My partner and I have travelled on NCL 3 times now, twice in a Penthouse Cabin and once in a regular balcony.
The Dawn, was in my opinion, a little disappointing compared to our previous trips on the Gem and Jade. It's really quite obvious that the Dawn is the oldest ship in the fleet, many areas are looking tatty and tired. However, the ship's staff are on the whole fantastic.
Cabin: We got a great deal on an Aft Penthouse, one of our personal favourites as they are great for sailaway views. The Cabin itself was not bad. We had a very modern Bang & Olufson TV (although who cruises to watch TV?) which was a little hard to control at times, but hey, its was a good sized screen. We had the Lavazza Coffee maker in the room which was simply fantastic and the butler kept the supplies well stocked. This was an improvement as this was missing the same cabin on the Gem. The beds are absolutely fine, very comfortable memory foam mattress toppers as usual. Our cabin stewards were brilliant, very friendly and cheerful. They made a nice job of looking after the cabin for us.
The balcony was where the cabin was really let down. It was nice to see loungers used on this grade on the Dawn, however, the balcony really needed a lick of paint and varnish. The railings were down to bare wood. What varnish was left was just flaking off constantly which made it unpleasant to lean on. The patio door out onto the balcony was also incredibly difficult to lock and unlock, but we made do.
I was also slightly disappointed to see the toilet seat was so obviously worn, it had scratch marks in it!
Dining: We used the Aqua Dining room on two occasions. The first one was perfectly fine, the second experience made our decision not to use it again. The food in the "free" dining rooms is clearly not as good as the supplement restaurants, but we like to mix both. The speciality "supplement" restaurants we used were Salsa (Mexican) which was "OK", but nothing special. We used Impressions (Italian) which was nice, and really great waiting staff and Maitre 'D in there who was totally on top of his game. We also used Cagneys (Steak house) which do the best steaks ever. Cagneys is always lovely, apart from a small incident I had with some salmon which was served to me with some cling film still attached! We also used Cagney's for breakfast each day which is a perk of the cabin grade. This really is a must if you have the chance as the bun fight in the Garden Cafe for breakfast really was not pleasant!
We used the Garden Cafe for lunch on our sea day, and decided that would be the last time we ate in there. To get a drink in there (other than water or ice tea, serve yourself style) is near on impossible. As others have commented on here, the waiting staff don't seem to have clear job roles, so knowing who to flag down to ask for a drink was near on impossible. The tables were cleared very quickly all the time though which is nice. The food in there was "OK", but nothing special and as with most buffets, slightly on the cool side.
The Blue Lagoon has always been a good place for us to get a quick bite at lunch etc. However, for some unknown reason, on the Dawn they have shoved it right in a major corridor thoroughfare and turned it into an American style diner. The diner thing I can live with. Your waiter having to cross herds of guests trying not to drop your meal is not the best of ideas. With limited seating too, this really doesn't work. Why not just put it back the other side of the Mexican on deck 8 where it is on the other ships? It works there just fine!
Entertainment: To be honest, we avoided it! We saw a show the first night, it was so bad, we walked out. The rest of the week seemed to consist of comedy improvisation or stand up comedians, not for us. The cruise director seemed well received by most, but I found his constant "Wigi, Wigi Wah" chants on the end of every announcement quite unprofessional and not funny after the first time. Jose & Patti were resident singers and could be found somewhere most evenings. Although Patti was a great singer, the styles they were singing were again very much geared to the majority of guests on the ship and just didn't work for me.
Spa: This was lovely, and staff in there were really great too. Well worth spending the $159 for a couples pass for the week, especially given the weather outside on this kind of route. Using the outdoor pool was only for the brave hearted! The spa pool was always warm and perfect for a few laps.
Bars: We didn't really use them much on this cruise. As the clientele on the ship were mainly mush older than us, the entertainment seemed to gear towards this and it was impossible to find a bar without someone crooning songs in which we didn't care to listen to. The Java Cafe was nice, usual atrium affair with good coffee. The Dazzles Lounge/Disco, was again, not the best. The music in there was geared towards the majority of the clientele on board and didn't really work for me.
Ports: All ports on the itinerary were great. We had some amazing weather for the time of year which really helped. Although we didn't get to see much of the "fall leaves" we saw some stunning scenery! We didn't book any NCL ship excursions, much to the obvious disappointment of our concierge who made a point of telling us he didn't have any bookings for us on our arrival! We tend to prefer to do our own thing in most ports, and this worked well.
Halifax we took a rental car to Peggy's Cove which really is one of the prettiest places ever. Getting a rental car in Halifax is really easy from the Train Station at the Westin hotel across from the dock, and the staff were brilliant there.
St John, New Brunswick was not so exciting, but equally we had a nice day walking around the town and having lunch in a cute coffee shop.
Bar Harbour was next, a tender port. This ships crew handled the tenders brilliantly given the wind and tougher conditions. This again was a lovely place to just walk around, and also interesting to take the popular "Olly's Trolley" excursion which you can book easily yourself online.
Boston was also very enjoyable. Not at all practical to walk into the city from the dock, but you can pick up trolley tour buses just to the side of the docks (not outside the terminal doors, but the other side of the car park which is easily walkable). We took a trolley, had a great walk and trip around but unfortunately, as we docked on a Friday, we hit weekend rush hour traffic and just made it back to the ship in time!
Newport, Rhode Island - Again another tender. Very pretty town, with lots to see. They had an "Oktoberfest" going on whilst we were there, but it seemed expensive to get in so we gave it a miss. Still, there are great shops and coffee shops to stroll around and it was all very easy.
Disembarkation at New York - This was very easy as we took the NCL "Easy Walk Off" with our own luggage and having the concierge service, we were literally first off the ship at about 7.30am, which was great in order to catch our flight out of Newark. The terminal at Manhattan is pretty basic, no luggage carousels, cases just looked like they were being piled up on the floor for those who took that option.
Overall, the NCL experience was acceptable, and we love the freestyle element. However, the Dawn was not anywhere near as good as other ships we've travelled on in the fleet and the Dining options seem to have gone slightly down hill. As always, I found the constant options to add an additional tip on everything, even having been charged an "auto gratuity" on nearly everything chargeable was just too much. We're more than happy to pay the $12 odd dollars a day they add onto your account, but an extra 15% automatically put onto everything else doesn't leave much room for wanting to leave even more!
Although we really enjoyed the cruise and itinerary, I doubt we'll be booking another NCL for a while now. Time to discover something new!