This was our first NCL cruise. We don't cruise every year, but was happy not to be on Carnival this year. Our group consisted of myself, my husband, our 18 yr. old son, and his 17 yr. old friend. We flew into West Palm and rented a car to drive down to Miami. I recommend the web site www.kayak.com for checking airfares, as they will search surrounding airports. Our one-day car rental was only around $50, using a Costco discount code. The big "C" also saved us some money on this cruise. The only problem we had was returning the car to Avis on 2nd St. prior to the cruise. It was pure chaos at that office and we left without officially checking the car in. I suggest dealing with Avis at the airport. The Avis ordeal cost us about 45 minutes, so we didn't arrive at the port until 11:45. Checking in took another 40 minutes before we finally got on the boat. I was surprised that I was never asked for the paperwork for the non-related minor who was traveling with us. Upon entering the ship,I immediately went to Guest Services to buy Posh passes, but was told that they weren't for sale due to sailing at capacity. This also meant it was impossible to get a room upgrade. We did have them punch our cards so we could use lanyards. We had carried on our luggage with us, so went to Headliners to store the bags. Headliners told us to proceed to our cabins with the luggage, even though the cabins might not be ready. Our cabins were 9149 (mid ship balcony) and 9151 (mid ship inside). 9149 is also great because there is no lifeboat below it. Before selecting a cabin, be sure and look at an exterior shot of the ship. Count cabins to see what yours looks like from the outside. We did overlook a balcony on Deck 8. I would never book Deck 8 on the Epic. While our cabin was smaller than anything we've had on Carnival, we felt they were well appointed. We made sure to get the "bed by the balcony", as so many have suggested here. We headed out on deck to the water slides. By this point, 12:30, most of the chairs were taken, but we did manage to find a couple. The pools were packed. I wouldn't get in an Epic pool if you paid me. There are way too many people in too little water. After giving up on spotting our roll call members, we headed to Taste for lunch. Lunch was excellent. In fact, every meal we had in the main dining rooms was pretty good. That day I had the Vietnamese spring roll and a cobb salad. We then headed for the spa for a tour. Don't waste your time. While the spa is lovely, this was nothing but a series of sales pitches. Yes, they did give away some prizes, but they weren't massages or any of the good stuff. When they started a dance contest to determine the winners, we turned around and headed out. I was impressed with our dinner reservation in the Manhattan Room. We were part of a group of 35 and they actually had 4 tables waiting for us at the scheduled time. I was happy that the band wasn't playing the first night, as I'd read how they made it impossible to talk. The steak and lobster were very good and my lobster tail was a fair size. After dinner, we headed to Headliners for the Howl at the Moon Dueling Pianos with our cruise critic roll call. This was really fun. I recommend it for all roll calls on the first night. We hadn't had our official meet and greet yet, but were able to meet those that showed up. The dueling piano players were not only good at playing and singing, but they were great comedians as well. Entertainment is NCL's strong suit.
Sunday was Easter and a day at sea. I was very sad to learn there was no church service offered on the ship. Other than the "washy-washy" lady hollering "Happy Easter" as you walked into the Garden Cafe and the bowls of pastel candies outside the main dining rooms, you would never know it was Easter. I headed out to the pool deck at 8am and guess what? All the chairs were taken, but not by people, but by towels, hats, and books. I found a place in the shade and froze for an hour. I was surprised by how windy and rough the seas were on this cruise. It was worse than our other cruises and I was happy to have not gotten an upgrade to a higher floor. After an hour, I went over to a chair that had been vacant the entire time and moved a towel. I was able to sit in the sun for about an hour when Grandma and two kids came over, looking confused. I asked, "Is this your chair?" "Yes, all 6 of these chairs are ours", they replied. I got up to go back to my chair in the shade and these people never even sat down. They left again. How rude was that?!! That was the last time I went to the pool deck, other than to exchange towels. Our meet and greet was scheduled for 11am in Bliss. We signed in with our names and cabin numbers. I don't know why we did this, as I was never contacted by anyone to see if everything was o.k. It was nice to meet more roll call members. We had a pretty friendly group. The officers that were there were all from housekeeping and talked about their duties. When I asked if the seas were rough, they told me "no". I'd hate to be on one they considered rough. Our friends in the Haven (top deck forward) complained about waking in the middle of the night due to rough seas. We tried to make Cirque and Blue Man reservations, but EVERY show was sold out.
I think we're really in the minority when we say that we didn't care for the food at the buffet. Breakfasts were really boring and the coffee was just plain BAD. We ended up making coffee in our cabin every morning. On the last day of the cruise, we tried some type of machine on the buffet that was next to the regular coffee dispensers. That coffee was better. I can't believe they can't make a good cup of coffee. I was excited to try the Eggs Benedict, but it was small, very dry, and the the sauce was not a Hollandaise sauce. Also, the blueberry muffins did not contain a single berry. It only had 1/2 teaspoon of jam on top the muffin. There was a good Bananas Foster sauce on the buffet that was good on waffles or French toast.
I wasn't sure what to think about "Freestyle Dining", but it worked out fine. We usually ate in the main dining room around 7pm and only had to wait for 20 minutes on one night. While I would enjoy having the same waitstaff each night, the waiters/waitresses we encountered were good. No small talk or joking around like on Carnival and occasionally we had one that was hard to understand. The "Dress up or Not" thing threw me for a loop. I was convinced that no one dressed up on NCL. I was wrong. I only brought casual clothes and felt under-dressed at dinner. This is after being over-dressed on Carnival. The passengers on NCL are much classier dressers. I should have brought some cocktail dresses. No one wore long dresses, but they did dress up most nights. Maybe 1/4 of the women were wearing capris and casual sundresses like me.
I woke up Monday to a very cloudy day. It looked like rain was expected. The cruise ship channel reported "some clouds", but I think it said that every day but one. I decided to head for the spa and buy a one-day spa pass. It was $39 and well worth it. I believe the price, with a service, was $19. So, if you bought a $200 massage, you could stay at the spa for an additional $19. I passed on the services. Spa access includes a steam sauna, a dry sauna with a fabulous glass wall view of the sea, a hydro therapy pool (approx. 15'x15'), a hot tub that wasn't really hot (but still felt good to me), heated indoor loungers, 7 padded outdoor aft loungers, and a locker room with great showers. Lemon-flavored water was also available. I headed right to the outdoor loungers for most of the day. There couldn't have been more than 12 people in the spa at one time, so it was really relaxing. I loved watching the wake off the back of the ship. Two minor complaints were the noise level of the engines when outside and the roar of the giant faucets in the hydro therapy pool. Occasionally I could smell cigarette smoke coming from a nearby balcony. I still loved hanging out there and stayed from 9am to 6pm. I met an interesting woman who told me that she had seen Ann Nicole Smith's daughter and her father on the cruise, as well as a football player from the Tennessee Titans. One thing she mentioned really bothered me. She said that they called 911 on the ship twice, only to have them hang up on her both times. She said they only did this after trying Guest Services several times on the first day and having no one answer. Her emergency was a handicapped relative that couldn't get into their cabin, as somehow the cabin was locked from the inside. The relative ended up passing out on the hallway floor after several hours. I believe her on this, as I also tried to call Guest Services on the first day and no one picked up.
Even though all the shows were booked up, we were able to see both Cirque and Blue Man by arriving a few minutes early and getting on a waiting list. Both shows were good. Blue Man Group was the exact same show we saw in Chicago three years ago, only this time my friend, Amy, was picked to go up and eat Twinkies with the guys. The Cirque show was excellent, but as reported several times on this board, the food was average to poor. Whatever you do, don't eat the slice of meat that comes with the salad. I took a bite and wanted to spit it out soooooo bad. We ate in the MDR prior to the show, so really didn't each much of this meal. It was worth $29 for the entertainment, though. Legends was just o.k. The Michael Jackson character made it worth seeing.
Unfortunately, the next night, while eating dinner at Le Bistro, the Cirque show began over our heads. Wow! The chandelier over our table was swinging back and forth. Make sure you are not booked to eat at Le Bistro during a Cirque show. The noise overhead was so loud and non-stop and in my opinion, ruined half of our meal. The food wasn't really that great either. I had escargot and the duck. It was good, but not great. I knew I could get good food in the main dining room for free without the noise.
We ate at O'Sheehan's twice. The first time we had poor service, waiting for over 20 minutes for our drinks and 30 minutes for food. The food, though, was excellent. We loved the chicken pot pies and the brownie sundaes. Our second trip was for the corned beef has for breakfast. The service was good, but the hash was horrible. The corned beef was dried out and rubbery. Yuck!
By this time we're realizing we're just going to stick to the dining room. Other fantastic items in the MDR were Chocolate Decadence, salad with pears and blue cheese, strawberry shortcake, salmon, chicken kebabs, and linguine with clams.
If you want to find open chairs, I recommend taking the forward elevator up as far as it goes. When you get off, you will see a flight of stairs. Take the stairs up and you will come to a great sundeck. In the very front of the ship, there is a row of padded chairs, daybeds, and clam shells (beds with attached umbrella). There is a shower to cool off, too.
St. Maarten, we got off the ship and walked about 1/2 mile towards town to find America's Cup 12 Metre Challenge. This is excursion is offered through the ship, but we booked on our for $79 per person. To do this, you will have to say you are staying at a hotel on the island. It might have been fun on a normal day, but we were experiencing 8 foot waves. It was just too choppy to have fun. When we returned to the boat, we heard lots of horror stories about rough boating or excursions being cancelled or changed due to the surf.
St Thomas was wonderful. Secret Harbor is a very calm beach. We took a taxi for $10 each way per person. The boat rental place on the far right side of the beach rented us chairs and umbrellas for another $10 each. The hotel restaurant had excellent food.
In Nassau, after a brief rain, we got off the ship and took the #10 bus to Ardastra Gardens. You can mingle with the flamingos and peacocks that roam the grounds. I loved all the parrots and feeding them was fun. The plants and trees were beautiful and they had a few animals, too. We ate lunch at the Fish Fry, which is an area of restaurants nearby and took the bus back downtown.
Disembarking was a breeze, as we carried our bags off with us. We left the cabins at 9:15 and were in South Beach by 10am, where we hung out until our flight. We asked a hotel bellman to store our bags and he agreed. To get to the Ft. Lauderdale Airport, we took the Airport Flyer Bus for $2.35 to the Miami Airport, where we transferred to the Tri-Rail to FLL for $5. Not as fast as a cab, but much cheaper. Our friends rented a car from that same Avis location that was total chaos for us. They said it was fine at 8am.
I am not thrilled with NCL's alcohol policy for teens. Unlike Carnival, and all the other cruise lines (to the best of my knowledge), they will allow 18 yr olds to order beer and wine, with a signed note from parents. It was somewhat awkward
for our group, as we had both 17 and 18 yr olds. The good news was that they are a fairly responsible group of teens, but I could see this becoming a problem with some 18-20 yr. olds.
All in all, it was a good cruise. The ship may have been a little too big for us and it may have been a little too crowded (4800 passengers and 1500 crew members). Another bank of elevators mid ship would have helped.
While I don't think we'll cruise Carnival again, due to all the recent problems, NCL didn't exactly "wow" us. I think we'll give Princess or Royal Caribbean a try next time and will try to stick to smaller ships.