMENDATION: If you go to no other show, go to the show on the last night and experience this for yourself. It is truly a moving experience.
Crew, Staff, and Service:
The cruise director staff, and basically the entire entertainment department, were phenomenal. The cruise director Dan Dan (or just Dan, but I think he prefers the former) is a delightful combination of warmth and humor, and keeps even the most mundane announcements fun. As the face of the entertainment onboard NCL’s ships, it’s the entertainment staff’s job to keep the guests smiling, and this particular group does their job exceptionally well.
Service in general on this ship is delivered with a smile, and the bar waiters at Gatsby’s were so great that the last night of the cruise was partially devoted to tearful good-byes at the end of their shift.
We did encounter some service problems. I ordered and did not receive three drinks in the casino before finally going up to get them myself an hour later. The poolside bar was staffed with one bartender who told us that he would be right with us and spent the next 10 minutes ignoring us. The waiter at Teppanyaki only refilled my empty drink once (it was empty for most of dinner), and only after the meal was over and I approached him about it myself. And the entire service experience at Le Bistro, from where we were seated to how our drinks were handled and down to the level of attentiveness of the wait staff, was pretty much a complete failure, which got a little better when the restaurant manager saw me get up to get my own bottle of wine to refill our glasses.
That said, however, the cruise staff’s willingness and eagerness to resolve any customer service issues was remarkable, and all complaints were resolved completely to our satisfaction with no resistance whatsoever. It was clear to me that the commitment of this staff was very much to make sure that NCL’s customers have an extraordinary experience. I don’t always expect perfection, but I do expect that when something goes awry, the company quickly resolves the matter, and the Dawn staff far exceeded my expectations.
And that brings us to the final part of the cruise: Disembarkation.
I thought disembarkation in Miami was smooth, and then I experienced Tampa and my world was rocked. Our total time from ship to shore was under 10 minutes, which included retrieving our bags and going through customs. The process was so quick and easy that I found myself asking, “Is that it?” And it really was. Leaving the ship has never been easier, except perhaps in Charleston, when we took the express walk-off option and left the ship by 7am.
One other notable bit of pleasantness was that my rental car was across the street from the terminal, in a parking lot, waiting for me when I got off the ship. I don’t know if all of the rental car companies do that, but mine did. RECOMMENDATION: Check with your rental car company if you’re planning to rent a car after your cruise to see if they deliver cars directly to the port.