Background: My DH and I love to cruise and since 1998 have spent more than 30 weeks on board ships. I research all cruise lines to find ships that fit our budget, and offer a variety of ports, dining, entertainment, lifestyle and activities that suit us. In the last few years, when I narrowed down my cruise selections I invariably ended up booking NCL (14 times). This is ALWAYS based on the fantastic value received. Capitalizing on the deals that were offered for early booking we reserved the back-to-back Eastern and Western Caribbean routes. The Epic did not disappoint.
Prior to Embarkation: We have learned to arrive at the home port at least a day in advance to ensure we encounter no last minute flight glitches, to enjoy the port, and to be rested and ready to begin our sea adventure. This time we stayed at the Marriot Biscayne Bay (moderately expensive) which was undergoing some lobby renovations. The room renovations were complete, beautifully decorated and offered an excellent view of the Epic's pre-dawn entry into port. (I only caught the very last part of it docking but it was impressive!) I requested an early arrival and we were in our room by 10:30 a.m. We then took the free people mover to the Bayside Mall, browsed around to pick up last minute items including a large bottle of eyeglass cleaner (more on this later) and lunched at Mambos - a very good dockside Cuban restaurant. There were also several nice restaurants in the mall adjoining our hotel. We had a delicious diner at the Uruguayan Los Gauchitos Steakhouse.
Embarkation: Saturday we were up early and taxied to the ship around 11:00 where we walked through security right to the Gold Latitudes desk. We then found a seat in the waiting lounge and met several fellow cruise critic members. After a wait of about 30 minutes we were led onto the Epic, no muss, no fuss. The greeters were very welcoming and ready to direct you to wherever you wanted to go. Our first stop was a reservations desk (and there are many throughout the ship) to book the ice bar and confirm some additional restaurant choices. Then it was off to the buffet for a quick lunch. My luggage arrived promptly but DH received a notice to go to the "naughty room" where he was surrounded by travelers bemoaning the failure of their alcohol smuggling. All laughed when DH's "contraband" was the eyeglass cleaner. Warning! The Epic confiscates your alcohol (even if you're tricky and put it in an Evian bottle) and returns it at the end of the cruise. Finally we were off to explore the Epic.
The Ship: The Epic is impressive. Everything about it is state-of-the-art and its design was one reason we chose it. I know there have been both positive and negative reviews but for us it was almost all positive. Sure the elevators are located each end of the ship, but the walk was healthy (and for the fearful, there are plenty of crew stairs throughout in case of emergencies. STOP Worrying!) The handicapped may have a problem but all those that we met were smiling throughout the cruise. The only time we had a few minutes wait at an elevator was embarkation and right after returning from a port. The design was appealing, not too glitzy with mostly blues and browns (my favorite colors). There were interactive screens at all elevators to assist you in finding your way. Tap a button and there's plotted directions to dining, entertainment, activities, and shopping with hours and availability. There were Crew located throughout the ship who were very helpful with directions and advice. Mid ship escalators will take you from deck 5-6 and a spiral staircase from 6-7 where most of the action is. We found there were very busy areas (O'Sheehan's Pub) and areas where you could curl up with a book and relax (the area between Spice H2O and the Marketplace.)
Entertainment Venues: Because we had two weeks we were able to enjoy all of the entertainment. Wildfire (a keyboardist and electric violinist) in the atrium were particularly good and the dance floor was often filled. (The large screen TV was also used for everything from giant Wii games to the most popular Sunday/Monday football.) It gave everyone something to do or watch while waiting for help at the information or shore excursion desks. A nice idea. What is also nice about the Epic is that although it's huge, it has both open and enclosed venues. This allows for several types of really good entertainment to occur without large crowds and without the noise/music impinging on each other. While you can enjoy a pianist in Shakers, the open Martini bar, you can also go to Headliners and enjoy Second City or Howl at the Moon dueling pianos. (Headliners felt exactly like New York City's Comedy Club.) My advice is to skip Second City's improv show and go with one that is partially scripted - much funnier. Fat Cats was another intimate lounge with great Jazz.
Other venues included the Epic Theater and the Spiegel Tent. In the tent we saw the comedian/magician (very good) and Cirque Dreams (extra fee & just a short wait on line.) Try to sit upstairs. Although some have complained about the Cirque dreams dinner, I believe there's a new menu that may alleviate the complaints. Our dinner was good and I would have gone back just for the BATHTUB acrobat. Ladies - do not miss his act. Someone at the next table asked if he was "dessert."
With the B2B we were fortunate to see two versions of Legends in Concert - Week 1 - Elvis, Madonna & Tina Turner. Week 2- Brittney Spears, Rod Stewart and Michael Jackson. You're going to love the acts. They're free and very well done. In fact, if you watch the two video screens on each side of the stage you'll see that the performers are almost always exactly in sync with the actual stars.
Blue Man Group was... The Blue Man Group. If you've never seen them, go - it's worth the fee. Even though I had to change my reservation 3 times I had no problem getting in. I understand others have encountered crowds but we were fortunate to find space in all the venues at both early and late shows. Of all the performances, the only one that involved a wait and was sold out was Cirque. One hint is to arrive at least 20 minutes before any of the performances. It's just enough time to get a drink or an Irish coffee. Then sit back and enjoy the shows.
We also visited the Ice Bar and I consider that an activity because it's so cold you never sit down. Since there are only 9 Ice Bars in the world it's worth a visit ($20pp.) Two drinks are included and the Polaris was the best one. Wear your socks and athletic shoes or your frozen feet will quickly force you to leave. DH and I lasted about 25 minutes, just long enough to take pictures and chat with the other visitors.
Sorry folks but we missed the late night entertainment and had to catch it on TV the next day. Dancing with the Stars and Fabba both looked like they were fun and Silas Cook, the cruise director, and his staff were incredible.
Activity Venues: Yes, gentle readers the pools will be crowded if you go on a sunny sea day. After all, a tan is one of the souvenirs you take home from a Caribbean cruise. And, as my DH explained, "A pool on the ocean, a 40-foot LARGE screen TV showing Sunday football, someone replenishing my drinks...priceless!!"
If you're not into swimming you'll find plenty of deck chairs on the higher decks (18). There were also some day passes available to the Posh Beach Club on Deck 18. We opted for Spice H2O, the adult's only pool which converts to a dance floor for nighttime activities. On sea days we were there around 10:30 and barely found chairs. On Port Days many chairs were open right into the late afternoon and the pool was fairly empty. Only once did a few twenty-somethings decide to do cannonballs and disturb others but it was stopped very quickly. (And we thought it was the children who would be rowdy?.) Our pool waiter, Jason knew our names and drinks by the second day, kept an eye out for available lounge chairs, brought enormous buckets of ice to put our drinks in and spritzed us with cool water every half hour. Luxurious! He also was quick to remove the towels from several chairs after I mentioned that no one had used them for over 40 minutes and others were waiting. Evidently the sunbathers had gone to lunch and were slow to return. Signs do warn you about reserving chairs and not using them. Areas where both adults and children were having outdoor fun were the rock climbing/rappelling wall, the spider climb, bungee jump and of course, the water slides. My DH tried the purple slide which was the easiest. Go for the yellow and green if you dare! Other activities that we watched included nighttime ice skating and bowling.
Indoors we attended a few trivia games, port and shopping lectures and the ever popular martini and margarita clinics. The shopping lectures were long and I recommend you watch them on your room TV while dressing. Then you just focus on just the parts that interest you. I had to leave when Rudy said every one of us "must" buy a diamond this cruise. However there are many benefits of visiting Rudy for his VIP cards and listening to his advice if you're a serious jewelry shopper.
Also check out the Photography center. I understand that it's new to several ships and uses facial recognition to catalogue our photos from the first onboard photo where we gave them our cabin number. From then on all our photos could be viewed on-line at a computer station or in a loose leaf binder. What a great idea. No more scouring the walls finding a picture and then having to decide if you want it or risk losing it when new pictures are added to the wall.
Spa and Fitness: Fortunately for me, Rosanna, the excellent stylist who cut, colored and highlighted my hair on the Jewel in April was transferred to the Epic and I used her talents again. She also does the special 3 -or- 4 combination of treatments for $129 and both my DH and I took advantage of that. Wonderful facial, hand and foot massages! I highly recommend her. We also purchased the couples' one- week Spa package for $199. The spa is really lovely with both indoor and outdoor lounges, heated lounge chairs, steam and saunas, and a variety of water treatments beyond Jacuzzis. Unfortunately there was so much to do, we didn't use it often enough to make it cost-effective. We would have been better off with a $30 day pass. The fitness center is state-of-the-art and will not disappoint the most discerning athlete. (That's not us.) What most impressed me was the spin room with cardio arm bands computerized to show your progress on the front wall computer screen. Fortunately you're only identified by numbers so no one knows if you're slacking off.
Cruise Critic/Latitude Activities: We attended two meet and greets and several Latitudes parties. At every party, the key crew members were introduced including Captain Svedun who was very personable and Hotel Director Klaus Lugmaier. Klaus encouraged all of us to contact him directly if we had a problem. He handed out his telephone extension number (8888) as well as those of all the Directors (well, not Captain Svedun) He was determined to make our cruise as trouble -free as possible and reiterated that we should not wait until we were home to tell him what may have disappointed us. He wanted to know NOW so he could fix it. Soooo...when I mentioned I was conducting two cabin crawls, he immediately got on his cell, contacted Ana from crew services and had her assist me in the room tours. Not knowing the way around the ship, I depended on Ana make my tours move quickly and efficiently. And... when my internet minutes were lost on the second week's sailing, I dialed 8888 and Klaus had them restored with even a few extra minutes. I was a happy traveler! I also chatted with Anil Kumar, the executive chef, Serhat Kati, restaurant manager and Silas Cook, cruise director. It amazed me how often in the next two weeks I saw them and they greeted me by name. They always asked if I was finding the food or activities to my liking.
Ship Shopping: Oh happy shopper! Typically available for one night on cruises, the Bijou Turner $10 items like evening bags, jewelry and watches were unveiled early in the cruise and were in the ship stores for several days. Also, there was a terrific sale of watch sets (Women's watch+jewelry or Men's watch+pens/calculators/cufflinks) 2 sets for $40. I suggest you get there early because the crowds are unbelievable and the sets are really nice. I now have several Christmas gifts for friends and relatives. And there were soft cotton Tees with cute studded seahorses, turtles and other creatures -- 2 for $30 in both the stores and poolside marketplace. For the higher end items there was a lovely mall-like area with unique stores for Jewelry, sundries, clothing, Epic-wear, children's items, make-up and perfume (I felt like I was in Macy's or Nordstrom's.)
Dining: Having a B2B cruise gave us the opportunity to sample all of the restaurants except the Teppanaki (been there - done that at home) and it's hard to single out one as better then another because they all have an individual flair. One overriding comment is that the service was impeccable at all the restaurants. At every instance we were asked by our server and the restaurant manager if our meal was satisfactory.
We ate at Manhattan only once and did enjoy the "Supper Club" atmosphere. There are only two restaurants that require long pants for men. - Manhattan and Le Bistro. My DH grumbled a bit when he had to return to our cabin and change out of shorts but I did see that many men were in jeans so the dress code is fairly relaxed. Manhattan and Taste's menus are the same - a set menu (with 2 fish, 2 meats, chicken and vegetarian) and a selection of courses that change daily. We tried the steak and a pork dishes which were tasty and nicely presented. We also had the cheesecake and a Crème Brulee to finish the meal. ALL of the Epic's Crème Brulee's are excellent. Martin, the Restaurant Manager spent several minutes chatting with us and talking about the dining/dancing aspect of the restaurant. It was working out very nicely. This restaurant is also used to preview the Legends Concert performers so you can get a sneak peek if you want.
We ate several breakfasts, lunches, and one dinner at Taste and weren't disappointed. If you want to conserve your money, these restaurants won't disappoint. But they are not too adventurous and except for lobster night, they keep to standard items. I would definitely allot funds for the specialty restaurants. After all, for most, the fine dining is a major part of cruising.
For me to spend extra on dining I expect to find a venue with a view, appropriate music, top-notch service and food that pleases the palate. With the exception of the noodle bar (no view), each of the Epic's specialty restaurants have these qualities. The restaurant we ate in the most was La Cucina ($10pp), the Italian restaurant that is accessed by descending a vine-adorned staircase from the front of the Buffet to deck 14. From the moment you step past the leafy full-sized tree you feel that you are truly in an Italian eatery. It was spaced well with brick fronted walls separating parts of the room to reduce noise. We never made a reservation but arrived for diner and were seated (almost immediately) at sunset so we had spectacular skies to go with our risotto and osso bucco. Another dinner included the Chicken Parmesan and the pork saltimbocca. The server warned me that the pork was a new dish and that I should tell them immediately if it was overcooked. It wasn't and I ate it all.
Something new is that on the Epic there are wonderful lounges at the entry of several of the restaurants. They afford more privacy and a buffer from the hallway noise as well a place to relax or wait for seating (never necessary for us.) At Cagney's/Moderno there's also a bar where several times a week the martinis are 2 for 1. We ate at Moderno the first cruise night and it was a treat. For those who haven't had a Brazilian meal you are seated and then can go to the salad bar where you have literally hundreds of selections. You'll find shrimp cocktail, ceviche, lovely asparagus with bEarnaise sauce and many other vegetable, meat, bread and cheese choices. But save room for the carvings. When you return to your seat you'll find a card with a red (stop) and green (go) side. Turn up the green side and the parade of meats begins. There are 10 choices from Filet mignon to strip steaks to chicken and sausages. It's overwhelming! And we had a lovely chat with our Brazilian Hostess who was knowledgeable about all the food.
Cagney's ($25 pp) was also excellent and I splurged on the surf and turf ($10 additional pp). Our server brought our meat and then patiently waited until we cut into the beef and tasted it to ensure it was the correct wellness and temperature. A first for me. The meal was excellent and the view was again a spectacular sunset.
Le Bistro ($20pp) is our favorite restaurant and we enjoyed 2 dinners there. For our anniversary we splurged on the Cote du Boeuf (additional $10 pp). It's a fantastic steak carved table-side and melted in our mouths. Both the manager and our server were adamant about it being EXACTLY the wellness we requested. It was, and the other courses were also perfect. Here is where you'll find an excellent French onion soup, escargot, bouillabaisse, pate, and an excellent Duo de Canard (duck) course. Naturally, we had an anniversary song and their complementary cake. And be sure to try their chocolate fondue. When we had to leave abruptly to take care of something, the hostess held our wine and cake until we returned. Thank you! Oh and several of the specialty restaurants include an amuse bouche (a small yummy appetizer complements of the chef.)
We also enjoyed Shanghai for Chinese, although I did order some sort of curry that was just spicy enough. And the Noodle bar was fun. It's a la carte and we shared a noodle soup, fried rice and another curry. Total was $14 and we were full. The only restaurant that was a bit disappointing was Wasabi. There we ordered several rolls and thought they were more rice then fish. It was also a la carte and was around $20 for both of us. Also, if you're not watching the sushi chef perform, the only view is of the crystal chandelier hanging over the Taste restaurant. Pretty but nothing like a sunset.
I heard that the chicken pot pie was the best choice at O'Sheehan's so we went there for lunch. The place was very busy (as a pub should be) with pool tables and air hockey games in progress and lots of noise and chatter. It's sort of the hub of the ship and very lively. I wouldn't choose it for dinner unless you like that atmosphere. DH had a burger and was well satisfied.
We ate several breakfasts in the buffet and found the food excellent. There were sufficient omelet stations there so that I only had to wait a few minutes. The trick is to find a table and then take turns getting your food. We found that if we ate before 8:30 am we didn't have a problem finding a table. And La Cucina was open if you wanted a more quiet space. Also, in the past the majority of NCL's desserts appeared to have gelatin in them - mousse-like concoctions that were called "mousse" or "cheesecake"." I was pleased to see more "real" desserts like pecan pie and chocolate cake. And high praise for the crepes and the ice cream/soft serve bar. Thank you Chef Kumar!
Spice H2O's grill served good burgers and fries as well as interesting Indian vegetarian dishes and I tried both. DH stuck to American staples like hot dogs and sausages. But my all time favorite was the macadamia brownies. I never found them anywhere but at that grill.
Staterooms: A lot has been said on the boards about the Epic's stateroom designs and I was looking forward to viewing them to see if the stories (good and bad) were true. Leading the two cabin crawls I was able to view an Inside, Balcony, Aft balcony, Deluxe Balcony, Family Deluxe Balcony, Spa Deluxe Balcony and the Studios. Overall, the difference in the balconies looked minimal to me. There was some awkwardness moving around the beds and when the couches were opened into beds it would be tight. The best things about them were the ample storage, the extra beds hidden in the ceiling and the coffee pots! The cabin owners did have a few complaints about the room sizes. I think prospective cruisers would have to look at all the cabins designs and then decide where you would want to compromise whether it be space, the view or the cost. The only one I would recommend is the studios.
When I finished the cabin crawl I was so pleased that I had selected our two adjoining studios which were located in a key card-accessed private corridor. DH has snoring problems and after 42 years together, the separate beds weren't a problem. The studios are designed for one and were perfect. They had sliding doors fronting two closets that could hold at least 10 hanging items each. There were two baskets under the bed that were three-foot square and were the cabin's "drawer" space. There were "cubby holes" for makeup, papers and other sundries. I had plenty of space, my own TV and bathroom, and left my DH to unpack as he pleased. We left the adjoining door open and each night we chatted between rooms before turning out the light.
And, dear readers, if you've traveled NCL before you recall that the Espresso/cappuccino machines in the Buffet were removed. Well... the Living room -- exclusively for the studio cabins -- has the machine!!! Heaven!! Every night I made the short trip down the hall, pushed the cappuccino button and whoosh!!! There was my favorite drink. Free!! The Living Room was also arranged for solo travelers to meet each other and a Crew staff member organized dinners and other events for them. I never found the Living Room too busy.
And the cabin bathrooms...Well my fellow cabin crawlers had a lot of comments on their sinks and the frosted glass enclosed showers and toilets. Not all of them good. We did love the handicapped bathroom that was completely enclosed. And the curtain separating the bathing area from the bed and living area of the inside/balcony cabins was recommended. But overall no one wanted to share the bathroom "noise" and the "view" with any cabin member not married to them. As for DH and I, we made the right choice and had many nights of restful sleep on our studio's pillow top beds and in the darkness (after we shut off the light on the telephone.)
Oh, and Ana, our Guest Services helper, made a special effort to invite us all up to the Villa cabins where we were able to tour a two-bedroom, 2 bath villa, an owner's suite and the private lounges, dining room and outdoor areas. Certainly no problem with bathrooms there.
Destinations/Excursions: We've traveled the Caribbean several times and had visited all the ports so the Epic, not destinations, was our primary reason for selecting this cruise. In Cozumel we did a bit of shopping but only for inexpensive souvenirs. The quality is not as good as you will find in the Eastern Caribbean. Costa Maya is strictly a ship port. When you walk off the ship there is an open mall with stores and a pool with swim-up bar. Many took advantage of this. Others reserved Palapas (covered lounges) at pricy seaside venues that included all you could eat and drink in addition to sun, sand and sea. Roatan was where we chose to enjoy a massage at Spa Ban Suerte. A taxi ($20pp round trip) driven by the manager of the spa took us to the private estate where we enjoyed a couples massage (his -- Swedish, mine -- warm stone) for less than half what the ship spa would charge. After the massage we had a private pool, whirlpool and beach to enjoy before our ride back to the ship. Decadent!!
The Eastern Caribbean week had more interesting stops and we enjoyed browsing through the shops of St. Martin and St. Thomas. We would have taxied to Magen's Bay but we knew with the shore time only 12 noon to 6:00, the afternoon traffic could cause cruisers to miss the boat. Sure enough, a few cruisers missed the boat and had to be transported out to the ship by a port boat. Nassau had the best bargains and I found the straw market to be loaded with souvenir "deals." The vendors always haggle and you can get some very good prices on handbags, wallets and local crafts. In the main shops, Rudy, our shopping guide and his staff was all over the place helping cruisers with directions and suggestions on where to get the best deals.
Medical Center: This was the first time we had ever needed to use the medical center and found it to be state-of-the-art. Dr. Ruben Parejo (from Columbia) and his nurse were very professional and spoke perfect English. The office, with sleek reception, efficient examining room and even a surgery room was equal or even better equipped than our home physician's office. My DH's foot problem was diagnosed and treated, and we were sent off with pills ($19) and an office visit ($105) that I must submit to my NCL insurance.
B2B Debarkation: This process is and probably always will be a work in progress. The efficient disembarking and embarking of B2B's evidently depends on how quickly the regular passengers leave the ship. As a B2B or "In transit" passenger, we assembled in the Atrium, put on our "In Transit" sticker and waited for our escort. We were then escorted off the ship and up to customs where there was quite a line. Our escort instructed us to complete customs, exit the building and return through terminal C. When we exited an NCL person told us that we could also reenter from Terminal B so we walked onto that line. After about 10 minutes another NCL person came for all of us and quickly pulled us out of line and back into the terminal where we were walked back onto the ship. Evidently the delay was because regular passengers disregarded the disembarkation calls and the ship wasn't cleared, preventing our re-embarkation. A small glitch.
Final Debarkation: We opted to use NCL's BAGGS program. This program ($20 pp plus the airline's checked bag fees) takes our checked baggage directly to the plane and provides our boarding passes. The night before arrival, we put our bags outside our cabin and never saw them again until we claimed them at Newark airport. Arrival day we breakfasted and read in the Atrium until last call for disembarkation. A smooth ending to one of our best vacations.
Thank Yous: First we must thank Sonja our room steward who was so efficient. She made sure my NCL robe was always replaced when damp, and strategically placed our complementary snacks on the limited desk space. She also made the extra effort to clean our rooms first (out of 22 cabins) on the cabin crawl days and left us door stoppers so cruisers could enter without bumping into a "door holder" person. And all the towel animals were sooo cute. Thank you Sonja.
Hotel Director Klaus, was everywhere. He greeted us at 8 a.m. in the breakfast buffet and at 10 p.m. in the Atrium. He was at all of our parties and always stopped to talk and ask if we needed anything. When he said, "I've got your back," he really meant it. Thanks for everything.
Crew Services Ana and Rashida - A special thanks Ana for all your efforts, You made a difficult challenge into a pleasure and the villa tours were an added bonus. Rashida - you were wonderful and very helpful. I hope you found a sparkly item in St. Thomas.
Jason - a perfect pool attendant, knowledgeable about the drinks, there when we needed him and not pushy at all.
Travelers vs. Tourists: Over the years we have learned that "tourists" expect their vacation to be exactly like their Travel brochures - picture perfect in every way. "Travelers," on the other hand, expect a vacation to be different from home - sometimes relaxing, sometimes exciting, sometime problematic and always...different. DH and I are travelers. When there were "glitches" we adjusted. Negatives of this cruise included: Hot pool decks which required wearing your flip flops right to the pool ladder; a lack of sea views which meant you had to make the effort to reserve window seats in the dining room or take your camera and jockey for space poolside to photograph arrivals or sailaways; No true promenade to walk or jog with sea views; Rooms that are not perfectly designed for multiple occupancy; Terrible NCL coupon offers where you had to purchase more than $100 worth of spa or store items; a very smoky casino; and pricey specialty dining venues. We adjusted.
This cruise began and ended with the excellent service and the value we received. It always does and that made this one of our best cruise vacations.