We flew to Miami the day prior to the cruise, and stayed at InterContinental Miami; went shopping at Bayside Marketplace, and had dinner at Lombardi's. The InterContinental is a nice hotel, close to the port, and within walking distance of Bayside Marketplace. You can pay $20 extra when you check-in for an ocean view room, and you can see the ships in the a.m. We did this, and it was so exciting to see the Epic and the other ships!
Embarkation - Boarded at noon, no wait, private office for suite guests to check in. Escorted to Epic Lounge, given tour of Courtyard Village ate lunch in Epic Club, and made spa appointments. Purchased the wine package, 6 bottles, 20% off only on embarkation day. You can take your wine to your room, or drink it in any of the restaurants; they retrieve it for you, whatever restaurant you're at, from a central location.
Ship - Lovely dEcor; elevators and carpet are blue on one side of the ship and orange on the other, so you can keep your bearings whether you want to be on the starboard or the port side; huge state of the art fitness center with lots of treadmills/bicycles/elliptical machines facing floor to ceiling windows, we started most of our sea days here; loved the waterpark, especially the Epic Plunge. If you have photos taken on the ship, you can look for them at a computer kiosk using your room key/card, or you can also look on the traditional photo wall, or you can look in a book with your cabin number, inside will be your photos. Lifeboat drill was short and sweet; crew scanned our room keycard, and brought a lifevest to demo for us (none in cabins). The second week we asked our butler if we had to attend again, and he said "don't worry about it", so we took a nap:) never did that during a lifeboat drill before. Casino was huge, smoke not overwhelming; only one $5 Blackjack table, would like to see more; dealers helpful and pleasant. Bridge viewing room was kind of interesting. Atrium Cafe has free movies on a huge two story screen, and free coffee and pastries like banana, pistachio, and hazelnut cake. There is one "Dress Up Or Not Night" per 7 night sailing, most people did not wear traditional formal attire like tuxes and gowns; we wore nice pants with nice tops/shirts, etc., on dress up night, whereas other nights we wore capris, sneakers, etc. Loved the freestyle, it was perfect for two weeks allowing us to bring less clothes/luggage. Also, on Wed morning they have a laundry special, you can stuff a bag with as many clothes as you can get into it, and they will launder them for $25 (no dry clean/pressing, just laundry) and return to you on Thursday. That was great, as we had our "week-one clothes" laundered, and then wore them on week two. We got both of our clothes in one bag (it wouldn't close, hee). We were able to pack for two weeks in one suitcase each, and one carryon each. We packed a duffle bag in one suitcase, because we knew we would buy "stuff" and need another piece of luggage for the return trip. Totally needed it.
Courtyard Villa Area - Loved this area, it felt secluded. Private restaurant, bar, pool, small exercise room, massage rooms, sundeck; large lounge "beds" could fit both of us. One time I thought I summoned a waiter for a drink, instead someone came over and misted me with water:) They do a nice sailaway party with complimentary champagne and hors d'oeuvres, and lots of room along the railings. The Epic Bar always had m&m's and gummy bears. My favorite was the Epic Club restaurant, best food on the ship; Ramona was the best maitre'd we've ever had, she always chatted with all tables and insured everyone's meal was perfect (breakfast, lunch, AND dinner, she was always there); we asked for broccoli once, and she had someone go to three restaurants to find some (we didn't know this until a server brought it); another time we asked if they had a particular flavor of ice cream, and again (unknown to us) she had someone run around the ship to find it; no request was ever denied.
Spa - My favorite treatment was the Thai Poultice massage, but I also enjoyed the Swedish massages, hot stone massages, facials, and hair/scalp treatments. One time I was unhappy with the massage, stopped it halfway through, and there was no charge. The thermal suite/hydro pool is awesome; they also have the heated tile loungers there. Sometimes we would end our day by relaxing in the hydro pool, sauna, and heated lounger, ahhhhh. This area is free for spa suite passengers, but they also sell a limited number of weekly passes to other passengers for $199. The spa had special prices for treatments on port days, and fliers at the desk with random specials. I lost a swimsuit in the spa one day, don't ask, didn't realize it until the next day; our awesome butler, Charlie tracked it down and returned it.
Entertainment - Blue Man Group was so good, we went twice, the second time we were part of the show; Legends in Concert was pretty good, the Aretha Franklin impersonator was great; Second City comedy group was fun, they asked my name and what I do for a living, and then made a whole impromptu song/skit about it, funny; Howl at the Moon dueling pianos was fun, but we didn't enjoy them constantly soliciting money, i.e. telling us that the bigger the bill you give them, the more likely you would be to hear your requested song; loved Slam Allen jazz/blues player; Cirque Dinner and Dreams was fun, our table was almost onstage, which is a round area in center of the floor; White Hot Party was ok, but wet because of an earlier rain; FABBA was fun, a lot of ABBA music, singing and dancing; not sure if this comes under entertainment, but we enjoyed the Italian wine tasting; did a Cruise Critic meet and greet the first week, met some nice CC folks, did a gift swap, and then hooked up with them the next day for a slot pull. Missed the CC meet and greet the second week, I was in the spa!
Spa Suite - On 14th floor, just down the hall from spa, two floors from Courtyard Villa area. Discovered flowers, champagne, bottled water, bowl of fruit, wine and choc covered strawberries in our room, and a present from someone special:) Tons of storage space. Lavazza espresso/coffee machine was awesome, better than my Keurig. The room has a real, full sized blow dryer; flat screen tv that can be used to check your account balance, book shore excursions, look at menus, make dinner/show reservations, etc.; cell phone to use around ship, or to call the butler should you need him when you're out of the room; hot tub in room, we only used it a couple of times because the spa was just down the hall and the thermal suite was so awesome with the water that would beat down on your shoulders, etc. Balcony had one lounger, two chairs and a small table. There is a dial outside the door that you can place on Make Up Room, Do Not Disturb, Turn Down Room, etc. Loved the shower, it is large, has a glass sliding door, curved out, giving lots of space, large removable shower head on wall, and really huge shower head in ceiling, nice! Plenty of Elemis toiletries always replaced. Robes and slippers for both. Shower water sometimes seeps out of the shower a little, just put a towel on the floor, Charlie told us about this, said they will bring as many towels as we want. It's not carpeted, and did not spill much anyway, so one towel on the floor was fine. We did hear kids running above us, on the pool deck, which was only annoying once or twice when trying to nap in the afternoon. Didn't keep us from napping though, hee. The room even had a doorbell, never had one of those on a ship before. We didn't have a problem with the toilet and shower not being together in a separate room, they both had sliding glass doors which enclose you in kind of a capsule. But the flush is kind of loud if someone uses the toilet during the night.
Crew/Staff - Everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful. Charlie was the best butler ever, he escorted us to shows before the doors opened so we could have our choice of seats, insured ice bucket was always full, exchanged our complimentary champagne for wine, brought us canapEs/snacks every afternoon, took everything out of the fridge so we could fill it with our stuff, etc. We ordered a special breakfast one sea day that wasn't on the room service menu, and he made it happen. We wrote Style cards (comment cards) for butler, concierge, room steward, maitre'd, and our favorite waitress in the Epic Club. They love Style cards, their supervisors look at them.
Dining - Epic Club, our favorite restaurant, excellent food, ate most of our meals here; Le Bistro, French, delicious, loved the mushroom soup; Moderno, Brazilian, excellent salad bar and very good meats, tons of food, the servers told Johnny and I to join hands, they tied a napkin around our hands, sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and gave us an anniversary cake; La Cucina, read unfavorable reviews about the food, but our food was very good and it had an awesome view/ambience, it is all the way forward with floor to ceiling windows, I made dinner reservations for 7:00 p.m. here so we could view sailaway from Nassau, it was cool; ate once at Taste Restaurant (one of the main dining rooms), not good food, and kind of loud; Garden Cafe buffet had nice variety, really good curry dishes, and authentic German pretzel rolls and wursts!; O'Sheehan's, 24 hr, free pub style food (sandwiches and lots of fried stuff), only went twice, fish and chips were just ok, pot pie was good; Shanghai Noodle Bar, very good noodles/fried rice; 24 hour pizza delivery to anywhere on ship for $5, good pizza, but not as good as Carnival's. We didn't find any really wonderful desserts on the ship. The ice cream was pretty good, and I frequently enjoyed the Trio of Treats (or something like that) in the Epic Club restaurant after dinner, it consisted of a tiny little milkshake with a piece of banana in the bottom, a little piece of chocolate cake, and a tiny little crème brulee. So cute.
Back to Back disembarkation/re-embarkation - easy. We were with the last group called to get off the ship, and we were given "In Transit" stickers to wear. There were about 20 of us, we were taken to a holding room off the ship, with Danish, refreshments, etc., and in about 20 min, we reboarded. It was about ½ hour before anyone else started coming aboard, so we enjoyed the waterpark and the slides before all the kids came, hee.
Final Day Debarkation - We waited until they called the last group off the ship, as we had an evening flight, and were enrolled in the Bags Program. If you choose to use Bags, make sure you fill out the paperwork to enroll by Wed (or whatever day they offer it in the "Dailies" paper) or you'll be too late. You can pay $20 for each bag you want to check, put it outside your room by midnight the night prior, and you will not have to see it again until you land at your home airport. They take it through customs for you, take it to the airport, and check it in. This worked great for us because we didn't have to schlep our luggage around all day. Debarkation was stopped a couple of times that morning because of a customs issue, so I'm glad we weren't trying to make an early flight because we didn't get off the ship until 10:30. We enjoyed our final day of vacation in Miami, rode the free "people mover", enjoyed Cuban food and mojitos, and had fun at Bayside Marketplace.
St Maarten - Taxi to Orient Beach; went parasailing, fun!; rode a jet ski; went to Le String beach bar: $7 for lounge chair, umbrella, and drink; took a walk to the clothing optional end to see if there were really naked people there; yep, naked people; mostly seniors; then went shopping in Phillipsburg. You can use your AT&T cellphone here without roaming charges.
St Thomas - Took taxi to Megan's Bay in the morning, left at noon when it started to get crowded; went shopping at Havensight mall by ship; used the internet cafe there, 15 min for $4. You can also use your AT&T cellphone here without roaming charges.
Nassau - taxi to Atlantis Resort, visited the aquarium and hung out, then went to Hard Rock Cafe for Johnny's t-shirt, and back to the ship.
Costa Maya - Possibly my favorite port day. Loved the Maya Chan Beach Resort. It's just a small beach, they take only 40 people, and they cater to each one of them. They have palapas (thatched roof huts) with a hammock, chairs, table, and a bed; they have water toys like chairs to float in, kayaks, snorkeling, etc.; food/drinks are included, they serve homemade guacamole, salsa & chips, chicken, fish, etc., and the best drinks ever at their little beach bar. The bartender will make you anything; he made Johnny an Oreo cookie drink with a crushed Oreo cookie on top. Everything is included in the cover charge. It was so relaxing there. There was turtle grass in the water, but we used the floatie chairs and went kayaking, so we didn't have to walk on it.
Roatan - we booked a private tour with Victor Bodden online; he sent emails with lots of info, and our guide, Brad, met us at the port. Brad was knowledgeable and friendly, told us a lot about the island, took us to South Shore Zipline (loved the ziplining and glad we requested South Shore!) and to a great lunch at Half Moon Bay where the tables overlook the water, the seafood was yummy and the view was awesome. Then he took us to Victor Bodden's home/grounds to pay our bill and to visit the monkeys/parrots, gift shop, etc. I loved the monkeys, wanted to bring one home. Roatan looks to be in poor condition from what we saw; Brad told us a lot of people are out of work and the economy is bad. We docked at Coxen Hole; saw a ship sailing away from the port of Mahogany Bay at 10:00 a.m., and our guide told us ships sometimes can't dock at the Mahogany Bay port because of a sandbar, and on this particular day Coxen Hole had other ships, so the ones scheduled for Mahogany Bay had to go to Cozumel or have a sea day or whatever, but they had to cancel Roatan. He said that meant two less ships in port that day which was a disappointment to the residents because most of them depend on tourism for their income.
Cozumel - we always have fun in Cozumel. This time we went to Chankanaab, we had never gone there before. It wasn't for me. The snorkeling is really good, I did enjoy sitting on the beach under the umbrella and having a waiter bring me a mojito, hee, and the park is beautiful, but there was nowhere to just walk into the water and swim, unless you go to the pool. You have to wear a life vest if you want to go down the steps into the water in the snorkel area, or you can go in the children's area but that water is very shallow. So we stayed till noon, then went to our usual place, Pancho's Backyard, had lunch, and received free margaritas with the online coupons. Shopped our way back to the ship, bought another Hard Rock t-shirt for Johnny.
We loved our cruise, best 2 week vacation EVER (ok, our ONLY 2 week vacation ever); we enjoyed the ziplining, parasailing, kayaking, jet ski, playing with monkeys, and the Maya Chan Beach resort; and we also enjoyed 6 relaxing days at sea doing very little and getting pampered in the spa. Loved the Epic, would cruise on her again, but probably only in a suite because I think we would be disappointed in a regular cabin, I think it was a whole different experience having access to the private restaurant, etc. NCL has the best suite perks in my opinion. And it turns out we love Freestyle, we weren't sure if we would miss some of the traditions of traditional cruising, but we totally didn't, and we can always do another traditional cruise if we want. But right now, we are sure our next cruise will be a NCL Freestyle. Just to be sure, we put a deposit on our next cruise while onboard? Might wait for the two new ships to come out, they're supposed to keep the good things from the Epic (i.e. maintain the private villa concept), but do away with the bad things (i.e. bathroom configuration, etc.).