Must be that impatient New Yorker in me, but there are certain things I just can't stand. Wasting time and getting up early are two big ones. Good thing, then, that there are so many cruises departing from the Big Apple these days. I can hop in a cab at noon and be at the cruise ship piers along the west side of Manhattan in 15 minutes flat. No flying, no driving and few hassles.
The tide changed for New Yorkers in 2003, when Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL; tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) starting offering year-round New York cruises aboard the new 2,224-passenger Norwegian Dawn. Weekly 7-night sailings to Florida and the Bahamas run from late spring through fall, and 10- and 11-night Caribbean cruises round out the rest of the year. Giving us more of a good thing, NCL will position a second ship, the Norwegian Spirit, out of New York next month to do similar year-round itineraries.
Other ships offer seasonal jaunts from NYC to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Canada/New England, plus transatlantic crossings. To see who else is cruising from Manhattan, Cape Liberty across the Hudson in New Jersey or from Brooklyn's new Red Hook piers, check out Where to Go From Home Ports on the East Coast.
Of course, nothing's perfect. The downside to a cruise from New York is the winter, when it'll take at least a day of sailing to hit the warm weather. Plus, if the Atlantic Seaboard gets a little choppy between here and the Bahamas, as it does on occasion, the Dawn has been known to arrive late back into New York.
For those times the weather doesn't cooperate, the Dawn offers plenty of diversions below deck. One of the biggest is eating.
The ship has 10 dining venues, and they all operate with restaurant-style open seating and casual dress codes. Ties and jackets are not needed -- ever - though some choose to wear them for the optional formal night. Most are thrilled to wear khakis day after day, and even jeans (though they're officially off limits in the restaurants for dinner, if yours are neat, no one will stop you).
The flexible "Freestyle" dining set -up worked really well for my husband and I when we spent a week on the Dawn last spring with our toddler twin boys. With young kids in tow, sticking to fixed dining times spells stress. And for the couples, seniors and singles who also made up the passenger mix on the ship, the flexbile dining system racked up big points. Our routine each night was to put the boys to sleep, transfer them to their strollers (as cruel as that sounds), and then schlep them to dinner with us anytime between about 7:30 and 8:30. They snoozed, while we ate, drank and unwound.
Our little nightly ritual wouldn't have panned out very well on most other lines, where we would have had to commit to a set early or late time slot for dinner, or head for the casual buffet restaurant or do room service. Even with young kids in the picture, I like dinner to be a little special. On the Dawn, we also had the choice of three elegant walk-in main dining rooms and four reservations-suggested specialty restaurants (three of which have a $15 to $20 cover charge), all operating between about 5:30pm and 10pm. We were impressed by the variety and service, and found the food to be good -- sometimes quite good. Our favorite was Bamboo for pan-Asian fare, including sushi and teppanyaki.
When we did stop by the Garden Café buffet restaurant for lunch most days, and to feed the boys their dinner daily, we couldn't get enough of the mango chicken salad and daily Indian vegetarian spread. We had a problem eating here in moderation. Another perk: the cool children's section, complete with mini tables and chairs as well as a kiddy buffet line with standards like pasta, chicken fingers and fries.
About as much as New Yorkers like food, they love to laugh. And that came easy on the Dawn. Performances by comedians from the Chicago-based Second City improvisational comedy troupe were excellent. The routines were witty and fast-paced and loaded with New York allusions; a welcome change from the typical cruise song and dance shtick. Though if you dig shtick, no worries, the Dawn's energetic and colorful Bollywood revue, based on Indian film music and dance moves, was better than most cruise ship shows and definitely more original. Thumbs up to it all.
During the day, though, passengers seemed to be happy with the old cruise standards. The pool deck was always hopping the minute the ship hit warm weather -- by day two on our March cruise -- with a pop band blaring tunes to the background of buzzing drink blenders. Other stuff to do included somebody-must-be-going-to-these-things-or-they-wouldn't-still-be-offering-them standards like napkin-folding and vegetable-carving demos, bingo, and ship tours. More my speed was a wine tasting class and several talks on handwriting analysis - the lecturer sized us up pretty well when she had a look at our scrawl. Brilliant, compassionate, and even-tempered.
Another diversion is the ocean-view gym, and fortunately for anyone working out regularly, it never seemed to get very crowded on our March cruise. The adjacent two-level Mayan-themed spa saw more business, including from me. I enjoyed a very relaxing and professional massage one afternoon, though it ended with the clang of a 15-minute sales pitch. I was shocked just how long the woman droned on, even telling me which creams Gwyneth Paltrow uses. Hmmm, not sure about that, but I was getting real impatient with the hard-core sales spiel. Steiner, the London-based company who operates most cruise ship spas, is notoriously relentless about pushing skin-care products.
Still, I was glad to be able to escape to the spa in the first place. I could because my boys spent a few hours each day in the ship's playroom, flinging themselves through the ball pit and maze. Year-round the Dawn typically gets between about 800 to 1,000 kids and teens per cruise, a range most ships only see during summers and holidays. Though not all participate, NCL includes children as young as two in its free supervised activities. Still, at that young age, my boys weren't always eager to join a room full of strangers, especially during the evening rush when parents were dropping of their children by the dozens.
Operating with a "no turn-away policy," like most other lines, often leads to total gridlock, especially around 7pm. The under fives, for instance, started out the evening shift in a small windowless sardine-can-of-a-room elbow to elbow on the floor with piles of Legos. Then again, on port days when the playrooms operated on a per-hour fee system, there were times when our boys had the massive climbing maze and ball pit all to themselves. If they had been out of diapers, they would have really loved the outdoor dinosaur-themed kiddy pool area, sequestered at the aft of deck 12 (as a rule, ships prohibit kids in diapers using the pools).
We also spent time playing with our boys in our mini-suite -- some 60 square feet bigger than the ship's compact standard cabins, which would have been tight for us. It would have been tight for us in a standard cabin. In our mini-suite, we had a small living room area and a balcony that came in real handy. My kids yelped with joy at the sight of the Statue of Liberty floating by and loved looking at the other ships when we were in port. The boys slept on the large sofa bed, which worked nicely, and there was plenty of storage space. The well-designed bathroom had a tub and a toilet partitioned off behind a sliding door. A nice touch: all cabins have mini fridges and coffee/tea makers.
For all the neat perks the Dawn offers, I must admit the 7-night itinerary we sampled in March was hardly one of them. You can only get so far south when you only have a week to get there and back from New York, so exotic it's not. But then again, who needs exotic when traveling with kids? Beaches and some super convenient sightseeing will do just fine.
Docked for 11 hours in Port Canaveral, most families high-tailed it to Orlando, though we opted for something closer than the hour's bus ride to the theme parks and spent a pleasant afternoon at Cocoa Beach, a short taxi ride away. While others hit South Beach in Miami -- some signing up for the Segway Human Transporter tours -- we hopped in a cab for the 10-minute drive to Parrott Jungle, where the petting zoo scored big points. Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island in the Bahamas, sure can't compete with the larger and much better outfitted Half Moon Cay (Holland America's private Bahamian island) or Castaway Cay (Disney's) -- both have great kids play areas and much larger beach areas -- but even a New Yorker can't complain that much about a good ole fashioned beach day complete with water sports rentals, barbeque-style lunch and sunbathing. The fourth port was been-there-done-that Nassau, and the ship was docked from 8pm Thursday evening until only noon on Friday - hardly even counts as a real port of call. Not a lot of time to do much of anything unless you head for the local casinos or spend the morning browsing the jewelry stores and straw market.
What the itinerary lacked in exotic appeal, it certainly made up for in convenience for this stressed-out New York mother, wife and writer.
By the last day of the cruise, it was a huge relief to skip the cost and hassles of flying home and know that ours waited just a few miles up the road. Though, it figures, nothing is ever quite as good as it seems. After the long haul up from the Bahamas, the ship officially arrives back in New York at 10am; several hours later than most cruises end (and occasionally later than 10am if the weather is bad on the trip back). Be ready to shuffle around the ship like a giant pack of refugees. It can be noon by time the ship is cleared by customs and the masses are permitted to file off.
Still, I gotta tell ya, when you're traveling with the kids, that glorious 15-minute taxi ride home trumps just about everything else.
- Itineraries: Though May 13, 2006, the ship does 10- and 11 night Caribbean cruises out of New York, visiting St. Thomas, Tortola, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and Great Stirrup Cay (10 nighter) or Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Belize, Cozumel and Great Stirrup Cay (11 nighter). Starting May 13, 2006, through the fall, Dawn sails 7-night Florida and Bahamas route out of New York, calling on Port Canaveral, Miami, Nassau and Stirrup Cay (NCL's private island in the Bahamas). The line's Norwegian Spirit will be offering a similar mix of itineraries beginning next month, in November.
- Cabins: At 142 to 166 square feet, standard inside and outside cabins are on the small side (compared to about 185 feet for standard cabins on most Carnival and Holland America ships), but then again, New Yorkers are used to tiny apartments and might not even notice. What they lack in size, they make up for in some nice amenities like a mini-fridge, coffee/tea maker, real hairdryers, web connection, roomy closet, bathrooms with toilets sequestered behind a sliding door, and basics including a TV and phone. Many cabins have balconies, and higher-end rooms include mini-suites and large suites, including the 5,000-square-foot-plus three-bedroom Garden Villa suites that have private gardens and hot tub, butler service, grand pianos, and seaview bathrooms.
- Kids Programs: Complimentary supervised kids activities are offered for four age groups between ages 2 to 17 from 9am to 5pm on sea days (excluding 2 hours its closed for lunch). The program operates again from 7pm to 10pm, followed by a group babysitting service for ages 2 to 12 from 10pm to 1am for $5 an hour per child; $3 an hour for siblings (reservations are required). On port days, daytime hours are offered for ages 2 to 12 at the hourly fee.
- What it Costs: Chartwell Travel in Union, NJ, is offering these rates for a 7-night Dawn sailing on May 13, 2006: $599 per person inside cabin, $759 per person outside, $949 per person for balcony cabins. Third and fourth person rates are about half, or less.
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