I was the Tour Conductor for a group of 16 for the Norwegian Epic's January 29th sailing from Miami, Eastern Caribbean itinerary. I had been anxiously reading the critiques of this ship and this itinerary prior to our departure. The age range for our group was from 63 to 80, all of whom had been on multiple cruises in the past, and some of whom had some physical limitations and mobility issues.
We left Phoenix on January 27. Upon arrival in Miami, we took the hotel shuttle to our home for the next two days. We were staying at the Best Western International Airport Inn and Suites, which had only been operating for two months. The facilities were clean and new, and the staff was very accommodating as far as recommendations for restaurants and transportation companies to take us where we wished to go. On Friday, we took taxis at $7 a person each way to South Beach and spent most of the day enjoying the sights, sounds and food.
Saturday morning, Sun and Moon Express transported us to the ship. Unfortunately, the van was not large enough for all of us, so Edwin willingly acknowledged he would have to make two trips. I'm not sure how he thought we would get 16 in that van - 16 kindergartners, maybe, but not 16 senior citizens. We had allowed plenty of time, however, and this little "glitch" presented no major problems for the group.
Embarkation - Embarkation at the Port of Miami was seamless. We walked through Terminal C and did what we needed to do to clear security, present Passports, and provide the information for our on-board charges. We boarded the ship very quickly, waiting only 10 minutes in the "holding" area. As we stepped on board, we were welcomed by a group of crew members. As expected, our cabins were not ready for us yet, so we met at Taste restaurant for a nice lunch.
Staterooms - Following lunch, we heard the announcement that all cabins were ready for occupancy, so we went to check them out and start unpacking. We had the D2 Deluxe Balcony or Deluxe Family Balcony staterooms. We were delighted to discover an amazing amount of storage in the cabins. There were two closets, upper and lower cabinets all along the straight wall, bins beneath the couch, as well as storage behind the back cushions of the couch, a sizeable "nightstand" on one side, and more small cabinets over the headboard. There was a long counter below the wall-mounted flat-screen TV.
The cabins are narrow, and allow the bed to be located only in the part where the "wave" design curves outward. This means that every other room has the bed nearest the balcony, and the rooms between have the couch nearest the balcony. The beds were comfortable, but a little short, and my husband's feet hung over the end, but he didn't mind. The linens are very nice.
Prior to the cruise, I had read all of the negative information about the split-up bathroom design on this ship, and I was prepared to hate it. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that this was not a problem for us at all.
I knew the sink would be located out in the main room of the cabins, and I assumed that anyone visiting our cabin would witness our toothbrushes, hair gel, medications, etc., but I was pleased to find a large medicine cabinet above and four drawers below for toiletries. The sink was small, but large enough for most things; however, one would not want to be washing out clothes in it.
Another "alternating" feature was the bathing facilities. Every second cabin had a tub-shower, and the cabins between had showers. The area occupied by each of these was the same, so the showers were the size of a bathtub, which was very nice. If you had the tub version, you had to climb over the side, which was difficult for some of us. There were, however, several grab bars in the tub to assist with this. The toilet area was adequate, and larger than the toilet areas on the Pearl.
In short, we do not understand why everyone has been so upset about the bathroom arrangement.
Our balconies were considerably deeper than those we had experienced on other NCL ships.
Entertainment - Most of the group attended the Blue Man Group. Some were disappointed in the show, and some just didn't like some of the content - the parts involving spitting paint, regurgitating marshmallows, or having icky stuff squirt out of tubes in their chests. I was glad to have seen them, but glad I didn't have to pay the prices in Vegas to see their show.
We did attend the Cirque "Dreams" show in the Spiegel Tent, and enjoyed it immensely. One of our group members was selected to participate as the "investor." This was a sweet but shy fellow who felt uncomfortable at being "singled out," but the others in the group loved it, and he did a fine job, in spite of his reticence. My husband was selected for the bell-ringing part of the show, and we were surprised by his ability to do this well, in spite of the fact he is "musically challenged." We recommend this show for anyone sailing on this ship. The dinner was quite good, with three small appetizer/salad items to begin the meal, beef tenderloin and shrimp, green beans and potato for the main course, and three tiny desserts.
Many of us also saw Legends at Sea, featuring Janet Jackson, Neil Diamond, and Aretha Franklin. All of the performers did an excellent job, but the Aretha performer was a show-stopper. It was an excellent show.
A few snuck in for Howl at the Moon, which was probably the most entertaining show on the ship. You could not make reservations for this, and it was just a continuous dueling pianos and comedy act, with a lot of interplay with the audience. This show was a real surprise to us who went, and we felt it did not get the attention it deserved. I must warn that it is intended for adult audience, and becomes more "adult" as the evening progresses. But these guys are really funny!
Those who went to Fat Cats found the music to be very good, but also very loud, and did not stay very long. It is unfortunate that people can't listen, have a drink and socialize in what is billed as a Jazz and Blues Club, but the volume made conversation impossible.
Dining - We ate several meals at Taste and the Manhattan Room, which are the main restaurants on the ship. The quality of the food was quite good, but not as good as that in the "specialty" restaurants.
The improvement in the design of The Garden Cafe is worth mentioning; we have found this buffet to be very congested and crowded on other ships in the NCL fleet, with the possibility of finding an available table for more than two people almost non-existent. On the Epic, there are four separate "circuits" offering the same foods, which helps with the flow, and we did not experience the crowding that we had found in the past on other ships. It was a good choice for meals any time.
O'Sheehan's Pub was also a nice choice for breakfast and lunch, although the menu was a bit limited. We did eat there a few times, and we were able to accommodate 8-10 people together very easily.
Some ate at Shanghai's and reported it was very good. 8 of us had lunch at the Noodle Bar and we enjoyed it, as well, although it seemed to cause a problem for them to seat 10 of us together.
We met the Restaurant Manager, Christian Schagerl, one evening during dinner, and he offered our group a tour of the galley area of the ship. We took him up on this tour, and it was an amazing experience. The food standards are very high, the sanitary procedures are meticulous, and it was clear they go to great lengths to provide meals that are healthy, attractive, fresh and safe. The breads, with the exception of the croissants, are made on-board fresh daily, and anything not used within a very short period of time is discarded. (The croissants are brought aboard frozen prior to the cruise.) As an example of their fastidiousness, we ordered some bananas at breakfast one morning, but were unable to get them because they had been deemed "over-ripe."
We had dinner at Le Bistro one evening, and it was an excellent meal. This restaurant has never disappointed us, and it is always a high point of any of our cruises. I mentioned the meal served at The Spiegel Tent earlier. The other specialty restaurant we did try was Moderno. It was definitely a "do-over" for most of us, and if we had eaten there earlier in the cruise, we would have returned for another meal. Teppanyaki, Cagney's, and La Cucina were all restaurants we had tried on earlier cruises on other ships, and most of us did not eat there this time, with the exception of one couple who did go to La Cucina. In the past, we have really enjoyed Teppanyaki and Cagney's.
So many restaurants, so little time!!
The Ice Bar - Five of our group did go to the Svedka Ice Bar, and enjoyed it immensely.
Recreation - We found the pool deck was very crowded, not necessarily with people, but certainly with deck chairs. Deck chairs were plentiful, to the extent that they perhaps did not need to have so many out all of the time. The traffic flow on this deck was like an obstacle course. The pools are quite small for the number of people on the ship, but they were not crowded, for some reason. Three of us went down the big "bowl" slide on the tubes, and it was really fun. One of our group went down the green slide, and said it was very dark and twisty, and you couldn't see what was coming. But it was all fun out there.
Fitness - Two members of our group went up to the Fitness Center, and reported it was excellent and uncrowded.
Ports - Most of us had been to these ports of call in the past - Philipsburg, Sint Maarten; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas; and Nassau, Bahamas. We did go ashore and purchase some souvenirs, but did not stay long off the ship and returned early to enjoy the amenities when most people were onshore.
Disembarkation - This was a snap. Everyone traveling home on the day of our arrival back in Miami enrolled in the BAGS program. This meant we put our luggage outside of the door before 1 a.m. the last night, and we did not have to see them again until we claimed them in Phoenix. There are several advantages to this program; NCL obtains the airline boarding passes for those enrolled, and participants receive special tags for their luggage. Airline luggage charges are added to your on-board account. The cost of the BAGS program is $19.95 per person, and it is worth it to not have to hassle with luggage on a tour or at the airport.
One thing I think NCL should be aware of is that when instructions for disembarkation are given, they do not make any reference to those who are using the BAGS program, and for whom the process is a bit different. Some of the instructions given orally were in conflict with the procedures for those using the BAGS program, and it was confusing. Many of our group thought they still needed to clear customs and claim their bags. Although there are written instructions given with the BAGS luggage tags, there should be specific oral instructions given for those using this service when everyone is gathered and ready to get off the ship.
Little Things Mean a Lot - This is a really big ship!! It stood head and shoulders above others when we were in port. However, we rarely felt crowded or had to wait in line, as might be expected when there are over 4,000 other passengers on board.
I was pleased to find that when a large number of us (8-14) chose to dine together without a reservation in the main restaurants, the staff did an excellent job of seating us together, usually at adjacent tables, which was fine. This was a pet peeve of mine on the Pearl in 2009 - it was always a huge problem to even try to get a reservation for a large number of people, but on the Epic, they were able to accommodate us at a moment's notice without a problem.
Our Cabin Steward, Marlon, gave us towel animals five times, and did an excellent job of taking care of our room. The generous storage and counter space in these cabins eliminates much of the clutter found in cabins where there is nowhere to put things away, and therefore cabins stay much neater, and I am sure they are easier for the Stewards to manage. For me, the storage in the room and the lack of stuff lying around was an important "plus" for this ship.
We were not badgered by the photographers, as we have been in the past. Some people simply don't enjoy having their pictures snapped every time they turn around, and I appreciated that the photographers were not at all aggressive on this ship. They also have a very efficient electronic way for you to locate your pictures by your stateroom by simply inserting your key card, rather than wandering around the gallery trying to find your photos among thousands of others.
The Down Side - There was one constant complaint that we had about reaching Deck 5, which was, after all, the "heart" of the ship. The ship has 20 elevators, 5 on each side forward, and 5 on each side aft. We rarely had to wait very long for an elevator. However, the most convenient elevators for 14 of us were the aft elevators, and these 10 elevators were not programmed to make a stop at Deck 5, which is where the Atrium, Taste, and the Manhattan Room are located, as well as an ATM and other areas we wished to access frequently. Therefore, in order to get to Deck 5, one had to take the elevator to Deck 6 and walk through the Casino to get to an escalator which took you down to Deck 5. Most of us found this annoying and irksome; the Casino was noisy, smoky and congested, and we simply did not appreciate the fact that we were required to walk the length of the Casino so frequently to reach our destination. I am sure this is a way to get people into the Casino and tempt them to toss a few quarters in the slots, but we would have liked access to Deck 5 which did not include fighting our way through the Casino.
We were disappointed that we could not get CNN on the TV; the news channels on board were Fox, and BBC and CNBC. The Egyptian situation was all over the news during our week at sea. E! and Windows were enjoyable.
We missed having contact with the Cruise Director on this ship. He was only a voice on the PA system, or a "talking head" on the television. Our groups have usually been able to have some relationship with the Cruise Director in the past. We also heard very little from the Captain, as he was rarely on the PA system. On a Panama Canal cruise on the "Pearl" in 2009, we always enjoyed the Captain's witty announcements and reports of how much his wife had spent in port the day before, and other personal observations and entertaining comments.
The port information was a bit sketchy, mostly describing the NCL-recommended shopping, and mostly about jewelry stores. These cruises seem to be a lot about buying jewelry, both on the ship and in port.
But Overall... we had a really fun cruise, and everyone agrees they would go on the Epic again. We were very fortunate to have a pleasant and cohesive group of 16 wonderful friends, and no "whiners." This was my husband's and my 9th cruise with NCL, sailing on the Wind three times, the Pearl twice, and the Dream, Star, and Sky each once. This was the fourth "group" I had put together, varying in size from 16 to 33 people. Most of the others had sailed on NCL 1-3 times, but for one couple, this was their first experience with NCL. There were a few things they preferred on other cruise lines, but they seemed pleased with their first NCL experience, and said they would cruise on NCL again. I certainly would not hesitate to recommend NCL and the Epic in particular to anyone.