Christmas 2016 was the first year our little family decided to spend the holiday on a cruise ship. Did we like it? Well, the day we stepped off the boat, we booked yet another Christmas cruise for the following year so I guess you can say we had an awesome time. For our 2017 Christmas cruise, we selected Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Epic” ship, which was touring the Caribbean. This ship, one of the Norwegian Breakaway Class, holds true to its name and is truly an enormous floating resort!
Why cruise at Christmas, you may ask? During our Christmas vacations, we get to enjoy one of the most amazing (non-traditional) Christmas’ possible. For many, Christmas becomes a super hectic time, with shopping and cooking and prepping the house. All of that just somehow seems to kill the Christmas spirit! Coupled with Florida’s untypically warm Christmas weather and an overflowing city of visiting tourists and snowbirds, once everything for Christmas is prepped, who’s got the energy to enjoy the time with friends and family?
We learned two years ago that we can totally change all that on a cruise. Once you complete check-in and get to step on-board, your vacation begins! No cooking, cleaning or planning necessary. You may want to do some shopping though…
Whatever port you’re leaving from and wherever your destination, you are certain to have a great time on the Norwegian Epic. Here’s a rundown of why you may want to head out on the Epic soon:
10 Reasons to Book a Cruise on NCL Epic
1. The Food
Everyone knows that food is a major part of any cruise and NCL never disappoints in this department. Whether you just visit the “Garden Cafe” (NCL’s buffet) or treat yourself to a sit-down meal at one of the many main dining rooms or specialty dining options, not a moment goes by where you can’t fill that hankering for something to eat.
We’re not a huge fan of buffets so we typically have breakfast in one of the main dining rooms with table service to get the day started at a leisurely pace. This usually means you have to make it to the table by 9 am (I believe Taste opens at 7 am for breakfast).One of the best things about dining on an NCL ship is the wide variety of options. From healthy choices like Bircher Muesli (yum) to Eggs Benedict and everything in between. We are really big breakfast fans and love to indulge a bit before heading out to enjoy the rest of the day. If you are looking for a quicker turnaround, for example during port days, the Garden Cafe has many of the same (or more) options than those found at sit-down service, including an omelet station, cereals and yogurts, tons of fresh baked pastries, and all the breakfast staples.
Sometimes we will eat lunch while we’re at the port at a restaurant we come across with a great view. But usually, we wind up our activities and head back to the boat for food after our excursion. The Garden Cafe is the quickest option and has a good variety. The buffet features a wide assortment of various types of foods and almost always includes a fresh pasta station (Mackenzie’s absolute favorite where she orders Penne Bolognese daily), burgers, hot dogs, salads, soups and more. Be careful, it’s easy to overeat and ruin your specialty dining reservations. The Garden Cafe and the “Great Outdoors,” NCL’s outdoor dining area on the Epic, are right next to the two pool-deck bars, which makes it super convenient for a lunchtime cocktail.
Dinner is always a special affair on NCL and in all our cruises we have never been served a meal we weren’t happy with. However, it appears the company is constantly tweaking its processes and recipes based on their post-cruise surveys and guest feedback, and somehow the food seems to get just a little better with every cruise we take.
NCL is big on specialty dining options, ranging from Italian (La Cuccina) to French (Le Bistro) to Brazilian Steakhouse (Moderno) and quite a few more. If you like to dine before 6 pm, don’t forget to get your dining reservations in early. I usually book them when they open up 90-days before we sail and book specialty dining on nights when we don’t have a show at 7 pm so we can fully enjoy our meal.
Our absolute favorite restaurants are (in no particular order)
- Cagney’s Steakhouse – always perfectly prepared steaks, lamb chops and the best dessert on the ship, Raspberry Creme Brulee.
- Le Bistro – ah-mazing French brasserie food and the most upscale of the restaurants. Dress code is checked at the door and we often select this restaurant for Christmas Eve or when celebrating something special onboard like a birthday or anniversary. The steamed mussels appetizer is a favorite and last time they had a trio of seafood appetizer which was really good. The Sole was also served at dinner which was totally on point and so delicious. Mackenzie loves the Coq au Vin and Fondue for Two as dessert.
- La Cucina – we have skipped this one for a long time thinking it would be just the regular Italian fare, but it quickly became one of our favorites. The food and service was excellent, from the fresh bread, Beef Carpaccio and Fried Calamari to the Osso Bucco, We’ll be making reservations for this one on our next two cruises.
- Teppanyaki – While we think the chefs on the ship are great (by the way, they double as omelet chefs in the Garden Cafe in the morning), this experience can be very loud and if you want to have a conversation at dinner, it’s pretty much impossible unless the person is right next to you. The food is very good but I can rarely finish it all.
Don’t let the offerings of specialty restaurants fool you, though, there are plenty of delicious options without the upcharage. The main dining rooms offer nightly changing menus with some amazing meals and you never need a reservation.
Taste, one of the main dining rooms is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This is our breakfast location fo choice for most of the cruise. The only time I have ever really seen a line here is when it opens at 5:30 and on the first night of the cruise. I find it absolutely impressive how NCL can manage to knock out 800 servings in the main dining room in the first hour of operation and still keep the quality of the food and service so high. We love the Salmon Tartare appetizer, and they always serve Mackenzie’s favorite Pasta with Bolognese here too.
Manhatten Room is the other main dining room which is only open for dinner from 6 – 10 pm. It has a similar menu to Taste but has more of a Manhatten supper club feeling. They often have live music and sometimes other performers from the shows performing here, which can make it a bit loud if you prefer conversation.
There are also other dining options like the Garden Cafe buffet, the Noodle Bar serving freshly made Asian noodle bowls, Shanghai’s Chinese Restaurant, and O’Sheehans Bar and Grill with pub food offerings around the clock.
Check the Freestyle Daily for up to date information about opening times and further information.
2. Fun for Everyone
Our little family consists of three generations – Stefan’s parents are in their mid/late 60’s, we are in our (very) late 30’s and Mackenzie is 9 – that is a lot of different tastes and preferences to consolidate. One of the reasons we love going on cruises is that there is a lot of something for everyone on board. On the Norwegian Epic, the whole family enjoyed the shows and entertainment. And at late night, the grown-up generations enjoyed themselves in the Casino, bars or one of the nightly parties while Mackenzie rocked out at Splash Academy, the kid’s club onboard with a daily animated program. During the day, Mackenzie would hit the slides while we all enjoyed the loungers by the pool and our drink package.
Vacationing on a ship like this also makes it easy for a group to split up for certain events that meet their own tastes and then meet up for other things throughout the day. This way, everyone can enjoy themselves at their own pace while still spending tons of quality family time together.
3. Great Entertainment
Following along the lines of the previous reason: Fun Entertainment. Whatever you are in the mood for, you are sure to find it aboard. There are so many chances to enjoy great entertainment, we had a tough time fitting everything into a one-week cruise. In fact, most of the comedy performers we skipped entirely due to limited availability which is a shame because they are usually very funny.
During our cruise, there were two Broadway-style shows available: Priscilla and Burn the Floor. We did not get a chance to catch Priscilla due to the multitude of other things going on, but we did get to enjoy Burn the Floor. WOW! This show is full of incredibly talented dancers with a heavy focus on Latin dances, and some fantastic singers and musicians too.
The Cirque Dreams Epicurean experience was also really fantastic. This Cirque de Solei circus-style performance ranges from jugglers to skaters to trapeze artists and tightrope walkers. There are even some clowns and a pole dancer. The entire meal was absolutely fantastic along with it. If you’re on the fence about going, it’s definitely worth it.
Since it was Christmas, they did a variety show which featured some Christmas classics which was also really enjoyable. It was a combination of all the shows they had on the ship, from Burn the Floor to The Beatles to Priscilla, and a great 45-minute show. There is also a Beatles bar and club which features live shows but most of the performances were at 10:30 pm and that wasn’t ideal for us.
Another really fun experience which we also took our 9-year old to was Escape the Big Top. If you’ve ever been to an Escape Room, this is a similar experience on board the ship. It’s not quite the same as you may be used to but was a whole lot of fun and absolutely worth the experience if you like playing nicely with strangers.
4. The Freedom
One of NCL’s greatest attributes is its Freestyle cruise concept. There are no set times for dinner and you can enjoy dinner whenever you like, based on your own schedule. In theory, that’s true, but since there are so many entertainment and upgraded dining options which do “sell out,” if you don’t reserve well in advance, it’s not 100% reality. None-the-less, if you exclude the shows and upgraded dining, you are truly free to do whatever you want, when you want.
When we go on our family cruises with multiple generations on board, we tend to be a bit more low key and have found that having a reservation at a specialty restaurant our first and last nights on board makes life easy and carefree. The very first night, main dining rooms run at peak capacity as everyone seems to hit the restaurants at the same times. Wait times are generally no longer than 30 minutes, but if you’re hungry, that wait seems like an eternity. Which is all the more reason to go grab a drink at a nearby bar while you wait!
We’re not really big gamblers because we’d rather spend our hard-earned money on a sure thing. But it can be fun and the odds on the cruise ship are not bad so we usually hit the casino at least one or two nights on our week-long cruise to try out the roulette table or blackjack. I am notoriously unlucky when I play and the fun is over quickly (so I usually just don’t play). But Stefan and his dad have been known to have really nice streaks on the roulette wheel when I’m playing the good luck charm, and that’s pretty fun too.
Even if you don’t gamble, the casino is always a fun place to people watch too. I love checking players at the various blackjack and poker tables, along with craps. There are always a few characters and sometimes big winners (and losers.)
6. Ports & Shore Excursions
All along the way, there are lots of things to do when you head ashore, whether you’re on a private NCL island or some foreign country. NCL has a bunch of excursions to choose from, and they ensure that you will not miss the cruise ship. Or you can research and book your own excursions and transportation to check out the surrounding areas. There will be more info about ports in the Caribbean on NOH in future posts.
When we are looking to just relax, we will walk around the port a bit to get a feel for the area. If we like it, we may venture further or do a little shopping. Or we head back to the ship and take advantage of the emptiness while everyone else is at the port. You can also get great deals in the spa on port days.
7. The Drinks
We’re not super big drinkers, but we are definitely not teetotallers either, so NCL Ultimate Beverage Package comes in very handy on these trips. Basically, everything by the glass excluding bottled water and specialty coffee, fresh pressed juice and energy drinks is included in this package, from soda to juice at breakfast to wine, beer, and cocktails. They even have their own wine brand on board.
This makes it easy to stay nice and lubricated throughout the day and you never have to worry if that after-dinner drink fits your entertainment budget or not. If you book at the right time, you will be able to take two of five upgrade options which include the beverage package and three-nights of specialty dining (the choices we always go with) along with a Wi-Fi option, shore excursion credits and so on.
There are a variety of bars and lounges on board where you can quench your thirst as well. This bar at The Atrium had a delicious concoction called Mr. Wonderful which was refreshing, fizzy and intoxicating. We ended up there a few times
We also really like the Maltings Whiskey bar on deck 7. Not for the whiskey drinks but for the nice service and because it was the closest bar to our cabins. There was a large sofa tucked in the corner with chairs that our family liked to retreat to for a drink before or after dinner – almost like our own private living room to meet up or have a night cap. It also happens to be near the humidor which provided a steady stream of people to watch coming and going.
8. The Staff & Crew
There are people from many different nationalities on board the ship, and many of the crew and staff are from The Phillippines, India, China, Indonesia South Africa and a myriad of other places. I have been working with Filipinos for the last 15 years, so I find their nature very comfortable and natural.
We had very good experiences onboard the Epic and have only had a few small negative encounters with NCL over the last few years. We have found the staff and crew to be very friendly and gracious, and we had the privilege of meeting several officers on this ship who took an enormous amount of time and concern with our questions and interests.
The way I see it, the attitude you put out is the attitude that will be reflected back. So if you’re in a stinky mood and you growl and snarl at people all the time, it will come back to you. We are on a cruise vacation so we’re usually extremely friendly and happy, laughing with everyone and enjoying ourselves, so we have had fabulous experiences.
We can also always tell the ones who have kids and family back home because they will do extra special things in the dining room like serving a dinner of nothing or building animals from napkins. It always makes Mackenzie feel extra special and have a fantastic time.
9. The Ship
Built in 2010 and renovated in 2015, this ship has lots of amenities and activities for you and the family. With a maximum capacity of 5,100 passengers (but double occupancy of 4,200), the Epic has massive shared spaces and dining rooms that can accommodate hundreds of people at a time. But you rarely feel like the boat is overloaded.
It’s a unique ship in this Breakaway-class because it is built by a French ship constructor instead of German-based Meyer Werft which has made many of the other 5 NCL ships we have been on. The main dining options are in the lower decks and more isolated from the rest of the action, which is actually a nice way of drawing the flow down into those other floors. It really spreads everyone out in the evenings.
Another interesting feature is the color-coded port and starboard sides of the ship. The carpets, stairwells and even elevator arrows are either blue or orange-red, to let you know which side of the boat you are on and if you’re where you need to be.
Onboard, you will find all sorts of amenities, covering the gamut of interests. Here are a few highlights:
- Aqua Park – Complete with the only 200-foot bowl slide at sea, The Epic Plunge, and two other faster-moving slides, these slides are sure to keep the kids (and some adults) occupied for hours
- Bowling allies – Because one just isn’t enough, this ship has a triple-lane bowling alley in O’Sheehan’s as well as one in the adult lounge, Bliss
- Video Arcade – One of Mackenzie’s favorite stops, complete with tickets to collect for random stuff and souveniers. There is also a second smaller arcade section in O’Sheehan’s for the more grown-up gamers who prefer the close proximity of a bar.
- Shopping – There are lots of Duty-Free options on board including clothing, accessories like handbags and watches, perfumes and, of course, alcohol and cigarettes
- Gym – After all that food and drinking you may want to hit the gym. There is a large fitness center on the Epic with a large range of machines and free weights.
- Spa – No boat would be complete without the Mandara Spa, offering a full range of facial and body treatments to pamper yourself. A limited number of spa passes can also be purchased for those who would like to enjoy the sauna and relax. This boat also has a salon and a separate barber shop for the gentlemen.
10. Fun Parties
What would a tropical vacation be without some tropical parties? NCL has several signature parties that you will find on most of the company’s longer cruises like the Glow Party, where they turn Spice H20 into a rave, or the 80’s or 90’s nights, with music and dancing from your favorite decades. Yes, people do dress up and I’m not only talking about the entertainment staff who are dancing around! So bring your best outfits for the events!
Many of these parties start pumping at 10:30 pm or later, but they are kid friendly and Mackenzie is a big fan of the glow party when she hasn’t worn herself out during the day. If you like to dance, this is the place to be.
There you have it. Our top 10 reasons to book a cruise on the Norwegian Epic soon! Have you been on the Epic before? How was your experience?