I always like to qualify my reviews with: "Unless otherwise noted, all views and opinions expressed in this review are mine".
My wife and I are both experienced cruises, this cruise being our 19th. It was our 3rd cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line and our first with "Free Style Cruising". Up front I will say that I did not like the idea of "Free Style Cruising", but I had no real expectations of how it would be. We were cruising with a couple from Florida, friends for a few years.
We flew into Newark on the day before the cruise. Bidding through Priceline.com we obtained lodging in Newark at the Courtyard by Marriott, just a short distance from Newark Airport. Quite a pleasant hotel, with free internet service, dining and a bar and for $70, quite a bargain. The hotel arranged for a town car to pick us up and deliver us to the pier . . the cost of which exceeded the cost of the hotel.
Embarkation: In addition to never having sailed "Free Style" before, we have never left from New York City. I was not really looking forward to the proposition. However the embarkation on Sunday, 9/23/07, was absolutely painless. When we arrived, our bags were picked up and placed on a cart by a very friendly porter. Our friends were awaiting us and we got "on line" at 12:15. Although initially a bit slow, things picked up and we were on the ship by 12:45. Grade - A-
Debarkation: I have never seen a cruise line and port that got debarkation right. That is until this cruise. We arrived pierside at about 8 a.m. It seemed to me that those carting their own luggage were let off by 8:40 and general debarkation commenced at about 9 a.m. You are allowed to stay in your cabin until your color is called. We had white and discovered this would be the last color called. Sat in the room and enjoyed a movie. When the color before ours was called we made our way forward and waited a deck below the debarkation area. Our color was called and within 15-20 minutes we were off the ship, had our luggage, went through customs and were in a cab headed to Newark. The time was 10:35. Never, ever in our previous 18 cruises have we experienced such a smooth debarkation. Ever!!! Kudo's to NCL and the Port Authority.
We were told our rooms would not be ready until 2 p.m., so we carted up carry-ons up to the Garden cafe and enjoyed a quick sandwich. The rooms actually became available at 1:45, so we headed off to find ours (4th deck, outside). . Mandatory safety drill was held at 3:30 and promptly at 4 p.m. our cruise began. My wife had never been to NYC before and the last time I was there was 45 years ago, so we both, along with our friends (native New Yorkers) stood on the starboard side of the promenade deck to enjoy our trip past that most lovely American Lady and under the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. Once at sea, we headed to the cabin, where the boss was delighted to find all our luggage. She set about unpacking, and I set about exploring our home for the next 11 days.
The ship: The Norwegian Dawn is almost 5 years old. She has a double occupancy of a little over 2,200 passengers. We sailed with about 2,000 passengers, of which only 8 were children (2 teens). The average age was said to be 64 . . . . I suspect it was a bit more than this . . . probably closer to 70. There were a fair amount of Europeans, but the majority of the passengers were North Americans. Inside the ship is quite nice with a gorgeous atrium an a very nice theater venue . . . the Stardust Theater. Public rooms abound including a well equipped gym and spa, a movie theatre, library, reading room and 9 bars with the largest, the Spinnaker Lounge, doubling as a game room for Bingo, amateur entertainment, etc. Cabins were located 6 decks, plus 2 Garden Villas.
As I mentioned, the Dawn is 5 years old and she is showing some signs of having over a half million passengers traverse her decks over those years. Some wear and tear can be noticed, but only on close inspection. Carpeting has separated in some areas, some furniture is in sore need of replacement. However, for the most part the Dawn presents herself as a lovely lady, albeit in need of some minor upkeep. Our cabin was located on the 4th deck, just aft of the amidships elevators and it was here that I first noticed that the layout of the ship and its' decks were not the easiest to traverse. For instance, if I were visiting the fitness center, I could not take the elevators located immediately outside, but had to either go down to deck 7 and walk forward to the amidships elevators, or walk through the Garden Cafe to the amidships elevators. The same when leaving the Venetian restaurant. . . . one cannot go down to the decks below, but must first go up to deck 7 to the amidships elevators or stairwell to get down to decks 5 or 4. A minor irritant, but an irritant just the same.
Now, on a strictly personal level (opinion-wise), I dislike the NCL motif that is its' outside appearance. I love Lady Liberty as much as anybody, but to see her painted on the side of a cruise ship that has a picture of a playing dolphin painted on the other side just offends my senses.
Grade - BCabin: We were in an outside cabin on Deck 4 (Cat H). Advertised as 140 sq. ft., I thought it would be quite confining. However, it was not. Set up with separated beds, it was quite comfortable. Plenty of storage space, even for an 11 night cruise. The bath is quit spacious and is divided into 3 spaces (toilet, sink area, and shower). The sink area and shower were comfortable, but the toilet can best be described as intimate (read: tiny)
Entertainment: Our second cruise years ago was on the Norwegian Windward. It was on this ship that we first discovered the talents and exuberance of the Jean Ann Ryan shows. Over the 13years since then my attitude on other ships production shows (non Jean Ryan) was "seen one - seen them all". So, I was looking forward to seeing these performers. The shows have certainly changed over the years, but are just as, if not more, entertaining as they have always been. The rest of the entertainment provided in the nightly shows was better than expected, with a comedian, a juggler, a couple of singers and a duo of impressionists. All in all - excellent entertainment. The lounge entertainment, however, was a mixed bag. One excellent, some good and one just terrible. We were also treated to 3 local groups. The RCMP Pipe band in Halifax, The Sharecropper's (a folk trio) in Corners Brook and 4 ladies in Syndney (if they mentioned a name, I missed it and apologize) who fiddled and sang music of that area. All three of these groups provided outstanding entertainment with local flavor. My wife and I truly enjoyed theses shows.
Grade - Evening - A+. Lounge acts - C, Local Entertainment - A+. Overall an excellent part of the cruise for us. Overall grade - A
Casino: I am not a gambler. At best I will throw a $20 bill into a slot machine and see what I can do on one night. Usually, it will be to loose $20. On the Dawn, I was just a tad bit luckier. I threw my $20 bill in a machine the 2nd night. Played for 15 minutes and noticed I was up $30. Got up and walked away. However, because I was up, I decided to put another $20 in. Played for over an hour and ended up cashing out the same $20. However my friend, played the slots on a nightly basis and ended up with a $800 increase in his wallet. I watched other games being played and did notice that there were plenty of games of chance. However, whether it was the age of the passengers or something else, the casino was rarely, if ever, busy.
Grade - A+ (Hey! I came out ahead.)
Cruise Director/staff: I may catch it on this one, but I think Jimmy Kovell was amongst the worst CD's I have cruised with (not the worst, just down there). He just did absolutely nothing to get my attention. At times his presentation was flat. I didn't find him funny and felt he was to much "into himself". His assistants did an admirable job, however.
Grade - C
Reception Desk: Excellent. Always courteous and helpful, they answered all our questions in a professional manner. Had no problem producing our (updated) bill on 2 separate occasions and when I inadvertently messed up the safe in the room, they quickly sent the deck supervisor to the room with his magic box to unlock it for me.
Grade - A
Room (Steward)Service: Excellent. Our room was clean the first day and was maintained that way throughout the cruise. Our room steward and his assistant were available when necessary and always pleasant and helpful. Inexplicably, however, on sea days our room was not made up in the mornings until almost noon. As we spent very little time in the cabin in the morning, this was not a real problem.
Grade - A-
Food Service: Fair. We took 7 of our evening meals in the Venetian Restaurant, 1 in the Aqua Restaurant, 1 in Cagney's Steak House, and 2 in Impressions. Service in the Aqua was abysmal. The waitress was slow and inept (orders were incorrect, served across our bodies, etc.). I had the feeling she was a waiter in training with no one supervising her. Except for the 2 nights at Impressions, the service was hurried (rushed) and only by delaying our dessert orders were we able to slow the service down to our liking. This was each and every night. Except for this, the waiters/waitresses were very good and were always friendly. The service in Impressions Italian Restaurant was excellent.
We took all but 3 of our breakfasts in the Venetian Restaurant. Unlike the evening meals, the service was for the most part slow . . . but on 2 mornings it was extraordinarily slow . . . . and they were not that busy. Just not enough servers, IMO.
Grade - C-
Food: Fair, at best. (I almost hate to get into this area because it is so subjective - but here goes).
If I had to pick out the one thing I like least about this cruise, the food would win hands down. I can honestly say there was not one meal that stands out in my mind as being excellent, not one. Our second night onboard we ate at Cagney's Steak House. Of course, there is a $20 surcharge p/p. I had Prime Rib that was almost bland. The first one was overcooked and I sent it back. The second one was OK, but barely warm. My wife and our friend ordered Filet Mignon. Incredibly small portions, but done to their liking. Our friend's husband ordered a steak and said it was OK, but on the tough side. We decided not to favor any of the other "pay" restaurants after this night. The food in the Venetian was good, but uninspired. Nothing jumps out as being better than Applebee's quality. IMO, the food in Impressions was good. However, our friends are Italian/Sicilian and she is quite an Italian cook. She said the food was OK, but not what she would expect from a "specialty" Italian restaurant.
Breakfasts were good. Hard to mess up breakfast. Only complaint was the toast. It always came to the table cold, hard and unbuttered. The Danish, croissant's and muffins were excellent.
We always took our lunches in the Garden cafe and always at the deli section. Really good sandwiches, salads, soups, etc. Enjoyed this meal every day we ate onboard. Only problem is lack of drinks. Only tea and water is offered, although beer and alcohol can be purchased. A little lemonade wouldn't hurt.
Now, to my biggest complaint in the food/beverage area. The coffee. In a word, it was atrocious. Now, I like a good cup or two in the morning and decaf with my dinner. I will never, ever claim to know what an excellent cup of coffee tastes like (I prefer Dunkin' Donuts brand, so that should tell you something). However, I spent 28 years in the U.S. Navy including 14 as a Chief Petty Officer, so I am more than an expert on bad coffee and the stuff they served on the Dawn would best be classified as SWILL. 'Nuff said. Grade - D+Itinerary: The ports we visited were Boston, Bar Harbor, Halifax, NS, Quebec City, La Baie, Quebec, Corners Brook, Newfoundland and Syndney, NS. In her review of this cruise, Bennett's Cruise gave an excellent description of these ports and what they had to offer. I enjoyed the ports throughout the cruise, although the last 3 were small ports and outside of tours, did not have a lot to offer outside of the truly lovely and outstanding folk who resided there. Grade - A
Tours: I researched the internet and was able to come up with excellent tours in Boston, Quebec City and Bar Harbor (I live 40 miles from there, so that was easy) and Halifax. I discovered that these tours pretty much approximated the tours the ship offered at up to 50% off the price being charged by the ship. Having cruised so much in the past, I wanted to avoid the overpriced tours offered by the ship (all cruise lines suffer from this bit of greed). The first hint of trouble came at Boston where a round trip bus fare was provided for (paid on the room card) at $13. We then took a combination Harbor cruise/Hop on/Hop off bus tour. This tour had been pre planned and was considerably cheaper than the almost identical one offered by the ship. The $13 fee was an irritant, because the ship had a monopoly on the transportation from the pier. Bar Harbor was great as we made our own tour once we arrived in town and took Olley's Trolley on a tour of the city and Acadia National Park. Halifax was the bottom line for me, however. And I readily admit that not researching deep enough was part of the problem. We had decided to take a Hop On/Hop Off bus tour of the city. It was priced about $15 less than the identical ship's tour. Got off the ship and Bingo, there was the bus tour tickets being offered (GrayLine tours I believe). I go up to the counter, purchase 2 tickets and when I went to pay discover that it was the ship who was offering those tours (at the ships quoted price) - how? By being required to pay with my room card. We discovered when we were coming back to the ship that all we had to do was exit the pier area to the right and walk a few blocks and we could have purchased the tickets at the reduced price offered by GrayLine tours). IMO, if this practice wasn't outright dishonest, it was at least extremely deceptive. Having never dealt with this particular practice before, I was totally unprepared to deal with it. Won't ever happen in the future though. The tour we had arranged for in Quebec city was great, or so I heard from my wife and friends. I suffer from Menierre's Syndrome and that morning just after getting on the tour bus, I was visited by an episode of nausea and dizziness. I found a double seat in the back of the bus and slept through the tour.
Tipping Policy or Service Charge: While I find that it is an extremely easy way of taking care of tipping, I don't think it enhances the service at all. IMO, it detracts from it. The room service remains pretty much universally good throughout the fleets, the Dawn was certainly no exception, however, I feel that the dining services have suffered because of it. And it is really tough for me to put my finger on just why that is. But I do know that, in my opinion, the dining service was probably the poorest I have experienced in my 19 cruises. I felt that the service staff was stretched out as a direct result of this policy. By that I mean that our room steward and his helper took care of 36 rooms - In the past talking with stewards the norm seemed to be about 24. The dining staff just had too little staff to be efficient. Another part of this picture, and I didn't know if it fit in here or in my comments about service staff. I have always disliked the staff "hinting" that they needed an "excellent" grade to qualify for time off, promotions, raises, etc. It ran rampant onboard Dawn, from cabin staff, to waitresses/waiters, to bar staff, to Jimmy plugging for that grade for the staff. Ironically, the only member of the staff who I did not get the plea from was Rolando, the bartender in the Java Café and he was amongst the best of the entire staff on board. He did get extra from me at the end of the cruise.
Free Style Cruising and Dining: I tried to go into the cruise without any pre-conceived negative thoughts (I have stated on this forum in the past that I was not a proponent of the free style concept). After sailing on this cruise, I have somewhat changed my mind. The casual dress code was pretty nice, especially after a day of touring. Additionally, because of the length of this cruise (11 nights) packing for casual wear was easier on the wife. I liked that aspect of "free style". I even enjoyed the "free style" dining experience. I think it worked out great on port days. We never had more than a minimal wait for a table on these nights (or were covered by a reservation). However, IMO, it did not/does not work on "at sea" nights. Our first night at sea we chose the Aqua and it was a 45 minute wait. I took a quick run back to Venetian and discovered that the wait there was just as long. Our 2nd "at sea" dinner was a 7 o'clock reservation at Impressions where we experienced a short 5 minute wait. However upon exiting we found that people were standing on line about 15 minutes with "reservations". When reservations opened up for the last "at sea" dinner, I was prompt and 2nd on line. I confidently asked for a 7 p.m. reservation at Impressions and was promptly informed that the earliest reservation was for 8 p.m. - all reservations prior to that had already been filled - What? (I was 2nd on line). Took the reservation, but wondered how the heck that happened.
So, am I a fan of "FreeStyle"cruising. Not exactly, but neither am I opposed to the concept as much as I was prior to this cruise. I think with modifications it could work for all cruisers, including traditionalists such as myself. Again, it partially worked on this cruise. I am not sure it would or does run smoothly on the larger ships or on sea intensive cruises (transatlantics or even E. Caribbean with 2 days at sea).
Final thoughts: Since our first cruise with NCL, I have never been a big fan of the line. I have always placed it at the bottom of the mass market lines. Nothing on this cruise changed my mind. I think NCL does "it" on the cheap and they nickel/dime the cruiser to death. There were certainly excellent parts of this cruise, just as certainly as there were poor parts. Unfortunately the mediocre to poor parts defined the cruise for/to me. I choose this cruise for 2 reasons - 1. The itinerary and 2. The cost - it was fairly cheap. I feel I got exactly what I paid for, so I am not disappointed.
Having said all the above, I did not have a bad cruise - I just don't think there is such a thing. I enjoyed myself as did my wife and friends. By the way, my wife and our friends all stated that except for the "service" they enjoyed "Free Style" cruising.
Would I cruise with NCL or this ship again? NCL - probably, but it would have to be the right ship on the right itinerary. I don't believe that I would sail on the Dawn or any of her class again.
I realize that my post may appear be quite negative (and it is in a couple of areas), but there were certainly enough positives that given the right itinerary, price and ship, I would certainly cruise with NCL again. NCL does provide good value for the price they charge.