Dawn of a new era: NCL to sail ship from NYC

Cruise editor Rebecca Tobin sailed a short cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, the Norwegian Dawn. Her report follows:

ew York, New York. If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere, the song says. The question is: Would you want to make it anywhere else?

The answer for Norwegian Cruise Line, or at least for the line's newest ship, the Norwegian Dawn, is no.

NCL CEO Colin Veitch had told travel agents who were clamoring for a year-round ship in the Big Apple that the line was taking a wait-and-see approach to

wintertime New York cruising. But due to positive agent feedback and a favorable first-hand experience with a sales meeting/repositioning cruise from New York, NCL's top brass decided not to delay the decision.

And so the Dawn's season in Miami will be short-lived; this May, it will become New York's first year-round, homeported ship.

New York's passenger terminal will be crowded with ships this summer as cruise lines draw on one of the largest drive markets in the country. While the Dawn handles Bahamas/Florida cruises, the Norwegian Sea will offer clients the time-tested New York run to Bermuda.

But by November, the Dawn will have the docks to itself.

The Dawn is a sleek ship, and with a speed of about 24 knots, it's fast enough to be off the coast of the Carolinas by the first morning of the voyage. And, if all goes according to plan, guests will be able to mill about in the sun while on the ship's pool deck.

The lobby of the 11,302-square-foot El Dorado spa on the Norwegian Dawn. Although the sun was shining on NCL's New York preview cruise in December (which actually went up the coast toward Rhode Island), nobody was milling about outside. During the safety drill, guests strapped on life preservers over winter coats and turned their faces away from the sharp chill.

I thought a wintertime New York cruise meant we'd be rocking and rolling on the ship -- shaking more than the entertainers at NCL's late-night dance parties.

However, we sailed out of New York harbor on water as smooth as glass.

The vessel's sunbathing areas looked lovely enough, with tiered rows of deck chairs in the midship pool area and on the aptly named Sun Deck.

Inside the vessel, the colors and decor are fun and funky -- without being frenetic.

There's a Miami Beach vibe on the Dawn, including some playful pink and blue pastels and lots of greenery in the grand atrium.

There are other Caribbean influences aboard the vessel; the seashell-patterned carpeting in the cabins, for example, and the salsa band that struck up a lively concert in the atrium one afternoon.

Fittingly, the brightly colored restaurant and bar that encircles the atrium a few decks up is called Salsa, an updated version of NCL's tapas bar. The venue serves full portions of Caribbean, Tex-Mex and South American food.

Food, of course, is a major pastime on the Dawn -- not just the eating, but the planning, the choosing and the cooking. The ship features 10 different restaurants.

The vessel was custom-built to incorporate NCL's Freestyle Dining concept, meaning guests can eat at any hour, any day, at any restaurant, with any style dress -- well, as long as it's "resort casual"; i.e., khakis and casual skirts.

On the Dawn alone, guests have the option of Italian, French, Japanese/Thai/Chinese fusion, steak, South American, buffet or "contemporary" cuisine.

The three main restaurants, which serve varied menus, seat anywhere from 236 diners to nearly 500.

Three specialty restaurants require cover charges: Bamboo, the Asian fusion restaurant that features two teppanyaki tables and self-serve sushi concoctions on conveyor belts; Le Bistro, NCL's French mainstay; and Cagney's Steak House.

Le Bistro comes standard on every NCL ship, but the Dawn's version stands out, if only for the artwork. Four original paintings by Impressionist masters Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir and Monet hang on its walls.

The paintings were donated from the private collection of Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, the chairman of Star Cruises, NCL's parent company.

However, the ship's emphasis on artwork isn't limited to the restaurants. On each landing of the vessel's staircases hangs an Andy Warhol from his Pop Art series "Chairman Mao." The portraits of Mao Tse-tung greet guests on every level of the ship.

It's fairly easy to get your bearings while aboard the Dawn. The vessel is similar in layout to NCL's Hawaii-based ship, the Norwegian Star (NCL calls the Dawn its "Star of the East").

At the top of the ship are the Dawn's two Garden Villa suites, NCL's signature, 5,350-square-foot, three-bedroom suites featuring their own 1,712-square-foot private garden backyards.

Featuring decor similar to a modern Manhattan penthouse, the suites boast 360-degree views; some of the best viewing is from the windows in the gigantic marble bathroom. The windows are tinted so guests relaxing by the pool can't look up and into the suites. Garden Villa guests, meanwhile, get their own Jacuzzi and sunbathing deck.

Cagney's Steakhouse also is perched high on the ship along with a classy cocktail hideaway, the Star Bar.

Most of the restaurants are positioned on decks seven and eight, along with the casino and the Stardust Theater.

NCL's theater productions could be called unique. The show I caught, called "Bollywood," combined elements of Cirque du Soleil (lots of fancy, spinning trapeze work) with "Arabian Nights." Although it was daring and different, several members of the audience looked a little befuddled. Keep in mind: This is not a typical musical revue or traditional cruise-style Vegas production.

Off to one side of the ship is the Pearly Kings Pub, where, on our cruise, several travel agents were taking some time away from ship-searching to relax with a pint.

Phil Papa from Papa's Travel in Secaucus, N.J., called the pub a "nice, cozy area."

At a nearby table, Joanne Tobin, a consultant at Independent Travel in Kingston, Mass., called the ship "tastefully done."

"The Venetian [restaurant], the enormous gym; the staterooms," she said, ticking off some of the areas the ship that impressed her.

Two other areas really stand out aboard the Dawn.

One is its enormous, dinosaur-themed kids zone, the T-Rex Childcare Center, a

fun play-care area that includes fun, habitat-like jungle gyms.

Outdoors on the aft area of the vessel is the T-Rex Pool, which features water slides, a kid-size hot tub and a wading pool. Be sure to note the kid-sized tables and buffet serving stations in the Garden Cafe eatery.

The other is its bilevel spa. The entrance to the 11,302-square foot El Dorado spa is pretty neat -- imagine a vaulted interior of an ancient Mayan temple or cave.

The facility contains a lap pool and Jacuzzi area that will be perfect on sea days when it's a little too chilly to venture outdoors.

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