"I am music . . . and I write the songs!" If that tune and other Barry Manilow hits are looping through your head (and have been since July 1) you too were part of the NCL Epic Transatlantic disembarkation. A "thank you" to the passenger who convinced NCL to turn down the volume on the big-screen Manilow/Vegas video that accompanied our extended wait in line to exit the ship. Spouse and I sat (and stood) through it 3 times and I hate to think how many times those in line way ahead of us got to experience it. (Sorry, Barry, don't hate on me!) But at last we were able to hear disembarkation announcements.
Waiting in line was the thing on this cruise. In fact, my husband summed it up this way: "No wonder they call it Norwegian Cruise Lines -- it's all about the lines!"
Spouse and I are not major-league cruisers like some folks on this site. We've cruised on NCL's Gem twice: once from NYC to the Bahamas and once on the Western Mediterranean cruise. We liked both experiences on the Gem and we liked the Freestyle approach and of course, we love being at sea. Then husband wondered if it would be more relaxing to have more days at sea and fewer excursions. So we started looking into transatlantic cruises. Early this year, I said, "Look -- we can go from England to NYC on this new boat everyone's talking about -- the Epic!" So we booked the TA.
Like many other cruisers, our feelings are mixed about NCL, the Epic, and the TA. Here are our impressions. Apologies in advance for rambling here and there and for my many comparisons of Epic to Gem.
Perhaps we should have had an inkling about how this cruise would go when we received an e-mail from NCL 2 days before our flight "un-inviting" us from an Epic Latitudes party (because we are Bronze Latitudes cruisers and they could only accommodate Gold, Silver, and Platinum). We didn't even know there was to be a party.
NCL booked our air from JFK to Heathrow via Virgin-Atlantic, and it was an exhausting overnight flight -- long lines in JFK to check in (even longer lines for those who did online check-in!), more lines to drop baggage (whatup with that, Mr. Branson?), the security lines; a very late take-off with no electricity/AC in the cabin for some time, causing a passenger sitting near us to require oxygen; rushed services en route and lack of the passenger-friendly jolliness we'd experienced on a previous V-A flight.
Next morning, we groggy travelers were met promptly by NCL staff at Heathrow, but had about an hour's wait for a shuttle bus; we kept nodding off during the ride. When we arrived in Southampton, I think our NCL greeter hoped everyone would "ooh and ah" over the Epic; instead, the reaction was "OMG, look at the lines!" Discouraging inside and out (fortunately it was a nice day and there was shade). At some point we were asked if we were Latitudes passengers, and that moved us along (sorry, NCL newbies!). Finally, we staggered up the stairs and aboard the Epic. I looked around, expecting (am I the only one?) maiden voyage festivities, maybe not paparazzi, confetti, or balloons, but a few welcoming staffers and champagne (we were welcomed by multiple staffers and received champagne both times we embarked on the Gem, and the thought of a glass of bubbly had kept me going through the Epic line, pathetic I know). But alas. No inaugural hoopla. A lone NCL person in white did welcome us aboard, and I blurted, "Where's the champagne?" The response was something about there not being any. Sigh. We asked if we could go to our room. Yes, we could. That was something, as we were really exhausted by this point. (Note: We did receive complimentary champagne at 2 Art Auctions, and wine and beer while we waited in line for the 5:30pm Cirque show during the last-night 5-6pm Thank You Party.)
We found our way to our room. We decided to go for an aft cabin, as recommended by cruisers on this Web site. (Thanks -- we really liked our aft cabin!) There was a welcoming letter on our desk/dressing table -- addressed to another couple down the hall. We tucked it in the slot by their door. Ours was placed by our door later on. (On the last morning, we got another couple's bill, too.) The previous guest had left some paperwork that had not been cleared away, and his/her trash was un-emptied; otherwise our New Wave Balcony Stateroom seemed in order. It was comfortable, but smaller than our Balcony Stateroom on the Gem. There we had a bed, couch, coffee table, chair, and stool. On the Epic we had a bed (Bliss Bed, very comfortable), couch, and stool. There were no hangers in 1 of our 2 hanging closet areas; we reported this to our steward, but never got any. There are multiple storage areas; wish they would post a diagram of them on the door or in your literature so you could find and use them all. Communication, NCL! We checked out the infamous bathroom facilities. We have been married 20-plus years and are pretty relaxed about such things; still we ended up using the curtain as yes, you can see a lot through the glass and your activities are reflected in the room's mirrors. This blogger took a photo: http://cruisecriticuk.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/too-much-information/ (Note: There is no lock on the sliding door to the toilet area; when the ship was rocking in heavy seas during our TA, the door slid open and shut, open and shut. Also, when you are walking down the halls you can, ahem, hear people using the facilities.) We managed to minimize water splashes from shower and sink, and we liked the shower gel and shampoo. Good hairdryer.
Back to Day 1: Decided to go to lunch. Scrambled through the pool area, which was hopping with kids (one naked). The water park area looked like lots of fun for them. Husband asked if there was an adult pool. It was pointed out to him; it is small, and not deep - 4-feet-something at one end, and 3-feet-something at the other, and it was packed with kids (as was the kids' pool). Sigh. Hot tubs roped off. (We did see couples using them on and off later in the cruise.) Hard to navigate the pool area, husband tripped on lounge legs three times. Started traversing ship through the never-ending casino deck, despite occasional smokiness and temptations of "Da Vinci Mystery."
Enjoyed lunch at Garden Cafe. Nice variety. Returned to room. No luggage, making husband anxious. Attended mandatory emergency drill. Met couple from Miami who were looking for the library. The booklet we received pre-cruise said there was one, but we had not come across it either. Asked at Guest Services later; we were told there was no library. Library services of some kind were to be offered in O'Sheehan's one day (but another library-seeking couple we met said they walked through it 3 times and found no such thing).
Returned to room and balcony and enjoyed sail-away. Waited until 7 as requested by NCL to report missing luggage, then joined the throngs at Guest Services. Spouse's luggage found on the island of misfit bags later in evening; tags had been removed. My bag turned up at our door. Yay. We went to call Guest Services to report it found and realized -- no phone in our room. Reported this to cabin steward. We received a phone mid-cruise, but it and our TV stopped working a few hours later and never worked again.
Checked on Internet plans. Internet manager helpful and friendly. Explored more of the ship. Attractive dEcor, but lots of dark paneling. Nice art in the halls and photographs by the elevators. Ate at Taste. Food good. Welcoming staff. But we ended up dining the rest of the week (except for the Cirque show night) in the Manhattan Room. We really liked the food, ambiance, and service there. It would be great with more jazzy music accompaniment, though Beatles tunes one night were OK. Didn't see Legends. The specialty eateries seem always to get mixed reviews, so we generally don't take a chance on them. (Also, hello, NCL, people are eating less meat so why 2 meat-centered restaurants? And a "steakhouse" seems a bit late-20th century -- how about a celebrity chef venue to go with the Vegas trimmings?)
Blue Man Group was cool. Second City OK - but we'd seen some of the skits before on the Gem. Second City Mystery Lunch so-so, both entertainment-wise and food-wise (high-sodium chicken). Cirque show very good, wonderful costumes and acrobatics (ladies, the fellow in the bathtub is a romance novel cover hero come to life), but food not so much (more chicken, plus beef). Coffee in the Spiegel Tent for S.C. Mystery and Cirque (and decaf in the Manhattan once) was just plain bad, burned and undrinkable. A couple opposite us at the S.C. lunch said the best coffee they had on board was from their in-room coffee maker, though we fared all right with the Garden Cafe coffee dispensers.
About the shows: On the Gem, you could pop in and out of venues without reservations. Here there were lines to book and lines to get in for the bigger shows. One person suggested NCL issue tickets instead of scanning in room keys before performances to speed lines. Also, they are pushing drink sales within the theater venues, again something new to us. And there were more bar areas on this ship, e.g., right inside the Garden Cafe.
No turndown treats but we were greeted by a cute towel animal each evening.
We missed a library and the fun and informative lectures (history, geography, travel tips) we'd enjoyed on the Gem. Also, on our first Gem cruise, our director Andrea led a wonderful stargazing program one night atop the ship. (Of course, weather would not permit something like that on this TA.)
The reclusive SpongeBob granted audiences to premium paying diners only. It might have cheered the rest of us up if he could have popped into the Garden Cafe on one of the cold, foggy mornings . . . and he could have absorbed a lot of the water on deck. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
At one point, husband wondered aloud if there was premium seating on the lifeboats.
So . . . with the mostly unavoidable casino deck, greater number of bar areas, the push for drink purchases during theater performances, and the lack of some of the customer-centric details and lack of customer rapport, we felt like NCL, well, maybe have not gone to the dark side, but are clearly focused on new and improved ways to part one from one's money.
And that's our Epic tale. All in all, this vacation was . . . interesting. We read on the boards that lots of what we experienced is typical for a maiden voyage. (But try explaining that to family, friends, and co-workers après-cruise.) Couldn't NCL let us know ahead of time to expect the unexpected? Why couldn't they send a cruise disclaimer e-mail or say something in the welcoming letter to the effect that "We are making final adjustments, please be patient, let us know if you encounter any irregularities, etc."
The weather was uncooperative, but it motivated us to read (brought our own books), rest, use our balcony (we saw porpoises!), and use the gym (great facilities, great sea views). We also tried the jogging path, which is located on Deck 7 between the lifeboats and exhaust vents emitting food, machinery, and paint odors (this made us feel ill so we ended up walking/jogging on the opposite shuffleboard side of the ship for fresh air). (BTW, we never saw a place where you could practice your golf swing as on the Gem. Last time I mention the Gem.)
The Epic front line staff was great, very professional, very good at smoothing ruffled feathers. NCL management a bit of a disappointment, from the booking process -- I knew more about the Epic from this and other sites than my cruise consultant (who'd never been on a cruise) -- to the actual cruise itself. They have a hands-off style and seeming lack of interest in interacting with customers. So many of the issues/glitches described by ourselves and others seemed like fairly easy fixes or as if they could be addressed with clear communication. It's hard to put a finger on it, but sometimes we simply felt like we were in the way, and like NCL viewed the TA as a routine trip -- they had to take the ship across the Atlantic anyway, so they made it a dress rehearsal. Nothing special. Many missed opportunities to impress and convert old and new customers to future cruises!
But at least there were no more fires or propeller/engine woes, nor were there icebergs, rogue waves, pirates, giant squids, or kraken. (Am I the only one who worries about such things?) Best wishes to all the Epic cruisers to come.
P.S. Seems our Epic experience is not quite over yet. Received e-mail survey from NCL this week, but my user name and password won't work so am unable to access it. I e-mailed the 2 contacts listed in the e-mail for assistance, but after two days, I have not received a response from either of them. But wait - received a 2nd e-mail this afternoon: Dear Valued Guest, You may have received an email from us earlier this week with a survey link that was not working. Please accept our apologies; we are working on fixing the problem. We value your feedback and will be sending another email with a revised link on Monday, July 12. We look forward to hearing from you! Sincerely, Norwegian Guest Experience Team