Cruising over Christmas – have you ever tried it? It’s a really fun way for our little family to get together and celebrate without a lot of hassle. The pampering we received on-board, the high-quality meals and the great service far outweigh the hustle and bustle of Naples at Christmas. We love our hometown, but things tend to get a little crazy around Christmas with everyone including their mother, their dog walker and their dog walker’s cousin visiting our slice of paradise over the Holidays. Don’t get me wrong, our community relies on the influx and tourist dollars, and we appreciate the many visits. But why be around in peak season when you don’t have to be, shopping for groceries and in the thick of things at Costco?
We’ve decided to share the details of our cruise with you in a two-part series. Putting it all down in words, it was a long and fantastic vacation – in cased you haven’t guessed from my post 10 Reasons why you should book a cruise on the Norwegian Epic – and we can’t wait for our next Norwegian cruise. We hope you enjoy and please let us know if you have any questions about cruising on the Epic or with Norwegian in the comments below.
Day 1 – Embarkation Day
On December 23rd, 2017, it was finally time to head out to our long awaited cruise. This time we were booked on the Norwegian Epic leaving from Port Canaveral, which is close-ish to Orlando. We had never left from this cruise port before, and with close to 4 hours drive (give or take 30+ minutes for snacks and potty breaks), it is significantly further away from Naples than Miami or Tampa. But we liked the timing of the cruise and the fact that it was a ship we’d never been on.
We hit the road promptly at 8 am and took the backroads up to Port Canaveral. The drive through increasingly rolling hills, orchards, and farms in the mid-section of Florida is not very eventful. When you get closer to the port, though, some of the views as you cross the various bridges leading to the port are simply breathtaking and will have you ready to pull over the car for pictures.
Luggage drop-off and parking were an absolutely amazing experience at this port. First you grab a parking ticket. Then, you follow a marked lane to the drop-off area where porters stand ready to unload your luggage from the car. Another short 100 yards or so and we were parked. In fact, the parking space was so close to the drop-off area, we could still see our luggage at the curb as we walked to the terminal.
Unfortunately, the euphoria of a quick drop-off was replaced by a MASSIVE and somewhat unorganized line snaking around the entire drop-off area. Surprisingly, it moved pretty quickly and within 20 minutes we were inside the terminal building, going through security, filling out our health questionnaire and getting checked in.
Once on-board it seems everyone heads in one of three directions: the buffet, the main outdoor bar or O’Sheehans, the onboard Irish bar. This makes for a crowded situation when 5,000 people that normally spread out over the entire ship congregate on the same spots at once.
Here is a little tip: not only those more popular places are open for food and drinks on Day 1. We avoided the rush by heading to the Maltings bar, a whiskey & cigar bar on level 7, for a round of drinks first to avoid the rush.
Happy to have officially started our vacation, time passed quickly and before we knew it, it was time to head for the mandatory muster drill. This drill happens on every cruise ship and requires passengers to head to their designated station (found on the bottom of every passenger’s key card) for a mandatory briefing of what to do in case of an emergency. The longest part of this process is finding your muster station and the right person to check in with. If you can’t find it, just ask one of the many crew members before the drill.
We usually show up promptly (especially since all the bars are closed) but many people seem to stroll in at the last possible minute. It’s maddening and seems to take an eternity until everyone has arrived and the drill actually starts. The actual educational part of the drill lasts only a few minutes and then everyone is back to having fun and figuring out where to go next.
With the muster drill behind us and our dinner reservation at Cagney’s Steakhouse fast approaching, it was time to check out our cabins. Luckily our luggage had already arrived and we were able to watch the ship pull out of the harbor from our own balcony while unpacking our bags.
After freshening up and dressing up for the night, we met with Stefan’s parents at Maltings for a pre-dinner drink and then made our way to Cagney’s, just a few steps away from the bar.
We love to make reservations at one of the specialty restaurants on the first night of the cruise. It seems everyone is a bit disoriented on the first day and we have experienced a few times where we had to wait 15-30 minutes for a seat in the main dining room. It’s not a big deal, especially since there is usually a bar not too far away to pass the waiting time, but we are hungry when dinner time rolls around on the first day on the ship. And no one likes to get hangry.
Cagney’s is NCL’s on-ship steakhouse, serving everything meat with a healthy side serving of seafood. This place never disappoints. Our waiter recommended we try out the Mondavi Chardonnay rather than our staple Meridian Chardonnay for a better flavor to pair with the meats. We really enjoyed it with our lamb — It’s nice to find a nice white wine for us non-red-wine-drinkers.
While Cagney’s is known for their steaks, our personal favorite is definitely the Lamb Chops. They were succulent, perfectly pink in the center and nicely flavored. Mackenzie decided on the Berkshire Pork Chop, which was roughly the size of Texas, and absolutely tender and delicious. While there was no way she could ever finish the entire dish, she tried her hardest, and we thought she was going to ask for a box of truffle mashed potatoes to take to the room with her.
For dessert, the most delicious item on Cagney’s menu is the Raspberry Creme Brulee. The raspberry flavor in the creme brulee is sweet and tart at the same time, all while not being totally overpowering. And after a big meaty dinner, it’s the perfect light dish to finish things off.
Day 2 – Great Stirrup Cay
Breakfast is probably my favorite meal while on land; but traveling on a cruise ship, breakfast is taken to a whole other level. We love going to the main dining room for breakfast whenever possible, avoiding the buffet. The menu always has a few new additions and specials, but you can never go wrong with my favorites which are always outstanding, eggs benedict or the salmon bagel, with a fruit salad.
We took our time, enjoying breakfast as a family and each other’s company. We have all had a very busy year in 2017 and rather than seeking adventure at every turn, everyone was excited to simply relax and enjoy the moment.
Since it was a bit chilly out, we were in no rush getting to Great Stirrup Cay and slowly made our way to the tenders and beach after breakfast.
Living in Florida, nobody in our little group had any urge to hit the ocean. Plenty of people did, but my guess is they are not as spoiled as we are with bathtub-warm-water where they live. For us, if the water isn’t at least 80F there is little chance you’ll find us splashing about. Yes, life in South Florida makes you weak. It makes me shudder to think back to the days living in Germany where 70F water temps made us squeal with glee.
Instead of snorkeling or swimming, we made our way over to the new Barcadi bar, serving strong cocktails and other ice cold drinks. This was a new addition since we have last been to the island last. Situated overlooking the beach, it makes for a great people watching location or a spot for a drink to get rid of the saltwater taste after exploring the snorkel trail.
It has been 2 years since we have been to Great Stirrup Cay (our weekend cruise on the Norwegian Sky in May had to leave the island out due to bad weather) and a LOT has changed on the island. We hear that NCL is still not finished, either, so we look forward to the new developments.
They have lengthened the boardwalk and rearranged a lot of the lounge chair areas so that you have a lot more areas to choose from. There are now 5 bars on the island including the new Bacardi bar, a complimentary buffet (Jumbey Beach Grill which was just revamped), a new taco bar (Abaco Taco) and will soon be a new a la carte restaurant (Landshare Bar & Grill). An entertainment area, new landscaping, an air-conditioned “planning” area and much more are also new or being created. The snorkeling route is also being updated and will include waterproof route maps to help navigate. And if you’re a Haven guest or have the spa package, you have to check out the Lagoon, offering all sorts of pampering luxuries. If you’ve been to this island a few years ago, make sure to check it out now. It’s changed a lot and you may barely recognize it.
After getting our share of sun we headed back to the tender port and the ship. We headed directly to the Garden Cafe to grab some lunch. Mackenzie renewed her cruise ship streak of eating “Penne Bolognese” from the fresh pasta station. I have to say, they make some mean pasta at the station and she eats it once or twice daily while on board.
With many people still on shore, Mackenzie couldn’t let a good opportunity for unrestricted water slide access go to waste. During sea days and after 2 pm on port days, the three slides onboard start to get more crowded. But on port days, there was plenty of space and she could slide as often as she wanted to.
The adults meanwhile hung back, preferring to keep our energy up for the evening ahead. The loungers on the pool deck are very comfortable and the Epic has plenty of shady spaces to escape the rays of the sun if needed.
Christmas Eve on board is always a special occasion with lots of food, drinks, and celebrations. But this year we decided to take it up a notch. During our trip on the Norwegian Breakaway in September, we noticed a couple that inspired us. They dressed impeccably the entire trip, sporting a different tuxedo and evening gown every night. Stefan and I looked at each other and said: “This Christmas, it’s time to bring the fancy duds; it’s been way too long since we enjoyed a black-tie affair”. What better opportunity to get dressed up than Christmas Eve for a nice dinner?
Once dressed up and ready to go, our first stop took us to the Arcade, because everyone should go into a fierce air-hockey battle dressed in a tux. Mackenzie loved getting to play a few games of ski ball and other arcade favorites before what she knew would be one of our loooooong family dinners. We slowly made our way towards LeBistro (located on Deck 5) when we passed one of the many portrait stations. Normally we pass on these staged photo ops, but we figured we looked so fancy, we might as well get in on the fun.
For the second night in a row, we made use of our “Specialty Dining Upgrades” and had reserved a table at Le Bistro, the NCL version of a French brasserie. We are really fond of this restaurant as the service is always top notch and the food outstanding. Starting with a bottle of Moet Champagne (not included with the Ultimate Beverage Package) we were looking forward to what delectable treats awaited us.
The adults in our party decided to keep with an ocean theme as an appetizer. Three of the adults ordered the special seafood trio appetizer, while Stefan’s mom ordered the mussels from the regular dinner menu. All of it was scrumptious! Mackenzie skipped her appetizer, knowing how much she was looking forward to the entree.
All of the adults at the table chose the special of the night, “Filet of Sole,” which was perfectly prepared, while Mackenzie gorged herself on Coq au Vin, a total crowd pleaser.
Desserts at LeBistro are in a realm all by themselves. While we were pretty full from the previous two courses, who can say no to a Chocolate Hazelnut Napoleon or Chocolate Fondue for Two?
Completely stuffed with our delicious dinner and perhaps a tad bit tipsy, we made our way to the other end of the ship and the Epic theater, which is big enough for around 800 guests. To celebrate Christmas, the theater was showing a special Christmas show called Epic Wonderland which consisted of favorite Christmas songs, skits, and performances by ensemble casts from the various shows and artists currently on the ship. It was produced extremely well and was the highlight to round out a perfect Christmas Eve.
Using Mackenzie’s already much-passed bedtime as an excuse, us juniors headed back to our cabin and quickly fell asleep happy and content. Rumor has it Stefan’s parents had a pretty happy night at the Casino, outlasting us youngins.
Day 3 – At Sea
I woke up briefly very early in the morning and snapped an amazing sunrise pic, then pulled the curtain closed and went back to bed for a few more hours. The gentle rumbling of the engines is always so nice to sleep to.
It was Christmas morning and we woke up around 7 and were ready for breakfast by 8.30 am. That’s just in time to grab some a sit-down breakfast at the main dining room before they stop serving at 9 am.
Somehow it was rather quiet at our table, which we would never blame on going a bit too strong the night before. Since it was Christmas morning, it was awesome that the day was a sea day. Some dug into breakfasts of chocolate pancakes and Golden Waffles with Banana. Both were pretty delicious and Mackenzie was a huge fan of the real whipped cream!
No pressure to make it to port at a certain time, we could just simply relax. After a long breakfast, we decided to explore the ship a bit more and to have a look at the Christmas decorations and festivities around the ship. Even Santa made an appearance in the Atrium to give presents to the many children on board the ship. We had already exchanged most of our gifts at home before leaving for the cruise.
I knew for a fact that Stefan had been partying a bit too much the night before when he didn’t finish his breakfast, but 30 minutes later started craving nothing more than a hot dog. On NCL, you can find them at the Garden Cafe at pretty much any time of the day, except for breakfast. Being early risers, we learned the hard way that Breakfast goes on a lot longer at the Garden Cafe. It was pretty amusing watching him jump up to look if “lunch was ready” at the Garden Cafe every few minutes.
We brought along a few Christmas-themed board games to play with Mackenzie and her Grandparents during this sea day which we thoroughly enjoyed. After the hot dogs finally were available around noon, we found a spot in the sun on the pool deck where Mackenzie must have ridden the water slides a few dozen times and we relaxed in the Caribbean sun.
Since it was a lazy day anyway and Stefan’s parents were headed to the Mandala Spa, we did something we NEVER do when we are at home; we went back to our cabin and took a little nap. It was glorious. A bit of reading, a bit of napping; It was just what the doctor ordered. Refreshed from the nap and clean from the amazingly hot shower (with surprisingly good water pressure) we were ready to see what the night on the ship had in store for us.
The main dining room was in full Christmas spirit, with decorations and a special menu. We were super excited to see one of our all-time favorite things to make at home for Christmas on the menu: Beef Wellington. It was heavenly and Stefan swears that the recipe they use is nearly 100% identical to the way he makes it at home. That is a big compliment – Stefan is very proud of his Beef Wellington skills – and rightfully so!
After finishing dinner, we dropped Mackenzie off at NCL’s Kids Club, the Splash Academy. Although she is now at the upper end of her age group and has gone through the same program over a few cruises which can be a bit boring at times, she still loves going and has a great time making new friends.
The adults ventured back to the casino to try our luck and also make new friends. While not striking it rich, this night treated us much better than the night before and we had a blast joking with our fellow players.
After a quick nightcap and picking up Mackenzie from Splash Academy, it was once again time to hit the hay in anticipation of visiting Jamaica for the first time in the morning.
Day 4 – Falmouth, Jamaica
We woke up just as the Epic was making its way towards Jamaica and were treated to amazing views outside our balcony. The colors were incredibly vibrant and Stefan swears he could smell the scent of the island all the way to the ship. This port is fascinating because the ship backed into what seemed to be an incredibly tight slot and the ships loom over the buildings below.
After a quick breakfast, we were ready to head out to see what Jamaica had to offer. We were really pleasantly surprised by the little “Town Square” they built to lead from the ship.
Even though it housed the typical kitschy port town tourist stores and bars, it did have quite a bit of charm to it. There are a couple rows of these shops as well as a Margaritaville restaurant (because no tropical location is complete without a bit of Jimmy Buffet).
There was also an interesting little historical walk with lots of signs to read about the area. The whole developed port area was smaller than at most ports we’ve visited in the Caribbean.
That charm instantly ends once the developed port ends. Let me be the first to say it: We didn’t like Falmouth and the town itself was pretty run down. The local salespeople hawking their tours and attractions were pushier than in any other port we’ve ever been to and most of the attractions are OK’ish, but nothing really to write home about.
We had originally intended to head to the famous waterfalls, but with winter temps in the 60’s, we decided it might be a bit frigid for splashing around in the water. Stefan’s dad put it best after we finished walking around a bit: “We have an unlimited drink package and Mackenzie has free reign of the water slides…Back to the ship?”
I have not made a final verdict on this port yet since I feel like we didn’t get to know it well but I didn’t like it much. We put no effort into finding the perfect excursion or experience ahead of time, and what we did see during our brief research held very little of our interest at the time or just didn’t go with the cool-ish temps. If you have suggestions or great tips or our next trip, we’d love to hear them in the comments.
Once we returned to the Epic, it turned out that it was nearly deserted. Mackenzie had a blast playing in the pool and riding all of the water slides as many times as possible. It even meant the grown-ups had to brave the (for us) cool temperatures to ride on the slides as well. The views from the top of the slides were breathtaking, though, and made the climb worth it.
It’s hard to believe, but Stefan and I got to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary during the cruise. To allow us to have a special evening, Stefan’s parents were happy to host Mackenzie for a sleepover. They love spending time with each other and who knows what kind of shenanigans they were planning for the evening.
After moving Mackenzie’s blankets, clothes and all other things needed for a sleepover to her grandparent’s cabin, we dressed up and headed out for our couple’s dinner at The Manhattan Room. We got the PERFECT table for two at the outside of the room where it was quiet enough for conversation, but still close enough to see some of the short dance performance featuring the dancers from the show Burn the Floor.
Dinner and service were once again excellent. We started out with my all-time NCL favorite, the salmon tartare, and both Stefan and I were excited to spot a Cordon Bleau on the menu. It was amazing! In addition, Stefan ordered the prime rib which was absolutely perfectly cooked and so yummy.
We continued our date night by heading down to the Atrium to catch some of the game shows. Here I may have met the other Mr. Wonderful in my life, a drink at the Atrium Bar with of vodka, strawberries, sparkling wine and other goodness. This drink was tasty!
We took in a round of Deal Or No Deal and were only 2 numbers away from getting picked to be a contestant. On NCL, you purchase cards for the game and play along, but neither of us won anything. I guess it’s true what they say, “Lucky in Love, Unlucky in Play.”
The next show of the evening was a rendition of the Family Feud, with the “families” made up of randomly picked cruise passengers. It was hilarious and just the right amount of naughty to keep it spicy.
Not ready to head to bed just yet, we tried our luck for a few hands at the Roulette table in the ship’s casino, but had no luck at all. Leaving the casino behind, we found our way to Spice H2O, the ship’s outdoor “beach” club for a nightcap. It was “Caribbean Night” at Spice H2O with an OK band. There wasn’t too much action, but we had a blast watching some of the fellow cruisers, young and old, dancing to Reggae music.
We closed off our evening there and went back to our room to get some much-needed rest.
How did our trip continue? What other ports did we visit? Check out Part 2 of our NCL Epic trip report. You might also be interested in our top 10 reasons you should book a trip on the Norwegian Epic.