Over the years, we have taken 13 cruises, 9 of them with NCL. We've sailed on the Jewel 4 times, the Jade 3 times and our very first cruise was on the now defunct SS Norway. Our other cruises were on three different cruise lines; we returned to NCL for a Baltic cruise in 2008, and that made us return to NCL for good.
We like not having to bring suits, ties and dress shirts for the formal nights. NCL does have formal nights, but there is no need for the suit or gown, unless that is what you'd like to wear.
Our most recent cruise was on the Epic, sailing from Barcelona to Miami on a trans-Atlantic reposition cruise. We had only 2 ports of call, Ponta Delgada in the Azores, Portugal and St. Thomas USVI Having been to both places on previous trans-Atlantic cruises, we got off the ship simply to walk around.
Since it was our first time on the Epic, we had some concerns (too big; too busy; too noisy; too many people; badly designed bathroom facilities in stateroom) about this ship as everything I'd read indicated that you either love or hate this ship. I decided to put those comments on the back burner until I saw the ship for myself. Here is our story.
Arriving at the cruise terminal in Barcelona, we were greeted by the ship. It is not big; it is MASSIVE. After completing the embarkation process and going through the gangways to board, entering on Deck 5, we were struck by the Atrium. It stretched almost all the way across the ship. Standing in the centre, and as there weren't yet too many people on board, we could turn around and see nearly all the way to the back and to the front. It is quite impressive and you are struck with the absolute hugeness of the ship.
The embarkation process at Barcelona was fast and efficient, as it always is there. After completing the process and getting our keycards, we were welcomed aboard the ship. We were invited to have lunch at Taste Restaurant (comments below) while we waited for the announcement that we could access our stateroom.
On this cruise we had a balcony mini-suite, upgraded from a standard balcony stateroom, on Deck 12 (Stateroom 12266). Being our first time in a mini-suite I can only compare it against the standard cabins we've had.
The bed was in the centre of the room which made getting around, especially with suitcases, somewhat cumbersome. Once that issue was solved, we figured out a way to get around the tight end of the suite.
Our stateroom had the curved walls (I think they call it Waves). That just adds a 1960s "Star Trek" quality to the room, but is completely functionless. It necessitates a round-ish shaped bed because the headboard is rounded to the curving wall. It takes getting used to, but the first few nights were very uncomfortable.
We had no issues whatsoever with the open-concept bathroom. The shower stall itself was large, and the spray from the showerhead was invigorating. The toilet area was rather large, too, and both and floor-to-ceiling sliding frosted doors, so privacy was well respected. If you fear that someone might enter while you are using these facilities, simply bolt the door locked. End of story and complaining.
The sink is in the room, not the toilet area, and not too far from the bed. It is small, but functional. All you really need it for is brushing your teeth or shaving. And, guys, if you're like me and do a wet shave, it can be rather awkward getting your face sufficiently wet to ensure a good close shave.
With at least 15 different dining options available to us(some included, some not) on board, it is sometimes difficult to make a choice, but no matter which venue you choose the food is always great. Wait-staff and maitres-d' go out of their way to make sure you have a fabulous dining experience.
We had usually had breakfast at O'Sheehan's, and lunch at Taste or O'Sheehan's, and evening dinner at The Manhattan Room. O'Sheehan's is a pub-style restaurant that serves rather good food. You can have breakfast, lunch and dinner plus morning or afternoon snacks at O'Sheehan's. The service is fast and friendly.
Taste is supposed to be a contemporary restaurant. Its dÃ©cor is reminiscent of the 60s/70s. The lunch menu never changes, so it is good to have options like O'Sheehan's and the Garden Cafe to rely on. The service, although friendly, is slow. Forget this place if you have something to do (i.e. a shore excursion). On one occasion, our server forgot to fill our water glasses; I asked 3 other servers for water and was told by each that my server would bring it. I was not impressed.
The Manhattan Room is said to be a New York-â€"style supper club. A live band played relaxing music, which wasn't too loud. It created a nice cozy atmosphere. The food here was always good and the service we had was top-notch. (By the way, The Manhattan Room is open during supper hours only; you have to go to Garden Cafe, Great Outdoors, Taste or order from Room Service for both breakfast and lunch.)
Everyone complains about the bathroom, or lack thereof, in the staterooms. This was not a serious issue for us, and in fact there are other things deserving greater attention. The ship is big, but you get used to that after a few days. There are a lot of activities to do during the day or night which can occupy your time if you choose to participate in them; we didn't have time to do them as we had our own agenda. We went to only one evening show, The Blue Man Group. We felt rushed to get dinner and get to the theatre for that show, so we decide to cancel any others we had pre-booked. We were very disappointed by the Blue Man Group, although we'd seen them before, because it wasn't what we expected. It was too loud and too noisy, and we were bored by the show itself. Perhaps Epic Theatre is not the best venue for this act.
The biggest complaints I have are that the ship is too noisy, it is not bright enough, and it has no promenade deck. If you sit at a strategically-located casino slot machine, or if you find the similarly located chair in the one of the bar-lounges one deck above, you can enjoy the sound of slot machines going off in their assorted noises, the piano man playing and singing, and the guitarist doing the same all at the same time. Even though the ship was not full capacity, there were too many people (3000+ passengers + the crew = nearly 5000 people). That said, the elevators, staircases and escalators were never fully occupied.
As for lighting, there are halogen lamps/lights and recessed lighting everywhere. They do create a nice atmosphere, but they only light up, in conic fashion, the immediate area they are above. I thought it was too dark. I found myself travelling through areas that were poorly lit. The areas with windows are not so bad, but away from the windows are rather dark.
This ship has no promenade deck on Deck 7 or elsewhere to walk outside and enjoy fresh air and the smell of the sea. It does have a closed-loop jogging track which runs about a quarter the length of the ship. It is small and it is crowded. As an alternate, we took up walking around the corridors of our deck. It provides a good walk, though there is no fresh air, but it presents some challenges when people exit their staterooms or are coming toward you. The trolleys that the stateroom attendants use also present a bit of a navigational challenge, but at least you get to walk.
Getting around on the ship, except for my stateroom deck, proved to be a challenge for me. On other NCL ships, I had it figured out where things were located on the first day. Not so with the Epic; I was still getting lost on the last day. When it comes to finding your stateroom, though, on Decks 8 through 14, for example, it helps to know that the ship is divided into two sections from front to back along these decks and everything is colour-coded. The basic carpet colour is chocolate brown, light brown and beige. On Port side, there are red stripes in the carpet, the room numbers are red and the elevator interior has a red background. The main wall of the staircase is red. The number buttons and indicator lights are also red. On Starboard, the same items are blue.
Whether you like the ship or not, it is the hard-working crew onboard that really make your vacation the best experience it can be. Our stateroom attendant, Arnold, made sure our living space was clean and spotless every day. Our waiters ensured that what we ordered was right. They even made suggestions about what to order. The maitres-d' always checked that our food was right and our service was right. Many, many more people went above and beyond to enhance our cruise experience.
Disembarking the ship in Miami was stress-free for us. We were greeted in very friendly fashion, somewhat of a surprise considering that 2 years ago the employees at the cruise terminal only told us to keep moving. We were greeted with "Good morning. Welcome to Miami and enjoy your stay!"
In a nutshell, we thoroughly enjoyed our trans-Atlantic cruise. We got to know the ship rather well and that made our cruise even more enjoyable. The teams of people who served are responsible for our having had such a great cruise, and it is they who bring us back time and time again. We are die-hard NCL fans and we will cruise with them again and again. We've already started planning our next, and the Epic is a strong contender, if not for the ship itself but for the wonderful and fantastic people who work there.