Overall I can say that the whole cruise was a C+ and that while the ship is definitely something to see, the overall things that deterred us from NCL back in 2003 have not changed much. We are unlikely to cruise on NCL again in the near future. NCL just does not meet our expectations for cruising.
What follows is what I hope will be seen as an honest review from a seasoned cruiser. Take from it what you will and I hope it helps others in making decisions.
NOTE TO ALL EUROPEAN CRUISERS: The EU has instituted a new VAT tax that is added to EVERYTHING on the ship, and I mean EVERYTHING and it ranges from 8% to 18% depending on the service. So your drink bills for example, add 23% more to the price (15% service and 8% VAT). They even charged 8% VAT on all of your restaurant service charges. Spa and store items had 18% VAT. If you wait in a long line with any item receipts totaling over $130 you can get a VAT stamp to get it back at the airport, but this is only on goods, not services (where you spend most of your money). This is not the fault of NCL, but we found this an unwelcome surprise to our spending. Also, last year's med cruise did not do this, so it is apparently a new thing.
WHERE THE EPIC SUCCEEDS:
THE SHIP ITSELF: The ship is mammoth, but given it size you do not feel overcrowded at all. The only time I felt as if there were 4000 people on the ship was at the muster drill. Yes, on sea days the deck is crowded, but there were so many chairs, I cannot imagine not finding one. The inside is beautiful and the layout is easy once you have been on the ship a day or so. This is one of benefits, I think of freestyle cruising, it lends itself to the bigger ships. With so many options, you do not have people moving in large groups in the same direction (as on RCCL for example, where 1800 people leave second dining and heard to the theatre for the late show).
ENTERTAINMENT: I think NCL will always win when it comes to entertainment, and we got a lot of bang for our buck on the Epic, but the shows do not make up, in my opinion, for what NCL lacks—personalization, luxury, and service—that I have experienced on other cruise lines. I cannot say that we were ever "bored" on the ship.
A breakdown of what we saw:
Blue Man and Cirque: These are brand names, so they do live up to their hype. Both shows were excellent, but only need to be seen once. The Cirque Dreams dinner, despite some reviews was not bad, and don't pay for the premium seats as you see better from the standard ones. The only benefit to premium was you can be chosen to participate in the show. In Blue Man, the opposite is true, they tended to chose participants from the back of the theatre. I do not want not give away more than this as the shows are so unique you should just experience them for yourself.
We lost Second City and it was replaced with three things: (1) The 5th Wheel—a horrible puppet show that had "adult themes," and although we did not attend (the youtube video kept us away), many CC members that we talked to hated it and left half way through. (2) Stephen Sorrentino—billed as a Vegas style comedian/impersonator. He was terrible as well. This was even worse than most of the normal "cruise fare" shows and I was disappointed we had wasted our time. (3) Spanish Ballet: Now given the title, DH was very weary of this show and boo to NCL for not calling this what it was: a wonderful, colorful, flamenco show done by truly talented Spanish performers from Barcelona. Many people were turned off by this cause of its name. It really was one of the best shows. The other boo for NCL goes to the venue they put it in: Headliners (which is where the piano bars normally duel). This is a small venue with a non-raised stage, but the seats in the bar are high top. I cannot understand why NCL thought a show like Flamenco—where you want to see the feet—would be best served in a piano bar where everyone is sitting at the same height and the stage is just a slightly raised platform. Despite the fact that we were only 5 rows from the front, I had to watch the TV monitor to see many of the beautiful footwork the dancers were performing.
We did not see Legends as we heard bad stuff from other CC people, especially about Elton John and Shakira.
Fat Cats: This is a cool place with an excellent band. If Slam Alan is on your ship, be sure to check his show out, it is a good time and the blues are excellent.
Headliners: Howl at the Moon (most nights) These guys are great fun. You need to go in with an open mind, be ready to sing along. Some people on reviews here complained about them teasing the audience for money to play your song. This is not true. If you want your song played quickly, then wrap the request in a $1. We did this twice and it was played and a lot of fun, but they played other requests without money as well. I did not feel as if they harassed the audience for money, it was all part of the show. We spent many a late evening here—they played from 9-1am—and the later it got, the more fun it became.
Nickelodeon: While we did not participate in the group activities—Slime Time Live and Character Breakfast—we did take advantage of the character meet and greets and sightings around the ship. Yes, I did wait in line to get my picture with Sponge Bob and Patrick. Shout out here to the people who work the Nick staff, they were the only really friendly and fun staff on the ship—allowing our "inner kid" to be let loose.
We enjoyed also the White Hot Party and the Beatles Tribute, we did not go to FABBA, but heard it was fun.
WHERE THE EPIC FAILS:
DINING and SERVICE: We ate at both Taste and Manhattan. We liked the atmosphere of taste better as it was less like a traditional dining room and more like a contemporary restaurant. However, this is where free style doesn't work in my opinion. We often had mediocre to bad service. The wait staff was not rude, but it was not the level of service that we have come to expect from a major cruise line. Often our water would go empty and we would have to flag someone down to get more. Often we never got ice tea or offered any bar service. The service was slow, one night we had a 3+ hour meal in Taste and it was just 2 of us. This is where I miss having the same wait staff every night. I never have to repeat—ice tea with dinner or tea not coffee with dessert, they remember. It was that little touch that made the difference and I have never been in a main dining room where I had to flag down people for things like water or salt and pepper—it just seemed that they were always rushed, had too many stations and could not keep up.
The food in the dining room was mediocre to downright bad, depending on what you got. The menu was not inventive and often had repeats on both sides (for example, you could get a chicken breast on the all the time menu and the chef's special was roasted chicken breast??) Much of the food was dry or overcooked—especially pasta—and by the time you could flag someone down to change it, it was too late. No one ever came back to check on our food. The deserts were consistently bad and lackluster. This was the first cruise in a long time where I turned down desert more than I ate it. Also they never brought the coffee/tea with the dessert, so you would have finished your dessert and then 5 minutes later have your coffee.
When I speak of service, I am not a picky person. I don't ask for much in the way of attentiveness from servers, but most of the time I felt like I was in a busy restaurant in the U.S. not on a cruise ship. If I were tipping, I would have left minimal for this service (same applies to specialty restaurants—see below).
GARDEN CAFÉ: This is a nice set up and we never found it hard to get a seat. The dEcor is lovely. However, the buffet is lacking in variety. It does not mirror the dining room like other cruise lines and after 14 days we were beyond bored with this food. It rarely changes. The biggest complaint was that during peak times (sea days and port days when it was the only place for lunch) the stations would often run out of food and the wait for it was extremely long. We waited over 30 minutes once for rice. It was as if the staff could not predict what would be needed or when things were running low.
OVERALL: We experienced no special service in any of these restaurants and we tried many. For the extra money, the service was that of a regular dining room on other cruise lines, if that. Again no introductions, water not refilled, plates left on the table for 20-30 minutes between courses. And the food was not worth the money in most cases.
MODERNO: This is an experience that is fun to try, a lot of food, and not bad for the money. The service here was okay, depending on how crowded it is. You must like meat, know that you can ask for things to be cooked rarer (they tend to overcook the meat) and you can have them bring around any skewer again for refills. (That was nice for the fillet of beef) The salad bar was also really large and had much to offer (don't fill up).
LA CUCINA: When we sailed with NCL in 2003, this was the only specialty restaurant on the ship and it was great. Well, not now. The food was the worst of the whole cruise. Wait staff inattentive. Our food was not the flavorful pasta we remembered and many of the things I ordered in the past were gone from the menu. We had planned to eat here at least twice and barely made it through one meal.
CAGNEY'S: This was by far the biggest disappointment. For $25 a head, it was barely Outback Steakhouse quality. They seemed upset when I wanted to order a starter, soup, and salad along with my main meal. The soup was good, and the steak was fine, but not worth the money. The sides were lacking—my DH ordered the special "Cagney Fries" only to find the fries from the garden cafe with a bit of garlic on them. We also ordered the onion rings (which the menu says is for two people to share) to find it was 4 onion rings. Cagney's does not hold a candle to say "The Pinnacle Grill" on HAL for example or the Bayou/Louisiana themed steakhouse on Princess—both of which cost less and are so much better quality and service.
LE BISTRO: I had high hopes for this and I will admit the food was the best we had the whole two weeks. The service, however, was the same as the rest, mostly not caring—not rude—it just seemed like we were forgotten. Here is where our main meal plates sat on the table for 35 minutes without bringing dessert menus, coffee, or anything—including more water or our wine, which the waiter had placed out of sight. I would say eat here over CAGNEYs for the food, especially the steak. You can get steak here and it is just as good, if not better. Also, it is a bit obnoxious that you have paid $20 to eat here and you need to add $10 for better meat or a lobster tail. Come on. NCL is the only place where if you want the really good stuff you need to pay $8-10 over the cover price.
NOODLE BAR: We did not eat at Shanghai, mainly due to our already growing disappointment with food as the two weeks went on, but we did love this place. This was the only place I can truly recommend, but again you have to pay a la carte for the noodles. We ate here three times, paying about $20 each time for two of us. The food was fresh and tasty, but a limited menu, as it probably is not meant to be eaten as dinner three times!
WASABI: Also quite good and reasonably priced if you compare with Sushi restaurants in the U.S. However, it was disappointing that you could not get any Asian or Sushi at the buffet in any consistency. Compared with Celebrity or Carnival's sushi bar (which is free) this is not worth it.
IRISH PUB: This was a fun place, where you can get food anytime. The menu was limited, but good for lunch and breakfast.
We did not eat at Teppenyaki.
DRINKS and SERVICE: The drinks on this ship were $2-4 more expensive than any other ship I went on. The average drink bill for us was $17 (with service charge and VAT) for two drinks. They have "drinks of the day" which are $5.95 but they always bring it to you in a "special glass" you can keep for $2-3 more. We found we had to keep telling them...no special glass, just a regular glass, in order to avoid this, especially on the decks. Despite the CC reviews of 2 for 1 Martinis, we only saw this happen once in 14 days. The best bang for your buck if you like cocktails is the Martini (or other cocktail) tastings where you get 4-5 martinis for $15. We split this on the sea days, each of us having 2.5.
Service in the bars was terrible. We would order a drink and it would be 15-30 minutes (depending on the bar) before we saw it again. This was especially bad in Fat Cats, Spice H2O, and Headliners. Then they would take your card and not bring it back with the drink, sometimes not coming back with the "check" until 20 minutes after they served your drink so you were unable to leave without your card. Often we asked for the card when we got the drinks, but they did not have it ready. Again, staff seemed overwhelmed especially if there were a lot of people in the club.
CABINS: Everything you read about the bathroom set up is true. At first, we thought, come on, how bad can it be. It is that bad. It was not so much the separation of the shower, toilet, and sink, it was the sound. Not just you can hear all of the "goings on" but the flushing, which is loud anyway, was much louder, especially at night. Our bed was right by the sink, so flushing and washing your hands at night woke the other person up. Also, the lights are super bright if you attempt to use the bathroom at night, also disturbing your partner. We ended up not flushing at night. Perhaps if your bed was not by the sink and the couch was there it would be better. There was a lot of wasted space. Despite all the storage, no space to move around. No table, either, so if you ordered room service, you had to clear off the vanity or eat it on the bed or couch. The table on the balcony is literally a 4x4 square that could not hold a room service tray. One of our favorite things about having a balcony, eating breakfast, was not possible on this ship. While the design is quite modern and appealing, it is a completely non-functional room. Also no bathrobes unless you are a certain class of cabin. We missed our HAL bathrobes. Our stewards were the friendliest of the NCL staff, but forgetful, again, we had two different rooms and two different stewards, both not paying attention to detail. For example, we had wine in our room. We would leave the used wine glasses on the shelf. He would take them and not replace them, so we could not have more wine without me calling the desk. I even left a note, please leave wine glasses, and he only did it the day of the note and did not leave it the rest of the week, I had to call. Often we were missing washcloths and hand towels.
CASINO: We like to gamble some, and the casino was quite big, but again NCL is not looking at its customer base. For example, there is only one $5 blackjack table, which was full every night, people standing waiting for seats, while all the other tables go empty. Open another $5 table! Everything is electronic, so you could easily do that. Also roulette was $2 tables with a minimum of 10 per bet. Blackjack did not pay out proper odds, and when I asked, I was told—this was just to hard to give the $.50 or $1 chips. What? I entered the slot tournament and happened to win into the finals. I was told to come back at one time, then waited 30 minutes, told to come back again, and then finally over 1 hour later than posted in the daily guide, we had the tournament. No fanfare, no rounding up people to watch as I have experienced on other cruise lines. The staff just seemed annoyed at the whole thing and upset that not more people were gambling. NCL had no "learn to play" afternoons in port that other cruise lines have. For such a big casino, it was under-utilized. The smoke was not that bad. Later at night, but you could walk around the casino, if you were willing to and to walk through was never too bad.
INFORMATION: I know this was only the Epic's 3rd week in Europe, but no one could tell us anything about the ports beyond shopping and NCL tours. All other cruise lines have a "port consultant" sometimes it is the same as the shopping consultant, but they can answer questions, like, how far is it from the dock to the train station? What bus should I take to get to X? Often in Europe you cannot walk on the ports as they are industrial. NCL provided shuttles—which cost money by the way—and did not provide any information on where the shuttle dropped you in the towns or come with us on the shuttles. It was as if you did not do a shore excursion with them, don't bother to get off the ship. This is the opposite of what I have experienced on HAL, RCCL, and Celebrity. Also, whenever I asked a staff member a question, be it at the desk or bar, or something, the answer was always "Sorry I don't know." End of conversation. No one ever offered to "find out" or "get someone who could help" or even point me to someone who could help.
POOLS AND WATERSLIDES: While the waterslides are a lot of fun for kids and adults alike, the pools are as advertised in other reviews—ridiculously small. So much wasted space in the pool area that could be used for larger pools. It is not so much that I need to swim laps, it was just they were narrow and if there were more than 8 full size adults in there, you were out of luck. Adult pool was not much bigger. I can say that these were the smallest pools I had ever seen on a ship. The larger and more numerous hot tubs are nice.
QUIET AND SHADE: We looked for this, but the library is really small, taken up mostly by groups, at least on our trip. No walking deck with chairs in the shade was sorely missed. All the bars have overhead music that is blasting, even when they are closed. Most of the chairs are really uncomfortable or located in walkways where there is a lot of traffic. In the atrium near the coffee bar had the best place to read, but the screen TV always had something going on and it was right in the center of the lobby and made me often feel like I was in a hotel. One of the most comfortable places to sit is the Leather couches outside of Maltings, but the music here is quite loud.
If you had never cruised before, the Epic might seem like its name: huge, different, and lively, but at the end of two weeks, we were not sorry we had tried it, but we realized all the things we were taking for granted on our other cruise lines, and we want them back.