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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

 

Norwegian Dawn
Eastern Caribbean
February 8-15, 2003

By Charles B. with Holly
(Ages 39 & 44 )

Introduction

This was our first cruise so I’ll get straight to the point. We had a wonderful time, the Dawn is a beautiful ship and we are now hooked on cruising. We had been long-time cruise “skeptics”, preferring do-it-yourself vacations to unique locations with a focus on healthy eating, outdoor activity and few other people around. Many of our friends were understandably shocked when we announced we were going on a cruise and on a large mass-market ship to heavily cruised ports. Except, that is, for our friends Gordon and Carol, who convinced us to give it a try. Like us, they are vegetarian, physically active and inquisitive people, so when they started telling us about the wonderful time they had on their first few cruises, we started listening. They had just committed to a cruise on the soon-to-be-launched Dawn during an early 2002 cruise on the Norwegian Sky and brought up the idea of joining them on the Dawn. In the end, it didn’t take too much convincing and once we agreed and signed up, the excitement started to build.  

By the time our departure date finally came around, we had become very familiar with the vast information available on cruising, especially the various cruise review sites. I became so obsessed that I virtually memorized the deck plans in the NCL brochure! Having built up our expectations so high, we were surprised to have them well exceeded from the moment we stepped on the ship. The review that follows will be from the perspective of first-timers who don’t care for sitting in the sun, don’t stay up late and prefer to make their own meals at home rather than going out.

Summary 

If you don’t feel like reading the whole review, here are the summary points.

  • Smooth embarkation with early boarding possible

  • Wonderful mini-suite cabin with balcony, category AF on deck 11
  • Good food & service in the three main restaurants, especially Impressions
  • Excellent choices for vegetarians, especially the daily Indian buffet
  • Stunning public spaces on a very well laid out ship
  • Fabulous fitness center and spa, with good classes and equipment
  • Good variety of ports, though Great Stirrup Cay is crowded
  • Very attentive room steward; otherwise satisfactory level of service
  • Plenty of entertainment options in very nice surroundings
  • Relaxed disembarkation process

Embarkation

After arriving from Minnesota the Friday night before our Saturday departure, we spent Saturday morning with friends who dropped us off at the port. The first sight of the ships lined up in Miami was overwhelming and then it sank in that we are actually ready to go. A porter immediately met us, but all we had to give him was a case of bottled water that we picked up at a local supermarket. We managed to pack all of our things into small carry-on bags, which turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. It seemed like there were NCL staff people of various kinds everywhere and we were soon greeted by one who directed us to the mostly-empty queue for Latitudes guests, perhaps because of the “S” printed on our ticket (indicating suite?). The check-in process was smooth and courteous, involving several steps with almost no waiting. We received our personalized cards, which were swiped each time we got on and off, displaying the digital photos that were made at the check-in counter. We got our first good look at the massive Dawn as we walked alongside, approaching the gangway. We were welcomed aboard by around 12:30PM after our first card swipe and directed to the center stair tower, where the first artwork greeted us. These were Andy Warhol’s series of Chairman Mao prints, beautifully displayed, a different one on each landing. How ironic that this pop-art image of a famous communist leader would be gazing at all of us on this elegant monument to capitalism. This pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day, as we discovered all the delights that a new, large cruise ship can offer.

Cabin  

As hinted earlier, we were lucky to get a good price on the lowest category of suites (AF #11532). There are 107 of these Mini-Suites on the Dawn, all of them located on deck 11. We were immediately thrilled with the room. Cherry wood is everywhere and the decorating scheme was elegant and cheerful at the same time. There was plenty of room to move around and stow our things and we were quickly drawn to the balcony. What a pleasure it was to be able to open the sturdy patio door and let the warm outside Florida air in. We were on the port side of the ship, which was facing away from the dock, so we could see palm trees, water and traffic on the causeway to South Beach, as well as the constant Coast Guard security patrol boats.  

Going through the cabin from the entrance, the bathroom door opens immediately to the left. We had read about the nice bathrooms on sister ship Norwegian Star and they are every bit as great as advertised. The separate toilet, sink, and bathtub compartments work great. One of the best features was also the simplest: the excellent faucet. It was a Grohe single arm unit, which is high-end euro hardware, in a large kitchen-like size. The water flowed smoothly and hot water came out almost immediately. There were good shelves below the sink, giving us plenty of room for our toiletries. Another nice feature is in the toilet, though we hesitate to mention it in polite company. A simple magazine rack is mounted to the wall right next to the commode, very useful for carefully reading the Freestyle Daily newsletter each day. We never used the nicely shaped bathtub and would probably have found a shower easier to step into, but the shower controls were excellent, with separate volume and temperature adjustment, as well as a multi-setting showerhead. We also used the handy clothesline above the tub.

Back in the room, there were low shelves framing the entrance, then a large closet to the left, which had many large shelves to one side. There were also three large compartments above the closet, one of which held the life vests. There were good bedside tables on each side of the queen bed and handy reading lights above, in a nautical theme. It was possible to divide the sleeping area from the sitting area with a heavy curtain, which we used sometimes when one of us was sleeping and the other awake. The sitting area had a wide sofa bed, coffee table with lower shelf, small dining table with two chairs, cabinet cluster with TV, phone, fridge, safe, coffee/tea maker and lots more stowage. We brought a supply of our own soy milk, which all fit just fine in the fridge and we found many places to put all the bottled water we brought, which was delivered shortly after we boarded.

The offerings on TV seemed comprehensive, though the only thing we ever watched was the navigation channel, which gave continual updates on the air/sea temperature, ship’s speed, sea conditions, wind speed and direction as well as nice maps showing our current location. We would also glance at the bow video from time to time.

And then there was the balcony. We ended up spending a lot of time on the balcony, which had teak flooring, two reclining chairs and a small cocktail table. We would sit, just watching the ocean go by, or stand at the railing to see what was going on at sea or in port. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to hear the “surf” when under way, but we also appreciated the utter silence that resulted when closing the very solid glass door, which sealed very securely. It was like having an oceanfront hotel room that traveled across the sea and arrived in interesting ports every few days.

In sum, we felt that the Mini-Suite was an excellent value and we highly recommend it. The location on deck 11 was very convenient to most parts of the ship and it was easy to get out on deck 12 or 13 for a nice stroll back to the fitness center, pool or Garden Cafe. We were directly below the business meeting rooms, so we had almost no noise.  Just a slight creaking during heavier seas.

Our friends were in a very nice ocean view cabin with balcony, category BB on deck 9, so we were able to compare our accommodations. Here’s a summary of what’s different in a Mini-Suite compared to standard balcony cabins, which were located on decks 8, 9, and 10. On the deck plans, though, they look nearly the same.

  • 229 sq ft of space compared to 176 sq ft
  • Bathroom about 2 feet wider; bathtub instead of shower
  • Small flower vase with orchids on coffee table
  • Complimentary fresh fruit tray on first day
  • Larger refrigerator and additional surrounding storage compartments
  • Larger sitting area and more seating
  • Balcony about 2 feet wider and with teak deck, instead of standard rubberized decking material
  • Different décor, a bit more elegant
  • Larger closet, with upscale wooden hangers and very nice bathrobes

Although the mini suites are advertised as having concierge service, there didn’t seem to be much effort made to promote this, other than a small tent card in the room. We never met the concierge and it wasn’t clear what services might be available.

Public Areas  

Although we don’t have other cruise ships to compare with, Norwegian Dawn is clearly a spectacular ship. Just being onboard made us happy and we enjoyed wandering through every corner. The three large stair towers, each with four elevators, seemed to move people up and down with efficiency and the illuminated deck maps at most landings and other simpler maps throughout, helped point you in the right direction. Most activity centered on the atrium lobby on deck 7 and the various facilities on deck 12, particularly the Garden Café buffet and pool area.

For people interested in sunning, it seemed that there were chaise lounges and chairs in many different locations on decks 12 and 13. There was a multi-tiered arrangement of sunning decks above the bow with great views and a hot tub. There must have been nine tiers of sunning decks overlooking the pool, which could be quite busy with various activities during the day. All along both sides and on aft decks were also spaces where people seemed to be able to find shade, sun, quiet or views, depending on their wishes. The variety of décor in all the many lounges, restaurants, interior corridors, theaters and deck areas was impressive, with incredible attention to detail.

We especially liked the two level spa and fitness center, located aft on decks 11 and 12 anchored by a vaulted lobby with tropical “plants”. The spa has its own indoor adults-only lap pool, several large hot tubs, steam and sauna rooms, large locker rooms, at least a dozen treatment rooms, many with outside views, and a stunning indoor row of padded lounge chairs facing a wall of window over the stern (these will be popular on winter cruises from New York). Like the spa, the upper level fitness center occupied the full width of the ship and it had just about every kind of treadmill, upright or recumbent bikes, step machines and complete weightlifting equipment. Two large glassed-in studios on either side were for the various classes offered during the cruise.

We also enjoyed the promenade on deck 7, which was almost always a quiet place for a nice walk around the ship (3 laps=1 mile). The part that wraps around the stern provided great views of the wake and was a nice place to look at sunsets or sunrises. The promenade was very wide down the sides, with colorful murals and many doors leading back inside. The only thing lacking was suitable places to sit. Although some people dragged chairs out from somewhere, it would be nice to have some fixed benches just to be able to sit and watch the ocean go by.

Restaurants & Meals

Our dining experiences got off to a great start shortly after boarding when we discovered that a complete Indian vegetarian buffet was available in one of the serving lines at the Garden Café. It turned out that this was offered every day, though with different and interesting curries, mixed rice dishes and vegetables each time. The Indian section was always less crowded than the other three or four other serving lines, which provided the usual, but attractive, assortment of “conventional” buffet items. We noticed that many crewmembers stuck to the Indian buffet for lunch, which was uniformly tasty and well seasoned. Next to the Indian section was the Cooking Light dessert bar, usually with several different cakes, pies, and puddings. The regular lunch buffet lines always featured “action stations”, with made to order sandwiches, desserts, fresh fruit and other changing items.

We had a feeling that NCL’s Freestyle dining concept would suit us quite well and in fact we loved it. We can’t imagine how traditional fixed dinner times and assigned tables would work. The menus changed daily in the three main restaurants, Venetian, Aqua and Impressions, though they were the same in all three, except for the vegetarian choice, which was different in Venetian. The extra option was an unexpected benefit for us veggies and we could always find many choices. We unexpectedly enjoyed NCL’s trademark chilled fruit soups, which were always very flavorful and even spicy on occasion; a very interesting menu item. The service was usually efficient and sometimes more friendly than others. Our favorite of the “free” restaurants was Impressions, which was the smallest and most tastefully decorated (in our opinion) with oversize copies of Impressionist paintings. Not surprisingly, Impressions proved popular with everyone else and we were told of a 30-45 minute wait the first night we tried to get in at around 7PM. Instead, we walked over to Aqua and were seated immediately, saving Impressions for another night, showing up right at the 6PM opening. We were always able to get tables for two or four, depending on if we were eating with our friends or not. When it was just two of us, the reception person would ask we if wished to be seated “with another nice couple”, which we didn’t, but could be a nice way to meet people if you weren’t traveling with friends.

As for the reservation-only and cover charge restaurants, the only one we tried was Bamboo on the first night of the cruise, taking advantage of an early-bird discount of $5 each, half off the usual $10 (before 6:30PM). The menu was very innovative and the food was mostly quite tasty. The waitress cheerfully substituted several vegetable sushi rolls instead of the crab appetizers. What you get at the cover charge restaurants is a more intimate setting, unique and very nice tableware, better attention from the servers, and possibly better food. The menus at these restaurants are the same each night throughout the cruise. We toured the very intimate Le Bistro French restaurant ($12.50 cover) to view the nicely displayed original works by Matisse, van Gogh, Monet and Renoir; truly a stunning space, with exquisite china and stemware. We wanted to try the Italian reserved dining room (no charge), which was cleverly converted each night from part of the Garden Café, but we never had a chance.

One night, we tried the “International Buffet” in the Garden Café, which had a different theme each dinner. The staff makes an effort to change the atmosphere from the cafeteria style of daytime, with tablecloths, dimmed lighting and upscale food choices in just one serving line. As always, we found great vegetarian options, including Greek moussaka, Italian risotto, Indian vegetables and good salads. We checked out the buffet on other nights when we ate at the restaurants and it always seemed to have something interesting, though it was never crowded.

For breakfast, we quickly settled on a routine at the Garden Café, which usually had four or five identical serving lines and plenty of seating, including out by the pool. The buffet had everything we could possibly want, which for us meant oatmeal along with all varieties of fruit. The figs, both dried and in compote, were a new delight for us and one morning they even slipped in some lychee fruit (from SE Asia), maybe from the staff mess (?). In addition to the usual eggs, sausage, bacon, and pastries, the Garden Café offered baked beans, grilled tomatoes and grits as well as several “action stations” with freshly prepared waffles, omelets and toast. The many European customers on board also seemed to be satisfied with the hard rolls, cheeses, salami, smoked salmon and herring that was always available. The only meal disappointment we had during the whole cruise was on the morning we tried formal served breakfast in the Venetian. The dining room is very nice, but our unfriendly server must have had a bad night and it was frustrating to be served so slowly, with no control over portions. The main reason we wanted to try it was to get a nice stack of fresh pancakes, but all that arrived were two very small apple cinnamon pancakes, which were tasty but not what we hoped for. We escaped back up to the Garden Café to compensate and make sandwiches for the beach.

--> Continued... Part Two


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