My wife and I did out first ever cruise just over a year ago on the NCL Sun and had a great time. We wanted to try out the bigger ship and glad we did.
We flew to Miami the day before and stayed at the Hampton Inn Blue Lagoon by the airport, and booked the port transfer as part of the accommodation package. This worked well, and quite a few of the hotel guests did the same thing. The hotel was your average Hampton Inn which is what we wanted.
Embarkation went very smoothly. There are 2 terminals, one for the forward cabins and one for the aft cabins. When you consider the number of people boarding, it is a big logistical exercise and it was handled well. We arrived a little early around 10:45 and were on board before noon. We decided to take our own wine on board, paying the $15.00 per bottle corkage and this worked well for us as we got to choose the wine we wanted and it worked out a little cheaper than buying onboard with the 15% gratuity. We also carried on a 6 pack of soda.
We had lunch at the H2O Spice at the rear of the ship, and the food was very good. Basic salad and grill but also some very good Indian food, we actually had lunch there a number of days for the Indian food.
Our room was ready by 1:00 pm and we were unpacked soon after. We had done a bit of research on the cabin and it was exactly as advertised. Yes they are not huge, but it's not really different than you would expect for a cruise ship cabin. There is plenty of storage space, we didn't use it all. I was OK with the bathroom setup, the shower was huge with great water pressure, and although the sink could have been a tad bigger the set up worked just fine. The bed was comfortable (on the firm side but so is ours at home), on the front side edge my toes did hang out just a touch but no worries there. Linens were of good quality and we slept well. A good size flat screen tv, and what was really neat was that you could book restuarants, tours and shows from your cabin without having to go line up.
Our cabin steward Guillermo (or "G" as he was known by) was excellent. Very attentive and thorough and a cheerful smile every day. I think this makes a big impact on the quality of the cruise and it is something we have found to be very good on NCL both times. The towel animals each night were a nice touch. We really enjoyed the balcony which was just the right size.
The ship is very large but well laid out, and some time spent beforehand studying the deck plans proved to be useful. Also, interactive deck plans were by the elevators so you could figure out where to go pretty easily. We never felt "lost" or uncertain where we were. Most of the amenities are on decks 5 through 7, with the pool and activities on 15 and 16. The pool areas were very busy on sea days, but we found plenty of space up on deck 18 either in the posh beach club area (very comfortable lounges and beds) and on the side deck. No pool up there but 3 or so showers that you could use to cool down if it got too hot. I was a little surprised on how small the pools were given the size of the ship, but then again they didn't seem over crowded that i could see.
Doing the Eastern Caribbean cruise the seas were a little rougher given that you are sailing in the Atlantic Ocean for much of the cruise, but the EPIC handled the conditions with ease.
We were more than happy with the dining on board overall. The Garden Cafe was large with numerous stations and plenty of variety. We had breakfast there most days and lunch too, often taking our plates to the Great Outdoors area near the pool deck. We tried O'Sheehans once on a sea day and it was OK, service a touch slow and the food pretty basic pub type fare. Chicken tenders and burgers the best picks here. Ate at both Taste and Manhattan Room which was huge. Food and service was good in both venues.
We ate at the Italian and French specialty restaurants and really enjoyed both. As the Italian was a little cheaper it was probably the better value for money.
We pre booked the Blue Man Group and the Cirque Dreams shows pre cruise and both were excellent, I would highly recommend them. Anyone that walks out early is pretty difficult to please I think. The Fat Cats Jazz and Blues club was very good. We were a little lax in getting around to booking other shows so didn't see anything else, but heard that the Second City show was very good.
Ports of Call
St Maarten was very interesting. We did a tour that covered both sides of the island with a cruise on the interior lagoon. It was a good overview.
St. Thomas was beautiful. Again we did a tour that explored the island a little and had a couple of hours at Magens Bay which was breathtaking. Also, as this is a US territory, if you have AT&T or Verizon you have cell coverage just like in the states.
We had our only poor weather on the cruise this day, and decided just to take it easy on the ship and then wander around the port and do a little shopping.
Here is another logistical challenge with the sheer size of the EPIC, but in all it went OK. Normally we would have done a self walk off, but as we had an afternoon flight and by this time no desire to get off the ship until we had to, decided to put our bags out the night before and go off with our deck. From the time we met at our staging area until we got off was about 20 minutes or so.
Overall, we really enjoyed the EPIC and were glad we tried it out. While there are a lot of people on the ship it really didn't feel overcrowded and was very nicely laid out and the decor was nicely done. For the most part the elevators weren't an issue, and we needed to use the stairs a little anyway. All of the staff were friendly and helpful throughout the ship. At the end of the cruise i don't think we had an absolute preference for the EPIC over the smaller ships, but wouldn't hesitate to go on the ship again. What we need to figure out now, is where do we cruise next? We have really enjoyed both our cruises on NCL and have found that the Freestyle concept works for us. My advice to all folks going on a cruise is do your homework beforehand and be reasonable in your expectations.