My husband and I were very excited to think we were booked on the NCL Epic's "Inaugural Maiden Voyage" from Southampton to New York City. Needless to say, there was a bit of a "what the heck?" moment when searching the Internet the day before our departure to see videos of the Epic sailing out of Rotterdam and to find YouTube videos from passengers on that mini-cruise journey. It just took a bit of the gleam off of our "new and shiny" and waited just-for-us expectations. Not to mention, it was our first cruise on NCL, having previously cruised with Carnival on three separate occasions; so we were looking forward to experiencing the freestyle cruising option...dining when and where we wanted and skipping the dressing up (formal attire anyway) parts.
NCL handled our flight arrangements and flew us from JFK over to Heathrow on American Airlines. Of course, no seat assignments had been made for us; but I was all over that early on and had called AA and booked our seats weeks before. The flight over was smooth (although we didn't sleep on the flight...and it was a red-eye) and we were promptly greeted at the airport by an NCL representative after we had cleared customs. We had to wait about an hour to board the bus to take us from the airport to Southampton, but it was well organized and everything flowed smoothly. Once having arrived in Southampton, the check-in process was very efficient; although the lines were long, they moved at a steady pace. One important thing missing, however, was the distribution of ship maps and a Welcome Aboard bulletin. We found out later that some of the other passengers had been given them at check-in, but most of us had not. There were so many passengers storming the guest services desk on that first afternoon for maps and information that the staff members were just grabbing stacks of them and walking down the lines of people handing them out. I guess it seemed that many of us wanted the same things.
We found the elevators without much to-do, and fortunately took the right set up to our deck. We found out the next day that all cabins on the port side could be accessed by the red elevators (hallway carpet was red and brown) and all cabins on the starboard side could be accessed by the blue elevators (hallway carpet on that side of the decks was blue and brown). It would have been helpful to know this the very first day...again something that could have been communicated at check-in and repeated in the Welcome Aboard bulletin and/or map.
Our balcony wave cabin was beautiful to look at, but extremely tight on passing space at the foot of the very comfortable bed (as one cruise critic has already noted) and in front of the sofa. Hubby and I knew going in that cabins would be tight, so we agreed NOT to get annoyed at each other for always being in the other person’s way. Our television did not work for the first 3 days of our cruise; although we requested service every day, it was not until the afternoon on the 3rd day that a technician came up to our cabin to look at it. Turns out it was a faulty remote (so we were told); such a simple fix and it could have been done the first day…if only. The toilet and shower were pie-shaped wedges behind frosted sliding curved doors at the front of the cabin, and did not offer the privacy that many shy family members might desire. The lack of privacy was not such an issued for an older married couple, but I was a little disturbed to think that every time one of us touched the door handle inside the toilet to step out and walk over to the sink, we were touching it with unwashed hands. The sink was another little adventure…too shallow to serve well when washing hands or brushing teeth or shaving, as water splashed everywhere. Our cabin steward, Alfonso, was AWESOME however; and kept us supplied with an abundance of clean towels so that we could deal with the splashes as well as cover the floor outside of the shower when stepping out to dry ourselves. Alfonso was unobtrusive and gave us everything daily that we had requested when we first met him, extra creamers for our in-cabin coffee and extra towels and laundry bags, as well as never knocking on our door on the days we slept in. We never even saw him again until the last evening, and we left him an additional gratuity for being so attentive to us.
Freestyle dining was a pleasure everywhere we went: The Garden Café had an excellent buffet at all hours of the day or night, the décor was tasteful and the food delicious at both Taste and the Manhattan Room for every meal we enjoyed there, and the Moderna restaurant, Cagney’s Steakhouse, and the Spiegel Tent meals were all outstanding and well worth the extra money we spent. We also ate one lunch and one breakfast at O’Sheehan’s and found the food delicious, although the service was slow the day we had lunch.
We attended the free wine tastings two days in a row, hosted by St. Francis winery. Loved the wine, and Chris was very fun and informative. It was disappointing, however, that the St. Francis wines we tasted were not included on the wine lists in any of the ship’s restaurants. We asked on the last night, when dining at Cagney’s, and they did locate a bottle of the Cab for us even though it was not on the list. But we fail to understand how NCL could allow St. Francis to host three wine tastings on three days in a row and NOT feature their wines…this is certainly an oversight on NCL’s part.
Entertainment on board was the best cruise ship entertainment we have ever experienced. The Cirque Dreams and Dinner show and Blue Man Group were well worth the extra $ we spent, and the free entertainment at lounges around the ship, especially the Howl at the Moon and in the Fat Cats club were first rate! Lines to book the entertainment tickets were very disorganized on the first full day, and we never got in to see the Legends in Concert show. We had been told to be in line by 8:30 pm for the 9:00 show; we were in line at 8:20 and about 100 people away from the doors when we were told the Epic theatre was full to capacity. I thought the price of cocktails was more than fair when compared to the prices charged in big city venues around the U.S., and every drink I had was delicious! The two-story high screen was incredible and absolutely enjoyed by all the World Cup fans on board. There was another screen outside at the H2O area on deck, but it was too cold for us to ever spend time out there for the evening entertainment options.
The bingo staff were lots of fun, and special cheers go out to Jeff, Matt, and Kat for all their efforts to make us laugh. And the dealers in the casino are among the very best…Karen and Rachielle(?) were very patient and kept smiling through all the antics of the poker players. I only wish there could have been a non-smoking poker room, as many of the poker players were chain smokers. While they couldn’t smoke at the table, they pushed the limits of all non-smokers by keeping one hand on their poker chips and one hand behind them stretched to an ashtray only 2 feet away. The smoke irritated by throat to the point that I developed a cough and now have bronchitis and congestion. Sure I could have stayed away from the casino, but it was my vacation; and I had as much right to enjoy all the ship’s amenities as the smokers did. With such a large ship, I still say they could have had smoking on one side of the casino and no smoking on the other side. Too bad NCL missed the boat on this opportunity, but there’s still time to adjust.
We never got to experience the pool and the water slides, as we had cold winds and fog most of the way across the Atlantic. But there was plenty to do inside the ship to keep us busy. We did visit the Bridge viewing room and my husband, an air traffic controller, wished we could have had a full tour of the bridge, as he found it fascinating.
When we sailed into New York on the final morning, the weather was beautiful, Lady Liberty was stunning, and we got some great photos. Getting off the ship was problematic, however, as it took customs a long time to clear the ship and there were too many persons who tried to rush off before their color-coded luggage tags were called. So the customs terminal on Pier 88 got over-crowded and they had to make all of wait another hour. Many persons who had flights to catch or hired cars waiting (and charging wait-time fees) to pick them up were getting quite annoyed.
All-in-all, it is a beautiful ship on the inside, tastefully decorated throughout, with lots of first-class entertainment and dining options. The staff were wonderful everywhere, even though many of them had never worked together before the Epic launched. Although there were some kinks to be worked out on board, future cruise passengers on the Epic will enjoy the improvements and probably not experience all the frustrations that those of us on the maiden transatlantic crossing endured. Don’t sweat the small stuff; just relax and enjoy!