Last month (November, 2013), we made a quick cruise to the Caribbean on one of the Norwegian Cruise Lines ships, the Norwegian Dawn. It’s one of their older ships, but we had a purpose in mind. First, we have never sailed with NCL before and we’re planning an Atlantic crossing next May with them. Since the Atlantic crossing represents a reasonably big expenditure on our part, we wanted to see if they were up to it.
The latest cruise was only seven days and went to several Caribbean destinations. At the risk of sounding, well, stuck up, we didn’t plan to spend much time on the ground, but instead we enjoyed days in port having the ship to ourselves while everyone else went ashore and explored the exotic Caribbean islands. We’ve been to the Caribbean a few times and it’s hard to come up with a trip that doesn’t involve lots of scuba diving but is still interesting to us.
This trip, as many of our recent short trips on cruise ships, was about the cruise. About being on the ship, and about having a few days of down time. It’s amazing still that after several years of retirement we find that we simply need to get away, unplug and relax! Cruising seems to do that for us. I suppose that us claiming that we need to unplug and unwind, being already retired and all, is sort of like us complaining that it’s cold here in Florida in the winter, but it really is a matter of perception. Hey, retired folks can be busy too!
This latest trip left out of Tampa on November 24th. We enjoyed a day at sea and arrived at Roatan, Honduras on the 26th. We did indeed get off the ship in Honduras, but only to look over the shops briefly and get some images of the ship at the dock. We’ve spent some time diving at nearby Utila and we have Honduras on our list to return some day for more diving.
Next we sailed to Belize City. We’ve never been to Belize before and were actually planning to go ashore for a brief visit and get some more images of the ship, but on the day we arrived, the weather was presenting a few problems. First, we were anchored about three miles from shore, preventing any chance of a good shot of the ship from shore. Secondly, the wind was howling across the deck at about 40 knots which was making for a pretty angry sea. Finally, as we watched the tenders shuttling people to and from shore, we noticed that the waves, which were of course nothing for the ship, were challenging the tenders that were taking people to and from shore. Some of the boats would occasionally take waves over the bow. We had our good cameras with us on this trip and didn’t feel like risking them to the salt water for what was sure to amount to no pictures at all any. We stuck with our original plan and stayed on the ship.
I will point out that because of the power configuration of the screws on the Norwegian Dawn, the ship was able to apply power in such a way that it turned the ship sideways to the wind, even while at anchor. This caused the area where people were getting on and off the tenders to be in the lee side (downwind) of the ship, and made getting on and off the tenders relatively safe and easy. We saw at least two other cruise lines come and eventually leave, apparently unable to get passengers safely off their ships. There were two NCL ships at anchor all day.
Next on our journey was Costa Maya, Mexico. There were the usual ship sponsored excursions including snorkeling, sailing, jet skiing, and various other shore trips usually involving liquor or wine, but again we spent our day on board as planned. It was Thanksgiving Day. We had dinner reservations at Moderno’s, which is a specialty restaurant aboard the Dawn that specializes in Brazilian cuisine.
Our final Caribbean destination was Cozumel. We’ve been to Cozumel so many times we almost have to get off the ship and walk around just to see what’s changed. We’ve made many dive trips to Cozumel starting back in the early 1990s and have always enjoyed our visits. It’s a little different now than it was then because of the influence of all the cruise ships, but we understand that when we go ashore. We’re no longer seeing a sleepy little Mexican town struggling in an emerging tourist market. We’re visiting a major power in Caribbean destinations. Cozumel seems to derive its principal income from tourists, and we adjust our expectations accordingly.
Cozumel now has a Starbucks very near the main cruise terminal that of course has all the starbucks stuff and free WiFi. A tall Cafe Americano was 45 pesos.
Finally, our last day was another day at sea and we sat back and enjoyed our balcony room. There was a coffee maker in our room which is a first for us and the housekeeper kept us well stocked with our favorite decaf. I will say that my one complaint about the Norwegian Cruise Line is in their choice of Coffee. We just didn’t like it. We’re kind of spoiled though because we usually enjoy our coffee at Ghirardelli’s at Downtown Disney. Disney Parks now sell Joffrey’s brand coffee at all their stands and there are several Starbucks (well, two now with two under construction) in business at various Disney Parks. Coffee wise, we’re pretty spoiled. We made a mental note to take along some extra Starbucks Via packs on our Atlantic crossing.
When we arrived back in Tampa on the morning of the 30th, we made our way off the ship at around 7:30AM. We cleared Customs and were in our car across the street by 8:30AM. For some reason, the folks that were using the full service (where the bags are taken off the ship for you and placed at Customs) weren’t starting to get off the ship until 11:00AM. We had things to do.
So did Norwegian Cruise Lines meet our expectations? Are we planning to keep our Atlantic crossing reservations in May? The answer is yes, it did, and yes, we are. The Dawn is a similar class ship to the one we will cross on in May, which is the Norwegian Star. Both ships are about ten years old as we understand it, and while newer bigger ships are more spectacular and flashy, the Dawn was great choice. At just under 1,000 feet long, it’s not a particularly large ship by today’s standards but is seems to have all the amenities you could want. Even a long Atlantic crossing aboard a ship this size especially with Norwegian’s ability to entertain will be sure to keep us occupied quite nicely.
This cruise was our first experience with real “anytime” dining aboard a cruise ship. We’ve been aboard Royal Caribbean with similar arrangements, but at the time Royal Caribbean’s anytime dining meant reservations every night at 6:00 PM. The only difference was that we had a private table instead of with six other strangers. On NCL, we actually showed up for dinner when we wanted, and in the dining room we wanted. Of course, like anywhere, if we showed up at peak times, there was indeed a wait, like any busy restaurant. To keep it real though, the longest wait we were presented with was 45 minutes one night, and we opted instead to eat at another dining room where the wait was only 15 minutes. Usually there was no wait at all.
The NCL Dawn has several dining rooms aboard. Some are complementary, meaning that the meals are included in your price, and several are at an extra cost. These “extra cost” restaurants usually require a reservation. They’re so popular that it’s hard to get in without a little planning. If you do plan to cruise with this ship, do take a moment to think this over and make some plans. Truthfully, we’ve eaten at these specialty restaurants on every cruise where they’ve been offered, on every cruise line we’ve sailed, and it’s always been a worthwhile experience.
The bottom line is, do we recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines compared to the others? So far, based on one cruise with them, the answer would have to be an overwhelming yes. We’ve been on four different lines so far over the years and our most experience has been with Royal Caribbean. We’ve also sailed with Disney and Carnival. Disney was of course the most expensive and Carnival was the least. All of them, including this latest with Norwegian, gave what we considered to be great value for the price.