BACKGROUND I and my girlfriend cruised with four first time cruisers (My parents and my brother + his girlfriend), sailing out of Miami on the 24th of November (so the second wave of the Thanksgiving cruisers). The holiday was booked with Virgin holidays which included the rockstar treatment and the cruise sat slap bang in the middle of the holiday. We got 3 days in Florida followed by the cruise then another 4 days in florida. This whole thing was done for my Dads 60th so we sort of went all out in a few areas and upon reflection I think this really did boost the enjoyment. If you are going to ride on the Epic, then going big is the way to do it.
My girlfriend and I have cruised the caribbean before with P&O on Azura which followed the more traditional path of set dinner times and formal evenings. I have to say I much preferred the Freestyle way of NCL and the food and the entertainment were streets ahead of the P&O boat.
The other four in our party are new to cruising and along with fears that this 4000 pax behemoth would prove to be a little too crowded we were worried they would hate the experience, especially my dad. However our fears were mostly unfounded.
As I mention in the port reviews, Miami port was a pretty slick operation. Absolutely no qualms about that, even though we did end up with a newbie, learning on the job, to check us in. This seemed to take an age and the guys either side of her put through about 5 families each before we were done. Also word of warning for anyone who has to drive to Miami and drop the rental car off before boarding. All the rental agencies now reside in the airport (the address supplied to us by Virgin for the rental place led to a derelict Alamo rental depot and the new address we found on the Alamo website, while correct, wasn't in the sat nav system we had, even though it was bought new this year). We headed for the airport by default and due to extensive remodelling and poor signposting, finding your way round to the rental building raised a few tempers.
Once onboard we had to visit the cashier. My parents and my brother were electing to pay by cash to had to pre-load their room keys with credit (min $300). I also had to do this as I wanted to use a pre-paid travel money card. It works exactly like a credit/debit card but because it was pre-paid they couldn't deal with it at the check in desk. The queue wasn't large so no problem.
We had a nice selection of staterooms. My brother and his girlfriend had an inside room; they hadn't wanted to pay the extra for the balcony cabin even though at $150 each extra, it was a no brainer. They wished they had once they saw our balcony room. We didn't think to ask, but having saw a few people moving luggage about the ship, I guess it wasn't actually full and upgrades from insides to outsides may have been possible, so its worth keeping that in mind for next time. Me and my girl friend had a standard balcony stateroom and my parents were one up again with the mini-suite.
The inside room (10070) seemed very nice. No wavy wall set up in here, just a nice square room with a very large bed and plenty of floor space. As with all windowless rooms, the lack of natural light can do you in a bit. It helps me wake up on a morning and without it I can feel a bit groggy. However, we were usually out and about and so for sleeping in they found it perfectly suitable.
Our stateroom (10072) was on the left hand side of the ship. To us this seemed to be the side always looking out to sea which is nice if you like that. We tend to like something to look at but then again it all depends on your route!
The cabin was excellent. Slight squeeze in certain spaces such as the narrow passage between the foot of the bed and the fitted cupboard/work top area but nothing to get worked up about. The wavy walled cabins on this boat mean that the cabins top and tail with their neighbouring cabins. This means the layouts alternate from bed close to the door to bed close to the balcony. Unfortunately this cabin is the former. The location of the bed can make the entrance feel quite cramped, especially if there are more than two of you. In the other arrangement there is a lot more free space around the sofa which makes the entrance feel more open.
Balcony is a standard size, well clear of the protruding life boats so the view is undisturbed. Room posses a stupid amount of storage. There is a full and half height wardrobe, 3 large draws, 3 cupboards on the main fitting (one with a safe), the bed has a cavernous space beneath it, the sofa backs hinge forward revealing two more cupboards and there are two sliding drawers attached to the underside of the sofa! This is topped off with two smaller cubby holes in the wavy roof lining. So if you brought it there is space for it.
Lighting scheme was really well done and we loved the frosted glass shower and toilet enclosures, very fun!
My parents room, the mini-suite (10081) was on the opposite side of the ship and was much the same as our room with the same bed-sofa layout. The mini-suite appears to be a standard room put through the copier at 1.25x the size. However there are differences.... the shower cubicle is massive, 3 people could get in there easy. My mother would of dearly loved that space to have been used for a set of drawers like in our room as they were strangely absent from the storage options in this room.
Sound proofing is excellent in all rooms and this is aided by the location of the cabins. Close to the lifts at the front of the ship, but not so close so as to mean a lot of foot traffic past your door. Also separated from the main activity decks by 3 decks below and 4 decks above so you are pretty much guaranteed not to be disturbed at all.
We aren't big eaters so were overwhelmed by the choice on offer. It was really good food as well for the most part. The Garden cafe was excellent for a buffet and though it could be busy at times, it never felt like it couldn't cope with the demand. Staff were excellent too. We tried a few of the free dining options on an evening and at lunch, but we basically ended up going all out with the cover-charge restaurants. We don't drink lots of booze or gamble so our money was spent on the finer food these options offer. A massive hat tip to the steak house and the Wasabi/Teppenyaki restaurants. Absolutely superb. Wasabi provides a la carte sushi and the portions are very generous and the prices more than reasonable. Bloody tasty as well. We also tried le bistro and shanghai restaurant and the circ dreams and dinner (will talk about that in entertainment) and found them excellent too. Really no complaints except for O'Sheehans pub-bar-grill thing. It might be 24 hour service and I assume bares the name of NCL's CEO. If he knew how awful the food was there, I doubt he would be endorsing it with his name.
You are spoilt on this ship. There is easily more than enough to keep you occupied for a week, if not more!
During the day there is the Spa. It is expensive to go in so we never bothered but I heard it is good if you appreciate that sort of thing. The Gym next door is absolutely excellent and free to use. On the top deck there are two pools and 5 hot tubs. Pools are small but there are various other water features like jets, showers and sprayers if you just want to cool off. Hot tubs are generally always full and full of kids as are the pools. The slides are awesome, though the rigid way the queue for the toilet-bowl slide is enforce makes queuing longer. For instance if there is an adult at the front of the queue, with 3 kids behind him, if the next 4-5 people down the slide are kids the member of staff controlling the queue will simply stack the rubber rings up instead of letting the 3 kids in the queue jump that adult and reduce the queue. Only when an adult comes down and an adult ring becomes available will the kids get to take the rings that have been stacked up. It was stupid if you ask me.
There is always music or a band or something playing on the top deck as well, so if you don't like booming music, you might be better off moving to the Spice H20 at the rear which is adults only, or taking the lift to deck 17, walking up to decks 18-19 where there are more deck chairs away from the main area. We found deck 18 at the front of the ship sparsely populated at all times, like no one knew about it. At the very front of the ship on this deck was an area seemingly available to all containing more comfy sun loungers, mattresses and seats/beds with those pull over sun covers. The security doors allowing access to this part were open and pinned back all the time so I assume this wasn't part of the Haven and was open to all. Good luck finding somewhere to sit though. This was rammed every time we went up there despite the rest of the deck being empty.
A very good climbing wall (which is free to use when open) is located on the rear of the funnel area. There is a decent video arcade where games are a reasonable $1 or $1.50 per play. There is also a full size, properly NBA certified basket ball court. I heard the ICE bar was fun if you liked that sort of thing and we found the shops on board to be pretty good with a lovely selection of watches and jewellery.
The casino is a big part of this boat. It takes up some serious real estate on Deck 6. Unless at port this thing is going all the time and there were always plenty of people playing zombie at the slot machines. Not my cuppa. Along with the casino most of the shops, restaurants and evening entertainment reside in the same area across decks 5-7. So this portion of the ship can become a little congested on a night and in some parts quite rowdy. But it didn't bother us too much. In fact I think we should be quite glad of the casino as it seemed to keep a sizeable chunk of the passengers locked away on deck 6 leaving the other popular spots like the top deck a little freer.
Evening entertainment was sensational. Blue man group is a must (especially as it is free) and so too is the Legends in Concert (also free and with a very convincing Michael Jackson on our boat). You just need to book early and arrive early to get a good seat. Circ dreams with dinner is worth the cover charge as well, its an awesome show and the food served was also very good. Hint, if you don't like shrimp (which is in the surf and turf option) tell them you are allergic or something and you should end up with 2 big lumps of steak instead!!
White hot party at the back of the boat was a bit meh for me and other evenings there like 80's night seemed to have a poor turn out. They need to rethink this. For my dad, his favourite place was Fat Cats Jazz Club. We had Slam Allen on board and him and his crew were easily the best musicians on the boat. We also were lucky to have Ray Parker Jr on board who was on holiday, but he was coaxed up to sing at the club. Absolutely great. The equipment and set up in there is first rate and the audience in there really have a wail of a time. Best room on the boat IMO.
Forget the second city show, I heard it was awful and so too were the duelling pianos. I walked past the room where this was going on and it sounded like karaoke night. Awful.
But overall the entertainment on offer was amazing.
Mostly an easy holiday. Embarking and Disembarking should be a breeze, especially the latter if you chose to walk your own luggage off. We were off at 8:30 am and at Miami Intl Airport picking up our hire car within the hour. The food and entertainment is great on this ship if you are willing to indulge in the cover charge options. I can see how just sticking to the free options might leave you disappointed, so really, save up some extra pennies and have a blow out. Worth it.
So much to do on the ship that for the most part crowds arent a problem. Everyones off doing various things and it keeps them from all ending up in the same places. On a sea day the top deck is busy and while it is not impossible to find a sunbed, it can be difficult if you want say 4 in a row or if you want to be round the pool. As mentioned the H20 spice club at the back is a little quieter and Deck 18-19 at the front of the ship above the Haven are also quiet. As you had to walk up to these decks (no elevators) I guess most lazy americans didn't bother to go up there.
Evening entertainment is epic and the Fat Cats Jazz club is a riot. Highly recommend going in there and going to see Blue Man, Legends and Circ Dreams.
Avoid second city and duelling pianos, also avoid O'Sheehans. Beware Decks 5-7 can become quite crowded of an evening as this is where the majority of the shopping, restaurants and various entertainment venues are located. Garden cafe can become busy too at peak times, but this is easily solved by not going to lunch at the same time as everyone else.
Auto-Gratuity on drinks at 15% is slightly annoying, but as your service charge of $12 per day per person only gets shared out between a few of the employee classes (Cabin stewards and waiters and house keeping) then I guess its only fair the guy serving you your drinks gets a little extra dough. Service on the whole was very good and I think it helps to be polite, patient and courteous to these guys. Its a hard job and the way some of the American guests were treating them I can see why they might not be inclined to provide the best service. Just be polite and they will reciprocate.
In short, we all enjoyed our time on the EPIC and would gladly sail again.