This was our third cruise on NCL; first on the magnificent Epic. We also have six cruises on RCCL, plus I also have a couple each on Carnival and Celebrity.
Our traveling party was just three people, me and my boyfriend in a Category BD Balcony plus a family friend in a studio; forty-ish; no kids. We did an Eastern Caribbean itinerary in mid-September 2010. This was by far the best service we've received on an NCL ship (comparable to RCCL & Celebrity) and the ship itself is fabulous. I highly recommend taking a voyage on Epic before NCL repositions her to Europe in early 2011. If I remember correctly, our trip had 3,968 passengers and the only time it felt crowded was when the Cirque and Blue Man shows let out. Otherwise I was very pleased with the passenger flow, ability to get reservations, ability to get food off the buffet, elevator response time, etc.
We live in Florida, so we did not have any pre- or post-cruise arrangements other than an easy drive on Florida's Turnpike. We arrived at the Miami port about 11:30. We dropped off our bags and headed for the "C" garage, which still had plenty of parking spots. Parking for the week was $140, payable at the end of the cruise. Once we were in line inside we saw a sign that said embarkation started at ten a.m. Dang, we could've gotten onboard earlier! Don't forget to keep a pen handy as you head into embarkation so you can fill out one form per person saying you haven't been ill. We call this the "I don't have the poops" form. I'm always loaning out pens to people in line who don't realize they have to fill this out on the way in.
Embarkation was very smooth through check in, but then it got a bit strange. After we produced passports, credit cards, and got our ship cards at the counter we took the escalator up and a couple of fifteen year olds with microphones right out of a fast food drive up window speaker were herding people into roped off areas. They did not appear to be sorting people by any logical fashion. Nobody asked our deck, cabin, Latitudes status, or asked to see our ship cards. While our party and a few folks behind and in front of us were herded to a roped in area the next batch of ten or so people was let right through. We watched for about thirty minutes and never did figure out what they were saying, nor did we ever see them "release" any of the folks from roped in areas. I wear hearing aids, so I've got an excuse, but the people with me that can hear perfectly well couldn't make out what they were saying. None of the people sitting around us had any idea why they were in this area or what was going on. The "herders" just kept putting more and more people in the roped off areas while letting random groups go straight through. We finally just got up, walked out of our roped in area, stopped for the obligatory welcome aboard photo, and walked on the ship. NCL really needs some better organization here if they're going to insist on detaining passengers between check in and boarding.
Cabin: Once onboard we wandered around the ship, stopped for lunch, and headed to the general vicinity of our cabins around 2 pm, right after NCL announced the cabins were ready. We loved our cabin! As I mentioned earlier, this was a Category BD Balcony (Cabin 11169). We had what I think is the preferred layout with the bed by the balcony door instead of by the sink. Unfortunately, I don't think there is any way to tell from NCL's web site which layout the cabin has - guess you have to ask? We just got lucky.
Cabin was mid-ship and had a very large triangular balcony that came with two regular chairs and a table. It was easily big enough to accommodate a lounger; I thought about asking for one to be brought up but never did. The cabin had tons of storage. This was probably the neatest we've kept a cabin just because there were plenty of places to stash our things. Another great thing about the location of this particular cabin, it was right over the spot where the port pilots jump on and off the Epic. Once I figured that out I was hanging over the balcony to watch the boats pull up alongside while I tried to take action photos of the guys jumping on and off. Pretty cool to watch.
My one cabin complaint would be the TV. I am partially deaf and watch TV with closed captions despite having hearing aids. Only two channels were closed captioned. Even the pay per view movies do not have closed captioning. Based on the age of a lot of the cruisers I saw I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one on that ship that wore hearing aids. Pretty disappointing for a brand new ship. My boyfriend wanted me to mention that "ESPN" on the TV is really ESPN2. The only NFL football was on the big screen in the Atrium; in the rooms we got cricket. Really? Cricket? Practicing for that 2011 relocation to Europe already? There were not many channels and the info channel only had three songs on a loop - Sting putting out an SOS, Tom Petty running down a dream, and Big Country singing about their big country. There was a guitarist playing outside the liquor store one night when we walked up. He started playing the SOS song and we had to quickly flee for the elevator to keep from laughing. No! The song is everywhere! It's following us! Suffice it to say, NCL really needs to work on the TV offerings because I find watching cheesy movies a great way to spend vacation. You may have read a lot about water splashing out of the faucet in the balcony cabins. We did not have that problem, but I have to admit the huge faucet, while useful for rinsing out tall souvenir drink glasses, was pretty inconvenient for face washing and tooth brushing. The faucet doesn't rotate (at least not that we could figure out) and it does take up most of the sink. So the only time we had water splash problems was from me washing my face since I couldn't get my big head down over the sink. As for the bathroom arrangement where there wasn't a separate bathroom, we liked it. If one of us was in the shower the other still had access to the sink and the toilet. NCL should provide some sort of tie back for the privacy curtain since it tends to creep across the cabin, but until then you might want to bring a ribbon or something. I used a spare hair clip and that kept it back pretty well.
My one bathroom complaint is pretty much the same one I have on every cruise ship so far - the showers are clearly designed by men that don't shave their legs. Would a little shelf or something kill you? You really don't want me in your poolside hairy leg contests, so come on next gen cruise ship designers - add a foothold for the ladies! Other than that, the shower was great - plenty of room. The newer torpedo tube styles are much better than the older curtained off models.
We booked our shows online in advance (45 days prior to departure). We booked preferred seating for Cirque Dinner & Dreams ($20 per person). Prior to the show you get in either the preferred seating line or the regular seating line. We queued up about 40 minutes prior and were almost at the front of the line. Make sure every guest has their ship card as they swipe each guest individually (not per party). I've read several reviews that complained about the food, but we thought the food and service were very good. I've since read that NCL changed the dining menu, so I won't bother going into great detail on the menu for our show. We let the server know immediately when we sat down that the two gentlemen in our party wanted their steaks very rare. Strangely, they got a different cut of meat but it was still well done. The show was great. We really enjoyed it except for one thing - an infant at the table behind us screamed and shrieked through almost the entire show. The mother finally took the baby outside, but the show was probably 90% done at that point. Not sure if staff finally asked her to leave or if she figured out she wasn't in her living room. If NCL is going to charge extra for this they should put a minimum age on the show. I don't think an adults only show is unreasonable. Blue Man Group was also excellent. Again, make sure every guest has their ship card as they swipe them individually (not one per party). We queued up about 30 minutes prior and had no problem finding seats in the fifth row (keeping in mind the first two rows are "splash zone"). On the last sea day there was a Blue Man Q&A session in the Atrium that was also very entertaining. NCL should probably move this to a bigger venue as it was standing room only with folks five or six deep standing in the back. If they leave it in the Atrium go early for a seat!
I was disappointed to miss the magician act. There was an early show on embarkation day (8 pm) so I assumed there would be other early shows later in the week. Wrong! All the shows later in the week were after my bed time. Curses!
Dining: We only had one meal in Taste; lunch on the first day. My boyfriend was very unimpressed with the Cheesesteak sandwich since the cheese was apparently out of a can. The spring rolls I had were excellent - I ordered them every time I found them in a dining venue. The penne pasta I had for my main course was ok. The first night we had dinner in Moderno, which is basically a clone of Texas de Brazil. I highly recommend Moderno ($18 per person). Start off at the huge salad bar, but don't get carried away as there is plenty of meat coming up. Let your server know how you want your meat prepared. I prefer mine well done, but my two dining companions wanted it so rare it was still mooing. We did not have any problem getting our meat cooked to the appropriate temperature. My favorite is the garlic steak, but there are other steak types/cuts as well as sausages, chicken, and lamb. On the first sea day (and all the rest of the sea days) we had breakfast and lunch in the Garden Cafe buffet. If there aren't any tables available on either side of the buffet, just head around to the back, where you'll find a great view, restrooms, but no additional food. We thought the food quality in the buffet was very good. Service at the walk up bar in the middle of the buffet was quick for both bar beverages and sodas. For breakfast the omelet station usually had a short line but it moved quickly. For dinner on the second night we had the early Cirque show (which includes dinner), followed by a few desserts from the buffet, which is open until 9:30 pm. The next night we had Blue Man Group, so we did an early buffet dinner before the show with buffet dessert after the show. I was a big fan of the buffet nacho bar and the cheese station - the smoked cheddar cubes were awesome! The salad bar had a lot of variety but the different salad dressings I tried were a little too watered down.
After St. Maarten (Day 3) we dined in the Manhattan Room. Taste and the Manhattan room have the same basic menu every night, with a few new items every day (remember, you can view the restaurant menus on the interactive TV in your cabin). Food and service were ok, except for their inability to get the fountain soda to turn out right. I finally hunted down a manager who brought me canned soda for the rest of the meal. I had the French onion soup, which was ok; a little sparse on cheese. My boyfriend really liked the mushroom quesadilla. Lobster was ok; I had mine without the fish accompaniment. He thought his lamb was overcooked, but the sea bass was good.
We went to Teppanyaki (aka slicey dicey place - $25 per person) after St. Thomas (Day 4). Food and show were excellent, except (again) for the soda service. If NCL is going to charge fifty bucks for an adult soda card for the week they really need to make sure their staff provides the beverages. Interestingly, all the folks at our table ordered one of the same two entrees: either the steak and shrimp or the shrimp and scallops, which is the one I had (excellent!). The meal also comes with a cup of soup, small salad, fried rice (you can ask for steamed rice if you like), and a vegetable tower of onion, carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash. There are a couple of desserts on the menu, but a couple at our table had an anniversary and they generously had the rather large cake NCL delivered (with song!) shared with the table. I didn't hear anyone complain about the food other than how full they were at the end!
For the final sea day (Day 5) we dined at Shanghai for Asian ($15 per person). We thought this tied with Moderno for best dining service on board. Food and service were excellent. We were a little concerned it might be smoky due to the proximity to the casino, but the restaurant is much larger than it appears from looking at just the entrance so we had no problems getting a table in the back area away from the entrance. The appetizer ribs were excellent - the guys ordered seconds. I had a scallop dish for my main course that was excellent. Our friend had the orange peel beef and was pleased with that dish. On our last day we were busy packing up after getting in late from Nassau, so we opted for a quick buffet dinner before we headed to Ice Bar. I really think they should open Ice Bar up on the sea day afternoons, but for now it is only open in the evenings. The $20 per person fee includes some really tiny little gloves that stretch surprisingly well, a hooded poncho that is a bit open on the sides (wish I had worn long sleeves!), and two drinks from the pre-set menu. The hostess gives you two drink coupons that you redeem with the bartenders. A nice gentleman on his way out didn't use both of his coupons and gave the spare to us. The non-alcoholic creamsicle or dreamsicle drink really did taste just like the ice cream bar - excellent!
During a couple of afternoons we stopped in O'Sheehan's for snacks. Service varied from very attentive to non-existant. The spinach dip and chips were tasty, but a very small portion of dip. The wings were also very good. I was afraid they'd take the easy way out and just dump tobacco sauce on them but they actually used a very flavorful sauce. The brownie sundae was also quite good.
We also had a couple of stops at the Atrium bar. First for a soda card when we first got on the boat. I did not see the big displays selling soda cards like they had on RCCL, but had read in someone else's review to proceed directly to the Atrium bar to pick one up. The pastries here are free and the service, including bar service, was quite good. The orange cake was particularly tasty!
And finally, a few random tidbits that don't fit in the other sections:
• In the balcony cabins, the switch for the sink light is under the cabinet, on the actual cabinet itself. • The sink stopper doesn't twist open/closed. Push on it to pop it up/down. • Any card will work in your card holder by the door. My SteinMart frequent shopper card kept the lights & air on for us all week. • As you enter the buffet from the main indoor entrance there is a desk to the right where you can make dinner and/or Ice Bar reservations. The staff was always very helpful and we never had to wait in line to be helped. • If you have tons of electronics be sure to bring an extension cord/power strip. The desk only has two outlets and they are rather inconveniently placed under the desk. • If the phone display is too bright for you at night touch the light bulb in the upper right hand corner to put the display to sleep. • There is a shopping area on Deck 15 between the kids' pool area and the adults' pool area (Spice H2O). On the last sea day they have Epic branded t-shirts two for $20. These designs are not in the main Epic merchandise shop. We like them better and bought a lot, so plan ahead and go early!
To reiterate, we had a great time on the Epic. It is a beautiful ship. I didn't go into the ports in this review because we have been to all of them before and mainly just wanted to see the Epic. We were not disappointed.