This was our first cruise so we didn't really know what to expect. We started with some intrepidation about being confined in one place with so many people (the ship can take around 4000 passengers) but actually we needn’t have worried as the ship was so big, with so many options for dining and entertainment that we never felt crowded..
We were somewhat disadvantaged with joining the ship at Marseille as Barcelona is the main embarkation port. Whilst it meant there were no queues or delays to register or get onboard, we were not given the full range of information which those embarking at Barcelona were given and we subsequently were not fully keyed in with either the range of what was available on board, where things were, or the different packages available (such as drinks packages).
The dining options really suited us as the Freestyle approach of the Epic means that you can dine where and when you want to. There were formal dining opportunities (or at least, as formal as you wanted it to be " some people really got dressed up though most people were just smartly casual, which was the basic requirement. We only saw one person wearing a tie and there were no dinner jackets put people were generally quite smartly dressed). The restaurants had a menu which changed daily (always with choices) and which generally reflected the local port of call. There was also a regular unchanging menu. The food and service were excellent. Also there was a buffet restaurant on the pool deck which had a huge range of food catering for all tastes, a poolside buffet/grill and also an Irish bar, open for food at all hours. In addition there were speciality restaurants but we steered clear of these as they were all at extra cost.
The thing that really stunned us was the astronomical cost of wines, beers etc. There was a drinks package option at 49 dollars per day (! and if you take this then it has to be for the full week and for every adult in your party) or wines starting at around 25 dollars for the cheapest bottle. However this is not the actual purchase price as 18% service then 10% VAT are always added to the final bill. It was no wonder that most people were drinking iced water which was always available, as were basic squashes. Bottled water was however also extremely expensive.
The range of free entertainment options on board was amazing. There were top notch shows in a huge theater (the Blue Man show was incredible and apparently was previously running on the West end) as well as dance, musical and comedy shows in other areas. You could see something different every night of your cruise " but you do have to reserve to be sure of a seat. Lots of other leisure options were available, including a climbing and abseiling wall, 3 (yes 3!) water chutes, Jacuzzis, ping pong, 10 pin bowling (at extra charge), ball sports and the swimming pools. Only the latter were disappointing as there were only 2 and they were VERY small.
We were surprised at how many things were at extra (and really expensive charge " plus service charge etc!). These included not just the bowling but also the gym and internet (for which you had to pay an initial sign up charge of $3.95 then a $0.75 per minute charge. Photos on board were also astronomical, even for prints or a USB download from your own camera. The ship had large areas assigned to both these activities but it was not surprising that they were empty most of the time.
Shore excursions were also in our opinion very expensive, though we do not have other cruising experiences to compare them with. All we do know is that the same shore excursions can be done at around 30% of the ship price if you research, plan yourself and use local transport. Port shuttles were invariably much more expensive if bought on the ship than if bought directly at the port.(where in some instances, such as at Marseille, they are free). We spoke to one man who paid €12 on ship only to find that it would only have cost him 5€ if bought at the port. Interestingly he successfully challenged this afterwards and was given a refund.
Our accommodation on board was well set out, comfortable and well equipped with lots of storage space. We also had a drip coffee maker (which could also be used for making tea) and a continuous bucket of ice. Incidentally we used the latter to fill our water bottles, rather than paying totally over the top for bottled water to take out with us, which was available on leaving the ship at $5.63 a small bottle.
All of the staff members on board were superb, friendly, happy, helpful and courteous. A 12$ per person gratuities charge is added to your bill for each day on ship, though it is "discretionary” and can be removed if you are not happy with the service for any reason. We spoke to one individual who had had it taken off on a previous trip. Personlly we found all the services on board to be extremely well and efficiently organized.
At the end we can honestly say that we had a good cruise experience. It was just a shame that the company seemed to be trying to profiteer too much from the additional high cost items and services which it was providing on board.
There is a port bus which charges 3 euros for a return ticket and drops you right in the centre of Barcolona, by the Columbus statue and from where you can directly join las Rambas. We walked as far as Gaudi’s impressive and unforgettable Sagrad Familia then took the metro as a far as Vallcarce (the blue line then the red line). From here we were able to walk to the Parc de Guell with all the amazing Gaudi artefacts. It’s a very steep and long road to get there, interspersed with odd sections with escalators. Just over half way up, on the Carrer de Verdi road and on the right we found a little bar, El bar Lluni, where we had an excellent and totally inexpensive lunch, with Spanish omelette, sangria and beer. The parc itself is wonderful and it would be easy to spend a whole afternoon here, if you have the time. We took the metro back , to the Columbus statue square from where we were able to pick up the port shuttle again. It was a brilliant day out at very low cost.
We debated long and hard about whether to try to get to Florence on our own or to take an organized excursion. Previous cruise critic write ups which I had looked at seemed to indicate that it could be a bit awkward and time pressing to actually get to and from the station as it involved another bus journey after the drop off by the port shuttle (which would cost €12 per person anyway). In the end we chickened out and booked a “Florence on your own” excursion. We should have been brave because only after we had booked the excursion did we find out that the shuttle now has a drop off point at the station. We could have travelled ourselves without worries at a fraction of the cost! We have now learned that it is always worth clarifying the shuttle details in advance and not just assuming.
That said, we subsequently had an excellent stress free day in Florence. The guide on our coach gave us an informative overview and maps of Florence, with advice of things to see, of time needed, of things to avoid, etc etc. Our meeting point was by a leather factory where we were told there were toilet facilities (but there was only one toilet!). We went just a bit further and had a very reasonably priced cappuccino in the Caffe Mario on the corner of the Via dell Anguillara where we were also able to use the loo– we would certainly recommend it.
We think we had the best and biggest icecream ever (even though we picked the small ones!), from Gelatissimo, just before and to the right of the Ponte Vecchio
Marseille, the 2013 European city of culture. The area around the old port is well worth looking at. If you have time then you can take boat trips, such as for visits to the Calanques, from here which last 2 to 3 hours. There are also lots of shopping opportunities with major stores very close to the port. The cruise ships will offer you a paid for port shuttle but there is a free shuttle every 30 minutes from just to the left of where the ship docks. This will take you to la Joliette from where it is only about 15 mins to walk down to the old port, or 5 minutes to walk to the metro station.
As you arrive in the terminal building there is immediately an information point from where you can both pick up a plan of Naples and also get helpful advice for where you want to go to. We walked to the station from where we took the public train to Pompeii Scavi. It was the scruffiest train we have ever been in, but it took us to where we wanted to be, only took 30 mins and was at the small cost of only €2.40 each. There is a queue for tickets to the Pompei site. If you are at least 65, with your passport with you and if you are a member of the EU (as most UK and other European residents will be) then you can ask for a free entrance ticket, but we only saw this sign after we had already paid our €11 entrance fee. Pompeii is well worth a visit, but be sure to wear good shoes for walking as the ground is very uneven. Also be aware that there is only one refreshment point at the site. After Pompeii we took another train (need to buy another ticket, this time for €2.20) to Sorrento from where we were able to walk down to the port and the take the fast ferry back across the Bay of Naples for €12.30 each. It is a 45 min journey and you cannot afford to miss this boat (16:25) which may be busy in peak season. We advise you to buy your tickets before you explore the rest of Sorrento. There is a lift back up to Sorrento for €1 per person which will save you the long steep walk back to the top of the cliff. (accessed from the south beach side, to the left of the port. We had a fantastic, varied day, the travelling was very easy to arrange ourselves and it cost a fraction of the cost of the shore excursions. Thanks cruise critic for the advice we picked up on how to do this!
We decided to explore Cittavechia as we have previously visited Rome. The free port shuttle dropped us on the main road by the city walls. It’s a good idea to walk south down the road until you come to Macdonald’s as the small tourist info hut is opposite this. (it wasn’t signed so it had taken us quite a while to find it.). There are free historical walking tours in English organized by the city which depart from here. The tour was very easy walking and took about 90 minutes, including time spent in the museum. It included a visit to a lovely little bar/deli , the Fiaschetteria Toscana, where we were given a complementary glass of local wine as well as nibbles of local produce.