Thanksgiving, 2011, we decided to escape the early winter by taking a cruise. The price, the itinerary, the timing, and our willingness to give Norwegian Cruise Line another chance led us to purchase this voyage. Our previous NCL cruise failed to make us fans of "freestyling" nor left us desiring to "go Norwegian" again. So Sea Dawg booked this cruise with low expectations and satisfied the value would just come in the warm climate island hopping.
We found lower airfare by arriving/departing Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) rather than Miami. Sea Dawg recommends prearranging with SAS the 40 minute shuttle to the Port of Miami for $15 per hound.
My low expectations seemed validated by the long, slow moving cue line (that invited line crashing of mongrels) that greeted our arrival to the Port of Miami terminal. A complicated check-in process, an unnecessarily narrow window of time scheduled for check-in, and too few NCL personnel manning check-in counters exacerbated this unwelcoming start of our cruise experience.
Sea Dawg packs light. It saves on the airline extra bag ripoffs and the outstretched paws of the port longshoremen determined to test the durability of your luggage whether they are tipped or not. Besides, they only deliver to the ship, not all the way to your stateroom. Finally given a ship card, and with suitcase in tow, I trot across the gangway and away from the routine.
Our Deck 9 stateroom was ready, so we went there to unpack and met our pleasant and efficient cabin steward. We needed to choreograph movements to navigate our space as it was possible to become imprisoned between our closet and bathroom doors. Our bathroom was larger than anticipated with enough room in the shower to drop a washcloth and bend over to pick it up. Though shower gel and shampoo is provided, pampered pooches should pack their own soap bars and specialty shampoos. There is one standard American electrical outlet in the bathroom and another above the desk, but consider packing a power surge strip for additional electronic devices.
Our barely cold room refrigerator was crammed full of pricey minibar items: $5.25 beer & water, $7-$8 alcohol (50 ml shots), $9 wine (180 ml), $2.25 soda and $2.50 little bag of peanuts. Sea Dawg packs snack and powdered drink mixes. Mutts caught trying to sneak booze aboard discovered NCL confiscated it until the end of the cruise and delivery of their luggage to their stateroom delayed.
There are three "at sea" days on this 11 night cruise offering those in ocean view or balcony staterooms with nothing but sea to see. In port they might have a view of the freight docks, the side of another ship, or with luck the harbor. Whether inside or ocean view, cabin or suite, port side or starboard, Sea Dawg doesn't spend many waking minutes inside a stateroom so I can't justify purchasing a balcony view.
Once unpacked we explored the newly refurbished Norwegian Dawn. That's when we discovered there are some elevators that will take dawgs to all decks, and some won't. Some hallways dead end and others go in circles. Incredibly, duct tape hide signs to venues moved or removed in remodelling. I have little doubt the architectural alterations were motivated more to increase profit margins than improve guest movement throughout the Norwegian Dawn. The panoramic forward observation lounge has been lost to create profitable suites. The aft shopping has been turned into the Spinnaker Lounge. On board shopping has been relocated as a maze dawgs must traverse on main Deck 7 where main dining, theater and atrium are located. Adding to the congestion are nightly photography setups that paralyze Deck 7 pedestrian traffic (and probably create obstacles to emergency exits). Some decks cannot be traversed forward to aft without climbing or descending to another deck. There are more "Crew Only" entrances to outdoor areas than guest entrances, and some guest entrances stay locked. Stateroom decks have no view to the outside so it is a challenge to determine whether one is forward or aft, port or starboard. Signage is not plentiful or discernible from a distance. Carpet and wall decor offer no helpful location clues. Even after 11 days on board, dawgs were still getting lost. Curiously, there is a double hot tub located on the bow (and seen in the bow cam) that no one can reach. Deck 14 is a pedigree guest, celebrity and star crew member penthouse deck inaccessible to mutts.
Mandatory muster to review lifeboat safety procedure seems to have its share of fleabags who ignore it unaware a roll is checked and they will attend a makeup session at a less convenient time.
As on many cruise lines, those wanting an endless supply of soda should purchase a drink package. Sea Dawg doesn't drink enough soda to warrant the expense, and we will be in ports most days where soda and drinks can be purchased and consumed for a more reasonable price. Specialty coffees are available for purchase in many venues. I am thankful Norwegian Cruise Line does not yet charge for fruit juices, though only available in main dining during breakfast.
The dining venues are what "freestyling" is all about. There is no "formal night" so dawgs don't need to pack or rent formal wear. The main dining Venetian has a "smart casual" dress code during dinner menu service. Nearly the same dinner menu without the "smart casual" dress code is available in the second main dining Aqua. The Deck 8 Blue Lagoon is almost a 24-hour nonstop light meal and snack eatery offering great views. The Deck 12 Garden Cafe is the breakfast-lunch-dinner chow hound buffet trough. Weather permitting, the open air Bimini Grill, poolside BBQ and Sprinkles Ice Cream (at Topsiders) add to meal options.
Gourmet hounds have premium restaurant options: Bamboo Asian $15, La Cucina Italian $10, Le Bistro French $20, Moderno Churrascaria (meat lovers) $20, Cagney's Steakhouse $25, the tiny but very popular Teppanyaki Japanese hibachi $25, Jazz Brunch $15 and Sushi Bar a la carte.
Sea Dawg found the dinner menu in the beautiful Venetian far better than expected. The menu is divided into special entrees that change nightly, and favorite entrees that are offered every night. There is a lobster night - the very first night of the cruise - in the Venetian and Aqua. You will be served a split lobster tail, but you can request seconds. Lobster is available in some premium restaurants for an additional cost above the cover charge. Oddly scarce on this cruise were shrimp. Thanksgiving arrived during this cruise so a "traditional" American Thanksgiving dinner was available though guests were left wondering if any American had been consulted: thin slices of white & dark turkey, Brylcreem mashed potatoes ("a little dab will do ya"), vegetable medley, cranberry sauce and pumpkin dessert. Unlike some cruise lines, we never felt the quality of the meals served in main dining venues were forcing us into a premium restaurant just to get something decent to eat. Quite the opposite, dining in the Venetian, listening to an exceptional pianist, or at a table located at the stern window allowing us to watch the port recede, became a much anticipated highlight of this cruise ... and certainly worth trading flip-flops and shorts for shoes and slacks to attend.
But the deciding factor for taking this cruise was its itinerary that I'll go through briefly.
Day 1 ~ Miami: Lobster Night in main dining. Don't miss the comedy show.
Day 2 ~ At Sea: This day was calm, sunny, 84 degrees perfect poolside weather. Plenty of talks and demonstrations scheduled down below, delicious calories to consume, and shops or games to part impulsive puppies from their cash. Know that shops have their best sales near the end of the cruise. Also know that the house odds in the Casino are much higher than Las Vegas so consider gambling money the cost of entertainment and beware the nearby ATM machine. This cruise offered very little opportunity for ballroom dancing and there were no ballroom instructors. NCL hires dancers who could & should offer ballroom instruction as other cruise lines do ... dancers attend dances, dance to music, get thirsty, buy drinks ... seems to me NCL is missing the boat and the renewed interest in ballroom dancing. Stardust Theater show featuring NCL singers & dancers in "Band on the Run" - Sea Dawg says run from the band because this show is deafening decibels. The performers have talent, but the production is all high energy activity that numbs more than excites. Better to go enjoy the bar musicians.
Day 3 ~ Samana, Dominican Republic: or so the itinerary says - but actually this is a beach day to Cayo Levantado Beach. But guests must first get a tender ticket in a slow moving line that stretched the length of Deck 7 from the Aqua to the Spinnaker - and again invites mongrels to line crash. The beach is nice, but little there is free. A 2-hour catamaran sail (30 minutes of it tied up for boarding/unloading) excursion cost a whopping $80 per dawg. Know that NCL receives about half of most shore excursion charges. So clever dawgs can usually save by making their own shore visitation or activity arrangements. Tender to the town of Samana and you'll find mostly overpriced retail shops and throngs of locals aggressively hawking their overpriced wares (most items you'll see again in each port.) The Stardust Theater magician, Greg Gleason, certainly saved the "Wow!" for the very end of his show.
Day 4 ~ Tortola, British Virgin Islands: Scattered showers punctuated this day. Tortola is another get out and about day. Shore excursions: Virgin Gorda $75, Best Tortola $70, Dolphin Encounter $130. Sea Dawg hopped aboard the local bus for $1.50 and saw all the main sights. Stardust hypnotist TerranceB hilariously demonstrates once again anyone will do anything for a little attention and fame.
Day 5 ~ St. Maarten: our day was rainy and windy. Our on board shopping consultant devoted most of her presentation to shopping in Philipsburg. And once ashore Front Street is wall to wall stores. But Sea Dawg knows from experience something about this place cruise lines seldom admit - the real sales happen when the cruise ships are NOT in port ... and though the storefronts are many, the owners are few (and some are partners with the cruise lines.) Most dawgs have no choice so ignore the hype and know by researching online in advance of the cruise what is and what is not a good price to pay for jewelry, booze, clothing and special items. And American canines are wise to search online to learn U.S.Customs regulations and limits. Shore excursions: America's Cup Regatta $100, Catamaran Getaway & Snorkel $65, Discover St. Maarten Dutch & French $50. Sea Dawg walked down the beach at Philipsburg - the further down you walk the cheaper the drinks ... 2 lounge chairs, umbrella and ice bucket of 6 beers $12 asking price. Stardust headliner vocalist Delores Park was delightful, but also managed to demonstrate how Kate Smith may have sounded singing Streisand.
Day 6 ~ Antigua: scattered showers. There are the ubiquitous extensions of on board shopping all the way down to straw market shops here. Shore excursions: Stingray swim & Snorkel $80, Nelson's Dockyard & Island Drive $65, Antigua Highlights & Lobster Lunch $100. Sea Dawg hopped onto the public bus for $1.50 and saw the sights, including Nelson's Dockyard.
Day 7 ~ Dominica: the sun returns. Another get out and about day. Savvy dawgs could haggle a decent price for items here. The island is rugged and beautiful. Shore excursions: Rain forest 4x4 & Waterfall $80, Dominica's Favorites $50, Emerald Pool $45. Sea Dawg negotiated a "safari bus" for $15 and toured the whole island - driver even threw in a free beer for everyone. Stardust Theater headliners "The Second City" - lame sketch comedy and sometimes funny improvised comedy.
Day 8 ~ Barbados: our visit was their Independence Day - downtown shopping closed and limited for hire transportation. Shore excursions: Concorde & Island Drive $60, Coast to Coast $55, Monkey Encounter $65. Sea Dawg hopped an island tour at the Visitor Center for $25. Stardust Theater featured NCL dancers and Delores Park in an entertaining production.
Day 9 ~ St. Kitts: Save the best for last. Good shopping here and scenic port. Shore excursions: Best of St. Kitts $75, Island 4x4 Safari $70, Scenic Rail Round-trip $100. Sea Dawg negotiated open air bus for $15 on trip around entire island including stop at plantation and another at rain forest.
Day 10 ~ at sea: calm, warm, perfect poolside weather. Oddly the Freestyle Daily didn't have a lot of on board activities scheduled. Sea Dawg spent time in the state-of-the-art Fitness Center. Cruise Director Paul Scally was the headliner in the Stardust Theater.
Day 11 ~ at sea: as the Norwegian Dawn ventured out of sheltered waters, the high (14 decks), long (965') but narrow (105') design showed her vulnerability to wind and waves coming from her sides. Though the seas were a "moderate" 7-10 feet and the winds "only" 25 knots, the Dawn pitched and rolled enough to separate landlubber hounds from the sea dawgs. The on board shops had their cruise end sales, jackpots had to be won, raffles had to be given away, and accounts had to be settled. Here unwary dawgs discovered that they spent more on board than they did for the cost of the cruise. To be sure, when the glossy advertisement boasts for cruising for $50 a day it doesn't add port charges and gratuities which adds about another $15 per dawg per day. Cruise dawgs understand that cruises are not all inclusive and ships are company cash cows. They are deaf to the hype and limit their urges to buy out the shops, drink the bars dry, eat nightly at premium restaurants, purchase overpriced shore excursions and gamble their bank accounts away.
If you can be satisfied with what the cruise fare includes then you will find your voyage a value and a great escape from the routine. As I walked off Norwegian Dawn's gangway for the last time, I was already thinking about my next cruise.