A friend and I sailed the Norwegian Epic in October on a 7-night Western Mediterranean cruise. We had both previously sailed with Norwegian (for me, three times), and my friend had sailed Epic once before. We booked the cruise about nine months in advance, taking advantage of an early-booking sale that allowed us to get a mid-ship balcony cabin for a relatively inexpensive price. The itinerary started in Barcelona followed by a day at sea; then, three stops in Italy: Pisa/Florence (Livorno), Rome (Civitavecchia) and Naples; another day at sea; and Palma de Majorca.
I was a little concerned about some negative things I had heard about Epic -- specifically, the cabin design with the "open" bathroom layout (separate frosted-glass stalls for the toilet and the shower), the lack of available outdoor space on the front upper decks (this area is reserved for the suite complex), and overall crowding as the Epic has a relatively low passenger-to-space ratio. Epic is the same physical size as Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships, yet Epic holds approximately 500 more passengers.
We spent two days in Barcelona prior to the cruise, staying at Le Meridien on Las Ramblas. The location was great, as we were adjacent to the Gothic Quarter with its many pedestrian streets and squares, and restaurants. We did a 2.5-hour walking tour offered daily by Runnerbean Tours -- these tours are given by volunteers who simply work for tips. The tour guide did an excellent job and we learned a lot about the history of the city.
Getting to the cruise terminal was easy via taxi, and embarkation was very easy. We had arrived around 1 p.m. Passengers were informed in the terminal that rooms would not be available until 2 p.m., but once we boarded we were told by a greeter that the rooms were ready. We checked out our cabin -- more cramped than I thought it would be, and also less storage space than I've seen on some of the other newer ships I've been on (e.g., Celebrity's Solstice class, which has very well-appointed rooms with lots of storage space). As an energy-saving measure, you're supposed to keep a room key in a slot by the door, which activates the lighting. I found this more annoying than helpful, but it was quickly solved when I kept my local supermarket coupon card in the slot for the week, which did the trick. :-)
The open bathroom layout might be okay for a couple sharing the cabin, but it was awkward for two friends traveling together. Although there's a curtain that can separate the front area from the rest of the cabin, the bathroom area is still between the cabin and its door. I've heard complaints about the bowl-type sinks in the cabin, but this didn't bother me. However, the limited storage/counter space did. The cabin's balcony was a generous size, and I did spend a good amount of time relaxing on it.
But with an amazing ship like Epic, why confine yourself to your small cabin? Although there were a couple instances where I thought the ship felt a little crowded (riding elevators, for example), the ship does a very good job with crowd control. The ship's buffet area, the Garden Cafe, was spacious and food laid out along several long counter/serving areas. Seating was plentiful -- only once (on a sea day) did I have to walk around for about a minute to find an open table. And with plenty of activities on the ship, the passengers never needed to crowd one venue. The large-scale shows require (free) tickets so as to meter the crowds. This was done very well, and when I entered the main theater for Blue Man Group, I was surprised that the theater was relatively small for a ship of this size -- of course, that means an excellent view from every seat!
My friend convinced me to join him in getting spa passes for the week. This was the first time I've done it, and going to the spa every late-afternoon after returning from excursions was a great way to relax and reset before dinner. The spa was large -- a therapy pool, two hot tubs, steamroom, two saunas, heated tile beds, plenty of loungers and an outdoor lounge area -- and well worth the price for the week ($119 for one person, or $199 for two). It was a nice bit of affordable luxury that allowed you to get away from the cacophony of the pool decks.
Now let me get to the important part -- the food! I've always thought that Norwegian does a great job with its food offerings, and Epic was no different. Plenty of variety in the buffet restaurant and the food is always kept refreshed and never allowed to get stale. One pet-peeve about Norwegian -- their only beverage options are iced tea or water (and juice during breakfast). I would like to see lemonade and at least one fruit juice kept available all day, in addition to the iced tea and water.
Epic has quite a few dining options, but they do take a little bit of planning as reservations are recommended for most of them. We made our reservations online before the trip, and when we asked to change one dinner reservation time (on the same day, too), we had no problem doing so. We ate in the main dining room twice -- I feel their dining room cuisine is on par with Royal Caribbean's, but I think Norwegian has more options on their menu. We also ate in Teppanyaki and La Cucina (both places I've done on all of my Norwegian cruises), Moderno Churrascaria (first time I've done one of these) and Shanghai's. All were excellent and worth the moderate upcharge cost. We also did Cirque Dreams and Dinner -- an excellent show (I even got pulled up on stage for one of the comedic bits), and the food was good enough. Everyone gets the same meal, so be sure to look at the menu before deciding to do this. The seating can feel cramped, but the entertainment will make you forget this very quickly. The service in all restaurants and the main dining room was excellent.
And now to review all the other entertainment and parties... oh wait, we didn't get to do anything else! This is my main issue with putting Epic onto a port-intensive itinerary -- if you really want to take advantage of these amazing ports-of-call, you're up every morning by 7 a.m., back to the ship at 5 p.m., and in bed by 10 or 11 p.m. There's little time to take advantage of everything Epic has to offer. I think a ship like Epic is much more suited for laid-back Caribbean itineraries, because so much of the onboard experience gets wasted on a European itinerary.
One of my favorite aspects of Norwegian is the friendly crew and staff, and Epic was no different. Always smiles to greet you and the staff are very approachable and helpful. Simon, the entertainment director, was the cruise director on my first Norwegian Pearl cruise. And Vijay at Shakers was always friendly and accommodating to us and our new friends each night at the Friends of Dorothy gatherings. The only staffing negative that I saw was that there only seemed to be one person ever staffing the Onboard Credit desk, and there was always a line. (I did need to use this desk once to get change for a large Euro bill, and had to wait about 15 minutes. Then I would always notice a line every other time I passed by the desk.)
The itinerary was great for a 7-night trip, and as this was my first trip to Italy, being able to visit Pisa, Florence, Rome, Pompeii and the Positano Coast was an amazing experience! We found other passengers via the Cruise Critic roll-call to form a group and contracted independent tours with Your Tour in Italy, which took excellent care of us. But if you are one who prefers ship-organized excursions, I would highly recommend doing the smaller van tours offered by the ship rather than the large bus tours -- although they may seem expensive, you really get much more out of the experience. (I also never quite understood where the buses dropped off all their passengers -- only the vans could make their way through the narrow streets of many of these cities...) Additionally, Barcelona was a great embarkation/debarkation port. Lots to see and do, and excellent flight options in and out.
Finally, debarkation in Barcelona was incredibly smooth. Simply walked off the ship, picked up our bags and got in one of the many waiting taxis.
I think I prefer mid-sized ships over these mega-ships, but I'd be willing to sail Epic again -- only next time I'd do it in the Caribbean where I'll get to enjoy more of the ship and the entertainment.