You Never get a second chance to make a first impression. Trite, but true for the NCL Epic. Loyal NCL'ers told us time and again that this was NOT a typical NCL showing, and they would remain loyal to the brand. For cruise ship veterans but NCL newbies, most will revert to their current loyalties. Yes, it was an inaugural voyage, and yes, anytime you get 4,000 people together you will bound to hear complaining, and yes .. despite all of this, it is still IMPOSSIBLE not to have a good time on a cruise.
So while trying to give you my very biased opinions, i'll attempt to be brief and informative and offer as many contrasting opinions we heard along the way .. From a comparative point of reference, I'll inevitable compare to our many positive experiences with princess .. (Mediterranean, and various Caribbeans - all large ships .. Golden, Caribbean etc)
Here goes: Travel party wife and I, and two kids . daughter 23 and son 18 next week. Spent a great 3 nights in London before traveling to Southampton Thursday morning. And so began our EPIC experience:
Embarking: GRADE D - our first experience with NCL ability to handle crowds. An incredibly inefficient boarding process that took slightly less than two hours - way too long with too many choke points that slowed things to a crawl. Stood behind numerous European smokers, making the outside portion of the waiting even more unpleasant, and also being another portent of the future .. NCL is definitely NOT a smoke free ship.
Welcome: What welcome ? You enter the ship on Deck 5 and are on your own .. no elevator in sight, no cruise staff to point you in the right direction, no handy map on the ship.. Welcome to "Free-Style' cruising !
Cabins: Grade B: We had two cabins on Deck 11, inside twin and BD outside balcony. Yes,there's frosted glass on the toilet and shower compartments, but NO, there's no bathroom door or dressing area (ala princess) .. so all personal bathroom sounds apply, as well as that wonderful cruise ship flush for those middle of the night runs your partner will thank you for. This is not the kind of cabin design to take your first vacation with someone. Balcony - very nice and private - can hear the people next door, but no one looking over you ( I could look over on the balcony a few decks below however)
Couch - useless in my opinion, a great place to keep your unemptied luggage or your overflow from the closets. TV (very nice) is in front of bed, not couch. More than two people ? Good luck ! Try to squeeze four people ?why not just shoot yourself ?
Inside cabin - functional, smaller TV.
Overall, form over function - beds were okay, sink a modern designed oval with side faucet, perfect for spilling up and over on the counter space.
We were very fortunate in that, other than a reading light that kept burning out, everything worked. Numerous people suffered issues with wet carpets,showers that only delivered scalding or frigid water. Reports from villas were that they were incredibly small, with some saying the location was annoying due to constant opening and closing of segregated entry access doors.
Shove-off from Southampton: A great way to get familiar with the major outdoor entertainment area of the ship: Deck 15 which contains the slides and pools. Nice lively music with everyone treated to a buy your own drink (already on this portion of day one it was clear that there would be no inaugural specials or thank you's for cruising the new ship - guess we should have felt honored to be there - who was the customer anyway ??) POOLS: GRADE D ( I have to save the F grade for disembarkation) Adult without small kids perspective - The Epic is a very large ship, but in trying to be all things to all people, it really leaves gaps - there is simply no good "adult" pool area. We're told that the small area on 15 opposite the water park (Spice H two O ) which was cover over is the adult pool area .. with no hope of keeping any age groups segregated - (think Princess back of the ship pool on different deck for adults or well hidden pool attached to spa).. I don't know about the Posh Beach Club, since there are many many areas of the ship (majority or levels 17, 18 and 19 up front) that the high rollers access, and that contain some meager "public" lounge chairs for the masses in steerage.
There are several hot tubs on 15, which got a lot of use by those braving frigid Atlantic temperatures to use the slides and then run into the hot tub to prevent hypothermia, which certainly wont be an issue for the eastern and western Caribbean sailings. there appears to be adequate lounge chairs .. but for those that like pool plus lounge chairs sans screaming kids ... not so much
Dining: Food Grade B: Service Grade C Minus: Buffet Area on 15 - Grade B: Well Spread Out with Numerous Duplicate Stations. All cruise ships have food and lots of it. Lunch and dinner always had a couple of carving stations, sandwiches and wraps, cheeses, make your own salads, with recurring Indian and Chinese selections. Custom omelette's available for breakfast, hot dog, sausage, burger, pizza and pasta of day available as well. Desserts varied but not that impressive .. soft serve a big hit for the ice cream oriented. Numerous tubs of ice cream and sherbert offered as well .. Watermelon, cantaloupe and melon wedges always available as well. A very good note: while not Starbucks, both the coffee and ice tea were actually drinkable - props are in order
O' Sheehans: an incredibly popular place mid ship on Deck 6, overlooking the big screen (which had all the world cup soccer games) and three of the bowling lanes on the other side. FOOD: Grade B, Service D .. good bar fare, wings, tuna melts, burgers, chicken tenders, fries , fish and chips (don't recommend the pot pie or meatloaf). indifferent wait staff (perhaps understaffed as well) with waits of up to 45 minutes just to place your order .. pool and air hockey tables available. nice to feed that late night hunger if you can stand the wait.
Manhattan Room and Taste: Two nicely finished dining areas on Deck 5 and 6 for sit down service. Food: B minus Service C minus: Ambiance very nice, food variety limited. No breakfast or lunch specials - same menu items daily. Dinner had a standard menu, with a couple of specials nightly. If you like your food medium well or well, you would be happier than those of us that like it on the rarer side - just order turkey or pork and not steak or prime rib. No Specialty nights for lobster, Italian or something out of ordinary - that's what the many up-charge restaurants are for. First cruise I;ve ever been on where the dining rooms don't offer you shrimp cocktail - they did have some on buffet for dinner however. Like much on the Epic, there was a severe lack of coordination amongst the staff. Many indifferent staff, with a lot of new ship confusion apparent. What they really lacked, and other ships have, are strategically planted "head waiters" that had a section of the dining room assigned to them to make sure that everyone else was doing their jobs and that the customers were evenly served. If NCL claims they have them, then those folks should be replaced -I'm thinking they were non existent to save money and give you a better free style experience .. Oh, speaking of that, the Manhattan room has a dress code for dinner - which i didn't see in any postings or literature - no shorts for dinner - hmmm . I was turned away in linen shorts with a collared polo, but the guy with well worn jeans and an advertiser tee shirt was fine
Specialty restaurants: Food C Service C: After a couple of experiences, we cancelled several reservations for up-charges, so I'll give you a limited view:
Le Bistro - french - Food C, Service C: A really nothing special French restaurant at a $ 20 PP cost. Pretty bad mussels, ok escargot and tasty scallops for appetizers, overcooked rack of lamb and steak and a forgetful dessert and inattentive staff made for a mediocre dining experience. Food was something i would expect in the basic dining room on perhaps a formal night
Cirque: Food C Minus, Service C: We were told that the up-charge for Cirque was for the entertainment, not the food. So while the food was arguably better at Le Bistro, the food comparison is to normal buffet and seating. There were no choices, an overdone chicken and steak dinner served mass wedding style while you watched the show. Show covered later, food supplemented by a trip to O'Sheehans shortly afterward.
Sushi: Food C, Service B: Tried on Day 2, prepacked quality at a level of Costco's or Trader Joe's. definitely not upscale quality
Shanghai - Not sampled - Poor impression as this was located off of a very busy area off the casino. So as you were inhaling the enormous amount of smoke walking on Deck 6, you passed the entrance area of this up-charge place. The smell emanating from that was one that you get when you enter your corner Chinese take out in anytown USA .. might be better inside, but after sushi experience that was a pass.
La Cucina - Not sampled: A nicely tucked away area on Deck 14, accessed via stairs off of the main buffet. Beautiful views both forward and sides off of large windows and very nicely decorated. Did a very enjoyable Italian wine tasting there. Cancelled reservations there after looking at menu. This was one i really looked forward to, with my point of reference Sabatinni;s on the Princess - a magnificent two plus hour dining experience. The La Cucina menu was straight out of Olive Garden - I'm going to pay an up-charge for chicken parm ??? Please !
Cagney's and Moderno - Side by side Steak and Brazilian steakhouses. Again, fabulous decor - had a St Francis Wine tasting on the Moderno side - nice and comfortable. after all of the other issues with overcooked meats, decided to cancel. heard several people talk up Cagneys' steaks being cooked perfectly - I believe the upcharge was $ 25 pp there, unless you selected one of their upcharge to the upcharge options .. that was another ten or 15 ( bistro had the same upcharge to upcharge)
No one goes hungry on a ship - I doubt anyone will rave about the food here either
Epic - Entertainment Grade: C minus
Cirque: A Minus: The Spiegel tent is a very thoughtful and well laid out area for a mid size crowd. Acrobats, juggling and some vaudeville comedy made for some good clean fun, enjoyable for all ages - with the females in the audience even more entertained by a couple of muscular hunks showing their stuff climbing ropes and what not - well worth the upcharge for the entertainment
Jeff Hobson: Comic and Magician: Grade B Plus: Pleasant Surprise of Cruise: If you like classic sleight of hand / minor illusions Jeff keeps the crowd engaged for a little over an hour. He has certainly been in front of crowds for years and has a diversion and comeback for almost any situation. Left his show smiling.
Second City: Grade F: Sorry folks, just NOT FUNNY .. This is an improv group - maybe gave a soft chuckle twice in 45 minutes. to be fair it was the first night, but there wasn't a laugh in the house for the first 10 or so minutes. NCL got sold a bill of goods on this one - i would recommend an early cancel and replace with old Abbott and Costello, Groucho Marx or Laurel and Hardy movies, or perhaps Office and Two and a Half Men reruns .. you'll get more laughs per minute than you get with their whole show. I predict a quick contract cancel here
Blue Men Group: Apparent Minority View (Me, Daughter and Son) Grade D; Wife B Minus; Child Filled Crowd: B to B plus This is Nickelodeon GAK meets Gallagher playing with paint balls and drums. As the teenager said, three high school drop outs who paint themselves blue, throw ping pong balls filled with paint across the stage to a partner who catches it with his mouth and then sprays it on a piece of paper. Constant percussion from drums and PVC pipes augmented with lasers and some audience participation. You must like alternative theater like stomp to like this (with all apologies to stomp). The massive toilet paper finale was an incredible metaphor to my feelings about the show.
Legends / Beatles Tribute: With the Epic theater not ready for the first several days of the cruise, I can only assume that the use of the Manhattan Dining Room for these acts was a last minute panic. My wife desperately wanted to see both, but we were unsuccessful. This was one of many signs that this NCL staff was woefully unprepared to handle crowds. If these acts were slated for the Epic Theatre, then things might work. If they continue to be placed in a dining venue, and overlap dining, it will remain a disaster. The assistant cruise directors assigned to settle angry throngs people (aka recent college graduates with no relevant hospitality experience) just didn't know what to do .. The dining staff didn't know how to separate diners from watchers, and the already acknowledged Manhattan room makes a great dining room ... a very poor entertainment venue. Planning and crowd control: F .. Entertainment quality: ???
Bernie Martini up at Shakers: Pretty comfy lounge chairs for those that like Sinatra, Bennett and that genre: Limited selections but Cruise Quality B
Bliss: A minus Chic night club with DJ spinning anything from Lady Gaga and Nickelback to Neil Diamond and drunken favorites like Celebration ... A diverse 21 plus late night hangout with attentive staff and festive clients.
Bowling: A 5 dollar hoot ! with the ship bouncing more than you might expect, you would swear the lanes aren't level, but who cares ? Three next to O sheehan's and two up at bliss a lot of fun if you don't care about your score ... they limit you to 2 games to keep waiting at a minimum .. And yes, at least one of the lanes have bumpers !
Big Screen decks 5 and 6: The world cup was going on, and this area got major play ! Too much of the time there were just generic pictures. happened to watch the opening scene of Quantum of Solace and it was really impressive on that two story screen ..
Outside Big Screens: Great for TA Eskimos
ICE BAR: A fun but quick 20 dollars gets you to put on a fur coat and have 2 of 5 predetermined vodka drinks and get your picture taken in front of ice sculptures .. yes, you have to do it once .. it is freezing in there, but its still fund for a half hour or so .. EPIC Wrap-ups Cabin Cleanliness / Steward: Grade A - Friendly, efficient and not obtrusive. Cabin kept as clean as our sloppiness would allow.
SPA: Almost forgot: B Plus - Both ladies loved their numerous services, ranging from facials to massages.. made the other up-charges look insignificant, but a definite pleaser. However, wife not happy with lack of robes and shower service pre and post massage. Like princess, the EPIC has a relaxation room that involves an up-charge of approximately $ 200 / couple for the week. This gets you some heated ceramic lounge type chairs, two saunas and a steam room, as well as access to a very small (as in about 10 people) outdoor area and maybe 20 or so inside lounge chairs for reading .. On our last Princess cruise we used that, and felt we got our money;s worth. Epic says that they limit this to 60 couples, and we later found that is in addition to the people that paid for spa cabins. My first reaction was WOW, this is so much bigger than the princess area. IT also has a very large hot tub / spa area with swift moving currents and a waterfall to give yourself some tension relief. Incredibly impressive looking !Alas, as another failure in crowd control, NCL has no limitations on the use of the loungers or ceramic beds .. On Day 2 I used the spa, and other than it not being hot enough for my liking ( i Like 102 or above - it was probably 96), I liked it a lot. The outdoor seating was obviously taken by people that got there first thing and felt they owned the chairs for the day .. the ceramics were also hard to come by, and the heat generated by them was quite mild. Princess limits use to 45 minutes a visit, which would help quite a bit. The saunas were unique, as they had large expanses of windows looking out over the ocean. The steam room was stifling - no issues with heat or humidity there - however, it didn't have the eucalyptus that some steam rooms have.
On Wednesday morning, the spa area was a disaster area, due to some rough seas. The entire spa was now empty, with the staff uncertain if they would refill for the rest of cruise. The rear seats and ceramics were all taken, and we decided to ask for a $ 400 refund, which the staff cheerfully did. I believe a day or so later they refilled the pool, but we didn't return up there.
With a few minor tweaks, the whole SPA experience is well done and staff well trained.
GYM: A: Large expanse of state of the art treadmills, ellipticals, stair steppers and weight machines. all looking out over the water. Offered boot camp, spinning and a few other classes for up-charges. Daughter was impressed with spinning class, as well as the various machines. Small staff of two kept busy, as they conducted a lot of classes and also did nutrition and other type classes.
CASINO: Variety: A, Success Winning: F, Size A, Smoke F Casino occupies a good portion of the middle of Deck 6 a primary walking area. For a non gambler or non smoker, I'm sure it is annoying .. I'm a non smoker who usually can take smoke, but it gets a bit much there. Black jack, slot and Texas hold em tournaments (spoke with the overall hold em winner that said it buffered his craps losses), plenty of other table games .. first couple of days they had only one 5 dollar blackjack table, but then they must have figured out that most of their 25 dollar BJ dealers were sitting idle, so they opened more .. perhaps also as people ran out of money it appeared to be more accessible ?
Craps personnel kept the games running smoothly and had some personality .. Made losing money there fun Not as busy as on other ships, with a mixture of people that love the game and people doing it for first time ,...
Entry into New York City, Under Verrazano bridge, past statue of Liberty and into Manhattan - PRICELESS. Just positively awesome, with the crowd applauding as we seemed to squeak under the bridge, and then approach the lady ..
Disembark: F .. if you could use letters G through Z i'd go to them. Just a total disaster in crowd control. Several hours past the itinerary given the night before, with a spartan staff at the terminal to guide you to taxis or pre paid buses to the airport. Must be coordinated by people fired from FEMA ...
Hope you hung around to the end .. many will read this as another bunch of gripes .. I've appreciated others commenting in these blogs to help make informed decisions .. rely on trip advisor and have found good advice by and large .. By no means was this a bad cruise. Consciously went TA with NCL vs Cunard .. didn't want that stuffiness. Think NCL has a lot of work to do to decide what segment they want to attract: A TA by its very nature probably attracts an older crowd. This isn't the ship for them - unless they're bringing the grand kids. Not sure if its for newly married 20 or 30 somethings either .. the water parks might be fun once or twice, but the lack of pool is a negative ..