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Alex McPhail

Age: 45

Occupation:President

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Norwegian Dawn

Sailing Date: March 5th, 2006

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Dawn
Western Caribbean

Alex McPhail

I will repeat many things I have already read in other well written reviews, so I will keep many descriptions short, and focus on the less covered aspects. There were six of us in three generations – grandma and grandpa in one cabin, my wife and I and our two 12-year-old twin girls in another cabin.

Embarkation:
Arrive early – much, much earlier than they tell you to. We drove from Canada the day before, and we parked our car at the cruise terminal the morning we sailed – mostly a painless experience. We arrived at the terminal at 11 am – an hour before they said the parking lot opened, and even then we crawled through an hour of traffic - just at the cruise terminal itself - to park the car.

Once inside, there is a “holding pen” for the early passengers – there is no other term for it. At least it has folding seats. We noticed “late-comers” – that is, those who arrived when they were told to – stood in the aisle next to the pen. A fierce woman unceremoniously yelled instructions at what she evidently perceived as the dumb animals. My kids started “moo-ing” in comic stress relief.

At the registration, NCL announced they would keep our passports. This was the first I heard of that requirement. I refused – they told me it was required – I dropped my ticket on the desk, and told them to show me where in the Terms and Conditions (I read them all) does it say that I have to surrender my passport. They backed down, and said we could keep our passports, but warned us we might be woken at 6 am each morning for customs clearance spot checks. Incidentally, US citizens keep their passports – they seem to be suspiciously exempt from those nasty foreign customs clearance spot checks.

Once on board, our luggage arrived quickly, and we settled nicely into our room.

Meals
Nothing much to add here you that you have not read in other reviews – Venetian Restaurant is nice, Garden Café is convenient but simple. We arrived at 5:30 (opening time) at the Venetian and asked for the best table to view the harbor during our departure – they seated us at a nice table at the stern. It was a great way to transit into cruse mode.

We went to La Tratoria twice (Italian – reservations required – no cover charge), and enjoyed it both times. Try the Lasagna – the best item on the menu.

We went to Le Bistro (French – reservations required – cover charge extra), and was sadly disappointed. The food was no better (some in our group argued it was worse) than the Venetian. The service at Le Bistro was incompetent and rude. The wine (more on that later) was equally disappointing.

We tried La Salsa one night (Mexican food – reservations required, no cover charge). The food was in keeping with the Venetian Restaurant – worth a try.

The Blue Lagoon is a hidden gem, not to be overlooked. Always open, it is a great place to go for a snack or light meal. I recommend the chili con carne.

As a general rule, avoid steaks in all restaurants – they are disappointing. One steak was so riddled with gristle and fat that my father-in-law literally could not eat it – we had to send it back.

Wine
The first thing you need to know is you can not take your own wine on board. They search all your belongings – every time you board – and confiscate all alcohol, and return it to you at the end of the trip. All restaurants have the same wine list – a meddling selection of traditional and new world wines at severely over-inflated prices. We ordered a Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Shiraz – I think for about $38. I ordered an identical bottle of that wine two days after the cruise at the Ruby Tuesday’s Restaurant in Syracuse, NY for $18.

We sent back three bottles – three in 11 days!!! – because they were not even close to acceptable. One, a Chateau Neuf du Pape, was worse than undrinkable. Some others, that we did not send back, we drank reluctantly. One, a Billi Billi, was good one night, but when we ordered another bottle a different night, it was disappointing.

Clearly the ship does not have an adequate facility to store the wine, or if it does, they are not operating it properly. At the high prices they charge, patrons deserve substantially more. It is the one aspect of the trip in which I considered to be predatory.

One good thing about wine – they will save a partially finished bottle of wine for you somewhere on the ship. Go to any restaurant afterwards, and ask for your wine, and they will bring your unfinished bottle to your table. This allows you to open a second bottle late in the meal without wondering how you are going to finish it.

Service
Read the other reviews. The service is great.

As a general rule, if you want something, ask. If something goes wrong, complain gently. You do not have to raise a stink to make things happen – most employees are very accommodating.

The restaurant staff rotates from restaurant to restaurant – so you often see the same person working in different places. This is both good and bad. The good part is that they become knowledgeable about the ship’s services, and are accustomed to being helpful and friendly no matter what their immediate job is. The bad part is that they do not receive enough training for their specific duties. Our head waiter at Le Bistro, for example, clearly was untrained (or just plain dumb) in some of the fundamentals, such as assisting in the menu selection, taking food orders, and overall courtesy. We later saw him in a supportive role at a table in the Venetian, which appeared to be more his speed.

Once one the ship, NCL automatically charges your account $10/day/person ($5 for kids) in gratuities – that was an extra $550 for our family. I have never understood this practice - I don’t know why they don’t add the gratuity to the fare up front. Every time you order anything that costs extra – wine, soft drinks, cocktails, etc. – NCL automatically charges you 15% gratuity on top of the base cost. The bill that you sign includes a place to add even more gratuity if you want – something I did on a couple of occasions because of the outstanding service we received.

The cost of extras is inconsistent. I was charged anywhere from $6 to $10 for the same Rum Punch drink (trust me, I sampled quite a few of them), depending on which bar you are at. Even at the same bar, the price varies as the day wears on. I could never figure it out.

One of our daughters loves chocolate milk – it was considered part of the meal at the Venetian, but was a $6 extra (plus tip) at the poolside bar. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to their drink charges. Fortunately our girls are not soft drink junkies, so we did not feel cornered into buying the pass.

Entertainment
This is well covered in other posts. Overall, it was very good. There were two comedy acts, a ventriloquist, a juggling act, and a magician. All were well done. They also have a dance troop that presented two shows: a musical/dance show, and then their trademark “Bollywood” (a la Circque de Soleil) show. We learned that was the dance troop’s last performance on board the Dawn – they are moving on.

Communications
Amazingly, my BlackBerry worked all the time while at sea – everywhere – even when we were hundreds of miles from shore and clearly out of range of the closest cell phone tower. I had uninterrupted access to email, text messaging, and I cell phone (I never called anyone, but I ignored many incoming calls). The ship has a GSM/GPRS compliant cell wireless network. They turn off the network when in port – presumably to prevent on-shore people nearby the ship freeloading off its wireless network.

The 50 hours of Internet I purchased was wasted because of the BlackBerry access – I only used about 3 hours of my 50. Considering the up-to-date technology they use for the cell phone wireless network, I was disappointed they have only an 802.1B compliant Wi-Fi for laptops – that is an outdated standard that operates at the slower 11 Mbit/s. Equally strange, I purchased Internet access for my laptop, but that account did not let me use any of the dozen desktops they have at their Internet café. Inexplicably, you need to purchase a separate Internet access account if you want to use a desktop, or a printer.

Fellow Passengers
This is not so much an NCL issue, but it is a factor to consider. Okay, so we’re polite Canadians, which means we must say “eh” a lot while walking “aboot” the ship. Keep in mind, though, that we’ve traveled to 50 countries in 5 continents – only to say we’re not your Igloo recluse stereotyped Canadian family.

For the most part, passengers on the ship were just like us – families in need of a good vacation, looking to get as much as they can out of the short time they have, while at the same time being respectful enough to other people’s space. We universally found, however, that a number of our fellow passengers to be pushy, inconsiderate, and in a few cases, downright abusive. It nearly came to blows when one large, lumbering belligerent fellow aggressively blocked the door to the exterior deck. He literally stood in the doorway with elbows angled sideways, filling the passageway to prevent others from getting through. I made my way through, of course, but not without a little “persuasion”.

Call me old-fashioned, but if you’re about to sit down at a table already occupied by someone, you ask if there is space available. With six of us in our group, we had to select the larger tables at the Garden Café, and we often found ourselves literally having to fend off would-be squatters who sat down without a word. One couple refused to leave after I explained four others (who were fetching their meal from the buffet) were joining us. Fortunately, the table right behind me opened up, sparing us from another scene.

Shore Excursions

I read all the literature, and went to the shore excursion session before selecting our excursions.

Ocho Rios – we did a bus tour – the Best of Ochos Rios. Nothing in the description said we would require bathing suits. The entire busload was dropped off at Dunn’s River and beach, and left there to hang out for 3 hours. Disappointing.

Grand Cayman – Stingray City Tour. Stingray City is a submerged sandbar about 5 miles off shore where the water comes up to your hips. Stingrays swim around looking for food that the thousands of people offer every day. There were about 12 boats anchored on the sandbar when we arrived. The tour includes a snorkel and mask, letting you go below and actually feed the stingrays yourself. Our kids loved it.

Belize – Ariel Trek and Cave Tubing. Overall, it was fun. Zip lining is not for the faint of heart, as the couple ahead of us proved. You strap your butt into a harness, and then “zip” from tree top to tree top, suspended from a long wire. Don’t go if you are afraid of heights. My kids loved it, and wanted to go again. I was impressed by the attention to detail and safety – redundant everything – and by the attentiveness of the staff – your harness is triple checked – by three different people – before you make your first zip. The repelling was a good rush.

The cave tubing was fun, too, but it was not well organized. You spend too much time trekking across the bush carrying your tube to get to the start point – it wasted too much time.

The legal waiver for this excursion was extreme – you basically absolved them of anything and everything, and forfeited your right to sue under any circumstances. I didn’t sign it or hand it in – no one noticed.

Honduras – Tabyana Beach party – it was a day at the beach. The bus ride there was spooky – a 50’s vintage school bus crawling along a skinny mountainous path with sudden drops on both sides with no guard rails. The beach itself was nice, the included lunch was OK.

At Cozumel we took a taxi to Paradise Beach – it was fine until they told us, after being there for two hours, that we had to order a drink if we were wanted to keep our umbrellas. This, after speaking with the greeter who assured us the beach was free and there were no hidden charges. I told him where to go, and he backed off.

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