Cruise review & journal
Norwegian Dawn, March 5-12, 2017
Western Caribbean itinerary sailing from port of New Orleans
by CruiseCritic member RocketSci73, from Huntsville, AL
solo cruiser, male age 43, 10 prior cruises, 8 with Norwegian
- New Orleans is a great cruise port, convenient to a shopping mall and several good food vendors. The city itself is a good destination of its own, with hotels and attractions within walking distance of the cruise port.
- The New Orleans airport shuttle service is a good bargain.
- Boarding & check in for the cruise went smoother than expected.
- NCL has excellent food and restaurants! Their onboard entertainers are also very good too, such as comedy performers, magicians, and acrobats.
- NCL has great service! They know how to be formal, but also know how to have fun, and party very well too.
- NCL has pretty good organized activities for solo travellers. For example, they will let you share a table with others in the main dining rooms.
- The NCL Dawn has great gym facilities, but hot & stuffy. Every NCL ship so far I have seen has had a great gym.
- Cozumel is always a fun spot to visit, something for everyone, and plenty of good shopping!
- The Mayan ruins of Nim Li Punit and Spice Farm in Belize is a great excursion, very informative and well paced.
- All those annoying promotional loudspeaker cruise announcements on the ship have been reduced, compared with previous cruises.
- I did not notice any screaming kids while on the cruise, and there was a mixture of all types of passengers. This means parents on NCL are responsible, and so is the NCL daycare. Kudos.
- Interactive in-room TVs on the ship are very useful, a great innovation.
- NCL has improved the photo process, making it more personal and less of a hassle than before.
- Bad ship layout, hard to get around, the NCL Dawn needs more direction signs
- Karaoke is offered limited hours and not enough time for everyone to sing.
- Background music throughout the ship was often too loud. It's been great on previous NCL cruises.
- Only one ship can dock in Roatan, and others must use tender vessels to carry passengers to the port. The tendering process could have been better organized, and I have seen NCL handle this better in the past.
- Roatan is still getting their act together as a cruise port. For example, the port area has several snack stands, but needs a good sit-down restaurant, especially with many cruise customers unable to simply walk aboard their ship, due to limited dock space & tendering. Local folks everywhere were asking for cash, and tip jars were everywhere.
- Costa Maya needs a better variety of souvenir vendors.
- Before boarding, be sure to research shore excursions, shopping, activities and prices, if you can. It's all online, and can even build to the excitement of your vacation.
- Be sure to meet with other travellers and share experiences whenever you can while on vacation, such as at dinner or while on excursions. You will learn a lot, and make some great friends. Excursions are often mixed between different ships and cruise lines, which helps even more.
- In Belize, everyone is a native speaker of English, and 1 US dollar is always worth 2 Belize dollars.
- You can avoid seeing daily gratuity charges appear on your bill if you pre-pay your gratuities via the NCL website. It's not as expensive as you may think.
- You can also reserve shore excursions, meal plans, and most other onboard purchases at the NCL website before your cruise.
- The shops recommended by the cruise line are a tad more pricey than others, but have a lot better service to deal with.
- Midway through the cruise you should receive an offer to wash & fold all the laundry you can fit in one large bag, for a good price, around $20-25. Use it! I like not having such chores to do when I get back home.
- The CruiseNext deposit option is a good deal, even though over-promoted. While on board, you can put down deposits on a future cruises, and get half your money back immediately toward your current cruise. You do not have to pick out a future sailing, just put down a deposit which can be used on any future NCL cruise within 4 years.
Day 00/ Mar04 - Arrival in New Orleans
My flight to New Orleans went well, as usual. Flights were rather empty this Saturday, so I got surprise upgraded to first class. This was my first time flying Delta first class, and discovered their first class is nice but rather overrated. I found the New Orleans airport shuttle van service to be a good bargain, $24 per person, available in the baggage claim area of the airport. A taxi would be $36 per person. Our shuttle driver was nice and helpful and pointed out landmarks along the way, as he dropped customers off at their various hotels. There is another service company available that can pick up your luggage bags at the airport, store them under secure watch, and transfer them to the ship for your cruise, all for a reasonable cost, or transport them vice versa from the cruise to the airport. I did not use that this time, but it seems like a good idea.
The Hilton near the cruise port was a convenient bargain for this visit. The cruise port and Hilton are joined into the Riverwalk Mall, which is quite convenient, downtown right on the scenic riverside. One can walk freely from the Hilton, through the mall, to the port, and all in air conditioned comfort. I saw several other cruise passengers with luggage going through the mall, to drop their luggage off at the cruise port. The mall also gives you something to do & eat, instead of waiting in long lines to board the ship. I have not seen that at other ports.
It looks like the Hilton has been expanded several times, so is a bit disorganized. Most features at the hotel (food, gym, internet) are extra charge. I explored the area around the cruise port in New Orleans on foot, and did some shopping for loved ones. The food in New Orleans is always good.
Day 01/ Mar 05 - Boarding the ship
I checked out of the Hilton, and dropped my baggage off at the nearby cruise port, leaving me free to shop and explore on my own a bit. A New Orleans city transit pass is a good buy at only $3 per day, and includes the scenic cable cars, all city public busses, and even a new airport shuttle, dubbed route 202. I had some beignet donuts and milk at the Riverwalk's Cafe du Monde, then headed to the port to board the ship.
The line to board the ship was long, but moved rather quickly through security screening, check in, photos & promos, and boarding. I boarded in time to get lunch in the main dining room, called the Venetian restaurant, which was very nice. This was the first time I recalled boarding in time to get lunch on the ship. I unpacked in my cabin, and then came the usual mandatory lifeboat drill. We had to find our emergency muster station, watch how to put on a life vest, and listen to a safety briefing from the cruise director. I did not even notice the ship was moving after the lifeboat drill, until I looked out of a window.
After, I took an organized tour of the ship, which was not very helpful. It showed the feature areas of the ship, but not very well how to get around. The layout of this ship is very disorganized. I like previous NCL ships much better.
I joined the solo travellers meet up in one of the public bars, and we went to dinner together in the Aqua restaurant, which has a nice atmosphere, though hard to get to. I am glad NCL has an organized meetup for solo travellers, and seems to be one of the few cruise lines that cater to them. After, we spent a couple hours at karaoke, and called it a night. The singer list at karaoke was too long, and I did not get to sing. Accoustics in the disco bar were also poor for karaoke. I did not attempt karaoke the rest of the cruise. Back in my cabin, the rocking of the ship put me sound asleep, as we left the Mississippi River headed for the Gulf of Mexico.
Day 02/ Mar 06 - Day at sea
I woke well rested around dawn, and had oatmeal for breakfast at the 24 hour atrium restaurant "O'Sheehan's Irish pub." Service, music, and food have always been good at NCL. I tried to play ping pong this morning, but it was too windy on the decks, due to a nearby storm that just hit New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. We had 13 foot waves and 63 mile an hour breezes, and about one third of passengers were seriously sea sick today.
I wish better direction and deck layout signs were posted throughout the ship. Instead of ping pong, I spent an hour in the gym, which was very nice, with free weights, treadmills, rowing machines, and such, with some good sea views. It could use better ventilation, as it was hot and stuffy, and several others complained about this too. I then found it ironic that the buffet is right next to the fitness center, and I had a good meal, watching the waves.
I changed clothes, then attended the presentation on shore excursions and shopping in the main theater. It was a waste of time, as I had done a lot of research before the cruise, but the shopping deals & coupons handed out were useful.
I then attended the Latitudes party, for prior NCL guests, and learned how the benefits are changing slightly, but are still good. I also met with fellow experienced cruisers, always informative and pleasurable.
I then had lunch in the main dining room, and found the soup spoons were too large to fit in my mouth. My waiter remembered this on several future occassions, and it became sort of a running joke. I have always been pleased with NCL service, all over the ship.
Musical performances all over the ship were also very good, but often too loud when used as background music. The live newlywed game was fun, as usual. I found the in-room TVs have lots of interactive features. You can check your room bill account, order shore excursions, schedule a dining reservation, check weather and navigation information, see a schedule of onboard activities, and more.
Day 03/Mar 07 - Cozumel, Island Highlights & Shopping
My tour of Cozumel was moved 3 hours earlier, with no explanation given. So I went to bed early, could not sleep well, but was awakened to wonderful refreshing tropical air and breezes. I took the island highlights and shopping tour. It was a great tour, one of the best I have ever taken. It is a great overview of the whole island, and nicely paced. We got to see a museum of Mexican artwork and culture called "Discover Mexico," see Mayan temples and villages to a scale of about 4 feeet high, see a modern Mayan handicraft village with some minor Mayan ruins (El Cedral), visit a chocolate factory with lessons on how chocolate was discoved and made, visit a tequila store with lessons and samples, and see great views of the island tropical jungles and coasts, including the El Mirador rocky coastal point. The tour dropped us off at Pancho's Backyard, a wonderful lunch restaurant, also recommended by the cruise line. Good food, good service, reasonable prices, cool shade in a Mexican hacienda, and a live marimba band. Pancho's is about 8 blocks from the cruise port, a nice walk, and gives opportunity to pass by lots of great shops on the way back to the ship. I of course spent too much money shopping along the way, but it was worth it.
The shops recommended by the cruise line were very respectful and professional, but the local shops were very pushy, almost desperate for a sale! They love to haggle; it's the Mexican way. I found this all true in Costa Maya as well.
Back on the ship, I had a late buffet lunch, as we sailed away from Cozumel. I wish fresh drinking water were more commonly available on NCL ships, to prevent dehydration. At some cruise docks, NCL had set up a relaxation welcome tent before entering the ship, with small cups available of lightly flavored water and some cooling fans. This helped some.
The evening magician show was pretty good, but looked staged, as it was always in sync with certain sound effects. He seemed rather unprofessional at times, often demanding more applause from the audience. One problem with the theater was that spotlights would occassionally circle over the audience, blinding passengers at random.
For supper, I tried Le Bistro, the onboard French cuisine restaurant. It was very good, with rich flavors. I could not finish the whole meal. After, I felt drowsy from a full day and full stomach, and went to bed.
I woke in the middle of the night, alert and ready for more action, but hungry again. So I went to the 24-hour O'Sheehan's Irish pub, met some fellow travellers there, then went to the gym to wear myself out, and took a nap. In a couple hours I woke up.
Day 04/ Mar 08 - Roatan, Gumbalimba Nature Park
What a mess! The ship could not dock at the pier in Roatan, and none of the crew seemed to be prepared for this. Tender vessels had to be used to get on and off the ship, and only one tender was loading or unloading at a time. Thus, everyone wanting to get off the ship had to wait in one long line. NCL claimed they were giving priority to those with shore excursion tickets, but I saw no such system in place. I had to wait in line standing for 2 hours, and nearly missed my shore excursion meeting time. Many people did miss theirs, especially the early ones. The line for getting on the tenders was so long, spilling through the main staircase, and Aqua main restaurant, and other public areas of the ship.
Once ashore, we were loaded onto busses, and conveyed to our destination Gumbalimba Park. The nature park was very crowded, as there were at least 4 ships in port, and the park was not prepared for this. Our guided tour of the park had to stop at each attraction, while each previous tour group went through. I was told from the park's website that a self guided tour of the park was an option, but it was not. The park did not have maps or signs ready, a shame. I would have been lost in the jungle without our tour guide! We did get to see a good variety of local flora and fauna, and cross a river on a fun swing bridge. I got my picture taken with tropical birds and monkeys. Our tour guides were very good at taking pictures for everyone, though it slowed things down. The weather was hot, but the park is mostly shaded. The gift shop had a good variety and reasonable prices, but the snack stand was way overpriced. Rental lockers ($3/day) are purchased in the gift shop, but actually located on the other side of the park, which caused some confusion. There is also a beach and pool area, and ziplines available for a modest extra fee, which many seemed to enjoy. In summary, this was not the tranquil retreat that I had expected. Busses cycled through the entrance area to the park about every 20-30 minutes, to shuttle visitors back to the cruise port, and this was handled well.
The Roatan cruise port has lots of good shopping, and several snack stands, but needs a good sit-down restaurant, especially for those passengers that tender to their ships. One crew member told me that NCL and RCCL alternate weeks as to who docks at the Roatan port. This was not our lucky week. On a later day, during the Senior Officers Q&A, the Captain confirmed this problem.
Back on the ship, I dined at the upscale Italian restaurant La Cucina, which had very good food and service. I have been pleased with getting the NCL restaurant dining package on this cruise, and can recommend it to others, but have also been plenty pleased with the food choices included complimentary onboard. The food quality, flavor, service, decoration, and atmosphere have all fulfilled my desires, no matter which dining venue I am in. After a great meal, I hit the hot tub to relax away the evening, with Bob Marley songs performed by the reggae band on deck, under the stars. Very nice, just what I needed after such a long rough day.
Day 05/ Mar 09 - Belize, Mayan Ruins & Spice Farm
I woke up a little sore from yesterday's exercise, but looking forward to this day. Our ship docked at the newly opened cutom-built tourist island of Harvest Caye, but my excursion was going to the mainland Mayan ruins of Nim Li Punit and a nearby spice farm. This was one of the best tours I have taken! It was educational, shaded, and well paced. There were plenty of rest stops included, for restrooms and shopping and such, and even an opportunity for a quick lunch.
From the ship, we boarded a ferry then bus, and were at the Mayan ruin site within the hour. Our tour guides were very professional, entertaining, and informative. The bus was also quite comfortable, even though some access roads were rocky along the way. The ruins were not that large or grand (as I expected), but still authentic and very satisfying, even though I have been to many other Mayan ruin sites before. At this site, trails of leaf cutter ants were marching everywhere, carrying sections of leaf back to their nest, very fascinating to watch. A couple folks needed insect repellent, mainly those who stepped in the pathways of the ants, but I did not, and most others did not. There were not many flying bugs here, and it was well shaded, which was nice.
Our bus next took us to a nearby spice farm, where we had opportunity for some lunch and souvenir shopping first. A limited a-la-cart buffet was offered there, with some pretty good local choices. We then toured the spice farm on tractor-pulled, covered wagons, and our guide pointed out all the plants and their properties: allspice, nutmeg, cocoa, pepper, vanilla beans, and more! We got to learn, smell, and taste most of them. In the farm, we got to open and taste a ripe cocoa pod. I expected the gum surrounding the seeds to be nasty, but it was actually rather nice, a lot like orange pulp, both in flavor and texture. After, there was about 20 minutes to shop for spices and souvenirs at the spice farm, before the bus and ferry took us back to Harvest Caye. We had about an hour of relaxation and shopping remaining at Harvest Caye, before our ship sailed. I found a nice variety of shops, and helpful folks at them. There is a Del Sol shop here, which sells those famous color changing items.
Onboard, I dined in the Venetian main dining room and shared experiences with fellow travellers at my table. The food and service were great as usual. After, I watched the Second City comedy group perform in the main theater. They were hilarious, very entertaining, very skilled at acting. They improvised skits based on audience suggestions, life's quirks aborad a cruise ship, and the awkwardness of a first date of a couple selected from the audience.
Day 06/ Mar10 - Costa Maya, Mayan Reality Tour
Today I took the "Mayan Reality Tour," which is a look at how Mayan people live in modern Mexico. It was rather boring, especially since our tour guide spoke very broken English. There was a lot of standing around and listening to our tour guide. He kept asking the guests questions, to continually stir up conversation and speculation as to how the Mayans really live, but I found this lecture habit very annoying.
We were taken by bus (about 45 minutes) to a modern Mayan village, I believe called Limones. It looked like any other small run down Mexican town: cinder block stucco buildings and dust, graffiti, and poverty everywhere. According to our tour guide, most of the town is government subsidized and non-productive, as these people chose to stay put and not seek out employment opportunities elsewhere. We made a stop at a large thatched hut in the middle of the village called the City Center, where half a dozen local women all sold the same souvenirs on small tables. Next to the center, was a small Mayan pyramid temple. Part of the temple had been repaired in the last few decades, as it was a slightly different color, and had no moss growing. This shows that they care for their religion and community, a positive sign. Our tour guide also attempted to explain the Mayan calendar system.
We were next taken by bus to a nearby Mayan household. Each room was a separate thatched hut, with some modern conveniences present, such as limited electrical wiring, but no running water that I could tell. The kitchen had a refridgerator and a coal stove/oven. The man and woman of the household served us a small meal of spiced chicken baked in a iron pot in a pit in the earth. This was served as taquitos, small tacos with a variety of seasoning sauces. They were actually really good. We were also served water, cola, and beer. This was served in a large outdoor dining ring, with stumps for seats. They also showed how rope, cloth, and tequila are made from agave palnt fibers, using wooden tools.
With 45 minutes left back at Costa Maya, I did some shopping. There must have been at least 15 vendors all selling the same souvenirs (and yelling loudly at the tourists), but only 1 liquor store, and all priced higher than Cozumel. Costa Maya is the Caribbean's first custom built port for cruise ships, meaning it's an overpriced artificial tourist trap. Harvest Caye is another, specific to NCL.
Back on the ship, I raided the buffet, then took a country line dance class offered. Having an international cruise crew is interesting, as we were learning Nashville dances from an Italian man yelling "Yeehaw!"
Day 07/Mar 11 - Day at Sea
I cannot believe it is here, the last full day of our cruise. I started with another great meal in the main dining room, then attended a presentation in the disco on all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make a cruise: the bridge, laundry, kitchens, engine room, etc. This was followed by a half hour Q&A with the senior officers of the ship: the Captain, Chief Engineer, and Hotel Director. The audience had some very good questions, and the officers had some very enlightening answers.
Next I reviewed and purchased my prefered photos in the photo gallery. I am impressed how NCL has improved the photo process on this ship, with touchscreen review, sorting & marking your favorite photos, and electronic ordering. It is a lot more personal and less of a hassle than before, as you see only the photos for your stateroom, and don't have to wade through all the others. For an extra $20, you can have all photos you purchase put on a USB memory stick. You can do this all at once, or have later photo purchases added to the same memory stick as the cruise goes by.
Next I attended a program on future NCL cruises (boring), began packing up my bags, tallying my souvenirs to fill in the customs form, and ate lunch. I cannot believe I spent $197 in souvenirs, but it's worth it. (I had budgeted about double that, just in case, so was actually pleased.) After lunch, I watched the onboard magician perform and even teach a few tricks, followed by an enlightening Q&A session with him. I finished packing my bags, then competed in a trivia contest of identifying beautiful global natural landmarks. Our team won first place, getting the most right. It was great fun for everyone, even though there were no prizes.
For supper, the tepanyaki room was booked up, so I went to Le Bistro again, and had another wonderful meal. After, I watched the acrobatics show in the main theater, quite amazing as always.
On this day, I noticed that we had gotten no rain during this whole cruise, though we got 13 foot high seas and 63 mile an hour winds on our first sea day. The Caribbean is known for great weather year-round, but in the course of a winter week one can expect a serious storm or two, no matter where you are, even on a cruise. I have seen worse, though this was new to many first time cruisers.
Day 08/Mar12 - End of cruise and journey home
I woke up an hour early, as did a lot of other guests, as this was the day we changed to daylight savings time, but most of the ship's clocks had not been properly set yet. This caused mass confusion, with everyone asking everyone else what the time was, and folks wondering when they could or could not eat, as well as wondering when they had to get off the ship.
We arrived and docked in New Orleans to a gloomy, cold, windy, rainy storm of a morning. Winter is still present in March in America. Getting off the ship and transferred to the airport for the flight home was rather straight-forward, as I had purchased an airport transfer through the cruise line.
At the airport, I discovered GLO Airlines does not allow luggage check in until 2 hours before flight, which was an inconvenience, and different from most airlines. This meant for about an hour, I had to lug my bags through the airport. The flight home was great. Everyone working for GLO seemed happy and professional. The airplane was small, noisy, and shaky, but overall better than I had expected. There was plenty of room, comparable with other airlines, and the snack / beverage service was better than most coach flights. I made it home in plenty of time, and arrived home to a clear, bright, sunny day. (Edit: GLO airlines has since gone out of business later in 2017.)
Overall, the vacation was great, and I am looking forward to my next with Norwegian Cruise Line! (Edit: My current plan is Norwegian Getaway on 04Mar2018.)
Let me know if you would like to know more, or have any questions. I love talking about my vacations, and dreaming about them too! Read Less