We travelled to Barcelona after spending a week with four friends barging in the south of France. The night before the cruise, we had booked into the Hotel Pulitzer in Barcelona which was very central and around the corner from La Ramblas.
On embarkation day, we took a taxi to the port and got there at around 12 noon and were pretty amazed on first sight of the ship as we couldn't believe anything could be so BIG! Check in procedures were very quick and everything was extremely organised. As we had taken US$ travellers cheques, we were shown to another queue so that hubby could countersign the money over to NCL.
We had cabin 11313 Aft Facing - and it was great. It was right at the end of the corridor so no-one passing. We had specifically chosen the aft facing because we reckoned we would get a couple of sunsets travelling from west to east. As it turned out, we had probably about three because of where the ship docked sometimes when it was in port. The cabin itself was fine - a little more space at the bottom of the bed would have been good; hubby and I battled to pass one another there. Luggage space - excellent. Sink - much too small as the water splashed everywhere. I had a problem with the rounded shape brown cupboard which housed some shelves and the safe. This stuck out a bit and as a result, I couldn't see in the mirror properly to put on my make-up. I think someone else mentioned that as well. Overall, the cabin was fine. Balcony good size - could have done with two loungers rather than chairs and we may have spent some time on it, as it was, we really only stood on the balcony to wave to ships as we went out of port or sometimes late at night when trying to see other ships in the dark.
After we got on the ship, we were told we could go to Garden Cafe to have some lunch which we did. What greeted us there more or less stopped us in our tracks. There were hundreds of people already in the swimming pool, running around, eating, drinking etc and this must have only been about 12:30 or so. It was difficult to find an empty table and to put it mildly, it was utter chaos. I said to hubby that I wasn't sure if I could cope with all of this for a whole week . In hindsight, it's more likely that everyone was just feeling a little 'high' with it being their first few hours on the ship.
We found the ship much bigger than we expected and a LOT more people on board than we had hoped for. In fact, one of the staff told us that instead of the normal 4100 passengers on board, there was about 4900 - that of course would impact on various things as I've mentioned later in my review. There were children everywhere - don't get me wrong - I love children and have had my own although now grown up, but I had researched (obviously not enough) to see how many countries had school holidays during our time on board and didn't come across many, but as it turned out, the Spanish school holidays were during that time and boy, did we see that right away! There were loads of Spanish families, from grans and granddads, with teenagers, tweens and tots right now to babes in arms.
This is where the amount of passengers impacted on things. This was a freestyle cruise and the idea is that you can eat when and where you like. We tried to get into the main dining rooms a couple of times and the queues were very long. One night we decided to wait and when we got to the front of the queue, we were asked if we wanted to share a table. We said we didn't want to share especially as there may have been language problems as there were very many Spanish guests on board. If we were keen on sharing tables, we would have booked a ship that had the old style of dining - first and second sittings and you are told to go and sit at a specific table - with strangers. What is the point of freestyle cruising then? Service in Manhattan Room was fairly chaotic - waiters running around trying to please everyone. Just felt a little out of control. We also tried Taste the other main dining room and this was much more laid back. Food in Manhattan not so good; in Taste, much better.
We dined at O'Sheehans on the first night, mainly because it was the first place we came to that didn't have a queue. Throughout the week, we also dined at Cagney's Steakhouse - this was excellent and just up our street and we ate here twice, the last time being our last night on board. Reasonably upmarket and quiet in a relaxed atmosphere and the service was excellent. Cover charge of US$25.00 each - no problem, especially when looking down at the chaos in the Manhattan Room. We also dined at Shanghai's Chinese restaurant - again cover charge, but very nice. The tables seating two could have been slightly further apart though as it felt like we were on top of the couple next to us. Service at Shanghai's was reasonably OK, but one of the dishes came later than the others - top guy noticed this although we didn't complain, before we knew it, a free bottle of wine was offered to us as a gesture. Also, the good thing about wine is that if you buy a bottle and you don't finish it in the restaurant you bought it in, you can tell them to keep it for you in a cellar and the next restaurant you go to anywhere else on the ship, they will find your bottle of wine and bring it to you. Nice touch.
We didn't really partake in any of the activities - our idea of a cruise is just to relax and chill out and that's what our plan was. The chaos that surrounded the main pool every day with kids and adults running all over the place - that wasn't our idea of fun. However, on the first day at sea, we had breakfast and took our towels to try and find a lounger. We walked right around the ship and every lounger was full. We walked through to Spice H2O - adults only pool area and again, full, full, full. Hubby said this won't happen tomorrow as he would be done there at the crack of drawn to get two loungers :-) As it turned out, we had a tour the following day, so that didn't happen.
We read on Cruise Critic about the 'best kept secret' on Epic and that was POSH and I agree completely with this. It's an area on the 17th deck looking over the main pool (and chaotic) area and it's like you are in a different world. No kids, just adults looking to spend some quiet time reading, sunbathing etc. There's no pool there, but the loungers have soft cushions on them! Absolute luxury! We enquired about it on our third day on board and we took the daily option as it was US$15.00 per person as opposed to US$60.00 for the whole week -they supply you with a coloured armband so that the staff can identify you as being allowed to be there. Fresh fruit on sticks were served a couple of times a day and there was also bar service. Missing I thought in that area were umbrellas over the loungers. There was a sitting area as well with umbrellas, but it would have been nice to have had the option of an umbrella whilst lounging as well. There was a set of stairs going further up from POSH and I found out the true meaning of 'freestyle cruising' - there were a couple of people in the nude obviusly an area for nudists - this area was completely cut off from everyone else luckily!
I can't say enough about the service. It was five star from beginning to end. The crew were excellent - mainly Philippino, with a few other nationalities, eg German, South African, Indian and Jamaican. Our housekeeper Shara was excellent and made up these little towel animals every night - I thought we were the only ones getting them until I passed another bedroom one morning and saw the same monkey that we had hanging from the ceiling :-) We didn't ask much of her, but if we had, I'm sure she would have been happy to oblige. The waiters and other crew elsewhere on the ship - all excellent. Can't say enough good things about them.
I read somewhere before leaving South Africa (where we live) that it was best to pre-book not only tours beforehand, but also entertainment options. So I booked Blue Man Group, Legends in Concert and Stephen Sorrentino. The television in the cabin gives you all the info you need from where you are with your account, to info on the tours, entertainment etc etc. So on the night when I had booked Blue Man Group I wondered why it didn't reflect any of my entertainment options on the tv. So I phoned cruise services and explained that I had pre-booked these online. She said there was nothing showing on her side. But no problem she said she would do it and I gave her the info (luckily I took a copy of my cruise itinerary with me so no problem in remembering dates and times I had chosen). Within minutes, the relevant shows were reflecting on the tv screen. But this is something they need to look at. A show like Blue Man Group or Cirque - those are sold old very quickly and it was lucky for us that they still had space for us.
Blue Man Group - excellent and a winner - can't describe it really - a mixture of comedy, satire, slapstick, music - just all round good fun.
Legends in Concert - wasn't so keen on this one. We had Shakira, Elton John and Whitney Houston. All were passable but I think what spoilt it was the video screen showing the 'real' people whilst the 'fakes' were singing the same song. I think this took it away from the 'fakes'. Why bother having the fakes if you are showing a video of the real people??
Stephen Sorrentino - also excellent but the time he is given is much too short at 50 minutes. He definitely deserves about an hour and a half. He was an impersonator, singer and comedian. Very good.
Cirque - we only decided to book this once on the ship but on enquiring, the nights we wanted very fully booked. So I went to the TV and tried again a little later and there it was, availability on the night we wanted - premier seating at US$30,00 a head. Very good entertainment with a lot of audience participation. In fact, it wouldn't have been half as good without audience doing their thing!
I don't mind the odd flutter on the slot machines but I wasn't happy to see children in that area. Not sure how they could do it, but it should all be blocked off from anyone under 18. The kids would run around and up to the machines, pressing buttons and although some parents stopped them saying it wasn't for them, there were other parents who didn't care. We have casinos in South Africa and if anyone under 18 is caught anywhere near a slot machine, then big trouble ensues.
PORT AND SHORE EXCURSIONS
OK - bugbears abound here, I'm afraid.
We opted for two tours throughout the week - the first one Florence/Pisa although we took the Cinque Terra (Five Villages) option and the second one was Pompeii/Sorrento/Capri. Both full day tours .
Cinque Terra (five villages)- no lunch included - tour guide was very nice - think her name was Simone - she said it would take about an hour to reach the area of Cinque Terra and she explained by way of a map where we would go. She pointed out the Leaning Tower of Pisa away in the distance to the right on the way to the five villages. She mentioned that we would take a boat, a train and there would be some walking. As it turned out, we took two trains and no boat and although the taking of the boat was 'weather permitting', the weather was excellent and we saw other boats leaving the port. Nothing was mentioned to us as to why the itinerary had changed. With this tour, as with the other one, things were extremely rushed and at times we felt what the point of it all was. At Cinque Terra, on the first stop which I think was Manarola, we got off the train and were given 15 minutes to see what the area had to offer! We were told the village was through the tunnel and by the time we go through to the other end, it was time to come back! Scenery in the area was lovely though especially at Monderossa.
We didn't do Rome as we had been there before and we didn't like the idea of spending nearly four hours in a bus there and back. We also spoke to a couple who had done the tour and they said they only had time to see the Vatican and the Colosseum. What about Trevi Fountain, The Forum, The Spanish Steps etc etc - they didn't see any of those.
Pompeii/Sorrento/Capri - this included lunch - our tour guide was again really good - his name was Enzo and he said the bus driver's name was Claudio. We got the bus and he said it would take about 20 minutes to reach Pompeii - in fact, it look at least half an hour if not more. We got there - we had visited Pompeii before but we saw a different side to it and the reason for taking this particular tour was not because of Pompeii but because we wanted to see Sorrento and Capri.
After Pompeii, we got back on the bus and travelled to Sorrento and Enzo had mentioned a couple of times on the way that we may have 'small time' in Sorrento as the bus was battling to get through the traffic. We arrived in Sorrento at around 12 noon and ushered into a restaurant (upstairs) to have lunch. We sat beside a very nice American couple from San Antonio in Texas. We had starters and main course - nothing great to be honest and at 12:30 it became clear that we were not going to have a chance to see any of Sorrento as dessert had still to be served. So hubby suggested we miss dessert and take the last half hour to see a bit of the town. We excused ourselves from the table and walked out. My question is - why were we all ushered into the restaurant and upstairs when there was a lovely space outside facing the town square and the locals going about their business. At least we would have gotten a little of the flavour of Sorrento. We noticed on the way out that two American couples had decided to do just that and they were sitting outside, presumably buying their own meal. Wish we had thought of that... Anyway, we took the last half hour to look around Sorrento and to take some photos. Enzo had told us to be back at a specific place at 13:00 sharp. Then onto a jetfoil to take the boat ride to Capri. We arrived in Capri - we were all ushered to the bottom of the funicular which I thought was taking us to Anacapri. To this day, I still don't know where we went! I was under the impression that Capri was at sea level and the funicular would take us to Anacapri. There was no mention of Anacapri from Enzo even though I'm sure the itinerary said we would go there. So once again, change in the itinerary without any reason for it. The queues at the bottom of the funicular were huge as we were told to expect; we got to the top and Enzo led us a little further for a 'photo opportunity' which was basically an overhang with some rocks coming out of the sea. We had an hour there and we wandered around the very busy and crowded little village, Capri, Anacapri - who knows? We then stood in another queue for the funicular back down again. Then onto the jetfoil again and we jetted off over the sea back to the cruise ship.
Majorca - as the ship docked in Palma, we had already decided to do our own thing by getting a taxi or something into town and just walk around on our own and perhaps take a hop on, hop off bus. The night before we saw the ship was offering a bus into town at a cost of US12.00 each, so we thought we would go for that. We got off the ship and were ushered into a tour bus. We had been told it was about a 20 minute journey - it actually took about 10 minutes and when we got off, we were still within sight view of the ship. We walked along and eventually came to a stop for a hop on, hop off bus and paid Euro 15 each for this. We got on and off as we wanted to until about 14:00 we decided to get the hop on etc bus back to where we got on it and then get the shuttle back to port. To say we were surprised when the hop on bus stopped right outside the port would be an understatement. The ship was right there - so we got off and got back on the ship. What annoyed us is that we had paid US$12.00 each for the bus when the ship would have mentioned there is a hop on bus outside the port cost Euro 15.00 each for 24 hours! I imagine the cruise line needs to support the local tour buses, but passengers should have been given the option.
This was easy-peasy. We had the option of choosing a specific time to have our bags collected from outside our door or to 'freestyle' it on our own. We opted for the freestyle option which meant we carried out own bags off. This took a very short time and we waited at the entrance to the port and for our daughter to arrive who had flown into Barcelona from Edinburgh (where she lives) to spend a few days with us in Barcelona.
So to sum up - very mixed feelings.
We knew that there would be extra charges on top of the cruise cost, eg the US$12.00 per person per day for tips for the crew, as well as the 15% service charge on drinks and 18% on spa services, but we felt that we got ripped off a little, more especially in terms of the tours and the cruise line trying to make extra money where-ever they could, eg wanting you to buy expensive jewellery, artwork, even the cover charge for the Ice Bar of US$20.00 when it was supposed to be free and of course you must buy your own drinks. So all in all, we had a good time (thank goodness for POSH) but next time it will be on a much smaller ship (but not an old stuffy one) as there were far too many people on board our ship at that time.