This past March, my family and I went on a spring break cruise to the Western Caribbean. Originally, it was supposed to be Eastern Caribbean. However, after the hurricanes last fall, the itinerary needed to be changed.
Part 1 of this review is going to be of our cruise. Part 2 will discuss cruising with toddlers.
The cruise departed from Port Canaveral, FL. We flew down on Friday night, and stayed at the Sheraton Suites Airport hotel. We arrived late, but had a well appointed suite with two rooms. We were able to put Sarah down in a crib in one room, and we passed out in the other room.
The next morning, I picked up milk for Sarah and a chai latte for Sandy in the convenience shop in the hotel. We had a Lyft come and get us at 10:45. Our driver was a little confused going to the port - he thought we wanted to avoid tolls. I kindly told him I'd pay for the tolls and to please take the highway.
Port Canaveral was packed. There was our ship, a Disney Cruise, and a Carnival Cruise all departing the same day. The line to board the Epic was the longest line I've seen to get on a cruise. It took us over an hour and a half to board. I actually texted my mom who was on a bus coming to the port and told her to get my grandma a wheelchair and hopefully skip the line. She did and they made it on the boat in 20 minutes.
The Norwegian Epic was large and in charge. I'm not going to give the play-by-play of all the statistics of the ship, you can read about those here
The cruise was sold out, and you could tell. At times it could feel a little crowded. But there was so much to do, people seemed to be decently spread out.
The ship was relatively new, first sailing in 2010. Some of the spaces could use a refresh, but overall, it had that "mega-ship" feeling. I spoke with some of the staff, and the Epic spends a good deal of time over in Europe. Most of the employees seemed excited to get back across the pond.
An observation was that it was hard to get between decks 5-7, where many of the restaurants and interior activities were. The elevator/escalator situation took a few days to figure out. That may sound silly, but it's the truth.
The casino was spread out over what felt like an entire deck. On other ships, the casino is contained. On the Epic it was sprawling. And smokey, which I dislike.
The fitness center was actually one of the nicest I've seen. Plenty of equipment to use, and even at peak times, it never felt too crowded.
We had a balcony on the 10th floor in the aft (back) of the ship. The layout was particularly unique. There was no defined bathroom. The shower, sink, and toilet were all separate from one another. There was a curtain you could pull. But still, it wasn't that private. Some people might have an issue.
The bed was the typical two twins pushed together. However, it felt extremely short. I'm 5'11, and my feet were off the bottom. There was a sofa that I think turned into the third bed if needed. The part that makes it unique was there was a curved wall. So if an adult had tried to sleep on it, I would imagine it would be uncomfortable.
I had called prior to sailing to request a crib. When we boarded and arrived in our room, it wasn't there. Our steward, Ponci (who was excellent) retrieved it for us immediately. It was a travel sized pack and play that barely fit in the space provided. It was also rather small for our 17 month old daughter. We made it work.
This was the first cruise that we had a balcony on. Sandy and I took full advantage. We spent a number of nights out there reading after putting Sarah down. I will say that sitting out there looking at the stars at night and while watching the waves below you is an awesome experience.
We spent a lot of time by the pools. There were two main pools, two hot tubs, a splash pad, three water slides, an adults only pool/area. For the most part, the pools were crowded, especially on sea days. It's what we expected cruising over a spring break week. The water slides were all fun. I would recommend waiting for days when the ship is in port to try them. The waits were long otherwise.
Of course people were playing the chair game. But have no fear, I came to play.
Besides the water activities, there were courts for volleyball, basketball, two rock climbing walls, ping pong tables, an arcade, bowling alley, and a mini-golf course. We didn't partake in many of these activities, but if you had kids, I would say they would have a great time.
There were multiple options for places for kids to go. For kids ages 3-12, there was the "Splash Academy". If your kids are 13-17, there was the "Entourage". From what I heard, most kids enjoyed spending time there.
With Sarah being 17 months, we went to the "Guppies" room usually once a day. We couldn't leave her with anyone, but they had plenty of toys to play with. A good place to go when we wanted a change a pace. Twice a day there were scheduled activities.
There was a ton of entertainment on the boat. Each day by the pool there were bands that played. Typically some reggae combo, but at times there were more rock and roll based bands. My mom said the shows that she saw were some of the best she's seen at sea.
Sandy and I only saw one show - the Newlywed Game. But as always, it was a ton of fun.
Although we didn't get a chance to go into them, there did seem to be a fair amount of places to catch music at night. One place that I passed at about midnight (while pushing a fussy toddler that wouldn't sleep) that sounded awesome was Howl at the Moon Dueling Piano Bar.
The food and drinks are always an important part of any trip. Norwegian has a "freestyle" dining program. This means you don't sign up for a set dining time. You simply show up at the restaurants.
Overall I would say the restaurants and food were decent. Nothing to knock your socks off. We ate breakfast in the buffet each day. They had a good variety of baked goods, meats, egg station, and fruit. It got the job done.
For most lunches, we at the buffet. Typical buffet food, which isn't a bad thing. There was an outdoor buffet/grill that was nice to eat at when my mom was watching Sarah as she napped. We did eat in the Taste dining room one day for lunch. It was nice to sit down, but I remember the meal just taking a long time.
For dinner, we almost always ate in the Manhattan Dining Room. We showed up at about 6pm or a bit earlier each night. We never had to wait, but I would say showing up after 6:30 to expect to wait.
The food was average in the dining room. Some hits, some misses. One thing I noticed was there was never a "lobster" night. Typically on cruises, there is one night where lobster is served. I'm not a huge fan, but everyone I travel with is. They were disappointed. I also felt like the service was slow.
One place for a meal or snack that we enjoyed was O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar and Grill. They had food like wings and burgers. And sometimes, that hits the spot.
For those unaware, Norwegian has been running a promo for over a year now (maybe two years?) where you can select the unlimited beverage plan and only pay the gratuity charge. For our group, I was able to secure this promotion, but the clients didn't need to pay the gratuity charge, saving everyone about $100 per person. This is another reason to always book with an agent. We can find you great deals.
Back to the cruise. It felt like almost everyone had the unlimited beverage plan. I've never seen so much drinking on a cruise before. There were some long lines by the pool bars to get drinks.
Also, there were signs saying that people between the ages of 18 and 21 were allowed to drink beer and wine with their parents permission and we were outside of U.S. waters. Maybe I wasn't looking on past cruises, but I had never seen this.
The Epic made three stops. The first was in Falmouth, Jamaica. We typically spend one of the port days on the ship. After looking at the excursion options, we decided to stay on the ship in Falmouth. I'm glad we did. It was a relaxing day.
The second stop we made was in Georgetown, Grand Cayman. Even though this was the third time we've stopped here on a cruise, it was the first that we've booked an excursion. We had planned to do Sting Ray City and two snorkel stops.
I always book my excursions through Shore Trips. I also recommend this for my clients. There are two main reasons. The first is because the groups tend to be smaller than booking through the cruise line. The second reason piggy-backs off the first. Because the groups are smaller, you get to know your tour guides better.
Unfortunately, when we got to Grand Cayman, we found out the tour was cancelled due to weather. We were able to hop onto a different tour that went around the island and stopped at the Cayman Turtle Farm. Our tour guide, Greg, was a lifelong resident of the island. He was a wealth of knowledge.
The Turtle Farm ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. There were hundreds of turtles being taken care of. We even got a chance to hold some.
The last stop we made was in Great Stirrup Cay. This is Norwegian's private island in the Bahamas. Most cruise lines either own a private island, or contract with another cruise line to stop at theirs. For example, in 2015 when sailing with MSC, we stopped at Great Stirrup Cay. Even though it was owned by Norwegian, MSC rented it for their guests for the day.
I know from past experiences you want to try and get on the first tender to shore. This is so you can maximize your time on the island, and get good chairs by the ocean. For those who don't know, at some ports you don't actually pull up to a dock. The ships drops anchor by the island, then you have to board small "tender" boats to get to shore.
Unfortunately, we missed the first tender, so we had to wait for the second. This took longer than I would have liked. But what can you do?
The island was nicer than I remember. I think they've been doing construction and adding stuff over the past few years. We spent time in the water with Sarah, went on walks, and had a pretty good meal.
We could only spend a half day on the island because we needed to get back so Sarah could nap. But overall, we enjoyed ourselves.
Debarking the Ship and Overall Impressions
Getting off the ship on the last day was pretty easy. We ended up booking the NCL transfers to the airport, because we didn't want to deal with trying to get a Lyft with all of our stuff and our daughter. Again, the lines to go through customs were long and took a while. The shuttle to get back to the airport was easy. The airport was a zoo, but what do you expect when it's Saturday over a spring break week. A direct flight back to Wisconsin made things easy.
Looking back, I would say that my family and I had a good time on the Epic. There were some quirks along the way, but this happens with any trip. I would definitely say that the Epic and perhaps Norwegian as a whole did a good job catering to families. If you had kids a little older than Sarah, then there would be a ton for them to do. And the price point was pretty good too.
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