This is a detailed review of our recent voyage on the Norwegian Dawn from Boston to Bermuda. Overall synopsis - this was a good cruise and we enjoyed our first experience on NCL, though some of the finer details prevented this from being a truly exceptional experience.
This was my 6th cruise (1st on NCL, 2 on Princess, 2 on RCCL, 1 on Celebrity) and my wife's 3rd (1st on NCL, 1 on Princess, 1 on Celebrity). We chose this itinerary specifically because of the extra time provided in Bermuda (almost three full days), along with an excellent price on balcony staterooms when we booked. We drove from our home in Dallas to the port in Boston and back. Yes, we really did do that. Needless to say, the first day, which would be a sea day, would be much welcomed as a day to rest and recharge.
Based on the distance we had to travel, we couldn't realistically make it to Boston Thursday night, so we stayed in Hartford and drove the remaining hour and a half Friday morning. We made it downtown about a quarter to noon, and had no trouble at all finding the cruise terminal or the parking garage, with ample signage both from the Mass Pike and from the nearby surface streets. I much preferred the terminal area itself to the dock in Ft. Lauderdale, which can be a real zoo depending on when you go. Check-in itself was a long process, with long lines to stand in to both drop off bags with a porter, and to formally check-in at the desk. The lines moved steadily, and everything was reasonably well organized, but it took about an hour and 15 minutes to get on the ship. Bottom line is, if you detest lines, plan to arrive either very early (by 11 A.M.) or later (after 2 P.M.).
On the positive side, our cabin was ready for us when we boarded, and unlike other cruise lines, the Venetian dining room is open for lunch, not just the Garden Cafe (the buffet). I highly recommend heading to the main dining room - apparently not too many people know that you can have lunch there on embarkation day, so there were only a handful of other people there. That was a nice way to unwind and relax after the drive in, and all the lines.
Pretty much as expected. The ship was clean, and the "Grand Atrium" area was beautiful (I thought the fake flames in the lamps were especially cool). I've read the complaints about the layout of the ship being confusing, but I really didn't find that to be the case at all. Yes, some sections of the ship are only accessible via specific elevators or stairs, but I thought locations and directions were marked well, and one tour around the ship was enough to figure out what was where. As other reviews have noted, the pool on Deck 12 tends to get WAY overcrowded. I usually waited until after dinner to try hot tubs to avoid the crowds; I actually prefer a quick relaxing soak before going to bed, so it worked for me, but if you want to use one during the middle of the day, it can be a challenge. TIP: there is a 5th "secret" hot tub up on Deck 13 at the forward end of the ship. It was often easier to find that one empty, though unfortunately, also seemed to be frequently out of service.
The duty free shops are your typical cruise ship experience, with plenty of overpriced jewelry and watches for those who like to spend money. I will say, the shops had some ridiculously cheap prices on liquor after leaving Bermuda, equivalent to what you would find in duty free shops in Asian airports like Singapore, Bangkok, etc. One thing I did appreciate was that the hard shopping sell we experienced on our last Princess cruise to Alaska was absent on this particular sailing. There was a shopping presentation on Bermuda, of course, but it wasn't really done in a pushy way (and the shopping director, Jason, is hilarious).
Being mid-May, the crowd on our ship was probably a little older than what you would find during the summer, and thus the overall mood on the ship was fairly subdued. Again, that's our personal preference, and one reason why we picked a May sailing date.
The one thing I missed was a sitting area in the aft of the ship to watch the wake and stare out at the sea. On the last two ships I've been on (Celebrity Infinity and Golden Princess), the buffet has an outdoor area where you can do this. Not so on the Dawn, where the aft is taken up by the Fitness Center. The only place to look out the aft is on the walking deck on Deck 7, but the path is pretty narrow through here, and there's no place to sit.
We loved our cabin! We booked a balcony "guarantee" cabin, and ended up being assigned a room at the forward end of Deck 9. The layout of the room was great for us, with a queen bed and a sofa sleeper that ended up being used for storing the junk we'd obtained both on the ship and in Bermuda :) I would imagine, though, that when the sofa sleeper is extended out, it would be a tight squeeze, and would block access to the balcony. Speaking of the balcony, from the outside, it appeared to be smaller than the balconies mid-ship, but I'm not sure if this was true, or if they just appeared that way because of the covering that wraps around the sides. The covering was a big advantage, though, as it provided both cover from the rain and a wind break (and it was raining on sailaway day, and very windy on our first at-sea day, so this came in handy), and provided additional privacy from the neighbors. Yes, the bathroom is small, though we managed. I did like the extra cubby holes around the clothes drawer, which came in handy for storing trinkets and such until we had a chance to pack them on the last day. We had no issues with noise from the theater two decks below (though by the time we returned to our room from dinner, the show was usually over anyway), and with the Spinnaker Lounge at the opposite end of the ship, the cabin was quiet and peaceful.
Our cabin steward was nice enough, though was nothing really special. He kept our room and bathroom clean, but sometimes forgot to replace our pool towels. I just wasn't particularly wowed by the level of service. We did enjoy the towel animals, though :)
We ate primarily in the Venetian main dining room, but also had one dinner at Moderno (the churrascaria), one dinner at the Garden Cafe, and one lunch at the Blue Lagoon. While in Bermuda, we ate lunch on the island, which I'll talk about later.
I had previously read the mixed reviews of the dining experience in the Venetian, and didn't really see where the criticisms came from. For dinner, there were at least six changing main course options daily, and I found the quality of food perfectly fine. No, it isn't to the level of a Michelin 3-star restaurant, but this is a cruise ship that has to cater to 1,000+ guests for dinner. We are late eaters and generally went for dinner between 8 and 8:30, and only had to wait for a table once - only about 10 minutes, and we were given coupons for a free drink for the trouble. Where I did have an issue was lunch, where the menu was EXACTLY the same on embarkation day and our first at-sea day, and on the two at-sea days after leaving Bermuda. The Garden Cafe was fine. We ate there mostly for breakfast, and never had trouble finding a table or had to wait in line to get our food (they had three serving lines open at all times). My wife had a made-to-order pasta the one night we ate dinner there, and said it was very good. The chicken wings and chicken fingers at Blue Lagoon are tasty, and would make for an excellent midnight snack if you're out late. Moderno was good, but not outstanding, and if I didn't have some extra onboard credit to burn, probably wouldn't pay the $20 pp cover charge to go again. If you do decide to go, ask for extra helpings of the picanha - it was delicious!
Service levels were a bit hit-and-miss. All of the wait staff were polite enough, but some lacked polish. For example, some didn't automatically ask if we wanted soft drinks or drinks from the bar. On the last night, both the waiter and assistant waiter disappeared for long periods of time (and most nights, the assistant waiter didn't introduce themselves, and were rarely seen). And unlike on other cruise lines, the head waiters were pretty much completely AWOL. I think we had one ask about our experience one time. Some of this may be attributable to the "Freestyle" dining concept, and now having had the chance to compare both "anytime" dining and traditional fixed dining, I definitely prefer fixed dining times.
In a word - incredible! It is a wonderful island, and we had a great time there (just wish we could have been there even longer). If you're a beach person, you really have to come to Bermuda at least once; the combination of pink sand and turquoise-blue water is truly breathtaking. We took two ship sponsored shore excursions, both in the evening - the Bermuda Triangle Evening Cruise and the Sunset Catamaran Swizzle Cruise. I was a bit disappointed in the Bermuda Triangle cruise. You go out a ways and see the reefs and a portion of a shipwreck from a glass-bottomed boat, which was fine enough, and there are the typical cheesy jokes on the way out about getting lost out there. But I was expecting something like a fake pirate takeover or some ghost stories, which we didn't get. The Sunset Swizzle Cruise was good (a flaming orange sunset through some clouds was spectacular), though some of the same jokes we heard the night before were recycled, and the swizzles were markedly light on the rum (but free and plentiful).
Otherwise, I can only repeat what others have said repeatedly - save some money, buy a transit pass, and piece together your own tour of Bermuda. For those planning to buy a bus/ferry pass, keep in mind that there are FOUR ways to get one - from the ship's front desk, from the Heritage Wharf building, from a small white shack at the end of the pier, and from the ferry terminal (cash only if you don't buy from the ship). If one spot is crowded, just try one of the other three. On Sunday, we toured around the Dockyard, including lunch at the famous Frog & Onion Pub, the Clocktower Mall, and the Bermuda Maritime Museum (we didn't do the Dolphin Quest, though). On Monday, we took the ferry to St. George's, spent about 4 hours there including lunch at the , and then bused back to the ship via Hamilton and the Gibbs Hill lighthouse. And finally on Tuesday, we took the bus to Horseshoe Bay, walked along the coast to Warwick Long Bay, then hopped back on the bus to Hamilton to have lunch at The Lobster Pot (well worth a visit) and walk around downtown for a bit before catching the ferry back to the ship. In hindsight, we really should have switched around the Sunday and Tuesday itineraries to be able to see more of Hamilton. The weather was near-perfect the whole time, with daytime temperatures in the 72-75 range and sunny skies. Yes, it's humid, but what do you expect - you're on a subtropical island.
If you go to St. George's, here's a suggested self-guided tour that will take up most of a single day. Take the ferry over (45 minutes), and walk to Alexandra Battery Beach (30 minute walk at a leisurely pace, but a little uphill). There's a small pink sand beach and fort there, and a little bit of sea glass that you can pick through. Then walk north to Fort St. Catherine, 20-25 minutes at a leisurely pace. There are spectacular views of the water along the way, and the fort and adjacent beach are worth visiting ($7 pp entrance fee for the fort). Then walk north to Tobacco Bay Beach, 10-15 minutes, a very pretty (but popular) pink sand beach. Finally, walk back to St. George's town, 20-30 minutes, but mostly downhill. You can see the unfinished church on the way. You can spend some time in the town itself if you wish. Take bus #1 or #3 back to Hamilton, stopping at the Crystal Caves if desired (we didn't go - you can also use routes 10 or 11 if you don't want to see the caves). Finally, take the ferry or bus #7 or 8 back to the Dockyard. You've just done the same tour offered by the cruise line, but at a fraction of the cost. DO NOT attempt to do this on Tuesday (departure day), as you won't have enough time.
TIP: If you need internet, the Bermuda Arts Center offers 14 hours of WiFi (the log on-log off variety) for $5. It was a little cranky, but worked most of the time, though it isn't fast enough to support Skype, Vonage, etc. You can pick up a signal from open areas on the starboard side of the ship, including balconies. Purchase online and they'll give you 2 extra hours free, or you can buy the password at the Bermuda Arts Center itself for $5 for 12 hours of WiFi. Much cheaper than the ship's internet or roaming fees if you need to get online.
We were both disappointed that Bollywood is apparently no longer running, but we did make it to the Elements and Luminescence shows. I wanted to catch Second City, but couldn't make our schedule work out. Elements struck me as a kind of poor-man's version of the old show "EFX" that used to run at the MGM Grand in Vegas. The production quality and choreography was pretty good by cruise line standards, but I don't know, it just lacked the "wow" factor for me - the show had several opportunities to cross the threshold from good to great, but it just never quite got there. The scene with the aerial acrobatics in the fake snow was pretty cool, though, which brings us to the second show, Luminescence. The same acrobats have their own full-length show. This show was awesome. There were a couple of scenes where you were just left shaking your head, in a "how the **** did they do that" kind of way. Definitely glad we went to that one. I also caught a small portion of the late night pool party on the night we left Bermuda, which featured a couple of singers doing covers of 80s bands. Those guys were pretty good, though after a long day of hiking through the islands, I was exhausted and couldn't stay for the whole thing.
My wife and I both being on the geeky side, we would have preferred more "enrichment"-type activities like history/cultural lectures. There was only one on Day 2 about Bermuda, and frankly, it was mostly about selling NCL shore excursions, instead of about the history and culture of Bermuda itself. We should probably just learn to lighten up a little...
We thought about using the "self-service" disembarkation, but with two heavy suitcases that would have to be lugged down two floors and through narrow corridors on Deck 7, decided to get some luggage tags instead and let NCL get our bags to the terminal. I was up fairly early and grabbed some tags for the earliest disembarkation tags (9:10 A.M.), but when we went to lunch a few hours later, plenty were still available. I found out why - pretty much everyone decided to use self-disembarkation, which made me glad I didn't. While heading over to the photo gallery Friday morning to use up the last of our credit, I could see that the line stretched all the way down the port side of the deck, and more than halfway back through the starboard side. That wouldn't have been fun. Our color was called on-time, but the lines were still long and stopped moving altogether for close to 10 minutes. We had our bags and were at our car in the garage in about 40 minutes, though. Overall, not terrible. My advice: get some luggage tags instead of using the self-service option. You'll probably get out at about the same time, anyway, given how bad the lines looked in the early going.
Overall we had no significant complaints. The itinerary is great, the ship is very nice and well-maintained, our cabin was everything we expected, and of course, Bermuda is wonderful. We never went hungry, and the staff were polite and helpful, if not the most efficient or polished. While there were some rough edges that made this cruise just short of being exceptional, it was still a good cruise. No, service isn't to the level of a Princess or Celebrity, but you won't pay as much, either, making NCL a good value proposition. My wife and I would cruise with NCL again in the future without hesitation.