First Time Western Med With Teen: Thumbs Up!
Europe - Western Mediterranean
Granted, we hadn't ever been on a cruise ship and had nothing to compare the Epic to. But WOW, were we impressed and excited when we first came aboard! The online registration process was fine. It is a little difficult to browse their tours; the software needs a little work. The process of getting on the ship was very smooth. They offer cool damp washcloths and cold drinks each time you get on...I really liked that. The ship is simply marvelous.
Cabin: It met all of my expectations. I don't understand what the big deal is about the toilets; you can pull the curtain if you need more privacy. But I did hear others complain about it. The beds were comfortable. Housekeeping services were great. Appreciated the safe. The TV channels are a bit limited, but I liked the classic movies. Pay per view movies weren't outrageous.
Food: The buffet was outstanding and the service there was great too. The meal that I had with Cirque Dreams was mouth-watering. But More
we were very disappointed by the Japanese Steak House (Teppanyaki). The chef kept dropping things during his juggling act (and no, the ship wasn't listing). And he had a very annoying tendency of asking "you like?" every two minutes. What was I going to say, no? And everything was "Japanese ______". he was trying way too hard. His supervisor was standing nearby glaring...awkward.
Entertainment: Great for the most part, but we didn't get Second City, which was really disappointing. The Mexican "Ole" show was a flop. Hot tip: Take your camera to every show (especially Blue Man), because even though you can't take pictures during the show, you can take pictures with the artists in the lobby after the show (free of charge). My son got a really cool picture with a Blue Man. At times, being on this ship was a little like entertainment overdose. If you go to Cirque Dreams, strongly consider the upgraded seats as you will miss key parts of the performance if you sit in the cheap seats.
Kids: My son REALLY enjoyed the teen lounge and their program; it was the highlight of the trip for him. He also enjoyed the waterslides. It looked like they had a great program for younger kids too. It didn't feel to me like there were a lot of screaming kids in my face. It helped to have an adult deck to retreat to.
Internet: This was my number one complaint. They have a satellite internet service, but it is very slow and expensive. My first time I think I spent something like $15 for about 15 minutes. I talked with the director of internet services, and she insisted that they don't need to develop other options on/off shore for internet because "no one wants to check their email when they are on vacation". Really?! Have you ever heard of Facebook or Twitter updates? Please don't insult my intelligence that way. This is obviously a racket intended to separate you from your money. If one of their competitors had a better internet option, that might be enough to affect my choice of cruise line.
Excursions: Overall, I was very satisfied. See my port reviews for details.
Other: Didn't smell smoke aside from the casino area. Was able to navigate ship without any problems. Elevator waits weren't all that bad. Would avoid being on same floor as fitness center since everyone tromps by your room to get there. Information was conveyed effectively each day.
As first-time experiences go, this was pretty awesome. I definitely want to go on a cruise again someday. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
Barcelona: We did not do an NCL tour here. But it is worth mentioning that the NCL onboard customer service representative told me that the walk from the ship to the city was short, but in fact is wasn't. Not only was it a long walk, but it involved a very high bridge over the bay that had a very small guardrail. The sidewalk on the bridge was adequate, but this is a long tiresome walk up and down an incline on a sidewalk with a steep drop on one side and busy traffic on the other. It would make a lot of people nervous. I would strongly recommend the shuttle bus (which costs a few Euro to use).
We did take the Brightside motorcycle/sidecare tour, which was awesome.
Naples: We did the NCL tour of Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. I have had family members who visited Naples, and they strongly recommended avoiding it due to the filth and decay there. Our tour guide was Leonardo, a very dignified and soft spoken middle aged gentlemen who had excellent English and great storytelling skills. First, the bus takes you to Vesuvius up a winding narrow road. I don't even know how a vehicle that size made it up that road! The road seemd well maintained and safe. The properties along the way are very run down and often even abandoned; it reminded me of Jamaica. The ticket office and toilets (which were actually porta-potties) were also dilapidated. Leonardo was very apologetic about the run-down condition of these properties. At the mountain, you can purchase a cold drink. Then you walk a long trail up to the next staging area. They give you a walking stick with the hope that you'll flip them a coin at the end. This walk is a bit arduous. I'm in decent shape for a 51 year old, but it was almost more than I could handle. I had to stop a few times. I did see people older than me who were keeping up though. At the next stop, you are joined by a "geological guide" who tells you more about the volcano. Ours was very informative and fun. You go clear to the top and look into the crater. The views of course are spectacular. It was a neat experience.
Then we reboarded the bus and went to a cameo factory. Leonardo wasn't enthusiastic about stopping here because it was obviously an attempt to sell cameo jewelry to tourists. However, they did have nice clean modern toilets, so that was a plus. Then on to Pompeii. There are some vending areas outside the city where you get a free drink or gelato courtesy of NCL (I'd suggest the drink as the gelato was very small). Then he walked us through the entire city and did a fabulous job of making it come to life. It was very interesting. It was somewhat crowded, but not bad enough to affect the quality of the tour. You definitely don't want to see Pompeii without a guide. I was happy to give Leonardo a tip, but the bus driver was also standing at the door with his hand out (really?)...I walked by him like I didn't notice.
Overall, it was an excellent tour package. We were tired at the end, but had seen and done quite a bit for one day.
Cannes: We did the NCL tour of Monaco and Nice. They take you off the ship on tender boats, which I thought was fun. Our guide (who didn't wear a badge so I cannot recall her name) was a very nice looking middle aged French woman who dressed stylishly and spoke decent English. She was kind of anxious though and did not do a good job of keeping the group together and informed of meeting places/times. It is a wonder that we all made it back to the bus. Nice is a pleasant little village where you can wander around on cobblestone streets and browse shops and eateries. Note: The entire village of Nice has free wi-fi. If you want to buy anything in Nice, I suggest learning some French phrases. Then on to Monaco and Montecarlo. I personally did not care for this part of the trip. It was very touristy and crowded. There were so many buses and huge crowds of tourists coming and going...it was chaotic and not at all quaint. Yes, we saw the Prince's palace (which is surrounded by kiosks selling tourist junk), and yes we saw the casino in Montecarlo. You can't get in to the casino unless you pay 10 Euro (keeps out the riff-raff), so you just kind of mill around the building outside...cool huh? My teenage son liked this area because it had so many expensive cars and yachts...whatever. I saw the ridiculous "little train" driving around...looks like something from an amusement park in Kentucky if you ask me. I wouldn't be caught dead on it. The walking part wasn't too bad.
Marseilles: We took the NCL trip to Avignon (Palace of the Popes) and Le Baux (the "Eagles Nest"). Our guide (who's name I don't recall because she did not wear a badge) was a nice looking middle aged French woman who spoke decent English. But she punctuated every single statement with "ungh?", which quickly became tiresome. The village of Avignon is interesting and charming. It is another of those walled cities with the cobblestone streets. It's not strictly tourist oriented and there are average French people working and shopping there, so you do get a feel for the local culture. The Palace of the Popes is basically a big castle that has been stripped inside. We followed the dress code and wore long pants and heavy shoes on a hot day, only to see that several other tourists in shorts with open toed shoes were able to go in with no resistance. So the dress code isn't really enforced. Le Baux is a village and fortress built on a small mountain in a rugged area that looks a lot like Colorado. The village is still in use with various shops and eateries that are open for business. The fortress is partly in ruins. For a fee (I think right around 10 Euro) you can go into the fortress area and explore it with an audio tour. They have reproductions of catapults and battering rams that are sometimes used in reenactments. If you pay for the tour, get started soon after arriving or you won't have enough time. There are some breathtaking views from the top of the fortress. If you don't pay for the fortress tour, then you just end up walking around the village for a couple of hours on your own...I suspect that would get boring pretty quickly. My suggestion would be to go straight to the fortress and then try to complete the audiotour in time to grab a quick lunch in the village before the bus leaves. Note: You will need to give them an ID card in order to get an audiotour device. The village streets are pretty steep and uneven. Le Baux was a very cool place to visit; I'd highly recommend it.
By the way, if you want to buy anything at any of these stops, I suggest you learn to speak and read some French phrases as you won't hear or see much English.
Rome/Civitavecchia: We spent a few days in Rome prior to boarding. Much to my embarrassment, I never did figure out how to pronounce "Civitavecchia"! Rome was fantastic. If you try to see it all in only one day, I think that you are really cheating yourself. At a minimum, you MUST see the Colosseum/Forum and the Vatican...those could probably be tackled in a day. You could walk for about 2 hours around the old city and see quite a few interesting sites on foot. The transfer between Rome and CV is a real hassle. Watch out for the trains and train stations; they are crawling with pickpockets and thieves. We booked first class on the train thinking that it would be less crowded and thus less likely to have pickpockets...wrong. I'm positive that there was a pickpocket set up in the doorway of each first class car that we traveled on. It was a middle aged guy who hangs around the door so you have to squeeze by him. He acts like a confused tourist, but is clearly Italian and lingers around the door for the entire time that people are boarding. I waved him away and refused to enter until he moved. If you start talking loudly or making a scene, they will back off; they try to keep a low profile. Basically, it's not a good idea to go anywhere in Rome without a money belt. Once at the train station in CV, you can roll your suitcase to the port area gate where the free shuttle bus can pick you up. Don't try to walk all the way to the ship; it's a very long haul. The walk from the train station to the port gate is about 20 minutes and fairly flat. You can take a cab too, but I don't know how much it costs. Don't linger around Termini any longer than necessary; it is a haven for petty criminals. I never felt threatened though; it's mainly people with sticky fingers. There are some hotels in CV that you can stay in before/after the cruise, but the area is pretty rustic and it can be difficult to book online; you may have to call the hotel directly to confirm. It doesn't appear that there is much to do in CV other than wait for your embarkment.
Livorno/Pisa/Florence: We did the NCL "Pisa and Florence on your own" package. This worked out very well for our needs. A short stop is all you need at Pisa. It is very touristy and there is no reason to spend more than an hour there. If you are an art history enthusiast, then you may want more than one day in Florence. The best museums there require advance reservation, so be sure to make those on your own. We went to the Galileo Science Museum, which was frankly not all that exciting. My son and I aren't art people, so we didn't do any art museums and were very content to wonder around the city and see the sites. As is often the case in Italy, pickpockets are everywhere. Travel light and use a moneybelt; don't carry valuables in pockets or bags. Our guide (Sybilla) was a nice looking middle aged Italian woman with very good English. She gave us regional information while on the bus and led us to meeting points on foot at both sites. The time allotted for this tour was just right. This is a good option for someone who doesn't mind walking through crowds and isn't inclined to spend a lot of time studying statues in museums.