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Epic Photo Review – Specialty Dining - Menus - Freestyle Dailies - Deck Tours

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Last year I found myself in the position that I no longer had a travelling companion so resigned myself, for the most part, to cruising solo. This prompted me to develop my interest in photography and to undertake photo-reviews of my solo-cruises. My first effort was on Queen Mary 2 last November. Then in February I attempted a more in-depth review of Oasis of the Seas.

 

 

Some background… My first cruise was in the mid-sixties, sailing as a child with my parents. I thought it was a wonderful way to see many countries on one trip whilst being catered for throughout with excellent food and entertainment. I have cruised on and off since then, with interludes of long-haul travel to far-flung destinations in Africa, the Far East, Australasia, and the USA including Hawaii. Since 1995 my main focus has again returned to cruising.

 

 

This will be a very long review with many dozens, if not hundreds, of photos. Those not interested in the written part of the review may just want to see the photos; plus all the current main dining room and specialty restaurant menus; and the Freestyle Dailies for the 7-night cruise sailing out of Barcelona on June 8th 2014. As those who have done photo reviews will know only too well, it is very time consuming. Hence I am writing this review as I go and will endeavour to post it every day or so. Otherwise the enormity of the task can overwhelm and appear rather daunting. I will give my honest opinion of both the positives and negatives, and where I highlight any shortcomings, I do not do so for the sake of it; but because identifying weaknesses can lead to improvements, if enough people are similarly minded. I have no axe to grind; I am not biased in favour of one cruise line over another and do not tend to be loyal to only one.

 

 

I have sailed many times with P&O, Cunard, Princess, NCL, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean; and once with a few others, including Holland America and Oceania. I like different styles of cruising for different reasons. Most lines provide a good product and each has strengths and weaknesses. I tend to return more often to those lines that are consistently good in the areas that I find most important and I tend to drift away from those who stop delivering what I want; but it is good to revisit cruise lines to see if they have upped their game. Based on my experience on the Epic, I can say that NCL have certainly significantly improved since I last sailed with them on the Norwegian Jewel in 2006. For this reason, and due to the introduction of their Studio cabins, more of my future custom will most certainly be coming their way.

 

 

I can enjoy lazy relaxing cruises but equally I recently enjoyed all the daytime options and activities on offer on the Oasis of the Seas. I tried Oceania last September. I loved the spaciousness, serenity, luxury padded deckchairs and the connection to the sea. The food was also a highlight, with no extra charges for the four specialty restaurants; but the evening activities were rather lacklustre. So I think my future cruising will again be on larger ships with lots of entertainment options. Ideally, I prefer ships that also have somewhere to sit and just chill out in a shaded area in the open air, even if it involves having to pay a supplement to access such an area. I truly detest the current trend on many lines of incessantly bombarding passengers with music almost everywhere, and especially the overly loud bands playing by the pool that often permeates adjoining areas.

 

 

My first experience of NCL was on the Norway in 1997 on a transatlantic crossing from Miami to Marseille and was one of my most memorable cruises ever. The erstwhile grand ocean liner was really looking her age in places. The open decks, pools, cabins and even the theatre were dated and barely adequate for modern expectations. However some of the lounges had been very well preserved and to this day I still regard the Club Internacionale, the original SS France first class lounge, with its double-height ceiling, as the most elegant and classy lounge of any ship. A large group of French passengers was aboard and it was in that lounge that their own band played accordion music for dancing most evenings pre-dinner, and the atmosphere was terrific. One of the well-known Big Bands also performed throughout the crossing in the North Cape Lounge and the entertainment was managed by one of my favourite cruise directors, Dottie.

 

 

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that the ship is not for me necessarily the most vital component that makes for a good cruise. However, one that can provide a suitable backdrop for the delivery of a high quality on-board experience can succeed in spite of any limitations or shortcomings.

 

 

Another modern amenity largely missing from the Norway was balconies. For many nowadays, a private balcony is a highly desirable luxury for which they are prepared to pay quite a significant supplement. For this reason, cruise lines have striven to find ways of providing more and more at affordable prices. The current thinking seems to be to build a superstructure that is as high and as long and as rectangular as possible; and then to install the maximum possible number of balconies onto this framework. Thus the forecastle, the deck immediately to the aft of the bow, now tends to be very short; and traditional tiered sterns are almost unheard of. Hence many of these modern behemoths now being constructed are often likened more to high-rise multi-storey buildings than to conventional ships.

 

 

The Epic is a perfect example of a ship designed uncompromisingly for the purpose of maximising revenue potential. For example, the Casino is positioned at the heart of the ship occupying, as it does, a large central portion of Deck 6 and it is difficult to avoid passing through it because of its location. I assume that research has shown that such positioning tempts more passengers to spend in there. Deck 7 is the only other interior deck that also runs the length of the ship and is devoted to public rooms. So at some point on most days, I was forced to pass through an area that I neither wanted to go near nor to endure its accompanying cigarette smoke. I have no objection to the provision of a smoking area within a casino as long as there is also provision for non-smokers and, more importantly, for those who find themselves unavoidably transiting the area.

 

 

Another example of revenue maximisation is the larger differentiation of balcony categories; extra being charged for the mid-ship ones; for the larger ones; for the aft-facing ones; the optimal bed placement ones; and for the Spa ones; and then there are the so-called mini-suites that offer very little more space for a significant extra charge.

 

 

Further revenue optimisation occurs from the design of the Haven complex: the “ship-within-a-ship”, with its own private courtyard, swimming pool and restaurant. Whilst attempting to pack in as many suites as possible the designers of the Epic made a serious design faux pas. In effect, the natural raked lines of the superstructure, rising from the forecastle to the Garden Café on Deck 15, then become interrupted. The placement on top there of this overly angular two-storey box-like structure, sitting as it does at an obtusely perpendicular angle to the deck below, draws the eye away from the natural flow of the ships lines and directly to this unsightly protuberance.

 

 

Hence when the Epic was first launched, its profile was controversial and she was regarded by many as one of the most ugly ships of the modern cruising era. An attempt has since been made to disguise just how much of an eyesore this “top hat” is, by painting part of it so that the eye is tempted to follow the ship’s natural angled-upward line, but it doesn’t really work very well. Still, I suppose it can be argued that this visual aspect of the ship does not impact passengers greatly as it can only be seen when ashore…

 

 

Anyway enough of these musings… on to the actual cruise review without further preamble. I flew on the 6.40am flight from London Gatwick to Barcelona airport on the morning of departure. I had pre-booked private transfers and the driver was awaiting my arrival and holding up a card with my name. The car was parked seconds away and a sprightly 30-minute drive whisked me to the pier where Liberty of the Seas was berthed directly in front of the Epic. I arrived at check-in at 10:45am. No one was in front of me in the Gold and Platinum Latitudes Check-In area. I was allocated Boarding Group 3 and was then asked to take a seat until my group number was called. Boarding began at about 11.40 and each group was called in quick succession with little delay. The route aboard was via deck 7 mid-ships from where one had to then walk the length of the open promenade to one of the entrances; either forward, beside the Bliss Ultra Lounge; or aft beside Moderno restaurant.

 

 

I made my way directly to Reception on Deck 5 to purchase the POSH Pass. I feared that as I had been in Boarding Group 3, the 20 passes available may already have been sold out; but there was no one waiting at Guest Relations and the pass was quickly provided. My Key Card had to be updated to allow access to the POSH area. I then crossed the Atrium, to the left of the huge video wall, where the Beverage Package desk had been set up. I had pre-purchased both the Ultimate Dining Package and the Ultimate Beverage Package a couple of weeks prior to sailing and my Key Card already had a UDP sticker attached when issued at check-in. My name was then identified on a paper list and a UBP sticker was also attached.

 

 

Purchasing these packages in the UK in advance of the cruise avoids the VAT payable if bought on board. The reason that VAT is levied on this sailing is because it does not leave the EEC in the course of the cruise; hence Spain is designated as the relevant country for taxation purposes, being home to the main boarding port. Even having read a little about the subject prior to leaving, I cannot be definitive about which on-board purchases are subjected to which rate of VAT. All I can tell you is what my understanding is and what I experienced... If anyone knows from personal experience that my understanding is not what occurs in practice, please do chime in, as I want this information to be helpful to those planning a European cruise.

 

 

Firstly, I believe there are two rates applicable. Drinks for onboard consumption are charged at 10% VAT, so I assume this rate would also be applicable to the UBP if purchased aboard. On the other hand, I understand the Specialty Restaurants are chargeable at 21% VAT, and I assume the UDP bought on board would attract the same rate. I can say as a fact that I was charged 21% VAT on two bottles of gin to take home and that this rate appears to also apply to all onboard shopping. I had read that the Spa services were also subject to VAT, but my Day Pass was actually charged at only $45, so no VAT there; but I do not know if actual Spa Treatments are similarly treated. Likewise the POSH pass was $59 with no added VAT.

 

 

Next I went to Le Bistro to check out the Chef's Table arrangements. It was to be held on Tuesday evening (Naples) at a cost of $99, which includes wine pairings for each course. I cannot advise whether that is subject to VAT but in any case I declined at the time, as there was no price concession for those on either the UDP or the UBP. Consequently I felt I could not justify the cost, as I would be losing out on a Specialty Restaurant dinner and the perfectly acceptable wine included in my drinks package.

 

 

Time now to catch some lunch at the buffet before it became too crowded, as each new boarding-group headed up there. The Garden Café, as it is known, is a very large facility. La Cucina is accessed only from the forward section here. These two dining venues provide probably the best sea views aboard, something sadly lacking elsewhere. On busy lunchtimes it is worth taking your food down the stairway to use the Italian restaurant’s tables as a peaceful escape form the throng and hubbub of the main sitting area above.

 

 

Off then to the Mandara Spa to enquire about booking a Day Pass for the following day, which was to be our only full sea day and therefore likely to be crowded on deck. I understand that day passes are only available if the weekly passes have not sold out. There was no problem booking, so I paid the $45 there and then to secure my space.

 

 

The cabins were ready for occupation earlier than I expected and I was in my Studio before 1pm. I feel I really cannot say enough about how delighted I was with the design of these. They are amazing. The stated size is only 9 sq metres; about 12ft by 7ft, I would guess. That sounds very small and I had feared feeling cooped-up. I once stayed in a Yotel at an airport and the standard sized pods were unbearably small. No such problem with these Studios. Very well designed to accommodate everything that most single travellers would need.

 

 

The shower cubicle door was slightly narrow but plenty of space inside with a wide showerhead providing adequate pressure. I did notice the water temperature was rather unstable, running hotter then colder every 10 seconds or so. The best solution was to find a setting on the temperature lever that meant that at each end of the fluctuation scale it was still tolerable – neither too hot nor too cold. Thereafter I just used the on/off lever to adjust the flow rate. Adjacent to the shower was the small sink and above it was a large mirror illuminated by a downlighter. Opposite the shower is a smallish toilet cubicle with, if you pardon the pun, a “motion” sensor, which automatically turns the light on and off. There is no mini-bar provided but an ice bucket is topped up twice a day. The standard size double bed was exceedingly comfortable. All that was lacking was a sitting area, but when lying down on the bed there is a great view of the large wall mounted flat-screen television.

 

 

There is one two-storey Studio Lounge located near the forward elevators, and access is Key Card controlled. It serves all the Studios that run the full length of the centre of the ship, on both Decks 11 and 12. An internal staircase takes you down from an open plan balcony on Deck 12 to the main lounge below. It is obviously more convenient to have a Studio in the forward part of the ship, to avoid long walks to and from the Lounge, but do avoid at all costs the two isolated studios (shown in the photos) located immediately adjacent to the Studio Lounge entrance on Deck 12. The door from the corridor always slammed loudly and must have been a noise nuisance.

 

 

Every evening at around 6pm there are get-togethers in the Studio Lounge and these are open to all solo travellers, irrespective of the accommodation occupied. Group activities onboard and ashore are arranged for those who wish to participate. For me, the main attraction of the Studio Lounge was the bean-to-cup coffee machine; but I have had better coffee from the same type of machine on other ships, so I guess the beans they use are not the best. Still it’s a valuable freebie if you love proper coffee. The bar is also open for drinks for around an hour in the early evening. I was offered a double measure as part of my package and it was a good time saver, rather than having to return for a second one. If I wanted a pre-dinner drink in the Studio, it was easier to get if from the Lounge than go to one of the proper bars.

 

 

Incidentally, I have to say that I loved this accommodation so much I would fight tooth and nail to reject any offered “upgrade” to a standard inside twin cabin. I actually believe the Studio is better designed for one person and would have more usable space and feel more comfortable. The adjustable lighting is also an amazing extra feature and not just a gimmick. It provides a glow of light at floor level too and creates the perfect ambience adjustable for the time of day and ones mood.

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Studio Interior from all angles

 

EpicStudioBlue-3_zps2a3f0342.jpg

 

EpicStudioMagenta-5_zpsc36302a2.jpg

 

EpicStudioPink-2_zpse2071c22.jpg

 

EpicStudioOrange-4_zps6a720a12.jpg

 

 

Shower Cubicle (wide-angle lens enlarges its appearance)

 

EpicStudioRed-1_zpsd76efaf7.jpg

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Dinky Little Towel Animal Above Bed

 

EpicTowelAnimal_zpsb3a78c5b.jpg

 

 

Studio Lounge Entrance (and the STUDIOS TO AVOID)

 

EpicStudioLounge-1_zps3ef9646b.jpg

 

 

Landing Upstairs

 

EpicStudioLounge-2_zps785191b4.jpg

 

 

Stairway down

 

EpicStudioLounge-3_zps21b423ce.jpg

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Coffee Machine and Bar

 

EpicStudioLounge-4_zps79b6f408.jpg

 

 

Breakfast Time

 

EpicStudioLounge-5_zps9ef526b8.jpg

 

Seating, Meeting and Notice Boards...

 

EpicStudioLounge6-1_zps16c0b8c6.jpg

 

 

... and from the reverse angle

 

EpicStudioLounge7-2_zps03d99f8e.jpg

 

 

Next to come, the rest of Day 1 - POSH Club and Sailaway, Cirque Dreams Dinner Show and Shanghai’s Chinese Restaurant…

 

 

Writing these long reviews can be a soul-destroying experience if there is no feedback. So if at any point you decide to follow this review, I would really appreciate if you hit the reply button and type the word “Following”. This way I get an idea of how much interest there is.

 

Many thanks

megacruiser

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Looks like this is going to be a good one. As a fellow solo traveler I really enjoyed my stays in the Studio rooms.

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Just one quick point. VAT on speciality restaurants is charged at 10% the same as drinks.

 

 

Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk

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I'm on in a studio June 29th so I'm going to love reading your review.

 

 

Sent using the Cruise Critic forums app

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Thanks, Mega! Looking forward to the rest of the review. It has been awhile since we have sailed NCL and I miss it. Our first cruise was on the Norway in 1998. It will forever be our favorite ship.

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Following. Looking forward to seeing all your photos of the Epic. We sail on her in October. This will be our first cruise with NCL.

 

 

Sent from my iPhone using Forums

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Following! We're going on the exact same cruise July 20. I loved the first part and can't wait to read the rest!

 

 

Verstuurd vanaf mijn GT-I9195 met Tapatalk

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Thank you so much for starting this review....looking forward to the rest. I'm staying in the Studios on the Epic in August so these are GREAT pictures!!

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Loving this review, cant wait to read more i was on the same sailing staying on deck 12 in the studio beside the other door across the halway

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Following: I am in a studio on November 30. Great pix so far.

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Just one quick point. VAT on speciality restaurants is charged at 10% the same as drinks.

 

I know I read on these forums that the higher rate of VAT applied to Specialty Restaurants but I did think it seemed an anomaly. Thanks for clarifying that the actual rate is 10%.

 

Much appeciated

megacruiser

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Enjoying your review already, and I'm not even traveling in a studio! Sailing on the Epic in just over a week! So consider me "following!"

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Yes. This is exactly what I've been waiting for, a well written Epic review with lots of photos. Getting my 'Epic fix' before our cruise in August :D

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