I just returned from an Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Epic. I am 34 and my husband is 37, and this was my 4th and DH's 3rd cruise. We previously sailed with Carnival on an ill-fated honeymoon cruise, and I sailed twice on Holland America. We were traveling with a large group of almost 30 adults who were celebrating my brother's wedding which was to take place on St. Thomas. There were no children in our group so there will be very little in this review about the kids activities on board.
Getting to Miami:
We traveled late on Friday night from DFW and arrived in Miami after midnight. By this time the shuttle running from the airport to the hotel (the Fairfield Inn Miami West) had stopped running, so we hailed a cab and payed the $32 with tip to take us to the hotel. The hotel was clean, but apart from that, was not particularly impressive. It must have previously been a motel. Hubby walked to a nearby gas station in the morning to buy a couple 12 packs of diet coke to bring aboard. We did enjoy a light complementary breakfast before taking the hotel shuttle to the port ($10/pp). The shuttle to the port left around 11. When we arrived at the port, we were on board within about 15 minutes. Swiftest embarkation yet.
Once on board we briefly considered leaving our carry on bags at Headliners which was offered as a convenience, but we felt uneasy about leaving our passports, cash and medications out of sight. Instead we brought them with us up to the spa in order to sign up for the couples spa pass. For $199 you get access to the spa facilities such as the hydrotherapy pool, hot tubs, heated tile loungers, saunas and steam rooms. There is also a lovely outdoor balcony with cushioned loungers overlooking the aft of the ship.
After securing our spa passes, we went up one floor to the Garden Cafe (the buffet) for lunch and to rendezvous with my parents and brother who we already on board. We had a very nice lunch at the buffet, and relaxed and got caught up with family until the announcement that our rooms were ready.
Our cabin was #9029 which is a balcony cabin on the starboard side near the front of the ship. The cabin was about what we expected from reading reviews on Cruise Critic. We did have a very large balcony which was wonderful. Our room steward's name was Valentino and he did a fantastic job keeping the room looking spotless, and had an amazing ability to have our room made up no matter how long we had been gone! My sister and her husband were two doors down from us in #9025 and also were impressed with Valentino. They requested a lounger for their balcony, and not only did he bring them one, he brought us one as well! It made the balcony such a nice place to catch a cap nap in the afternoons!
My brother and his fiance were in an owners suite (#17032) and we got the chance to check it out and it was spectacular! To quote Ferris Beuller, "If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." We do not, however, have the means, and were quite happy with our balcony stateroom. Speaking of the staterooms, the bathrooms were a complete non-issue. The sinks were a non-issue, and the beds, although short, were very comfortable and a non issue. I recommend booking a balcony stateroom with the bed near the balcony so you will have more room to stand near the sink. There was tons of storage space.
My other brother stayed in a Studio room. We checked that out and it is perfect for one. Pretty cool area. He did attend a couple of the daily mixers for singles, but he was one of the youngest people there.
My parents stayed in a deluxe balcony (#8049), and they had a longer room with a little bit more storage, but a smaller balcony than we had. I wouldn't have traded cabins.
La Cucina, the Italian restaurant:
The reviews were mixed from our group. All 28 of us were eating (and for that the servers get big props from me for accommodating such a large group)... however, some people were not impressed with the food. My brother and mother got the penne with sauce, and said it was not very good. On the other hand, I got the Osso Bucco which was delicious. Many people enjoyed the Ricotta Cheese Cake, and I liked the Lemon Sorbet.
I ate here with my husband (one of our only meals just the two of us) while the rest of our group went to Teppanyaki. We had a fantastic meal. I had the shrimp cocktail (huge), the t-bone with Cagney's fries and asparagus and was so stuffed I couldn't order dessert. The restaurant is really nicely appointed with lots of dark wood and windows overlooking the Manhattan Room downstairs.
This is where the rehearsal dinner was held, and it was delicious! The room they gave us, although not completely private was on one side of the restaurant that was enclosed with huge curtains. They accommodated our party of 28 at two huge tables (one oval and one rectangular) such that we were able to feel like one cohesive unit. Service was great, and the food was awesome. I had the escargot, the lamb chops (delicious) and my husband and I shared the fondue for two. This may have been my favorite meal of the trip.
Unfortunately we booked this restaurant on the one day the ship was really rocking and several people were feeling queasy. Our waiter, Wilfredo, was extremely accommodating and didn't even charge us for all the ginger ale we ordered or for my sisters meal even though she had already had the salad when she left feeling ill. The lamb chops and tenderloin were delicious, and my husband loved the sausages and the beef ribs and chicken wrapped in bacon.
Several people in our group tried Teppanyaki but were underwhelmed by the "show" and the organization. Several people in our group tried Shanghai, but were not impressed
A lot of people have mentioned being "nickled and dimed" on the cruise, and I really did not feel this way. I think mostly because I read so much on the NCL boards and we budgeted carefully for the restaurants and activities that cost money so that there were no surprises.
No charge restaurants:
We also ate in O'Sheehans, Taste, the Manhattan Room, and the Garden Cafe.
Loved this place for a quick snack at anytime. We enjoyed dinner there one night when they were showing the Notre Dame/Villanova men's basketball game on ESPN there. It was a lot of fun and the Irish were victorious so all was right with the world! :) They also serve hard cider there and a bucket of beers/hard ciders was bought here once and brought down the hall into headliners for one of the Second City improv shows. It's buy 5 beers and get one free mix and match, so 3 hard ciders and three coronas ended up being $28 (a steal!) The left overs ended up in our fridge for another day.
We ate breakfast here once, and lunch once. Breakfast was pretty nice. Lunch took too long in my opinion. It took about an hour and a half (although I had one of the tastiest drinks of the cruise there (something like a Lemonjito?).
We ate dinner here once. It was the wedding dinner. The Restaurant manager was again very accommodating in reserving five tables by each other and right by the dance floor for our wedding group. It was perfect timing, as right when we arrived, the band went on break (just long enough for us to order and enjoy our meal). Then, when they returned they announced my brother and his new wife and sang their song "unforgettable" as they had their first dance. We all joined them for the dancing and then it was cake cutting time. It was really a nice evening and the band in the Manhattan Room really made it special!
We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches here. The choices never got old to me. I could eat chocolate croissants every day and twice on Sunday! The curries were always delicious although the naan left a lot to be desired. I loved the coconut ice cream. They had smoked salmon, a make your own Caesar salad station, omelette stations, crepe stations, etc. It never felt crowded except the first lunch when everyone boarded and the last breakfast before everyone left.
We never tried room service, 24 hour $5 pizza, or the Noodle Bar.
We also ate at the two dining/entertainment venues, the Murder Mystery lunch, and Cirque Dreams dinner. The food at both were less than stellar.
That brings us to entertainment. We were extremely impressed overall with the entertainment on board.
The Blue Man Group:
Spectacular and fun. We had no idea what to expect and really enjoyed ourselves. (I saved the day for my parents by passing them ear plugs before the show started because I read a review that it was going to be extremely loud... thanks Cruise Critic reviewer!)
Murder mystery lunch with the Second City crew:
An entertainment success, but a dining failure.
The Second City folks were awesome and we ended up seeing them five times over the course of the cruise (including the Murder Mystery show). The other shows were even funnier as they were more improv and less scripted. We really enjoyed them and it was fun to see them around the ship and say hello!
Cirque Dreams dinner:
This was a bit annoying. We bought the standard seating ($20) and were seated on the first floor in one of the booths. Because of this we could not see about half of the performance. (Several people buying premium seats also could not see the second floor parts of the show because they were sitting at the end of the tables.) The show is a bit hard to follow and the main narrator gets a little grating, but on the positive side, the costumes are fantastic, and the acrobatics (that we could see) were amazing! I would recommend buying premium seats AND getting there very early, or skipping this altogether. The food was "surf and turf". The Surf was two large shrimp that were tasty, but the turf (beef tenderloin) was disappointing.
Howl at the Moon dueling pianos:
Were great and we saw them 2 or 3 times. We never stayed for a full show, but enjoyed dropping in for 30 minutes here and there. After 11 the show is for Adults only, and they mean it. One lady had a toddler in there and finally took the hint that it was inappropriate and ducked out after getting uncomfortable glances from many audience members. Children were welcome at earlier shows that were more PG.
(Speaking of children, as far as I could tell, there weren't that many on board. They were either extremely well behaved, or hidden away in the kids club. They were also probably hanging around the pool areas with their parents, and honestly, I'm not a sun-worshiper so we avoided the pool areas most of the time. I did go on the yellow water slide and thought it was a lot of fun.)
We participated in trivia one afternoon and enjoyed that. The kids loved the beach balls and key chains we got for winning one game.
One night we checked out the Karaoke and although it was fun, the song selection is extremely limited. When we asked one of the activities crew members about it, she said that they were trying out several different Karaoke systems, and that they were recommending the one from the previous week (!) which has a great system etc. Well, that's great for future cruisers, but not great for us! ;)
Comedian/Magician Dana Daniels:
He was entertaining, but it was a bit more stand-up than magician. I laughed. It wasn't hilarious, but it was fun and also it was kid friendly (for those who were wondering)
Guitarist Kurt Hunter:
Caught this guy performing in Maltings while waiting for the rest of our group to finally get out of Teppanyaki and thought he was great so we caught up with him later on in the week at Fat Cats bar and loved his music. Seems like a really nice guy. He took requests (and had book of suggestions that was WAY longer than the Karaoke repertoire!) He also played a couple of original songs that were quite good. Fun time!
Legends in Concert:
We saw Janet Jackson, Neil Diamond, and Aretha Franklin doing their thing. If you've cruised before, this was more in line with the kind-of entertainment you would get from Carnival or HAL. The cast (especially the back up singers/dancers, were very talented), and the three impersonators were alright. Aretha was the best of the three. My parents loved this concert, although they are older and didn't know many of the songs.
My husband and brother saw three or four songs one evening and thought they were great. I'm kicking myself for not making it a point to go see them. However, there are only so many hours in a day and this ship has a lot to keep you busy!
We did this one afternoon and it was pretty fun. It was on one of the more turbulent days and that made the bowling extra challenging. (I think I scored a 58).
We went to this and it was super fun. Lots of dancing and singing along.
White Hot Party:
Tried to go to this, but it was raining so we left. Seemed like fun though and lots of people enjoyed it despite the rain.
This was packed and I only saw a bit of it. They were doing "He Had it Coming" from Chicago, and it was a mixture of the legends back up dancers and crew entertainment staff. Michael from Undercover Boss was shaking it too! Seemed like a lot of fun.
Avoid this at all cost. We played the first day and the cheapest cards cost $39.99! This was only on the first day. After that, when my mom played again, the cheapest cards were $69.00 and the works were almost $100. (this would be forgivable, except that the first winner only got $92!) I'm guessing that NCL is making big bucks on BINGO with these lame payouts. This was the only time during the cruise that made me long for HAL where BINGO is $20 and is more a matter of entertaining guests rather than functioning as another revenue stream for the cruise line!
Ports of Call
We got off the ship and took a water taxi ($6 all day pass) to the town from the dock and tooled around the town doing a little shopping for the kids at home and also looking for an internet cafe to email the family back home. (internet on the ship is a total rip off, in my opinion, and if you can stand it, wait till you get off the ship and find an internet cafe to use and save big bucks.) We found a place called Cyber Surf which was located on Front Street #42 in Philipsburg. There prices were $3/15 minutes, $4/30 minutes, or $5/hour. We being the big spenders that we are, forked over the $5, and had ample time to get caught up on our email and get in touch with the family back home. They also had Skype available although we did not try it.
This was the day of my brother's wedding and the entire port day was organized by them. We were picked up by Air Force One tour buses and driven to the Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas. This resort was BEAUTIFUL. The staff there were top notch and the beach wedding was beautiful and the wedding lunch provided by the Ritz was one of the best we had during the cruise. After the wedding lunch we got back on the tour trolley and headed up to the Mountain Top for a view of the city, some souvenir shopping, and a banana daiquiri. Then, it was back down to the dock to get on board. Note: U.S. cell phones work in St. Thomas so it's a good place to call home.
About 11am we got a message from Captain Vooren that because of heavy winds and choppiness they were going to be unable to dock in Nassau and we were going to be skipping this port. Several people I witnessed seemed pretty steamed about the cancellation, but I didn't really care as I had been to Nassau and didn't have any plans on the island except to do some souvenir shopping. They announced that they were refunding the port charges for Nassau which came to $22.66 per person and later in the afternoon they provided free Rum Punch courtesy of the Captain for an hour. They also revised the on board activities so that there were more things to do. My sister and her husband we bummed though because they had planned to do the Segway tour (the only excursion they booked while on board) and my brother and his new wife and my other brother were planning on a day on the beach. They instead took advantage of the Posh Sun Deck that afternoon, which was lovely.
Cruise Critic Meet and Greet:
Attended this and there were many Ship officers there during the mingling part along with the cruise director Paul Scally. They provided a nice spread of my favorite chocolate croissants (did I mention that I love them?) and other assorted pastries, along with Ice Water, Tea and Coffee. The captain showed up at the end when all the officers were introduced and mentioned that they know cruise critic folks write about their cruises and that they hope we write good things. He also mentioned that they read what is written! It was very nice and I'm glad we went. We were also given a card with the direct numbers of all the heads of various departments with the request for us to call with any and all questions or concerns we might have on our cruise.
Smoke on board:
This was not a problem for us while on board. I was very concerned because several reviews said it was outrageous, but it was a non-issue for us as well. We were also able to use our balcony and only once in 7 days of use noticed any of our neighbors smoking.
We never made it to the Ice Bar, the Rock Climbing Wall or the Epic Bounce. We never tried room service or the 24 hour $5 pizza.
ATM on board:
We wanted to get some cash out to play the slots but the ATM charges something like 5.5% to get out cash but we discovered a work around. If you go to the casino cashier, you can have a minimum of $100 put on your on board account and they will issue you certificates you can use to play the slots or at the tables. Once you have played to your hearts content, take your leftover certificates to the ATM and it will exchange what is left for cash at no charge. If you get your $100 out and suddenly realize you would rather have cash instead of playing in the casino (wink, wink) just turn around and exchange them back for cash.
Loved this cruise and would love to go back soon!