February Northeast School Vacation Week
On this cruise our group consisted of myself (44), my husband (53), our daughter (9), my parents (86 and 81), my brother and his wife. We are all experienced cruisers. I myself have previously sailed Carnival twice, HAL once, Princess twice, RCCL three times, and NCL three times, so I do not consider myself a cheerleader for any particular cruise line.
We specifically chose the Epic for the following reasons:
1) Ship's amenities
2) Suite availability and attractive pricing/rewards
4) Proximity of port to my parents’ home (driving distance - 3 hours)
In this instance, reasons 2 and 4 were the driving factor. We wanted a Florida departure port, and we wanted a ship with good suites (my parents have mobility issues so spend a lot of time in-cabin – so the cabin had to be nice). We also got some incredible incentives to book this itinerary – at the time we booked, all included, we got the UBP, the UDP, $300/cabin OBC, $200 shore excursion credit PER PERSON, and a whole bunch of other extras – 20 free photos PER PERSON (120 total for our group!), bottle of wine per person, 250 min internet package ($99 value) PER PERSON (never thought I’d see the day when we COULDN’T use up all our internet minutes, even at the ridiculously slow Wi-Fi speed onboard), 3 free bingo games ($39 value) per person, chocolate strawberries, and several other smaller things.
I am going to summarize our experiences on the ship in the following categories:
Embarkation/Disembarkation: As I already stated, we were fortunate to book suites on this trip. One of the benefits of being in the Haven is priority embarkation/disembarkation, both initially and at ports along the way. I had also booked wheelchair assistance for my parents for embarkation. Unfortunately there are some problems here for the mobility-impaired: first and most importantly, the wheelchair assistants aren’t able to come outside to collect people. It is inside the building only. Second, the building is large – add to that being misdirected to the wrong door twice, and my Dad, who needs a walker to walk, was really unable to cover this amount of ground. We might still be walking if my husband hadn’t somehow managed to locate an abandoned wheelchair somewhere, bring it outside himself (which is probably not allowed), and get my dad into the building. SO, this was a lesson learned for me – this is not like the airport, where you book wheelchair assistance and you are met out on the curb with a wheelchair. You really need to either be able to walk a good distance on your own, OR you need to bring your own wheelchair. I’m sure this is not an NCL thing, it’s a Port of Miami regulations thing, BUT, it would be nice to have known this info going in, as it certainly didn’t meet with my expectations which were that I could get him out of a taxi and into a wheelchair immediately. So now I know, and hopefully other people traveling with the mobility-impaired will now know as well!
We arrived shortly before 11am. After dropping our bags, navigating the wheelchair nightmare above, locating the Haven check-in and lounge, and completing the required health docs and getting our cards, we were all set before 11:30am. We were taken to the priority lounge to await embarkation. (One of the wheelchair attendants waited there with us but the other disappeared! Fortunately my husband took over pushing duties again). There were juices and sandwiches in the lounge. We began boarding promptly at 11:45. We were escorted directly to the 16th floor to the Epic Club lounge (the Haven), where we were asked to make ourselves comfortable while we waited for an announcement from the concierge. Waiters were circulating with small plates of sandwiches or sliders and fries. The concierge, David Contreras, gave a little introduction about himself and offered a tour of the Haven. Then we were loosed to do our own thing. Our cabins weren’t quite ready but we were invited to drop our things in them – when we did, we were assured they were now ready (it was around 1pm). We also took advantage of the priority disembarkation at the ports we visited – both our excursions met on the pier so it was nice to be able to get off without waiting in a large group in one of the lounges or the theater. Lastly, disembarkation on the final day of the cruise was excellent. David had the wheelchairs meet us in the Haven lounge after breakfast, took us directly to the priority elevator, whisked us straight to the gangplank, and off we went. The wheelchair attendants had to leave us in the luggage collection area (that whole “out of the building thing” again), but I have to say, we got a FABULOUS porter who, without being asked, flagged down two OTHER NCL port workers (I know they weren’t on-ship employees, they work in the port building but do work for NCL), and convinced them to push the wheelchairs not only outside but all the way to the parking garage!! SO much less stressful than our arrival.
Food/Restaurants: With the UDP for the first time, I was able to try a couple of restaurants I have always wanted to try but never wanted to pay for. We tried all of the specialty restaurants, with the exception of Moderno (which I have been to before on Dawn, but I’m not a huge meat person so it’s sort of wasted on me). La Cucina gave me a great salad, but not-so-great chicken parmesan (weird, rubbery texture to the chicken). Le Bistro was AMAZING – French onion soup, pork tenderloin with apples and Calvados cream, and then the chocolate fondue pot with fruit for dipping – my daughter is still raving about that one. Cagney’s was much better than I remember it being on Breakaway. My filet was absolutely perfectly cooked and tender, and the rest of the meal met the same high standard (although the much-raved about raspberry crème brulee did nothing for me. My daughter’s Oreo cheesecake, on the other hand – that’s worth getting). Shanghai’s was another first for me – and I really enjoyed it. Everything I ate there had great flavor (although I wished the lettuce cups had not been quite so unmanageable, because they tasted GREAT). Teppanyaki was excellent as always – chicken and steak, the fried rice, the vegetables. (Although, I ordered chicken and filet and noted that I was most definitely not given filet – the steak was not nearly as nice as when they do it with filet, and I tasted my dad’s filet to confirm my suspicion that I just got the regular strip steak.) The Haven restaurant had nice lunch and dinner menus, and we had several lunches and one dinner there. I will reiterate my complaint about the Haven that I made on Breakaway – the menu offerings in this venue DO NOT CHANGE. So the perk of having this great, quiet place to eat are kind of lost unless you feel like choosing from the same 5 things every day. I’m not sure why the Haven can’t just offer the MDR menus in addition to “specials” in the Haven. We ate in Taste one day for lunch and the Manhattan Room one day for dinner, just because they had SO MANY more interesting options. I know they say they will bring you “anything” in the Haven, but if you don’t know what’s on the MDR menus that night, how do you know what to ask for if they don’t offer it to you to see? (They do offer the MDR “special” of the night in the Haven. But not the MDR standard dishes.) I just see this as a huge weakness in the Haven restaurant. A rotating menu, or at least a look at the MDR menu, would be a huge improvement.
We also tried O'Sheehan's once, so that my other family members could bowl while my parents and I watched. It’s just not my thing. I got a chef’s salad because I really remember not liking O’Sheehan’s on Breakaway. It was “fine”. That’s the best I can do.
How was the buffet? Well, we ate at the buffet this trip only once for breakfast, and never for lunch or dinner, although I did go through the buffet at dinner time a couple of times to pick up "to-go" for my daughter on nights she wasn't joining us to eat. They had plenty of offerings and I liked the layout of the buffet. At the times I visited, it was never overly crowded. The food I tried there was good. :-)
Service/Staff: I have nothing but good things to say about all the service crew of the Epic. I never met one staff member who didn’t have a smile and a “good morning” for us. We had some hard-to-please next-door neighbors, who I believe are responsible for the “relocation” of our original room steward after Day 2. We had no problems with him, nor with his replacement. (I heard the lady refer to our former steward, Larry, as “the other one”, like the two men were interchangeable. Nice.) Our butler, Gaurav, was ALWAYS around, literally every time I left my room. He delivered treats to our suite every day (I know, I know -- "it's his job" -- but it's still nice and the service doesn't have to come with a smile, and yet it always did). He went way above the call of duty, even delivering my parents’ breakfast to them IN BED the day the sea was very rough and made for difficult walking (and then he just continued to deliver it there because he could tell they liked it). He was amazing, just a lovely person. The concierge, David, or one of his staff was available at the concierge desk every time we walked through the Haven lounge, except for after 11 or so at night. David was extremely courteous and helpful. The restaurant staff, in all venues, was uniformly excellent. I loved the cruise director Armen – he was very personable and went out of his way to have a whole conversation with my daughter. His staff was also fun and engaging.
Onboard Activities: Without the ropes course or golf course, this ship has slightly less in the way of physical activities than the Breakaway did. However the Epic Plunge (funnel waterslide) was AWESOME for kids and parents alike. The Epic Bounce, which my daughter was excited to do, was closed the last 3 days due to high winds so unfortunately we didn’t get to do it (lesson: do all outdoor activities any time you have nice weather!). Unfortunately the water slides were also closed the last several days because of these winds. Thankfully we DID experience those early in the week. The pools themselves, as can be expected on a ship with 4,000 people on a school vacation week, were massively crowded, with every available lounge chair on the lower and upper decks near the pool "taken" on the nice sea days. (And by "taken" I mean someone's towel was enjoying a nice relaxing day in the sun while they were nowhere to be found.) I much appreciated the Haven courtyard and pool (as small as it was), if only for the uncrowded hot tubs and the nice, plush loungers. And it should be noted that bowling about the Epic, unlike on Breakaway, takes place in a full-size lane, and with “big balls”, not candlepins. It’s a little pricier too – I think $7 per person per game.
Splash Academy: My big pet-peeve on Breakaway was that Splash Academy drop-off/pick-up was a ZOO and could cost you easily 20+ minutes waiting in line, either arriving or departing. Despite being a school vacation week, we had no problems with this on Epic. My daughter enjoyed the activities (pretty much the same activities they do on every ship on every cruise) and made some friends – that said, I think she’s looking forward to moving up to being a “Dolphin” on our next cruise, maybe for some new activities.
Entertainment: Even before boarding Epic, I felt like the “big show” entertainment was on the light side. There is Blue Man Group, and … well, that’s it. No, seriously, they consider “Legends in Concert” a big show, although it’s not and is just some lookalike-singers impersonating the likes of Aretha Franklin or Michael Jackson. And of course they have Cirque Dreams (which the staff often refer to as Cirque du Soleil, although the shows are NOT affiliated and I doubt Cirque du Soleil would be happy to hear their name bandied around). We didn’t see Cirque Dreams b/c I don’t see the point in paying for a dinner show when I don’t want the dinner. I wish they offered this as just a SHOW, and maybe I’d go. I did go in the Spiegel Tent where it is held though and was surprised at how SMALL the venue is. Anyway, Blue Man Group was fun, but I’ve seen them before, so nothing new (new for my daughter though, so that was something). NCL seems to be becoming somewhat overly reliant on Second City throughout their fleet. I almost yearn for the days of having just a regular stand-up comedian who has a couple of shows during the week. I’ve seen Second City so many times on my NCL cruises, and they offer the shows so many times during the week. A little more variety might be nice. I’ll also say that most of the fun shows I used to enjoy on cruises, like the not-so-Newlywed game or what have you, were ALL scheduled at 8:30pm, which directly conflicted with my family’s preferred mealtime, so we saw none of them this week.
Can't finish the entertainment review without a huge-shout out to our favorite entertainment of the week: Howl at the Moon Dueling Pianos in Headliners. They were SO GOOD and it was so much fun, with lots of crowd participation and just a good, fun time, that we went THREE TIMES. (This paragraph is directly cribbed from my Breakaway review because it was ALL TRUE for this Epic cruise as well. ïŠ)
The Haven: The perks and amenities that come along with having a suite in the Haven were well worth the upcharge from a normal balcony stateroom, for us. Particularly we loved the Haven courtyard, and this time our rooms were forward-facing 2-family suites (and my parents were in the Deluxe Owners’ Suite), so it was very convenient to be right in the heart of the Haven. We enjoyed the afternoon treats that were delivered daily to our cabin, and we enjoyed breakfast in our room nearly every day. And of course we really liked the extra space that the Haven suite provided, which I will describe separately.
Cabin/Suite: We were on Deck 16, cabin 16000, which is a 2-bedroom Family Suite. We specifically chose this suite because it was supposed to connect to the Deluxe Owner’s Suite, # 16002. It doesn’t. Or, better said, it COULD, but only if you ALSO are the owners of Suite # 16004 on the port side. Buyer beware on this one, as we were definitely sold a “connecting” cabin but were unable to use it. I think it would really behoove NCL to make this clear on their deck plans, and honestly, to make more connecting cabins in general.
We liked the décor of the suite. Some have described Epic’s overall decorating scheme as gaudy in places, but it didn’t bother me at all. I liked the pink accents on the bedding pillows and the pink glow on the light over the bed. The 2 BR family suites have a living room with a sofa, cube table, and chair, a small dining table with 4 chairs, a bar with refrigerator and coffee maker (no sink), a “master” bedroom with vanity and stool, a large master bath with big tub, huge shower with a “view”, and then a smaller bedroom with its own vanity, bed that is supposed to sleep two (we only had 1 so I can’t say how small the room will be if they fold that bed out at all), and a small bathroom in that bedroom (toilet/sink/shower). There are TV’s in both bedrooms and the living room. Almost forgot the balcony! The balcony was an OK size (I got spoiled by my aft-facing balcony last year so the size will never seem adequate after that!), but being in a front-facing room, while I loved the view, really spoiled the balcony experience for me. There is no “leaning on the railings” here. There are full windows around the balcony and, while we were fortunate to have two small sliding windows to open and let some of the breeze in, the reality is it does not feel like a real balcony. So keep that in mind if you enjoy a lot of time on your own balcony. This cabin also has PLENTY of storage, with a large closet in the master, a smaller corner cupboard, lots of drawers in the bathroom, and then all the closet space in the second bedroom.
Ocho Rios: We did the NCL excursion that went to Bobsled Jamaica and then Dunn’s River Falls. It was a great excursion and I would definitely recommend it. The most unexpected and pleasant part of the excursion was the chair-lift (Sky Explorer?) ride to the top of the mountain for the bobsled experience. It was about a 20 minute ride, so peaceful, amazing views – I loved it! (My sister-in-law, who is terrified of heights yet somehow wound up on this excursion with us, did not. So if you have a paralyzing fear of heights, probably best to skip it.) The bobsled ride had a bit of a line so we had to wait maybe 20-30 minutes before getting a “sled”. There was a beautiful infinity pool right next to where you load into the bobsleds, and it had a water slide as well, but no one ever suggested we could use the pool or the slide (although the NCL literature does speak about these features as though they are included). In any case the bobsled ride was much more fun than I expected – I thought I would be pushing the handbrake (you can control your own speed) the entire ride, but it turned out it was fun to let it go a little bit. It was like a make-your-own roller coaster. At the bottom the track pulls you onto a cable and then all the way back up the mountain again (picture the long uphill climb on a roller coaster). At the top of the mountain, you leave your sled and there is (of course) a gift shop and some artisans there, as well as some barbecue. You board the chairlift again to descend the mountain, and while it’s much less scenic than the climb (it’s a lot lower and sort of shaded by trees), it’s a lot cooler because of the shade! Next we were sent to buses that took us up the street (less than a few minutes) to Dunn’s River Falls. We were assigned a woman who took us into the site, got our wristbands, gave some instructions about lockers and such, and then turned us over to the line where we waited to be put together with our guide. The guide is the one who leads a large group of people (15-20, I’d say) up the falls. Typically they want everyone to hold hands. Side note, the sign by the lockers says NO personal effects, including cameras, on the falls, but when we got down to the bottom, everyone had their waterproof cameras with them, so I guess that should be noted as a SUGGESTION (I was very disappointed to have followed the “rules” only to find I could have brought it along). The lockers cost $8, $3 of which they give back when you return the key. I don’t recommend carrying anything else as it’s a fairly strenuous activity! Oh, and BRING WATER SHOES or you will have to buy them there. You can’t climb without them. I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way up – I’m not in anything resembling good physical shape. The guide was very helpful and after the initial part of the climb, which was somewhat grueling, I inquired about departing and walking up the stairs that go alongside the falls. He assured me that the hardest part was over and that he would get me up! And he did. It took about an hour to climb the falls. All told this excursion is listed at like 3.5 hours but I think it took a bit longer, and could take longer still if you did much in the way of shopping in the markets. (Yes, the vendors at the artisans market after the falls are “pushy”, in the sense that they want you to buy stuff, but most were perfectly fine with a “no thank you” as you kept walking by. The sad thing is they all sell the same stuff.)
Grand Cayman: Unfortunately, our stop here was cancelled due to weather. ïŒ In this case, this was not the Captain’s decision, the Port of George Town actually CLOSED that day due to flooding, but as this is a tendering port I imagine it is not unusual to miss this stop.
Cozumel: We did the NCL excursion on the Fury Catamaran – Snorkeling and Beach break. We still had windy weather, which made the air temperature somewhat coolish, but it turned out the water was very nice and the wind didn’t really make the snorkeling much more difficult. The main way we were affected was by the wind once we were wet – chilly! We snorkeled only about 20 minutes, I think – this is the downside of this excursion if you are choosing it for snorkeling. If you want a longer snorkeling experience, choose something else. This is great if you just want a taste of snorkeling and then some fun on the beach. Their private beach has lots of water slides, kayaks, paddle boards, etc., as well as a bar and grill. For us, with a young daughter, the amount of snorkeling was fine, but I just want people to be aware of the actual time spent doing it.
Summary: We had a great week aboard the Epic. Having read previous reviews I know people either love or hate the ship, but we found nothing to hate here. Décor was different, service was stellar, entertainment was maybe lacking a “wow” act, food was consistently good. For the most part I liked the ship’s layout although I did think there was a lack of outdoor walking space on lower decks. I would not hesitate to book on Epic again however if it is has the right itinerary and the right price! (Sounds like I’ll have to go to Europe to do that in future.)