I've always been close to home on my birthday since it falls around the Fourth of July weekend and there is usually some type of family gathering. As this was an extra special birthday (all birthdays should be special), I wanted to celebrate differently by going on a cruise for the first time. It started out with only my adult son accompanying me (since my husband could not deal with the possibility of getting seasick) and ended up including my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew. I preferred to sail from New York for convenience and ease and I wanted a cruise that was had the most casual dress codes. NCL's freestyle cruising concept appealed to my son and me not just because of its dress code, but for its dining policy of eating whenever, wherever, and with whomever instead of assigned seating times and restaurants. The length of the Bermuda cruise (8 days, 7 nights) seemed to best fit our needs since we like to see a place more in depth than a day here and a day there. With this cruise, we had almost 3 full days in Bermuda.
Embarkation and Sail Away
Thanks to one of the detailed Cruise Critic forum posts, I was able to familiarize myself with the process of embarkation in advance. As native New Yorkers, the pier was only a taxi ride away. We arrived around 11:30 AM thinking we would be among the first only to find a lot of people already there. Nevertheless, the process of taking our luggage, going through security checkpoints, and check-in was all completed within 45 minutesmuch more efficient and less painful than at airports. (They took photos that do not appear on our room key cards, but are embedded into their system so once the card is swiped, the photo appears on their terminal.) As we departed the area, the first of many photos to be taken by the ship's photographers was taken to be displayed and sold later. We were greeted at the Dawn's entrance with champagne (orange juice for non-drinkers and children). There was live music coming from the atrium already, but we proceeded to locate our cabin, knowing that it may not be ready. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was ready, but then noticed that the two beds were combined when we had specifically asked for 2 separate beds. Not a problemthey promised that it would be fixed by 8PM but it was done before the end of the afternoon.
The mandatory muster (lifeboat) drill at 3:30 was very well organized. We proceeded to our drill locations (listed on our room cards) and we lined up on deck right underneath our lifeboats. We were given instructions on securing our life jackets. After the drill, we returned our life jackets to our rooms and the cruise began!
We could not have asked for nicer weather for the Sail Away. Highlights were passing the Statue of Liberty seen from the top deck and singing "God Bless America" with a group of people. Then I was thrilled to see my former my high school in Brooklyn from the water, and felt some sadness seeing my mom's old apartment near that. Sailing under the Verrazano Bridge was exciting when it seemed the smoke stacks of the Dawn would touch the underside of the bridge! When we returned to our rooms after this, our luggage had already been delivered to our doors, ahead of schedule; we were happily able to unpack and feel settled way before dinner.
I was fully aware that cruise cabins are much smaller than hotel rooms and since we are used to staying in large hotel rooms/suites on land vacations, I booked a balcony room just to have a more room. Also, I booked mid-ship for maximum stability which turned out to be a great choice—we were on deck 10. We found the room small as expected, but were impressed that it was furnished so efficiently. The mirrors at the head of the bed gave the illusion of a larger room. The single nightstand separates the two beds. Both the nightstand and the coffee table have a shelf underneath for additional storage space. Beds were very comfortable (perfect firmness) with fluffy comforters. There is a full length mirror in the room, but you cannot use it to see full length if your room if your room is configured with 2 single beds since one of the beds is against the wall and mirror. If your room is made with one queen, then there is a space where you can stand in front of the mirror. This was not a problem for us since there are enough mirrors in the room.
There was a small convertible sofa next to the beds which we used only as a sofa. If the sofa bed was in use as a bed, the only way to get to the balcony would be to climb over the bed and the coffee table would have to be moved. In the corner by the balcony was a desk unit (ice bucket here) that incorporated a shelf for the small TV and another storage shelf on top of it. In the opposite corner and leading from the entranceway was another unit which composed the vanity with hairdryer and cushioned stool, 3 drawers in addition to counter space for the coffee maker, stocked coffee, tea, and bottled water, and a well-stocked mini-fridge. In order to use the fridge for your own purposes, you must remove the contents, but be sure to put everything back as you will be charged for the items removed. Also with this unit is the lighted closet with ample hangers and 6 shelves within for clothes. There is ample room on the closet floor for luggage storage. Finally, next to that was the life jacket storage bins and the room safe.
The bathroom was adequate—I liked the faucet in the sink coming out sideways instead of the standard front facing ones. I don't know if that is standard for all ships. Our bathroom had a sliding door divider between the toilet and the sink/shower area. Normally, this would be a great idea, but in this case, it seems wasted because the toilet area is so small that a tall or big person's knee would prevent the sliding door from closing. I noticed that my niece/nephew's "inside" room did not have this divider in the bathroom resulting in a more comfortable-appearing bathroom layout. The one disappointment in the bathroom was the lack of supplied toiletries. The only supplied items were a shower cap and a bottle of lotion. There was no bar soap (although there was a bar soap holder in the shower). Sink soap and bath soap was all in liquid form attached to the wall in dispensers. I'm assuming this is for neatness and economy, but since I did not know this in advance to bring our own, we ended up not having conditioner for our hair and used the liquid bath soap as our shampoo. We noticed that although there was an ash tray in the bathroom, fortunately, there was no cigarette odor in the cabin from smoke permeating the fabrics like you can find in a "smoking" hotel room.
The lighting was ample—in fact, more than I expected. There were no lamps, but all either recessed or wall lighting. Headboard globes were great for night reading. Carpeting in the rooms is whimsical and beach themed with starfish and there was a fish print as art on the wall in shades of blue.
One negative about our room location was the fact that the communal ice chest was situated right outside our door. This is comparable to having a hotel room right next to the ice dispenseryou hear everyone filling up with ice. Not bothersome during the day, but it served as a wakeup call in the mornings. I guess an ice machine on every floor and walking the length of the ship would be too much walking for people. Placing near the three elevator banks can be a compromise solution. However, if this is a cruise ship standard, and the locations are always the same, the locations should be noted on ships' deck plans so people can make informed choices at the time of choosing a cabin.
Not having been on another ship with which to compare, I found this ship to be huge and beautiful thus providing many photo ops. The public areas were all tastefully decorated, yet colorful and fun. Exploring each deck was an adventure in itself—it takes a while to familiarize yourself with the locations of everything especially since the 3 elevator banks make it more difficult to memorize the direction to turn once off the elevator.
Most of the activities are on Decks 6-7 and 11-14. The majority of the staterooms are on the decks in-between. On Deck 6-7, there's the Stardust Theater. Yes, the theatre spans 2 floors and the stadium style seating provides unobstructed views. Also on Deck 6 is the Dawn Club Casino, Gatsby's Lounge, and 3 restaurants, Aqua, Le Bistro, and Impressions. The latter two charge a cover and therefore considered the premium restaurants. The Venetian restaurant is actually on Deck 6, but the entrance is on Deck 7 and the ocean view is grand since it's in the back of the ship. Because of its location, movement was more apparent on the rough sea days. Also on Deck 7 is the Grand Atrium which is especially lovely in the evening when it is lit up with its glass elevators. The Atrium is the hub where you find the Reception Desk, the Cruise Consultant, and the Shore Excursions Desk. Although the Internet Cafe is listed as being on Deck 9, it is easier to access that from the Atrium on Deck 7. It is visible from there and you reach it by walking up the curved staircase. Internet access is very expensive and I didn't use it, but it is good to know that it is available in case of need. As you glance up, take note of the stained glass ceilings on the left and right sides. The remainder of Deck 7 consists of restaurants, shops, and lounges: Blue Lagoon (looks like a 24 hour fast-food place), Bamboo & Sushi (premium restaurant), Teppanyaki (premium restaurant), Galleria Gift Shop (main shop for souvenirs), Photo Gallery, Java Cafe, Pearly King's Pub, Dazzles Lounge, and Sake Bar.
The two places I did not use or visit are the Salsa Restaurant and Bar on Deck 8 and the El Dorado Spa and Salon on Deck 11. There's an indoor pool and Jacuzzi here along with the sauna and steam bath for an additional charge. The most festive outdoor part of the ship was by the Oasis pool and Topsiders Bar on Deck 12. It was always hopping with live music and it is there that the Sail Away poolside barbecues take place. The hot tubs are also here and were always crowded. Two blackjack tables by the pool were a nice touch so people can play while getting fresh air instead of being indoors. The Garden Cafe is on this deck as well; this is the main buffet restaurant on the Dawn offering unobstructed ocean views on both sides. Also on Deck 12 is the Cinema which is a reduced size movie theater showing films and occasionally live presentations. To contrast the lively pool area, there are quiet areas on this Deck too. The Library has a decent selection of books with comfortable chairs; the Shuffles Card Room has card tables set up for cards, Scrabble, checkers, jigsaw puzzles, and provides an assortment of board games. The Art Gallery has exhibits to stimulate the intellect. This quiet area was especially popular on the rainy and cool days. The Fitness Center is also on this Deck and it has a wide variety of equipment and weights. If you don't work out, you can always dance the night away at the Spinnaker Lounge on this Deck or play Bingo here during the day. Kids have their own T-Rex pool and with themed slides on the rear (aft) of this deck. A single coin-operated pool table is near the Garden Cafe. There is a Chapel on Deck 12 in the front, but I never saw it.
Deck 13 is the sports deck with a Golf Driving Net, Shuffleboard, and two human chess boards. You can do your morning walk on the jogging/walking track here. The Video Zone (arcade) is also on this deck, but it was disappointingly small with a poor variety of games. The Kids Center and Teen Center is on this deck as well as the Star Bar and another hot tub which I never visited. Cagney's Steakhouse is on this deck and is the most expensive of the premium restaurants. By the way there were ping pong tables, but I seem to recall that they were on one of the lower decks, not 13. Deck 14 has the Bimini Bar which is outdoors and only open weather permitting along with the basketball/volleyball court (in need of new balls).
There are dispensers of hand disinfectants placed all around the ship and at the entrance of every restaurant. Their visibility and availability is a great idea to promote awareness even though people do not use them all the time. At the entrance to the buffet, however, there is a crew member stationed with a spray container for a mandatory spritzing of our hands. I do not know whether this procedure was only implemented after the H1N1 flu outbreak, but it should be continued.
As stated earlier, I did not want to be locked into a certain dining time for any meal during vacation. Also, from all the stories about the enormous amount of food available on a cruise, I was determined not to gain weight from this cruise. Therefore, on most days, I tried to adhere to my usual two meals a day instead of the continuous food and snacks offered on the cruise. Basically, there are four sit-down restaurants that are included in your cruise price (Aqua, Venetian, Garden Cafe buffet, and Blue Lagoon Cafe) and 6 premium restaurants that charge a cover that ranges from $10-$25 per person (Cagney's Steakhouse, Le Bistro, Bamboo & Sushi, Teppanyaki, Impressions, and Salsa). With this large selection, there should be no problem finding a suitable dining location.
Since we did not care for the selections at the Garden Cafe for lunch on embarkation day, we tried the Blue Lagoon for a quick lunch on Monday after searching the deck for New York Deli (as listed in the newsletter) which turned out to be merely the sandwich station of the Garden Cafe! We thought that was a little deceptive since the way it was listed gave us the impression that it was a separate restaurant, not just a part of the Garden Cafe. Also, for people who are familiar with authentic NY deli restaurants, this was nowhere near that...it was basically an assortment of cold cuts and breads—not the thick hot corned beef or pastrami sandwiches you expect to see. By the way, I noticed a separate listing for Sprinkles Ice Cream Bar which I never found either. I have a feeling it is the ice cream station of the Garden Cafe and I am glad time was not spent searching for a separate ice cream bar named Sprinkles.
Anyway, there's a funny story at Blue Lagoon where we ended up dining that Monday, but it did not end funny. Because of the limited selections, my son chose chicken tenders and fries and I chose wonton noodle soup. Normally, wonton noodle soup consists of some wontons and noodles in a bowl of soup. When the waiter asked me "how many?", I said "one", meaning one order. Since he gave me a strange look and asked me how many wontons I wanted, I then thought he meant we needed to choose how many pieces of wontons we want in the soup. So I responded "8 wontons". When my son ordered his chicken tenders, he was asked "how many?" We looked at him and said "how many tenders?" He said "yes". So not knowing how large those pieces were, I said to order 6 just in case they were the size of small chicken nuggets. What resulted was they started bringing out 8 cups of soup each with a single wonton and no noodles. I managed to stop them and took only 1 cup since it was not what I expected anyway. The soup tasted like flavored salt water. They started bringing out 6 plates with 2 chicken tenders on each with fries and we ended up taking only 2 plates, but they were able to give the others to other people who ordered them. Clearly a comedy of errors—the waiter must have been new. The story turned bad after my son got sick about an hour after eating there, but fortunately, he was better within 24 hours.
The next morning, we made it to the Garden Cafe (buffet) during breakfast hours and enjoyed the breakfast selections much more than their lunch fare so for the rest of the trip, we had a late breakfast instead of lunch at the Garden Cafe. Except for the long lines at the omelet station, it was quick and tasty since we did not have to wait for service. They should have more omelet stations to accommodate the crowds. I was happy that they always had the option of egg whites at the omelet station. Also, I heard that the waffles were not well done enough even when requested, and that's probably a result of the lines as well. We never went to the buffet for dinner because there were so many other service restaurants from which to choose. I walked to the buffet one night at dinner and saw the selections offered. They were much better at dinner time than at lunch, but I cannot say anything about the taste since I never ate there at dinner. Although the lunch and dinner selections vary by meal, the buffet menu remains the same each day of the week.
For dinner, we started out on our first two nights at the Venetian. The dEcor of this restaurant is the most elegant of all the non-premium restaurants. There was no wait for a table for two, but for larger parties, reservations are recommended to save waiting time. The menu for each restaurant is the same each night, but there is a special unique to each restaurant every night. As a newbie cruiser, it was strange to be able to order anything you want at a table service restaurant. In other words, if you prefer 3 appetizers instead of an entrEe or in addition to an entree, you can do that. If you want multiple desserts, you can do that too. If you don't like the entrEe after tasting it, you can order something else. After discovering these options, I wonder why anyone would want to eat in a buffet with lower food quality. Favorites at the Venetian are the hot shrimp scampi appetizer and the pork medallions entrEe. My guess is that the buffet caters more to families with kids who may not eat the fancier prepared foods and to people who need to eat in a rush in order to do other things.
The third night, we dined at Aqua which was just as good an experience as Venetian. The dEcor is totally opposite that of Venetian; Venetian was old world elegance and Aqua was modern lighting with an ocean theme. While the food was good in both, and the servers were pleasant, the service was a bit slow for my taste and we did not even dine during peak dining times. We always had dinner after the first show which turned out to be around 8:45. The advice is to allow plenty of time if you want to eat prior to the shows. On the days we were in port, we ate dinner in Bermuda (see Port section) because I feel that part of experiencing a new place is eating locally.
For the last two dinners, we wanted to try a specialty restaurant (premium) and after reviewing the menus, we decided on Impressions, the Italian Place. DEcor here is simple and tasteful with Impressionist paintings and murals as decorations. The waiter here was so wonderful and it was the first time the manager came out and visited each table to check on everyone. I told him that my only regret was that I did not discover his restaurant earlier on the cruise. Our experience was so good that we decided to go back on the next night (final night) with the rest of our family. The manager came out and remembered what I said to him the night before and seemed genuinely happy that I did come back. Favorites at Impressions was the calamari appetizer, rib eye steak that was done just as asked in an Italian sauce, and tiramisu. One nice touchthey changed our napkins as soon as they saw that we wore dark slacks. I asked them why they gave us a dark napkin and their reply was so we wouldn't get lint on our dark slacks—that's a first for me. We also had two birthday celebrations during our cruise. The ship gives you a very nicely decorated cake that feeds 6 for each birthday and the staff sings "Happy Birthday," and for anniversary celebrations, they sing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."
On Thursday night, there was a Chocoholic Buffet at 10PM which was mobbed way beyond my expectations. There, the ice sculptures that I understand are traditional at midnight buffets were displayed. I was not impressed by the quality of the chocolate desserts, but people seemed to be really enjoying themthe variety available was beyond imagination. Chocolate dipped skewers of fruit (pineapple, cantaloupe, and honeydew) are not for me—I'll just stick to strawberries. I was happy the midnight buffet did not exist on this ship because I think it is just overkill with all the food available during the day. (I hear it is being, or has been, phased out at other cruise lines too.) There are even small snack buffets during the day and evening at the casino so you do not have to leave it if you get hungry.
Since there is no formal night on this ship, I did not hear of a Captain's Table night dining event. We were informed that the Captain was dining one afternoon at one of the premium restaurants, but that was all. Since I favor freestyle cruising, not having this formal night did not affect me at all. We saw the Captain when the officers and crew were recognized at the end of one of the shows and the Captain was available for pictures on one of the days for those interested.
A lot of people stay away from the premium restaurants because they feel that food is already included in the price of the cruise so why should they pay extra? I agree with that to a certain extent, but once I ate at Impressions, I could see, feel, and taste the difference. The extra expense would probably be wasted on families with young children, but for adults, I now feel it is well worth it. The one change I think NCL should make is that soft drinks should be included in the premium restaurants. Although I think soft drinks should be included in every meal, it seems to be an industry-wide practice to charge extra for them. Since the premium restaurants already charge extra to dine, I feel they could absorb the extra $2+ dollars for a soda. It can get tiring drinking the included iced tea and water every night.
There were so many activities from which to choose and not enough time to do all I wanted while trying to get some R&R at the same time. Thanks to a post of another CC member, I knew to read the "Freestyle Daily" newsletter that is delivered to the room every night from beginning to end. This gives the schedule of the next day's activities so you can plan your day. In the event you do not read your newsletter, the Cruise Director, John I. comes on the intercom every morning to announce the major activities they want to promote for the day—usually the ones with extra charges. His overly cheerful and energetic announcements were welcome to some and irritated others when he kept promising the "pink sand beaches of Bermuda" and wishing everyone a "crackin' crackerjack smashing day". In all fairness, John did perform his job well since he always seemed to be everywhere on the ship—we don't understand how one can be so full of energy after dancing on deck till wee hours and get up so early to make those announcements—lots of caffeine?
Activities ranged from physical activities to quiet activities and from group activities to individual activities so there is something for everyone. Some of the physical activities are fitness classes, basketball open play, country line dancing, swing dance lessons, soccer open play, and shuffleboard tournaments. For the adult video game lover, there are adult Wii tournaments including bowling, boxing, and tennis. For ones who like to learn, there is a large variety of seminars, eg. fragrance, rum, art, collecting, and fitness. Demonstrations are given in cooking and ice sculpting. Tastings are also on the agenda. Bingo is almost a daily routine. There is even an art auction. I noticed an emphasis in jewelry and art—perhaps the assumption is made that cruisers have money to invest in these items. The Cinema shows not first-run, but fairly recent movies throughout the day. The Casino offers gaming lessons as well as slot, blackjack, and Texas Hold'em tournaments. Because I loved the towel animals on my bed, I attended the towel folding demonstration and was so fascinated I ended up buying the CD on impulse. Thinking back, how useful is this skill unless work in the field or own a B&B? I also attended the most interesting Memory Seminar, but I didn't buy the DVD course that was offered since it would probably end up gathering dust on the shelf.
The one activity I did not care for was the Pub Crawl which happened twice during the cruise to my knowledge. For those of you unfamiliar with this, one pays a fee and visits 5 bars with the group in an hour and gets a drink at each bar. The group is led by a Crawl Master (crew member) and as it travels on the ship from bar to bar, the members raise a ruckus. The first time I heard it, I thought there was a fight or riot on board. We were warned that they were coming into the casino (because there was a bar inside) and the group numbered around 100. This happened during a blackjack tournament and the players could not even hear the dealer's instructions—the noise level was deafening. Yes, those people are having the time of their lives, but at the same time, they should stay within their areas and not be disruptive to others who are in the midst of enjoying other activities.
As I mentioned previously, service tended to be slow in the restaurants, but the servers were always pleasant. The problem may not be with the servers, but with the kitchen. I did not order room service at all so I do not know whether that was quicker. The service in the premium restaurant seemed quicker maybe due to the smaller size of the place and therefore fewer people.
Room stewards and stewardesses were friendly and efficient. They seem to be much quicker in making up the room than hotel housekeeping services. The nightly turn down service with chocolate and the towel animal was a nice touch. I missed seeing 2 animals because on the first 2 nights, we had the "do not disturb" sign on. This was a result of tips for hotel stays when put the sign up to give the impression that someone is in the room in order to prevent theft. On a cruise ship, be sure not to put the "do not disturb" on unless you want to miss your chocolate and towel animal.
Crew members were friendly and helpful—you are always greeted as they pass you in the halls. On our first day, we noticed that our room was unusually cold. Wearing a sweater in the public areas is fine, but the room was too cold for sleep comfort. We found that the thermostat was broken since we tried the warmest setting and then no fan, and cold air was still blowing out of the vent. When I went downstairs to report this, they sent someone up right away—in fact he was there before we walked back to the room. Apparently, there is a sensor on the balcony frame and the balcony door was off its track (I was wondering why the door was so hard to open and close). He got it back on track, opened the thermostat, adjusted it with his computer, and we were comfy for the rest of the trip.
The captain kept us informed in advance when there was going to be rougher sailing. We had two days of that; barf bags were placed all over the ship in the public areas, but I did not notice anyone needing to use it (at least not in public).
In addition to almost continuous music of various styles throughout the ship in the lounges, there was different entertainment in the Stardust Theater every night with two shows per night. The lounges had singers and musicians playing tributes to various artists such as the Beatles, Motown, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Elton John, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and male crooners. There were also game shows throughout the week and karaoke, but we did not get a chance to attend any of them.
We liked going to the earlier show at the Stardust as it was less crowded and we were able to get great seats closer to show time rather than sit in the theater and wait for half an hour. There were eight different evening shows and we attended 6-1/2 of them. We missed half of the Crew Talent show due to a dinner reservation conflict on our final night. What we saw of the talent show impressed us. Our favorite shows were the 70s show (Band on the Run) and the Bollywood show. We felt that the Gleason Magic show of illusions was not as entertaining as his daytime Closeup Magic Show with cards earlier in the week. The illusions were typical of the ones you see in Vegas, nothing different. If you go for the "staged" illusions, then you will enjoy Gleason's evening show—for me, the "closeup" card tricks are more amazing and Gleason does some I have never seen before. The first show was the most disappointing because it was entirely presented by comedian Dave Heenan who, in our opinion, was not particularly funny. We could tell our sentiments were shared by hearing the comments of others leaving the theatre. He appears again at the Farewell show together with magician Greg Gleason where he presents some funnier lines. Do not let any disappointment of the first show keep you from attending the rest of the shows—each show is different and they get better!
After a rough Tuesday at sea, it was nice to open the curtains to see land, King's Wharf and Royal Naval Dockyard. We slept through the docking. However, after hearing our Cruise Director John repeatedly telling us about the "pink sand beaches of BERMUDA", it was disappointing to see the overcast skies and torrential downpours later in the day. Our cabin was located on the starboard side of the ship and for the next 2 days, we were able to watch all the action on land from our balcony.
To prepare for this trip, I had requested information from the Bermuda Tourism office and had made a list of the "must-sees" in the 2-1/2 days we were there. I had been told that the shore excursions booked through the ship are considerably more expensive than ones you can book on your own since the ship has to profit on these and you're also paying for the convenience of having it done for you. The only shore excursion we considered was the 5 hour Bermuda Island Tour by bus which would have given us an overview of the island. However, by the time I inquired about this, it was already booked up for the first day. There were openings for the second day, but we opted not to do it because that would have defeated the purpose of taking it because we would not have time to revisit in depth the sites we liked on the tour (the few stops on the tour were short in length). It turned out to be a wise choice because we got to cover everything we really wanted to cover by purchasing a 3-day transportation pass for $28. As our itinerary turned out, we really only needed a two day pass. The only thing lacking was the expert commentary of a tour guide. Getting on and off the ship daily was quick and painless as long as your passport and room key was presented.
Bus stops in Bermuda are not always easily visible. The more popular ones are market by gray stone huts and a pole painted pink or blue to show the direction. Others are only marked with the painted pole which can be easily missed. If you are from the U.S., crossing the street may take some getting used to since Bermudans drive on the right side and I found myself constantly looking in the wrong direction for traffic.
First Day in Bermuda (Wednesday)
After purchasing the transportation passes, we headed for the ferry to Hamilton (capital). Once in Hamilton, we took a short walk to the Customs House where we got our passports stamped—it is the only place where they stamp them in Bermuda. We walked briefly around the streets of Hamilton towards the main bus depot which turned out to be merely a street lined with the various buses, not a building that I was expecting. This is their hub. We took the #1 bus to Crystal Caves where we took a most enjoyable and informative guided tour down to the depths of the cave...great photo ops in here. If you like caves, and have the time, visit both Crystal and Fantasy Caves at a combo admission price—the formations are different inside.
After the caves, we continued by bus to St. George at the other end of Bermuda. The bus route passes scenic areas such pastel colored homes and golf courses. Unfortunately, the rain came down heavily as soon as we arrived at St. George so even with hastily purchased rain ponchos, it was not very pleasant walking around. We ended up seeing the historic St. Peter's Church only from the outside and King's Square with its stock and pillory from inside a gift shop. We missed the Unfinished Cathedral. Experiencing a Bermudan "afternoon tea" would have been nice too, but we did not have the time after waiting out the rain.
From St. George, we took the bus back to Hamilton and dined at the well-known Hog Penny on pub fare such as fish and chips and Bermudan onion rings served on a whimsical sailboat dish while waiting for the weekly Wednesday Summer Evening Festival on Front Street. After dinner, we were disappointed to discover that the festival was cancelled due to the heavy rain earlier in the day. They could have had it had they known that it would be sunny and clear by evening. Since all of the stores along Front Street were either closed or closing, it was back to King's Wharf on the ferry. We were surprised that the Front Street stores closed so early especially during tourist season.
Second Day in Bermuda (Thursday)
This was our only completely sunny day on the islands and the 100 percent humidity made it really sticky hot even though the temperature was only in the 80s. We took advantage of the weather to max out our sightseeing along the scenic south shore. First we took the #7 bus to Gibbs Hill Lighthouse. In the hot sun, it was quite a trek up the hill from the bus stop to the base of the lighthouse. Then, the 185 steps to the top made the climb worthwhile because it was so cool and windy at the top and the 360 degree view on a clear day was breathtaking.
Our next stop was to check out a pink sand beach on the south shore and we chose to sample the famous Horseshoe Bay Beach. Being from the northeast, our beaches always have broken shells among other "stuff" mixed in with the sand and the water is never clear, so the pure soft sands of Horseshoe Bay with the beautiful turquoise water crashing among the rocks which formed calm coves were a sight to behold. From a distance, you really do not see the pink, but if you look closely, you will see the pink granules and we were able to zoom in for photo verification. We even got a special treat of seeing a lifeguard pull a man-of-war out of the surf with its stinger longer than I ever imagined it could be. After walking the entire beach, we were hot and exhausted so we took the "best $2 ride" in a van up the hill to the bus stop and got some interesting tid-bits of island information from the driver on the way up the hill.
Hopping back on the bus, we continued on the south shore until the end of the line and transferred to the next bus to cover the rest of the island including some golf courses and ending at St. George where we were able to see the sites we missed the previous day due to the rain. Returning to King's Wharf from St. George by ferry gave us the longest of the ferry rides (45 minutes) and from the top deck, you get the sea spray along with wonderful views of the north side of Bermuda.
Since this was our final night in Bermuda, we decided to dine locally at the Frog and Onion pub in Dockyard. This pub's dEcor is very unusual and historical. We could not leave Bermuda without trying their famous fish chowder. Not being a fish soup type, I was leery of it, but it turned out to be pretty tasty. Word of warning—the waitress gave us a bottle of sherry pepper sauce to mix in with the chowder and I am grateful that we tasted it before pouring it—that's all I am going to say. Needless to say, we did not use it at all after tasting it and the waitress thought our horrified reaction was amusing!
Third Day in Bermuda (Friday)
We planned to stay close to the ship on this last partial day since we didn't want to miss the ship due to any transportation delays. Therefore, we saved this day to explore the Royal Naval Dockyard area on foot and do our souvenir shopping. It rained again around noon, but we anticipated that and had our ponchos with us. We spent the most time visiting Dockyard Glassworks and Bermuda Rum Cake Company. At Glassworks, there is a demonstration of glassblowing and the items of all price ranges are for sale. If you buy glass figures with a local legend behind them, you are given the legend on paper at the time of purchase. At Rum Cake, you can taste the various flavors to your heart's content before deciding on your purchase (chocolate and traditional were my favorites). The cakes come in various sizes and they are more costly than the brands sold on the ship and elsewhere, but you should buy the real thingmade with Gosling's rum.
We also stopped by Snorkel Park, a free beach area which really seemed to be out of place in the fortress environment of Dockyard. However, it is the only place within walking distance from the ship if you want a last minute beach experience. We stumbled upon it during our walk since it was not advertised anywhere and wonder whether this is a locals' place. It was like an oasis in the middle of a shopping area. While we are on the topic, my nephew took a Shore Excursion to go Snuba since the rest of us were not interested. As evident by the word, it is a cross between snorkeling and scuba with no experience necessary. He had a good experience, but thought the training period took longer than the actual time under water. He thought the oxygen supply should have lasted longer.
I had not planned to go to Dolphin Quest because I had already done a dolphin encounter in the Florida Keys years ago, but since it was in the area, I thought that I could just get a glimpse of these lovable mammals from the outside since I had not seen any in the ocean on the sail down. No chance—you cannot see anything from the outside, so do not bother walking in that direction unless you are planning to pay to enter.
We also stopped at Bermuda Clayworks, Makin' Waves (chain souvenir shop), and Dockyard Pharmacy which is more of a souvenir shop too. This pharmacy has the cheapest bottled water to be found in the area if you need some for the rest of your trip. (I drink the ship's water during meals, but prefer our own bottled water in the room and to carry around. On this last morning in Bermuda, I wanted to fill a bottle up with the ship's water from the buffet since we were running low. We found black pieces of ? in the water coming out from the water dispenser. This was the only time we found this during the cruise, but it made us go out looking for bottled water.) If time permitted, we would have visited the Craft Market, the Clocktower Shopping Mall and possibly the Commissioner's House. We considered the Segway tour of the Dockyard area which would have included the Commissioner's House, but the idea of wearing a helmet in such humidity was not appealing. Instead, for a final overview prior to departure, we took the cute white free shuttle train from the wharf and stayed on without getting off for a round trip around Dockyard. Back on board the Dawn, there was another lively Sail Away party on the pool deck complete with barbecue.
Disembarkation was timely and efficient. We picked up color coded luggage tags Saturday according to the time we wanted to depart the next morning starting from 8AM through 10:10AM. Our customs declaration form was left by our door the previous evening. We opted for the yellow tags which were the latest departure to allow for a more leisurely breakfast. Luggage was left outside the door by 1AM the previous night for pick up. Sunday morning, disembarkation was announced by color. Customs clearance was simple—separate lines for U.S. citizens and othersthe only question asked of us was whether we brought back liquor or cigarettes which we did not and we were free to go. The key here is to be honest in your declaration and not bring back any forbidden items.
My first cruise was a very enjoyable experience except for the two days of rough seas, but that was out of NCL's control. Walking around wobbly is not enjoyable, but at least our group managed not to get sick all the way. The small staterooms take some getting used to when compared to hotel rooms. I would appreciate seeing stateroom comparisons to those of other cruise lines. There were only five negatives that can be fixed easily: 1) Eliminate the pub crawl or at least, if it is a popular money-making activity for the ship, stop only in outdoor bars where the noise level would be less disruptive, 2) ideally only allow smoking at the casino bar, or at least have non-smoking tables in the casino—one can move from a slot machine to avoid smoke easier than one can move in the midst of a table game when a smoker joins a table and blows smoke in your face, 3) have more toiletries available such as shampoo and conditioner or at least inform the passengers of what is included so we can bring what we need, 4) eliminate the $25 minimum Seabucks redemption policy—not everyone is rich enough to go on another cruise within 18 months—setting the redemption limit to none or a lower amount may be generate a little less revenue for NCL, but would foster greater good will with the passengers to make them feel that at least they got something back for all the money they "donated". After all, Vegas casinos apply credit to bills for much less than $25, and 5) eliminate the soft drink beverage charge at premium restaurants.
Bermudans are friendly and go out of their way to be helpful. A map, bus and ferry schedule is a must and will easily get you around. The streets of Bermuda are immaculate—there are horse-drawn carriages, but I never saw or smelled any waste. Items are expensive compared to New York pricesprobably a result of Bermuda being an island and isolated. Restaurants tend to be more expensive than what you can find in New York as well. Weather was much more humid than we expected—very much like a Florida summerI expected cool winds blowing in from the water even during the sunny days. I give the bus drivers kudos for their skill at driving so speedily on the winding roads—I do not think I saw a straight road except for the downtown area of Hamilton and even then, when the roads were straight, a lot of streets were slanted and hilly like San Francisco.
For the overall experience, the Dawn was a great choice for my son and me because of its freestyle atmosphere. Some other veteran cruisers in our group preferred the traditional cruise with set dining and formal nights. All interaction with crew was positive. The public areas on the ship were always clean—always noticed someone vacuuming. My answers to my friends' questions, "When is your next cruise?" and "Will you go on another cruise?" are "I don't know yet" and "Yes, I would try another one because I love the cruise experience (travelling as a group, but separating as you wish for activities), but without the feeling of constant movement on the bad days." I welcome feedback—I thought the Dawn was huge, but how much less movement would an even larger ship have?