Before I get started, please allow me to apologize for this being my first posting and yet we have been avid readers of the message board and have thankfully received numerous tips and comments that have greatly enhanced our cruising experiences. We have been cruising for the past twenty five years and have been on a total of 35 cruises. Most have been with RCCL and HAL but we have strayed to Celebrity and NCL in the past, before the advent of free style cruising.
We just returned from the Epic on September 4th and overall, we had a nice trip. This was the first time we cruised on a brand new ship which was our allure to decide to take this cruise. This is the second NCL cruise as "Free Style" and we have already booked two additional cruises on this line in late December and March 2011 so we are committed to the concept at least for the time being. Having some experiences with cruising we offer the following comments and observations about this new ship. Some will disagree with my comments...but these is our observations and opinions.
First the positive:
1) We are avid patrons of the casinos on all ships. This casino had to be the best casino we had ever seen on a cruise ship. It was large and open with the newest slot machine games and multiple table games offering much greater diversity than any we have seen in the past. We go to Vegas frequently and found this casino to be more "Vegas like" than any other we have experienced. Four Card Keno is one of my wife's favorites and there were five machines that offered the game. More would be preferable, but she's not complaining! I must say that at our level of gambling, in Vegas we get a free room and food but I was "surprised" at the very least that the credit I received was token and ridiculously stingy.
2) The spa was absolutely magnificent. It was open and spacious and rarely crowded. HAL also has an excellent spa, but this one impressed us greatly.
3) The common areas on deck five also impressed us. We watched a college football game on the largest TV screen I have ever seen and enjoyed it thoroughly. Through the use of new technology that seemed more like science fiction to me, the photographers took all of our pictures from around the ship and deposited them into a separate book with our cabin number so we could select the ones we wanted to purchase rather than spending time searching the walls of pictures to find ones that had captured our images. The internet area was spacious and on the side of the ship with outside vistas rather than an interior room and the staff was extremely helpful in dealing with our rudimentary problems ensuring accessibility to the internet.
4) The numerous food venues were similar to other NCL ships and were excellent. Our favorite was Le Bistro in which we dined twice and each was as good as we have experienced anywhere. Cagney's was good but we feel the Pinnacle on HAL and Chops on NCCL was better. O'Sheehans was a delightful surprise offering excellent comfort food which was greatly inconsistent with our diet planning but was worth our transgressions.
5) The entertainment was better than any ship we have been on both in its variety and quality. We have resolved ourselves on other cruises to sit in the back of the theatre and leave if we felt that the performers were substandard. On most other ships, rarely did we see the end of any show. The Epic spent a great deal of money making these shows exceptional. Circus Dream was good for a cruise ship but nowhere near a Vegas presentation but still was entertaining. The food at the performance was on the wrong side of ordinary. I would guess that it was pre-prepared and just warmed up to be served lacking taste and presentation. I would suggest eating before or after the show and just enjoying the performance. We have seen Blue Man group in Vegas and I guess it's just not our "cup of tea". This performance repeated many skits we had previously seen but other guests we spoke to absolutely loved it, some seeing it twice. But I still think that it being offered on a cruise ship was amazing. Performers around the ship were of better quality than we had experienced and we found ourselves stopping by at many and enjoying the experience.
6) Embarkation and Debarkation were the best we ever experienced. The process was fast and efficient with our being on our way back home at 8:30 on Saturday. Excellent planning and execution.
7) For the most part, the staff was friendly and helpful. I assume that this being your "flagship" investment that you hand selected the staff to make the experience better. Unfortunately, with the luck of the draw, we had the worst room steward we ever had. But I noticed with interest that she was not there on the last few days. Maybe someone else complained. We did not electing to reflect our displeasure with the amount of our tip and in the private feedback form.
Now, unfortunately, the negatives:
1) In agreement with many cruise critic posts, the balcony rooms were terrible. We have read both points of view on numerous posts and approached the trip with the attitude of who cares, we spend most of our time around the ship and how important is the room anyway. WRONG. It was stupidly and arrogantly designed and became a great sense of annoyance. After numerous times of each of us climbing on the bed to get around the other so we could access the "toilet chamber" the only thing we could do is laugh. We ended up calling our room the "Travel Trailer" Many have told your readers that the shower was acceptable and I read one post that said that it was large enough for two people, well we are in our early sixties and if my wife and I were in there together, we would have needed maintenance with heavy equipment including blow torches and a crane to extricate us! I showered most days in the spa which was wonderful and what I expected to have in my stateroom. The sink, next to our bed routinely spilled water onto the counter forcing us to clean up after each use. We also read about the tremendous storage space, this is true but for a seven day cruise most was unused and waste of valuable space that somehow should have been used to create more floor space. The rounded bed is small and too short and I finally gave up pulling the bed out and resolved sleeping with my socks on to keep my feet warm longing to get a good night's sleep in my own bed at home. On HAL we always got a good night's sleep, we never had one on this ship. The balcony was of adequate size but only had two uncomfortable chairs and a tiny table. The couch was curved in the wrong direction with a rock hard back making it all but unusable. DON'T order room serves as there is no place to eat. A possible solution to this is to put a much larger table on the balcony so it can be used to eat and to write if you are so inclined. The bottom line, IMHO these rooms were poorly designed and will be a fatal flaw to the success of this ship after the newness wares off. Anyone considering sailing on this ship should either spend the extra money to get a suite or select another NCL ship with conventional room design.
2) Go to the bathroom before leaving your room. It seemed to us that there are fewer bathrooms in the common areas and I never saw a sign to direct you to the ones that do exist so we could find them. On HAL there are bathrooms everywhere and the signage made you easily aware of their existence and location.
3) I'm sure the captain is extremely competent being selected to manage the most expensive ship in the NCL fleet. But his persona was one of the worst I have ever experienced. He spent more announcement time telling us of the medical emergencies than anything else. On HAL and RCCL we got used to the captain coming on at 12 noon telling us where we are and some points of interest about the ship and its current location. Maybe English is not his primary language but he needs to be more passenger friendly. He is the "star" of the ship and needs to be less aloof and far more audibly accessible.
4) The ports of call are just not good. With all of many our cruises we have been to every Caribbean Island and quite frankly it is difficult to distinguish one from another. There are some that stick out as our favorites, St. Maarten, Aruba, Curacao and Bermuda. And then there are many that we visited making the decision not to get off the ship. Unfortunately two on our worst ports of call list were ports on this cruise. Again IMHO Roatan and Nassau are ones that offer nothing to us. That said I recognize that many would disagree. As we get older, anyplace where we feel unsafe walking on the streets are ones we avoid. This is the case with Nassau and St. Thomas.
5) I would have loved to tour the inner workings of the ship and was excited to hear that a tour was available, but when I was told that the price to tour the ship was $55 per person, it actually infuriated me. I can see charging a fee to diminish demand, but I felt the fee bordered on gouging and refused to partake. If NCL is going to charge this ridiculous fee, they should provide some information on what you are going to see to attempt to justify the exorbitant cost.
Some suggestions...if someone from NCL actually reads this.
1) I doubt if there is a cost effective structural fix to the balcony rooms. It's done and NCL and its guests will have to live with it. As a business consultant for most of my career, I would advise you to accentuate the few positives that exist in the rooms and hope that the rooms don't permeate the cruising experience of your EPIC guests. I would do this by creating a video to be shown in the room on the extremely limited fare of TV viewing that educates your guests as to the positive aspects of the rooms and the ship in general. It should include a video chronology of the ship's building extolling its features with commentary on the decision process of the basic design to justify the decisions that were made. I would show some tips like having to put your room card into the slot to turn on the lights and AC in the room. If we hadn't read it on cruise critic, we would not have known until we inquired with the room steward why the lights won't come on.
2) I would have a book in the room that describes the ship, how to get around and giving people tips on unused areas. I found that the "cruise director" wasn't the best I have experienced lacking in enthusiasm and drive. He or she is your 'cheerleader' and should be ever present extolling the activities of the ship. He should be welcoming guests at every entertainment venue. I saw him twice on the ship and listened to his announcements but was far from motivated or impressed.
3) On other lines, we always looked forward to the final bill not only to see with horror how much we spent, but also to get some of the fun facts that occurred on the trip. It includes how many miles we sailed, how much food was consumed and the like. Easy to do, inexpensive and always appreciated.
As we approach retirement, we will continue to take 2 to 3 cruises a year until our money runs out or we are physically unable to make the trips. We considered sailing on the EPIC for the upcoming crossing, but unfortunately, we aren't willing to pay for a more expensive room and will never book a balcony room again. There are some HAL and RCCL ships that we have been on more than once as we absolutely loved the ship and crew, the EPIC will not be on that list. I'm sorry to say that I suppose with the current demographics there are enough cruisers to occupy most of the rooms on all of your cruises but in the long run, IMHO NCL will have to discount fares to keep the ship at adequate occupancy levels and hope that the guests spend enough money during the cruise to keep it at an acceptable level of profitability. I have never experienced a trip that had so many exemplary features along with so many flawed attributes.