In the violet hour of dusk, the Norwegian Dawn slipped its lines and backed into the Hudson River. It was last Dec. 7, one year to the day after the ship had begun its maiden voyage.
The Manhattan skyline dazzled and twinkled against a darkening sky. The spire of the Empire State Building was bathed in seasonal red and green, and high above its shoulder hung an almost full moon. Behind the Statue of Liberty, the golden horizon mellowed into russet.
My wife, Laurel, and I were captivated by the cityscape that slid past us from our perch atop this imposing ship, though there was no denying that the scene and the temperature were genuinely wintry. The previous day, New York had been hit by an early-season blizzard, so this was hardly a typical environment for a warm-weather cruise.
We relished the chill, however, and not just out of contrariness. For one thing, we figured that attaining the warmth after only a day's journey would make it special, much as experiencing the full range of the seasons makes the year's perfectly temperate moments exquisite. I liked the sour and sweet contrast, the icy blast and the warm caress.
Then too, we welcomed the return of regular winter cruise departures from New York City. Once routine, they ceased two decades ago, as passengers, impatient to get to the warming sun, chose to fly south to begin their cruises. This aspect of the voyage appealed to the traditionalist in me.
My earliest ship experiences were as a small boy on transatlantic voyages aboard the Ile de France and Nieuw Amsterdam, followed by trips on other great Atlantic liners. When selecting cruises in recent years, Laurel and I usually sailed on smaller, older, more traditional vessels.
So even though cruising from New York in winter was a throwback and our destinations of Florida and the Bahamas were decidedly plain vanilla, our choice of Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dawn — with its passenger count of 2,365 on our virtually full sailing and its "Freestyle Cruising" concept — was a definite departure for us. To say nothing of sailing aboard a ship with art all over its hull.
We had been intrigued by the line's freestyle approach, giving us a choice of 10 restaurants and 13 bars and lounges. Dining at our leisure, out of lockstep with the traditional assigned table and first or second seating, had its appeal. Until recently, that option had been typically available only on the most upscale ships. Indeed, its approach to dining turned out to be the Dawn's most defining and attractive characteristic.
Because choice involves the obligation to choose, even before the ship had disembarked its harbor pilot, we were checking out venues for cocktails and dinner. There are, we learned, three main unreserved restaurants purveying traditional fare: the Venetian, Aqua and Impressions. Although the ambience varies dramatically among them, they offer the same menu. Two specialty restaurants, the Italian La Trattoria and the Tex-Mex-style Salsa, require reservations but carry no surcharge. The cafeteria-style Garden Cafe serves three meals a day — and has a section with furniture for small children — and the Blue Lagoon is an around-the-clock fast-food spot.
At the top of the pyramid are three restaurants with cover charges: Le Bistro, which is French and costs $12.50 apiece; Cagney's Steak House, with a surcharge of $17.50 each; and Bamboo. This last is actually tripartite: an all-you-can eat sushi bar for $10, the main room with Asian-fusion specialties for $10 and a teppanyaki table where meals are cooked to order at your table and priced individually. Reservations can be made a day in advance by cabin telephone or at a desk in the Grand Atrium, where plastic-looking examples of each supplemental-charge restaurant's specialties were unappetizingly arrayed.
Sampling the fare On newer cruise ships, which unabashedly ape shore-side hotels, atria are as typical as they were unheard of on the traditional liners. The Dawn's atrium was its convivial, bustling heart, hosting the reception desk and shore excursion office; the expensive Internet Café; Salsa and an adjacent tapas bar; and the Java Café, dispensing coffees, pastries and specialty drinks. In early evening, a pianist played; later, Anna y los Vientos, a Latin string and vocal group, performed music appropriate to the Tex-Mex restaurant.
Our first night aboard, Laurel and I dined at Impressions, where we scored a rare table for two beside a floor-to-ceiling, brass-bound window through which we watched the ocean swirl by. Our dinner of smoked duck breast, creamy corn soup and crayfish étouffée was excellent. Impressions, because of its intimate, elegant feel and walls lined with mural-sized copies of well-known Impressionist paintings, turned out to be our favorite restaurant, and we dined there three times.
We also liked the Venetian and Le Bistro. Salsa had good views of the sea but mediocre food. Bamboo was the weakest link, an opinion obviously seconded by its consistently empty tables.
"What do you think of this Freestyle Cruising?" asked a woman at an adjacent table in the Star Bar one evening. Her tone of voice made it clear she didn't think much of it.
"I like two glasses of skim milk at dinner," her husband said. "On other ships, they've always been waiting for me. We like our waiter's getting to know us. And we miss the captain's cocktail party."
This near-universal shipboard staple, always on a formal-dress night, would be an uncomfortable fit with freestyle dining and dress. The closest the Dawn came to this event was offering photo ops with Capt. Idar Hoydahl on the one "optional formal" evening, a designation that struck me as oddly meaningless. Would I have been sent to my room if I had appeared in formal dress on another night? Odd as well was the backdrop for the photo with the captain — a canvas of the Titanic's grand staircase — when the Dawn's atrium stairs were available.
Our interlocutors in the Star Bar also objected to the extra charges at the restaurants and for one show, comedian Jimmy "J.J." Walker, which cost $10 apiece. One thing they did like was the Star Bar's martinis, and so did we. A Beefeater martini, served in a 10-ounce classic glass, cost $6.50. Specialty martinis, and those with "call" brands, were the same price but available only from 7 to 9 p.m.
Dining flexibility is at the heart of Freestyle Cruising, but there are other pluses: gratuities automatically added to your shipboard account so you didn't need to fuss with them; being able to stay in the stateroom later and full breakfast service on disembarkation morning; casual dress throughout the cruise, a plus or a minus, depending on your penchant; attentive service with nearly one crew member to a stateroom; and plenty of activities.
Though the ship is big, it's a carefully assembled collection of small, varied spaces.
Varied too were the passengers on our sailing, by age, interests, style, background and nationality. The Dawn caters to families, with extensive spaces and programs for children and teens. The ages of our fellow passengers made a near-perfect bell curve, with 306 younger than 21, the biggest group — 462 — in their 50s and 229 older than 70.
We all found our special places. Laurel's and mine tended to be the small spaces, with relatively few of our thousands of shipmates. Our favorite watering hole was the Star Bar, a clubby, wood-paneled room characterized by the inviting rattle of the cocktail shaker and, on a few evenings, the counterpoint of a piano. The room, perhaps the most "shippy" space on board, has a sweeping arc of windows that overlooks the pool rather than the prow, which would have been even better.
After dinner we would usually head for Gatsby's Champagne Bar, which opened onto a handsome two-deck space at the confluence of Bamboo, Le Bistro and Impressions. Lining the staircase were glittering metallic Art Deco murals depicting the spires of New York's Chrysler and Empire State buildings and the flaring prows of ships. Pamala Stanley held forth at the piano.
Of all the ship's spaces, our stateroom was perhaps our favorite: compact and attractively and colorfully — although sparely — furnished in a style that could be Scandinavian but was more likely Asian. (The ship was originally intended to sail under the house flag of Star Cruises, the Malaysian company that is Norwegian Cruise Line's parent.) The room's best feature was the sliding wall of glass that opened onto a slice of private deck and, beyond that, the sea in its many moods.
Such balconies are a prime amenity of contemporary cruise ships. Although they're a major reason most ships look more like condo complexes than liners, the balconies do put you wonderfully in touch with the ocean. With drapes open and door ajar, we would go to sleep to the soothing, rushing sound of hull slicing through water. We would wake up to brightening seascapes, mostly placid, occasionally white-capped.
A floating museum We had a few minor quibbles, when it seemed the line was unnecessarily pinching pennies: spartan toiletries, bar snacks only on request and confiscation of liquor during the screening of passenger luggage at boarding (to be returned at the cruise's end).
Still, we found a lot to like about our week aboard the Dawn. We were impressed by the Stardust Theater's décor, seating and sightlines and found the Jean Ann Ryan Company's tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber a cut above many shipboard shows.
We could walk full circuits on the boat deck, four of them equaling almost 1 1/2 miles. We enjoyed the playful murals that lined the bulkheads, reflecting the public rooms inside.
Art is omnipresent on the Dawn. Stairwells feature sequential Andy Warhol prints, including his well-known Marilyn Monroe portrait. Venetian, the ship's only large dining room, is lined with murals of that city that help make the space extremely attractive. Most notably, Le Bistro features original oils: Renoir's "The Bather"; Van Gogh's "Un Parc au Printemps" ("A Park in Spring"); and Monet's "Vetheuil in the Sun." When we dined there — on escargot, cream of forest mushroom soup, spinach salad with warm goat cheese crouton and filet mignon Rossini-style with foie gras — the Monet was at our shoulders.
And there was the art on the hull: dolphins frolicking boldly on one side, the Statue of Liberty standing tall on the other. Waving ribbons of color and the names of the artists whose works hang in Le Bistro complete the broad and unusual canvas.
How did we hide-bound traditionalists feel about Freestyle Cruising? We liked it, particularly the dining flexibility, though I must confess to missing the dressiness I still associate with shipboard evenings.
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BOOKING A CRUISE:
We booked our cruise through Vacations to Go, (800) 680-2858, vacationstogo.com, a cruise discounter. We paid $1,333.36 for seven nights, including port charges, for two for our balcony stateroom. Norwegian Dawn leaves New York on several southbound itineraries year-round.
TO LEARN MORE:
Norwegian Cruise Line, (800) 327-7030, http://www.ncl.com .
— Karl Zimmermann