My wife and I sailed on the 10/30 Western Caribbean cruise on the EPIC, out of Miami.
Other people have already been extremely thorough in their write-ups, so I'm not going to try and outdo them, but rather just post what comes to mind and what stood out for us on our trip. I'm also happy to answer any questions I can.
I have to note that I stopped reading board posts about the Epic shortly after it launched, because they were largely negative and I didn't want to board the ship with any predispositions. I therefore don't know much about any fixes NCL made post-launch to address early concerns. I believe we both boarded the ship with pretty open minds.
About Us: We're both 34 and do not have any children. This is our third cruise, but our first with NCL. We have been on RCCL's Adventure of the Seas twice; once with family and once with friends. For this trip we were alone.
The Room: We've never been the type to look at a hotel room as just somewhere to sleep, so having a comfortable room was a big deal. And in that respect Epic was a mixed bag.
We were in BA 11314, which is the port-corner stern cabin on deck 11, with the bed next to the balcony. On our prior (RCCL) cruises we had been in a junior-suite and a standard balcony, and as expected our room on the Epic was significantly smaller than the standard balcony on Adventure. I've spent a lot of time on pleasure boats however, so I wasn't bothered by the tight quarters. I do think that having the bed next to the balcony is the preferred configuration because it gives you the most room around the sink and means you only have to contend with squeezing past the bed to go to sleep or out to the balcony.
As others have noted, the room was rather functional with plenty of storage. The bed is very short; I'm 5'5" and my feet were off the end of the bed. The couch is totally useless and the biggest flaw in the design. You can't use it to watch TV, it's not setup well to have a conversation with another person, and there's no table to use if you order room service.
The sink was shallow but not a problem. I'm not sure if NCL changed the faucets, but we didn't have any splashing issues. I would have preferred a proper bathroom but the split layout worked OK and we didn't have any real privacy issues. One tip: our curtain was originally able to only be closed from one end. I disconnected the curtain ring that locked it to one side and could then close off either the shower or toilet without pulling the whole thing closed.
The corner balcony was definitely larger than the "middle" balconies, although it really wasn't a big deal since there was way more room than needed for the two chairs and tiny table that were out there. The partition to the next balcony over could be opened for someone who had reason to do so.
Overall we were relatively happy with the room. But we were not at all happy with the location. We had not sailed in an aft balcony before, and frankly after this trip would not do so again. Even on deck 11, the vibration when the ship was using its thrusters was unbelievable. During normal cruising (at any speed) there was still a noticeable vibration, and the noise level on the balcony was unpleasant - think a white noise generator at a very high volume. I know these BA cabins are generally desirable, so I can only conclude that the Epic's mechanical layout is not the best. I cannot see anyone paying a premium for the view when it is offset so significantly by noise and vibration. We were originally booked in a BA on deck 8, and had we not moved to 11 when a room became available, we would definitely have relocated once we were onboard.
And we would have been able to do so because of something that adds a huge caveat to anything else I write: we were sailing with only 3300 passengers. I was worried going in about overcrowding, and although there were some issues at the pool, overall we had absolutely no problem getting into anything we wanted. We had booked BMG, Cirque and Legends ahead of time, however every indication was that some seats were available for most if not all of the shows.
During sea days, the pool deck was crowded and it was hard (but not impossible) to find lounge chairs. The actual pool wasn't too bad though. The fountains and tiled pool-surround (for lack of a better term) provided more than enough water area to stay cool. The slides were a lot of fun and there were virtually no lines; bear in mind though that we had a minimal number of kids aboard.
BMG: Fun, but disappointing. This must just not have been our thing, because I don't understand the rave reviews BMG always gets.
Legends: Excellent. The new lineup is Rod Stewart, Britney Spears, and Michael Jackson. Rod was the best of the three. MJ's dancing was great but his singing was lacking.
Cirque: We went with the standard seating and chose to be in the balcony. I liked the view from up top and it avoided any potential for audience participation. Dinner was quite good although I didn't realize upfront it was a set menu. The show was worth seeing, but I'm not sure I'd pay the surcharge if it were for the show only without dinner.
Howl: Lots of fun. This was probably my favorite "show," and since it's mostly songs by request, it was different each night. I actually think it would have been better with more of a crowd though; the venue was never more than half-full.
Fat Cats: This really suffered from the lack of passengers. There were only about a dozen people listening when we went in, which meant the crowd was dead and the music was way too loud. The band was good though.
Other stuff: The large atrium screen was used for football and movies, which was a nice touch. The band at the pool was average, but to my ear the music when the band wasn't playing was too quiet and very repetitive. It seemed they only had two CDs in rotation.
We did play a little blackjack and rarely had a problem getting a seat at a $5 table in the non-smoking section. But inexplicably, NCL allows smoking at the slots that are literally five feet away from the non-smoking table games. We left early as a result one night.
You also have to walk through a confined part of the casino that allows smoking in order to traverse the deck from fore to aft. The many plug-in ionic air purifiers sitting on the floor in this area pretty well indicate NCL screwed up the ventilation for that part of the deck; they ought to just make it the non-smoking section instead and fix a few problems at once.
Blackjack is a 6:5 payout instead of the normal 3:2. Not a huge deal for the amounts we were playing with but still a significant extra edge for the house.
We went to Karaoke a couple of times, which was a total bust. A total of three or four people did all the singing, and one of the hosts then tried forcing people in the audience to sing. That was our cue to leave.
The "Weakest Link" game show was a fun half-hour.
Halloween fell during our cruise, and Epic offered a Halloween "party" at Spice H2O, the adults-only pool area. This was rather lame, and after an hour of a boring costume contest, we were off to the casino.
We were disappointed with the food in the main dining rooms; it reminded us of average wedding food at best. The NY Strip I had one night was nowhere near on par with a chain restaurant like Outback, and the roasted chicken on another was way overcooked. The RCCL dining room food was significantly better.
We ate at Le Bistro twice and it was excellent both times. The dinner at Cirque Dreams was also quite good. We had intended to eat at La Cucina, but the menu was not what I would consider appropriate for a supposed high-end Italian restaurant. We weren't going to pay a surcharge for Chicken Parm or basic pasta dishes.
We chose not to do Teppanyaki because for the $50 it would have cost us in surcharges, we can have the same meal at a great hibachi place two minutes from home. When the surcharge essentially is the entire cost of the meal, I think it's too high. We skipped Cagney's because between Le Bistro and Cirque we had already had enough steak. None of the other specialty restaurants interested us.
The breakfast buffet was great, and since we both sleep late it was a real help to have it open until 11AM or later. We mainly did pizza and fries for lunch so I can't comment beyond that.
O'Sheehan's was (surprisingly) the highlight on the dining side of things since having real food available 24x7 is a nice plus, and the appetizers were great. We spent a really nice afternoon at a quiet spot in one of the lounges with a bottle of wine and a bunch of take-out appetizers.
It was tough getting decent coffee anywhere on the ship, which was disappointing since RCCL has good hot coffee readily available all the time.
Alcohol costs were reasonable. Beers were $5, with buckets that were buy five bottles, get one free. The staff hocked the buckets non-stop though. You couldn't even order a single beer without being pitched on a bucket. Wine bottles ran 2-3x retail price, which is fair and maybe a little cheap for eating out. (We are used to NY prices though, so keep that in mind.)
We chose the Western Caribbean itinerary because we've been to the Eastern Caribbean islands way too much. That said, this was not a great itinerary and I wouldn't do it again.
I should note that usually my wife and I go on some of the more adventurous excursions, but with Mexico not exactly being the safest of places these days, we chose not to do anything this time. Perhaps if we had it would have changed our opinion about the ports.
Costa Maya - Not much to see or do unless you choose an excursion. Oddly enough the pier actually had a reasonably nice pool and fake beach area, which was very busy. We spent maybe an hour on shore and retreated to the quiet of the ship's pool.
Roaatan, Honduras - This was also a rather boring stop, although there was at least an open-air restaurant where we had a snack. We didn't spend much time ashore here either.
Cozumel - There is a reasonably large downtown area, which we walked through. Most of the stores were selling the same trinkets but we did buy a couple of small items. I had read something about it becoming more difficult to use the US dollar, but we had no problems with that.
The highlight of Cozumel for us was Senior Frogs, which is a very over-the-top restaurant that borders on being a dance club. They have a DJ blasting music non-stop, guys taking your picture in sombreros, a clown making balloon animals, shot girls, etc. Drinks are served in 28oz "yard high" glasses. This wouldn't normally be our scene but everyone was having a great time and it was easy to get caught up in the fun. Prices were in pesos but they took dollars no problem.
I have to mention weather because it did play a large role at the tail end of our cruise. We actually got stuck in Cozumel overnight because of 50MPH winds that were broadsides, blowing us directly into the pier and preventing us from leaving. The ship literally did not have the thrust to overcome the wind.
We did leave in the early morning but spent the next 24 hours in heavy wind and 15-18' seas. At this point the Captain had to make up a lot of time so I'm assuming we were running without the stabilizers and the ship was moving very noticeably. My wife and I were both fine when out and about, but our cabin at the back of the ship was not pleasant and we couldn't stay in it long without getting a little sick. We had no issues sleeping however.
NCL did an admirable job this last sea day of making things as pleasant as possible, adding many additional indoor activities since the pool was unusable. Unfortunately, the Cirque show had to be cancelled but NCL gave those with reservations the option of having the normal Cirque dinner at no charge.
We really enjoyed the whole freestyle concept, and it was nice to be able to arbitrarily change our plans as we did a couple times. We did speak to a few fellow passengers who felt too much had to be reserved, but that didn't bother us. We had pre-booked BMG, Legends and Cirque, plus one night at Le Bistro, but that really just gave us a bit of a loose framework around which to plan our days. Maybe freestyle on the other NCL ships works better; we have nothing to compare it to.
The atmosphere and dress-code (if there was one) on the ship was a lot more casual than on RCCL, which I loved since it IS vacation after-all. Oddly though my wife felt more people were dressed-up than on our prior cruises. It seemed like we had more European travelers than we did on the two RCCL cruises, so perhaps that explains the difference.
Overall, I would sail Epic again. That said, I think RCCL's Oasis will be our next cruise because the room design looks better - i.e. it's normal - and they appear to be making more of an effort to allow you to eat at any time.
Reviews have a habit of dwelling on the negative, so lest anyone think otherwise, we had a fantastic trip. Ultimately that's the most important thing.