Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Norwegian
Ship: Norwegian Dawn
Sailing Date: February 1st, 2006
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
Norwegian Cruise Line
NCL Dawn Cruise Review
This was our 4th cruise, and our 1st with NCL. Our other three have been with RCCL.
We booked the cruise as a package through a travel agent who arranged flights, NYC hotel and cruise, but not as part of an NCL fly/cruise package, and due to the very low cost we booked without any research into the cruise line or the ship itself.
Our welcome pack showed that our cabin was on the 11th deck near the forward stairs and lifts which we were delighted with.
In the build up to our holiday we tried to get excited about it but NCL's website is pretty poor when it comes to info on the ship and ports of call. We are used to the huge amount of info you get on the RCCL websites.
From other websites we could see that the Dawn is not what you would call "a looker"!
Our ticket instructed us to turn up at 2pm for departure, but as our hotel required us to check out at 12 and was just 5 blocks away we arrived at 12.10 only to find at least another 1000 people already ahead of us.
What confused more was that there was a queue down the left, a seated area for about 400 down the middle and another queue on the right. The guy at the door ushered us through to the left, just as about 200 people were coming down the stairs and going straight through the doors at the end of the hall. We asked if this was the correct line to join, and a lady told us to head to the seated are, where another lady directed us to the queue on the right, where we waited, standing, for 45 minutes while the left hand queue and the seated areas disappeared through the doors. By the time we got through the doors, all three queues were full again so I can't imagine how long or even where these people had been queuing from.
It turned out this was the queue just to get through the security screening, and beyond that was yet more queues (although only 2 separate queues this time - US guests and Non-US guests) to check in. This queue was relatively quick for us, in the Non-US guests; the US queue looked like a bit of a nightmare.
We had pre-registered by fax on a form downloaded off the internet, which saved us time at the desk and I would recommend everyone do that where possible.
After that a queue to pick up your guest swipe card, then another queue for the seemingly compulsory Embarkations Souvenir Photo (a steal at 'only' $11.99!).
Then the quick walk up the ramp (which some of the older guests were struggling with due to the extreme angle) to the ship which was surprisingly empty when we got on.
I have to admit the ship looked much more impressive in real life when we got to the pier.
Our cabin was a Category II interior cabin, and was very small. Our opinion is that if you go on a cruise ship then you shouldn't be spending much time on it anyway. The shower room was typically small but a real bonus was the shower - almost big enough to share! All in all, the cabin was adequate and had enough storage for our clothes and things. The only real problem was the UK standard electrical socket was hard down against the worktop which is alright for US plugs where the cable comes straight out the rear, but UK plugs the cable always comes out the bottom making it difficult to use the socket. I would have thought a German built ship would have had knowledge of this.
My wife persevered anyway, in order to use the all important straighteners!
After a few days my wife and I were of the same opinion, Freestyle Dining is just not for us. The advertised benefit is that you can eat when you want, where you want and dress how you like. Our cabin manual informed us that you were not permitted to wear tank tops, shorts, denim or training shoes in any of the dining rooms which was incredible, like were being restricted to Smart Casual attire throughout the holiday. But on investigation at the dining rooms there were alternative restrictions, just no tank tops or shorts.
There were quite a few occasions when we could not get a table and were turned away, but there are always alternatives. All dining is closed at 9.30 except the Garden Cafe buffet, with snacks late on and there is always the Blue Lagoon. In general the choice of food is small at every restaurant, I'm sure there must be some people who trawl through all the restaurant menus before they decide where to eat but that's not us! There is a reservations desk in the atrium but they don't have menus, only booking lists and if you try to book a busy restaurant after 12noon, better expect to be disappointed. You can only book on the day unless you are going for the speciality.
We only tried Cagneys Steakhouse, only because it was my birthday, and because it didn't look like we were going to get steak in the regular dining rooms. The service was much better, but the cost was excessive at $20 each plus drinks. My complimentary birthday cake was delivered to the table by singing waiters (albeit with a Happy Anniversary badge on it which was quickly swapped!). However, the cake was removed to be delivered to the room as we had already had our dessert, and we never saw it again! We got a replacement when we went up a few days later though.
In the main Venetian restaurant, the room looks great but the service doesn't match. I would describe it "lacklustre"! If you arrive at opening time the waiters seem annoyed at having to work immediately, if you are after 9, everyone is more concerned with cleaning up ready to close (both times we did this we gave up waiting for dessert as they obviously weren't coming back), and anytime in between they were too busy to pay you much attention. There were the odd few staff that were very chatty and happy with their table guests, but unfortunately we weren't so lucky.
In the Garden Cafe and the Blue Lagoon fast food area, the tables and chairs are dirty and seldom cleaned, only cleared which means when you are wearing a t-shirt and leaning on the table the chances are your arms will be sticking to the last person’s egg/tomato ketchup or whatever!
In general the service is poor throughout, Freestyle Dining means you are not tipping one waiter in particular, but you pay a set service charge of $10pp/pn, and an additional 15% on drinks and spa services. I would add that this is the first time I've felt forced to pay the 15% and add an additional tip.
We felt very restricted and confused as to when and where we could eat. In the end we spent the evenings in the spa and ordered late room service. You can set a time to attend evening dining each day, but you are restricted to one dining room, and like I said before the menus do not have much choice due to the amount of restaurants.
First off, the spa was very nice and the treatments are many and varied, my wife’s room bill is testament to that! The only (minor) problem was that on the days immediately to/from New York when the weather is not so great, the spa is mobbed and the only 10 loungers and 8 chairs are quickly taken/reserved (usually all by towels alone!).
The Jacuzzis are great and very hot and relaxing. The pool is not huge but big enough for a wee lap or two, but as with the loungers, on the bad weather sea days often too busy and very noisy.
The main external pool is far too small for the amount of guests, and on sea days in good weather you need to have your sun lounger occupied by 11am at the latest, otherwise it's 'hard luck'!
In our opinion (again!), the ship is too small for the amount of guests. Either that or it's too badly designed - for example, the Aqua, Impressions and Venetian restaurant are all on Deck 6, but once you've navigated your way to Aqua and Impressions and ultimately been turned away without a reservation, you need to go up to deck 7 then along and back down to get to the Venetian, which can only be accessed from the aft stairwell - tough luck for all you wheelchair users.
I think the restaurants take up too much space at the end of the day and they've packed the rest of the space with cabins.
The Casino was very well equipped; we didn't use it but plenty others did.
One thing that impressed me was the size of the lounges, particularly the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 12, and the Pearly Kings pub and Dazzles on Deck 7 were also good sized rooms compared to RCCL ships.
The Stardust theatre had plenty of seats except during single show nights and, oddly, the curved balconies to the sides of the theatre have the rear-most seats facing the crowd rather than the stage! Great stage shows, including the famous Second City comedy troupe.
I have to add that the cruise directors - Ricky and Lance - were two very funny guys.
One thing I noted about the ship is that is feels like it is constantly rocking and bobbing, not at all like the previous ships we have been on. My wife had a real dislike to this for the first few days, and the last night back into NYC was during the Feb 11th/12th Nor'easter snowstorm and was very very choppy and e , although any ship would have struggled in that I'm sure.
This was our first time doing the Eastern Caribbean, having been displaced by Hurricane Ivan and Hugo two years ago, and it was everything we had dreamed it would be.
Our plan was just to wander around the towns and do a little shopping and just soak up the moment.
St Thomas we had heard was the shopping heaven of them all, but looking back, there's only so much diamond and tanzanite you can look at in one day. We headed back early if only to avoid the constant taxi drivers honking their horns telling us the ship is leaving (at 11am!) or pestering us to get onboard. A tour or beach visit next time would be the better idea, I think.
St Maarten is a beautiful resort, historic little streets and buildings, and a great beach at the water taxi drop off point. Unfortunately it rained almost the entire time in port, but we would be back in a minute if we could. There is a great shopping area at the cruise pier, although better bargains in town.
Tortola doesn't have much in the way of shopping, but that meant the Colombian Emeralds shop was deserted when we walked into town. There's a straw market as you exit the cruise pier area and it's a moderately short walk to the few shops. We walked back to the ship along the rocky shore and it was very nice! Next time we'll do the Virgin Gorda tour which I heard was very good.
San Juan, a stroll around Old San Juan is just fantastic, the buildings are beautiful, the shop staff are pleasant and don't pester you and the art and craft souvenirs are of very high quality. I'd definitely come back here, although I've heard the tours weren't that great - particularly the rainforest tour.
Great Stirrup Cay is where we did our only pre-booked excursion - only the snorkeling - which was a bit pricey at $29 each, but worth it as the sea is lovely and clear, and the fish are so close to you can reach out and touch them. You aren't allowed very far out, but far enough.
DEBARKATION (is what NCL called it but I'm sure it should be 'DISEMBARKING'!)
What a nightmare, but I'm not sure how much of this was to do with the Nor'easter. We had made good speed on the last sea day and were due in 2 hours ahead of time at 8am. However the storm saw to it that we slowed to minimum speed for the last night and we arrived at 12noon, where as I noted for Embarkation, the terminal was mobbed with the new guests. We were given coloured luggage tags 'to speed up the debarkation process', but after waiting until 2pm in the lounge and not on the exit gangway deck 7 as requested the disembarking was for all non-US guests regardless of tag colour. When we got to the gangway a few seconds later I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised to find the queue already snaked all the way to the front of the ship and back up again. This queue for 30 minutes was only to pick up our passports would you believe, which on RCCL you do prior to Disembarking day. A further queue through immigration led us to the baggage hall, where all the bags are neatly laid out on the floor in the coloured tags section, which are spread out over the entire hall with only vertical floorstanding signs denoting which colour area you were in.
Exit to the road side to join a queue which must have exceeded 1000 people waiting for taxis in the same area as people dropping off and picking up guests and blocking the road. We waited 1 hour and saw 4 taxis, one of whom got so angry at the confusion he just drove off without picking up anybody else. We were the 71st taxi ticket, and after one hour the next ticket to be called was 25! So we picked up our bags and made for the streets to find a better place to catch a cab - Crowne Plaza on 49th/Broadway!
This left us with bad memories for a while I have to admit.
I have to say that if this had been our first cruise we would have loved it - although our next one we would have looked somewhere else. But, this was our 4th cruise, and I'm afraid we won't use NCL again. We did like it and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and the itinerary was great, but the overall experience lacked that extra special excitement that RCCL gave us. I must admit that when we were docked next to the Serenade of the Seas in St Thomas, Disney Magic in St Maarten, and the Voyager of the Seas on San Juan, they completely outshone the Dawn.
On the whole, the standard of service and overall organisation was pretty poor.
In all I worked out we had paid over $350 in service charges which is much more than we paid in gratuities for two back to back trips with RCCL, and RCCL gave much much better service.
At the end of the day we got a cheap cruise around the Caribbean in February for a very good price on a nice ship, and we have no regrets whatsoever.
My advice - if you want the itinerary and cheap price then just go for it, but if you want the real cruise experience go elsewhere. Seems you might just get what you pay for after all.