The Epic was wonderful. We had a great 7 days away. We've cruised twice before, with Carnival. The Epic was definitely a step up.
We flew into Miami the Friday before departure, and stayed at the Springhill Suites Miami Airport East / Medical Center. The hotel offered a free shuttle from the airport, and a $5 a person shuttle to the Epic the next morning. The shuttle to the ship was on a "reserved" basis, so if you didn't get your name on the list you were out of luck. We got lucky, a couple cancelled at the last minute, and we got on the 10AM shuttle, which put us in line for boarding at about 10:30. If you're going to stay there, I'd call a day or so in advance to make sure you get your preferred time on the hotel-to-ship shuttle.
Embarkation was fast and efficient. Even with a stop to pay the $15 corkage fee for our chilled bottle of Chardonnay, we were on board well before 11:30. We checked out the Garden Cafe Buffet and agreed with the warnings we'd read that said it would be a madhouse. We retreated to the Taste Dining Room, and were seated immediately (the room was barely 1/3rd occupied). I chose Fish & Chips and was surprised when the malt vinegar described on the menu didn't appear with the entree. Our waiter brought me a "vinegar & oil" salad dressing set when I asked for vinegar, which worked, but I was surprised they weren't ready for such a request, as Fish & Chips is a staple on the lunch menu every day.
While we finished lunch, the ship announced all cabins were ready for occupancy, and rightfully praised the cabin stewards for their speedy and hard work. We dropped off our carry-on luggage, explored the room (9086, which used to be described as a Deluxe Family Balcony Cabin and is now described as a Mini-Suite), left a note asking the room steward to leave us extra towels and to please clean out the mini-bar so we could use it as a fridge and went exploring on the ship. Our first stop was to the restaurant reservations desk outside Le Bistro. On a round-about path to get there, we looked in all of the dining venues and examined all the menus displayed. Our goal was to re-arrange our dining reservations made earlier on-line, since we'd learned more about dining on board in the weeks before departure. For instance, lobster is usually served in the main dining rooms on the first night out, and we'd originally planned on eating in Le Bistro that night to celebrate our departure. Not only were we able to switch reservations around, we also managed to score a reservation to the Chef's Table later in the week.
We found 9086 to be an especially well-located cabin, just off the forward elevators on the port side of the ship. The ninth deck puts you nicely between the public areas on decks 5,6, & 7 and the upper public areas on decks 14 and up. Taking 6 flights of stairs to get to and from the Garden Cafe Buffet IS doable, and helps work off the extra food you'll be eating. The 2 to4 flights of stairs to get down to the lower public areas are nothing, and even if you're tired of stairs or they're not your thing, the elevators are just steps away. We never heard any hallway traffic or elevator noise the whole cruise. I'd imagine the exact same would be true for the similar cabins on the starboard side. The matching cabins off the aft elevator bank would have a longer walk to the Buffet, but a shorter path to the main dining rooms and pool areas.
After lunch we were back in our cabin and busy unloading our luggage into all the storage spaces in the cabin. We didn't even come near to filling the storage provided on only one side of the cabin there was so much space. We did run out of hangers for hanging clothes. The hangers provided in one closet do not transfer to the other closets either. We made do, but I'd guess you could ask for more hangers or bring plenty from home. We were still unpacking when departure time came, so we moved to the balcony with a glass of wine for the ship's departure. The mandatory 3:30PM lifeboat drill (briefing) followed, and we left it to wander more around the ship until it was time for dinner. We elected the Manhattan Dining Room, thinking it would be less crowded, and were surprised at how full it was. To get a seat in a reasonable time we agreed to sit at a large table with other people, which turned out to be a great choice, as we were well entertained between courses. Service was a little slow because of the crowd, but with table companions to entertain us, we enjoyed the meal. I ordered a second lobster tail when I placed my dinner order, which made me the target of some envious glances from my tablemates when it arrived. My observations about the dinner were that the lobster seemed a little undercooked, and the key lime pie serving needed more lime in it.
We shopped in the shops, explored the ship some more for a couple hours, and then since we were still awake, and there was food available, went to O'Sheehan's for a late evening snack. The bottle of Malt Vinegar was already on the table to accompany the Fish & Chips I ordered, a very good sign. This time the offering came with a small serving of English Mushy Peas, which were very fresh and certainly different. My wife had chicken wings, which were milder than hotter and came with the requisite celery and blue cheese dressing, which seemed a little wimpy to me, but she enjoyed it. Unfortunately, this meal brought a significant mishap. My wife had been overdue to see the dentist for a cracked tooth for some time. Tonight the tooth cracked apart. She decided to chew on the remaining side of her mouth for the rest of the week.
We'd been warned there were few electrical outlets (three 110v and two "European" 220v) in each cabin, so we'd brought a couple extension cords. I sleep with a CPAP machine, and used one of the extension cords to route over the headboard of the bed from the "shaver" outlet in the medicine cabinet to the bedside. We used the other extension cord to plug in our iPhones and iPad along with the coffee machine on the counter opposite the foot of the bed. While it seemed like a good idea, I awoke constantly during the first night, and finally discovered the power from the shaver outlet was cutting in and out, making my CPAP machine shut down completely and then re-start from scratch. I "rewired" the cabin and slept well from that point on. Next trip we'll bring a power strip with a short cord and a long extension cord.
At night we found the blackout curtains covering the balcony sliding door worked well, even if there were a couple of the magnets missing. The light indicating there was power to the TV, and the lights from the bedside reading lamp switches provided plenty of "nightlights", so much so that we ended up taking sugar packets from the coffee service and laying them over the reading lamp switches to tone them down. The bed in our cabin seemed a little short, possibly because it had generously rounded corners at the foot of the bed to match the cabin design. I'm 5'9" and found that if I shoved my head almost up against the headboard only my toes hung over the end of the bed.
Before going to bed, we filled out the room service menu for Sunday's breakfast and left it on our cabin door. Though Sunday is a day at sea, we had to be up for the Cruise Critic Meet & Greet, and we wanted to sleep in. Room service seemed a good way to achieve the agenda. We entered a wake-up call into the phone system, which worked well. Room Service also called us a couple minutes later to tell us room service was on the way, and the steward knocked on the cabin door a couple minutes later.
Breakfast was exactly as ordered. Note: based on our experience, if you order four bread items, and orange marmalade, you will get four bread items and one small container of orange marmalade. Later in the week, we got smarter, and ordered four bread items and four orange marmalade(s) and got four of each. The assorted melon slices were cool, the yogurt was cool, the milk was cool, and the coffee was warm. I concluded either the kitchen was a long way away from our room or the room service steward had a long route to service before he got to us with our delivery. Nevertheless, by mixing the room service coffee with the coffee from our in-room coffee-maker, we enjoyed breakfast on the balcony with hot(ter) coffee.
Mini-suites come with a bathtub shower, and the requisite "salad-bowl-sized" sink. The shower is comfortably large, the water pressure's generous, and only on the last morning of the cruise, when everyone is due out of their cabin at the same time, which means almost everyone is showering at the same time, did we ever get warm instead of hot water in the shower. If you're a man and shave with a blade, you'll bump you head against the mirror above the sink while getting your face wet to apply gel/foam, and you'll cover the countertop and maybe even the floor with water (that's one reason you may want extra towels every day in your room if you're a guy). In addition to the soap and shampoo dispenser in the shower, there's also a soap dispenser with the sink.
The Cruise Critic Meet & Greet was held 11AM Sunday in the Bliss bar. Epic provided a nice coffee and sweet rolls service, with juice and tea (but no decaffeinated coffee, so we drank decaffeinated tea). All of the officers in charge of providing guest services attended, and Richard Janicki, the Hotel Director, acted as Master of Ceremonies, introduced everyone and provided light-hearted remarks. The introduced staff included Matt Sole, the Cruise Director, Denton Laing, the ship's Executive Chef, and Luiza Andrei, the Restaurant Manager, all of whom we saw during the rest of the week. I think that by the end of the week Richard recognized us, since we were greeting him whenever we saw him. The ship provided us with a card listing all the direct numbers we could call to reach any of the introduced officers, but to be honest, there were no events worthy of such an intervention.
We visited the ship's infirmary to see if there was a dentist on board, but the only option was to check in at the upcoming ports. From what we saw during our shore excursions on St. Marten and Nassau, St. Thomas was the only realistic possibility for finding top quality dental care on short notice. If you have dental issues pending, have them addressed before you go on a cruise.
We used the Garden Cafe Buffet for Sunday's lunch and enjoyed it. The food remained consistently good throughout the week, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, so I'll make only a few observations. On the positive side, and positives outweighed negatives by a big margin, the vegetables were fresh, nothing canned here. Most of the time they'd been steamed, and they didn't spend a lot of time on the serving line so they never had a chance to get mushy or waterlogged. They were uniformly bright and crisp-tender. Meat choices were of good quality, and chef-carved items were available every lunch and dinner. Omelet and Eggs Benedict stations operated every breakfast. There were a good number of vegetarian selections (usually Indian-oriented) always available. Skim Milk and decaffeinated coffee were always available along with all the expected beverages including a full bar if you wanted it. Portion sizes for prepared and plated items, like wraps, sandwiches, and desserts were appropriate, and if you wanted more, you could always take two (or more). Healthy offerings, like turkey sausages in the morning and roasted rather than fried potatoes in the evening, were always available right along with huge rashers of bacon and ham and loads of French fries. My wife adored the dessert crepes at dinner.
The only reservation I had about the Buffet was that most of the sauces seemed lacking. The Horseradish sauce that accompanied many of the roast beef entrees could have used more horseradish. The Hollandaise sauce for the asparagus and eggs Benedict could have used more lemon (it seemed like it came from a mix). The gravies for many meat dishes seemed like they came from a mix as well, and I stopped trying them after the second time. The "feeding frenzy" that seems to infect buffet patrons everywhere is well in evidence here. Around the buffet stations people seem a bit on edge and act worried that the food will run out. A deep calming breath and a slow pace helps a lot. Similarly, we never failed to find a table, though occasionally it took two circuits through the "garden" to locate one that was unoccupied.
We ate in three of the specialty restaurants, Le Bistro, Moderno, and Cirque Dreams and Dinner. Of the three, Le Bistro was absolutely the best. Abigail, our fantastic server at Le Bistro, was the most charming, personable, energetic, engaging, and professional server we encountered during the entire week. On the last evening, we decided that she deserved extra recognition for the effort she'd made earlier in the week, and returned to Le Bistro with a personal note and extra tip just for her alone. The escargot and lamb chops at Le Bistro were outstanding, though my wife's filet was slightly overcooked. The chocolate fondue for dessert was a nice finish. Moderno had an impressive salad bar, but it and the meat selections fell short of what we were used to at similar churrascarias like the Fogo de Chao chain. The $20 extra it cost to eat there was barely worth it.
You don't go to Cirque Dreams and Dinner for the food, you're there for the show. The theater is cramped, and few seats have a really good view. The food is comparable to hotel banquet food, so while it's good, it isn't great, and the portions are really small. We ate a snack at O'Sheehan's earlier in the evening and were glad we did since our Cirque didn't start until 9PM.
The Blue Man Group is rousing fun, a little loud, and messy if you're in the front rows. Sitting in the back of the theater will let you get a good view of all the antics that will happen throughout the theater.
Legends in Concert is certainly worth attending, and a fun nostalgia trip. Our trip had Jimmy Buffet, Donna Summers, and Michael Jackson with Michael Jackson clearly the best performer.
We finished the books we brought with us early, and visited the ship's library. I found, read, and returned the latest Tom Clancy novel and another book during the week. We found that the library was available but unattended the several times we visited.
We brought insulated water bottles with us and filled them with ice and water several times when we went out to sit around the pool. Not too surprisingly, if you had a water bottle sitting on the table beside you the pool waiters didn't interrupt your reading to ask if you wanted a drink from the bar!
There's a time change Sunday night / Monday morning where everything goes forward an hour. There's a matching opposite time change Wednesday night / Thursday morning as you return to go back an hour. The time on the ship's phone system (which is the only continuously visible clock in your cabin) adjusts automatically, but you'll have to manually reset your watches, cell phones, etc.
Yes, we occasionally noticed the smoke in the casino as we passed through, but the people smoking on their balcony below us generated more noticeable smoke than we ever smelled passing through the casino. If smoke is a real bother to you, there are almost always circuitous routes you can engineer to avoid the casino.
More aggravating than the smoke to us were the numerous incidents of loudly crying or rowdy children or loud and obnoxious adults who forgot how to use their "inside voice", especially the group that commandeered a precious table in the Buffet during dinner service so they could drink and play cards.
We opted for the Easy Walk Off program. It seemed to us that it was the choice of most of the passengers. Easy Walk Off started at 7:15, but we moved out of the cabin at the last minute (8:30) and took the elevator to deck 6. We had 2 medium-sized and 3 small bags hooked together, all rolling. It probably took 20 minutes of circuitous routing before we reached the gangplank, walked through the terminal, handed our Customs Declaration Form to the ICE officer and joined the short taxi line. The City of Miami mandatory fixed price $24 ride to the airport was short and we were dropped off with several spare hours to go before our 11:50 flight out. Be warned, NCL was offering "transit to the airport" at $20 apiece just outside the ship terminal, and told inquirers that taxi service to MIA was "metered" so they didn't know how much it cost by comparison.