Norwegian Dawn is a ship you love despite its flaws. Built in 2002 as the third ship in the Norwegian fleet to accommodate the line's Freestyle Cruising concept (lots of choices for restaurants, bars and entertainment), the ship has stayed modern with several refurbishments, the latest being a 2016 refresh of public spaces and cabin decor and the addition of new restaurants and bars. Its old bones do create some minor hassles, but the "let's have fun" mentality of passengers and crew and a plethora of options to accommodate all tastes means that nearly everyone has a great time onboard.
With 2,340 passengers, Dawn feels neither too big nor too small. The ship succeeds by offering so much choice. At dinner, you can choose from 11 restaurants, including no-charge Asian and pub food options and extra-fee steak, Italian, French and Mexican venues. The food is generally quite good, though a la carte pricing in most specialty restaurants takes away some of the carefree fun of trying out multiple dishes. Entertainment, day and night, is plentiful and varied. We especially appreciated matinee shows on sea days that spotlighted Second City comedians and the onboard magician, and the use of the Bliss Lounge, atrium and pool deck as secondary venues for evening events.
Perhaps it's the mainly Caribbean and Bermuda itineraries (read: fun in the sun destinations), but passengers onboard Norwegian Dawn are ready to have a good time. You'll find packed shows, dancing in the atrium, a hopping casino and even enthusiastic beanbag tossing. The lively vibe makes everything seem more exuberant, and you never have to worry about the "dead at 10" phenomenon you find on ships where everyone just wants to sleep after the second showing in the theater. The crew, too, are among the friendliest we've encountered, from the smiling "washy washy" folks at the buffet to the hardworking room stewards who never fail to say hello as you pass.
Unfortunately for Dawn, the ship can't shake its outdated layout and old finishings. The galley on Deck 6 means passengers can't walk from the Venetian Restaurant aft through the midship Gatsby's Bar and surrounding restaurants to the casino and theater forward. We never failed to go down the wrong set of elevators or stairs when looking for the Deck 6 main dining venues. On the upper levels, partial decks and added venues also add to the "you can't get there from here" confusion; the spa entrance is tucked away, the kids' pool is most easily accessed via the arcade one deck above and Los Lobos is so well hidden that we had to ask several people where it was before we found it.
The refit did a wonderful job of replacing garish decor with a more modern look, but be prepared for cabin furniture that's showing wear and tear, bathroom fixtures that might need a call to maintenance and elevator lights that never work. (We heard several tales of the elevators themselves getting stuck between floors, as well.) The most heard -- and experienced -- complaint was bathrooms that were out of order or in dire need of cleaning.
The last thing to be aware of is the rampant nickel-and-diming onboard. For some, it's an annoyance to be hit up for instant win game and raffle ticket purchases before every show or charged a la carte pricing at onboard restaurants that used to charge a flat cover (or to be tempted by so many extra-fee dining venues). For others, Dawn's reasonable cruise fares -- many people on our trip took advantage of last-minute sales -- means they can afford to come onboard and then only pay for the things they really want. Many passengers mitigate the constant charging by taking advantage of booking offers, like free beverages or dining packages and shore excursion credit.
But, really, cruising freestyle means you shouldn't worry on your vacation. There's no dress code to make packing a hassle. You can try out four restaurants -- plus some extra poolside grills and buffets and continental rooms service breakfast -- without paying an extra cent. You will never be bored. Whether you're a first-time cruiser who lives near the homeport, a repeater enjoying the high life in a suite, a gambler looking to hit the jackpot or earn points toward a free cruise or a 9-to-5er looking for a warm-weather getaway from the daily grind, Norwegian Dawn has a place for you.