After spending a few hours reading the negative criticism of the Norwegian Epic, I was prepared for the worst. Which I suppose is a good thing, since nothing we experienced was anywhere near as bad as what we had read, and even the downsides weren't all that "down." I suppose not having any basis of comparison made the first trip more pleasurable than it might otherwise have been. I'll list salient points below:
EMBARKATION: Seemed pretty painless; we arrived around 11:30 and it took around 45 minutes from the time we arrived until we made it on board. I question the necessity of having everyone stop for a vacation photo before boarding, but it was only a minor inconvenience. Once on board we were able to drop our luggage in the Headliners lounge (took all of 5 minutes) and were able to tour the ship unencumbered. First meal was at the outdoor buffet on Deck 15--hamburgers, fries, etc. Was fine. Cabin was ready by 2:00 p.m.
STATEROOM: Well, yes, it isn't all that large, and I suppose if I were traveling with a family maneuvering would be a hassle, but for 2 people, there was plenty of space, lots of storage, and the balcony size was terrific. I read a review somewhere that the balcony staterooms with the "wavy" part on the left side are better because the bed will be next to the balcony instead of the shower and toilet, and that's what we had, which was a good use of space. Speaking of the toilet problem, we had no problem with it. We just agreed that when one had to do major business the other would spend time gazing off the balcony. System worked fine.
FOOD: Garden Cafe, where we ate a lot of the breakfasts, lunches, and a few dinners, was OK. It wasn't Per Se, but some of the entrees were quite good (the chef's carving board was reliable), and the soft-serve ice cream was sampled frequently. Since we didn't opt for the soft drinks package, we had the juice at breakfast (fine) and iced tea other times (powdered, not great). Coffee was so-so, could have been stronger. We had a couple of meals at Taste, which had a pretty good lunch and breakfast, but dinner was a bit disappointing. Tough steak. We were surprised, however, that our breakfast server from the day before remembered us.
We tried several of the specialty restaurants, Moderno, Teppanyaki, and La Cucina, all including surcharges.
--Moderno--highly recommended; great sampling of numerous meats, the salad bar was varied and delicious, and had a good wine list. One of my favorite Argentinian Malbecs was on it for $32.
--Teppanyaki--good food, but our chef/knife performer seemed a bit of a novice, and I think we were all a bit nervous, fearing a finger in our land 'n sea combo. Skip the house martini--too sweet, and where's the booze?
--La Cucina--skip it. Food tastes pretty much like it was brought down on a tray from the Garden Cafe.
The alcohol problem was the major area in which we felt a bit like prisoners. I'm guessing it is normal policy not to allow off-ship alcohol, but that means you have to buy a lot of $7.95 and higher drinks. It adds up quickly.
PUBLIC SPACES/SHOPPING: The casino seemed pretty big, though I have no basis of comparison. Lost $60 over the course of the week, though some of the slots paid off nicely now and then. I smoke, so that wasn't a problem for me, though I would suppose that for nonsmokers it would be impossible to get through the casino without walking through clouds of smoke.
Wasn't a big fan of the pool area--none of the pools was very large, and most of the time were filled to capacity. To my regret, didn't try the water slide. The Spice H20 adult area must be near the sewage treatment plant, because that's what it nearly always smelled like.
The shops most likely appeal to duty-free buyers of jewelry and perfumes, but there wasn't much that was very interesting to me. I was looking for a swimsuit, and didn't see anything less than about $40, so I'm glad I was able to struggle into the one I brought with me. If you want to buy duty-free cigarettes, be aware that you can only legally bring one carton bought on board back into the U.S. You can also bring 4 cartons bought on St. Thomas, so that's where you should make most of your purchases.
ENTERTAINMENT: All good. Magician Jeff Hobson was a real highlight, as were the Blue Man Group--great shows. Second City--saw them 3 times, including the Murder Mystery show. They were on sometimes, not so much other times. Cirque Dreams--really great gymnastics, but I lost the storyline about 10 mins. in. The food was OK.
PORTS: Rented a car on St. Maarten; lots of traffic. Found a nice, secluded beach (Friars Beach) on the north of the island. Be aware however that there are limited food choices there and you'll pay dearly ($18) for a sandwich. Best to save your appetite or go to the US Supermarket and buy a few provisions. Also went to Orient Beach--beautiful and crowded. If you want to avoid the paid excursions AND car rental, there's a perfectly fine beach right in Philipsburg ($4 cab ride).
St. Thomas--walked to town along a beautiful path. Charlotte Amalie is a nice old colonial town, our favorite on the trip. Found a little grocery store that was making OJ smoothies with coconut rum and whiled away a couple of sunny hours.
Nassau--worst experience. Decided to cab it to Atlantis. Once you get there, it is a long walk to the public beach (the resort owns all the best beaches and charges a hefty fee, $39-$129, depending on what you want to see, to use them). Hassled constantly by vendors wanting to sell things or jet ski rides. Stayed an hour then left. Shopping there was pretty good, a lot of bargains in hats, t-shirts, etc., but after the lousy Atlantis experience was in no mood.
DEBARKATION: Fast and efficient. Hung around until 9:30 a.m. then went down. No taxi line.
ALL IN ALL: A really nice, relaxing experience. The staff was for the most part, friendly, though towards the end of the trip everyone started to exhibit signs of cruise fatigue, or maybe I'm projecting. Our steward, Romeo made little towel animals every night and the room was always well-cleaned. I'd recommend the Epic, though I'd like to try a smaller ship next time to compare the experience.