We had booked a trip to China in early March. Since it had to be rescheduled due to C-19, we looked around for a cruise. The 7-day Southern Caribbean on the NCL Epic sailed from SJU, which I've never visited, and the ports of call were 83% new to both of us – so, we picked it. We had a nicer-than-expected experience to Cuba the first time we were on Norwegian in 2018; the word "Epic" sounded famous and grandiose (little did I know at the time that the fame was yesteryear's news - this ship, while massive, is beginning to show its age). Also tempting was a "free" pkg: beverage (premium, but not the top one), 3 specialty dining nights, “shore excursionS”, and 250 minutes of internet - in quotation marks because the fine print revealed they aren’t quite as generous in reality. They charge you the 20% service upfront for the first 2 up front; the bev pkg is regularly priced at $99 per day, while dining is $99 for the 3 nights; so even the gratuity for the bev pack is a whopping $140 per person for the cruise. Frankly, unless you are aready a ripe candidate to join AA, I wouldn't pay to get it - $99 (or $119 with tip) of drinks per day, even at cruise ship prices, is a lot. Now, when it's "free", sure, I can drink $20 worth easily day in and day out. And yeah, there are some sore points even in the freebie (more in a sec) Likewise, I personally won’t spring $33 for specialty dining per person per night (+ tip of course). – better to save my money for when I’m NOT on a cruise, since “specialty” does not always mean “superior” when compared to the alternative (regular dining). The internet was tricky, and while not Flash-like, not as slow as feared. The “shore excursionS” was just $50, for ONE of us – try as I may, I could not come up with any excursionS that would justify the plural number; I forfeited that $50 so that I could save more money buying my own excursions. Even before Viator came on the scene big time, there have always been options that are less expensive and/or restrictive.
We spent a couple of days in San Juan before the cruise, did some prep work booking our own excursions while we were there, and looked forward to the cruise with great anticipation. Please be sure you know where you board in SJU, as there are two different cruise terminals, and they are not exactly next to each other. Embarkation was one of the smoothest – a bit of walking, but practically no line, and made even better by an enthusiastic agent.
In the interest of brevity (too late, you might complain!), I’ll quickly cover some general areas and focus on a few aspects of this cruise in more detail. You already have my thoughts on excursions. Entertainment was fine, with many options when it’s a ship this size. The two main shows in the Epic Theatre were good to very good. Tthe dueling piano sessions are always helped by the free flow of liquor (guests and artists), and the mentalist guy was impressive in blowing your mind. I cannot comment on any of the kids’ programmes; the water slides were not always operational (they’re fine), and the hot tubs are always crowded. and (as usual) not nearly hot enough. I like the fitness room too – seems to be enough at least for the cruise crowd I was with – not crowded at all. So now, onto the other areas (other than Cabin, which is found below).
DINING The use of melamine immediately sets them down a notch: Princess, too, had that, but Celebrity had “real” plates. I’d say the Garden café was generally 3.5 to 4 stars, if you can overlook the crude way in which they treat their esteemed guests: to wit, cantaloupes, water melon, pineapples, and honey dews are all skin on, and hewn to Brobdingnagian proportions, hard to deal with when the knife is dull. We tried both Taste and Manhattan, and yes, the latter is a touch more exclusive and refined. The selection was, again, not as bad as reading reviews would have led me to believe. I had a very nice pepper steak one evening, even the French fries served with it ruined it a bit. Try to stay abreast of dining room/café hours, as that “last resort” buffet on the pool deck outside of the Garden Café is pretty much, well, last resort. That pool bar is easily one of the busiest as well, particularly during the day.
Believe it or not, they offer as “specialty” dining, sushi, and a teppanyaki place – places you’d pay probably half the price if you were on terra firma. The 3 we chose were French (C+), Cagney (A-), and Italian (B+). Again, I would NOT pay extra for any of these, but since it’s a so-called freebie, we did it. So how “special” was it? Just to give you an idea… the appetizer at Le Bistro looked similar to the one we had at Taste the first night. I ordered it just for comparison. Result: taste is about the same (yup-that unmistakable chlorine smell is !) – fancier presentation, and one fewer scallop. What do you think: worth it? I’d say only the Cagney experience was “special”: larger, Riedel wine glasses, some selections that are more special (grass-fed New York). That’s why it’s the most booked. If you want Cagney’s, at YOUR time/date, book it as soon as you get on board.
It is on wine, and wine pricing, that I want to spend a minute or two explaining, as it is absolutely THE worst foot NCL puts forward. Never mind that they have those wine stations in the garden café designed to gouge the unaware (a Simi Cab, which you get at Publix for about $17, $5.50 for 1.25 oz., and $22 for 5 oz.!!!!! There aren’t enough exclamation marks in the world). So let’s say you dodge that pitfall. NCL has more. Remember the drink pkg: FREE drinks, incl. wine, up to $15 a glass. This is where they get you. You notice there are some wines that are $8/9/10, and then you see a few at $16, $18… a glass. RESIST THE TRAP. They are designed to catch the unaware. You’d think in any establishment, the pricing would be more or less consistent. Not when they want to play “Gotcha” at NCL. I have the facts (I took pix for later research). Those $8/9/10 glasses are generally priced at a quarter of a full bottle of wine (Luigi Bosca Malbec, or the Recanati or Gerard Bertrand Cab, among others, $9/$33, the Torres Crianza, $10/$35). But once you move PAST the $15 price-point, LOOK OUT!!! The Badger Mtn Cab, or the John Wine Cotes du Rousillon, par exemple, $16/$29, or a 1.8 ratio! The point? They are trying to move you into those higher-priced wines, where the mark-up PER GLASS is unreasonably and disproportionately higher. They think you’re stupid. I resent that. Don’t be!
SERVICE One thing we’ve observed in our last 3 cruises this past year is that, while on Princess or Celebrity, the staff are pretty damned close to letting the guests pass first in the corridor, NCL is probably doing an 80-20. No biggie, you might say, but worth noting. Staff friendliness was not helped by the draconian measures taken about 5 days into our cruise with food – so, I’ll try not to discount it too much – but it ran the gamut of friendly to indifference. The training, though, is ostensibly lacking. When we dined at Le Bistro, I thought I’d start with, you know, a glass of Dubonnet on the rocks, arguably the national drink along with Pernod and Ricard. “Doo-fun-nay”, our cute waitress from Peru asked, quizzically, “I don’t think we have that”. Likewise, waiters would pretend know what wine you’re talking about, and either bring the wrong one, or come back to ask you again. The way their system is, wait staff often give the impression of being harried or disorganized. Our one notable bright spot was Miguel at La Cucina the last (or what WOULD have been our last) evening on board. He was polite, professional, and very much on top of his game. A gem, and a reassuring footnote on … whatever. I don’t think I’ve made it a habit to slip someone a $20 for one meal (OVER and above the mandatory gratuity we were charged!)
Our cruise WAS affected by Covid-19. Day we were to dock in SJU, we were turned away - had to sail to Port Canaveral instead. The 2 extra days of cruising did not cost us extra (although they really could have tastefully handled the $15 pp/per day gratuity as long as the staff DO end up getting their share) - they handled that part alright, arranging for buses to get us to MCO. The main reason that my wife and I were less than pleased overall is summarized this way: NCL/Epic treat customers like they are stupid, math-challenged ignoramus (or is that ignorami); that may or may not be true with the majority of customers, or perhaps fellow pax are just too loaded to care, but the way NCL tried to play "gotcha" with your money is just offensive. That's why I did not buy any future credits, tempting as those deals were: it is not at all clear in my mind that we'd be three-peat customers after that cruise.
I went to our cabin with a little trepidation, since so many other cruisers did not care for the "wave design" that turned a lot of structures and walls from the more traditional straight lines into squigglies, which you find not just inside the room but in the hallway! Size of the cabin was neither generous nor terribly cramped. I personally had no real issue with the curves, other than the overt gimmicky "look how different WE are" aspect - it just doesn't get you any benefits, with a potential sacrifice. See, the bed is housed in one of those concave lines, and whether it's on account of that or not, the bed is suitably wide (perhaps even a smidge wider than the 'queen' advertised), but man is it short! I'm just below average in height for North America, and I had to be careful to slide up, or else I'd have a reason to be singing "Rain Drops Are Falling on My Head" (you'd know what I mean if you know the lyrics). I did find that there are enough nooks and crannies, plus under the bed, to sock away all our stuff - not always true of all the cabins we've experienced in other cruises. The balcony was also on the roomy side, even if we didn't take full advantage of it (any more than hanging wet clothes). On the other hand, we hate, hate, HATE that little bird bath that poses as our 'sink'; the TP is possibly proof that there is a God, vengeance is His, and you’ve probably done some bad things that deserve your 7-day punishment: it should be renamed “SP”, (as in “sand paper”), meaning you better know how to take care of your delicate back-side. The toilet flush is noisy as hell, but at least we had no disaster - can't be said for that other room well down the hall that the SWAT team was attending the second day into the cruise. We could have used brighter lights in the cabin.