Review of our westbound transatlantic crossing 4th – 17th November 2018
We’re Peter & Patrick from Manchester U.K. who began cruising back in 2004. We sailed exclusively with Royal Caribbean for 11 years and then started to widen our choices to include Celebrity, MSC, Cunard, P&O and NCL. This was our 4th Transatlantic crossing (or TA for short), our 3rd westbound with another 2 eastbound booked for 2019 & 2020!
As we booked in the U.K., we had what is known as the “Ultimate All Inclusive” package which provided the Ultimate beverage package, gratuities (both daily service charge and beverage package gratuity) and 2 litres of water per person per day and coffees with dinner.
This was 14-day, 13-night crossing from Barcelona, Spain with stops in Funchal Madeira, Philipsburg St Maarten, Charlotte Amalie St Thomas ending in Port Canaveral Florida USA.
A total of 9 sea days were split as follows: -
2 days at sea
5 days at sea
Philipsburg, St Maarten Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas
2 days at sea
Port Canaveral Florida, USA
I’ve split this review into sections dealing with embarkation, accommodation, dining, entertainment, activities, disembarkation with a summary and conclusions at the end.
We stayed in the city at the H10 Metropolitan hotel, next to Plaça Catalunya which is a large popular square at the northern end of the famous La Rambla.
We checked out of our hotel just before 11am on Sunday, 4th November and took a taxi for the 15-minute ride to the port (Moll Adossat) where NCL Epic was awaiting us at terminal A. The cost was around €15.
Upon arrival we lined up to leave ours bags with the porters loading cart after cart of numerous pieces of luggage to be taken onboard and delivered to people’s staterooms over the next few hours.
We then joined the long line that wound around the side of the terminal building and shuffled continuously forward to the terminal entrance where our documents were checked, we, and our carry on were security scanned and then we completed the health questionnaire. As we were neither suite or Haven (‘ship within a ship’ accommodation) guests, nor higher level Latitudes members (NCL Loyalty program), we just joined a regular line for check in.
Once we reached an agent, our passports and most importantly the paper copies of our ESTAs were checked (ESTA = Electronic System for Travel Authorisation approval which is mandatory for non-US citizens from visa Waiver countries to enable travel to the US), our key cards provided, and we were on our way to boarding Epic.
As in all terminals in Barcelona we passed the various shops selling souvenirs, wine, spirits etc before having our boarding photo taken with a backdrop of NCL Epic.
The whole process took around 50 minutes from our taxi drop off to stepping foot onboard the ship. Painless.
Once onboard with our deck plan of Epic and copy of the Freestyle Daily for day 1 and the ‘1st week at a glance’ provided by the check in agent, we started to explore the ship as our cabins wouldn’t be available until 2pm.
Of course, by now it was time for a spot of lunch for which I tried a burger from the outdoor grill of the Garden Café washed down with a beer (Peroni) from the Waves pool bar whilst sat at a table in the outside section. Good complimentary burger, far superior to some other lines we’ve sailed on.
At 2pm after it was announced that staterooms were available, we made our way to our cabin on deck 10 which was a category BB mid ship balcony – 10189. Please see cabin review section for more in-depth detail of this stateroom.
OK, Epic has so many places to eat that it can be confusing at first working out where all the venues are.
Several are complimentary and then there are many speciality restaurants some of which are priced a la carte, others for a set fee.
Here’s the breakdown of the places where you can enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner or 24-hour snacks!
Garden Café – breakfast, lunch & dinner (Deck 15 fwd.)
Great Outdoor – breakfast, lunch and late-night snacks (Deck 15 fwd.) Spice H2O – light lunch (Deck 15 aft)
O’Sheehan’s Irish Pub – breakfast, lunch, dinner and 24/7 snacks (Deck 6 mid) Taste – breakfast, lunch & dinner (Deck 5 mid)
Manhattan Dining Room – dinner (Deck 6 aft)
Shanghai & Noodle bar – dinner (Deck 6 aft)
Speciality Restaurants – all table service dinner
Cagney’s steakhouse (A la carte) – (Deck 7 aft) Modern Churrascaria ($24.95) – (Deck 7 aft)
La Cucina Italian (A la carte) – (Deck 14 fwd.)
Le Bistro French (A la carte) - (Deck 5 fwd.) Teppanyaki Japanese ($29.95) – (Deck 7 mid) Yakitori & Sushi Japanese (A la carte) – (Deck 7 mid) Spiegel Tent circus/dining (set fee) - (Deck 6 fwd.)
As NCL is noted for its ‘freestyle’ dining concept, you can choose to dine whenever you wish during the restaurant opening hours for dinner. Breakfast and lunch are open seating in the table service venues. You can make reservations for dinner if you prefer, either online before you sail, or on the day. If you don’t, then you can just turn up and either wait in line or you will be given pager, so you can relax seated nearby, maybe enjoying a beverage.
There are various ‘dining packages’ available for purchase and we chose a 6-dinner package online before we set sail. Once we had done this, we could make advance reservations at the speciality restaurants at our preferred time, taking into consideration the entertainment we had made advance reservations for (please see later).
For those specialities that are priced a la carte, such as Cagney’s, we were allowed to choose 2 starters, 1 main, 2 sides and a dessert and this was covered by our dining package. For those with a set fee such as Teppanyaki, this was covered in total.
We chose to eat in the following speciality restaurants.
Cagney’s Steakhouse Teppanyaki
As food is very subjective, I’m not going to say which was best or worst in terms of food quality as that is down to personal taste. All were very enjoyable for what they provided, but service in some was a little lacking taking into consideration the up-charge being applied.
We did consider that the service and ambiance in Le Bistro was the best though.
As for the complimentary venues, we tried them all, except the Garden Café for dinner.
O’Sheehan’s is popular at lunch so pick your time wisely, service at breakfast was sometimes good, another time so bad we walked out after 15 minutes of waiting for someone to offer coffee and take our order (the venue was not busy).
Taste is always busy for breakfast, lunch and dinner and service differed enormously. We waited 55 minutes for our breakfast one morning, other days very prompt service. Dinner in Taste also varied, our 1st visit was excellent, subsequent so bad I left the restaurant to get my own drinks from the Atrium Bar.
Manhattan Room service was better, especially after we complained about the service the previous evening in Taste. The Head Waiter came over, drinks were served promptly, the Maitre’d came and sent a complimentary bottle of wine to our cabin. Pity that didn’t happen after the extremely poor wine service in Cagney’s. We were studiously ignored by the sommelier who clearly only served tables where several ladies were sat. Not once did he come to us, even saying ‘no’ to our food waiter who was extremely embarrassed. Again, I went to the bar to fetch our drinks. It was mentioned to the door host, but no feedback was received until I mentioned it to Guest Services and as a result, we received an apologetic phone call.
There are so many options it is difficult list them all, from the production shows in the Epic theatre for which reservations, although not mandatory, are recommended (Priscilla the Musical and Burn the Floor) to the entertainers at many of the lounges and bars around the ship in the evening.
There are other shows performed in the Epic theatre, Headliners, Atrium, Bliss Lounge or the Cavern Club that don’t require reservations, and as the venues are relatively small for the number passengers onboard (for example the Epic theatre only holds 800 which is pretty small with the possibility of there being 4100 guests on board) it’s necessary to get there early to make sure of getting a seat.
There are numerous ‘events’, weather permitting, in Spice H2O or the main pool deck.
These range from 80’s & 90’s music parties to the famous NCL Glow party which was a great event with complimentary face painting before the start of the event. However, unfortunately 5 minutes before the party was scheduled to start in Spice H2O, the heavens opened and so everyone (mostly dressed all in white) were sheltering undercover near the bar. The staff relocated the event to the Bliss Lounge, so it was a quite an amusing sight to see lots of us working our way from deck 15 aft to deck 7 forward, dressed in white with painted faces, especially by those sat in Maltings, Shakers and O’Sheehan’s!
Every evening the Bliss Lounge hosts events too, turning into the main disco later until the early hours.
All I would say is check the Freestyle Daily and the ‘At a glance’ sheet if you are given one at check in.
As we’re not ‘show’ people we only saw ‘Priscilla’ and ‘Burn the Floor’ but can’t recommend ‘Priscilla’ enough. Absolutely fantastic, earning a standing ovation.
There were so many activities arranged that it was necessary to review the Freestyle daily closely to plan your day of you wish to take part.
Apparently, there was some sort of ‘activity card’ you could get signed once you had attended or taken part in an activity, and on the last day of the sailing you could redeem the ‘points’ you earnt for prizes.
A lot of the more popular activities would be highlighted in the Freestyle Daily such as Progressive Trivia (held each sea day from day 3 and ending on the final sea day when the overall winner was announced.
The cruise director also hosted various specific trivia games in the Atrium at 1pm such as ‘Super Heroes’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘One Hit Wonders’, ‘Comic Books’, & ‘Hollywood Golden era’ to name a few.
There were various lectures held in various venues, culinary demonstrations, Ice carving, game shows, dance classes, ‘how to’ presentations, workshops and Q&A sessions following presentations (e.g. Ship technical presentation). There were the usual Art Auctions too.
There were various activities where a fee was charged such as painting classes.
As the weather improved more and more and more poolside activities/games were available such as Basketball, Pool Olympics, ‘Dash & Match Pool Game’, and Ping Pong tournaments.
As Epic has 3 water slides and a sports court there were many opportunities for enjoying yourself on the pool decks, especially as we headed nearer to the Caribbean and warmer climes.
Other entertainment included Comedy shows, Music renditions, Magic shows, Dance shows, ‘Howl at the Moon’, Hypnotists, Crew Talent shows, Cirque Dreams in the Spiegel Tent (fee applied for the dinner included) and the Epic Variety show. There were various ‘Beatles’ shows by the ‘Epic Beatles’ band too.
Various activities were organised for ‘Friends of Bill W’, & LGBT+ etc throughout the sailing both hosted or not with the same time & location (where practical) being reserved for the duration of the cruise.
Due to a tropical storm as we headed West, instead of visiting St Maarten we were diverted to Antigua. Better safe than sorry. Great day, although we have also been there, last time in 2016 as port stop, but we have also spent time there on a land-based vacation years ago.
Although it was raining when we arrived, it cleared to be a great day, then rained when we left. The Epic staff did a great job on organising new shore excursions at short notice (the captain only announced the change at around 4 pm the day before) and we did a great one booked via the ship with Heavenly Tours. Well recommended.
As St Thomas would be our first port of call in the USA, everybody on board would be required to clear immigration onboard before being allowed to disembark.
US citizens were provided with a time slot to present themselves to the Bliss Lounge and Non-US citizens were to present themselves to US Border officers in the Manhattan Room, again having been given a specific time slot.
Once we docked in Charlotte Amalie we waited to complete mandatory US immigration before we could go ashore.
We were given a time slot of 10:45 am so still had a little while to wait after breakfast. Once called we lined up along deck 6, and the whole process took around 45 minutes. Relatively painless.
Summary & Conclusions
Taking into consideration we are NCL ‘virgins’ we would naturally make comparisons with the other cruise lines we have sailed on, as mentioned in the introduction (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, MSC, Cunard, P&O). The following are purely our observations and may not impact others and so please do not take the negatives as criticisms, none ruined our sailing.
The ‘Freestyle Cruising’ ethos of NCL which gives you the option to dress up or down is a great freedom. For gentleman, long pants for dinner are only required in The Manhattan Room and Le Bistro. From experience this does not mean people do not don their finery, they do, and we saw everything from jeans, shorts to suits and tuxedos.
There were a great selection of complimentary dining venues including the Garden Café buffet with indoor and outdoor options. Spice H2O also offered a reduced selection for breakfast and lunch.
Three main table service restaurants, The Manhattan Room & Shanghai (dinner) and Taste (for breakfast and lunch) with open seating and O’Sheehan’s Pub for table service snacks.
A numerous selection of speciality restaurants - Modern, Cagney’s, Teppanyaki, La Cucina, Le Bistro, Yakitori & Sushi Japanese & The Spiegel Epicurean / Cirque Dreams.
It was great to be able to dine when you wanted, and also not being pressured into sharing a table if you did not want to. Also, the layout of the tables for 2 was really good, not as some other lines where, although you are seated at a table for 2, they are so close together, you might as well be sharing a bigger table!
The opening times of the Garden Café and especially O’Sheehan’s (24/7) were really good.
There were many nice touches in the category BB mid ship balcony cabin such as coffee maker, ice bucket replenished every day without asking, ample storage, lights in the closet, and a deep and roomy balcony with comfortable chairs.
Turn down service included a towel animal every night and chocolates on the pillow.
The door sign with its rotating indicator for ‘Do not disturb’, ‘Make Up Cabin’, ‘Turn down cabin’ or ‘Available’ indicators and letter rack is a nice touch.
The beds were extremely comfortable and gave us a great night’s sleep.
Numerous indoor venues for relaxing and entertainment such as Spiegel Tent, Headliners, Bliss Lounge, The Atrium, O’Sheehan’s bowling alley, Card Room and Library.
In terms of outdoor venues, Spice H2O was a great large adult only space during the day with its well-stocked and staffed bar and as mentioned before, providing food at lunch.
Obviously, there was the main pool area and sports court together with the 3 water slides which, once the weather improved, were extremely popular.
As we were not Haven guests, I can’t comment on that area but can report on a good quiet area on deck 18 accessed by elevator from the pool deck. As you exit the main doors of the Garden Café towards the pool deck, the elevator on the right is marked for Haven Guests only, but the one on the left is available to take you up to deck 18 and a spacious quiet area.
All staff were very friendly and helpful, the officers were also very visible, all of them greeting guests with a smile whenever passing you around the ship.
The Cruise Director (Andre Gaffney) and his team were fantastic and ensured that all guests were encouraged to attend.
Bar service was very good in all venues we attended, despite being extremely busy at times, table service was also good. On the whole table service in the restaurants was OK, again considering the amount of people being served by the wait staff.
Good Laundry delivered ahead of time, wrapped in tissue paper in a wicker basket was a very nice touch.
The ship is attractive to look at internally, as are the cabin furnishings with many nice touches and so is pleasing to the eye and the venues have very comfortable seating.
Bars / Lounges
A great variety of cocktails to try and a high proportion within the limits of the Ultimate Beverage Package. There was also various entertainment provided by either a pianist in Shakers, to a vocal group at Maltings or guitar player.
The design of the cabin in terms of layout (separate toilet and shower just behind obscure glass) with the wash hand basin in the cabin is not the best, but this was not a major issue for us.
The main problems with the cabin was that the basin was far too small, the lighting abysmal and the location of power outlets, light switches and air conditioning control very awkward.
The floor space was limited, but as only 2 of us it was manageable, but for 3 would be a little cramped in our opinion.
Although ample storage was provided, it comprised of many ‘hidden’ cupboards such as above one bed nearest the balcony, drawers under the sofa. One small closet near the balcony door had no hangers, so if you needed to use it, then you would have to request more.
We found service to be really ‘hit and miss’ in the complimentary restaurants. Breakfast in Taste could be quick at times but taking 55 minutes to receive your meal at other times. We think the issue with this is that we just order for example Eggs Benedict, and no ‘starters’ such as cereal or fruit plates, but it would appear that you to have to wait until the other tables your server has orders for have had their ‘starters’ delivered and then the ‘mains’ are arranged.
Lunch service on the whole was OK, but inconsistencies in terms of bread and water service did happen.
Dinner in Taste was again inconsistent, some days good, other days awful to the extent I had to leave the restaurant to go to the Atrium Bar for beverages.
Having mentioned this to the door host, service was exemplary on our next visit to The Manhattan Room, with the Head Waiter making sure everything was OK and sending a bottle of wine to our cabin.
Our biggest disappointment was the service in the speciality steakhouse Cagney’s for the up-charge paid. On our first visit the wine steward would not take an order for wine, so for the whole meal I had to go to the bar for glasses of wine. The dinner service was very slow showing that the whole restaurant is understaffed.
Despite reporting this to the door host, nothing was done until I reported it to Guest Services which resulted in the Maître D calling to apologise and ensuring us that our next visit would be better. Well, other than getting a window seat with a view of the wake, the service was only marginally better, but at least wine was served this time!
Due to the popularity of O’Sheehan’s at lunch, there were often long waits, even if you wished to share a table which is understandable. However, the negative for us was Breakfast. Despite being very quiet no beverages (water or coffee) we offered, nor were orders taken despite waiting 15 minutes. This is acceptable when busy, but not when quiet.
We felt that although there was a variety of food available in the buffet choice was a little restricted meaning that we were eating the same things for lunch.
We also felt that fact that the Ultimate Beverage Package did not include coffee from the Atrium Café a disappointment, as the complementary coffee provided in the buffet, restaurants and beverage stations dotted around the ship to be awful. Far too strong and bitter. Only being available at the end of meal was a waste as we rarely wanted a coffee at that time.
Despite the above, the service issues on Epic were no worse than we have experienced on a small selection of our other cruises with various lines over the years, but just an honest review of this one.
Not enough upright chairs for relaxing in, the majority of seating was provided by sunbeds that do not offer enough support for those of us with back issues.
As above, no seating and shuffle board took up all the width of one deck making you unpopular if you wished to relax on the non-smoking promenade deck.
The design of the casino on deck 6 meant that the whole of that deck stank of cigarette smoke making it an unpleasant area to walk through. This permeated to decks 5 below and 7 above at times.
Bars / Lounges
We feel due to the ship design, there are limited places to relax in a quiet environment in the evening as all venues are busy, although the bar in between Moderno and Cagney’s was often quieter.
Obviously due to the reliance on satellite communication, internet access wasn’t the best, especially for the price charged but this is not unique to the NCL fleet. However, we did manage with the Social ‘package’ which allowed access to most social media apps.
Although there are several interactive screens located throughout the ship where some reservations could be made, it was a little frustrating to be unable to make bookings via the interactive TV in your cabin, nor order room service via the options available.
The Norwegian iConcierge app again was a little disappointing as it did not list all the activities available nor again could it be used to make reservations.
Did we enjoy the crossing? Yes, we did.
Did we value what Norwegian Cruise Line offered for the price we paid, definitely.
Would be sail with them again? Yes, of course, we already have Escape booked for 2019!
Did we enjoy the company of our fellow sailors? Definitely, a great cross section of people, friendly and we enjoyed passing time with many of them.
So, despite our observations above, would we recommend NCL? Yes, because it has more similarities to the other mass market lines such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival and MSC.
However, if you prefer the more formal atmosphere of Cunard and P&O, I wouldn’t recommend it due to the more relaxed nature of ‘Freestyle Cruising’. Read Less