We are two 50'somethings who have cruised 7 times on Royal Caribbean and decided to try this repositioning cruise on the Dawn for a change. We went the cheapest route possible, in an inside cabin, and for what we paid I had no expectations whatsoever about the ship. I viewed it as just a vehicle to get me to 8 beautiful ports of call and whatever was good about the ship, would be just a benefit.
Pre-cruise: We drove to NYC where my husband dropped me off at the Crowne Plaza Times Square with the luggage, and then took the car to offsite parking at Newark. He took the bus back to Manhattan, which he said was easy. He then walked from the Port Authority to our hotel. Great hotel, right in the middle of things. We parked at SkyPark in Newark, paid $155 for 16 days and found it to be a very good value.
Embarkation: We took a cab ($10) to the port and arrived at 11am. Check-in went very quickly and we had our cards in hand within a very few minutes. Very efficient process. We were given a number, which corresponded to the time we were allowed to board. We enjoyed finding old friends from previous cruises and spent the time getting reacquainted. Boarding began at noon and our group was called just after 12:30. OJ and Champagne were offered as we arrived in the Atrium area of the ship.
Cabin: We were in an "L" inside cabin on deck 8. I loved how the bed is oriented in the room. You look down the hall to the closet, instead of at a wall very close to the end of the bed. It made the room seem bigger. The bedside tables are very small and have no drawers. There is only one set of drawers in the cabin, and no drawer under the desk. I wish we had known that there is a light in the closet (switch is on the upper, back wall) because the safe is located in a very dark and inconvenient spot in the closet. I'm used to there being much more space around the sink, on RCL ships, including doors on either side of the mirror. This bathroom did not have any of that. The shower, however, was much nicer and larger than on RCL ships, with a sliding door. There is a hair dryer on the desk and it is a full sized one, not like the travel type that RCL provides. NCL allows smoking in the cabins and I was concerned that we might have a smoke smell, but there was none that I could detect. What I did appreciate is that NCL doesn't allow smoking in ANY inside public space except the casino and cigar room. This allowed me to enjoy many more activities in the lounges than usual. We never met our room steward during this cruise, but our room was always clean and we always had our pool towels replaced promptly. We had towel animals several nights.
Ship: I found the Dawn to be very chopped up and difficult to navigate. Being from VT, I'm used to the "You can't get there from here" motto, but I didn't care much for it on a ship. I was glad the cruise was 14 nts because by the end, I had finally figured out how to get to most places that I wanted to go. I prefer the RCL ships for ease in navigating. Everything seemed to be kept up well. They replaced some carpeting on the stairs and varnished some outside railings during our cruise. Loved the stadium seating by the pool. I never had difficulty finding a place to sit in the pool area and there are lots of other loungers on the deck above the pool deck. I was disappointed that there is not more seating on the Promenade deck, as because it is shaded, I prefer to hang there on a sea day. There are only a very few chairs on that deck and no loungers, at all.
This ship has a lovely cinema that shows several movies every day. I enjoyed that alternative. There was also a very nice card and game room, that was busy almost all the time. The library was also quite nice, with a decent selection of books that you could check out. I did not enjoy the Atrium on this ship. I didn't feel that it drew people in and the guitarist who played there regularly was too loud for my taste. They only have a coffee bar in this area with pretty uncomfortable seating, so it didn't make you want to hang out to people watch or listen to music. I found a much better place to people watch and be in the thick of things, by leaning on the railing outside of Bamboo and looking down into Gatsby's Lounge. It was a main walkway for people coming from the theater and area restaurants, and had lovely window seats to curl up in.
Spa: We paid $284/couple for the spa pass for the cruise. This area was a bit disappointing, though I really liked the hydrotherapy tub. I found the room to always be a bit chilly for my taste, so trying to relax in one of the loungers required covering up with three towels. The steam room and sauna were pretty small, but no one but me was ever using them. If I cruise on the Dawn again, I'd probably not buy the pass, but get a day pass on a see day, or two. It's $20pp for that.
Gym: We normally spend quite a bit of time in the gym but didn't this trip, as I had hurt my back right before leaving home. We weren't impressed with either of the fitness staff, as they never seemed very plugged in or friendly. Stretch class in the morning was the only free offering of the day, and no one showed up to lead this two of the days. Everything else required more $$. There seemed to be plenty of equipment.
Entertainment: Almost all shows we went to were very good. We enjoyed Bollywood the most and liked South Beach Rave, the least. They had a hypnotist on board who did a couple of fun shows and offered seminars for $77, that I felt many people found helpful. She had a terrific personality and obviously cared about her clients. There was more music, in more venues, on this ship than I've ever seen. And, really good music, too! They had a group onboard (Next Stage) who did a Beatles tribute night in one of the lounges and it was the most fun I've ever had on a ship. We loved Bernie Martini, who played and sang in Gatsby's and we could be found there on most evenings.
Activities: All NCL-U classes involved alcohol.....beer tasting, wine tasting, martini tasting. No classes I ever saw on anything else. They had one cooking class, combined with a display from various restaurants. This was in a small area, though, and got quite crowded. They had the usual trivia and did have a Wii, that added something new, but my husband was very unimpressed with all of the sports activities and said that most of the time no one from the activities staff showed up. We didn't find out until the end of the cruise that NCL gives "activity points" for participation that you can redeem for "junk" at the end of the cruise. Wish we'd known that at the beginning.
Dining: We never had trouble eating where we wanted, when we wanted. We often had a group of 8. They offered ½ off Salsa, Bamboo and Impressions most evenings of the cruise. We ate in the buffet, Venetian, Aqua, Impressions, Le Bistro, Bamboo and Salsa. Honestly, we found the food everywhere to be mediocre, at best. I had only about three things the whole cruise, that I liked enough to wish I could have again. They were the hot and sour soup in Bamboo, a trifle I had for dessert one night in Venetian and my husband LOVED the seared tuna in Salsa. So much so, that he arranged for them to bring him that one evening while we were eating in Le Bistro! The staff was very happy to do it and he was very appreciative. We thought the entrees in Bamboo were terrible. Worse than any Chinese we've eaten on land. They have great coconut ice cream, though!
Staff: I'll say one thing for NCL.....they really seem to understand the importance of pleasing the customer. I've never seen so many officers walking about the ship, interacting with the guests, as on this ship. The CD was the best I've ever had and very interactive and approachable. NCL has started a lottery for anyone who wants to dine with an officer and as far as I know, everyone from our very large cruise critic group who expressed an interest in participating, did dine with an officer. We dined with the head of Guest Services and had a lovely evening. Suggestion for anyone doing this in the future.....ask your officer to sit in the middle of the table, instead of the head, so everyone will be able to hear what he has to say. Those furthest from him did not really have a good experience, as they just couldn't hear.
Photos: This is totally out of control. I've never had my space invaded so many times by pushy photographers. Then, it was impossible to find the photos that had been taken. Very disorganized and frustrating. And, of course, the photos are overpriced as always. Why can't they understand that if they print photos in a 4x6 size and charge $5 each for them, that people will buy them all? Almost everyone I talk to says the same things about photos on a ship.
Ports: This cruise had a tremendous itinerary with 8 beautiful ports....Dominican Republic, St Thomas, Antigua, Dominica, Barbados, St Lucia, Curacao and Aruba. We had the most perfect weather, the whole cruise and very calm seas, and for this I was very grateful. I really appreciated having such a wonderful itinerary offered and it brought me to 5 places I had not previously been.
Debarkation: We did the self walk off. Some people started lining up early. We did not. We stayed in our cabin until they called for us to go. We got in line at 8:30am and were seated at our gate at the Miami airport at 9:30! That must be some kind of record.
Summary: We met great people and had a wonderful time. Those things that weren't "great", didn't dampen our cruise at all. They were just my observations. I would tell anyone who asked, to definitely give NCL and freestyle cruising a try. I would say that RCL gets the nod for ship and dining and NCL wins for entertainment, pool and making the guest feel important. I already have an RCL cruise booked for next year, but I'm sure I'll try NCL again in the future.