Before I get into it I have a word about reviews in general: Take them with a grain of salt. Each of us has different things we find important and various expectations of what we will experience. Reviewers here make absolute statements such as "the food was bad", or "skip this port", or "the performance was not funny". Remember, you may find the total opposite to be true. Prior to taking this cruise I had read so many disparaging comments about the Epic that I told my wife I had reduced my expectations. As it turns out many of the things I had read were not similar to our experience at all!
To the cruise....
I would suggest that if at all possible take a hotel and get into town the day prior. We used to live up north and travelling in the winter can be dicey, a weather delay could ruin your trip. Plus its great getting onto the ship early to either get a spot by the pool, catch lunch or explore the ship. Particularly with large ships such as this one it is great to get to know the lay of the land.
We were very curious to see our stateroom as there seems to be plenty of controversy about them. The shape, the size, the bathrooms...they all create discussion. We were plenty pleased with the cabin. Its certainly not large but this is a cruise ship not a hotel or apartment building. There was plenty of storage. There were two cabinets for hanging clothes (10 hangers each provided). There were drawers, bins and cabinets all over the place. There were 3 of us and we had plenty of storage. We liked the layout of the bathroom as it allowed 2 people to get ready at once. We have been in plenty of cruise ship cabins and the bathrooms are a one person affair. If someone is using the shower, forget using the toilet or sink. However with this layout they are all separate entities. Agreed there is a little less privacy but all cruise ship staterooms require familiarity with roommates. I think this layout is superior. If this was the traditional layout and suddenly NCL introduced a ship with everything crammed into a 3'x5' box people would scream about that too...The room is gorgeous and well appointed. The bed is as comfortable as you will find. I am 6-0 tall and had no issue with the length of the mattress though it is not full length. I say curl up and fall asleep. For our son a bunk was lowered from the ceiling each night by Alex our wonderful cabin steward.
There are two pools adjacent to each other. These pools also have extended wading areas. If you wanted to get into the water there was never an issue. I have seen complaints here that the pools are too small, but upon further review these reviews seemed to complain about everything. The focus of the pool deck is the water slides. They are fun and certainly a big attraction for the kids...including myself. My son and I climbed those stairs dozens and dozens of times and had a really nice time. This was definitely his favorite activity of the week! Rarely did we have a struggle finding a place to sit on deck though naturally on sea days this was more of a challenge. Another nice thing was that it was easy to find space in the hot tubs. There are 6 large tubs in the main pool area.
Adult Pool area (H2O Spice)... We spent very little time here, probably an hour, but it is very, very nice. It is at the back of the ship. You will find theatre type seating with sun lounges and a large screen for movies, etc. There are 2 hot tubs and a pool. It was well attended but even on a sunny, hot sea day we were able to find seats.
Work our facilities...This was the nicest facility I have seen afloat. There are plenty of high tech running, biking and rowing machines. I was surprised that they had as much free weight equipment as they did. There were plentiful weight machines and equipment of all kinds. There was even a racquetball court, however it was being used for suspension training. There was a yoga room and a spin class room with terrific equipment. My club at home had nothing on this place, it was first class.
There are not the traditional large dining areas that you see on other lines. Here the focus is on the specialty restaurants. Taste and Manhattan serve as the closest thing to the traditional dining rooms. They are free and serve many people. However with the Freestyle approach you come and go as you please and sit where you like. I think this draws a lot of people, I mean who doesn't want choices, right? We on the other hand prefer the way its done on Royal Caribbean and other lines. We like the "event" atmosphere of dinner done at a set time. There is an excitement about everyone getting together for dinner, sitting with your assigned people and seeing your same server group again each day. Freestyle is a little impersonal. We like sitting with strangers that become friends each cruise, this is lost on NCL ships. Also, you don't get the formal nights and Captain's Dinner experience. But like I said at the top of the review, we all look for different things. This is just a personal choice.
Taste and Manhattan were very nice though not the experience you get in the pay restaurants of course. The choices are basic and the presentation fine but not imaginative. If you are a foodie you will be disappointed, if you are hungry and want a nicely done meal served efficiently with a smile you will be happy.
The specialty restaurants are very nice. We went to Wasabi which is an a la carte sushi place on two different occasions. The first experience was excellent; the sushi was as good as we have had anywhere. The second time the results were mixed, the service was a little disinterested and the sushi fell apart. Our feeling was the first night was more representative of what you will see. The second occasion was after the Super Bowl and things were crazy aboard that evening.
One evening we went to La Cucina, this is a 10.00 per head premium restaurant. The food was exceptional and the service was very nice. The problem was the other patrons. There were several very noisy kids and one constantly crying toddler. The din really ruined the meal for us. Now we are not elderly child haters, we have 5 children and had one of them with us. But the parents couldn't keep the kids under control and it seemed very much like we were eating at Chucky Cheese if you closed your eyes. Our guess is the 10.00 fee drew the families in. This was going to be their one specialty restaurant for the cruise and they went with the least expensive one. This was not NCL's fault and you might have a nicer experience.
We also went to Shanghai for dinner. $15.00 per head. Our server was fabulous and the food fantastic. We would have loved to go for another evening there, time just didn't allow it. There were plenty of diners but it was not crowded at all.
As we were busting our budget every day we did not seek out the other specialty restaurants. This is a drawback of the modern cruise experience, unless you want to spend a lot of money you do miss out on a lot. But just as in our own home town we do not try every nice restaurant or see every show, you make choices.
We ate breakfast almost every morning at the Garden Cafe. The place is very large and has a lot of seating. I have seen some serial complainers state that they could never find a table. This was not our experience at all. One time we did have to drift just outside to the pool deck to eat. Oh the horror! Eating near the pool in the sunshine! Anyway...the food was hot and fresh and there were plenty of choices. Never a complaint from us.
O'Sheehan's was another frequent stop for us. We ate lunch here a number of times. The menu is the same every day and its your basic good pub lunch. We loved the atmosphere here, the dark wood, tv's, the bowling alley going, the two level screen. It was lively and relaxing all at once. We watched the Super Bowl here as our beloved Packers won the game. We are originally from Green Bay.
We were Very Happy with our choices for entertainment.
Cirque Dreams, terrific! How these people perform these stunts I do not know. They are talented and entertaining. We sprung for the premium seats though the room is small and I think all the seats had a good view of the show. Food was served during the show, everyone had the same thing. Not a great meal but it was fine and this was about the show.
Presumed Murdered...Performed as a lunch show in the same room as Cirque. A group of improvisational actors performing a murder mystery show as we ate. They are funny people who have the audience fill in the blanks and they go with it. It was funny though admittedly we probably didn't hold up our end of the bargain giving them some bad material at times!
Jeff Hobson, comedian/illusionist...Do not miss this free show. This is a guy who loves what he does. What performer mixes with the audience before the show? He does. Once the show starts he involves the audience and does an awesome show. Take the time to see him, you won't regret it.
Blue Man Group...This is a quirky, inventive show. It is like nothing you will see anywhere else. I have seen it described as a mime show, well they don't speak, but it is hardly a mime show. They are more like, I don't, know aliens? Anyway, they are funny and very unique. The fact that there is no charge for the show is remarkable considering their worldwide popularity.
Bars, Clubs, etc...We were with our 9 year old so our time spent in adult areas was limited. He spent very little time in the youth center thus we had little time apart from him. We were only in the casino to walk through it. It is large and lively. They allow smoking and people have complained of this but I didn't notice a problem. 20 years ago people smoked in all public places including hospitals. I say get over it already. We were in Bliss, the club, for one drink. It was only about 10:00 so it was quiet yet. There is a bowling alley in there as well. 2 sets of bowling lanes aboard, how bout that. We also spent about an hour at Maltings which is a whiskey/beer place. Most of it is right in the hallway of the ship kind of, but there is a nice area off to the side with deep leather couches and chairs. It is very classy and appealing. Just off of this is the cigar room. I love a cigar and I would have loved to spend some time in there with a smoke and a whiskey, but alas this wasn't the cruise for that...It seems there are a number of nice places to enjoy good times aboard Epic.
This was not an inspiring itinerary but more and more cruising is all about the ship.
Costa Maya. This is a different stop than most others as it was a port purpose built by investors for the cruise industry. There is a large, inexpensive shopping area, a beautiful rocky beach with sand beach tanning areas, a number of restaurants including a Hard Rock and a large meandering pool that works through the whole area. If you are not planning on any day tours we would advise you pack a swimsuit when you go ashore if you are so inclined. The pool looked like a fun place to be either with kids or a drink in hand. The restaurants looked fun and a nice day could be had in this area. There's even a free dolphin show. We spent some time in this area but had elected to go on the Mayan Ruins tour which requires a 1 hour coach bus ride each way. We loved the tour, our guide was very good and the ruins were fascinating. We would advise it.
Roatan. A developing island that is somewhat new to the cruise port game. It is poor and somewhat ramshackle. There is a new port shopping area that is nice and we did not venture beyond it. We have been to Roatan before and elected to stick near the ship. A point about Roatan is its natural beauty. It is lush and mountainous. Our balcony faced the port that day and it was wonderful just sitting and looking at the island. One of my favorite times aboard was when we pulled out that day and watched the island glide by for over an hour. This included an absolutely beautiful sunset.
Cozumel. A mainstay of the Western Caribbean loop. It is well developed and offers many tours and activities. Lots of shopping and a number of restaurants. We did the Atlantis submarine and it was interesting going down 100' to take a look around. It's a spendy tour though.
Crew... I had read a couple of sourpusses complaining about the surly staff aboard. Well unless the man in their mirror was a part of the staff this could not be further from the truth! Our steward Alex was absolutely unbeatable. He knew our names before introduction and was wonderful with our son. Everyone we ran into was cheerful and seemed genuinely happy to be there. This is one of my wife's favorite aspects of cruising, the happy and respectful staff.
The ship... It never completely won me over. It seemed to be a little bit disjointed to me in its public areas. There was a lack of grace and flow to it. The feel on the inside is similar to its feel as you look at it in port, lots to look at but you aren't sure if it all quite goes together. We might go for a smaller ship next time around simply to save the enormous amount of hoofing around you do on these monsters. The waits at elevators were lengthy; usually we gave up and took the stairs. That's fine if it won't kill you, but many passengers can't make that trek.
So what did we think? NCL does a very nice job. The food was good the ship was immaculate and the crew was outstanding. Entertainment was the best we had seen and it wasn't close. We were very happy with our experience aboard. And this includes the controversial cabins. We prefer the more traditional dinner service of Royal Caribbean and will likely spend most of our cruises with them, but NCL offers their style for the cruisers who prefer it.
Overall it was a great vacation, no regrets at all.