My mother and I are avid cruisers (but really, that’s all of us here). We know that the only remedy for being away from cruise ships is to go on more. When Mom decided that she needed a getaway sometime this year, I went hunting for cruise options that fit her schedule. We settled on a 7-day cruise to Bermuda (round-trip from Boston), a place neither of us has been. We also picked NCL, a cruise line neither of us has been on. What sold that for us was not only the cheap base price, but also that they were offering a deal of $100 onboard spending credit and choice of 2 perk packages. That kind of deal is hard to beat. We chose 250 minutes of WiFi and 3 meals in the specialty restaurants.
When I went on my first cruise several years ago, I saw Norwegian ships among the other ships in port. Their logo with the motto “Freestyle cruising” popped off the ships, and caught my eye. It made me begin to wonder if I’d ever cruise on a Norwegian ship one day. After all, FREESTYLE cruising…what’s not to love about that idea? However, since then, I’ve developed my own palate for what I like in cruising. The two lines I’ve sailed on previously have been Princess and HAL, and I will say that I prefer the traditional approach to cruising. I like getting to know my waiters and fellow cruisers in the MDR, having afternoon tea, enrichment options, and the onboard ambiance.
I knew what I was getting into with an NCL cruise. I knew it probably wasn’t going to be my favorite cruising style, but I was also open to trying it out. My aunt is an NCL regular, and I was glad to have her as a resource to be prepared for what I would encounter before I boarded. When I went on my first HAL cruise after my previous sailings on Princess, it was a bit of a shock the first few days. I knew I didn’t want to repeat that this time, especially when the cruising style on NCL is even more different.
Despite my preference for traditional cruising, I was looking forward to the chance to have the greater flexibility that NCL delivers with their freestyle cruising. Eating whenever I want, with plenty of cuisine options, and great entertainment are certainly appealing. Our perks, with meals in the best restaurants onboard and free spending money, were sure to make our cruise even more enjoyable. I was expecting to have a great time, but also thinking it wouldn’t be my first choice in how I like to cruise. In short, I was right.
We chose to fly into Boston the night before the cruise to avoid the hassle of potential delays or very early morning flights. Upon arriving at the pier, we had a smooth and efficient (you’ll see me use this word a lot) embarkation. We went through security bag check (no outside water was permitted onboard), received a boarding group number, and proceeded to check-in. At check-in, they scanned our passports, gave us a public health questionnaire, took our security photos, and provided us with our cruise cards. Photo gallery pictures were available for taking in front of a green screen, but I was easily able to bypass it.
It was then time to wait with 2000 of our newest closest friends until we could board. Most of the seats were full, with people lined up standing behind the rows of seats, but I was fortunate to find a single seat open because a recent foot injury made sitting preferable. Embarkation started shortly, and though we were boarding group 20, they went through the numbers fast. We probably boarded less than an hour after we arrived at the pier.
This sense of efficiency extended to the rest of the cruise, such as the muster drill. We were assigned a room of the ship and a section of the room for the drill, which streamlined the process. We didn’t need to bring our life jackets, and it was hassle-free. Food delivery in the restaurants was usually fast, and photos in the photo gallery were available in assigned binders or through a computer-based program. This was a much more intuitive way of finding photos than attempting to search for them on a display case.
I don’t know what the Dawn looked like before the refit, but I’m sure the refit added much needed modifications to the décor and offerings. I’d heard that the ship’s layout was on the confusing side, and while it’s not the easiest ship to navigate, I found it generally straightforward once I understood the directions to important parts of the ship. Deck 7 is the hub of the atrium, with Deck 8 boasting O’Sheehan’s pub, and Deck 9 a comfortable wraparound lounge. Balconies overlooking the atrium are found several decks going up.
The Dawn really exemplified the concept of a cruise ship as not only a floating hotel, but a resort. The number of restaurants was the most notable differentiating factor from the other ships I’d been on. The ambiance onboard the ship reminded me of being in an NYC club. The ship is indeed beautiful, featuring colors of black, gold, and silver throughout—a sleek and classy design. The artwork was geometric and graphic patterns rather than figure artwork. The carpet around the atrium is designed with patterns that remind me of blood vessels or brain neurons, and the Bliss Lounge (my favorite spot) is art deco on the walls.
The pool deck is the most hopping area of the ship, and much more so than my previous cruises. The pools and hot tubs were usually crowded, and there’s always a band or DJ playing while the place lights up at night in bright colors. Several staggered rows of pool chairs face the pool from one direction, and couches and tables surround the pool. Because of how crowded it gets, sometimes it can be difficult to find somewhere to sit, and the crew regularly wipes down the outdoor high-top chairs. It’s a great place to people watch, but I don’t want to sit on a wet chair in my dry clothes.
The plumbing on the ship would benefit from maintenance. At one point, our toilet wouldn’t flush and many of the public toilets would flush by themselves. They’d flush while I was sitting on them, or once I press flush they’d flush multiple times before they’d finish.
When I arrived at my cabin, I was surprised to find that it was much smaller than I expected, especially since we were in a balcony cabin. My mother agreed. They’d already set up our cabin with two twin beds. We thought there wasn’t a mini bar until we found it later above the closets (different than the place we would usually expect, below the TV). I usually expect to find a “guide to the ship” binder for the cabin, but there wasn’t one here. The fairly small balcony was equipped with two chairs, a tiny table, and a faux teak flooring. There was only one pair of 110v and 220v outlets.
I found the cabin to be adequate for the most part but lacking in many of the features we’re used to on ships. However, the bed was comfortable and we did like the bathroom. The room may have been small, but that was made up for in a slightly larger than average bathroom. Both the toilet alcove and shower had their own set of sliding doors, meaning one of us could use the toilet while the other was in the shower. The shower was large (you could stretch your legs!) and the bath products provided were a nice lemongrass scent. The light above the toilet was shaped like a seashell which I found cute. The space outside the door included a dial to turn to indicate the state of the room: please clean, turn down, do not disturb, all color coded. I hadn’t seen this anywhere before and I liked this compared to using a door handle sleeve.
Our room steward was very good. She was professional and competent and always excited to see us, and she did a great job at answering questions when we had them.
Most of the food I had onboard the Norwegian Dawn was very good, with some of it decent and others excellent. The food served in the MDRs was often delicious, but the specialty dining has by far the best cuisine on the ship. We visited La Cucina, with hearty Italian main dishes, amazing olive oil dip and some of the best tiramisu I’ve ever eaten. The steaks at Cagney’s were a cut above the rest, and the Brazilian steakhouse was a unique dining experience (one I hadn’t had before); the meat was fantastically seasoned and it came with an amazing cinnamon sugar caramelized pineapple.
I was not a fan of the Garden. I went there for the late night snack they had every evening, but other than that I only ate a meal there two times. It got very crowded and it was sometimes difficult to find a table, although the food quality was comparable to the rest of the ship. The soft serve machine at the back was very popular, especially with the kids and teens. However, only the vanilla really worked during my visits there; the chocolate came out mostly melted through. They served nice ice cream out on deck, but that also was generally melted beyond my preference when it was served to me. Similarly, I ate at O’Sheehan’s, but I wasn’t a huge fan. I thought the food was average compared to what I had in the main dining room. I like the concept, though.
I ate most of my meals in the Venetian. I really liked the ambiance. The portion sizes served at breakfast and lunch were surprisingly small to me, but for dinner it was closer to “standard American” size. The seasoning on the food was usually tasty and I especially enjoyed the soups. My favorite was their always-featured chocolate lava cake with strawberry sauce and vanilla chocolate chip gelato. It was so good I ordered it multiple times. Breakfast in the Venetian was great too; I thought the French toast was average, but the waffles were great. I love the breakfast muesli served on HAL, and the muesli served on the Dawn was almost as good.
I am not a drinker, so I cannot comment on the cocktails or alcohol selection onboard. I did have a nice virgin strawberry daiquiri one night. I found it amusing when during the crew slideshow, the bar staff received some of the most cheers from the passenger audience.
Onboard activities run the usual gamut of cruise ship activities: exercise, trivia competition, health and beauty “seminars”, wine tasting, socials based on demographic groups, film screenings, karaoke, dancing, and live music always playing somewhere. The gambling was very active on this ship, in not only the casino but in widely attended bingo and Deal or No Deal events, which we were unable to forget because the PA would inform us every day. I’m not a gambler, so I can’t comment on the quality of the casino, but it included what I assume is the typical assortment of table games, slot machines, and a type of claw machine that might dispense wads of cash, if you get lucky.
Enrichment activities onboard the Dawn was very limited. There were a few arts and crafts demonstrations (if that counts), including instruction in towel animal folding and beaded keychains, dance classes, an informal Filipino language lesson, and a few art history lectures in conjunction with the art gallery department. I went to the art history lectures, and they were good although very broad overviews of the topics covered. One was intended to be half an hour but turned into double that time.
I’m not big on cruise ship entertainment, but after hearing all I did about NCL entertainment I knew I’d need to go to at least a few shows. They were featuring the Second City comedy troupe out of Chicago. Their show featured numerous quick sound bites, short sketches, and improvised routines based on audience suggestions. It was not my cup of tea. I found one of their sketches sort of amusing, and I was impressed with their improvisational abilities, but otherwise I found it average at best. However, I also attended a lunch theater the Second City comedians hosted, a comedy murder mystery show. It was great fun and much more enjoyable.
One sea day included both a staff talent show (which was excellent), and Elements, NCL’s signature show. The show weaves the theme of the earth, water, fire, and air elements, through a combination dance performance, magic, and circus elements, with the visual effects (at one point, they blew wind on the audience) an important component of the experience. The show was great, and I can see why people love it, but I wasn’t blown away (except when the wind was blowing). I’m glad I saw it once, but I don’t think I’d see it again.
I found the night parties to be disappointing. I tried the White Hot Party, but I found it to be not any different from other nightly music and dancing other than everyone wearing white.
We were a bit surprised by the degree of nickel and diming found onboard. We knew less was included, and we were lucky that the extras we enjoyed came with our deal, but I would rather have more activities and services included.
Bermuda was a lovely, beautiful island, and I’d highly recommend a visit. There was very little enrichment about the island onboard the ship, but that was more than made up for with what I learned while there. I didn’t take any excursions offered by NCL, but I did take an independently arranged excursion on a catamaran boat in the bay of Bermuda. That was fantastic. Even though we were in Bermuda for over two full days, I would’ve loved any extra day to explore more. Maybe I’ll need to take another Bermuda cruise!
The service was quick and efficient, and they usually got things right. I found the service generally lacked the personal touch I tended to have on Princess and HAL. It was at least somewhat friendly, but not to the same degree I was used to experiencing on the other lines. I tend to value competence over friendliness, so I was usually pleased, but NCL is not a cruise line I would choose for outstanding service.
It won’t shock anyone that many of the fellow passengers were from New England, and especially from Boston and surrounding cities. This really did contribute to the onboard atmosphere, and it was different for me, as most cruises I’ve been on have had a more eclectic passenger makeup. There were also a handful of people who came from more “exotic” locales; I met people from Ontario and I heard others speaking French on the cruise, and I’m guessing they would be Quebecois. There were both first-time cruisers, and passengers on their sixteenth Norwegian cruise. Notable to me was the number of passengers with disabilities, and I don’t think that was a coincidence; I’m thinking a lot of them came together as group. It’s wonderful to see that a ship can accommodate them so well. There were numerous larger and multigenerational groups sailing together, which meant far more children than what I’ve been used to.
I had thought people would be less social on this cruise, tending to keep more to their families and neighbors. But I was pleasantly surprised to find most people were friendly and gregarious, just like my other cruises. I’d strike up conversations with two-seater tables next to me, and run into the same people later. People were easy to chat with, and would talk about the ship, Bermuda, and their lives back home.
This was probably my favorite debarkation and it was very smooth. Passengers can select which debarking group they want or they can “easy walk-off” any time, and keep all their luggage with them. That’s what we chose to do. Once we were ready to leave, we simply got in a line that circled the ship, and waited for our turn out. The party extended to even the debarkation—music was playing and crew were dancing at the gangway.
In the port terminal all tagged passengers would search for their luggage in the baggage claim. Because we had all of ours, we could simply walk out and wait for a taxi.
Overall, I enjoyed my cruise onboard the Norwegian Dawn. The ship, dining, passengers, efficiency, and laid-back atmosphere made for a great cruise vacation.
My experience was not substantially different from my previous cruises, such that I didn’t feel like a fish out of water. My time on cruise ships consists of chilling in the hot tub, participating in trivia and group game competitions, attending any lectures of interest, walking around the promenade or other decks, sitting in the library, and lots and lots of eating. All my previous cruises had these elements, and my time on the Norwegian Dawn did too. The main differences in my experience were more and diversified dining options, a less diverse passenger base, and a somewhat more easy-going vibe. It was a relief to never need to wear much more than a t-shirt and jeans (my daily uniform), and I did like that component of the “freestyle” cruising.
The “no set dining times” didn’t really affect my cruise in any noticeable way. I tend to eat at the same time every day, and I especially prefer to avoid waiting in lines or crowds, so I would show up to the MDR around the time they opened for dinner. One time, I did have at least a 20 minute wait. Freestyle did mean I could choose which dining room to eat in, and I preferred the setting of the Venetian. We made reservations weeks in advance for specialty dining, which despite the “no set dining times” applying here too, in practice you do need to make reservations or they’ll likely be fully booked. All the specialty dining was excellent, and I did like the opportunity to try it.
I can see why many people love Norwegian. But just as I thought before I cruised, it’s not my #1 preference in cruising style. I would take a Norwegian cruise again, especially if it is one of the more innovative ships or an itinerary lacking on one of my mainstays. But in most cases, I’d default to Princess or HAL. Read Less