This was a ten night cruise to Barbados and other islands in the Lesser Antilles. It was our third time sailing on the Dawn, our tenth with NCL and our thirty-third cruise overall. We live on the Southwest coast of Florida so cruising out of Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami is most convenient. We usually drive over to Miami the day before the cruise to avoid any last minute rush or unanticipated travel glitches. We stay one night in a Quality Inn near the airport which allows free parking for up to 30 days and also offers free shuttle service to the port. There are several excellent Cuban restaurants nearby to help set the mood for a Caribbean cruise and the hotel includes a complimentary breakfast.
Then, it's off to the port arriving around noon to see an undisciplined line of humanity snaking out of the building, down an alley, back up the alley and ending about another 300 feet later. Somehow, the majority were inside within 15 minutes. Check-in at the counter was also seamless and efficient and it should be since they conduct this rodeo multiple times each week. The good news ends there. Having successfully side-stepped the photographers minefield we arrive at the Garden Cafe, better known as the Feeding Trough, at peak feeding frenzy. NCL offers a bag check service for carry-on's but few take advantage of it, preferring to double-park their stuff under the crowded, undersized tables and in the sparse traffic aisles. This circus occurs on every ship on embarkation day. To avoid this you can grab a poolside table and take turns bringing food back or check to see if the main dining room happens to be open for lunch while in port. It rarely is.
From here on we'll hit the high points and low points only. I assume you don't care to hear about anything that's considered average, standard, mundane or simply boring.
The Dawn went into dry dock in May and converted the popular Spinnaker Lounge on deck twelve into suites. No longer can guests enjoy the 180 degree view with a bar during sail-away. It was also an excellent gathering space during the day plus a nighttime venue that was regularly filled with dancers and groups of partiers. The Spinnaker has been moved aft to a windowless lower deck and when we dropped in for a drink before dinner, only one other couple occupied a table. While on board we discovered this conversion had also taken place on the Dawn's sister ship, the Star. We have cancelled our April, 2012, 14 day Star repositioning from Tampa to New York.
Overall, the ship is in relatively good shape if you can overlook a broken mirror in the elevator, duct tape over old signs, and some out of order public toilets. In keeping with management's marketing obsession the atrium is now cluttered daily with tables offering discounted merchandise that people didn't want on previous cruises. This greatly impedes traffic, distracts from what could be an attractive lounging area and causes generally docile adults to morph into "Black Friday" shopping mode.
Our cabin on deck 9 served its purpose but if it had been six inches shorter in either direction it would have been most uncomfortable. The dirty, stained, paper thin carpet must not have gotten the memo about the dry dock refurbishing. Our efficient Room Steward did a marvelous job of cleaning the room but there wasn't anything she could do to improve that nasty carpet.
Breakfast in the Garden Cafe offers everything anyone could possibly want including omelets, eggs to order and even pizza one morning. Sticky buns loaded with pecans were a welcomed surprise each day. The staff is overly accommodating and friendly for this time of morning and the "people watching" is always entertaining. Some even arrive in their PJ's and a big smile. The Jazz Brunch sounded like fun, but there was a fee attached so we passed on it.
Lunch, in the same place, offers a large variety including an excellent deli, steam table fare, salads, soups, Italian, Indian, German and a hit or miss carving station. Hits include a moist, perfectly roasted turkey and a gigantic, melt in your mouth, bone-in pork roast. Where do they find hogs this size? Misses include a small, skinny, dismembered chicken and a rectangular piece of tough, tasteless beef that they would drag out every few days, saw off a few slices and return it to its cage. Another strange entree was beef stroganoff that included beets and red bell peppers. Colorful indeed.
Dinner in the Aqua dining room is much quieter than in the MDR, which enhances conversation and the wait staff seems to enjoy your company. We received excellent service every night and made it a point to arrive for dinner by 6:00pm, thus avoiding waiting in line for a table. What ever happened to shrimp cocktail? With the exception of cheesecake, desserts seemed to be the product of some experiment that went terribly wrong. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to mess up a chocolate dessert, but it was done daily. Other abundant items appeared to be cloned Twinkies injected with a kind of gelatinous paste that I suspect would glow in the dark if given a chance. Breads, while light and airy, contained little flavor and I think were simply marking time before they could be used for bread pudding.
Highlights on the entertainment calendar included an excellent house band, CD Paul Scally's act, Sinatra night in the Atrium and the high energy, high volume dance troupe. The Jean-Ann Ryan dance troupe is now history on the Dawn, the Pearl and I suspect other NCL ships as well. We were on the Pearl in January and the house band was also missing. All dance numbers were done rather amateurishly using "canned" music. Poor management decisions like these contribute to my impression of NCL having become the Walmart of all cruise lines.
The unique itinerary and price combined to make this an interesting and affordable cruise with our balcony cabin on deck nine costing little more than a window cabin on a lower deck. This cruise included ports in the Dominican Republic, Tortola, St. Maarten, Antigua, Barbadoes, Saint Kitts and three days at sea. The rough edges of Samana, D.R. were smoothed off by the ship offering free tender service to the private island of Cayo Levantado which has a picture perfect beach and beautiful palms offering plenty of shade. Be sure to visit Saint Kitts shops and pick up several bottles of an excellent, locally produced vanilla flavored rum.
Strange Behavior: Having our dinner interrupted by a staff member wanting to sign us up for a special Indian dinner at a special price--NCL now charges for a ship's tour, how tacky?--Watching a guy order two steak dinners and finishing them before we finished one--Hearing the Captain describe Samana as "Rustic" and having the CD announce it was too rough to board tenders for town but tenders are now available to take passengers to the private island--Watching a featured performer drop two slices of bacon on the floor, ignoring them, then shelling two eggs littering the table top with shells, discarding the yolks and eating only the whites with ketchup. Yucky and poor manners to boot.
Disembarkation in Miami went smoothly until we were told by the Taxi dispatcher to stand in a very long line while she tried to figure out how to get us into taxi's. As we obediently waited in line, several disembarking passengers walked up and hopped into taxi's, bidding us farewell as they left the port. While the line got longer and longer we suggested the dispatcher should get some help since it was obvious she didn't know what she was doing. What a mess!