CHECKIN AND BOARDING:
Our group of 8 including my wife, son and daughter-in-law, our 2 granddaughters and our machatunim (a Yiddish word for my son's in-laws) arrived at the port at around 12:30pm. Unfortunately, since we were staying on different decks, we were to check in at different terminals; my wife and I were to depart from Terminal B, the rest went to Terminal C. Getting through security and checking in was relatively easy with short lines and we were on board within about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, because we were in separate terminals we did not get a sailaway picture with the whole group. If the picture is important for your group, I would arrange to leave from the same terminal after you all printed your boarding passes which show where to go. We didn't try, but security might accommodate you if asked. We were able to get in our cabin immediately after boarding but our luggage took about 2 hours to arrive, so we went to the Garden Cafe Buffet on deck 15 to eat and kill time where we met up with our family.
Based on reviews we read about NCL we were expecting small cabins. We booked Cabin 13046, a Family Mini-Suite with balcony (Category M-2) so the grandkids could stay over a few nights. The cabin was set up with a king bed, with a couch which converted to a bed along with a pull-down bunk bed. The room was relatively small (more like a regular cabin on other lines than a mini-suite) but did have its plusses. As noted by many others the toilet is on one side of the entrance and the shower on the other side. A sink is outside the toilet "booth". While this sounded awkward...even looked awkward... it worked! It was easy to get ready to leave with my wife (and sometimes with the kids) since 3 different things could be done at the same time. The shower and toilet booths had opaque glass so there was some privacy and there was a curtain separating the entire bathroom area from the sleeping area if one is really up-tight about privacy. The ship does not provide soap and shampoo in little bottles, rather they have large refillable bath gel and shampoo dispensers in the shower and a soap dispenser next to the sink. I personally don't like bath gel and asked for a bar of soap. Our excellent cabin attendant, Teresita, brought a bar of Elemis soap when we asked for it the 2nd day which was good for the face and hands but not the shower. We ended up buying soap in St. Maarten. Bottom line, bring shampoo and soap bars if you don't like the big dispensers with shower gel and mediocre shampoo. There was more than enough cabinet and closet space with two closets and many upper and lower cabinets. One could easily go on a two week cruise and have plenty of space for belongings. Lighting was good though it took us half a cruise to find a light switch for a big dome light...it was next to the bed. Incidentally, when we first went into the cabin we noticed that one of the bed reading lights was broken. We told our cabin attendant, and within 15 minutes a maintenance crew came to replace the whole reading light assembly. They completed the job quickly and brought protection sheeting to make sure their work was clean. While they were there I noticed that the Â½ of the only outlet near the desk was not working. They took care of that as well, so kudos to them. By the way since there was only one outlet, make sure you bring a small power strip so you can charge everything. The balcony was average in size with two chairs and two small tables.
The ship is not beautiful but it is very utilitarian. There is no grand stairway or promenade. The center area on deck 5 has a large video screen which is regularly used for different events. In that same area is the hotel customer service desk, excursion desk, future cruise desk, Internet cafe and photo gallery. (The ship photographers use facial recognition to identify guests...so no more looking for your picture since they are placed in a binder for your cabin). Deck 15 is home to the pool, water slides, climbing wall and the Spice H2O pool. With deck chairs on decks 15 and 16, even with over 4,000 guests, there were usually chairs available. I was surprised that there were only a few times when chairs were totally unavailable. The kids loved the slides and the wall. I can't count the number of times the girls went down the slide. The Spice H2O pool is an adult area that is quieter than the pool area but I found the smoke from the stacks annoying when the wind blew that way. This venue is used for parties at night when the small pool is covered and turned into a dance floor with a big video screen. Speaking of smoke, the EPIC is not smoke free and the casino and surrounding area were too smoky for me to enjoy going there. My son didn't mind since he won money in a poker tournament. While the ventilation is ok, it is not as powerful as what they have in the newer hotels in Vegas. In addition smoking is allowed on balconies, so that can be annoying as well.
GYM and MANDARA SPA:
The gym was huge with numerous treadmills, elliptical and bikes along with LifeFitness machines and free weights. I never found the gym too crowded, though I made a point to go off hours. Given the size of the EPIC , the spa was of equally large proportions. The treatment rooms were typical but the spa also had a large hydrotherapy pool, heated beds, Jacuzzi , saunas and steam rooms. I had two massages during the course of the cruise. The first one was good but not memorable; the second from a therapist named "Sunshine" was quite good. At my request she combined a deep tissue massage with the hot stones. Unfortunately to gain access to any area of the spa beyond the treatment room, you needed to pay extra. I am accustomed to using a sauna and steam room prior to getting a massage on land and at sea... but on this ship it costs $20 extra to access to the full spa. My recollection of the layout of the spa is that the locker room, which had a sauna and steam room, could have been accessed separately from the pool, beds, etc. I was really upset by their policy and think given the price of their massages, the locker room, sauna and steam at a minimum should have been included. So, for me, the massage experience was incomplete and I would advise those that want a relaxing day to plan accordingly. The ship charged $146 for unlimited use of the facilities during the cruise and $39 for the day without other services.
The ambiance of the two main dining rooms was just ok. The Manhattan Room on Deck 6 was designed to look and feel like a New York supper club with a dance floor and occasional big bands playing. The menu was the same at the Taste Contemporary restaurant on the deck below but the restaurant reminded me of a mediocre coffee shop. The food at both venues, however, was not bad with some items very good. Service was inconsistent, though Jamie in the Manhattan Room was excellent.. but hurry up asking for her as she will be going on the Breakaway when it arrives in New York in April. We had breakfast one day in O'Sheehans which was ok and not crowded ....i would have liked to try having lunch there but never did. The Garden Cafe was spread out with many duplicate stations. Once we understood the layout, we were able to find a table and get our food. The food was standard buffet fare but I found that there weren't a lot of people helping guests carrying their food. I also had trouble finding Chamomile tea which they stocked but I often had to ask to get. This seems to be a theme on this ship. If you want something, ask, and you will usually get it. But if you don't ask you won't get it. We only went to two specialty restaurants: Teppanyaki and La Cucina. The granddaughters liked Teppanyaki since it was similar to a Benihanna restaurant. The food was good and there was plenty. La Cucina was also good and we went early with the kids. The food was very good and the service was good until it got crowded. Then our waiter was working very hard but was obviously overworked. They need to have more help in that restaurant as he was obviously assigned too many tables. Our son and daughter-in-law went to the Cagney's steakhouse and Le Bistro. They felt the steakhouse was very good but not extraordinary; they did enjoy Le Bistro.
Entertainment on the ship was very good. The Blue Man Group show was fun to watch; comedian magician Jeff Hobson was good in his folksy way (he sort of reminded me of Bob Barker), Howl at the Moon was engaging with the audience, and Second City was funny but not hilarious. The Cirque Dreams dinner show was worthwhile to see, but make sure you sit towards the center if you want to be in the middle of the action. We sat in the banquettes in the rear which were comfortable but the views were slightly obstructed. Finally, my wife and I really enjoyed the Slam Allen Blues Band in the Fat Cats Blues Bar. Not only was he an excellent blues musician, but he had a wonderful personality.
In St. Maarten we did not take an organized excursion; rather we rented a cab who took us around the island including Orient Beach, Marigot and passing by the Maho Beach at the airport. We probably could have saved some money by taking a cab one way to Marigot and finding a return taxi but we liked the security of having our own driver. Since we have been in St. Thomas a number of times, we decided to go to St. John. We took the ship's eco tour which included an easy hike (more like a walk) through a portion of the Virgin Island National Park to Caneel Bay with a short stop at Honeymoon Beach. We did consider going to St. John on our own but we decided to go with the ship's excursion because it would take time and a cab ride to get to the public ferry (and back) and on the tour we went by private boat directly to the island from the Havensight dock. Finally, in Nassau we went to the Dolphin Cay Interaction at Atlantis. We had hoped to play with the dolphins and then go through the Atlantis aquarium. Unfortunately we didn't feel we had enough time to do both. The meeting time for the tour was 1:25pm after docking at noon... and it took about an hour to get to the venue. Another hour with the dolphins and then buying photos (for an outrageous $149 for a package since individual photos were not for sale) and it was 3:30, with the last bus back leaving at 5pm. Since we didn't want to wait until the last minute to return, we just looked at the sea life from the lobby of the hotel and took a shuttle bus back to the ship. If we were to go back to Atlantis from a ship with the kids again, I think we would do the half day Aquaventure which was a longer excursion, leaving at 12:10 or shortly after docking. Atlantis is spectacular resort (we have stayed there) and it is a worthwhile experience.
The EPIC has a rather unstructured disembarkation program. If you don't need to check bags, you can walk off the ship before those with tagged luggage. That sounded good for so many people that there was a lot of congestion on deck 5 for those attempting to get off. We followed them off since we chose to get off with "independent guests with early arrangements" as we had arranged a van for a 9am pickup. We did not have to leave with the" independent guests" on the various decks which departed later. Our bags were easily found and we were through customs.
ODDS & ENDS AND CONCLUSION:
The internet service was just fair, faster than on other cruise ships, slower than others, but service in the cabin was sketchy. I took my laptop to common areas to get better service. They also had an iphone app available called Iconcierge which is supposed to allow us to use our iphone for phone and text on a separate on-board wi-fi network for a nominal fee. We tried to use it but it was virtually useless as we could not complete one phone call from our cabin. We complained and our money was refunded...no questions asked. I think that the communication portion of iconcierge is really in beta, the idea is great and I'm sure it will eventually work.
Cabin amenities (soaps, etc) are poor.
We bought some liquor on board but I wouldn't buy from them again. First of all, the liquor was only available at 7pm the night before docking back in Miami and there was a long line. Why didn't they just bring the order to our cabins? Or expand the pickup hours to a day before? Second, they didn't provide carry boxes so the bottles were thrown in to a plastic bag. Not good.
The ship does not have a promenade deck for jogs around the ship...my son complained about that.
The NCL Epic was a practically designed ship with just ok service. I think the crew is generally overworked (as compared to other ships) since they do not have as much staff to service the amount of guests on board. Nevertheless, I sensed most of the crew was happy to work for NCL and many have been with them for a long time... and we found some who really enjoyed meeting new people and providing top notch service. Freestyle cruising was just fine, we liked not having to get too dressed up and we really didn't have a problem dining at our preferred times, even with our group of 8. So would we sail again on NCL? It depends, mostly depending on with whom we were travelling. It would not be our first choice but if friends wanted to travel with us on NCL, we would probably go and have a good time. We might even splurge on the Haven to see if it is worthwhile.