This was my 12th cruise & most have been on NCL, because we loved them first for the freestyle dining concept. This was our 2nd time on the Epic, the first being of the Caribbean out of Miami 3 years ago.
This was our 1st time cruising transatlantic, and we were at first worried that we would be bored with so many at sea days & only 2 stops, and we also worried that the seas might be rough. Well, our worries were completely unjustified, and NCL provided us with 1 of the best vacations ever! We were not ready to disembark after "only" 13 nights of complete relaxation and wonderful food, service & entertainment.
We spent 5 nights in Barcelona ahead of time and stayed at the Hostel BCN Port, just a few minutes from the port. The hotel is well managed, and the reasonable rate ($59-$79 euros/night) included a free continental breakfast that knocked our socks off! We will surely return to Barcelona & will definitely stay at the BCN Port again. Our room rate also included a free cab ride to the port! If I have so say anything negative about the hotel, it would be that the beds were very hard. We had to put extra blankets under the sheet to try to make them softer.
Embarkation could not have been easier. Very organized. We showed up early (10:15am) and boarding began at 11:00am. We got on quickly & went straight to Taste for an outstanding lunch. If you've cruised with NCL before, go to the line for Latitudes members, but both lines were moving quickly at the time we were there.
Our cabins were ready early when we finished lunch. But just in case, I suggest carrying dinner clothes, a bathing suit, and your toiletries in your carry-on bag, since I've seen people not receive their luggage until after dinner on other ships. We don't like to take that chance. Our bags showed up within a couple of hours, so that was not a problem here.
Tip for not getting sick on a ship: bring Lysol & disinfecting wipes & completely wipe down your cabin before unpacking. Wipe everything! The 1 time we didn't do that, 4 out of 6 of us caught a stomach bug & couldn't enjoy the cruise. If you go to medical, they will quarantine you for 3 days. We always sanitize now & wash our hands non-stop & no one gets sick. People..use the hand sanitizer before you eat! It's there for a reason! Use it all the time onboard, for your sake & ours!
My parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, so they had a balcony on deck 9, starboard side. Their only complaints were the curved bed, which kept my Dad's feet hanging off & that they were on the starboard side, so the wrong side for seeing the ports coming & going. That's not always the case, I believe, but it was on this cruise. Other than that, the cabin was great, very roomy, with plenty of closet, drawer, cabinet & shelf space to store everything away, and the luggage fit under the bed.
We were in an interior cabin on deck 9, and though we definitely had "balcony envy", we absolutely Loved our cabin! The beds were so comfortable, we couldn't wait to go to sleep each night. And it was crazy how much storage space we had, between the closet with hanging and shelf space, as well as baskets on the door, plus all the shelves, cabinets & drawers around the cabin. Our cabin had 1 more electrical outlet than my parents' did. And we were able to use them all, because we had a European AC/DC converter, which allowed us to use the plug behind 1 of the beds. Since this was my 6th NCL cruise, I achieved "silver" status, and I was very surprised to find a bottle of wine waiting for me in the cabin! And that night, there were chocolate covered strawberries waiting when we returned from dinner! There's always a returning cruiser cocktail party, but I've never attended 1 of those. Our stewards were so kind and helpful, as were all the staff onboard. NCL charged $12 per person per day for gratuity, and it was worth every penny for the service we received.
The ship seemed very large at first, and it always seemed that we were on the "wrong" side of the ship, no matter where we wanted to go, but we quickly learned our way around. It seems you have to go through the casino to get wherever you want to go, but at least that helped us figure out which way we were headed. The size of the ship and the stabilizers really helped on the 2 days we had semi-rough seas. We really didn't feel much at all, and the rocking put us to sleep at night. The rest of the time we were pleasantly surprised at how calm the Atlantic was. The ship never seemed all that crowded, even though there are tons of people onboard, because it is so large, and there were many things to do that kept people spread out most times. The only times it got crazy in our experience were the art auctions. Tons of people would show up for a free glass of champagne, and it was held in a restaurant area that could not accomodate everyone. Once they got the champagne handed out, most people would disappear & it wasn't that bad.
We lucked out with the weather, and we spent most of our time at Spice H2O, the adult pool area, which is quiet and very relaxing. The only complaints I would have about it would be that people show up early in the morning & put towels down to reserve the lounge chairs ALL DAY, whether they ever show up or not. Sometimes we wouldn't have a lounger until later in the day when some people cleared out. During those times, there were always tables and chairs though, or I just stayed in the jacuzzis. Second bummer, wait staff didn't come around often enough to the jacuzzis. They concentrated on chairs & loungers, and we would have to flag them down. Other than that, Spice H2O was heavenly, and I came home with a wonderful tan. The main pool area has the water slides, which are Super fun & a great way to get some exercise, climbing all those stairs. The slides are a blast! There seemed to always be something going on in that area...live music, dance lessons, etc. Other than that, the only other activities we did during the day were Bingo (expensive), the art auctions & a few seminars on hypnosis & history. There were trivia games & other things going on all day, so I think it's impossible to be bored. We did not visit the Spa, because they're always over-priced in my opinion, and I was disappointed in the gym, because I'd forgotten there's a fee for all of the exercise classes. This ship doesn't have as much deck space for walking as other ships, but we made it work, and climbing stairs instead of using the elevator is a great way to work off the calories.
As far as evening entertainment, the Epic is not our favorite ship. We missed not having a nightly show. I understand they are trying to provide Broadway or Vegas style entertainment, but you have to reserve most shows, and there's not something to see every night. So that caused us to go to bed earlier than intended most nights, because we are not ones to hit the disco. Howl at the Moon with the dueling pianos was fun, and the blues/jazz club seemed cool, but we never made it. Be smart & book your shows ahead of time online. That way you for sure get as much as you want, at the times you want. Otherwise you'll end up in a long line the 1st day or daily at the Box Office. We knew from last time that we were not interested in Blue Man group. We saw them last time, and it was too loud and too long. They drag the same joke on & on & on, very repetitive. We loved that we had both Legends in Concert shows, since it was a 2 week cruise. They were both very good. The only negative I would mention is that Katy Perry is Not a Legend. Many cruisers commented neither is Adele, but I love her & the lady that does her Rocked! Terrance B the hypnotist is amazing! We went to his show at night & 2 of his seminars. Loved him. We could have done without the comedy magician. He wasn't anything to write home about. But Graffiti Classics was a very pleasant surprise and really should be done in a larger theater. They were amazing! Second City was fun, and we saw them twice. They do 3 different shows and were really funny. We paid for the murder mystery lunch, because we knew they would do it well, and they did. We enjoyed the improv comedy & the food the murder mystery lunch. We did not pay for Cirque Dreams dinner, because it didn't seem worth it to us.
Speaking of food....loved it! We spent most evenings at Taste, the main dining restaurant. Manhattan is almost exactly the same, menu-wise, but the ceilings are lower there & with the live music, it was too loud for us. The dinners were excellent, as was the service. We only had to wait a couple of times to be seated, and even then they would give us a voucher for a free glass of champagne at the bar next door while we waited! We ate breakfast at Taste every morning too, which kept us usually too full for lunch. On the days we were hungry for lunch, the Irish Pub was incredible! Chicken Pot Pie, Fish & Chips, Shepherds Pie...yum! I normally avoid buffets like the plague, but this 1 was actually pretty good. It was great for just grabbing a quick lunch while hanging out by the pool. There seemed to be a variety of foods, and the things I tried were fresh & tasty enough. The only other meal we paid for was Moderno, the Charascaria, all you can eat Brazilian steakhouse. It was delicious & a carnivore's dream come true. The only complaint I had was that we got there too early I believe, since my parents like to eat early. The skewers of meats didn't come often enough, and they really seemed to speed up right as we were finishing. So I would suggest a 7:00pm reservation or later. Every night we placed the door card out for morning room service. It was wonderful to have our coffee & any other goodies we wanted ready right away in the morning. Room service is always free, except in the middle of the night when there's a small fee - just be kind & give them a small tip. And room service Pizza is available 24 hrs for $5 each. We didn't try it, but that's a good deal.
This cruise had 2 stops: Madeira (an island that belongs to Portugal) & St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands). We've learned the hard way not to book excursions through ships. Only do that if you've completely paranoid about the ship leaving without you. Otherwise, prepare to be overcharged & disappointed. We have learned to walk off the ship & find the same types of excursions sold right there at the port. Just make sure to stay on "ship time" (Not local time) & get back in plenty of time.
In Madeira we took the provided shuttle into the lovely town of Funchal, and from there you can eat/walk/shop and use the free WiFi. We grabbed a cab, and for $45 euros per person (there were only 2 of us) we had a private tour guide for several hours, who took us quickly to the highlights & all around the island, explaining the history and all kinds of info. He let us know that the excursion would have taken us to the crowded gondola ride, that's more expensive, and the tabogan ride downhill that would have required another cab ride to get back up to the return gondola. Instead, he took us to a smaller gondola ride that was only $5 euros each & went straight down the cliff to the ocean for amazing views, and we had the entire area all to ourselves! Then we rode the tabogan down the hill & he met us at the stopping point. The tabogan was a blast! It was exciting & we giggled like kids the whole way & saw some amazing views on the way down. Our driver took us to a lovely fishing village where Winston Churchill used to visit & paint, and we tried the local drink (poncha de Madeira), which they call "fishermans' viagra". It was delicious! Passion fruit, honey & rum - what's not to like?! We were also provided with some fresh, organic banana & passion fruit drizzled with the local honey, and it was to die for! For $90 euros + tip I believe we had the same private experience the ship would have charged us $995 dollars for!
St. Thomas is 1 of our favorite ports, and we always go to Magens Bay, because it's absolutely gorgeous, relaxing & inexpensive. Get there early to claim a picnic table or sandy area under 1 of the shade trees. The water is so crystal clear & calm, you'll never want to leave. It's just 4 dollars for the bus ride each way & another couple of bucks per person to get into the beach area. It's a Must-See beach - amazing!
Here are some tips for the cruise: you'll learn to find your cabin quickly if you remember that blue carpet means odd #s and red carpet means even #s. Put your luggage under the bed. Bring a plastic hanging shoe holder so your toiletries & sunscreen/sunglasses etc. are easily accessible & off the counter tops. Smuggle liquor on board in a water bottle in your checked bag. Liquor costs a fortune on the ship & they will find it in your carry-on and hold it until the end of the cruise. Or you can bring wine onboard & they'll charge you a $20 per bottle corkage fee - no thank you! A previous reviewer stated you can buy wine after the security checkpoint in Barcelona & take it onboard with you, but that's risky, since we were not Xrayed by NCL at embarkation, but my parents were. There's a mini-fridge in the cabin. Ask your steward to empty it out at the beginning of the cruise, so you can use it to chill drinks/snacks. Download the iConcierge app to your mobil device ahead of time so you can track daily activities and reservations onboard after you register using your TV in the cabin. You can also use the TV to make reservations & check your bill daily. Don't forget to keep a change of clothes & your toiletries the last night - don't put everything in your checked bags the night before. Or if you can, don't check your bags - carry them off yourself & get off the ship earlier. Bring wire hangers, because there are never enough in the closet.
Disembarkation in Miami was a breeze. Usually hubby & I do easy walk-off by carrying our bags off, not putting them out the night before. But my parents had to check bags, so we did too. We waited in the cabin until they called our color, instead of waiting in the lobbies and seating areas, causing a traffic jam like everyone else did. But once we got in line, it moved quickly. And our bags were very easy to spot in the terminal. The line for customs & immigration moved quickly as well. Everything was very organized. Years ago I swore I would never again cruise out of Miami, because trying to catch a cab along with 8,000 other people was such a nightmare, but that's no longer the case. There's a cab stand in the middle of the parking lot, and they do a good job of organizing people. We were in a van within 5 minutes & if they hadn't circled around to get more passengers we would have made an earlier flight. But oh, well. There's lots to look at in the MIA airport, so no biggy.
This was an absolute dream of a vacation. We learned that we Can relax for 2 weeks, we Can be on a ship for 2 weeks and not feel trapped, the Atlantic ocean was not rough or scary, and the Epic was exactly that, an Epic way to cruise home from a lovely European vacation. Thank you, NCL and Epic!