Spoiler alert: This is quite long! But if you’re contemplating taking a cruise on the Norwegian Dawn, the few minutes that it takes to read this will help you make an informed choice as to whether or not this vacation is for you.
In today’s world of technological marvels, there are many amazing cruise ships providing warm and memorable experiences for travelers across the world. The Norwegian Dawn is NOT one of them! This was our second cruise; the first being on a Royal Caribbean ship about 12 years ago. The two experiences could hardly have been any different.
Though the Norwegian Dawn was fully refurbished in 2016, this 2001 ship is really starting to show its age and lacks many of the cool features found on the more modern cruisers. Additionally, some of the most basic comforts and amenities are missing that would have made this trip so much more enjoyable.
We were off to a rocky start right at embarkation. We were told to arrive by 10:00 AM, and were there ten minutes ahead of schedule. It was an absolute free-for-all! No one at the dock had any useful information, cabs were backed up all over the place, the handlers were slinging bags onto carts with total disregard, and we ended up having to drag our own luggage several hundred yards to check it in. We were told to go way and return at noon, only to now find ourselves at the back of the queue and waiting for well over an hour in a tent to be boarded! We couldn’t get to our rooms for another hour or two, and what was left of our luggage didn’t arrive until around 4:00 PM. They absolutely destroyed my wife’s new suitcase: one handle missing, and the other broken on one end.
On the second night out, I found out why some folks had nick-named the ship “Galloping Gertie” (after the highly-unstable Tacoma Narrows bridge that ultimately shook itself apart!) The Dawn seemed to handle seas up to six feet fairly well, but when we hit those six-to-nine foot waves (not that uncommon in the Atlantic during a storm), you had to hold the handrail with one hand and brace against the hallway with the other just to stay upright. Finally, at about 4:00 AM, I’d had all I could stand, and went down to the restaurant to have a cup of coffee and try to ride it out. I was surprised to find several other folks already there, doing the same thing. Well, at least I made a few new friends due to my lack of sleep. But the whole time I was looking out the window, the words to "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" kept running through my mind!
Another issue that we ran into continuously was the language barrier. They claim to have dozens of different nationalities represented on the ship. However, reportedly 60% of the staff is from the Philippines and for most, their English skills are highly lacking. Whether it was ordering a drink, selecting a meal, or a simple request for directions, it was typically a toss-up as to whether or not they’d get it right. This seemed to be the chief complaint from everyone I talked to. Oh, as an aside, I was told that they had a grand total of 10 Americans on the ship. I guess that it’s hard to get folks to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week for nine months at a stretch!
The only person on the ship who provided excellent service was our room steward. When he noticed that I was struggling with sinus issues, he brought me two boxes of somewhat softer tissues. Well, softer than the sandpaper they had in the room as standard issue. He was highly attentive and took great care of us and the room. As it turned out, he was the notable exception on the ship. Pretty much the rest of the crew were short, terse and of no help at all. They were always saying “if anything’s not right, let us know and we’ll make it right.” But when you did, you’d better be ready for a healthy dose of snarky attitude and a full-on fight. One of the best examples of this was when we were waiting in the main theater to get called upon for the shore excursion. When someone questioned something regarding the process they were using—a simple and justified question asked in a respectable manner—the guy in charge responded “because that’s just the way it is.” In other words, we know what’s best for you, so go along with the program and don’t ask questions! This was indicative of the “customer service” we experienced from the first contact to the last with everyone we met from the cruise line.
The thing that worried me most about being on this ship was their cavalier attitude toward safety. Their idea of a “safety drill” was to have everyone muster in a common area and await further instructions. In our case, it was the ~2,000 seat theater. Can you imagine if they had a fire or other serious incident on-board, and 2,000 folks were all crammed in a crowded theater with limited access via steep stairways with no handrails? Add to this nightmare scenario a crew with limited English skills and sorely lacking leadership, and you have the recipe for disaster. At no time were we instructed on how to egress to the life boats or how to respond in an emergency other than to go into the hallways and throw ourselves at the mercy of the crew. My advice is to anyone travelling by sea is to scout out the two quickest, safest routes to the lifeboats, and walk it with your entire family until you are 100% confident you can do it in an emergency by memory. And by all means, bring a couple of reliable pocket-sized flashlights and keep one with you at all times!
Speaking of safety, another big frustration was the lack of lids for the coffee cups so you could easily take a cup back to your room or out on the deck. I just couldn’t figure out why’d they’d risk their passengers burning their hands with scalding hot coffee for the lack of a two-cent lid. Then it occurred to me that what they would prefer you do is have room service deliver the coffee to your room at an outrageous charge. Of course, you could always go to their coffee bar and order some $5 concoction and they’d be happy to give you a lid. When I challenged the director in charge of food and beverage about this policy, he became highly flustered with me, cut the conversation off, and ignored me completely. To make matters worse, the other thing that irritated me incessantly was that they always served your glass by grabbing it by the rim. Given that you’re always just one step from a virus outbreak on a ship like this, I couldn’t believe that no one ever called them out on this highly unsanitary practice!
Getting around the vessel also proved to be a real challenge. We were constantly running into locked doors and dead ends. It wasn’t until day two that I figured out that the only sure-fire way to get from one end of the ship to the other was on the seventh floor. Of course, to work your way through this main concourse, you had to dodge the relentless photographers trying to take your photo, crew members hawking everything from T-shirts to spa treatments, the casino, the jewelry store (one bracelet for $14.99, or two for just $30.00), and every other scheme they had contrived to effectively separate you from your money! This also meant that every time there was a big show, event, or return from shore, there would be a mad dash for the elevators, and the subsequent long wait to get one that wasn’t already at capacity.
I’d always heard how incredible the food was on these cruises, and indeed that was the case on our last one. Not so on the Dawn! We had one or two pretty good meals at the specialty restaurants (which is not included in the basic package), but even those were nothing spectacular. My requested medium steak came about two shades beyond well done, and by the time they brought out a replacement, my wife had completely finished her meal. At the Chinese restaurant, it took us 45 minutes to even get a glass of tea, and nearly 90 minutes to get our food. The buffet was pretty much the same grub day in and day out. It wasn’t terrible, but it was a long way from what I’d enjoyed on our previous cruise with Holland America. Instead of gaining several pounds as I had anticipated, I ended up losing five. It’s a very expensive weight-loss plan that I heartily don’t recommend!
Unfortunately, the quality of the entertainment wasn’t much either. There was only one show that was up to the quality you’d expect from a major cruise line. Most of the others were variants the used the same cast (or members of the crew) over and over. They even somehow managed to merge the acrobatic show, the magic show, and one other act into some sort of disjointed, incoherent menagerie toward the end of the cruise. Nearly all of the singing acts were what you’d expect to find at an average piano bar.
For those who may have the illusion of actually getting anything done via the Internet while out to sea, you can forget that unless you want to get up at 3:00 AM—and even then there was pretty limited throughput. I asked the “engineer” about the lack of stability and bandwidth as he was rebooting the system for the umpteenth time, and he said that dropped signals were just a way of life on the ship—despite the $200+ charge for unlimited Internet for the duration of the cruise. When I asked about throughput, he said to expect 30 megabits. And oh, that’s not to your room; that’s for the entire ship to share! For those who aren’t familiar with download speeds, that’s about one-half to one-fourth of the throughput to the average US home.
The thing that just ate at me relentlessly was how deceitful they were about all of the charges and services. For example, they offered to do a full bag of laundry for $19.95. However, when I got the bag, it was thin as toilet tissue! You could barely get two or three garments in it without it tearing wide open. This, of course, was their way of limiting how much laundry you could include in each bag. And again, something so cheap and simple that could have been a positive customer experience turned into yet another exasperating incident.
We had also been told that if we chose the ultimately beverage package (three of these premium packages were included in our deal), then we could have unlimited drinks of any kind every day of the cruise. I’m not much of a drinker, but given what they charged for sodas, and bottled water ($36 for 12 bottles of water!), we chose this as one of our options. However, when we got on the ship, we were informed that sodas and bottled water were NOT included in the deal. And of course, you’re strictly prohibited from bringing any drink—including a single bottle of Coke or water—on-board at any time. An oh, they don’t have Coke, just Pepsi. Gak!
So it went for the whole trip: One frustration after another, one deception after another, and one disappointment after another. I’m not sure what next year’s vacation may include, but you can be sure that thanks to this experience, this will be my absolute last cruise!
I’ll close with a quote from a friend: “A cruise is like being in prison, but with a much greater chance of drowning.” Several times during this trip, drowning was starting to seem like a much better option!
When we finally got to our room—actually a rather expensive suite with a balcony—I was absolutely amazed to find that it featured only ONE electrical socket. Not one outlet of two sockets, but only one socket for the whole room. (There is a second one in the bathroom over the sink, but it specifies that it is only a low-current socket for electrical razors and the like). Oddly, there were plugs all over the cabin, but they had removed the special adapters that allow you to use them. Fortunately, we had a very attentive and helpful cabin steward who provided us with a surge strip that allowed us to charge more than one cell phone or iPad at a time. I can only assume that the electrical system on the ship is so antiquated that they have to limit the amount of current consumption to prevent an overload!
The next major issue was with the bed. They described the bed as “firm”. Yes, it was firm—as a stack of bricks! I hit that thing and had a backache in under ten minutes. It also had a huge dip on one side, and you practically had to scale your way uphill to move from one side of the bed to the other. Since I couldn’t sleep, I got up at 3:30 AM and went down to have a cup of coffee in one of the restaurants. There, I met a guy who was having the same problem, except that his back was hurting so bad he literally had tears in his eyes. I ran into him several times during the cruise, and he said he’s spent all of his time in port shopping for pain medications and trying to find a doctor. Fortunately, we found out that you could request a “egg-crate top” to make it a bit more tolerable, and I was at least able to get in a few hours of sleep each night. All I can say is bring plenty of Ibuprofen; you’re going to need it!
The third frustration we had with the room was the amount of time it took for the water to get hot in either the sink or tub. I timed it on one occasion, and it required just over 19 minutes! Now I’m an early riser, and maybe I’m the first guy in the morning to prime the hot water pipes, but that’s ridiculous by any standard. And because the tub drains so slow, we then had to wait for another 10 minutes for the tub to empty before taking a shower. Eventually, it became standard operating procedure for whoever got up first in the morning to turn on the hot water in the sink and just let it run until we were ready to bathe. With a little luck, the hot water would have found its way to our cabin before we needed it.
The noise in our suite wasn’t too bad, but you’d better choose your room very carefully! During a storm, the lifeboats slam against the side of the ship with a resounding thud, making it impossible to sleep. Several folks on the aft end of the boat under the 24-hour dining room complained that they were kept up all night with chairs being dragged across the floor, pots dropped, and all manner of noise from overhead. One couple told us they were on their third room in just three days, and were still plagued by the racket!