We just returned from the first Halloween cruise on Epic. We are still rookie cruisers with just 3 completed cruises. That is why I left question mark to my title. I hope not all cruise ships are like this - where smoking areas are in prime spots. From our first two cruises we expected smoking areas to be away from walking paths to some corner or sides or enclosed so non-smokers are not exposed to smoke smell.
We fell in love with NCL after we cruised on Pearl last Spring. We were close to becoming fanboys for NCL after that cruise. Their Freestyle and low prices still make us feel biased for NCL. On the last day we even bought 2 $250 Cruise Rewards Certificate. I know I won't use them to book a cruise on Epic.
My Epic experience:
We entered the ship on Deck 6 right into casino and all four of us wondered what the hell is the smell. It was intense cigarette smell. That ruined our excitement as we were entering the ship in high spirit. As we walked towards elevators, everything looked nicely designed and decorated but the smell kept haunting me and my kids while my wife got over it pretty quickly.
We walked into Garden Cafe, enjoyed the food and liked the decor a lot. After food we walked out to check out the famous water slides and to our surprise we had to walk between couple of people who were smoking on the deck right in the middle on walkway to the pools. The tables even had ash trays on them. Then I noticed like 4-6 more ash trays on Wave bar counter. At that point, we told ourselves we will avoid getting to this deck from Garden Cafe and use the back elevators to get to the water slides and rock climbing, basketball courts, etc. Found out later that is not an option either because that is another smoking area with ash trays on couple of lounge chairs setup near Marketplace.
From Deck 15 we decided to take tour of the ship and walked down to deck 7, 6, and 5. I will be surprised if there is any ship more beautiful than Epic. We felt like it was designed to our taste. Beautiful wall decor, nice looking carpets, lights, and furniture. Everything got our attention. I took several 100 pictures and you can see them on my http://http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitsva/collections/72157625230879363/. The food was great. O'Sheehan's was our favorite. The only time we've been to Manhattan we had terrible experience with cigarette smoke at Cascades Bar and the service was slow and confusing. Taste is the other MDR and we liked it a lot better than Manhattan but decided to stick with Garden Cafe or O'Sheehan's because of our kids preference. Ice bar is something you would never go a second time. We felt we wasted $85 for it and they give you cards to get two free drinks. So, you get some worth out of your money if you drink alcohol. For kids, they get a strawberry drink. But if we didn't go, we would be worried if we missed the best place on Epic. So, no regrets there. We enjoyed every meal and breakfasts were the best. Don't miss the Chocolate Brownie Sundae at O'Sheehan's.
We paid for the $300 Photo CD package. So, we enjoyed the photography sessions a lot. That's one of the best things we did ON the ship along with water slides, bowling, rock climbing, and sitting in our balcony to enjoy the sea. Some of our favorite places on the ship is Fat Cats, Malting Whiskey Bar, Bliss, Noodle Bar, O'Sheehan's, Atrium, water slides, and basketball court. Too bad we had to pass through smoking zones to enjoy a visit to most of these places. In fact, there is a super rich looking Cigar Lounge near Maltings. So, whenever that door is opened you will be intoxicated with intense Cigar smell if you get too close to that door.
About entertainment, it was a big let down for me. I am an early bird. So, nothing before 10pm was great. My wife went for some late night entertainment on Spice H2O and bliss and she enjoyed most of them. I think NCL over advertised BMG and set the expectations too high for me. The first 30 minutes me and my wife were wondering what the hell is going on. After that, it picks up a bit and it was just fine but not great. The best entertainment show we saw was the Magic show and Legends. Rod Stewart was the best. It was more a comedy show than magic. On the last day I decided to stay late to watch Paul Scully's (Cruise Director) Grand Finale show hoping he will compensate for the average entertainment we had the first 5 days. I thought that show made every other entertainment on Epic look awesome. The Second City is another over hyped show. We saw people walking out after 10-minutes into the show. We tried hard to enjoy it but we left from both the shows we booked after about 15 minutes.
What we missed the most on Epic?
1. Promenade Deck like on Pearl where we can walk around the ship and enjoy the Ocean from resting on handrails at comfortable height with closed top to avoid the sun.
2. Spinnaker Lounge like on Pearl where we can relax on Lounge chairs watching the sea on a Hot day or a wet day or a windy day.
What NCL should do right away(ASAP) to make the ship more pleasant for people like me(Are we minority?) who can't stand cigarette smell?
1. Make Cascades Bar non-smoking as it's located right infront of Main Dinning room PLUS the other MDR Taste which is below Manhattan has no elevator access. So, people have to get down on 6 near Cascades bar, breath some smoke and walk towards escalators through Casino that could be filled with smokers. On the last day when the weather was bad the upper deck is dead for smokers. When we walked to Taste for diner on last night, I noticed over 10 people smoking at once at this bar. I wanted to capture a picture of it but my wife didn't like my idea. I have an earlier shot with smoke spreading to 7th floor. You will find it in my flickr link http://www.flickr.com/photos/kitsva/sets/72157625231090879/.
2. Make the entire path from Manhattan to escalators non-smoking as people need to walk that way to get to Taste, Noodle Bar, and Shanghai Restaurant.
3. Spice H2O has several activities and it's another smokers heaven.
4. Lounge area near Marketplace is another smokers paradise and we had to cross that place when we go to the kids Video games arcade or sports activities.
5. Area around Waves Bar and the walkway from Garden Cafe to Pool area stage is filled with tables with ash trays. Why? Having smoking areas in the middle means it makes it unpleasant for people sitting on either side of the deck. Also, I noticed people taking ashtrays to the pool area and smoking while kids are running around to get on slides. I complained to NCL staff and the answer is "Smoking is allowed in all open areas". Is this the case on all ships?
Other minor things NCL should think about fixing to save Epic
1. Shower water drains slower than the water flow from the shower. Due to this, there is always a small pool of water on floor that is allowing the water to splash out on to the floor outside from below sliding door. This could ruin the floor outside overtime if customers don't wipe off the wet floor right away.
Even with all the smoking issues I still had a blast on my cruise. Also,we had a great time at the ports. Roatan (Infinity Bay) and Cozumel (Nachi Cocom) are just amazing. Enjoyed great massages at all three ports. I wouldn't recommend the massage at Infinity Bay ($30/hour) but the $20/hour at Costa Maya is great for that price. Nachi Cocom one cost me $65/hour but it was done professionally and was the best massage I ever got.
I will never go back on Epic even if it costs less than Pearl mainly because of the smoking issues and not having a place like Spinnaker Lounge that is on Pearl. H2O Spice is good when it gets cool in the evening but couple of smokers can ruin the mood for me. Also, a bad weather day like we had on the last day means you have no place but your balcony to relax at the sea.
I think NCL already figured they messed up big time with the design of Casino and smoking areas. Instead of trying to restrict smoking in prime areas they seem to be using Air Purifiers to remove the odor. That definitely won't work and things there could get worse on bad weather days when smokers seem to go on smoking marathon. Over time, that smell will soak into carpets and walls and will never go away. The earlier they realize the better for Epic. Epic is an absolutely gorgeous looking baby. It sailed smooth even on a rough sea.