Sail date 2/18/12
Prior to being married, I cruised once or twice a year and loved every minute of it. My wife declared she "hated" cruising (even though she never had), and put the kibosh on my favorite vacations. Last year, I put the kibosh on my now ex-wife, and I am now back to cruising!
After much research (thank you Cruise Critic), I chose to make my long-anticipated return to the sea aboard the Norwegian Epic. Here are the primary reasons I chose the Epic:
1. New and innovative ship.
2. Eastern Caribbean route has great ports and 3 whole sea days.
3. Seemed to be the only ship at sea that accommodated singles with their studios (even though I will only sail with a balcony).
4. Harrah's Total Rewards is partnered with NCL's Casinos at Sea; As a Total Rewards Member, and INCREDIBLE discount was offered to me. This is what put me over the line on booking on this ship.
A lot has changed over the 11 years from when I last cruised. Most notably, cruising is a lot less formal than it once was, for better and for worse. I kept feeling a twinge of Carnival at many moments on board the Epic, but perhaps some of that irritation is me being a 40-something now instead of a 20 or 30 something. Gentleman, leave your suit and ties at home, no need to dress up on the Epic.
Major improvement to past cruise experiences was the ease of disembarking. Using the "walk-off" system, I grabbed my bags and was off the ship and through customs within 8 minutes of leaving my cabin. Also, there was never a wait to board or disembark at each port; very quick and organized.
I booked and aft-facing balcony cabin (trying something new). First of all, the cabins and the entire ship were spotless. Cleanliness gets an A+. There was a ton of storage space for clothing, and I liked the separate toilet/shower configuration. While the rounded cabin walls were cool looking, the rounded bed is an issue if you are over 6' tall. While I love the balconies so much to make it a requisite, the aft-facing experience won't be repeated. The view was great, and I found it fascinating watching us pull in and out of port from my balcony, but don't plan on relaxing on your balcony when the ship is at sea. I had read the sound was like a waterfall, which I thought I'd enjoy. The noise of the wake from the props is like Niagra Falls! Also, if you're not an early riser, don't book an aft balcony; when the ship begins to slow, the cavitation feels like a 7.0 earthquake, rattling your room and everything in it. Next cruise, back to my mid-ship balcony...
NCL's Freestyle Cruising allowed me the freedom to eat when and where I wanted, and the food was quite good in every restaurant, from buffet to bistro. The strict assigned seating and dinner times of the past were certainly not the case on the Epic. You can eat well at any hour, 24 hours a day. The up-charge dining is worth the price of $10-$25, just for the improvement in service you'll receive over the Taste and Manhattan Room's wait staff (which was downright rude at times, with several staffers struggling with English and giving serious attitude while taking orders). The restaurants were all well decorated and again, the food was consistently good. NOTE: Be sure to book a dinner in La Cucina during a sunset; dining looking out the front of the ship during the sunset is simply bellisima!
There was a wide range of entertainment, which ranked from awesome to "what we're they thinking". Legends In Concert was by far the best show on the ship, and Blue Man Group and Circ Dinner and Dreams (book early!) were also quite good. The lounge acts were at best average, and I thought sub-par for a ship this grand. The DJ's were horrible, unless you are under 30. Don't expect to dance to anything but the synthesized-pounding club music of today at Bliss or Spice; there was nowhere to dance to the "club standards" of the 70's-90's (as a former ship and club DJ, I was very disappointed). Essentially, if you're over 30, you won't really enjoy the nightclub experience on board. The band in the Manhattan Room was excellent, playing standards and big band hits, but no one danced as the room is primarily a dining room and the band stops playing and the room empties out at the end of dinner service after 10PM.
The casino had a good variety of table and slot games, but the staff was very amateurish, from the hosts to the dealers, and especially the pit staff. There's no excuse for stacks of dirty ashtrays and empty glasses sitting on tables for hours on end, and if you ask them to remove them or clean the ashtray, get ready for attitude and a dirty look. I had to teach several of the dealers how to properly deal Let It Ride Poker; mind your bets when you're playing as they're not very good with payouts and pick-ups. The slots were extremely tight; jackpots were non-existent and substantial hits were just as sparse. If you are a player, sign up immediately for Casinos at Sea, which will score you free drinks while you play. If you lose enough, the casino will give you about 1% back as a credit toward your room bill as a member. I also recommend that you proactively introduce yourself to a casino host; they will not seek you out (even if they are supposed to). Once you do (and make a "friend"), they will help you with reservations, send you goodies, and perhaps even pick up a dinner up-charge. Bottom line, if the casino experience is a big deal to you on a cruise, I would not give the Epic a high recommendation.
Most disappointing of all was the deck and pool areas. I live for the days at sea, but even traveling alone, getting a seat in the sun was impossible. There was no enforcement of the time limit on holding chairs, and people had towels across chairs all day long, and no one on the staff was willing to assist me. The main pool area is for kids, period. And there were a TON of kids. It's noisy, crowded and anything but relaxing. The pool at Spice H2O (the "adult" area) is a small hole in the deck, not really a pool, and it is completely shaded by the massive video screen that blocks the view off the back of the ship. Hey, I'm cruising, I want to see the ocean, not a 3-story video screen. I did manage to enjoy the deck while we were in port, but the at sea days were ruined by the chaos on deck.
This was my first solo-cruise, and thanks to Sol, one of the cruise directors, it was all-in-all a good one. She went out of her way to get the solo-travelers together, and there were opportunities every evening for singles to gather and go to dinner together. If you're a bit outgoing, you'll make new friends and have a great time, but don't expect the Love Boat. Most of the singles/solos on board were staying in the studio cabins, and all I heard was rave reviews from them, and many of them travel regularly on the Epic because of these cool and affordable accommodations. If you're solo and book a cabin other than a studio, be sure to go to the Living Room at the Studios on the first night for the solo traveler gathering; it's not just for the studio solos and it's the best way to meet other solo-cruisers!
To sum up, the Epic is a gorgeous, well-laid out, and innovative Super-Ship. Sailing was smooth, decor was very good and not over-done, and it was extremely clean. The entertainment is perfect for the under 35 crowd that wants to party hard, but falls short for us in our 40's and over that want to have a good time without a migraine. Expect a TON of families and lots of kids; If you are looking for peace and relaxation, look elsewhere, unless you've got a balcony to retreat to. I'd say if you're a 20 or 30 something cruiser and want a step-up from Carnival, Epic is your ship. If you're like me, and enjoy a bit of serenity and class from the ship and especially its staff, paired with fun for ALL ages, Epic is probably not your best choice.
I hope this review was helpful, and I'll probably see you next time back on RCCL.