DH (36), myself (37) and DD's (6 & 8) were on the December 8, 2012 sailing of the Norweigan Epic. We had originally booked the Jewel to the Eastern Caribbean but we were offered the choice of staying on the Jewel when it changed to Western or switching over to the Epic on the Eastern route when NCL made an itinerary change last year. Taking the change to Epic meant that we were bumped up from our oceanview cabin on Jewel to a balcony cabin on Epic -- a fantastic upgrade.
We had flown in a few days early to Orlando to take the girls to Magic Kingdom and then drove down to Hollywood to spend the night pre-cruise. We had a fantastic night at the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa and would recommend this resort -- beautiful property right on the beach with a very nicely appointed pool area that our kids adored. We had a relatively easy half hour drive from the hotel to the Miami airport to return our rental and took the free shuttle offered by National/Alamo to the port. We arrived around 10:30 am and had a very short line to enter the terminal (less than 10 minutes) and then a 5 minute line through security. It took us less than 10 minutes to fill in the health questionnaire, queue up and check in. We were then sent to the boarding area for the obligatory photo and a half hour wait until they started boarding. We were in group number 6 and were called within 15 minutes.
We entered through the casino which unfortunately, was the worst first impression of a cruise ship I've had in my 9 cruises. It reeked of stale cigarette smoke and was very dark with no natural light but I had done my research and knew that the ship would really show herself off as we got to know her better.
We were in cabin 12072, a large balcony cabin (cat. B6) forward on the leading edge of the first bump- out. Having experienced seasickness in the past, I was concerned about being so high and forward (we generally book lower, mid-ship cabins). The first several nights there was lots of motion but I had begun taking meclazine before sailaway so it didn't bother me but my eight year old was in need of kids Dramamine for several days. I also overheard several other people comment on how there was a lot of motion or how the boat was rocking... but it did settle down once we reached our first port of call and was barely noticeable thereafter.
We were quite impressed with the cabin and especially the balcony. Obviously we will be unable to book an inside stateroom ever again!! Well played NCL. Having that extended living space was amazing. We enjoyed most of our sailaways from here and I really enjoyed reading and relaxing there on our sea days.
Yes, the rumours are true -- it is a small cabin. Especially noticeable with our last cruise being on Disney where the cabin sizes are quite generous (even in inside/oceanview cabins). When the third and forth berths were deployed we were barely able to get things out of the closets and had to remove the ladder to squeeze our way out to the balcony (we had the bed at the door configuration). We would have really benefitted from an extra 2 feet of space width wise. It was tight in there for all four of us but we didn't spent oodles of time in there so made due.
The bathroom set up took some getting used to - an awkward set up although the ability to shower without tying up the toilet is nice (but better handled on Disney with their split bathrooms and two sink set up). The shower stall is actually quite a good size, especially when I think back to the size of the Princess showers with that awful curtain that would cling to anyone bigger than a size 0. Amenities are shampoo and shower gel in dispensers. I brought my own travel size shampoo and conditioner but my daughters used the stuff in the stall. Not sure it's a shampoo/conditioner combo as their hair felt like straw for the duration of the trip.
I found the bed short and generally uncomfortable. There wasn't a single night that I managed to sleep through the night. I would generally wake often and a few nights had a hard time getting back to sleep. My feet were right at the end of the bed and I'm only 5'4" -- that being said, hubby never once mentioned he had an issue and he seemed to sleep just fine.
Either we packed lightly for a family of four or there really is a ton of storage space because we had no issues whatsoever. There are little nooks and crannies that are accessible throughout the cabin and loads of storage under the bed and couch.
Our cabin steward Delma was very friendly and efficient. She quickly learned our names and always greeted us with a smile. Our one request for two additional deck chairs was met almost immediately. It was always a delight to run into her in the hallway and our cabin was always spotless.
Let's address the negative right away. The casino area sucks. I know that on most cruise ships, you generally have to walk through the casino to get to the theatre but Epic's casino is sprawling and is open to other decks which was ill-conceived. The most shocking design flaw in my opinion is that the main dining room TASTE is open to the casino. We never once ate there because of that.
The whole area stinks. Even on the first day when we were exploring it reeked of stale cigarette smoke. It was revolting. The final effect is that it made me want to get the hell out of there anytime I had to pass through, which in the evenings was often. Hubby and I usually donate some money at the ship's casino as gambling is not something we do in our day-to-day life, but this one was so repulsive we never once stopped. At least NCL saved us some money here.
Hubby was talking to a fellow cruiser at the baggage carousel post-cruise at our home airport and asked how he had enjoyed the cruise. He launched into a tirade about the ship's design and the fact that even as a smoker he found the casino and surrounding public area "gross." I guess he'll be going back to Carnival. So yes, this area is as bad as you've heard regardless of whether you're a smoker or not.
That being said, we really enjoyed the Epic. We found all the areas to be visually appealing in general and found that even though it was the biggest ship we've ever been on, it was also the one it took us the least amount of time to figure out. So in that sense, it does have a good design in terms of flow. I did however find the atrium area kind of strange. There's this huge screen that you can't actually see from many vantage points because of the design (O'Sheenan's is right above) so we found this area was fairly deserted when we were passing through, except during football games.
The main pool area was a great spot to spend some quality time. We spent many hours here on several days and never had any issues getting a chair when we wanted one. We're not sun worshipers however so were going for the ones with some shade. The jets in the main pool area were lots of fun for kids and adults seemed to love the bathers set into the pool. As a side note we found the pools were warm when we were in port and cool when at sea.
The waterslides were loads of fun. Our daughters flat out refused to try any of them. So while they were in the kids club, hubby and I acted their age and went down them countless times. The toilet bowl one was quite busy on sea days, but we were able to ride multiple times in a row on embarkation day, as well as the afternoon we were docked in Nassau.
Spice H2O was a quiet little spot at the rear of the ship that we didn't visit much since we had our kiddos with us, but it was usually full when we'd check it out throughout the week. We did go here on embarkation night after dinner to watch ELF which they were showing on the big screen. I wish they had shown another family friendly movie during the week as my kids loved this (my 6 year old said this was her favourite moment of the cruise) but they showed adult movies and concerts during the remainder of our cruise.
We were very impressed with the entertainment aboard the Epic. Definitely the best we've seen in terms of quality and variety. We all loved the Blue Man Group -- with our daughters saying this was their favourite show hands down. They even both enjoyed the "Man behind the blue" Q&A session with the guys.
The Cirque dreams show was absolutely worth the money -- it is amazing and so much fun. We did purchase the premium seats and were sitting on the floor, just under the overhang of the balcony. We were able to see all the action from our vantage point. I think we all came out of that with stars in our eyes -- especially the kids.
Hubby and I took in two Second City shows and enjoyed both, although we both found the "All Improv" show on the last night was better than the "Living in America" show. Obviously the crowd has a lot to do with it so I know that they will be different every time. These shows are popular so unless you're there early you're in the back and can't see anything on stage. We were in the back for the first show and we saw several couples leave as they couldn't see a thing. So get there early if you're planning on going.
We also saw the Legends in Concert show which was most like a typical cruise stage production number and yet out of all the things we did, was probably my least favourite. We did enjoy it though and it is worth seeing if you like shows. On our night the Michael Jackson impersonator was ill so we only got to see "Jimmy Buffett" and "Donna Summer" but they were both very good and our kids liked the performances as well.
We spent one evening (would have been more but too much to do) with Slam Allen in Fat Cat's. This was a fun show with great music and lots of audience participation. We had a great time just relaxing and enjoying some grown up time here.
We didn't make it to the adult White Hot party but we did go to the family pool party the same night. We had a wonderful time just dancing away and being silly with the kids. Our 8 year old hooked up with another friend from the kids club and they just let loose -- and I also got my first real taste of "mom, can you leave me and my friend alone" (on the dance floor none the less).
Both daughters participated in Splash Academy and loved it. They wanted to go there every day and were begging to go as soon as dinner was over. We always picked them up by 10:30 so never paid for additional hours (available from 10:30 pm -- 1:30 am at $6 a child/hour, $4 for each additional child in the same family/hour). Also, the club is closed on sea days from 12:00 -- 2:00 and then again from 5:00 -- 7:00. One of the people there told me they did this because they had instances of children who weren't getting fed during the day as they weren't being picked up for meals and Splash Academy does not offer food at meal times (as opposed to Disney who will take any kids in the club to the buffet at meal times free of charge, no sign up required). Splash Academy will take the kids to the buffet on port days if you sign up and pay for this in advance(not sure how much -- we didn't participate).
The closure conflicted with getting to shows starting at 7 however so it would be great if they would reconsider their hours and re-open at 6:30 to accommodate parents who want to get to a 7:00 pm show in good order. Not sure how someone could drop their kids at 7 pm (there were often line ups for drop off when they reopened) and then make it to Blue Man Group given NCL's repeated notices of late comers not being accommodated.
Our kids didn't participate in any of the Nikelodeon stuff other than seeing "SlimeTime Live!" In the Epic Theatre. They said Dora was too babyish for them and weren't interested in SpongeBob and Patrick so opted not to go meet them. They always picked going to the kid's club rather than doing the Nick by the pool stuff too.
The girls reported that they did a lot of supervised group arts and crafts, lots of group games, free play, Wii and computer games free play, themed group activities and lots of face painting. One day they paraded through the ship as pirates -- which we weren't made aware of and unfortunately missed ("we were looking for you guys!").
FOOD -- SPECIALTY RESTAURANTS
I had purchased three specialities for $52 per person on myncl.com for meals at Le Bistro, La Cucina and Cagney's. We decided to book Le Bistro for embarkation night as we also had a coupon for a complimentary bottle of house wine if we dined on that night. All of our specialty reservations were for 5:45 to accommodate the kids.
The kids ate off the regular kids menu at two of the three restaurants so we were refunded for their meal costs (which we had to pre-pay when I booked in order to ensure a table for four). They ate off the kids La Cucina menu and we were charged half price.
At Le Bistro hubby had the mushroom soup, two orders of scallops, beef tenderloin and crÃ¨me brulee all of which he rated as excellent. I had the French onion soup, the beef tenderloin and ended with the chocolate fondue, all of which I rated as excellent. I couldn't imagine a better embarkation meal -- the first of many good ones. Out of all our meals, this was our favourite and we would definitely pay to eat at Le Bistro again. The complimentary bottle of wine didn't hurt either.
At Cagney's hubby started with an order of oysters and an order of crab cakes which he thought were excellent, while I had the tomatoes and onions which were very good. We shared an order of Cagney fries which the grown ups liked but the kids didn't. Hubby had a fillet minon and added a lobster tail and I had the 10 oz fillet. We shared an order of mushrooms and an order of gratin potatoes which were just okay. If we had eaten here earlier I might have been more impressed with my fillet but I had beef tenderloin twice already which I enjoyed more than this meal and because of that, I wouldn't go to Cagney's again. Hubby enjoyed his fillet and his lobster but thought the lobster was average and was expecting it to be a bit better quality considering the additional $8 charge on top of the restaurant's cover charge.
At La Cucina we shared an order of brushetta, I had the ceasar and hubby had the calamari, both of which were enjoyed. The bread and various oils for dipping was scrumptious -- the kids couldn't get enough. For mains the kids had the chicken parm (which they said was just ok and was way too big for an adult to eat, forget about a kid). Since one of them had chicken parm in the Garden Cafe that she liked better, this wasn't worth the expense. I had the meatballs which I thought was good but not outstanding and hubby had the lobster fettuccine which he enjoyed. I did have a lovely Tiramisu for dessert but I can't say for sure that I would eat here again. What this restaurant has going for it though is the location and the ambiance they've created there. We were here the night we were in Nassau and were able to watch a fully lit up Disney Dream pull out of her berth beside us and sail away and then of course it was our turn to leave port and watch the lights of Nassau slip by as we ate- very lovely environment.
Cirque dinner has a set menu and I had read many reviews saying the food isn't good so I had very low expectations. Well, we must have low standards because we really enjoyed the food here. I was given a double serving of beef as I have a shellfish allergy, which was a ridiculous amount of food. I found it to be tender and tasty. The appetizer salad was good and beautifully presented and two out of three of the deserts were yummy (apparently I don't like panna cotta). The kids ordered off the regular kids menu -- but no refund here of course.
FOOD -- REGULAR RESTAURANTS
We had breakfast every morning in the Garden Cafe and thoroughly enjoyed it. I showed lots of restraint for the first several days and had fruit and yogurt, and then in order to bulk up for a shore excursion on day 4 loaded up my plate with waffles topped with blueberries and whipped cream with a side of bacon. That was the start of belly busting breakfasts pretty much for the rest of the cruise which were consistently delicious. Hubby followed that trend and especially liked the French toast. The 8 year old with motion sickness nibbled on toast or dried cereal for most of the week but my 6 year old enjoyed French toast, waffles, pancakes, scrambled eggs and made to order omelettes. I thought the coffee was very good and much better than what Princess was serving last time I cruised with them (hopefully they've improved since then). They had so many different options -- everything from baked goods, toast and bagels, fresh fruit, hot and cold cereals, eggs cooked a billion ways -- definitely something for everyone and ability to eat as reasonably or piggishly as you wanted.
We also ate lunch every day at the Garden Cafe simply because we enjoyed the food there so much and also because of the convenience. We were very impressed with the quality and variety of food offered here and ranked this as the best buffet we've had in all our cruises. Everything we had was really good to excellent. My kids especially loved the made to order pasta and had this at least 4 days. The kid who wasn't eating breakfast cleaned her plate each time, and these are large adult size servings. Lots of options on any given day and don't forget to check the stations outside facing the pool. On one side (our week it was on the right if you are facing the stations) there was a different theme there every day with options not available inside (ie. Mexican, German). And yes, the pretzel buns are yummy and highly addictive.
We even had our pre-BMG dinner at the Garden Cafe because we were running tight on time and didn't want to risk being late by going to a sit down meal. The featured carved meat that night was prime rib which everyone else got except me as I was tiring of beef by this point. I can't remember what I had in the end but I know that we were all pleased and had clean plates and full bellies as we headed to our show. I do remember the made to order dessert crepe however and this was a lovely way to end the meal.
We ate in the Manhattan Room twice for dinner and were very pleased with both the restaurant and the food. I had the chicken and the turkey which I thought were very good. Hubby had the pumpkin gnocci which he thought was just okay (found the pumpkin sauce too sweet) but he loved the mushroom quesadilla crisps and got a second order to stand in for the lacklustre entree. He also had the salmon, a fish he usually doesn't enjoy and thought it was excellent. The ambiance there is very nice with the live band and dance floor -- the girls loved being able to dance between courses.
PORTS OF CALL/EXCURIONS
I pre-booked two NCL excursions, one in St. Maarten and one in St. Thomas but didn't book anything for Nassau, Bahamas. I have been to both St. Thomas and Nassau many times over the past few cruises, but my last time to St. Maarten was on my very first cruise almost exactly 20 years ago (December 12, 1992 sailing) aboard NCL's Norway. My memory of St. Maarten was that it rained very hard and non-stop the day we were there so I was looking forward to returning on this cruise. I had to laugh when a downpour started just as we were about to head off the ship for our excursion. Luckily it cleared up within the next 10 minutes and the rest of the day was full of sunshine.
Due to the rain, they cancelled the "sea" part of our "See & Sea" excursion. On the dock we were offered the choice of cancelling altogether and getting a full refund or doing only the "see" portion and getting half the cost refunded. We elected to continue on with the tour so did get to have a look at the island and an hour shopping in Marigot. The tour guide was very informative and we learnt a lot about the island's history during our scenic tour. The hour shopping in Marigot was just okay as we were limited by how much we wanted to do with the kids in tow since they love to look with their hands.
In St. Thomas rather than go to St. John which we'd done several times as a couple, we elected to do the island tour that featured a two-hour breach break at Meagan's Bay and ended at Blackbeard's castle. We had a very scenic drive with two photo stops en route to the beach which was practically deserted when we arrived shortly after 9 am. We had a lovely time at there and the kids both loved swimming and building sandcastles -- a gorgeous spot for a dip. After that we were off to Blackbeard's castle, a place we'd never been despite our multiple visits to St. Thomas. This was where we parted with our tour guide, who didn't offer much in the way of island information but rather played music over the speakers for most of the tour. We spent quite a while exploring the various things to do and see here and the kids were quite interested in the historic properties on site.
We were all tired by the time we were done and ready to go back to the ship rather than poke around downtown so quickly engaged a taxi to bring us back to the ship as I knew the kids weren't up for walking, which hubby and I have done in the past ($4/person -- confirmed prior to boarding). Aside from the fact that we had a dud tour guide, this tour itself was great and a perfect fit for our family.
I can't speak to Nassau at all as we chose not to disembark but rather to enjoy a virtually empty ship that day. But what I can comment on was how great I thought NCL was upon re-embarking. I really loved the little lounge area that they set up at each port and appreciated the water they served while waiting to queue up to get back on board. In St. Thomas they were handing out cool face clothes fragranced with their spa scent. I personally thought this was pure heaven and extremely refreshing. It completely re-energized my family and zapped away the weariness that we were all feeling up to that point. Great job NCL!
- We didn't use the spa facility so can't comment on this but I did pick up a price sheet one night as they were having a kids/teen spa that I thought the girls would enjoy but I found the prices for services to be too exorbitant so never returned.
- Hubby did use the treadmills at the gym on three mornings and never had a problem getting one. He said the facility was quite nice and had a good compliment of equipment.
- The bucket of beer is a good deal if you're a beer drinker because you get one for free. NCL's frozen cocktails are also very good with the Pina Coladas appearing to be the most popular of this kind from my casual observation. I had two cocktails (Long Island Ice Tea at Fat Cats and a Tom Collins at Headliners) and they were both awful and not worth the money. Not sure if it was the bartender, the location or what I choose but I stayed away from cocktails after that.
- No need to bring your life preserver to the muster drill. We've always had to bring it or wear it on other cruise lines so felt a little foolish stepping out of our cabin lugging these along when no one else did.
- Ship announcements are close to non-existent. Not a single one was ever in our cabin, even those we would have expected to hear there (ie. muster drill instructions). There was a daily announcement from the bridge on sea days about nautical miles sailed, speed, weather, etc. There was also an announcement on port days for embarkation instructions and notification when customs had cleared the ship. And aside from these, there were no more than a handful of announcements about bingo or art auctions but that was pretty much it. It was practically silent compared to Princess which absolutely bombards you with announcements to the point of being overly intrusive.
- We didn't buy a soda card but on the few occasions we wanted a pop, we used the vending machines in the arcade. It was $2 a bottle with no 18% gratuity and also not watered down with ice. They only sell Pepsi products on the ship and I'm a big Diet Coke fan. I was very jealous of the folks I saw who had the foresight to bring cases of coke.
- I did purchase liquor on shore to bring home and I was fully prepared to hand it over when asked. My bag was scanned but I was never told to part with my bottle so I kept it. This process must be handled inconsistently as at port the previous day the lady at the scanner was directing people to the booze handler to turn it over (pick up is at the towel station on the pool deck the last night of the cruise).
- I don't dig the whole 'you have one pool towel you are responsible for' thing on NCL but at least you could trade it in at the towel station for a clean, dry one or leave it out for your cabin steward to replace for you.
- Bridge viewing room on Deck 13 was pretty nifty although my kids liked the stuff hanging on the walls more than the peek into the bridge itself ("This is borrrrring").
- They showed "Undercover Boss" with Kevin Sheenan and the episode of "Mighty Ships" on the Epic in the atrium during the week.
- The trampoline and spiderweb on the sports deck were closed for the entire duration of our cruise which was unfortunate as we were all looking forward to trying these.
- We wanted to try the rock climbing but never got to it. We just always seemed to be doing other things when it was open. Guess we'll have to save this for next time ;)
Overall we had a wonderful cruise and an excellent family vacation. We got nice amount of time together as a family and apart as kids and grownups. It took a few nights of hubby and I saying "OK, we have no kids, what should we do?" to get into the groove of being people without children, if only for a few hours.
We would absolutely cruise with NCL again and would even consider another Epic cruise on a different itinerary. We had as close to a perfect family cruise as I think possible with the Epic being a fantastic ship, warts and all!