New York is a convenient departure port for Montrealers who want to enjoy a Caribbean cruise – driving to the port is cost efficient option

“You can have both”, was our waiter’s reply to my question about which of two entrees to have for lunch aboard The Norwegian Dawn. “You’re on holiday, and at NCL we’ll treat you like a king and queen.” This quote exemplifies the level of service and kindness that we experienced on a recent ten day cruise with Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) that took us from New York to a series of Caribbean islands.

Our cruise started off with two relaxing days at sea, followed by stops in St. Thomas, Tortola, Saint Maarten, Puerto Rico, a day at sea, Nassau, and then another day at sea before returning to New York. The training for exemplary service started long before the first passengers boarded the ship in the fall of 2002.

New York is an excellent departure port for Montrealers because it’s relatively close. You can take a one hour flight with a variety of airlines offering competitive rates. You may also drive your own car, and leave it at the supervised pier parking lot. It’s a comfortable 6 hour drive through the Green Mountains to New York, and many people will find this a cost-efficient and enjoyable way to travel. The pier is a short distance from the George Washington Bridge, and there’s no need to get caught up in Manhattan traffic. Indeed, Norwegian Cruise Lines is positioning ships in major north-eastern population centres so that their customers can drive or take motor coach transportation to the pier; saving money and time as an alternative to flying.

The Dawn is a new ship, launched in the fall of 2002, and she has all the latest comforts and features; including 10 different restaurants, 13 bars and lounges, a movie theatre and concert hall, an internet café, two pools, and an enormous fitness centre with all the latest equipment.

The Dawn has a huge spa that offers a wide variety of massages, aromatherapy, seaweed treatments, body wraps, manicures and pedicures. The Mandara Spa also has an indoor swimming pool, whirlpool, hot tub and in the large dressing rooms; his and her saunas, steam rooms, and hot & cold Japanese plunge pools. And if you want…you can just have your hair done.

She has a passenger capacity of 2240 people, and while a large ship, is considered mid-sized by today’s standards. We find that most of our readers prefer a ship that is large enough to offer all the features they expect on a cruise, but prefer not to travel aboard the huge mega-ships with over 3500 passengers. In general, the NCL fleet is in the popular mid-size category.

The $25 million Stardust Theatre presents some of the best live production shows aboard a cruise ship. NCL has a reputation for offering superior entertainment, and the shows we saw on this were outstanding. The main production shows include acrobats and dancers in addition to the singers and chorus, making for a memorable evening. In particular, Bollywood featured a gymnast doing aerial stunts while suspended over the audience, making Mary Martin’s flight in Peter Pan seem a little tame. This show, combining elements of Cirque de Soleil and exotic India brought the audience to its feet several times.

After leaving New York at 4pm, we woke the next morning to warm temperatures and sunshine. As a matter of fact; NCL has a “weather guarantee” for the colder months – to allay concerns that prospective guests may have about leaving for a Caribbean Cruise from a “northern port” like New York.

Our first port was St. Thomas, reputed to be the “shopping capital” of the Caribbean. It is also the home of one of the world’s best beaches – Megan’s Bay. With a full day in St. Thomas, you have enough time to shop and take a tour or go to the beach. The Port and Cruise Consultant provides very informative information sessions about ports, answering questions and making suggestions. These talks are useful, especially if a destination is new to you.

The laid back British Commonwealth island of Tortola was our next stop. There is a very pleasant market within walking distance of the ship. Pastel coloured buildings are arranged in a circle with a well-levelled stone walkway joining the stores. The merchandise is primarily island crafts and souvenirs – but very pleasant. The main beaches are on the other side of the island, and you’ll enjoy a taxi ride with spectacular views.

St. Maarten, shared by the Dutch and French governments, was our port on day 5. The Dawn docks in Philipsburg, on the Dutch side of the island. The government continues to improve what is already a very welcoming destination, and is considered to be just behind St. Thomas in terms of shopping. Perhaps it’s the European influence that makes St. Maarten one of the most popular islands in the Caribbean.

We recommend that you try some of the excursions offered by the cruise line. They offer excellent value, and more importantly, you’ll get to areas that you simply won’t see if you just wander around the port area where the ship is moored. Here’s a case in point. We took a tour in St. Maarten aboard a very large catamaran, with an hour’s ride to a small island with a beautiful deserted beach – like something out of a movie. The crew served drinks on our way to the island, equipped everyone who wanted with flippers and masks for snorkelling, and then waded in the water with a floating tray offering cokes, fruit punch and drinks to anyone who wanted. On the sail back, sandwiches were offered, along with champagne for anyone inclined. Beverley and I agreed that this kind of experience is what makes those special memories.

Readers will be interested to know that two Montrealers are the Shore Excursion Manager and Assistant Manager respectively. Dominique Goulet has been with NCL for 7 years, and his assistant, Johnathan Lima from Pierrefonds has been with the company for 41/2 years. As you might imagine, they thoroughly enjoy life at sea, ensuring that their guests enjoy themselves.

San Juan, Puerto Rico was our next destination, and this is an interesting port for history buffs. Old San Juan is a walled city that dates back to the 17th Century. As a matter of fact, the cobblestone streets and architecture are reminiscent of Old Montreal – except the buildings are painted in soft pastel colours. In addition to the two major old forts, El Morro and San Cristobol, there are a variety of tours that will take you out of the city, including a tour of the rainforest – the only one in the Caribbean!

We then enjoyed a relaxing day at sea before our next scheduled stop at Great Stirrup Cay, NCL’s private island. Unfortunately, it had sustained damage from the storms, and the captain made arrangements for an alternate stop in Nassau. (One of the advantages of a cruise holiday is that the Captain can avoid storms by going to another port.) We then set sail for a relaxing day at sea before returning to New York.

During the sea days, the Cruise Director’s staff offers a wide range of activities. All the events are listed in the Freestyle Daily, delivered to all cabins the previous evening. The trivia contests were fun, and I found it that asking to join a group was a good way to meet people. Movies were also well-attended in the late afternoons. Don’t forget that on sea days the Casino is open in addition to the usual evening hours. NCL is reputed to have the most generous payouts of all the cruise lines – and much better than any land casino. Alternately, you can relax in the sun with a good book, or play cards or board games in the comfortably appointed games rooms.

If you’re travelling with children, you’ll be pleased to know that kids have their own pool area, complete with slides. There are also supervised programmes for children during the morning and afternoon – so everyone has a chance to enjoy a few hours of quiet or adult-type activities if you choose.

As a journalist, I was treated to a behind the scenes tour of the galley facilities with Food & Beverage Director Tony Lockett – from initial un-packaging to the final presentation and delivery of food to your table. The standards of cleanliness and attention to detail are a little mind-boggling. No packaging is moved up to the food preparation areas, to avoid contamination. Further, all preparation activities are segregated to avoid any cross contamination. People who work in preparation of beef, poultry, and fish all have their own distinct work rooms. All prepared food is identified with time of preparation, and who did the work.

Tony informed me that Norwegian Cruise Lines is the only line that is designed and built to offer Freestyle Cruising, which centers on a wide variety of restaurants and flexible dining times. There are no pre-set first and second seatings. Guests dine when they want. Furthermore, the specialty restaurants each have their own kitchens, and each meal is cooked to order. All hot plates are kept holding ovens maintained at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Meals are prepared individually, and brought to you as soon as they are ready. All steaks are cooked to order. Breads and rolls are baked fresh every 30 minutes during meal times. “We recognize that food is a major component of a cruise holiday, and we at NCL want to make sure we meet our guests’ expectations,” noted Lockett during our journey through the interior of the ship. “I’ve worked with the other major cruise lines, and I can tell you that no one is set up to provide so many dining options as NCL is. I’ve worked all over the world in the hotel business, as well as with other cruise lines, and in my opinion, this is top drawer”

The Bistro and Cagney’s Steakhouse are two of the most popular specialty restaurants on board. Art lovers will be interested to know that The Bistro is home to four outstanding original paintings, on loan to The Dawn from the private collection of the Tan Sri KT Lim, Chairman of NCL’s parent company, Star Cruises. You’ll be able to study and enjoy Monet’s Vetheuil in the Sun; Nude with Turban by Matisse; Van Gogh’s A Park in Spring, and Renoir’s The Bather.

The Venetian Dining Room was one of our favourites. Located at the aft of the ship, you’ll descend an elegant staircase and be escorted to your table. The décor is Italian Rococo, with lots of gold trim, beautiful chandeliers, and floor-to-ceiling windows that offer spectacular views. Guests have the option of sharing with others or not. At times we elected to meet people, (usually breakfast or lunch) and on other occasions Beverley and I preferred our own romantic dinner. Remember, The Dawn has 10 different restaurants, including the buffet style Garden Café to the intimate Bistro – so there’s a dining experience for every mood and taste.

The Dawn makes 10 and 11 night Caribbean cruises that alternate between the eastern and western Caribbean from October to March. If you like, you could take a back to back cruise and eliminate a big chunk of the winter. During the rest of the year, the 7 day itinerary will take you from New York to Bermuda, and then down to Nassau (overnight) Great Stirrup Cay (NCL’s private island), and back to New York.

The itineraries and departure port are so popular that the company has added another new ship, The Norwegian Spirit to sail out of New York as well. She will be offering a southern Caribbean itinerary – so you’ve got lots of choice. For information about The Norwegian Dawn, you may visit the NCL website at: www.ncl.com of call your travel agent. If you have any questions or want more information about something than I haven’t had room to write about, give me a call at: (514) 369-7000, or send me an e-mail at editor@themontrealeronline.com Bon Voyage!

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