Ship Reviews

Ship Review: Norwegian Dawn

Norwegian Dawn is an old ship, and for anybody that loves the bells and whistles and simple layout of Norwegian’s larger newer cruise liners, she’ll feel dated, but for the rest of us with a love for a ship with a bit of history, she’ll get under your skin and have you wishing you could stay.

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Norwegian Dawn

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Norwegian Dawn will cruise from both South Africa and Dubai during the 2020/21 cruise seasons on grand voyages through Arabia and along the coast of Africa. It’s a marked difference to the usual cruise itineraries Norwegian Dawn operates and offers a rare chance for a longer Norwegian Cruise Line voyage than the shorter week or less roundtrip cruises in the Med and Caribbean.

While Norwegian Dawn isn’t a perfect ship, she certainly has character. Built in 2002, she was the third NCL ship to offer the Freestyle Cruising concept (with lots of choices for restaurants, bars and entertainment), but this range of choice, made available through successive refurbishments over the years, also gives her design a slightly haphazard feel.

The two main dining rooms for example (Aqua Main Dining Room and Venetian Main Dining Room on Deck 6) have the galley occupying the full beam between them, so you cant get to the Venetian from anywhere else on Deck 6 and have to go up to 7 and walk to the aft staircase. The confusion continues elsewhere because the upper decks (namely 8, 9 and 11) feature some public spaces in addition to accommodations, while Deck 7 is the primary entertainment deck. The spa for example is all the way aft on Deck 11, but to get to it you need to take the internal stairs from the fitness centre above on Deck 12. Similarly, to get to the excellent kids pool, its best to use the arcade on the deck above it.

If you’re someone easily annoyed, these design quirks will vex you no end. If you’re the more easygoing type that just loves being on a cruise ship, it can all be a bit of a laugh. These layout issues aside, the ship overall feels very modern, her most recent refurbishment in 2016 got rid of the last of the more garish elements of her early 2000s character and she feels quite elegant.

Despite being ‘just’ 92,250-gross tons and accommodating 2,800 passengers at maximum occupancy (making her mid-size in the modern cruise fleet) this remains a ship of choices. There are 11 restaurants and 12 cafes and bars for example. Entertainment, day and night, is plentiful, varied and good quality.

However, there is a lot of added-charge nickel-and-diming onboard, from instant win game and raffle ticket purchases before every show to being charged a la carte pricing at onboard restaurants that used to charge a flat cover, which could become tiresome on a longer cruise, such as her 21-night Dubai to Cape Town itinerary or the 20-night Cape Town back to Dubai cruise.

That being said, you can still eat at four different restaurants and enjoy extra poolside grills and buffets and have a continental room service breakfast all included in the fare (along with all on-board entertainment of course). One thing you’ll never experience aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line voyage is boredom, and aboard Norwegian Dawn that’s no different.

Entertainment aboard Norwegian Dawn

The centrepiece for professional entertainment aboard Norwegian Dawn is the Stardust Theatre on Decks 6 and 7 in the bow. The stadium seating, with drinks holders for each chair, is a nice touch, but there are only two main aisles, so if you arrive late, or want to leave early, be warned.

The Stardust Theatre aboard Norwegian Dawn

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The quality of the entertainment itself is good, but not quite as Broadway-level as on Norwegian’s newer ships like the Breakaway-class. There are two sittings each evening, with a mix of themed song-and-dance performances and guest acts such as magicians, acrobats and so on. A Second City comedy troupe is always onboard, and they do one main show in the theater, which is a mix of sketch comedy and improve.

In terms of daily scheduled activities, the program delivered to your cabin each evening will be packed with things to do the following day. On seadays there’ll be matinee performances in the theatre like close-up magic or a kids’ circus, as well as game show-style events like Jeopardy and Deal or No Deal.

Throughout the ship there are spa and shopping seminars, arts and crafts, pool games, ping pong tournaments, basketball matches, and the not-to-be-missed Behind-the-Scenes Tour, which takes passengers to crew areas such as the galley, laundry and theater backstage. It’s a touch pricey at US $79 per person, but because groups are limited to 16 people, you wont feel lost in the crowd and will get a truly eye-opening look at the frantically peddling feet beneath the swan.

There are also plenty of unscheduled activities to take part in, from cocktails and sunbathing to playing video games, grab-a-prize machines and skeeball in the arcade on Deck 13. It’s open 24/7 as well, so you can go and test your abilities after a visit to the nightclub, if you like.

The video arcade aboard Norwegian Dawn is open 24/7

Speaking of the nightclub, after hours is when Norwegian Dawn really comes alive. There are multiple venues for events and performances, starting with evening piano music in Gatsby’s Lounge on Deck 6, or gambling in the casino on the same deck. The casino offers plenty of slot machines and tables games, including blackjack, craps and poker.

The Bliss Lounge on Deck 7, which serves as the main show lounge after the theatre, hosts a late-night, adults-only improve comedy set by Second City, or a Broadway cabaret with the ship’s singers, karaoke, a 70s parties or adult game shows. Earlier in the evening, it’s a drinking and dancing venue, as is the Grand Atrium on Deck 8.

There’s a small stage next to O’Sheehan’s pub, overlooking the Java Café and main reception, where a liveband entices passersby to stop, order and drink and dance the night away. Later on the evening, on some nights of each cruise, movies are also shown here.

Up on the pool deck there is everything from simple live music to big all-passengers-invited parties, such as the Island Night Deck Party or White Hot Party (Norwegian Dawn’s version of the cruise staple White Night).

Bars & Lounges aboard Norwegian Dawn

With 12 bars and cafes across her 11 decks, all of them located on Decks 6 through 8, and 12 through 14, you’ll find no shortages of spaces in which to sample different cocktails and enjoy a variety of themes of music. One of the drawbacks to this though is that for groups cruising together with varying tastes in beverage, it can be difficult to find a bar that meets all tastes.

Havana Club aboard Norwegian Dawn

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We’ll start with one of my favourite spots on-board, The Havana Club Cigar Bar on Deck 6, primarily because it’s the ship’s main indoor smoking venue. It’s a great spot for meeting other passengers, but alcohol has to be ordered from Gatsby’s next door.

Gatsby’s Champagne Bar aboard Norwegian Dawn

Gatsby’s Champagne Bar, also on Deck 6 of course, is flanked by Le Bistro, La Cucina and the cigar bar, giving it a nice, central, lively atmosphere. Despite the name, it doesn’t exclusively serve champagne and is one of the few bars on-board where you can get just about anything.

Bliss Lounge aboard Norwegian Dawn

Lastly for Deck 6 is the Casino Bar, which serves free drinks to big rollers and is popular among smokers because Norwegian Dawn doesn’t (at the time of writing) have a play-to-smoke policy.

Up on Deck 7, Java Café is the ship’s main latte joint. Overlooking the atrium, it’s a great spot for people watching or relaxing with a book (in the mid morning to afternoon), and at night it also serves a range of cocktails. It’s busy from afternoon to midnight thanks to its location and is a popular pre-dinner drinks spot.

Bamboo Restaurant and Bar aboard Norwegian Dawn

Further forward is Bamboo Bar, where you can sample sakes, and aft is The Cellars wine bar, where where you can sip your favorite vintage or attend extra-fee tastings (like wine and chocolate pairings). All the way aft you’ll find Bliss Lounge, which we mentioned earlier.

O’Sheehan’s aboard Norwegian Dawn

One deck up, sitting astride the atrium to both port and starboard is O’Sheehan’s. If beer is your poison, this will be your late night home aboard Dawn. It serves all the usually varieties of lager, from American, international and hard cider), as well as beer drinks like Shandies or Snake Bites. And if you overdo it and want to pace yourself, it also serves Lavazza coffee (and Irish coffee), liqueurs and cocktails.

Topsides aboard Norwegian Dawn

Moving on up to Deck 12, you’ll find the Topsider Bar, which serves the pool area and sun decks. Topsider provides fresh fruit juices and fruit-based cocktails, as well as a variety of beers. It’s quiet to mildly busy on most evenings, but is completely overrun during the White Hot Party or other big events.

Bimini aboard Norwegian Dawn

Another bar serving the pool and sundecks is Bimini up on Deck 14. It’s got shade, an attached grill serving burgers and fries, and blenders for nonstop pina coladas and strawberry daiquiris.

Los Lobos Bar and Restaurant

Then there’s Los Lobos Tequila Bar, back down on Deck 12, tucked away within the Garden Café buffet. It serves tequila, margaritas and other tequila-based drinks and not much else. Another hidden away bar is Sugarcane Mojito Bar on Deck 13 within Moderno Churrascaria. It’s only open if there are diners at the restaurant and serves mainly mojitos.

Pools and sundecks aboard Norwegian Dawn

Norwegian Dawn’s main pool area on Deck 12 has a saltwater pool in its centre with four whirlpools and a bandstand at the front end facing stadium-style sunloungers aft. There are also quite a few sunloungers around the pool itself, but good luck finding a free one from after breakfast until dusk. A nice touch are the lounge chairs in a couple of inches of water along both sides of the pool, where there’s a small wading area.

Main pool area aboard Norwegian Dawn

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At the Topsiders Bar & Grill there are cafe tables and chairs beneath sunshades so you can have a snack, cocktail, or both, without getting burnt. If you plan on swimming bear in mind that you need to bring the pool towel from your cabin, or pay a charge for a new one from the poolside staff.

Kids pool area aboard Norwegian Dawn

All the way aft on Deck 12 is the T-Rex Kids’ Pool – you have to go through the fitness center to get to it, or head up to Deck 13 then come down the aft deck stairs. It has three water slides for varying ages and sizes, a hot tub, a pool with water sprayers and child-size deck chairs. The whole area is prehistoric themed with giant dinosaurs and cave-like showers.

Running round the pool area and sun decks is a jogging track on Deck 13, as well as golf driving nets, shuffleboard, a man-sized chessboard and Ping-Pong in the sports area. The basketball/volleyball court is up above on Deck 14. Because Norwegian Dawn is an older ship with a traditional wraparound promenade on Deck 7, this is also another good spot for walking.

Spa & Fitness aboard Norwegian Dawn

Unlike most cruise ships, Norwegian Dawn has her spa aft on Deck 11 instead of overlooking the bow. As mentioned earlier, the spa entrance can be difficult to find. It’s tucked away in the aft stairwell of Deck 11, with a modest sign and small entryway, but you can also get to it by going through the much easier to find entrance to the Pulse Fitness Centre on Deck 12.

The Mandara Spa, operated by Steiner, is a wonderful oasis of peace and calm. There are the usually array of treatments offered from facials, massages and ionithermie body treatments, to hair cuts and styling, manicures, pedicures, waxing and men’s shaving in the beauty salon. There are also more specialised treatments like acupuncture, teeth whitening and medispa procedures like Botox and Restylane.

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Mandara Spa aboard Norwegian Dawn

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Take note that a treatment doesn’t include complimentary access to the thermal suite, you have to buy a pass separately (US $149 for a week-long cruise or US $35 for the day). The suite has a heated lap pool, Jacuzzi and hydro-therapy pool, as well as heated tile loungers with ocean views, a steam room, sauna, showers and a drink station with tea and fruit-infused water. For a cheaper experience, the male and female locker rooms each feature a sauna and a steam room.

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Pulse Fitness Centre aboard Norwegian Dawn

The Pulse Fitness Center on the deck above is roomy with elliptical trainers, stationary bikes and treadmills, plus free weights and resistance machines, as well as two glassed-in areas for classes or stretching. Group classes like stretching, abs and total body conditioning are free. Yoga, Pilates and cycling cost US $12 per class, TRX suspension training is US $20 and body sculpt bootcamp is US $35.

Children’s facilities aboard Norwegian Dawn

Kids facilities and programming aboard Norwegian Dawn are varied and high-quality. There are family-friendly accommodations, the T-Rex kids’ pool, Splash Academy and Entourage kids and teens facilities and dedicated programming that families can do together throughout the ship.

If you’re a ‘bad’ parent like me that lets your kids stay up too late, its good too, because some events, such as the embarkation day welcome event for children ages 3 and up was held from 8 to 10pm, and a family deck party and cupcake decorating event started at 8:15pm.

Splash Academy aboard Norwegian Dawn

The Splash Academy is divided into four age groups: Guppies (6 months to 3 years), Turtles (3 – 5), Seals (6 – 9) and Dolphins (10 – 12). Its facilities are located on Deck 13 aft, across from the arcade. All areas are only accessible via a staff-manned gate at the Splash Academy reception. Children ages 10 to 12 can be authorised by their parents or guardians to come and go as they please, but all other age groups have to be signed in and out. This is different in the Guppies playroom, because parents must stay and play with their children.

Splash Academy is open 9am to noon, 2pm to 5pm and 7 to 10:30pm, with extended hours on port days, as well as group lunch and dinner, so adults can go out on shore excursions and leave their kids on the ship. Group babysitting is available onboard from 10:30pm to 1:30am for US $6 per child per hour.

The Entourage teens program for passengers 13 to 17 is based in the Deck 13 Entourage Teen Club, which is set up like a nightclub with lighted dance floor, foosball, air hockey, video game consoles, a flat-screen for movies and colorful seating. Norwegian offers a teen-only brunch on seadays from 11am, but the Entourage Teen Club is closed until the evening on port days.

Dining aboard Norwegian Dawn

Many of Norwegian Dawn’s dining venues, and all her menus, were changed during the 2016 refurbishment. But, the defining characteristic of dining aboard Norwegian Dawn, choice (and lots of it) remains.

There are 11 restaurants in addition to a sushi bar and room service. Food is included in the cruise fare in the two main dining venues and the buffet of course, but also O’Sheehan’s pub and Bamboo, the Asian restaurant. Extra-fee options range from Benihana-style Teppanyaki to steaks, Mexican and classic French bistro cuisine. The variety of dinner options keeps meals fresh and fun on a week-long cruise. On her longer three week voyages between Dubai and Cape Town in 2021 that may be different, but it’s unlikely.

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Teppanyaki aboard Norwegian Dawn

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The staff will try hard to accommodate special diets, such as vegan or halal, but its much better to pre-order a day in advance (menus are posted outside of each restaurant or you can ask to see specialty restaurant menus at Guest Services).

Kids’ menus are available in all restaurants, and have a standard selection of chicken tenders, pizza, hamburgers, mac-n-cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Children can order off the regular kids’ menu for free in any upcharge restaurant, or they can order off that restaurant’s regular menu for the listed price.

What follows is a run-down of all the restaurants (complimentary and specialty) aboard Norwegian Dawn.

The Venetian Restaurant aboard Norwegian Dawn

We’ll start with the two main dining rooms, Venetian and Aqua, on Deck 6. They offer identical menus, but have differing atmospheres. With 433 seats, Venetian is larger and feels light and airy with white walls, high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch across the entire stern of the ship.

Aqua Restaurant aboard Norwegian Dawn

The 340-seat Aqua features a contemporary decor with touches of blue, and is also dimly lit, which can make for a more romantic dinner. In both venues, tables are available for two, four and larger groups. Both are open for dinner, but only the Venetian serves breakfast.

Bamboo Restaurant and Bar aboard Norwegian Dawn

Bamboo on Deck 7 is the ship’s Chinese restaurant with appetizers like pot stickers and spring rolls, soups, mains such as kung pao chicken, vegetarian fried rice, beef chow fun and desserts like coconut tapioca pudding, crispy chestnut and red bean triangles.

O’Sheehan’s aboard Norwegian Dawn

One deck up at O’Sheehan’s you can dine and drink in an open space surrounding the atrium. The menu features fish and chips, fajitas, burgers, bangers and mash, Buffalo wings and spinach-artichoke dip. Breakfast includes baked goods, eggs and omelets, French toast, oatmeal and corned beef hash. There’s also apple pie a la mode and brownie cheesecake desserts. It’s also open 24/7!

Garden Cafe aboard Norwegian Dawn

Up on Deck 12 the Garden Café is the ship’s buffet, open for breakfast from 5.30am and snacks until 11.30, with a great lunch and dinner selection in-between. The port and starboard stations do not offer the same dishes, so make the full circuit to see all the options. Beverage stations are always open and form a wall between the seating area and the food service area.

Topsiders Pool Grill aboard Norwegian Jade

Topsiders Pool Grill

Also on Deck 12 is Topsiders, which has a buffet line that’s open noon to 5pm, serving burgers and hot dogs and a partial selection of the foods available in the buffet. A nice touch is the Sprinkles ice cream counter, serving three flavours (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry) of complimentary hard ice cream with toppings.

Up on Deck 13 Bimini Grill is a great lunch option with an outdoor bar and juicy burgers and fresh fries with a view of the poolside activities.

Then there are the eight specialty dining (added charge) dining options aboard Norwegian Dawn.

La Cucina aboard Norwegian Dawn

Down on Deck 6, La Cucina is an inspired Italian restaurant carved up into sections, so the dining experience feels more intimate. The table bread alone is a reason to dine here, but it’s followed up by starters like caprese salad and fried calamari, pastas like pesto gnocchi, meat or vegetable lasagna, and rigatoni with veal meatballs (served as sides or mains) and osso buco, pancetta-wrapped rack of lamb, lobster or filet mignon with a gorgonzola crust, among others for the main. Authentic Italian desserts (tiramisu) and aromatic espressos round off the experience.

La Bistro aboard Norwegian Dawn

Also on Deck 6, Le Bistro had some of its seating sacrificed to La Cucina during the 2016 refit, so it’s a small, intimate, dining venue perfect for a date. It also has a dress code (unusual aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, but it’s quite laze faire, only requiring that diners don’t wear shorts). The food options here are very French, with mushroom soup, escargot, and fish and beef dishes covered in sauces. Desserts include vanilla creme brulee and chocolate fondue for two.

Teppanyaki aboard Norwegian Dawn

Up on Deck 7, you pay a set US $29.95 fee per person at Teppanyaki, where you can watch chefs simultaneously prepare seafood, steaks and vegetables while telling jokes and tossing food in the air around a hibachi grill. It’s a small venue seating just 32 people at 5.30pm, 7.15pm and 9pm.

Also on Deck 7 is the Sushi Bar, another small venue where you can sit at the bar and watch your sushi being rolled to order. Ten types of rolls are available, plus nigiri and sashimi upon request.

Los Lobos Bar and Restaurant

Moving up to Deck 12, in the aft port corner of the Garden Café you’ll find Los Lobos, a restaurant styled after a Mexican cantina, with colorful skull masks on the wall and a menu featuring tableside guacamole, tacos and burritos and tequila-based drinks.

Up again to Deck 13, Cagney’s Steakhouse is as it says on the tin, serving Angus beef, lamb and seafood with sides like rice, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. While the meat is cooked and seasoned well, the sides and appetizers are outstanding. For the rif-raf it’s only open for dinner, but breakfast and lunch is served for select past-passengers and those booked in suites.

Moderno Churrascaria aboard Norwegian Dawn

Forward of Cagney’s on the same deck is the Brazilian restaurant Moderno Churrascaria. It’s an ode to prime cuts of steak, with 11 different meats available from lamb chops, filet mignon, and sausage to bacon-wrapped chicken breast. This is the second restaurant with a set fee per person (US $24.95).

Then there’s room service, which is technically complimentary, but we’ve included it here because there’s a US $7.95 convenience fee per order. This excludes morning coffee and continental breakfast. But, you can also order omelets, French toast, oatmeal and breakfast meats. Or, during the rest of the day, there’s chicken soup, three varieties of salad, BLT sandwiches, pizzas, burgers, fish and chips, grilled salmon, kids’ meals and desserts. Alcohol and special occasion platters (caviar, cheese plate, cold hors d’ouevres) incur a per-item fee in addition to the delivery charge, as does soda (annoyingly).

Staterooms aboard Norwegian Dawn

The 2016 refurbishment extended to all of Norwegian Dawn’s staterooms, but only in terms of the décor, not all the furnishings themselves. So tables and chairs still show some wear and tear and the early 2000s pullout ashtrays in the ensuites remain. However, the colour scheme is entirely modernized, with a calming grey carpet, white linen and bright splashes of colour in the throws and artwork.

Deluxe Owner’s Suite

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The original wooden fittings have been retained, giving the staterooms a nice, retro feel but without any of the tackiness associated with the cruise industry of the early 2000s. Norwegian Dawn is a mid-sized ship that carries a fairly large passenger count, so cabins are a little small, but have plenty of storage space, which will come in handy on her longer cruise itineraries between Dubai and Cape Town.

All standard cabins have queen beds that convert into twins, but only one nightstand, and a corner vanity with hair dryer and ottoman stool. There’s a minibar in the closet along with a safe. The flatscreen TVs feature several ship channels (bow cam, shore excursion videos and descriptions of onboard spaces), as well as a few news channels, one free movie channel, one general TV show channel and a lot of pay-per-view movies. There are also ice buckets and glasses, and coffee makers and coffee cups, but no tea or kettles. In terms of practicality, there’s only one 110-volt outlet and one 220-volt outlet by the vanity and no USB ports unfortunately.

Gone are the shower curtains in the ensuites, with sliding glass doors now, and separate bathtubs for the suites. Provided toiletries include bar soap, body lotion and attached pumps of hand soap, shower gel and conditioning shampoo.

There are 26 wheelchair-accessible cabins across all categories, of which there are eight basic types, along with three different types of family cabin (general oceanview family suites, balcony family suites and two-bedroom family suites).

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Family Suite stateroom aboard Norwegian Dawn

The oceanview family suites are 409 to 452 square feet and can sleep six and have a lounge area with pullout couch and two chairs, small dining table for four, walk-in closet and ensuite with double sinks and separate tub and shower. The family suites with balcony are identical, but have a 110-square-foot balcony with two chairs and a table.

The two-bedroom family suites are 587 square feet with smaller 54-square-foot balconies with two padded, wicker loungers and a drinks table. There’s a lounge area with couch and easy chairs, dining table and coffee bar, and an inside kids cabin with queen-sized pullout couch and a pulldown bunk bed – as well as an ensuite and flatscreen TV. The master bedroom features a huge bathroom with double sinks, shower stall, toilet behind a door and a whirlpool tub with a window.

Inside stateroom aboard Norwegian Dawn

Moving on to the standard cabins and suites, we’ll start with the 142 square foot inside staterooms. They sleep up to four with pullman bunks deployed.

Oceanview stateroom

Oceanview cabins are slightly larger at 158 square feet and have a porthole on the lower decks or picture window higher up. If you book an oceanview on Deck 8, your view will be obstructed by the lifeboats, but the cabin will be much larger at 196 square feet. Like the insides, these cabins also feature pulldown bunks for up to four guests.

Balcony stateroom

The balcony cabins measure 166 square feet, with 37-square-foot verandas. These staterooms can sleep up to three thanks to a pullout sofa. Balconies are furnished with two metal and plastic-mesh chairs with a small drinks table. Balcony cabins on Decks 8 through 10 at the stern are the same size but have a larger terrace, ranging in size from 71 to 136 square feet.

Mini Suite

The entry-level suites, the mini-suites, are laid out like balcony cabins, but are larger at 229 square feet with 54-square-foot balconies. They also have a shower-tub combo and queen-sized pullout sofas so can sleep up to four.

The 64 suites are divided among the two Garden Villas and eight Owner’s Suites, as well as Penthouse and Family Suites. All get butler and concierge services and the breakfast and lunch we mentioned at Moderno earlier. There are added perks like priority embarkation and disembarkation (including tendering), Bulgari toiletries, espresso machines, priority restaurant reservations, and meals from specialty restaurants delivered to your cabin (for a fee). There’s also a special room service menu with full breakfast, canapes and treats delivered to your suite, as well as pillow menus and sparkling wine on the first day.

Penthouse Suite

Norwegian Dawn’s penthouses are located at the very front and very back of the ship. The ones on Decks 9 and 10 are 448 to 568 square feet, with balconies sized from 134 to 252 square feet. Aft-facing penthouses on Decks 8 through 10 are 365 to 411 square feet, with 78- to 123-square-foot balconies. Most sleep three, but a few can fit four.

The four Owner’s Suites on Deck 12 are 667 to 732 square feet and oddly have no balcony, but the two on both Deck 9 and 10 at the bow are 721 to 900 square feet and do feature a balcony. Each can sleep four with a pullout sofa.

The very largest suites aboard Norwegian Dawn are the Garden Villas, in a keycard only enclave on Deck 14. They’re a massive 6,694 square feet with three bedrooms with en-suites, living room (including grand piano, dining table, couch and chairs and bar/kitchen area). The villas have their own private outdoor deck areas with whirlpool and lounge chairs, top-of-ship sunbathing decks and even steam rooms.

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