NCL's Epic (Deeper Review) - TransAtlantic Crossing
Gary Hayman (LeVoyageur)
ghayman3 at comcast dot net
You may have read my previous review written after my first December 2010 voyage on NCL's newer cruise ship, The NLC Epic. [ http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=76198 ] In that review I ONLY discussed the new single's Studio cabins* and did not discuss the rest of the ship.
*Please note that NCL is now advertising the Studio cabins as an accommodation for two people -- rather than the just the solo traveler that they formerly touted. That's 100 sq ft. -- about the size of a camping tent -- for two people (very close friends.)
As I begin this review on my SECOND voyage on the Epic, this time a trans-Atlantic 11 day cruise from Miami to Barcelona, Spain, I can briefly report that some of the criticisms that I made in my first review apparently did not fall on deaf ears as I noticed corrections were made in line with my suggestions, be it a result of my published article or due to other sources complaining. It doesn't matter. Only that the improving corrections were made is important.
Here, as a result of my second voyage on the Epic, I will continue with some additional comments that I have observed myself or even culled from the many conversations with fellow passengers during the trip.
First off, the Epic is a great ship, but still needs some changes to make it even better. It may not be the ship of choice for everyone, especially me, so future travelers will have to make that determination for themselves.
I will concentrate mainly on areas of 'concern' and some other areas of interest. This will, by no means be a complete review so you are invited to other writings on CruiseCritic.com for additional information so that you can better judge for yourself and your particular requirements. The ship is so big and there is so much going on that one review from one person cannot tell it all.
This time, instead of a Studio cabin, I chose an inside cabin for the reason that even having to pay DOUBLE for the inside cabin, as I was a solo traveler, the 128 sq. ft. inside cabin was still ~$400 CHEAPER than booking a 100 sq. ft. Studio cabin. More room - less money.
Yes, finally room to move around and even to easily store your belongings which the Studio cabin didn't easily offer. There was actually plenty of room including drawer, shelf and clothes hanging in this type of cabin, although less than other similar inside cabin rooms on other cruise lines.
My cabin had two twin beds which I had moved together to form a bigger bed. There was no sitting area but there was a movable padded stool. The room was a rectangle. On the left side of my entry was toilet with a sliding frosted characters door, then a two door closet which contained PLENTY of room for hanging clothes (lots of wooden hangers) plus plenty of shelf space. On one of the closet doors were 3 wire baskets which were very valuable for additional storage. One shelf contained a combination lock small safe. The projection then curved to the straight wall on the left side.
At the right of the entry was a great shower with a curved sliding door. The shower water was thermally controlled and worked great. Beyond was a small washbasin and medicine cabinet, an elevated refrigerator (mini-bar), a handy slide out desk panel, drawers, and additional small shelves under the main shelf.
To either side of the bed were small night stands with shelf space. Please note that the washbasin is very SMALL. Earlier, many reviewers, including myself, complained that the water, because of the force, would easily splash on the floor from the basin when turned on. Fortunately, in now seems that they lowered the water pressure and I had no trouble with the splashing that I had on my December Epic cruise.
There were mirrors on the clothes locker door, the medicine cabinet and at the shelf-desk. The entrance way was floored with Pergo style material and there was carpeting in the sleeping area. There was lighting, but I felt it could have been a little brighter for my eyes.
SUGGESTION: NCL this is an inside cabin. Brighten the lights, please.
A sliding curtain could be used to block off the shower and toilet area from the sleeping, storage and dressing area. An elevated TV could be seen from the bed but not the rest of the room. There were limited channels. Movies were at extra cost. You could review your GROWING statement on the TV. and even watch ship events -- past and present.
There were available wall outlets for American and European electrical equipment and a third one for shavers in the medicine cabinet.
There was hardly any noise from the corridor and its passing people. General announcements (activities etc.), made in the corridor, over the PA system could not be heard clearly unless one opened the door.
SUGGESTION: I've never seen this on a cruise ship - An on/off switch in the cabin to allow corridor announcements to also play in the cabin would be appreciated. [Probably easy to do as there is already a speaker in each room for emergency PA announcements. NCL take note.]
Generally, the room was more than sufficient even though it was smaller than other ships. My complaint would be towards the excessively high prices of the Studio cabins. In a perfect life, they should be cheaper for the solo traveler with the very small room, than for a solo traveler occupying a bigger inside cabin and paying double (which also should not be as they don't consume twice the food or use twice the activities - some cruise lines don't charge a double supplemental fee for the single traveler, their supplemental is much less, you should check -- but, some do.)
SUGGESTION: Hey NCL, if you want to attract more single travelers (since your advertisements say that you are an innovator in doing this) and fill those empty cabins lower your single supplement fees for inside cabins from double to something more reasonable -- other cruise lines do. Price your small 100 sq. ft. Studio cabins lower than the price of the larger inside cabin.
I was fortunate to be able to see almost all of the available types of cabins on the ship. One of the Cruise Critic passengers had organized, with the help of many volunteers, a Cabin Crawl. I was even able to view my own cabin as it was one of the assigned stopping points. I thought that all of the cabins were quite nice and certainly very comfortable. True, the Studio cabins were small - you can read my comments on the Studio cabins by visiting the link at the beginning of this article. Outstanding, of course, where the special multi-roomed cabins of the Courtyard area [Delux Owners Suites] -- plus the special Spa Suites and Penthouse Suites. There was a special blocked off area of the ship of fancy cabins and suites for Texas millionaires or Chicago sausage barons. Elegance, Elegance, Elegance. People who stayed there must have felt like well treated celebrities in fancy Las Vegas suites that you see in the movies. It must of been like a 'your wish is my command magic experience.' You can view the luxury from many on-line photos (Google or Bing images) including the NCL site [ http://www2.ncl.com/cruise-ship/epic/staterooms/2/suite#tab_detail ].
There was some grumbling about the curvature in some of the cabins, but I couldn't see that it would be a bother. But, I wasn't living in one of those. Although some cabins had normal balcony views of the ocean, others had blocked views (due to lifeboats) and less than full view space due to the ships architecture.
SUGGESTION: When booking your balcony cabin be sure to inquire about a possible restricted view. Also, when booking your cabins, check its location carefully to see if it is situated near a noisy area such as where children's activities are held or over, under, or beside a noise making area such as a music and dancing area or a galley.
STUDIO CABIN'S LIVING ROOM
This was the subject of my previous review. The Studio's Living Room is for the occupants of the 128 special solo cabins. There is a gathering for the cabin occupants each evening from 5:30-6:30pm. [Half-priced Drinks, Meet & Mix, Snacks, Activity Arrangements, etc.] Only those assigned to those cabins are 'SUPPOSEDLY' allowed to attend. That's the way it was on my first Epic cruise and that is what the Front Desk confirmed on this cruise.
SUGGESTION: That the Epic people provide an invite to all other 'solos' on the cruise giving them FORMAL permission to attend these evening functions, making it easier for them to associate with other solo passengers. The invite can be just a card in the cabin so that a general ship announcement isn't made that might attract non-solo passengers. There was a rumor that this was allowed on this cruise, but as I had mentioned, the Front Desk said NO -- only for occupants of those special cabins! [But some people did sneak in.]
NICKELS AND DIMES
Unfortunately, one of the most common phrases that you overhear from fellow passengers at the dinner table or from neighbors at entertainment events, is the phrase "NCL nickels and dimes you to death." This may be due to all the extra charges levied on passenger at the special restaurants, using the spa facilities such as the steam room or the dry sauna, sushi (which is available and free on many other cruise lines), a charge for espresso with dinner, a charge for movies in room, etc. Now I am one who would prefer that the steam and dry sauna, the free sushi availability, and having an espresso at the dinner table - - all of which some other cruise lines provide - - SHOULD BE FREE, but other than that, I really didn't notice any other "nickel and diming" going on. I believe that it is a phrase that has just caught on and is repeated often by individuals who realize that there are a lot of hidden extras when taking the cruise. (NOTE: there were many free movies during the cruise on the large LCD movie screens in the Atrium and the aft outdoor H2O Spice area, for those who were interested.)
On this, my second trip on the Epic. I only attended only one specialty restaurant - the Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian style restaurant, for an additional fee of $20. I was treated to an endless supply of a variety of skewered meats and side dishes that was way more than a person could handle. Needless to say, the dishes were scrumptious (I recommend the lamb chops, the filets, and the garlic beef.) The service was high-class and the waiter was very helpful with the selections. I must say that they have a salad bar of the likes you have probably never seen. It, by itself, should be an additional specialty restaurant. It is almost impossible to have a main meal AND the salad bar in one sitting.
There are other Epic specialty restaurants of which you can read about on NCL's website that may be of interest to you. But please note that there are extra charges from $10 to $25 per person. [ Descriptions and Photos: http://www2.ncl.com/cruise-ship/epic/onboard/eat#tab_detail ]
THE MAIN DINING ROOMS
The two main "FREE" dining rooms are the Manhattan and the Taste. Both served, dinner. The Taste also serves breakfast and lunch. I found the food range from very good to excellent - although there were others on board who voiced opposite opinions. There was one exception though, the Philly cheese steak sandwich at the Taste. If there was anyone on board from Philadelphia they would be chasing the chef with a baseball bat.
SUGGESTION: Have the chef visit Philadelphia for some training.
Actually there was one major complaint that ALMOST EVERYONE had and it was the fact that the right-hand side of the menu contains a big listing of standard dinner items that didn't change from evening to evening, while the left side of the menu listed ONLY A FEW ITEMS that were new for the evening. If you didn't like a couple of new items you had to choose from the same menu again and again. On an 11 day trip, as this was, the food choices could get old fast. Some opined that this was a technique to encourage you to attend one of the pay specialty restaurants for your meal, but you wouldn't think that NCL would do that purpose would you?
SUGGESTION: NCL - more new items and less standard items to give your menu a feel of being NEW each evening. No free espresso with your dinner? What's up with that? (The regular coffee was watery.)
This is a buffet style restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In my opinion, this restaurant is probably the best buffet for all three meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) that I have found on any of the ships on which I've traveled. (Applause Here) The selection is enormous. There are specialty foods from various countries as well as excellent vegetarian choices. It is pretty well spread out so you have to wonder about a bit to see what's available. But even then there are no long waiting lines for items as you might have experienced on other ships. It is here where you have an opportunity to see the ocean while you dine. (See later comments on ocean views.)
Usually one doesn't think about going to the buffet for dinner when on cruises. But let me say that this buffet deserves a dinner visit at least once during your cruise. The dinner items were great. I was not only impressed with the dinner but breakfast and lunch, as mentioned, were also outstanding for me.
EATING AS A SINGLE
My BIGGEST COMPLAINT, and one that might keep me from returning to NCL, is a result of Freestyle dining in the Main dining rooms. This is not apparent to couples or groups but is quite apparent to single diners. Freestyle dining often leaves the diner alone at a table in the two main dining rooms. I had the same experience on both my cruises on the Epic. It is like pulling teeth to have the hostesses seat you to with other people so you don't have to dine alone. Even when you announce that you would like to dine with others (share a table) they will first seek to sit you at a table for two and no one else would be assigned to that tape. You then will ask to be seated at a larger table with others and they might sit you at one and still no one shows up. One has to be quite emphatic about being seated with other people before they will take the proper action.
SUGGESTION: if you are single and want to be seated with other people, tell the hostess so, in no uncertain terms, and inform her that you will wait by her desk as she inquires of approaching parties of their willingness to 'share a table'. And then, AND ONLY THEN, join the amiable group that doesn't mind dining with outsiders and enter the dining room AS A GROUP. By no means let the hostess seat you at a table by yourself, waiting for others - who will never show. By the way, groups that I did join, were fantastic dinner companions and the conversations were robust and very interesting. I had no regrets when I did it this way but there is resistance from the hostesses when you ask.
I would also suggest that the dining room reserve a couple of tables for solo travelers who would like to dine with other solo travelers and perhaps usher those to those tables.
EVENING DANCING AS A SINGLE
I enjoy dancing on ship, in fact, I was a dance instructor on twelve of my previous 26 cruises -- but these were mainly with dance groups. This ship is not set up for earlier in the evening dancing for singles. There is an orchestra playing in the main dinning room, The Manhattan, and a great dance floor, but unless someone at your table is willing to dance it is very difficult to approach other tables inquiring about partners. There is a dance floor in the Atrium with an excellent group playing very danceable music, but the layout with the single overstuffed chairs jammed against each other with little or no aisle access space does not create the environment to obtain dance partners. Of course, couples and groups have no troubles in obtaining partners.
For me, the Bliss Lounge starts to late and is too dark to see anyone. Other music, save deck fifteen have no dance floors space around the musical groups.
I would register a small complaint about the DJs in the Bliss Lounge. They don't seem to have the experience in selecting music that people will dance to. With an empty floor they might play a certain style of music and, instead of recognizing the non-participation and changing the style or beat, play the same style of music again -- not attracting dancers. Then, when they finally switch to music that attracts dancers, they immediately clear the floor by returning to the music that no one will dance to.
I have had experience with great DJ chosen music as for six years I ran large DJ dance parties every week at various night clubs in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. DJs should be bringing dancers to the floor, not chasing them away.
SUGGESTION: Other cruise lines have dance floor space around all musical groups and are laid out in a manner so that all seats are approachable. NCL should take a lesson from them to assist non-grouped single passengers. Advise the assigned DJs to choose their music so as to encourage the dance floor to fill.
The ship has several bowling alleys for use by its patrons at five dollars a frame. Several are located on deck six, there are several more in the Bliss Lounge. I didn't participate, so I can't really comment. But I can say that the sailing was so smooth that I don't think the bowlers were effected at all by any motion of the chip. But for free, one could do 'Nintendo Wii' bowling on the giant TV screen in the Atrium. There you could have a 91 pin strike - and it didn't cost a cent. It would be nice if the regular bowling was also free.
THE FITNESS CENTER
The gym facilities were superb. I was there at 6 AM each morning and others were quickly joining so by 7am the gym was quite active. It is said that this gym has the most treadmills of any ship sailing the seas. The ship was equipped with an abundance of treadmills, elliptical's, free weights, weight and exercise machines, a spinning room, a yoga room, and a converted squash court (where they have all sorts of large balls, straps on racks etc. and they do kinetic training.) I think this is where the Spartacus and the gladiators get in shape. It looks dangerous to me -- it is a place where only the strong servive.
I took some Zumba classes in the yoga room which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was even a Zydeco dance class held in that room on one of the days. I do enjoy Zydeco dancing.
However, the afforded jogging track was a let down. It was nothing more than the area where the passengers would stand if they were to enter the lifeboats during an emergency, and was only on one side of the ship on deck seven. The view of the water is blocked by the lifeboats so that while jogging or walking one couldn't view the sea except for glimpses between life boats.
SUGGESTION: Many passengers were disappointed when they discovered that a first class jogging track was absent. This should be considered for future builds for the fleet.
VIEW OF THE WATER
This is a BIG GRIPE by passengers housed in the inside cabins. As mentioned before, there's limited view of the water. The ship was built with having as many balcony cabins as possible so therefore there are no promenade decks, as on other ships, where you can walk or power walk and see the water. Also there is only limited water viewing through windows from the interior of the ship in the passenger's congregating areas on decks five, six and seven. With an inside cabin, one may just feel that they are spending a vacation in a floating hotel with minimum view of the outside when away from the cabin.
SUGGESTION: Strolling on a deck looking out at the water, or a sun rise, sunset, or even the stars is what one expects on a cruise ship. Here it is lacking. I hope that future builds for the fleet makes this a more important consideration.
There is a large variety of entertainment on the ship. In the Epic theater, depending on the evening, there was the Blue Man Group, Legends Unplugged, a comedy magician, a ventriloquist, a hypnotist, and various other major presentations. Also offered, in another special theater, was Cirque Dreams - an amazing dinner circus event. In other rooms the Second City improv group, a smooth blues band, a duel piano play and sing along show, a variety music band, a ship' s orchestra, a pianist, guitar player, a classical string group, and Latin and island music (usually on the pool deck), plus various others. There was more entertainment and music on the open air aft deck of the ship and of course, the highly used Bliss Lounge at the fore of the ship, for many events and late night CD music. The passenger never was lacking for on board entertainment.
Of all the 26 ships on which I've been passenger, the Epic had the most available activities of all. Fortunately the ship furnished a daily tear out and fold listing that you could put in your pocket and carry with you. There was no way that you can do everything, but everything was there for your choosing. The variety was enormous. The gym and spa were making presentations throughout the day. The program director and his assistant were making announcements over the PA system telling you what is coming up in the next couple of hours. Of course everyone wade or swim in the pool instead of engaging in these activities - cough - cough, [I forgot to tell you that it was kind of chilly while crossing the Atlantic and little use was made of the pool and lounge chairs on the pool deck.] I didn't partake of the three water slides because of the outdoor temperature but I have to recommend that if you sail on the Epic you must give them a try, you won't regret it -- they are FUN.
As on most cruise lines ships, the personnel on board our amiable and helpful. Here, when sometimes you walk into the Garden Cafe, the greeters are singing to you while they spray your hands with disinfectant. Yes, your hands get sprayed quite often -- put your hands out or your clothes might get sprayed. Most all of the other ship' s personnel say hello when you pass them. It is a friendly ship.
Although I didn't experience it, some passengers were reporting that they had less than satisfactory experiences while asking questions at Guest Services. I experienced a helpful, friendly and cheerful atmosphere at the desk. [Of course they always confused me with George Clooney and wanted my autograph.]
The previous time that I was on the Epic there was smoking all throughout the casino and one had to make their way through clouds of dense fog. This time they had restricted smoking to only certain areas which certainly helped while walking through the casino, which is required on deck six to reach various facilities. I, and many others, complained about the smoke in previous critiques. Perhaps the cruise line does listen to its passengers - from time to time.
The common areas of the ship are well decorated and pleasing. All is new and sparkling clean. While walking the common areas on decks five, six and seven you have an abundance of pleasant feasts for the eyes.
They have bars and bars and bars. Even one in the room where the temperature is maintained below 17°F. When entering the Ice Bar one is given faux fur coats, a hat and gloves. This is not a place to enter without pants, socks or wearing sandals. Needless to say your drinks inside are a chilling experience.
NO PAY LAUNDRY OR IRONING ROOM
Unlike on other vessels, there is no pay laundromat or ironing room, so be
forewarned. You can use the ships laundry service, at a price, or rinse things out in your TINY cabin sink and hanging them to dry on a line in your shower. You might want to save all your dirty cloths to wear at the Bliss Lounge late at night, as it is so dark in there no one can see your clothes anyway.
SUGGESTION: NCL: Provide a passenger laundromat/ironing room.
One of the big complaints on earlier Epic cruises was about the small sink and it's water splashing on the floor when the spigots are turned on. I wrote about this in my previous review. Since then, it appears as if the ship paid attention and turned down the water pressure to the sinks, practically eliminating the water splashing. Kudos for that. Still, the sink is small.
There is an excellent heat and cooling thermostat in each cabin.
If you are in your cabin it is very difficult to hear the ship's activity announcements over the PA system as it is not broadcast into the room. One has to open the door of the cabin to hear the announcements.
SUGGESTION: Since there is a speaker in the room for 'major' ship announcements (like emergencies), it would be nice if there was some sort of wall switch that could be controlled by the passenger to also hear/or not hear the hallway announcements in the cabin over the in room speaker.
There are only two major banks of elevators on the ship for general traffic. The fore bank doesn't stop on one of the decks (deck six I believe.) For me, no problem. I would get off of floor earlier or later, and walk up or down the stairs. But here is the situation, remember this is a very long ship. A passenger in wheelchair had a cabin in the fore part of the ship and wanted to go to this deck. She couldn't use the elevator, which was near at hand, and get off at a different floor and use the stairs. She would have to use her wheelchair and go the length of the ship to the aft to use the other bank of elevators, to descend to the deck, and then travel again the length of the ship to get to where she wanted to go. There is something wrong with that.
SUGGESTION: NCL should make sure that individuals in wheelchairs are assigned to cabins closer to the aft elevators where there use to arrive at all decks are not impeded.
Great ship, excellent fixtures, good food, menu may require adjustment, champion buffet, numerous extra charge speciality restaurants, quality entertainment, nice cabins -- very small over priced Studio cabins (on this trip), tons of activities at all hours, outstanding gym and equipment, probably not a first choice for single passengers when considering dining policy and availability of partners for dancing, generally a poor view of the water when not in a balcony cabin, more bars than a jail cell, happy and pleasant crew, Captain always arrived at the correct port on time, DJs need improvement, no laundromat or ironing room, very small sinks, helpful and pleasant ships crew.