This was our 8th family cruise. My wife and I are in our mid-40's and kids are now 9 and 12. We've previously sailed on Disney (eastern and western Caribbean), Royal (eastern Caribbean), NCL (Alaska) and most recently on Viking River Cruises in Southern France and have stayed in a wide variety of staterooms from the tiniest inside rooms to the balconies to the suites. For the Epic, we decided to splurge on the Courtyard Villa Suite which, according to some of the reviews on the smaller rooms, was a great idea.
As with most of our cruises, we flew in the day prior and stayed at the Embassy Suites. The kids love the Miami Embassy which has a nice pool, good free breakfast and spacious suites. The airport shuttle is quick and easy and the taxi to the cruise ship was only $24 versus the $40 it would have cost us on the port shuttle. Arriving at the port around 1pm, we were easily directed to the B terminal and then into the VIP lounge for check-in. We were treated like VIP's with snacks for the kids, a very brief overview of the ship and within 5 minutes, we were being escorted by our butler through a private elevator directly to our rooms on the ship. Although the terminal didn't seem too crowded, this was definitely the best check-in experience we've had and probably saved us at least 30 minutes of waiting to get on the ship and another hour or so to get into our stateroom.
We were taken up to the 17th floor and into the private Courtyard Suites area which is accessed by keycard. Upon entry of the private area, there is a spacious lounge with plenty of chairs and tables for people to meet and work on their laptops. This, along with most of the other Suites-only private areas, was very quiet for the entire cruise. After walking through the lounge, we passed by the private pool, spa, gym and courtyard which looked like it could comfortably entertain about 100 people or so. The butler assured us that there were only 60 suites (vice 2000+ total rooms) and although there were times were we saw the courtyard at about 80% capacity, it was only at peak times during the at-sea days. We learned that there were plenty more private areas outdoors including the Posh Lounge on the 18th deck and the entire front section of the ship which were both mostly empty every time we visited them for relaxation in the sun.
When the butler opened up our stateroom, we were all blown away. The kids' room off to the immediate right had a full size bed on the bottom and pull down bunk on top. They also had their own high-def TV, closet, chair, desk, mirror/vanity and bathroom with shower. The main part of the suite had a bar to right with stemware and cappuccino maker, a medium sized dining table with 4 chairs, a living room with couch, chairs, 42" high-def TV with DVD player, and an entry to the balcony which looked out to the front of the ship (room 17000). The master bedroom/bathroom was the most impressive. It had a comfortable queen bed with high-def TV/DVD, large closet, mirror vanity area and a master bath which had dual sinks, a large tub in front of a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the ocean and a very large shower with another floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the ocean - wow! The whole place was decked out with floral arrangements and welcome champagne which was popped soon after the butler left.
After absorbing the room for a while, we headed down to the special concierge desk and booked all of our shows which included the Blue Man Group, Legends in Concert, the Circus dinner show, Breakfast with Nickelodeon, and the Second City comedy show. We got tickets for all of the shows and times we asked for but as the week progressed, there were several shows that were sold out including the Circus dinner so you should book on the first day or prior. With over 20 restaurants and 20 bars, we never had any trouble getting into the places we wanted to visit at the times we asked for, even the day of the reservation. We first visited the Garden Cafe and enjoyed some fairly standard cruise buffet for a late lunch. Afterwards, we let the kids loose to explore while we checked out a few of the lounges. Beers were $5 with a free one with every 5 beer bucket purchased. Wine and mixed drinks ranged between $6 and $12. The wine list is unique to each lounge and restaurant which seemed kind of limited until we found out that the servers are happy to get you any bottle from any place. This was nice, especially after attending several of the wine tasting events which turned us on to some great new wines. We were not disappointed with the ability to get bottles of Caymus Cabernet, Cakebread Merlot and Mont Redon Chateauneuf Du Pape. Our first dinner was at the upscale French Restaurant which had an excellent Foie Gras and Coq au vin.
The first night was an exciting one for all of the family at the Blue Man Group show. We saw them in Vegas a few years ago and they seemed even better on the ship. Great job to NCL for bringing this level of entertainment and allowing the kids to meet the blue men and band afterwards. 'Legends' was also of excellent quality and very comparable to the long running show in Vegas. Madonna and Elvis were pretty realistic with both the voice and visual from the back of the theater and had nice video mixes of them along with the original performers to strengthen the show. The circus dinner, comedy, dueling pianos, blues lounge and Nick breakfast were all fairly good quality and enjoyable.
The paid restaurants we visited were all excellent including Brazilian, French, Italian, Sushi, and Steakhouse. Most ranged between $10-20/person with kids half the charge of adults. Our favorite was the Brazilian Moderno which we went to twice after our daughter begged us to go back. The servers come around to the tables with 11 meat choices on skewers including Filet Mignon and delicious Sirloin. The other stand out was the private Epic Club. They served Eggs Benedict, NY strip and similar dishes at breakfast, gourmet lunches as well as lobster tail and high quality dishes at dinner for no extra cost. We ate most of our lunches there but still needed to explore the many other restaurant options for dinner which I highly recommend, even if you have to pay a few extra bucks. To me, it's like the difference of choosing between Denny's (Garden Inn Buffet), vs. Outback (Taste and Manhattan Room - free) vs. Ruth's Chris (Moderno, Cagney's, Le Bistro) but for just $10 more.
One unique feature of Epic that we liked was a large outdoor screen on the top back of the ship in the Spice H20 lounge. We watched the World Cup Finals in bright daylight with good quality while enjoying buckets of beer and munchies from the snack bar. They also played concerts in the early evening and turned the bar into a cool DJ club at night. The other unique thing on the ship that was fun for the entire family was the ice bar. They provide parkas; escort you into an ice cold 10 degrees below zero room with flashing disco lights and bartenders serving drinks. You get to spend about 30 minutes there which is about all you can take. The entry fee was $20/pp but came with 2 drinks each (the list includes non-alcoholic for the kids). This is a must-do experience.
Ports: We had visited Oriental Beach at St Maarten the year prior so this year we stuck to local beach umbrellas and buckets of Coronas while the kids swam and played on the water jungle gym. This cost only $6/pp for the water taxi and was a good idea because there is not much swimming available on the ships. The kids agreed that the awesome ship watersides were a good trade-off for smaller pools but they were very happy to spend the afternoon swimming in the ocean. The next day before docking at St. Thomas, we received a letter from NCL about a passenger from Carnival who was shot and killed at Coki Beach the day prior (which was where we were considering to go with our family). We did some research on the web and learned that this along with many other parts of the island is actually pretty dangerous, especially if you wander out on your own. This changed our perspective of excursions because we usually avoid the expensive cattle call tours and taxi around on our own. The girls decided just to have a spa day on the ship while my son and I had most of the ship to ourselves to go bowling, waterside, arcade, etc.
Our final port was in Nassau at Atlantis. I had read in a previous cruise critic posting that the NCL tours to the Atlantis water park were a little overpriced ($150/pp) and it was actually easier and cheaper to taxi ($4/pp) over to purchase tickets through the casino ($99/pp). Even though the St Thomas situation scared us a bit, we decided that the Nassau scene felt safer with most things being in relatively close proximity to the ship. Another family that rode over in our taxi said they saved even more the previous year by booking a room at the Comfort Suites with free wristbands for the guests (around $300 for a family of 5). We followed them into the hotel but struck-out because they were over-booked. We then went to the casino to buy the wristbands but they were sold out due to 4 cruise ships in port. While our kids were in tears, I asked a taxi driver if he knew how to get any and bingo!, he had a few. It turns out that there is quite a network of ticket scalpers amongst the taxi drivers and their connections that work at the hotel. We lucked out and got the wristbands at $80/ each and the family had a blast at one of the best water-parks in the world.
Our final morning of the cruise is always a sad one but we made the best of our final few hours by sipping coffee on the quiet top deck, grabbing breakfast at the Garden Cafe and taking our final showers in the amazing view room. We took advantage of the easy-walk-off option by wheeling our roller bags down to deck 6 at about 9am and within 5 minutes, were at the taxi station. The taxi got us to the Delta counter in about 25 minutes and short security lines allowed us to spend a few hours in the Sky Club before our 1130 departure. We realized that we could have easily been off the ship by 7am and caught an earlier flight but we preferred to sleep in and savor the ship a little longer.
There were many more great activities and things to remember about this family vacation but my main take away was that the Villa upgrade was worth every penny and really made this our beat cruise yet. The top 3 floors of the forward section of the ship are yours with very few crowds, spacious comfort and excellent quality of service. I'm pretty sure that we would have still enjoyed the standard staterooms with all of the food and entertainment but the Villas made it a cruise that the family will be visiting again soon. We're thinking about catching the Epic out of Barcelona next summer. I took most of my photos and videos using my new iPhone 4 and am happy to share them with anyone who is interested. Enjoy!