After years of cruising the Caribbean, we've seen a lot of ports and islands. A cruise is all about experiencing something new. So it was great to visit four new ports on this cruise. And these islands did not disappoint. Some people complained that the islands looked alike; but not to me! They were quite the mixture of volcanic and coral islands, of regimented and laid-back islands, of populous and lightly peopled islands. Kudos to NCL for putting together a great itinerary.
And the price was excellent. Friends ask if I got a good deal on a cruise. Yes -- if I'm going, I got a good deal. This time, it cost about $47 per day per person for an ocean view cabin (including the on-board credits.) A cruise from a gulf coast city would be more convenient; but even paying for flights to Miami did not make this an expensive vacation.
If I'm going to Miami, I'm also driving south the day before my cruise. We rented a car from Enterprise. Stopped in Florida City to visit a great fruit stand called Robert Is Here (it's on the road to Everglades NP); got some weird tasting fruit this time, but I would never find anything like it at my hometown supermarket. Drove further south to Key Largo, and had dinner at the Fish House restaurant; wonderful fresh Mahi Mahi. As it was already dark, we spent the night in an inexpensive road-side motel. The next day, Enterprise gave us a ride to the cruise port; and the rental charge for the car ($25) was less than the price of a taxi from the airport ($40).
Got to the cruise port about 12:30. The line was already backed up way around the terminal building. But it moved fast. Here's some free advice to those people who complain how slow it all is -- fill out your documents on-line (yes, duh). How strange it is to see people arguing with the gate agents when they should have already known what to expect. Anyway, we were on the ship by 1:30 but the rooms were not ready. So we went to the Venetian Restaurant for a leisurely (and tasty!) lunch. By the time we finished eating, the rooms were done, so we dropped off our carry-on luggage and went in search of an umbrella drink.
First sea day, attended the Cruise Critic Meet and Greet. What a great bunch of folks! Of course, I felt like we were already friends after talking with them on the CC Roll Call board and on the FaceBook group that somebody started. Once you book this cruise, get on the Roll Call and make some friends. I saw most of these CC & FB folks many times during the cruise, and it was great to skip the meeting rituals.
Wish I could remember every meal, because most of them were great. We almost always ate in the Venetian Restaurant. Never ate at a pay-extra restaurant. Went to the cafeteria for lunch a couple of times. Food everywhere was consistently good, though the selection left something to be desired. The Venetian was sometimes very slow for dinner -- we had a half hour wait in the bar several times.
Each dinner included a mystery entrÃ©e - it was supposed to be representative of food on the island which we were to visit the next day. The fish dishes were good, though definitely not as good as fresh fish. Only one day was I badly disappointed; we must have been going to the home port of Mrs. Paul, because we were served fish sticks. Yuck. However, this was my fifth cruise on NCL, and it was the first one where the desserts were mostly good; but really, NCL -- lose the recipes that involve gelatin.
Food service was excellent. The wait staff was always good, especially the younger waitresses who spent the time to talk with us. NCL: if you are reading this, these waitresses are an asset; they reminded me of a couple of assistant waiters on the old and incredibly lamented SS Norway. I appreciate efficient service, but friendly service is even better. One complaint -- the people who seated us were unable to arrange shared tables (we like talking to people we have just met). One time we were paraded twice from front to back of the dining room while the host looked for a table. But we discovered that if we ate breakfast as soon as the restaurant opened, we would almost always be seated at a table next to people who arrived there at the same time we did.
One breakfast treat that I am happy to have stumbled across. On the Tortola day, the Venetian opened early. We sat at the back, near the huge windows. The captain took the ship on a winding excursion between islands. Breathtaking!
Thanks to the Venetian staff who tried to keep the place a little more upscale for dinner. If you want to wear shorts and a tee shirt, there are other options. Please don't try to browbeat the manager into making an exception for you. I felt really bad for a young man when his father claimed he was twelve (twelve and younger kids are allowed to wear shorts). The manager looked up his picture and told the father that the kid was fourteen. The poor teenager -- he was mortified by his father's lie.
Best dinner of the cruise was Christmas Eve. Finally -- a good selection of appetizers and entrÃ©es.
Rating for food service -- four out of five stars.
I recommend the review of the NCL Dawn posted by Sea Dawg (November, 2011). If you are on a budget, or just like the bragging rights on saving money, check it out. Personally, I'd rather have a great tour than the absolute cheapest price. If you've got one thing on an island that you want to do, the public bus may be your best bet. Regardless, the Dawg is a great resource on what you should have to pay. I printed out his review and read it each day that we were stopping at a port.
Samana. Tender port. Got a free tender ride to Cayo Levantado and hung out all day on the beach. NCL may start charging for this in the future. They really should treat this like a private island, and offer ship's lunch on the beach.
Tortola. Decided at the last minute to take a ship's tour on a catamaran with a stop to snorkel and a beach break. Well worth the $70. People with more expensive snorkeling tours also went to Norman's island. Great beach with sting rays, large fish, diving pelicans, Boobie birds, and a bar right beside the water.
St Martin. Been there, done that (many, many times). So we just walked to town and hung out by this bar that had dollar beers. Walked all over town looking for sunglasses. Local group was doing a living statues thing - it was oddly entertaining. And free.
Antigua. Went shopping, looking for a musical instrument store; lots of rumors, but no instruments. There were many stores (not necessarily duty free). Finally gave up and joined a $30 ship's tour to a private beach with unlimited rum punch.
Dominica. My favorite island. I had arranged a tour with Bumpiing Tours ($60, all day). There was a tender ride from the ship, which most people didn't know about, and which caused them (and us) to be late. We took a six mile hike up and down steep hills, through the rain forest -- rained the whole time, thankfully -- to a spectacular waterfall. Then drove to a narrow canyon for a swim to a waterfall in a cave, and got to jump off the waterfall and float back downstream. And then drove to a hot spring which was way too hot for my tastes. And finally went swimming on champagne reef. I am still worn out from this tour. If you are fit, do this one! Nothing better in the Caribbean.
Barbados. Way over-populated island with lots of rich people and ostentatious houses. Still, driving tour was inexpensive. We had several children on the bus, and they wanted to see the monkeys. I paid the fee, just so I wouldn't be sitting around waiting for them. And surprise, the monkeys were great. They are free to roam, and visit the facility for food. They run between your feet and chatter from trees right beside your ear. Fun! The rest of the tour was not so much fun. Yams and sugar cane only go so far. Still, if you are impressed with homes of the rich and famous, your driver will be more than happy to show you each and every mansion on Barbados.
St Kitts. We wanted to go to the beach, but the water looked a little rough. So we prowled through town and finally joined a $15 tour around the island in an open-air safari truck. Our driver must have watched too many Steve McQueen movies -- he careened down narrow paths on two wheels, narrowly missing people, animals and other vehicles; my wife left finger indentations by tightly gripping the roll bar. But this tour took us to good stuff - a beach with lava formations and an old mansion with a great botanical garden. We even went to a beach lined with little bars. And we arrived back at the ship in one piece. My wife gives this tour a white-knuckled, thumbs up.
Rating for islands -- five out of five.
Cabins. We had an ocean view cabin with a picture window. Very cramped, but it did have adequate closet space and dresser drawers. Hard to get into bed without crawling (no way was there room for a third passenger). Shower was adequate, sink and counter okay, toilet stall was miniscule. NCL put a sliding door between toilet and counter; I had to squeeze through the opening. No room to shut the door; but why would you want to shut a transparent glass door? We try to walk up stairs instead of riding the slow elevators (except for the day after our Dominica tour), and let me tell you it is a looong way from deck five to the swimming pool on thirteen.
Public facilities. Always crowded. I guess nobody wanted to stay in their cabins. Somewhere I read that the room with best view on the ship had been converted to cabins; I would have liked to have hung out in some place like that. Pools were also very crowded. Why only one adult pool on a ship of this size? Mistake! Nice kid's pool, except the kids all went to the main pool. Hot tubs always crowded. No reason to put up signs saying "six person maximum" or "adults only" when the kids can't read English.
Ship music. Lots of piano players and singers. But for some reason, most were finished by 9:00. I would have liked some music late at night (guess that NCL thinks this would detract from the casino.) Most of the singers were not bad, but one evening of listening was plenty. Dawn Show Band is excellent; even if you don't like jazz bands, you can appreciate their musicianship. Pool band New Seasons was way too good to keep by the pool, and in fact they played in indoor venues at night; their reggae is great, but C&W music is not their thing; they did a couple of instrumental sets, and these were excellent. Lobby singers Lucky Duo were pretty good; but female half of duo quite obviously likes some songs better than others -- she really sells some music and kind of frowns her way through others. Comedian on board was really an excellent singer -- I wish he had done more songs and less humor; he was probably a good comedian for old people from New York and Boston, but by the time this Midwesterner had translated his accent, the joke was past and the comedian was complaining that nobody was laughing.
Ship entertainment. The singing and dancing shows were excellent. By all means, don't miss the production called Bollywood. Magician was impressive but even his spectacular magic (making a helicopter appear on stage) was not real impressive; I don't know why this was. Hypnotist tried to bore the audience to sleep (I guess this is part of the technique, but surely there's some way to make the first half hour a little more entertaining.) Boy band from Branson was energetic, but relied more on audio effects than on their own singing; at one point they asked the audience to stand up, so I stood up and walked out. British singer/pianist lady is a very accomplished musician, but needs a few more cruises to learn how to entertain an audience. A male singer and impressionist was quite good at singing, though his impressions were not always spot-on; still his songs were very well done and were quite a lot of fun to listen to. Second City troop was outstanding -- especially their late night show; I would go see them every night if they would perform that often.
Casino. I didn't gamble, but did walk through a couple of times. The place was like a morgue. Nobody smiling, nobody winning. People on the ship did not brag about winning big. Even the bingo and ship lottery had no winners. Weird.
Rating for the ship -- three stars out of five.
Best thing -- food workers; it is amazing that restaurant staff will work so hard without reward from their customers, I credit the workers themselves and the supervisory staff.
Poorest thing -- NCL management. It seems they take every opportunity to make a buck. So many extra charges. Other cruise lines take opportunities to build customer loyalty by offering some things gratis. Well, the ice cream bar was free, but a pizza oven in the buffet restaurant would have added to the friendliness of the ship.
Confusion -- hotel management. One day, our cabin steward ran out of beach towels. Since we were going to a beach the next day, we called housekeeping. Somebody came and brought us a towel. Then somebody else brought us a complete set of bathroom towels. Then the steward stopped by the next day to apologize. We were not upset, the first guy with a beach towel fixed the problem. The Norwegian Dawn needs to communicate better with itself.
Confusion -- restaurant management. I'm irritated that it was so difficult to share a table with somebody else. We volunteered to do so at every opportunity, to no avail. Other ships, even other NCL ships do it better. A couple of years ago on the Norwegian Sun, the host each time asked it we were willing to share a table, and always found us a table to share with another English speaking couple.
Free style? They must mean expensive style, since the cost of most of the restaurants is in addition to the cost of the cruise. Free would be if you could just sit down in a restaurant, at the time you previously agreed on, without paying anything extra. Just about everybody I spoke to likes the so-called free style, so maybe I'm different than the main stream cruiser. Other lines do it better by offering both assigned seating and the option for other restaurants. Bad-on-ya, Norwegian Dawn, for not taking reservations at the main dining rooms and for making us wait so long for a table.
Most unusual thing - pub crawl. We got 5+ drinks for $25, played dumb drinking games, and went around the ship acting drunk and trying to annoy our fellow passengers. Kind of fun. I felt like a twenty-something.
Overall rating -- four stars out of five. This cruise was better than I had expected. Wouldn't take much for me to give the ship a much better score.