The Norwegian Dawn cruise ship at Heritage Wharf, Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda
I’ve decided to start my Bermuda trip report series with what I think is a first for UPGRD – a cruise review! (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.) After our long drive up from Texas (full report forthcoming soon), we pulled in to the parking garage at Cruiseport Boston about a quarter to noon to begin our long-awaited cruise to Bermuda on the Norwegian Dawn, May 16th-23rd, 2014. My cruise reviews will follow this basic format: overall ship experience, dining, activities, and service. I won’t talk about our sole port, Bermuda, in this post, as that will be covered in detail in future reports of this series. I will very briefly cover our embarkation and debarkation experience, but will address those in more detail in other parts of this Bermuda series. This review is condensed quite a bit and is more picture-heavy than a typical user review, but you can click here for the review I posted on Cruise Critic if you’d like a more detailed description.
Also, please click here for the introductory post and trip report index for my Bermuda series.
Before I start the review, I thought I would provide a little background on Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). Some people thing all cruise lines are the same, but that really isn’t the case, as each line tends to cater to a specific clientele. NCL focuses on a more informal, “Freestyle” experience, where guests can customize their cruise experience as they want to. The most noticeable aspect of “Freestyle Cruising” is in the dining rooms, where there are no fixed dining times or formal nights. NCL also maintains an informal, fun atmosphere on its ships, though not quite to the “party boat” level of Carnival. The end result it that NCL caters to a somewhat younger demographic than other cruise lines, and is considered family friendly.
And so we begin…
The Dawn has a capacity of 2,340 passengers, which makes it a midsize ship in the world of mass market cruise ships. By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship currently, packs in 5,400 passengers. Which you prefer is really a matter of personal preference. Some like the ginormous new ships, because they have more room for activities. I personally like the smaller ships, as they are easier to navigate, and provide more personal service from the crew.
We stayed in Hartford the night before, and made it to the cruiseport parking lot about a quarter to noon. After some quick repacking and stashing of things in the trunk, we made our way to the terminal itself. It’s essentially across the street from the garage, but it is a bit of a chore to lug two heavy suitcases due to some uneven sidewalks. I’d recommend dropping off your passengers/luggage in front of the terminal first, then go park the car.
We arrived at prime time for check-in – check-in for our 4 P.M. departure started at 11:30 – so there were lines to deal with.
The bark was definitely worse than the bite. For those who haven’t cruised before, you start by dropping off your large bags with a porter, then proceed with your carry-on luggage to the actual check-in counters. The whole process, from joining the bag drop line to walking off the gangway and onto the ship, took about an hour. Bottom line is, there are a lot of passengers to process, so there’s going to be some standing in lines involved. If you detest queues, then plan to arrive either before 11 or after 2. Check-in for cruises usually closes one hour before departure, so don’t be too late. Once onboard, we discovered that unlike most cruise ships, the Venetian main dining room was open for lunch, and not just the buffet. Take advantage of this if you cruise NCL. Nobody seemed to know that the Venetian was opened, so we practically had the place to ourselves.
Since our first experience with the ship was the dining room, I’ll start the review there. The Dawn actually has two main dining rooms, the Venetian and Aqua, but we didn’t try Aqua (same menu, but farther away from our stateroom than the Venetian). The Venetian, at the aft end of Deck 6, as you would expect from the name, is an Italian-themed dining room, featuring Roman-style columns and Venice-themed artwork.
This was our stateroom, a balcony room at the forward end of Deck 9. The room was reasonably spacious, with a good amount of storage space thanks to several cubby holes. The bathroom was a bit tight, though having the toilet area fully separated from the shower helped. And of course, the balcony was awesome. If you’re going to drop a bunch of cash on a cruise, I highly recommend spending the little extra and getting a balcony.
The stateroom itself
Be aware that balcony rooms at the extreme forward and aft ends of the ship appear to have smaller balconies than those mid-ship. However, a benefit is that these smaller balconies are fully covered on the sides and partially from the front, affording more privacy from your neighbors and better protection from rain.
Here are some assorted photos from public areas of the ship:
The central “piazza”, view from Deck 8
Duty Free shops, Deck 7
Stardust Theater, Deck 6
Outdoor walking deck and shuffleboard area, Deck 7
The dramatic ship’s wake, from outdoor walking deck on Deck 7
Pool and hot tub area, Deck 12 (photo taken from Deck 13)
As you can see, there are a variety of activities to choose from on the ship, most included in the cruise fare. The ship’s layout does take a little getting used to, mainly because certain portions of certain decks are only accessible using specific elevators or staricases. For example, the Venetian dining room is only accessible from the aft elevators/stairs. Once you get used to that, though, the ship is small enough that it’s pretty easy to get around.
A brief word about our disembarkation. Unlike other cruise lines, while NCL does give you the option of picking colored luggage tags with a fixed departure time (the crew takes your bags out to the cruise terminal for you), they also offer a “walk off” option, where you can leave before any of the tags are called, but with the catch that you have to haul your bags off the ship. I didn’t particularly feel like lugging our bags down the ship, and we didn’t have a flight to catch anyway, so I used the tag option. I’m glad I did, because while walking over to the photo studio to buy a couple of last-minute photos, I could see the line to get off the ship snaking all the way down the starboard side, and halfway down the port side. We were called at our scheduled time, and it took about half an hour to get off the ship and pick up our bags from the terminal.
We ate all but one of our dinners in the Venetian main dining room; the other was at Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian-style steak house. We ate lunch on shore in Bermuda while we were docked there, but while on the ship, we split lunch between the Venetian, the Garden Cafe (buffet), and the Blue Lagoon, a diner-style casual eating spot. Breakfast was always at the Garden Cafe. With the exception of Moderno, all of the restaurants we ate at were included in our ticket price. Moderno included a cover charge of $20 per person; there are several other “premium” restaurants to choose from as well. All drinks except water and coffee do incur an extra charge, though this is unfortunately standard practice on pretty much all mass-market cruise lines today.
The food at the Venetian was generally very good. A new menu had reportedly just been introduced on the ship in the last few weeks, which included a better variety of menu items on a day-to-day basis. I never had to even think about ordering the same thing twice at dinner. Lunch, on the other hand, was a different story. The menu was EXACTLY the same on Days 1 and 2 and Days 6 and 7 (embarkation day and our three sea days). That was irritating. The Garden Cafe was your typical cruise ship buffet – plenty of stuff to choose from, most of it acceptable but nothing to write home about. The buffet is always nice to have, though, when you just want to grab something quickly or have a shore excursion that returns to the ship too late to hit up the main dining room for lunch or dinner. Moderno was alright, but not worth the $20 upcharge in my mind. You get your meat feast just like you do at a place like Fogo do Chao, but the cuts of meat weren’t as good, and the side dishes/salad bar were subpar. Blue Lagoon has excellent buffalo wings and chicken fingers, if that’s your thing.
Here’s a few samples of the food we enjoyed on board.
Surf ‘n Turf – Filet Mignon and Lobster Tail
White Chocolate Mousse w/ Red Velvet Cake
Shrimp Burger with Seasoned Curly Fries
I really have no complaints. Food was plentiful, and while perhaps not five star quality, I never left the table hungry.
Cruise ships have a stereotype of being about bingo, shuffleboard, and cheesy bar trivia. You do have that on modern cruise ships, including the Dawn, but there’s actually a lot more to do. There is a pool, of course, but there is also a casino, several bars, a theater hosting both comedy and Vegas-style shows, interactive activities such as cooking classes, wine tastings, and more.
I don’t know how to swim, and my wife isn’t a pool person, so we didn’t spend much time there. However, on our occasional walks around Decks 12 and 13, it was pretty readily apparent that the pool was undersized for the ship, as it was really crowded on sea days. Ditto for the hot tubs, though if you prefer a late evening soak, you could usually find an empty one after 9 P.M. without much trouble. We also saw two of the Vegas-style shows, Elements and Luminescence. Elements is similar to the EFX show that used to run at the MGM Grand, though honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed. You kept expecting this “wow” factor that never really materialized. Luminescence is an arial acrobatics show, and was awesome. Think human contortionists performing trapeze tricks.
I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the casino on this trip, but distressingly, NCL has joined the Vegas rip-off brigade and put 6-5 payouts on their $5 blackjack tables. You have to pony up to the $15 tables in order to get regular 3-2 payouts.
We did take two shore excursions in Bermuda put together by NCL. I will talk about those later on in my Bermuda trip report series, but in summary, I thought they were OK. The main problem with large group excurions is that everything has to be watered down to the lowest common denominator, so you typically don’t get to do anything particularly exotic or spend enough time in one spot to really experience it.
One of the great things about cruises is you pretty much don’t have to do anything for the length of your floating vacation. The crew is there to cook and clean for you, and the only thing you really have to worry about is not oversleeping for your shore excursion. I’d been on five cruises prior to this one, and the common denominator has always been outstanding, personalized service by the cabin crew, room attendant, and dining room staff.
I won’t call the service on the NCL Dawn bad by any means, but I’d have to say it was one rung below outstanding. The cabin crew always greeted my wife and I with a smile and a hello when we passed by in the hallways, but I can’t really say that our room attendant went the extra mile. He did a fine job keeping our room clean, but would sometimes forget little things like replacing our pool towels or putting the towel animals on our bed. Here’s an example – these are famous on pretty much every cruise line.
Similarly, service in the ship’s restaurants was a little hit or miss. Our waiters were universally friendly and helpful, but some lacked polish. Occasionally they would introduce the assistant waiter, and other times they wouldn’t. Some would ask if we wanted drinks from the bar; others seemed to forget. Again, not that the service was bad, it just wasn’t quite up to the standards I’ve seen on other lines.
My wife and I enjoyed our first trip on NCL. While the ship isn’t quite as luxurious or the service as polished as more upscale lines like Celebrity or Princess, NCL’s fares are also a good bit cheaper, and our balcony room had just as great a view. But most of all, we thoroughly enjoyed our three days in Bermuda, an itinerary only NCL offers. NCL offers a good value proposition, and we would consider sailing with them again.