Monday, 23 March 2009

Norwegian Dawn Eastern Caribbean Cruise

Here goes - the chronicles of our cruise last week on the good ship Norwegian Dawn. I won't interrupt the flawlessly-flowing prose with pictures (formatting's always a pain on Blogspot) - there's a link to the pictures anyway. Well, maybe I'll try a few small ones.

We started out for a Saturday morning departure (Miami) by travelling to Syracuse Thursday night. It wasn't much more expensive to stay at a hotel in Syracuse where we could park the car for a week than to park at the airport, so we thought we'd pamper ourselves by being in Syracuse already, rather than having to get up at 4 am to be to the airport by 8 am. The hotel was fine (Holiday Inn) and the shuttle was free, so that turned out to be an excellent idea.

Our flight to Miami and back was free - compliments of United Airlines, who gave us vouchers when they screwed up (and then unscrewed) our flight last March to Sweden. So we treated ourselves to a balcony cabin on the ship. We have discovered that having a balcony is kind of like having air conditioning in your car for the first time - you were fine before you had it, but YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK!! The flights to Washington (Dulles) and Miami were on time - connections in Washington were only about 4 gates apart! The Holiday Inn Express (Airport) in Miami sent a shuttle to pick us up and we settled in comfortably. There's not much in the vicinity of the airport, but we had a nice walk and picked up a few things for the cruise (soft drinks, in particular). Norwegian Cruises do not include alcohol or soft drinks and you cannot take alcohol aboard, but you can take all the soft drinks you can carry. In the morning we took a shuttle to the Port of Miami and checked in and boarded the Dawn. For some reason, nobody seemed to know that the main dining room was open for lunch so, while everyone else ate in the cafe we had a wonderful sit-down lunch in the Venetian Dining Room.

We watched the casting-off process from our balcony and were a little concerned that only two of our three bags had been delivered. Understanding that there were at least 2,000 bags to deal with, however, we figured it would eventually turn up and we had our supper. When we returned, there was a note on our door indicating that our bag had, in the x-ray process, revealed the presence of 'contraband' contents. NCL will not open the bag except in your presence so we were summoned to a room which contained at least 200 bags. Apparently, the x-ray machine cannot distinguish between diet Coke, Listerine, shampoo and a smuggled bottle of hooch. A lot of muttering going on in the hall outside that room!! We headed back with our 'contraband' to our stateroom. Our cabin was, for us who have very little to compare it to, very nice and complete. Small, compared to a hotel, but outfitted with every necessity. Bar-fridge, hair-drier, coffee maker, TV, spacious bathroom, couch, desk and chair - and a balcony with two chairs and a small table.

Sunday was an at-sea day so we had ample opportunity to check out the ship. We discovered that, as balcony dwellers, we were entitled to eat breakfast in a dining area not open to everyone. So, of course, we ate there! There was a more extensive menu of hot food from which to order and a buffet with fruit, cereal and baked goodies.

In the morning there was a meet-and-greet from the NCL Cruise Critic Roll Call group. It was very interesting to put faces with the screen names with whom we had exchanged info over the past month.

The show Sunday night was a variety show, featuring various performers who would entertain us throughout the week. The house band was excellent - rhythm section, keyboard and three horns. I won't get into who performed on what night, but the Jean Ann Ryan Dance Company productions were very fine - great singing, great dancing and slick production values. The magician, Greg Gleason, was top-notch - we're so used to special effects on tv and in movies that it's especially amazing to see things which have no explanation happen right in front of you. The comedian, Dave Keenan, was funny, but had a tiresome delivery and had material inappropriate for a crowd which contained many children. The Second City troupe left us in awe - it's still hard to believe that 5 people can sing a song they're making up on the spot based on an idea from the audience. No wonder we've always loved "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

Monday morning we tendered in to Samana, Dominican Republic. We had made arrangements through a Roll-Call on Cruise Critic charter with Casa Dorado to take a taxi (30 minutes over the worst road that could masquerade as a road) to a small park where we got in an outboard and travelled (15 minutes) to Playa Rincon. The beach is absolutely gorgeous - word is, see it now before it gets developed. There's a small grill there and we had mahi-mahi and ice tea we stole from the ship. After some sun and a short swim (water wasn't hot) we caught a boat back to the taxi for the return trip to Samana. The boat-ride back was a little hair-raising, since the waves were 6-8 feet high. But ocean waves are much further apart than river waves so we weren't nearly as terrified as we had every right to be. All-in-all, we were very well taken care of. Through the Cruise Critic forum, arrangements had been made for us to drop off school supplies at a school on the way to Playa Rincon. We were warmly received and given a tour of the facilities. From what we saw of living conditions on the way to and from Playa Rincon, we were pleased that we had been part of this gesture.

Wednesday we moored at the wharf at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. We did the obligatory outlet mall visit in the morning and then met Captain Mike at 12:30. Along with a family of 4, we were tendered out to his sailboat, Island Girl. There we met Andrew, his assistant, and we set off to sail to Buck Island. Once there, we donned snorkel equipment (masks and snorkels from Costco and fins from Mike), grabbed our Kodak underwater camera, and jumped in. Andrew took us for an hour-and-a-quarter swim (honest, we swam without touching for over an hour - salt water is amazing!). He gave us a guided tour of the cove and dove to the bottom to bring up sea-life to show us. He then very carefully returned everything to it's natural home - no souvenirs allowed - he said "we take nothing from here". After a snack we sailed back to Charlotte Amalie, where we purchased a CD containing nearly two hundred pictures Andrew had taken (in and out of the water) during our excursion. If you're going to St. Thomas, CONTACT CAPTAIN MIKE. We're going to if (when) we're back (unless we have our own boat!!)

We sailed away from St. Thomas and made our way (very slowly, apparently) to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Once again we docked, this time at Road Town. There arrangements had been made (again through Cruise Critic) to take a 40-minute ferry ride to Virgin Gorda. There we hopped on a shuttle which took us to The Baths National Park. The Baths are a collections of giant boulders which form pools and grottos which flood with sea water at high tide. The huge boulders and rock formations are worn smooth by rain and sea water and form a maze that leads to Devil's Bay beach. (If this doesn't sound like me, it's because I stole it from the BVI site!) We spent the day with Mark and Laura, from Plano, Texas, with whom we had connected through Cruise Critic and the meet-and-greet. After a quick bit of refreshment, we shuttled back to the ferry dock to return to Road Harbour.

Thursday was an at-sea day and we caught up on our nap-time and caught a few rays on deck. we went to a variety of early or late shows (7:30 or 9:30) depending on what time we felt like eating and what else was on for that day. We were really steaming when we were at sea - 21.5 knots. Considering we travelled over 2,100 nm, I guess we had to be going at a good clip when we weren't stopped. We had fun following our progress on our own GPS. Our new Acer netbook, loaded with SeaClear charts and scanned maps of the region, along with our Streets And Trips GPS locator, allowed us to follow our progress through the Caribbean and gave us a chance to test out the operation before using it to navigate in our boat.

The show Thursday was the Jean Ann Ryan troupe, in a show called Bollywood. It was a combination of music - dance - gymnastics - cirque-de-soleil -- an excellent production. We had no hesitation in giving them a standing ovation. Oh yeah - this was bound to come up. The cruise director, in a misguided fit of enthusiasm-building, insulted the artists and the audience at every show by ordering the audience to give a standing ovation. He even went so far as to intimate that the performers would give us a better show if they knew they were going to get one. Well, I've been attending and performing in shows longer than he's been out of diapers and I know that's not how it works. You give the performance - you'll get the standing ovation if you're worth it. End of rant ...

Friday we anchored off NCL's private island in the Bahamas - Great Stirrup Cay. Tenders took us in to the islands where there were beach chairs, umbrellas, hammocks, picnic tables, beach volleyball, ping pong. The NCL staff had brought over provisions for a BBQ so we had a complete buffet lunch. We got the feeling, although we've never been to one, that this is what an all-inclusive beach vacation is like. That's great, but a few hours was enough for us. We love being afloat and going places so we'll probably put our vacation dollars into cruising and travelling. Where it's warm! Except for Alaska! And the Antarctic!

We tendered back to the Dawn and met Mark and Laura for dinner in one of the specialty restaurants (The Bamboo). There are a number of restaurants on NCL ships that offer 'special' cuisine with a cover charge ($15 to $25). From the looks of the empty tables in the 'specialty' locations and line-ups to get into the 'regular' dining rooms, NCL may want to re-think this. We went to the Bamboo only because we had a 2-for-1 coupon, given to us when we booked our next cruise. Actually, we didn't book a cruise - we paid a deposit (only $250) for an future NCL cruise which we must book within 2 years and take within 2 1/2. That gave us an immediate onboard credit of $100 and the Bamboo coupon, along with other benefits (although neither of us thought the facial would accomplish much!)

Then we headed off to the theatre for the final show. Once again we were amazed by the magician, humoured by the comedian and entertained wonderfully by Brian Graves and the Dawn's house band. A great finish to a great cruise. We returned to our stateroom for the depressing task of packing our bags to leave in the hall for collection. In the morning we had a last breakfast in the Venetian and headed to the internet cafe for a last email. Then we made our way to the gangplank and through Customs. We had been warned that there was a taxi strike, but there were several waiting at the curb and we arrived post-haste at the Riu Hotel, South Beach Miami. What an 'interesting' hotel that is! Not quite European - not quite North American - just a couple of bricks short of either. First time, I believe, that we've ever stayed in a hotel in the developed world where a notice in the room said that water was not drinkable. And yet they had a dress code for dinner - long sleeves were required. I threatened to wear my swim trunks with a long sleeved shirt but cooler heads prevailed. And yet, in the dining room (which had an amazing buffet) there were patrons in jeans and T-shirts. Go figure!!

We had a few hours to walk along Miami south beach - both the boardwalk and the beach. It was windy and cool and it rained both times we went out. So we mostly watched TLC and got ourselves ready for our flight home.

We boarded our United flight on schedule, landing at Washington Dulles right on time. We grabbed a quick bite and had lots of time to make our connection. The flight to Syracuse was overbooked and they were looking for 11 volunteers to give up their seats. A free voucher sounded nice, but the earliest flight they could offer was two days later!! We boarded and settled back to enjoy the last leg of our trip. As we taxied toward the runway, suddenly the plane came to a abrupt stop. I commented that I used to do that too, when I was learning to drive. We then turned around and headed - you guessed it - back to the gate. Not a good sign. But then we backed away from the gate and proceeded to travel on just about every piece of tarmac at Dulles. Eventually, the pilot came on and explained that an access door had not been closed and we had gone back to have that seen to (I'm all for that!!). So we were 30 minutes late leaving Washington and still on time into Syracuse. The shuttle came and picked us up and our car was still there and still intact and full of gas. Couple of hours on I81, a short stop at the duty-free for a bottle of hooch for Dad and a quick welcome home at Canadian Customs.

The -11 (C) was a little hard to take this morning. However, the beer stays cold in the porch!

So, 'til next time - we're going to enjoy Life on the Bluff. Can't wait to get the boat in, but I guess we'll have to wait until there's no ice at the dock.

We were delighted at how our new little Acer netbook performed on the trip. It was much easier to manage, tucked in a knapsack, than a regular size laptop and we had a great time with the GPS. We didn't have navigation charts for our whole trip but around Miami and St. Thomas (we do have charts for all U.S. waters) we were able to confirm that the captain did indeed know where we were. And we have since discovered that we can scan maps from an atlas, asign reference latitude and longitude points, and they become GPS-sensitive maps. No good for navigation, of course, but interesting when somebody else is at the helm.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

We're back ...

We just returned from a fabulous week on the Norwegian Dawn - out of Miami to Samana (Dominican Republic, St. Thomas, Tortola and Great Stirrup Cay (NCL's private island). Weather was great (except for rain in Miami on Saturday - after the cruise but during our visit to Miami). We're a bit browner and a bit heavier but that's what you expect when you cruise. More details and lots of pictures to follow. Put a deposit down for our next Norwegian Cruise - we've got 2 years to decide when and where but it seems a sure thing that we'll cruise again and the Norwegian free-style is our cup of tea.

Update - pictures are up. Click on Norwegian Dawn link in Picture Links.

Friday, 13 March 2009

We're off ....

Headed out about 6:30 Thursday - clear sailing on Rte 81. We stopped in Watertown at Panera Bread for a bite of supper and arrived at the Holiday Inn Syracuse (Liverpool) at 9:30. The Park and Fly setup here is great - 30 days parking with your overnight accommodation, and a shuttle service (we're about 15 minutes from the airport). Note to Holiday Inn - your hotel is very nice, the staff wonderful, but you don't have enough coffee in the room for two people

Our flight is Friday morning about 10:15 a.m. - short hop to Washington Dulles - even shorter time to switch planes - and then on to Miami. Our accommodation there is at the Holiday Inn Express by the airport. They have arrangements there for a shuttle to the Port of Miami ($10 or less per person). Streets and Trips shows a 15 minute ride from hotel to ship. Looking forward to getting on board and putting the travel behind and just relaxing for a week.

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