Oh. My God. That was my first reaction to seeing the NCL Epic cruise ship.
As the plane was preparing to land, we had an amazing bird’s-eye view of Barcelona port. Seeing some ships docked, I half-heartedly wondered if we could see our’s from 20,000 feet in the air. And we did. It was unmistakeable thanks to the huge and rather impressive water park on the top deck. But it was only when we pulled up to the port that we really saw it. Shadowing the other, by other standards, large, cruise ships, was our home for the next 7 nights.
Over 1,000ft long, with around 1,724 crew members and a total guest capacity of 4,100, I’m not gonna lie, we were pretty intimidated when we stood at the port. It was our first cruise and we had no idea what to expect. Well, in true Riley family style, go big or go home; and we went Epic.
Things to know about NCL
- Despite it’s name, NCL is an American cruise line and everything is paid for on the ship in US dollars. It’s also a cash-less ship, meaning everything is charged to your room.
- They have a huge range of ships, from small to mega and you can cruise around most places in the world; think Asia, New Zealand, South America, Alaska, Canada and more!
- They have won a crazy amount of awards including Europe’s Leading Cruise Line between 2008-2017 and Best Large Ship Cruise Line in the World. As for NCL Epic, well that won Best Contemporary Cruse Ship at the Travel Pulse Travvy Awards in 2017 and was in the top 5 for families at the UK Cruise Critic Choice Awards 2017.
- Norwegian Cruise Line operates on a Freestyle Cruising basis. That means that you can do what you want, wear what you want, and eat when you want. Ok so there is some sort of a dress code, called ‘cruise casual’, but it’s your standard ‘no shorts’ in the more formal dining rooms kind of thing. You can dress as informal or as formal as you want. For us, it was absolutely perfect because it meant that when we got back late from sightseeing we could grab some food straight away without having to change. It’s just convenient and allows you to do your holiday your way. Massive thumbs up.
- Norwegian also have Premium All-Inclusive option on the vast majority of their cruises, and I’d strongly recommend you choose one that does. What does that mean? Well rather than having loads of extra charges at the end of the cruise you can have lots of things included in the price. This means a wide choice of premium alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and bottled water, dining, entertainment, and most importantly service charges and gratuities.
November 2019 Update: NCL no longer seems to be offering the Premium All-Inclusive or Just Cruise schemes which I think is a massive shame. Whilst existing bookings made under these schemes are being honoured, future bookings can’t be made. This seems to have been replaced by the Free At Sea scheme which is a promotion that lets you pick speciality offers for 2 people per cabin at a reduced rate. Any mention of the Premium All-Inclusive or Just Cruise schemes dates back to when these were operational.
Where does the Epic go?
Well, obviously not everywhere, but you do have a massive choice in destinations if you fancy boarding the Epic including the Mediterranean, the Bahamas and the Caribbeans. You can even cross the Atlantic on selected dates too!
We did the 7-Day Western Mediterranean from Barcelona (which is also available from Rome (Civitavecchia)). Our itinerary looked like this:
Embarking the Epic
As we had a transfer booked through NCL, once we placed our luggage on the coach, we could forget about our luggage as it would be taken to our Stateroom later.
We walked towards the Port terminal where there was already quite a long queue forming. Because my mum is disabled, we were ushered to the front so actually got to registration really fast. After having our tickets scanned, we went through airport-style security and were taken to a desk. At the desk we put a credit card on our account and had our photos taken for our cards, which doubled up as key cards and on-board credit cards. We signed a form to say we didn’t have flu or any contagious diseases and were then free to board the ship. I must say everything was super organised and made a great first impression.
Very excited, we made our way down a maze of gangways to yet more airport-style security. It’s also worth adding that any liquids we had were taken off us and disposed off. Then we were free to explore.
In total it took less than 30 minutes for us to embark onto the ship, but I know that would have be considerably longer if my mum wasn’t disabled and fast-tracked.
There’s lots of different types of Staterooms from studios for solo travellers to full-on penthouses with private butlers. As I was sharing with my parents, we opted for the Mini-Suite with Balcony. I thought fitting three of us in a stateroom would have been a tight fit, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. There was loads of storage room and I think it looked pretty stylish with its curved walls.
One thing that did take a bit of getting used to was the ensuite. As you can see in the picture above, there’s a curtain before the door. To the left of that is the bath with shower head, and to the right is the toilet. Each one was separate. There was also a sink and bathroom style storage outside of the curtain. Although it’s a pretty unique set up, it actually worked well with the space, so I wouldn’t think twice about booking a stateroom with this layout again.
We debated getting a balcony room for a long time. Balconies cost more money and we didn’t know if it would be worth it, given the amount of time we were going to the be spending in the stateroom. But it only takes looking at sunsets like the one above to convince you that, if you can afford one, you should get it. I loved watching the sunsets and arriving and leaving harbours from our own little space. On our day at sea we even saw dolphins playing in the wake on two separate occasions. These memories made our trip even more special.
Oh and a quick shoutout to Allen our stateroom steward for his amazing towel animal creations. I’m not going to lie, I kind of got excited every night to see what animal he had left us. My mum and I even went to a towel folding demonstration, and let me tell you, those stewards made it look easy.
Ports & Excursions
You’ve seen our itinerary so you know that we stopped at 5 different ports, not including Barcelona, and being the Dora the Explorer that I am, I wanted to make the most of my time ashore. No one tries to persuade you to do trips through NCL but I’d recommend at least doing one if you can. We did organised trips in Civitavecchia (to Rome and Vatican City) and Livorno (to Florence & Pisa) because the ports were quite far away from where we wanted to go, and honestly, we couldn’t have seen everything without being on a proper tour. Whilst quite expensive, they were extremely good value. In Vatican City we got fast-tracked into St. Peter’s Basilica, and in Florence we had a 3-course lunch in the most beautiful historic ballroom.
Oh, and if you happen to be late on an organised trip, they will hold the ship for you. I will say that it’s best to limit full-on organised sightseeing trips to 2/3 if they are one after another (Day 3 & 4, or 5 & 6 etc.) as they’re so tiring. After Florence & Pisa I was absolutely exhausted and headed to the spa for some relaxation.
We did our own thing in Naples, Cannes and Palma as the ship docked right in the centre of each city and it was easy to have a wander. Cannes was quite special in that we had to dock outside the port as the ship was so large (have I said it was big?), and then tender in. This was so well organised and completely hassle free, we just had to make sure we were back in time for the last tender!
Quick last point; we had to go through airport style security every time we re-boarded the ship which involved getting rid of any liquids again. The only exception was if you happened to buy wine, in which case you could pay a corkage fee and have it stored until you disembarked.
As I’ve said a few times my mum is disabled, and preferred to stay on the ship when we were docked because of her limited mobility. At first we were worried she would be bored, but turns out she was having the time of her life thanks to the activities onboard the Epic.
One of the main activities onboard is the Aqua Park. Featuring two pools, five hot tubs, a kid’s pool and three multi-story water slides (including the 200 ft Epic Plunge, the first bowl slide at sea), there was plenty of opportunities to keep cool in the Mediterranean heat.
Used to fighting for a sun lounger? Not here as there are absolutely loads. No matter what time we went up to the top deck, there was always spare loungers and although this was the busiest area of the ship, it never felt overcrowded too!
Not a water baby? There’s still plenty to do. For fitness lovers there’s the Pulse Fitness Centre, Jogging & Walking Track, Sports Complex and Rock Climbing wall. Inside there’s two separate bowling alleys, a video arcade and the Epic Casino to keep you fully entertained. As for relaxation, there’s the Mandara Spa and Thermal Spa Suite. Kids also have special centres full off TV’s and computers that transform into nightclubs at night!
I’m also going to include shopping as an activity, because, well, it is! If you like a bit of retail therapy there are plenty of opportunities onboard, with an Art Gallery which holds regular auctions, fine jewellery, costume jewellery, clothes, bags, beauty products, essentials. You name it, you can probably buy it. Oh, and did I mention it’s at Duty Free prices? Now you’re interested.
Just like the pool area, we never struggled to get involved in any activity despite the amount of passengers on the ship.
Then there was the organised activities. Every night, along with our towel animals, we’d get a copy of the ‘Freestyle Daily’, a kind of newspaper that tells you what’s going on during the day. You can also download the iConcierge App and find out what activities are going on.
To say that there was something for everyone was an understatement. There were at least 5 activities going on at any one time. For example, in the morning you could choose from Cardio Dance Fitness, Epic Bounce & Bungee Experience, How to run a floating hotel Q&A, Kallati Jewellery Seminar, or Culinary Cooking Demonstration. Then there would be more right the way through to midnight, before starting back up again at 8am the next day. What did we do? Well we made it to an Ice Carving Demonstration, Towel Folding Master Class, Jewellery Showcases and much much more. Some activities such as beer tasting, for example, carried a small extra charge, but most were included in the price of the cruise.
Everyone knows cruises are big on food, and NCL Epic doesn’t disappoint. On NCL cruises, dining is split into two groups; complimentary and speciality. As it sounds, complimentary is included in the price of the cruise, whilst speciality options cost a little extra.
Let’s talk about the complimentary options first. If you don’t want to pay anything on top of the cruise, you will eat happy. There’s the Garden Cafe and Great Outdoors which are amazing buffets, O’Sheehan’s which is an Irish Pub, Shanghai’s which is a Chinese and Noodle Bar and Taste and the Manhattan Room which are menu-style restaurants.
If that wasn’t enough, you can also have 24 hour room service, although there is a connivance charge to pay.
We made an effort to try and get round all of the complimentary restaurants (which we succeeded in), and the only one I was kind of disappointed with was Shanghai’s. I don’t know if it was a bad night, but the wait was ridiculous, and then when we finally got a table, we weren’t impressed with the food. I would definitely recommend the deserts from the Garden Cafe though. Diet starts Monday obv.
Want to get fancy? Speciality Dining is for you. With a choice of Cagney’s Steakhouse, La Cucina (an Italian), Le Bistro (French), Moderno Churrascaria (Brazilian Stakehouse), Teppanyaki or Wasabi (Sushi), it’s a foodies paradise.
The only sort-of speciality dining we had was at the Cirque Dreams Epicurean which is a three course set-menu meal and a theatrical circus show. The show and meal itself were amazing, but we had issue with the fact it was mis-sold to us. On the night there was poor management, and when we complained, we were told the manager had gone back to his office and that he would give us a call. He didn’t call. The marketing has since been altered, but that experience kind of tarnished a faultless trip.
Most people like to have a drink on holiday right? I’m not a big drinker, but even I like to have a cocktail or two, and on the NCL, you have plenty of options. For a drink by the pool you have Posh Beach Club and Waves Pool Bar (who do the most incredible Frozen Strawberry Daiquiris), or for a chilled drink you can head to O’Sheehans and watch the football. If you’re catching a show you have the Epic Theatre Bar, or if you want to be the show you can go to Bliss Ultra Lounge which has an exclusive club kinda of feel. Cascades Bar is great if you want to head to the Epic casino, whilst the Sake Bar can transport you all the way to Japan. My Dad loved Maltings Whiskey Bar which offer dozens of varieties, but, personally, I prefer a cocktail. Cocktail wise, the best options are Humidor Cigar Lounge or Shakers Martini Bar who happen to do a killer Appletini.
Now here’s the important bit, remember when I mentioned about Premium All-Inclusive? This is where it comes into play as otherwise you’d have to pay for each and every drink, or purchase an additional drinks package.
Like the Dining, there are a couple of bars that incur an extra cost. There’s the Atrium Cafe and Bar which serves as a coffee shop in the main hub of the ship, and then there’s the ice bar. Now I’ve always wanted to go to an Ice Bar, and when I have the chance to go to an Ice Bar at sea, well I’m gonna take it. Although it costs a small additional charge, the SVEDKA & Inniskillin Ice Bar was well worth it as it includes two cocktails and unlimited time in the bar. One of only 14 in the world and the only true ice bar at sea, that’s one thing off the bucket list!
I’ve already mentioned all of the activities, and the Cirque Dreams Epicurean, but there’s much more on offer onboard. Show wise, you have the option to see Burn the Floor, which is a Broadway Dancing extravaganza, or Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical. As a musical geek, I know a good standard when I see one, and the standard of the cast in both shows were good enough for the West End. They were honestly incredible!
Other options include: Escape the Big Top which is an escape-room style group activity and a lot of fun; Howl at the Moon, a duelling piano bar; Headliners Comedy Club, which hosts Howl at the Moon and some comedy shows; and The Cavern Club, which is a version of the iconic Liverpool bar. There was also a magician and lots of bands and musicians playing throughout the night. It was literally impossible to be bored. It’s almost like a challenge.
One of my favourite activities were the Deck Parties, and in particular the Glow Party on the Friday Night after Cannes. NCL is kind of famous for it’s amazing Deck parties, with themes such as ABBA and the 90’s, so of course I was in my element. The best one was the Glow Party, a new feature, replacing the White Hot party, and did what it said on the tin. Amazing music played on deck whilst sailing the Mediterranean in pitch black, accompanied by laser lights, with glow sticks being handed out to light our way. I’d have loved to have seen what it looked like from a Drone. The event is completely family-friendly and it was so nice to see little kids raving away with their parents, next to couples in their 20’s. Everyone danced with everyone and it was one of my favourite memories from the cruise.
Disembarking the Epic
When the time came to leave the ship, we were gutted. There’s a big mix in my family, from Dora the Explorer me, to my disabled mum, so it’s hard to find a family holiday that works for all of us but this ticked every single box.
After placing a colour coded tag on our luggage, it was collected the night before we disembarked. The colour of your tag represents the time slot you disembark the ship, which, given the amount of people on board, is a great idea.
Once off the ship, we then collected our luggage from an airport style carousel, and queued up to get our transfer. This is when things got a bit hectic, and where NCL let themselves down big time. I don’t know if it was just a bad day but there was no order to this queue and it was a case of push your way to the front to get on a coach. Despite there being staff there, they did little to organise people. There was even a man who was stood waiting for a transfer who needed to check in in 15 minutes for his flight. For a company that had everything else so organised, it was kind of shocking and really did make us feel that they no longer cared now that we were leaving.
NCL Epic Top Tips
- You choose the exact cabin you will stay in and I would advise to choose wisely. We were recommended to choose one in the middle of the ship so as to avoid the noise from all entertainment. As my mum’s disabled, we also opted for one near a bank of lifts.
- Speaking of booking, book things well in advance. If you want to do a trip or see a show, get that thing organised because things sell out fast. Really fast.
- Plug sockets are very limited on the ship so it’s best to bring a gang and don’t forget your US adaptors. And hangers, because there wasn’t that many in our stateroom.
- If you can, wait a little before embarking the ship. Large queues form before the embarkation time but then it quietens down after the initial rush. If you have no choice, be prepared to stand, potentially outside.
- You are legally obliged to go to a lifeboat drill. Make sure you go as failure to attend could result in a fine. Safety first people!
- Our ship was huge but we avoided getting lost through a handy tip from our cabin steward. The carpets were colour coded depending on what side of the ship you were on. It also helps if you get the stairs or lift on the same side as your cabin too as otherwise you have to walk round the entire ship. I did that once and once only; it was like being in a labyrinth.
- If your cases are transported directly from your transfer to your cabin like us, pack a small cabin case with things you might need until they arrive later that day, like a swimsuit etc. as there could be a delay in getting your case.
- Although it’s a big ship, don’t worry about over-crowding as it never felt too full, and you could always find a quiet corner just to breathe.
- The Epic is super family-friendly with lots of activities for kids. If you want to escape children running around, head to the adults-only pool and area where it’s a bit more chilled.
- I thought I was going to be bored on the day at sea, but it was actually the opposite thanks to all the activities. My advice would be to look at the Freestyle Daily every night so you don’t miss anything you want to do the next day!
- Join in with everything you can! People of all ages, shapes and sizes were giving it there all in everything from dance aerobics at breakfast to the glow party at night. Nobody cares what you look like, everyone is there to have a good time. I’ve honestly never been in a more positive, happy place, so make the most of it and enjoy what’s available.
- Whilst the organised trips are expensive, they’re sometimes worth the price. We did organised trips to Rome, Florence & Pisa and saw more things than we could possibly have seen on our own. Rome and Florence were both over 1 hour 30 minutes from the port so we got transport there and back. We even got added perks like an included 3-course lunch at a hidden historic ballroom in Florence and fast-tracked into St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Oh and the most important thing is that if you’re late, the ship will wait. If you do a trip on your own and you’re late, you’re on your own.
- Arrive early to entertainment such as shows, even if you have pre-booked, as it’s first-come-first-seated.
- Some ports require you to have a passport to re-embark the ship, others simply what to see your key card. Rather than take our passports we took photocopies and photographic ID, although only ever showed key cards.
- Worried about on-board costs whilst you’re cruising? You can keep a track of any additional costs by the TV in your stateroom so you don’t get an unexpected bill at the end of the cruise.
- Remember your cabin bag from embarkation? Well it will come in handy at disembarkation as your luggage is collected the night before! Use it to pack anything you need overnight or the next morning safely away.
- Disembarkation can be very hectic so book a flight for lunchtime at the earliest so as to give yourself plenty of time. If in doubt, think about booking your own transfer at this point.
After spending 7 amazing nights on the NCL Epic, it won’t come as a surprise that we took advantage of an onboard offer and placed a deposit for another cruise with NCL. Wonder where we’ll sail to next?!
Have you been on a cruise before? Would you go on the NCL Epic? Let me know in the comments below!
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