February 13, 2015

Norwegian Dawn review: does eating count as exercise?

We did it, dream come true. We went on a 7-day cruise all by ourselves. Some people might get lonely without their small people, but we managed to forget that our four kids existed for a few minutes in there. And the rest of the time I spent having small panic attacks that they were all dying simultaneously. Which, BTW, did not happen, thankfully. (Thanks, Aria!!)

Because I felt like I had zero clue what I was getting into on a cruise this long and with this cruise line, I want to let the e-people (you!) know how it went. 

New Orleans Port: So it turns out that New Orleans has a port that I didn't know about until a few weeks ago. I was pretty sure that all cruises, at least the ones I had heard of, left from Florida or Alaska. New Orleans was super convenient for us because it's only five hours from Birmingham, close enough to wake up the morning of boarding and head down and make it in plenty of time. 

We even had time to stop and get a peanut butter burger at my restaurant, Yo Mama's.


Your best bet is to not be the first customer of the day at 11:05 like we were. 


And after a month of clean eating, this burger pretty much erased any healthy eating during that time and for the next ten years. 


Piles of peanut butter and bacon.

Having never been to New Orleans, I was surprised by the smell. It was not pleasant in the French Quarters. I'm sure it gets less noticeable the longer you are there (does it?!!). But the coolness factor of bands lining the streets will lure me back, smelliness be damned.

The ship: We were first timers for this cruise line (and my husband's first cruise ever), so when we boarded, we had to go in the newbie line, which looked to me like it was shorter than the returning customer line. Either way, we were out of there quickly. 

We took all of our bags with us in line instead of checking them, and it was not difficult. We each packed a carry-on roller bag, and my husband carried a backpack. So it took a small amount of extra energy, but I liked taking my bag on myself because then we got to take it to our room right away. Everyone else got their bags later that evening.  


I am usually all about the cheapest cave of a room, but my husband was afraid of getting seasick in those options. So we went for a package deal that gave perks for upgrading your room, plus would offer sunlight (my vampire-ness does not require such). We gambled by reserving the cheapest room we could that gave us the bonus perks but left it open for them to choose our room, crossing our fingers for an upgrade that can sometimes happen when you let them choose. Instead of the obstructed porthole room that we paid for, we got upgraded to this picture window room. Who's watching the sunset from their 12-square-feet room hugged up to their towel monkey now, suckers?! We were legit excited to get a window, but it also just made me dream about the step up: the coveted private balcony. One day. 

And that towel monkey is not a joke. I almost hit the floor when I walked in one night to this hanging from the ceiling. Someone should tell them that unexpected things hanging from the ceiling lean towards more scary than cute.


Other than that window, the best part of this boat was the library, which I was not expecting. To watch a nerd discover an unexpected library must be like watching a 13-year-old meet Justin Bieber backstage. Some tears, some gasps of astonishment, and some bodyguards asking you not to get so close to the goods. You should have seen what happened when we found the crossword puzzles by the exit. 


And here are our selections. We both read The Bedwetter because we were in the mood to be mentally lazier than Gladwell wanted us to be. I learned that I like Sarah Silverman humor these days, despite thinking that I didn't before starting the book. 


The only other cruise line I've been on before this is Carnival, and compared to that, Norwegian was slightly more modern and less Vegas-y feeling. Some decorations were definitely still cheesy cruise themed, but there was some tasteful stuff mixed in. 

Some type of art hanging behind us. Five minutes into the cruise,
this is the point where my husband wonders if we will ever stop taking pictures. 

Food: Of course there were a million options. Even though I planned to eat like crap the entire time, there were actually tons of healthy options that tasted great. 


My favorites were the made-to-order omelets for breakfast, tons of seafood choices, spinach-packed veggie lasagna, and the fresh fruit. 

I was a little disappointed with the desserts because my most-favorite-in-the-world lava cake was not very well made on the first day. So I avoided it the whole cruise until the last day, and when I tried it again, it was perfect. So either my standards lowered (possible), or someone messed it up on the first day. But I was seriously sad that I had not been ordering it every day. 

Most days we ate a late breakfast and then a light lunch or skipped it so that we could pound a giant supper. Norwegian has freestyle dining, meaning that you can eat wherever, whenever. They also have some restaurants that you can use for an extra fee, but we never did. There was so much at the no-added-fee restaurants that we were not even tempted. Almost every night, we ate in the Venetian, which is decorated just like my mom's house and doesn't allow you to wear shorts. Upscale, y'all. But someone told us that it had the same menu every day as Aqua, the other main restaurant, but you could wear shorts at Aqua. I preferred the Venetian because the service seemed to be better, and I sort of liked showering and getting dressed up to eat after a long day of kicking up sand.  

Exercise: I went in expecting lots of gluttony, but the ship's gym was better than I thought it would be. They had a little bit of every type of equipment, and they offered classes every day. 


I took advantage of their free step test. Love these things! Currently, it looks like I have one ideal foot and one supinator (which means it rolls out instead of in). So if you see a crooked runner leaning to the right going down the trail, that's me!



I did one class on the first day, and I hit up the treadmill twice and the rower once. But other than that, I counted swimming, snorkeling, walk-exploring ports, and late-night robot dance moves as my exercise. Also we were on the 5th floor of the ship, and a lot of activities were on the 12th floor. So I would race Amory up the stairs. In this scenario, race means that he took the elevator, and I tried to beat him up. It was actually pretty tiring, and if I had one, I would have broken out my inhaler after each of those races. I think I won about 50% of the time. If Amory's not reading this, I'll go with 95%. 

Ship entertainment: The main shows for the ship were singing/dancing shows, magic shows, comedy shows (my fave), and an acrobat show (my second fave). They each had their own night, and then they did a giant combo night, minus the comedians.

The comedy show was an improv group from The Second City, that famous place where all the Saturday Night Live comedians are born, not literally. Their best show was their adults-only show, which really wasn't too crazy adult, but they said it's one of their best because they're not afraid to say things without self censoring. I can see that being important for an improv group. They were all really smart and funny and just a cool group of folks. So thumbs up all around for this comedy group!

Every day, the schedule was packed with things to do. My favorite was the ambiguous "Cruisers with Various Interests Meet-up." Nothing like a lack of specificity to bring a crowd together. I unfortunately did not attend one of these events but should have. Really regretting that decision as I type this. Other than that, there were towel folding demos, spa demos, excursion info sessions, art auctions, karaoke, dance nights, singers in every corner, bingo, group games, and more. It was exhausting just looking at the schedule.

We of course did karaoke every night because that's my jam. By the final night of karaoke, it was a real party in there, with everyone singing and dancing along. That is the best kind of karaoke. Nothing is worse than crickets and tumbleweed while you karaoke.

The surprising thing that we got into was the art auctioning. We love art, and it was just fun to be in the auction environment combined with staring at art. And they had giveaways! We won a free piece of art from one of the raffles. You could choose from a specific set of prints, and we picked a Tarkay tree painting, similar to the one below. They do charge you $35 to ship it to your home, but I liked it anyway so it was worth it to me.


Fuzzy art winners!

Below was my favorite piece from the event -- by Krasnyansky, a Russian artist who painted all the people walking away as a symbol of walking away from communism. Love the theme, love that it's Russian, and love the colors. But I didn't bid on it. We were already too big money by going on a cruise in the first place, so we weren't looking to collect art while we were out there.


Next up for us was the sushi making demo, which taught us a few things. The coolest of which was the idea to wrap your sushi roller (you know, that little mat) in plastic wrap before you start to make sure the rice doesn't stick. So smart!


Not an official item on the daily schedule, but another of our favorite activities was looking at all the pictures they took on board and finding hilarious ones. Like this. 

Just so happy on the calm seas.

We also thought it would be a funny joke to actually buy some pictures of people who we met on the boat and just casually mention to them that we liked their pictures so we bought one. Of course that would require actually dishing out $20 for a joke, and we weren't ready for that kind of commitment. But just the idea was good enough to crack ourselves up. Side note: the combination of cruising with no kids, watching The Second City improv, and reading Sarah Silverman's The Bedwetter made us think that we were comedians for a week.

Wardrobe: There was a chance of rain during the whole week of cruising, so we packed a jacket and crossed our fingers for good weather. We got lucky that the only day it rained was our first day at sea. The rest of the trip was gorgeous perfectness of weather!

I actually purchased a few things for the trip so that I could multipurpose and fit more in my suitcase. The Toms below are one of the multipurpose items because I wore them with casual outfits and with dresses. Last time I wrote about Toms on this blog it was to swear that I would never buy them again, but I found these and loved the color. Plus they were comfortable. Toms could still work on the quality because I expect these to last for about a month of walking on concrete. After a week of walking on plush cruise-ship carpet, they were already starting to fray on the bottom. 


And I finally gave in to purchasing some Chacos for this trip so that I didn't lose my shoes in the ocean. I opted for the toe strap version, but halfway through the trip, I just started not looping my big toe in there because it kind of hurt when walking a long way. Probably need to just figure out the adjustment. 

Chacos on my feet instead of at the bottom of the gulf. 

I also brought five dresses because I wanted to dress up for dinner at night -- some of the dresses were more casual than others, and I brought something to wear for the white party night. Give me a theme night, and I'm all in. And I packed two swim suits so that one could dry while I wore the other one. 

The one thing I forgot: my zip-off pants that I bought back in 1999. Yes, I still have them. No, no one can make me get rid of them. Kind of like my Birkenstocks. 

The smart person. 

Ports: Going into the trip, we only planned one excursion for our last stop at Costa Maya. There were some ruins there that I really wanted to see, and I found a tour group that got great online reviews. Otherwise, we just wanted to be cheap and explore on our own. 

First stop: Cozumel, Mexico. Our cheap plan worked there. We walked around, connected to wifi at the Starbucks to make sure our kids were still alive, saw hundreds of iguanas just chillin', and found a great little restaurant by the beach for hanging out and getting in the water.

See the iguanas?

View from the restaurant on the beach.

Cozumel gets a thumbs up for being able to explore it easily on your own. Make sure to wear sunscreen. We forgot that our pasty winter skin was not quite ready for the Mexican sunshine. 

Second stop: Belize. I wish I had better things to say about this port, but we did not love it. Our original plan was to spend this day snorkeling, but Amory felt kind of sick (too much sun for his banker skin?) and wasn't up for spending hours in the sun. We thought that we could just explore and find a massage place to spend the day relaxing. We quickly ruled out exploring because once we stepped outside of the port gates, people continually followed us trying to sell their services. Back at the port, we could only find one massage place, and it just seemed a little dirty and hot and overall sketch. On to Plan C, food. We went to a restaurant to use the wifi and grab lunch and got the worst service I may have ever received in my life. So, it was still not looking good. The only thing we liked at this port was the fresh coconut juice stand. So there was one win!


If you are going to this port, plan an excursion or stay on the boat. 

Third stop: Roatan, Honduras. Because of the not-so-happy previous port stop, we decided to buy into one of the cruise line's excursions for Roatan. We looked it over and picked a beach/snorkeling excursion. 

Roatan's port from the boat.

Going with the cruise excursion was crowded but super efficient. They obviously had this down. We went to Tabyana Beach. The shore was crowded, but there were plenty of chairs for lounging. There was a storm the night before that blew up lots of seaweed and trash onto the shore. We snorkeled less than we thought we would because you had to snorkel through trash and seaweed to get anywhere. But I did see some beautiful fish once I got past the trash. They said that this was unusual for the beach, but I have no clue. At one point I thought I cut my arm on something, but there was no scratch. Someone told me that the seaweed could sometimes sting you, which is how it felt. I got out of the water, and my arm was stinging for a couple of hours. But it wasn't enough to ruin the day of amazing weather and relaxing.


They also fed us a lunch of bbq chicken, rice and beans, fresh fruit, drinks and more. I wasn't expecting much, but it was really delicious. And the few shops at the beach were no-pressure sales, which was refreshing after the last two ports. There were merchants hanging out on the beach trying to sell things too, but Tabyana beach had a guard keeping them at bay. Overall thumbs up for this excursion. Of course, I wish that the water had been clearer for snorkeling, but at least it wasn't raining while we were there. 

Fourth stop: Costa Maya, Mexico. My favorite, but could easily have been in the bottom if we hadn't taken an excursion. This whole city was built just for the port, so there is not much around it. 

But the Native Choice Tours excursion to Dzibanche that we planned for the day was like a dream come true for me. 

They still allow you to climb on the ruins at Dzibanche.

The following is my review on Trip Advisor. 

We were a little nervous going into this tour because it was the longest excursion we could have chosen with the shortest port time, but it was definitely worth it! The office was very easy to find based on the email instructions we received. Check-in was well organized, and the vans we took were in good operating condition. We had eight people on our tour to Dzibanche. It is not one of the most popular tours (again, I think because of the two-hour drive there), but none of us were disappointed. When people ask me what the best part of my seven-day cruise was, this tour is my first answer. 

Exploring the top of a temple.

Joel was an amazing tour guide, who gave us a vivid picture of the Mayan history and culture, as well as giving us more background on the history of Costa Maya. The ruins were much larger than I thought they would be -- meaning after the first site, we walked over to another and another. I thought we were going to see one uncovered temple, but it turns out that it is an entire village they are unearthing there. And we got to see some of the excavation in process. 

Current excavation on the left. This one still has trees on it that they haven't taken away yet.

Joel pointed out several other locations that looked like hills in the distance but are actually temples yet to be uncovered, so this site will keep growing as they slowly uncover this hidden treasures. The site itself is quiet, uncrowded (we were the only ones there other than the workers), interesting, and beautiful. It almost feels like you are an explorer discovering it for the first time, and they still allow you to walk up the ruins at this site. Joel provided lunch of sandwiches, chips, granola bars, and drinks on the way back. Throughout the entire tour, Joel was very open to answering our group's MANY questions, and he was very conscious of leaving in time to get back on time. 

Joel, the awesomest tour guide ever. 

They dropped us off right at the port. Perfect day, amazing site, and the perfect guide!

And not mentioned in the above review was the fact that Joel was also a monkey whisperer. He would call to the monkeys, and they would call back. So not only was this an amazing ruins exploration, but we got a side monkey tour. 
 
Amory recording the monkeys.

Overall: For being one of the cheapest cruises available, I was surprised by the overall quality of the ship, food, and entertainment. Yes, we were one of the "young" couples on the cruise, but that didn't bother us at all. We met some cool people, entertained ourselves with inside jokes, and had fun exploring the ports. The sea was most choppy going out of and into the Mississippi River. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing. And despite our fears, Amory did not get sea sick at all!! So wins all around for this cruise. We are now starting a savings fund to take all of the kids back with us.