Sorry - this is a bit of a long one...We cruised on the Epic to the Eastern Caribbean on January 12, 2013, out of Miami. We're a family of four with two daughters aged 9 and 11. We splurged on a two-bedroom family villa in the Haven complex.
Embarkation in Miami was quick and painless. Once through security, we were diverted into a "VIP" lounge to check in and have our ID photos taken, then led through the terminal to the ship, onto a reserved elevator, and up to the Epic Lounge on Deck 16. Our concierge gave us a tour of the Haven, and then we headed to our stateroom. The total time between getting out of the taxi and into our stateroom was less than an hour, including the tour and a cocktail in the lounge.
Our stateroom (16007) was fantastic -- everything we needed (and more) for the four of us. The girls had their own bedroom with a flat screen TV and DVD player, lots of drawers and closet space, reading lights, power outlets, and they could have had a phone if they wanted. They also had their own full bathroom including a large shower with rain head. The living room featured a dining table with four chairs, a sofa, a lounge chair, another TV and DVD player, a half-dozen power outlets (combined 110/220 v), and so on. In one corner was a "bar" setup with a very nice espresso machine, stocked minibar fridge, and assorted glassware, cutlery, linen napkins, etc... There was also a cordless phone that we were able to take around the ship with us. It worked everywhere and allowed us to stay in touch with the girls and vice versa. The balcony was a good size, covered, with two chairs and a small table. There would have been room for two chaise lounges, or another two chairs if we wanted.
The "master bedroom" had lots of space for us and our stuff -- the bed was a king and was probably one of the most comfortable we've ever had. There was a third TV that we never even turned on. There were reading lights on both sides of the bed, as well as clever backlit buttons that turned on baseboard lights and one light in the bathroom, so you could easily find your way in the dark. In fact, the lighting was very high-tech throughout the stateroom, with a number of different presets for day, night, TV watching, and so on.
By far, the highlight of our stateroom was the master bathroom. It could be separated from the master bedroom by a heavy privacy curtain. Inside were his-and-hers sinks with a lighted mirror. The commode was in its own frosted glass enclosure with motion-activated lighting. An oval soaker tub and a rockstar shower with rain head, body jets, and a handheld spray, shared the outside wall of floor-to-ceiling glass, overlooking the ocean. (Or the Port of Miami. Or other cruise ships. To avoid offending your sensibilities, or those of hapless onlookers, a roller shade was provided.) Bottles of body wash, shampoo, and conditioner were provided and replenished regularly, as was bar soap and bath salts. The only thing missing, in my opinion, was a fog-free shaving mirror in the shower.
The Haven complex was outstanding -- it probably spoiled us for future cruises. We aren't really "crowd" people -- Epic is a very large ship and at times, most of our 4000 fellow passengers seemed to be on the pool deck, or heading for the gangways, or going to or from the various restaurants and shows. At times, the two banks of elevators -- eight forward and eight aft -- were definitely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of passengers, and it seemed easier and faster to just take the stairs. On disembarkation in Nassau, there was a very awkward conga line of passengers eager to get off the ship, growing and winding its way through the art gallery as more and more people joined the crowd.
So it really was a luxury to be able to retreat to the quieter atmosphere of the Haven, which catered to about 60 staterooms. In and around the courtyard on Deck 16 was a heated swimming pool -- the same size as each of the two pools on Deck 15 -- and two hot tubs, also the same size as the five on the Pool Deck and the one in Spice H2O. There were several dozen cushioned loungers, and around the perimeter were assorted sofas, sunbeds, and cabana chairs. Poolside service was very good. The "hand shaken" daiquiri (as opposed to foot shaken I presume) was the best I've ever had. On that note, although drinks weren't cheap, the liquor was top shelf and there was never any doubt that it had been liberally applied. Back to my story... like the pool deck, the Haven courtyard was busy in the morning, but by late afternoon it was very quiet, and often nearly deserted after supper. Most nights, by 9 pm, we were the only four passengers using the pool (which closed at 10 pm) and hot tubs (which stayed open all night). Actually, I'm not sure where everyone went in the late afternoon. It seemed like about three quarters of the passengers just disappeared. Coincidentally, the Bermuda Triangle wasn't far off...
Also on Deck 16 were the Epic Lounge, Epic Club, and Courtyard Grill. The Epic Club was the restaurant for Haven guests, and offered an a la carte menu and three or four appetizer and entree features every day. The Club served breakfast beginning at 7:30 on sea days and 7:00 on port days, as well as lunch and dinner. Depending on the weather, breakfast and lunch was also available in the Grill, either from a special Grill menu, or from the Club menu. The selection in the Club was very good, and the staff was more than willing to accommodate special requests, and paid close attention to a food allergy issue. Actually, the only disappointing meal that I had on the whole cruise was in the Club, on the first night. Surf and turf was featured (throughout the ship I believe), and the filet had been butterflied and was, for me, overdone and dried out. However, every subsequent meal ranged from very good to excellent to outstanding. In fact, later in the cruise, another (non-butterflied and very substantial) filet was probably the best steak I've ever had, anywhere.
We were so happy with the Epic Club and Courtyard Grill, we actually dined in fewer of the other restaurants than we had originally planned. Dinner in Manhattan was very good, and we were impressed and amazed by the sheer size of the dining room. Nevertheless, service was quick and attentive. It only took a few minutes before being seated -- almost a disappointment that we didn't wait long enough to receive the glass of champagne that other reviewers have mentioned. We ate at O'Sheehan's three times -- fish and chips at lunch were good, and the breakfasts were excellent. It was much quieter than we expected and we had a choice of tables every time.
Another specialty restaurant we enjoyed was Wasabi. We ate there twice -- once with the girls and once as a couple. With the girls, we sat at the bar, and the bartender was very entertaining, creating beautiful paper roses for the girls out of cocktail napkins and straws, and inventing them some spring-loaded chopsticks from elastics and a paper wrapper. If this fellow had been on Gilligan's Island, they would have been back on the mainland within hours. The sushi, sashimi, and yakitori were excellent. Very fresh fish, nice presentation, large servings, and we thought it was priced very fairly.
The only buffet we visited was the Garden Cafe, for lunch on the day we went to Nassau. We needed something quick and the Epic Club wasn't open yet for lunch. We aren't normally buffet fans, but were very impressed with the selection and quality of the food. Everything from burgers and fries to Asian stirfry. It was busy, but there were plenty of staff and we were regularly asked if we needed anything. Really, the Garden Cafe was much better than we expected, and we would have probably eaten there more often if we had found it sooner.
The Freestyle Dining option was excellent, and I would be very hesitant to take a cruise where I had to select a dining room seating ahead of time. A friend recently cruised with Disney, and booked too late to get the early seating. His children, along with many others, slept on chairs in the dining room as families settled into dinner at 8:30 pm. That just wouldn't work for us. The freedom to eat in any restaurant, at any time, was fantastic. Just like the real world. I can't imagine that other cruise lines wouldn't be seriously considering implementing the same type of system.
A word about the staff... reading Cruise Critic reviews, there were definitely a few that led us to expect varying degrees of indifference or even rudeness. I'm glad to report that without exception, every single staff member we encountered was friendly, professional, and seemed genuinely concerned to see that we were having a good time. In my younger years, I worked in luxury hotels and resorts, and I feel that I know good customer service when I see it. In my opinion, Norwegian should be proud of its Epic crew. The staff in the Haven were exceptional, and in particular our stateroom steward, butler, and matre d' all deserve special mention.
Back to some of the other reviews... to me, a one-star cruise review would be justified if you disembarked on a lifeboat in your pyjamas, and had a scuba diver from the Italian Navy deliver your luggage. Not because you objected to tipping a porter in Miami (where minimum wage is $7.79 per hour), disliked the food, disliked the entertainment, thought the sundeck was too sunny and too expensive (there's a large sundeck on 18 that's free for all), and ended up taking back your $84 in gratuities from 1500 crewmembers who work seven days-a-week for nine months at a time. You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
With sites like Cruise Critic, there really shouldn't be too many surprises on a ship that's been reviewed by hundreds of others. Before you book, you can find out that you'll be sharing the ship and all its facilities with 4000 strangers. You can look up the menus and prices for every restaurant on the ship. You can read hundreds of reviews from happy vacationers and joyless black-cloud complainers. In the stateroom beside us -- the Deluxe Owners Suite -- the most expensive stateroom on the ship at about $4000 per person -- the first thing the guy says on the tour is, "... Is there a lap pool on the ship? This pool looks too small to do laps..." Seriously -- eight grand before gratuities, taxes, flights, or a single margarita, and this guy doesn't know if the ship has a lap pool. I knew where the light switch was for the bathroom mirror back in September.
We picked the Epic pretty carefully based on what we like and don't like. Obviously, we wanted a ship with plenty for kids to do, and there are several cruise lines that cater to families and go out of their way to entertain kids. Epic certainly had this covered, even though on this sold-out cruise there were only about 200 kids out of 4000 passengers. The three waterslides were a huge hit, with the girls and at least one parent too. The two smaller slides were quieter than the Epic Plunge, which required riders to use an inner tube. There were about a dozen adult and a dozen kids' tubes, and riders lined up to get them at the bottom, and lined up again at the top to ride the slide. One reviewer complained that adults had to wait in line behind kids, when there were adult tubes available but no kids' tubes. To me, this was simply NCL ensuring that the slide was first come, first served -- one or two adults couldn't keep jumping the line just because most of the other riders were kids, or vice versa. I didn't see a problem with the system, and didn't mind waiting my turn. That slide is a whole bunch of fun, for kids of any age.
There were plenty of other activities, and we only really scratched the surface. Blue Man Group was the only show that we saw, and it was great fun. There was a reserved section for Haven guests, but it wasn't really necessary as there were plenty of open seats throughout the Epic Theatre. A word to the wise -- don't come in late. Trust me.
Shore excursions were a bit of a mixed bag, but we saw three new islands and overall were quite happy. My advice would be to have a Plan B if you've booked a shore excursion that's weather-dependent. Our See and Sea Island Tour of St. Maarten/St. Martin was cancelled due to poor underwater visibility -- there had been high winds in the days prior, and everything was stirred up. After breakfast we returned to our stateroom to find a cancellation notice under the door. Although we thought we might be able to get onto another, similar excursion, it was already sold out. So there we stood on the pier, with no real plans. We figured things out and ended up mini-busing it to Marigot, where we got a taste of France including authentic dog-fouled sidewalks. But seriously, it was a very nice town and we spoke some French and spent some euros. From Marigot we picked up a private taxi and travelled to Maho Beach, site of the business end of the runway at Princess Juliana airport. I wasn't particularly enthused about a scratched cornea, so I watched a big jet take off without the benefit of an exfoliating sand scrub at 400 knots. On the flip side, standing under an American Airlines jet on final approach, close enough to check the tire pressure, was quite a thrill and shortened my bucket list by one. Lunch at the Sunset Grill was surprisingly good although ice cream was extremely expensive, likely due to the high cost of refrigeration that close to the equator.
Looking back, the private taxi was a great choice -- we got a non-stop personalized tour from a local at the same price as a silent ride in a packed minibus. Our driver came back to Maho and took us back into Philipsburg where we strolled through the shops before returning to the Epic.
The following day in St. Thomas we went on the Champagne Cat to St. John for snorkeling. We ran into a rain shower on the way, but it cleared and we were treated to a gorgeous coral reef, complete with rays, turtles, barracudas, sea urchins, and all kinds of fish. The beach is beautiful and protected as part of the US National Park system.
Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in Nassau was fascinating. The day was a bit overcast, with the ocean beach closed due to high waves. We had booked the Discover Atlantis Beach Break, and abandoned the lagoon beach to wander the amazing aquariums instead. We ended up on an excellent tour that took us through the highlights of the Dig for over an hour -- just the four of us with our guide. Overall, a very big, very impressive resort.
Disembarkation the next morning was very easy. We waited and enjoyed one final breakfast on the ship before heading out, taking our own luggage instead of putting it out the night before. We met our concierge and were escorted down the freight elevator straight down to the gangway. Very easy. From there we headed into the terminal and within ten minutes we were in a taxi, heading back to our hotel in South Beach. Overall, a very nice vacation. We would sail on the Epic again, but it would have to be in the Haven.