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CurtandLeslie

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  1. Day 5 – Bonaire (Thursday, January 31) Bonaire was the earliest port time we’ve ever had - 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM! As usual, I was up well before dawn and got some pics. I’m sure a few people got off the ship when we first arrived at 6:00 AM but I didn’t see many. We were the only cruise ship in port that day. As you can see in the first photo, it’s still completely dark and the lights of the town can be seen in the distance. The second photo is after the sun has started to rise and the town is waking up. By 8:30 or 9:00, all the shops were open for business. To the left side of the yellow port shops, there are a dozen or so colorful tents. That’s where the taxis and tour guides set up. They were all super friendly. Walking by, I didn’t hear the usual pitch, but things like “keep smiling” and “have a wonderful day on Bonaire.” All the stands had lots of information about their offerings, which seemed to be tailored to our short port time. You could do everything from snorkeling, beach, 2 hours tours of the north/south of the island, renting golf carts or ATVs, etc. There’s also a water taxi that will take you to Klein Bonaire, a completely undeveloped island just off the coast, with pristine beaches. I understand Bonaire is also famous for its snorkeling and diving. Here is a view of the Dawn from the shore. The ABC islands definitely have the most beautiful waters and relaxed areas near the ports. Going forward on this cruise, the areas where we will dock are adjacent to the commercial ports and not so scenic. There’s an area just past the port that had more vendor tents with local crafts, followed by a few blocks of shops on the main street. Sea salt is one of the main industries on the island and they produce salt for cooking, as well as bath salt. I bought several varieties for myself as well as for gifts. Found a pair of hand-painted ceramic earrings and other very reasonably priced handmade gifts. Once again, as I was shopping my husband enjoyed the local scenery from one of the open air bars near the water. There are many to choose from. He camped out at Karel’s beach bar, which overlooks this piece of paradise. By the time I returned with my purchases, he had gotten into conversation with the bar manager about business and island life. We ended up walking away with a real estate brochure! If we ever decide to run away from it all, we’re heading to Bonaire. Several of the people we talked to throughout the morning were originally from England, the Netherlands, etc. Here is another view from the balcony. This was the calmest weather cruise we have ever taken, and we’ve been to the Southern Caribbean 3 times. If you can see the tiny ripples in the water, that was what the seas would be like for the rest of the cruise. Even on the navigation screen on the cabin tv, the “sea state” was either “calm, rippled sea” or “wavelets” (defined as 1 ft or smaller)! This is a photo of Klein Bonaire that we took from the Bimini, since it was on the starboard side. You can see the white sand beaches on the one edge. Next time… Final words of wisdom from Bonaire That's all for tonight. Still have 6 more ports to go but it's back to work in the morning so I'll continue later in the week when I have more time.
  2. Curacao – Day 4 (Wednesday, January 30) DUSHI! (We would later learn that this native word from the ABC islands doesn’t translate directly but can mean “sweetheart” or refer to the good things in life.) Another sunrise from the balcony. The Crown Princess beat us into port today. We ate another hearty breakfast to sustain us on our way into town. Frittata with smoked salmon, asparagus and boursin cheese. A different version of huevos rancheros that I think uses the same chili they put on the coney hot dogs in O’Sheehans. I also saw it on the menu at the Venetian at least one day. After breakfast, we headed into town. There’s a decent sized port area with vendors and drink kiosks at the pier. You can head straight into the residential side of the town (Otra Banda) or keep going toward the bay/canal through a mall that the Renaissance resort has incorporated into the remnants of an old fort. They also have an infinity pool club as part of the property. In the photo below from about 6:30 AM, you can see the edge of the pier where the Dawn is secured in the foreground. On the left is the resort and infinity pool. In the distance, a freighter is approaching the bay where the Queen Emma pontoon bridge (pedestrian only) will swing open to let the ship pass. More on that later. The high bridge in the distance is for vehicles to go from one side of the city to the other. Right after the pier shops, there’s a handy city map sign. I took a photo again for future reference. We were heading to the Punda, which is the older side with shops, cafes, government buildings and the floating market where boats from Venezuela bring over fish and produce to sell. We walked through the fort/mall (to lend some authenticity, they have a few cannons on display that must have been from the original fort) and along the water to the pedestrian bridge. There are lots of vendor tents selling the usual tourist souvenirs all along the edge of the bay, leading up to the bridge so there are plenty of spots to get your favorite tchotchkes. This is a view of the bridge and the colorful buildings of the Punda. The base of the bridge are pontoons and it will swing to the side to allow ships like the freighter from earlier to pass. There’s also a water taxi that can be used to cross. Here’s a picture of a couple of the Venezuelan boats with their catch. Two local women are getting the fish from the seated gentleman with the very large knife. We walked through another local market up the road that sold all sorts of things (food, hair products, clothes, etc.) before meandering through town. In addition to the brightly painted buildings, they also had artwork scattered around the city. This was a mural between a couple of shops. There are several outdoor cafes that line the Punda side of the bay, with views of the bridge. We chose Dock Bar for its friendly, laid back vibe, $5 mojitos and free wifi. Unfortunately, 1. The cars were backed up all along the street for quite a while, we think because the floating market was right around the corner. I finally gave up on the perfect photo and settled for one with vehicles. 2. The whole time we were there enjoying our mojitos, no boats needed to pass so we never got a close-up look at the pontoon bridge in action. With the free WiFi at the bar, we checked email and did other higher bandwidth things. We only had the 250 minute package that came with the Free at Sea over the 11 days so I was rationing minutes. Plus, the internet speed on the ship seemed to get slower as we went so anything with photos or graphics dragged. Checked the weather: Negative 4 degrees F at home, 84 in Curaçao. Score! Saw a picture of a coworker back in the office wearing full winter gear at his desk because it was so cold. Here is a close up of the pontoons under the bridge. We were hungry so we headed back to the ship for lunch, stopping to get my earrings and postcard. Also, took a cheesy picture in a wooden shoe outside of a shop that sold “delft-like” blue and white pottery. The port shopping area has lots of seating, as well as places to buy local beer, rum, etc. Perfect for husbands not interested in earrings or shopping. My husband had a Brion lager and found a crab nestled in the rocks that would scuttle back every time he got close to take a picture with his phone. One of the times an SLR camera with zoom would have come in handy. If you squint really hard, you can see it in the middle of the rock formation. After lunch, we chilled on the balcony for a while watching the port. Here’s another picture of the infinity pool and beyond. The colors are just amazing. Unfortunately, for the rest of the afternoon this was our view, as the NCL maintenance workers came back for more work. This would happen over the course of several days. I assume they eventually moved onto the starboard side. After another set of maintenance guys showed up to replace a slowly leaking shower part, we gave up the views from the room and headed to the Bimini bar. Had a few cocktails, got suckered into buying a ceramic pineapple cup (I love it!), and my husband got to enjoy one of the Cuban cigars he bought in Aruba. From this vantage, we also were able to see the pontoon bridge swing open when another freighter sailed through! Chatted with some very nice people and had a great sunny afternoon. This is about as zoomed in as I could get on my iPhone of the pontoon bridge opened. Le Bistro Dinner 3 of 5 on the SDP. We try to stack the specialty dining reservations towards the beginning of the cruise. On these longer vacations, half way through we are so food saturated, we just order something simple like a salad and fish. Found a couple of wines for dinner that met the beverage package limit but the current glass pour list certainly isn’t as interesting as it was before they changed it at the beginning of the year. They still had an old version of the list in our suite so we could see what had changed. For starters, I ordered the goat cheese salad, which was exactly what I expected it to be. I had seen pictures of the crab salad in other reviews and was intrigued, so I talked my husband into ordering it. In the other reviews, it looked encased in dark greens. When his plate came out, it looked like they had used iceberg. It was very pale and kind of slimy. Interesting, but weird. The crab salad inside tasted fine. The mushroom soup and escargot were as great as we remembered from our last time in Le Bistro several years ago. My husband will order escargot whenever he sees it on a menu. For entrees, I had perfectly medium rare lamb chops and my husband’s veal medallions were so tender and flavorful, that he kept eating well passed “stuffed.” The waiters never seemed to understand why we passed up dessert…we got a couple of cocktails from Gatsby’s for the road and then Curt went back to the cigar lounge for a final nightcap. We are looking forward to coming back to Curacao next year. Now that we have seen Willemstad, we will likely do one of the island tours or beach. If we don’t like one of the ship tours (we will have the $50/port credit), as with Aruba the tour and taxi area is well organized at the pier so I’m sure we will find something.
  3. Aruba – Day 3 (January 29) As we came into Aruba, we passed the first dock (which would later host the Crown Princess) and pulled in behind the Disney Wonder. It was a long port day (8:00 AM – 8:00 PM) so we weren’t in a rush. Food strategy for the day was to have a hearty breakfast then come back to the ship for a light lunch since we had Moderno reservations for tonight. We needed to pace ourselves already, since we had already started feasting early in Puerto Rico. One of the things we appreciated that you don’t see at all the Caribbean ports is that the taxi drivers had a designated area to set up shop, and they kept to it. We had a such bad experience in another port (Antigua) that we’ve stayed on the ship in subsequent visits. Since we had never been to Aruba before, we decided to explore Oranjestad on our own instead of booking an excursion. One of our main missions was to go to Casa del Habano so my husband could purchase a few real Cuban cigars. There’s one in a shopping center very close to the port. Here’s the happy hubby in the humidor. We walked around and shopped and took pictures for an hour or two. It’s a clean, very walkable city with lots of interesting Caribbean architecture, shops and public artwork. We never could find a sign or plaque for this one. They also have a free trolley that runs from the cruise port to the other end of town (you could walk it but by that time we were hot and tired!). Keep in mind that it’s FREE. The drivers would say things over the speakers but we couldn’t understand most of what they said (either speaker distortion or language); it’s definitely not a tour so set your expectations accordingly. When they get to the end of the route, they stop for 20 minutes (next to the dragon sculpture). The driver got out and took a break and another employee passed out surveys, pens and clipboards. Questions included whether you would pay for the service. The trolleys are relatively new and shiny. It was mostly nice to be able to sit and look around, with the breeze coming through the open sides. However, if you are impatient or have somewhere to be, you’ll want to walk back. The route isn’t that long and goes along a street of shops. When we finally started up again, there was another trolley coming straight at us. It turned at the last minute. We’re guessing that was the reason for the break: so the next trolley could turn off and we could return on the same track. Our last mission before returning to the ship was to find some local items to purchase. I had decided to buy a pair of inexpensive but unique earrings from a local vendor at each port on this port-intensive cruise. I’ll post a picture of all of them at the end. We stopped at a craft place that was promoted on the street signs throughout town and I bought a bird print but I ended up finding a shop at the port that was selling jewelry made by local artists. The first pair were green sea glass. The other thing we ended up getting in each port was a postcard. My husband’s good friend always says “send me a postcard” so we bought one at each port. We weren’t ambitious enough to go through the trouble of mailing them, although we did get some stamps from Curacao. We headed back to the ship for our light lunch and spent the afternoon relaxing. We enjoy spending time on the ship while everyone else is out, with pretty much free run of the pools and bars. I wanted to spend time on our balcony doing some people/port watching but the NCL maintenance crew were diligently eradicating rust from the port side of the ship and we had scaffolding in front of our balcony for a couple of hours. With another early-ish dinner reservation, we didn’t end up taking advantage of the extended port time. There was a seasonal carnival event that they do on Tuesday evenings, which we may have been able to catch part of before our 7:30 all aboard. Next time. This was the view of the port from the balcony. We did see one poor family making a mad dash for the Disney ship, when it left around 5:00. They made it but didn’t realize there was a ship excursion that was running late behind them. Here is a view of the port and Oranjestad. Dinner at Moderno We had switched our dinner reservations from 8:30 to 6:30 that first day on the ship. Started with caipirinhas (traditional Brazilian cocktail made with cachaca, a sugarcane liquor). Kind of like a gimlet or margarita but made with a different liquor. Switched to red wine for the meat parade. Salad bar was interesting and unusual. The cheese bread was disappointingly cold and hard but at least it saved us a few calories. Didn’t get pictures of the rest of the meal because the waiters were bringing the different meats so fast! Needless to say, we were stuffed by the time we tried most of them. We couldn’t even bring ourselves to order dessert, although the chocolate-coconut tres leches cake at the next table looked really good. Final thoughts on Aruba: Aruba’s slogan is “One Happy Island”, which is exactly the vibe we got. Next time, we’ll venture to other parts of the island. Outside of the city, I think it’s mostly resorts and cacti. My husband is allergic to bus tours so getting one of the local taxis to a beach (after cigar shopping again) is likely the best option.
  4. Day 2 – Sea Day (January 28) Being a morning person, I was up early to catch the sunrise every day (and show the photos to my husband later). Heading south, we got great sunrise views on the port side. We briefly had aspirations of being healthy and doing laps of the promenade deck. Taking a picture of this sign was about as far as we got. We decided to check out the sushi and teppanyaki demonstration in the atrium that morning so we headed to O’Sheehans for “day drinking” cocktails after breakfast and a prime view of the show from the lower seating areas that overlook the atrium. Although we’ve seen sushi made in restaurants before, it was very interesting. My husband had never been interested in the Teppanyaki restaurant before but decided to give it a try after seeing the demo. I immediately went down to the restaurant reservation desk below and canceled our Cagney’s reservation and added Teppanyaki later in the week. Obligatory picture of my sandals (I do at least one every vacation) looking out the balcony as we sped south to Aruba. It was so calm and peaceful, sipping on a cocktail and watching the waves. After a while, I noticed what I initially thought was a bird skimming over the water but quickly realized they were flying fish! After having flying fish for lunch during our first trip to Barbados many years ago, I was fascinated. I kept spotting more and more of the fish, while my husband must have been looking in the wrong spots. Eventually, he spotted a few himself so I know I wasn’t seeing things. We had a great room steward (Naik) on this cruise. Everything we requested he was able to make happen, including bringing a lounge chair, which just fit at an angle on the balcony. We missed lunch at the dining room so headed to O’Sheehan’s for beers, fish and chips and a burger. Bar food hit the spot. We seemed to be running behind all day but it didn’t really matter. We didn’t have a dinner reservation tonight so when Aqua was full, we just went back to O’Sheehans. After the late burger lunch, I got a Caesar salad with salmon. My husband was tempted with another platter of fried seafood, which was the special for the night. Headed to bed early that night since we were planning a morning in Aruba.
  5. Embarkation Day (Day 1, January 27) Checkout time at the hotel was not until 11:00 so we walked around Condado some more and had breakfast at a little place down the road called Kabanas. We didn’t want anything too heavy but weren’t sure exactly when we were going to get on the ship. The letter from NCL that advised us about the alternate departure pier also said that boarding at the alternate pier would not start until 1:00, but that we should arrive at 2:00. With 3 other ships in port in addition to the Dawn, we encountered lots of people heading out for the cruises at both the restaurant and checking out from the hotel. We were already on the third floor of the hotel, where they had a lounge and balcony, so we just kept our luggage up there after checking out, while we tried to wait patiently to head to the ship. Another couple who would also be on the Dawn had the same idea so we chatted a bit. They had been advised to board the ship at 4:00! At 12:15, the other lady said she saw Facebook posts from the Cruise Critic roll call group that they were aboard the ship already. That decided it! I requested an Uber (mapping my own coordinates). I think it took the driver 9 minutes to get to the hotel and only 6 minutes to actually get to the pier! It was about $12, with a generous tip. Before we knew it, we were unloading luggage and handing it to the porters. The entrance to the Navy Frontier Pier was not busy at all yet. They had a temporary tent set up with dozens of folding tables and laptops. Here is a photo of the white plastic tent. Once we were past security, there was a short line for regular check in. We were in the VIP line since we had won our upgrade bid to a suite. The check in process went so fast we could barely keep up. They were asking us for our health forms about 10 seconds after they handed them to us. That was the longest part: trying to find space on the folding table to fill out the form! Two minutes later, Roy the concierge was greeting us and sending us with someone up to Cagney’s for lunch. Before 1:00 we were seated and had ordered our traditional first drinks (g&t for him and Long Island iced tea for me – a tradition started from our first cruise on Royal Caribbean back in 2006). While we were eating, they made the “cabins ready” announcement, so as soon as we were done we headed to our room. This was the best and quickest embarkation we had ever experienced (most of our other cruises sailed from Miami)! After getting more drinks from Bimini (g&t + I ordered a red sangria but they gave me white – tasted good anyway!), we wandered around the ship, refamiliarizing ourselves with the layout since we hadn’t been on board since 2011 – two refurbs ago! We really like the new furnishings throughout the ship. We sat on our balcony for a while. We spent a vast amount of time on our balcony throughout the cruise and probably half of the 1000 pictures I took were of sunrise, sunset or other interesting pictures of the ports from that vantage point. Here is the view from our balcony of the Disney Wonder and Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas. I believe they are docked at the Pan American pier that the Dawn normally sails from. We dawdled too much on the balcony and missed the opportunity to get beverage refill before muster so we popped open our complimentary bottle of sparkling wine. It was fine in a pinch but we decided it was better to drink the rest of it as mimosas. While we were in the room, they tried to deliver 2 other people’s suitcases! Luckily, we caught them right away so hopefully those passengers were soon reunited with their belongings. Our luggage arrived at two separate times over the course of the late afternoon. Of course, it was my husband’s luggage that got delivered first… With the 9:00 PM departure, we would already be at dinner at Los Lobos right up until sail-away but I did get a few sunset pictures of the other ships before heading to the restaurant. The Disney ship has already departed. Los Lobos We started off with the mezcal negroni and the paloma. My husband really enjoyed the negroni, which made the bartender very happy. He said lots of folks don’t know what a negroni is and end up sending it back (my husband likes the bitter stuff – me, not so much). For dinner, we ordered the aguachile and table side guac as appetizers. My husband got enchiladas verde and I ordered the cochinita pibil. Everything was good, although we are spoiled by the great cochinita pibil we’ve had in Mexico, which is where we have vacationed for the last several years since our last cruise. At the end of dinner, we stayed at the starboard side windows just outside Los Lobos so we could have a view of the city and El Morro on the way out to sea. Our balcony was port side, which usually provided great views. After a long day, I crashed and my husband headed to the cigar bar. On past cruises, we met some great people in the cigar bar, some of whom we keep still keep in touch with via Facebook 9 years later. This cruise didn’t seem to have the same dynamic, with more cigarette smokers (who don’t tend to stick around for long) and even one or two pipe smokers. This time, we didn’t end up spending much time in the Havana Club.
  6. Saturday, pre-cruise (Day -1) Spent an hour or so walking around Condado Beach on Saturday morning, checking out the neighborhood and making a trip to CVS to buy a couple things we forgot to pack. Mostly hotels lining the beach along Ashford Ave, with a variety of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. We would definitely stay there again. Old San Juan Around 10:00ish, we called an Uber to head into Old San Juan. Ended up being about $12 - $15 each way, with a generous tip. The route the driver took went past the Navy Frontier Pier, which was the alternate pier that our sailing was assigned to, I assume because the other piers were taken by other ships. The NCL edocs had a link to the address but I could never get it to come up on the Google Maps or Uber app. At least I had a better sense of where we would be headed the next day now! Since we weren’t ready for lunch, we started wandering around the streets of Old San Juan, looking at shops and people watching. After meandering, we ended up near the Castillo San Cristobal and found this handy map. I took a picture so I could reference it as we walked. The original plan was to snack and drink our way around Old San Juan for the rest of the afternoon, in between sightseeing. By this time, we were hot, tired and borderline hangry so we stopped at La Bodega, a nicely air conditioned restaurant on the corner that advertised 2 ice cold mojitos for $10. Ahhh. We also ordered two excellent appetizers (ceviche and Cuban dumplings) to fuel our walk up to El Morro. Old San Juan is very walkable but I’m glad we brought our good walking sandals with all the cobblestones and hills. Lots of locals and tourists were enjoying the sunny day around El Morro. It’s hard to tell from the distance but there were lots of kites being flown. Also got a few pictures of the iconic features of the fort. Enough culture. Time to resume the pub crawl! Next stop was Mezzanine, which features balconies where you can brunch. Actually, it was early enough that they were still serving the brunch menu. Pictured below is the Mimo-rita (mimosa with tequila) and a Spanish style tortilla with chorizo. The restaurant is on the second floor, above St. Germain at the corner of Calle Sol and Calle de la Cruz. Last but not least, the best empanadas and happy hour at Charrua Bistro Café, which is a block and a half down Calle de la Cruz from Mezzanine. You’ll find it by the description on the awning: birra & empanadas. Husband’s favorite was the bacon & ground beef. Mine was the chorizo. We probably should have also gotten the chicken because that’s what all the locals were coming in to order! The happy hour drink list wasn’t extensive, but we were more than happy to toss back a few Tito’s & tonics and sangria with our empanadas. The place we were thinking about going for dinner in Old San Juan looked too crowded so we hopped in an Uber and headed back to Condado. Found a place around the corner from our hotel that served traditional Puerto Rican dishes. We really weren’t that hungry but wanted to try some new things (mofongo and a sampler platter). The best part was the hot sauce! At the airport on our way home, I bought something that looked like it called El Conde Nao. Haven’t tried it yet but hope it’s just as good.
  7. Arrival in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday 1/25 (Day -2) After checking into our small hotel in the Condado Beach area, we went to James Beard-nominated restaurant Jose Enrique for dinner. Arrived closer to 6:00 because our flight from Atlanta ended up being 1.5 hours late. Even though it was not that far away, we didn’t want to walk in the dark in an unfamiliar area which included crossing the freeway – thank you, Uber. There is no sign for the restaurant and they frequently change the paint color of the building. It’s currently bright green. When we arrived, there was already a line for dinner but there were two seats at the bar. We’ll take ‘em! The daily menu is written on a white board. You can find lots of info about the dishes on Yelp. We double-checked Yelp before heading over because they’ve recently had liquor license issues and are only BYOB. We stopped at a store near our hotel and picked up a bottle of white wine before calling the uber. There are also bars in the area around the restaurant where you can get drinks to bring over. Sitting at the bar offered the extra benefit of being able to see the kitchen at work. They put out some amazing food! The bartender kept our wine on ice and was very attentive. With out the liquor license, his income has to have taken a hit so we tipped him well. Started with the crab appetizer, which was served on a bed of fresh avocado. Best flavors of the night. Had to try the deboned whole snapper. We kept forgetting to take a picture before we dug in. It was the only item on the menu that was market priced. I think it was $29. I ordered the skirt steak, which came with rice, beans and tostones. We shared to create surf & turf.
  8. I’ve spent the past few weeks putting together a detailed review of our vacation for our own personal memories. It took way more time than I thought! My goal was to get the review done before the end of February, but I ended up being out of town on business the last week. I made some Puerto Rican-style pork for dinner tonight and was inspired to re-live this fabulous vacation all over again. Under the theory that it’s never too late and you can never have too much of a good thing/cruise review, here is a summary from our cruise. I’ll follow up shortly with details and photos for anyone who is interested. When we were looking for reviews prior to sailing, we couldn’t find much current info out there for the Dawn or for the 11-day itinerary. Most of the reviews seemed to be focused on the newer, larger ships. Since we’ve returned, there’s been one “live” review for our sailing, as well as a couple of other reviews of the longer Southern Caribbean itineraries. See this review for lots of info and photos. I won't repeat the menus and other details. About us This was our 6th cruise, the 4th on NCL. We are from the frigid upper Midwest (Michigan), in our late 40s/early 60s. The rationale for this cruise was an upcoming milestone birthday. I think we picked the best two weeks to head south. While we were gone, our city declared a state of emergency due to snow and cold, state government shut down for 2 or 3 days – something about a polar vortex. The Cruise For the first time in almost 20 years, we were able to swing 2 whole weeks of vacation. When we saw the Dawn was doing the Southern Caribbean again , we were sold (our first two NCL cruises were on the Dawn to the Southern Caribbean in 2010 and 2011). Of the 9 ports, 5 of them were new to us. Plus, we’d never been to Puerto Rico, so we considered it an extra bonus port. Because we booked at the beginning of December, we paid in full and were able to do our reservations and upgrade bids right away, although most of the good reservation times were already gone. The last time we cruised, the beverage package didn’t exist, so we had a pretty good idea about how much we would have spent without one. Our original booking was for a midship balcony on the port side, in the same vicinity as our first ever cabin on the Dawn. We submitted upgrade bids on a couple of suites but knew we wouldn’t be disappointed if it didn’t happen. Eleven days before departure, we got an email that we had won the bid for a 2 bedroom suite (SC, cabin 11530)! It was a fabulous cabin and we enjoyed it even more than the Owner’s Suite we had for our 2011 cruise. We spent a lot of our time on our balcony on this cruise, which we didn't do in the Owner's Suite due to the wind. On the same day, as our upgrade we got an email from NCL notifying us that the pier we would be departing from changed to the Frontier Pier. As a planner, I got a bit anxious because the Frontier Pier wouldn’t display on any maps, but everything ended up fine. Pre/Post Cruise (Flights) Between unpredictable Michigan weather + 45 minute drive to the airport + 6:00 AM departure, we decided to book a hotel near the airport the night before our flight. That ended up being the right decision because it started spitting snow and dropping temperatures when we left home on Thursday night. Getting out just in time! We started vacation early by stopping for dinner at a restaurant with great southern food, fried chicken and craft cocktails. The hotel by the airport was comfortable and close. We were at the airport and checked in by 4:30 AM, watching the snow swirl. The flight from Michigan to Atlanta left right on time. A little snow didn’t make us Michiganders nervous, but the federal government shut down was a wild card. We heard rumors that flights in NY were being delayed due to it. Leaving Atlanta was more challenging. The incoming flight was delayed, the microphones at the gate weren’t functioning and the pilot claimed that mid-morning air traffic in Atlanta is always bad. We ended up arriving in Puerto Rico over an hour late. No problem for us, since we were there two days early. Several people on our flight were making a connection in San Juan to Tortola. Passengers were very polite and let them off first. Hope they made it! Dining With the 11-night itinerary, our dining perk covered 5 meals. I reserved all online prior to the cruise but ended up adjusting times and/or dates for most of them on board. We were flexible and didn’t have any trouble getting a new time that worked for us. We try to eat at the specialty restaurants early in the cruise. We find we enjoy them more before we get saturated with too. much. food. Because we were in a suite and had the opportunity to eat at Moderno’s/Cagney’s for breakfast and lunch every day, we skipped Cagney’s for dinner. Here are the restaurants we dined in: Los Lobos: The food was good but we enjoyed the drinks even more. Ordered table side guacamole based on rave reviews. It wasn’t crowded at all on the first night, maybe because we booked it late and right before sail away. Moderno: Unique salad bar and tasty Brazilian cocktails. I have read some reviews complaining about slow service, but the meat selections were coming out so quickly that I forgot to take any pictures! We got some of everything on the menu, and it was all good and fresh. I’ve never been interested enough to go to a Brazilian steakhouse on land, but I was happy to get a chance to experience once it on board. We’ve decided it’s not our favorite, though. Le Bistro: Is always a favorite. Husband loves escargot and Le Bistro does them well. In one of the refurbs after 2011, they swapped spaces with La Cucina. The current space doesn’t seem as intimate or cozy, even though we were seated in a booth. La Cucina: We never seem to order pasta but always have a good meal. This time we got veal osso buco and salmon. Both were excellent. The space seemed louder than when it was Le Bistro in 2011. Teppanyaki: This was my husband’s first time at a hibachi style restaurant (goal for the cruise was to try new things) and he loved it. More about our singing chef in the detailed review. Aqua: We only went to Aqua twice this time. If we hadn’t had the specialty dining plan this time, we would have eaten there more. I was a bit disappointed not to be able to try some of the main dining room dishes we saw posted throughout the cruise. The times that we did go there, the food was very good. Table location seemed to make a difference. Service was excellent and you could have a comfortable conversation when seated at one of the banquettes against the wall. When we were seated at a table in the middle of the room, it was too noisy and service was inattentive. O’Sheehan’s: This restaurant didn’t exist in 2011. The equivalent at that time was Blue Lagoon, which had a less extensive menu and was located in a smaller space. We ended up here much more than I thought we would. The bar food hit the spot (wings, burgers, hotdogs, fish & chips), the salads were nice to have as an alternative when the main dining room was too crowded or we came back from port too late to have lunch at Moderno. Breakfast was also a good alternative to the other options on the ship. Service tended to be a bit hit or miss, cutting the servers some slack when there was entertainment in the atrium and they couldn’t hear what you were saying. Buffet: Only got 3 things there: evening snacks when dinner didn’t work out and two chocolate soft serve ice cream cones at random times in the afternoon. Venetian and Bamboo: Never made it to either restaurant. Drinks/Bars Right before our cruise, NCL rolled out new drink menus and prices. Cruise Critic blew up. As professional drinkers (we own a fine wine and spirits retail store), we didn’t have any trouble finding drinks we enjoyed. It would have been nice to have some of the scotches and wine selections that had been part of the drink package just a couple of weeks before, but we certainly didn’t go thirsty. Because we spent most of our time on our balcony, our bar experiences primarily consisted of fetching drinks to take back to our cabin. We also would stop and get drinks before the shows we attended, or enjoyed wine and cocktails with our meals. On our first two Dawn cruises, we spent a lot of time in the Havana Club cigar lounge. My husband loves a good cigar and we met some great people there. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out this time, and we didn’t end up spending much time there. Bimini/Topsiders (pool bar): These two bars were closest to our cabin on deck 11 and provided most of our “to go” drinks for our balcony. We are too pale to spend much time sunning ourselves on the pool deck but it was nice to have these bars relatively close. Gatsby’s: We stopped there in the evenings before shows or after dinner for our evening balcony drinks. One of the bartenders, Leila, learned our favorite drinks and had them ready before we even got all the way to the bar. She also knew how to make all the more complicated cocktails on the menu. This bar had some spirits that they didn’t have elsewhere on the ship. O’Sheehan’s: Spent the one sea day morning here, watching the sushi demonstration. It was also a convenient stop on our way back from port a couple of times. Otherwise, we didn’t spend much time at the bar itself; most of our drinks from here were with lunch or dinner. The bar was also taken over by Super Bowl fans on the second Sunday of the cruise. Sake Bar: Has soju and sake that isn’t available elsewhere. Nice option for before dinner at Teppanyaki. Los Lobos Bar: Wish we had come back just for the bar after our first night dinner but it never happened. They have a nice cocktail menu, including a negroni made with mezcal. Atrium, Bliss Lounge, Cellars Wine Bar, Sugarcane Mojito Bar: Didn’t really go to any of these bars. We didn’t need any fancy coffee and didn’t go to any of the Bliss shows. Cellars Wine Bar didn’t interest us (and we never saw many other people there either). Enjoyed the caiprinha cocktails from Sugarcane as part of our Moderno dinner but didn’t sit at the bar. Shows We generally aren’t “show people”, so we don’t have a lot of input in this category. In the main Stardust Theater, we went to the comedian (moderately funny), the juggler (wish he had done more juggling) and they “physical” comedian (also moderately funny). Skipped the singing and dancing. We’ve been to some of the “gameshow” style shows in the past but skipped them on this cruise. The musicians were fine but not anything we went out of our way to catch. We didn’t pick this cruise for the entertainment, so our expectations were met. Ports We did pick this cruise for the ports! The first time we visit a new island, we generally like to explore on our own around the port. We did also schedule a couple of excursions in advance. We did not have the NCL shore excursion perk. At the beginning of the cruise, I decided that I would purchase some hand-crafted earrings at each port as my souvenir, instead of some mass-produced trinket you see everywhere. San Juan: As I mentioned above, we considered San Juan an extra bonus port. Not sure if it was because we booked late, but there didn’t seem to be many reasonably priced hotels available in Old San Juan. We decided on a hotel in the Condado Beach area, which is between the airport and Old San Juan. Since we flew in two days before, we had plenty of time to explore both Condado and Old San Juan. We had great food, lots of cocktails, and did a lot of walking. We are already looking forward to our next trip to Puerto Rico. Aruba: Our first time on the ABC islands. Friends and relatives have been to Aruba for land vacations and have loved it. After our day at sea, we enjoyed exploring Oranjestad. Generally speaking, we love all the Dutch islands. For my husband, Aruba was the perfect first port because it also has a Casa del Habano for Cuban cigars. The town itself is walkable, features a bit of history, public art, shopping and restaurants. They have a free trolley that goes from the cruise port to the opposite side of town. It’s a nice shady break from walking in the hot sun; just keep in mind that it’s free and you’re not paying for a tour! One of the people we met at the Bimini bar enjoyed her island tour excursion. Next time, we will venture out and see more of the island. Curacao: Another beautiful day, another beautiful island. The city of Willemstad is colorful and picturesque. We explored local markets, historical areas and the floating bridge. There were 3 ships in port this day so it was a bit more crowded. The locals were friendly. Bonaire: This was our favorite island by far. Because the next port is so far away, the time in Bonaire was short (6:00 AM – 2:00 PM). Everyone we met was super friendly and relaxed. Even the tour/taxi services were organized in a neat row of tents outside the port, with helpful information about their tours and absolutely no pressure. Unlike some other ports, the only greetings I heard from the tour operators were “keep smiling” and “welcome to Bonaire”. From the shops to the bars and restaurants, everyone was friendly and helpful. Even around the port, the water and the scenery is beautiful. Next time: we will book an excursion with one of the friendly drivers at the port to see other parts of the island or go to Klein Bonaire, a small undeveloped island with pristine beaches off the coast. We generally aren’t into snorkeling, but everything we’ve heard is that it is spectacular in Bonaire. Grenada: We didn’t see much of Grenada. My husband wasn’t feeling well, so I was on my own. All the locals I passed were friendly but the drivers just outside the port buildings reminded me of the aggressive tour operators from previous visits to Antigua. After navigating some dicey streets and sidewalks, followed by coming upon a pro-Venezuela/anti-American demonstration, I decided to turn this into a “ship day.” Barbados: This has been one of our favorite islands, in part because we have had interesting excursions planned each time. First time, we did the Boatyard beach club and Mt Gay Rum. Second visit, a tour around the whole island. This time, we booked a walking food tour from Lickrish Tours. They advertise that you’ll “eat like a local”. The tour was fascinating and most of the places we went, we were definitely the only tourists. More info in my detailed port review. Next time: My husband really wanted to tour Foursquare Rum Distillery. By all accounts, their tour is great and their rums are fantastic. They are a newer, small production company. Unfortunately, they are only open Monday-Friday, which is why we booked the food tour. St. Lucia: Since we were thwarted with a Barbados rum tour, we booked NCL’s Rum Tasters excursion in St. Lucia. You get a mini tour of the island as they stop at a (very crowded) wood carving shop on the way to the rum factory. After you get through some cheesy introductory audio/video presentations, you do see the actual production rum facility, unlike Mt. Gay in Barbados. We got up close looks at the fermenting molasses and stills before heading to the self-serve tasting area. Our driver made the other parts of the tour interesting. Next time: We will make sure to see the Pitons, probably via a boat tour. Antigua: We had a bad experience with aggressive taxi/tour drivers on our very first trip to Antigua and it’s been a “ship day” for us ever since. When I got off to shop for my earrings, the drivers seemed a little bit toned down but that could have been because I got off long after the other passengers. The one excursion that had tempted us was an NCL tour billed as a “hop on, hop off” catamaran tour of 3 different beaches. However, that was apparently sold out by the time we boarded the ship. St. Maarten: Last time we were in St. Maarten in 2006 we did a catamaran tour to the French side of the island. Phillipsburg looks much the same. Enjoyed the water taxi and the shopping. Next time: Will probably hit a beach. Tortola: One of our favorite things is to sit on our balcony as we sail through the British Virgin Islands. Previously, we’ve been to Virgin Gorda (the baths) and Jost Van Dyke. This time, we hung out at the port, shopped and checked out a local restaurant. We also had the Merchant Marine TS (Training Ship) Kennedy next to us in port, which was very cool. We are already planning an encore next February out of Puerto Rico on the Epic.
  9. We were on the Dawn 1/27-2/7, which does not have a Haven. Lunch on embarkation day for suite guests was at Moderno/Cagney's. No charge for the food. We had the UBP and never ordered coffee for breakfast since we had already pre-caffeinated with the nespresso machine in our suite. We ended up sitting on the Cagney's side the first day. Both breakfast and lunch seating for the rest of the cruise was also in Moderno, with overflow in Cagney's. The breakfast buffet included fruit, cereal, bagels + lox, pastries and other continental breakfast-type items. If you are on the Dawn or another Haven-less ship, here are photos of the lunch and breakfast menus from our sailing.
  10. We just got off the Dawn last Thursday (planning to post a review during the upcoming long weekend) and loved the itinerary so much that we've booked the Epic for next February. We've seen the mixed reviews about the Epic also, but I am confident that we will have another great vacation. We had never been to the ABC islands before and they are now our favorites, hands down. We are also looking forward to spending lots of time on the large balcony we booked. For everything else, our vacation motto is "go with the flow."
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