Guest Diary: A True MultiGenerational Cruise Aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic

NCL Epic

NCL Epic- Image courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

I am very pleased to share a travel diary from Bob Levinstein, CEO of CruiseCompete, as he reports on his recent family cruise aboard the NCL Epic. Read on for a discussion of his impressions and thoughts on how this ship measures up for a multigenerational cruise vacation. – Heidi

A True MultiGenerational Cruise Aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic

Would this ship be able to keep all of us happy?  My mother in her 70s, my wife and I in our 40s and our 7-year-old son …

Our pre-cruise hotel stay

We arrived at the Grand Doubletree/Biscayne Bay at about 10 PM after an easy 15-minute ride from the Miami airport. It’s a beautiful–and very large–downtown hotel with views of Miami and the bay. The hotel itself has a sophisticated feel to it with updated decor. We were greeted with the traditional DoubleTree warm chocolate-chip cookies and headed up to our room on the Hilton Honors floor. (Pro tip–the Hilton Honors American Express card awards the user 6 points per dollar spent on gas, phone, cable service and at grocery stores. Used judiciously, this can equate to as much as a 6% return in free hotel services. Plus, spend $20,000 per year and get automatic Honors Gold status, which gives you free breakfast and free Wi-Fi during Hilton stays).

DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay- Image courtesy of doubletree3.hilton.com

DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay- Image courtesy of doubletree3.hilton.com

The room was large and comfortable, with a nice-sized balcony and next to the room my Mom was in. She had flown down from D.C. to join us. After saying hello, my son and I decided to go explore the pool area, which we returned to for a swim the next morning. This is the highlight of the property, 9 stories in the air. The pool itself is huge and is complemented by what can be described as a “compound” hot tub–four large inground tubs connected in the middle. A pool bar and changing area is between pool and the hot tubs, and the whole area is surrounded by well-tended foliage and decorated with interesting lighting and a slightly risqué mermaid fountain..The pool overlooks a marina and the bay on one side, with the hotel itself and other interesting sky scrapers dominating the skyline. The hot tubs were a nice temperature–probably about 100 degrees rather than the 105 one would expect at a health club, and the pool was also warm–about 84. Cleaning staff were actively making sure everything was pristine.

The one disappointment was breakfast. There is a large retail complex in the hotel building that offered several breakfast choices. Having received no guidance on which to choose, we ended up at Le Fabourg Deli, which servers food in a combination of cafeteria-style and cooked to order. The eggs were cold and pancakes pre-cooked and warmed up (my 7-year-old couldn’t tell the difference once he drowned them in syrup, but more discerning palates will be disappointed). My omelette was fine, though it took far longer than it should have to prepare and serve..

While the shops offered a variety of items, none had what we needed–flip flops for my son. It was very easy to catch a cab for the 2 mile ride to the Bayside shopping center. This open-air mall has plenty to explore, and I would have enjoyed spending more time if I hadn’t been on a mission that ended up with the purchase of a couple of pair of Crocs and a cab ride back to the hotel.

After gathering up clothes and repacking suitcases, the cab to the cruise was quick and painless. (Taxi tally for Miami: 3 Haitians and a gentleman from Peru. All were personable and entertaining, and the cabs were all remarkably clean. I was jealous of the one Haitian driver in his late 20’s who has been in the states since he was 3, yet retains his accent. “The ladies love it,” he informed me, as if that wasn’t obvious. “They are always asking me to sing, even though I don’t sing.”)

The Pier Offers Stunning Views of The Gorgeous Ships

The Norwegian Epic was at the docks along with the Carnival Conquest, the Carnival Glory, and the Carnival Breeze. Seeing the Conquest at the dock was like seeing an old friend.When my wife and I sailed on her out of New Orleans in 2003, she was brand new and one of the biggest ships at sea at 110,000 tons and 3,000 passengers. Yet she is dwarfed by the Epic at 156,000 tons with a capacity for 4,100 passengers.

The Epic is so large that she has two different embarkation stations..We were dropped at Station B by our Peruvian driver, dropped off a single checked bag and headed in to the terminal. (Pro tip–check as few bags as possible. While I’ve never had a checked bag lost, I have sometimes had to wait quite a while for luggage to be delivered to my cabin, so better to carry anything you can. As roller bags are easy to manage and any bag you can carry on an airplane can be carried on a cruise ship, I recommend bringing everything you can. In this case, it was several hours before our checked bag showed up).

We timed our arrival at the ship right at noon when boarding began, and breezed right through without having to wait in a single line.

The Mini Suite

Epic Mini Suite- Image courtesy of NCL

Epic Mini Suite- Image courtesy of NCL

Our cabins are mini-suites, with the emphasis on “mini.” Square footage is just 189 square feet. But the looks can be deceiving and good things come in small packages. Nowhere is the genius behind the design of the Epic more evident than in the design of the cabins..They are nothing short of amazing in both the beauty and functionality ensconced in such a small area.

The mini-suite cabins featured a small double bed plus what at first looks like a small couch–too small to sleep on. But the bed just looks small because of its rounded corners and actually has ample room for two. The small couch slides out on wheels, and makes a serviceable bed. The amount of available storage was incredible, with every surface seeming to open up into a shelf or cabinet.

The largest departure from standard cabin design is the bathroom. The full-sized bathtub and shower are on one side of the door, closed in by curved frosted sliding glass. Two knobs operate it: one turns it on and selects either showerhead or bath faucet, while the other controls temperature (which I have to admit, I never really mastered). Liquid soap and shampoo are provided in dispensers.

On the other side of the cabin is the toilet, also in its own frosted-glass enclosure. A curtain can be pulled across between the bathrooms and the rest of the cabin. The sink is on the other side. In addition to being a great way to save space, separating these items allows more than one to be used at a time, a very positive development. Under the sink is a waterproof bin that slides out for use for dirty clothes. We asked Julius, our steward, to fill it with ice instead and used it to keep water bottles cold.

The cabin is a pleasure to look at, very modern with recessed lighting and curved surfaces. A stool pulls out from the bar to make a useful desk. There is also a safe for valuables, plenty of mirrors, and handy reading lamps next to the bed, and a charging station for electronics was tucked away under the counter. The cabin phone has a screen that lights up that includes a clock with ship time.

The balcony was good-sized (54 square feet) with plenty of room to sit any put your feet up. It came with two chairs and two small tables.

Blue Man Group- Image courtesy of NCL

Blue Man Group- Image courtesy of NCL

Blue Man Group

Brand name entertainment on the Epic includes the Blue Man Group, a trio of bald blue-dyed performers who make music with pvc pipes and audiences laugh without ever saying a word. No description will do justice to the performance–these guys can say more with a glance than I can with several paragraphs, plus if you’ve never experienced a Blue Man show, best I don’t give anything away. My advice is to see it with a completely open mind and no expectations. The performance onboard was something of a “greatest hits” collection, shorter than those I’ve seen in Las Vegas, but no less entertaining. Both my 7-year-old and my mother thoroughly enjoyed it.

I had reserved our seats online prior to sailing (it’s free, but you still need reservations). Do this early for best selection, especially if you want earlier shows on sea days. It’s also a good idea to arrive for the show early for the best seats (including plastic ponchos if you’re seated down front), though the theater is small enough that there aren’t any truly bad seats. We were actually a couple minutes late, but we still had decent seats on the side of the theater.

Cirque Dreams Dinner

I reserved Cirque Dreams while onboard the ship. For some reason, the early (5:45PM) show wasn’t an option online, and I foolishly believed that I would be observing some bedtime standards for my son on this vacation. We paid $40 a seat for premium seating, and were told to arrive at least a 1/2 hour early. As I found myself just reading a book at 4:00, I figured I could do that just as easily sitting in the corridor. I found myself 4th in line at 4:30 and told my family to join me around 5:30.

Ushered in about 5:15,  I found tables arranged around a central area about 25 feet across with five aisles cleared for performers to enter an exit through, and I was seated right next to the open area. Tables behind me on the lower level had decent views, but were a bit further from the action. Balcony seating was available upstairs, and this is a good option as well as it provided an up-close view of the aerialists.

The performance was spectacular. Gymnasts and contortionists. A woman who juggled a full-sized string base–with her feet. Aerialists who literally flew around the venue on silks. Roller skaters performing Olympic-worth moves on a raised round platform a mere 8 feet in diameter. And all just a few feet away.

I’m not generally a huge fan of clowns and pantomime (really, who is?) but the clown/ringmaster was hysterical. The laughs came from not from canned skits, but from the interplay between the clown and the audience volunteers he pulled up into the performance area and directed in different activities–acting out a fake silent movie, playing a song with bells. Passenger reactions were priceless. Kids did get a chance to be involved on one point as well, with my son given a spinning plate to hold.

The last act before the finale was as amazing as it was simple. Two very fit male gymnasts, one lifting the other up, doesn’t sound very promising. But as they worked through their way through their routine and the angles of lift became more and more difficult and the poses more precarious, it was nothing short of astounding.

Don’t miss this show.

Legends in Concert

Having seen this show in Las Vegas, we chose not to pay to attend the onboard performance. It features performers in spot-on impersonations of famous singers, and discussions with people who did attend make it clear that the show has lost none of the quality in its transition to the sea. Many of the performers also showed up at other venues (the Manhattan Dining Room, Howl at the Moon) to sing there as well. The tattooed Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) clone was frequently seen around the ship, prompting many double-takes from passengers..

Fat Cats- Image courtesy of NCL

Fat Cats- Image courtesy of NCL

Music Onboard

Free live music abounds onboard the Epic, and several shows/venues stand out.

Howl at the Moon is a dueling piano show that is a fantastic experience. Part music, part comedy, and part sing-along, audiences participate as classic rock tunes and other styles of music are presented in a fun atmosphere. Entertainers from other onboard shows (notably Legends) often join in the performance which is different every time. The talent on display here is very impressive at this free show.

Fat Cats Jazz and Blues Club is a small venue with a very talented blues band. The singing and guitar work in particular stands out, and the club tended to be packed every time the band performed.

The Manhattan Dining Room features live music at dinner, drawing singing and dancing talent from other onboard shows. The night we ate at the restaurant, there was an eight-piece band backing vocalists and two “Dancing with the Stars”-quality dancers (the pros, not the celebs). A wide variety of musical styles were presented and performances were excellent. The volume was a bit loud for dinner conversation, but it’s not the place to eat if you want to talk.

Climbing wall

There are actually two climbing walls on board. One is about a dozen feet high and offers three levels of difficulty. The other is roughly double that height, and includes ledges to climb over. A quick electronic waiver must be signed (once per voyage for all sports-related activities) and you’re good to go. Shoes and helmets are provided, and the sports staff is great–friendly and encouraging. Hours varied, but usually the walls were available from 2PM-7PM. Lines tended to be reasonably short–no more than about 15 minute wait at the longest.

The larger (“Extreme!.”) climbing wall also offered rappelling in the mornings, where you climb a ladder inside the wall, then step out and lower yourself down. I found this to be a bit anticlimactic, but I can see where someone not physically able to climb the wall before going down would enjoy it.

Sports complex- Image courtesy of NCL

Sports complex- Image courtesy of NCL

Sports Deck

Toward the back of the ship, high above everything else is the Sports Deck (Deck 17). This is accessed by walking through the “Adults Only” area, but no one seemed to mind kids flitting through. The most prominent feature is the Sport Court, which is about the size of a regulation basketball court, enclosed on all sides with a chain-link fence and over the top with black netting.

This court saw a lot of use throughout the cruise. While it was available for open play (think pick-up basketball games) there were also organized activities  like basketball, dodge ball and soccer. These were usually targeted either to “adults” or “families.”  For example, an adults soccer “tournament” I played in was a half-hour of four-on-four with players from Chile, Russia, China, and somewhere in Eastern Europe. The “family” soccer was a lot more cautious as players worried about stepping on the younger folks.

Also located on the Sports Deck is a trampoline equipped with bungee cords. This activity was available in the afternoons most days at no charge, and kids just loved it.

The “Spider Climb” was another feature on the Sports Deck. This tube-shaped tower rises about 20 feet off the deck, and has layers of webbing inside for kids to hoist themselves through. Once they reach the top, they can slide down an enclosed curving slide.

Running track

The design of the Epic’s running track will please most passengers, just not runners.. An oft-heard complaint of cruisers on other ships is the pounding of runners feet overhead in the early morning. Another gripe is views of the sea blocked by life boats. The Epic solves both of these problems by putting the running track down on Deck 7 behind the lifeboats. Deck 7 isn’t a promenade–the “track” is simply a stretch of deck with a track painted on it, so runners have to turn around when they get to the end and run back. The lifeboats block the view and most of the breeze, and the surface is extremely hard and not at all friendly to knees–OK for two or three miles, but not much more than that. While a more forgiving surface would have been nice, I can’t say that the designers made the wrong decision in putting the needs of most passengers ahead of the relatively few runners likely to be on board.

Water Park epic

Water Park- Image courtesy of NCL

The Epic features three enclosed water slides. In two of them, riders simply hop in and slide down. In the third, they sit in inflatable rings and shoot out into a large, open bowl. Kids need to be just 42″ tall to ride all three slides, and plenty of adults were enjoying them as well. On sea days, the lines did get a bit long (especially for the inflatable-raft slide), but most of the time the waits were pretty short. A pool on what would have been called the Lido deck on most ships (but was Deck 15 on the Epic) had a few fountains for the kids to play in, which they seemed to enjoy.

Rescue at sea

Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Tampa, we witnessed a rather dramatic disembarkation. An elderly passenger had some sort of serious illness and Coast Guard helicopters flew out the ship to take her and her family to a hospital. The top deck of the ship was cleared and the ship slowed to a crawl as the helicopter matched her speed and hovered above.

A Coast Guard officer was lowered onto the deck, followed by a sled. The passenger was strapped in and lifted up into the chopper. The chopper later returned to hoist her family onboard.

Adults-only area

The adults-only area, called Spice H2O, is at the back of the ship on Deck 15 (which would be the Lido Deck on other lines). It features stadium seating with a bar at the top on one side of the ship, and a buffet line at the top of the other. Below is a small pool in front of a huge movie screen. During the day, the screen displayed random landscape scenes, and at night relatively-recent movies were shown. The pool was covered up at night (probably for safety reasons).

Wii Wall

A 2-story video wall is down in the main atrium on Deck 5. This wall was employed in a number of ways: displaying “briefcases” for “Deal or No Deal”; showing movies late at night; and showing scenes from various ports. But most exciting to the kids was the idea of the screen as a “Wii Wall”–a giant video game screen. Several times during the voyage, the Wii’s were plugged in, and kids (and adults) were able to play a dance game where the players mimic the moves of dancers onscreen as they dance to popular songs. This was a big hit with spectators and participants alike.

casino epic

NCL Epic casino- Image courtesy of NCL

The Epic’s casino isn’t a discrete space with its own entrance and exit, but instead it is spread out along Deck 6 where it must be traversed by adults and kids alike to get to various restaurants and to gangways. I heard a number of complaints about having to walk through the cigarette smoke, though I didn’t see (or smell) many smokers.

The casino held a number of tournaments throughout the cruise: slots, blackjack, and poker. I didn’t attend any (though I did walk past the slot “tournament” to see people hammering buttons on slot machines as fast as they could.), but I did spend a number of late evenings around the poker table.

I found a great group of guys,  and usually the same faces every night. It was a very experienced group of hold-em players from all over the world including the US, Canada, Iraq, Iran, Israel, and France.

While poker players complain wherever they are, the particular complaints reflected what you can expect in a cruise ship casino no matter what game you’re playing or what ship you’re on. Play is slower (as the dealers aren’t as swift as in Vegas). The house’s take is appalling–10% of each pot up to a $25 limit, as opposed to 2%-5% in a land-based casino capped at $2-$5, but that’s what you can expect when it’s a long swim to the next poker table. Dealer and management confusion about the rules–in this case what constitutes a “string bet” (don’t ask)–was an endless topic of discussion, as was the proper distance for eating cookies from the poker table (really). But overall it was a great place to play with friendly dealers, a prompt wait staff,  and lots of action at the table.

Trivia and Game Shows

The general trivia sessions were a lot of fun, with 20-40 people attending each one in one of the lounges with an assistant cruise director reading out questions. Teams of any size were encouraged, and I met some very enthusiastic trivia buffs. We won two out of three. There were other types of trivia games offered–identifying countries by their flags and airlines by the colors, but I skipped these. Victories (and participation) in these and other events were rewarded with signatures on “activity” cards that could  be redeemed for things like key chains, coozies and pens on the last day of the cruise. A ship-board version of Jeopardy! was fun to attend, despite repeated technical problems and the fact that only a handful of people were able to play. Other games like Family Feud and some version of the Newlywed Game were also played on board. Bingo games seemed to be played pretty frequently, as was a version of Deal or No Deal that required some sort of cash buy-in.

Recess kids area- image courtesy of NCL

Recess kids area- image courtesy of NCL

Kids Club

I can both heartily endorse the kids club–called “Splash Academy”–and tell you very little about it. It operates through most of the day on sea days–9:00AM-12:00PM, 2:00PM-5:00PM, and 7:00-10:30PM, and all day long on port days. The counselors are young and enthusiastic bunch, going by names like “Caveman” and “Popcorn,” and they really seem to enjoy working with the kids.However, parents are not allowed past the front desk while the club is in session, so my conclusions are drawn for watching one dodge ball game at the sport court; how the counselors react to seeing kids outside the club, and of course my own son’s (who is 7) reaction.

Which is to say he loved it. He couldn’t wait to get to the club and didn’t want to leave until the last possible moment. Getting him out of there anytime before 10:30PM, though well past his bedtime was a battle we gave up fighting. Inside the club there were different daily themes, including “circus” and “pirates”, the latter featuring a treasure hunt. Other activities were in-club game shows and a version of “Survivor”, but as to specifics they were as hard to get as it as it was to pry him out of the club.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Carolyn Barrett- Image courtesy of barrettadventures.com

Carolyn Barrett- Image courtesy of barrettadventures.com

Before sailing, I got in contact with another old friend: Carolyn Barrett of Barrett Adventures. I had taken a tour with her of Mayfield Falls and an adjoining plantation when I had visited Jamaica off the Carnival Conquest in 2003.

My mom was excited to go horseback riding, and it wouldn’t be a visit to Jamaica without a waterfall to explore, so I booked a combination excursion with Carolyn: a Braco ranch horseback tour followed by a trip to nearby “Secret Falls”. Carolyn picked us up at the port, and we were off on the 30-minute ride to Braco ranch.

Just listening to Carolyn is an adventure in itself. In her sixties, she has the energy of a 20-year-old, she has been living in the Caribbean since her early 20’s. She has a fascinating life story and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular. Wondering about a type of plant?  She’ll not only tell you its name, she’ll give you the history of how it was brought to the island. Want to know where Columbus really landed and why?  The politics behind why the road you’re driving on took so long to finish?  How various James Bond villains got their names?  Any information about how Jamaicans view each other, how they pay for larger houses, what their family situations are like–anything you want to know, she has stories and explanations..

Braco Ranch is a 2,000-acre property east of Ocho Rios. We were advised to wear swim suits under our riding clothes and bring towels and cameras, with everything else to be left in the van with Carolyn. Our group consisted of the three of us, an English woman and her eleven-year-old daughter, and our three Jamaican guides. We saddled up and were off.

The horses were docile, mostly content to walk in a single file line behind our guide, though they did need the occasional prompt to keep up. The scenery for the first part of the ride was mostly scrub with a few farm fields, and we made small-talk with our guides about sports and beer.

After about 20 minutes of riding, we made it to the beach. The horses walked along the sand for a bit, left the shore, and then arrived at our destination, a beautiful cove sheltered behind a breakwater. Here we dismounted and headed toward a small building that had bathrooms, a place to change, a shaded front porch with chairs and benches. Life jackets were available for kids and non-swimmers. There was also a tiny store selling drinks, snacks and ice cream. We had about fifteen minutes to relax and explore while the horses cooled off and were fitted with water saddles. We took the time to take some pictures and to swim in the crystal-clear waters in this spectacular setting.

The guides led four horses into the water. Two guides mounted up on two of the horses, each holding a second horse by the reins. The first two members of our party–the English woman and my mom–swam out and were helped up onto horseback. The guides led the horses around the lagoon as the horses swam/walked in the warm water. We each took a couple of laps around the lagoon, while another guide took pictures and video. As each group finished, we had the option of standing up on our horse in the water to pose for a picture balanced on the horse’s back. It was $40 for the full c.d. of the pictures, which we went ahead and purchased.

After drying off, we mounted up again and posed for a few more pictures, then road back to the ranch and to meet Carolyn for the next phase of our excursion.

It was about a 35-minute drive to the falls and it was past lunch time, so we stopped about half-way at a local restaurant called Scotchie’s, all covered-thatch walkways with both outdoor and open-air sheltered seating. Jerk chicken and pork were sizzling on rustic grills, covered with sheets of corrugated metal atop cut saplings. We ordered both meats as well as breadfruit (so we could try it), sodas and coconut water, and some sort of donut- or churro-like fried treat for desert. As we were on a tight schedule, we ate our meal in the van, and it did not disappoint. The meats were spicy and juicy, and very flavorful.

After a few more miles on roads, we pulled off onto a steep dirt trail, too rocky and pitted to be called a “road”. A half mile of bouncing around and we pulled off into a parking lot/field.

Here words and even pictures fail to do justice to the setting. This is a pristine watercourse, a cornflower blue mountain stream flowing down over waterfalls and into deep pools, surrounded by brilliant green vegetation. There were plenty of places to swim, jump into the water from cliffs of various sizes, or even swing from a rope at the top of a waterfall into a deep pool. After a quick dip in the pool below the lower falls, our guide Marvin took my son and me in hand and led us around a trail to the upper falls. He was great. Never letting go of my son for a minute, he helped us swim across pools and wade up to the largest of the waterfalls. He even swam my camera/phone across various pools, holding it high above his head to keep it dry and took a number of pictures for us.

We saw locals jumping from 30 foot cliffs (too high for me) and people sliding down a 20-foot waterfall. Our guide led us to the largest waterfall, and then entered a 2 1/2 foot opening, feet first. My son followed, and then I went down, into a cave under the falls. We stayed here for a minute or two, listening to the water drumming above our heads, before swimming out the bottom into the sunshine.

Costa Maya

I found a number of interesting excursions out of Costa Maya to visit Mayan ruins. While this sounded fascinating, 90 minutes on a bus each way was just too much, so I decided this would be a port we experienced on our own. The Maya Chan Beach resort was rated highly online, so I figured we’d take a taxi and spend some time there.

Just off the ship is a cluster of shops and bars with a small beach and a swimming pool, but my son and I left this area and went looking for a cab. On the way we ran into a gentleman in a Maya Chan shirt, who told us they were full and we would need a reservation. He was gracious enough to point us instead to Yaya beach at Mahahual, a five-minute, $2-per-person cab ride away.

Small hotels, restaurants, bars and trinket stands are separated from the beach by a road-sized walkway. Mahahual Beach is sheltered by a breakwater 100 yards off shore, leaving shallow sand bars near the beach. Hour massages were available on the beach for just $20.

When we arrived we were immediately taken in hand and guided to lounge chairs near the water. We spent a pleasant day by the shore, playing (Leo) and conversing (me) with passengers off of the Epic as well as the Norwegian Dawn, which was also in port having sailed out of Tampa. Beer was cheap, and trinket vendors walked by frequently.

One highlight was watching a vendor make an ID bracelet for Leo out of just a piece of plastic and spools of nylon thread. The speed at which he wove it together was impressive.

Another highlight was eating lunch out on the sandbar. A plastic table and chairs sat out in the water, and we were served fresh guacamole (made just for us) and some outstanding fish tacos. It could have been the setting, but this was the best meal of the week.

One other interesting sight was people “fly boarding.”   The rider stands, attached to a skateboard-shaped platform. The platform is in turn attached to a large hose connected to a jet ski. Water jets out of the bottom of the platform and the rider can use this force to zoom some 15 feet in the air. Riders shifted their body weight controlled the direction of the platform. We saw some spectacular moves and even more spectacular crashes. It looked like a tremendous amount of fun–who wouldn’t want to fly like a superhero?–but not something I would attempt without knowing a lot more about the safety issues involved.

Cozumel

Dolphin exursion- Image courtesy of Shore Excursions Group

Dolphin exursion- Image courtesy of Shore Excursions Group

My mom has always wanted to swim with dolphins. I had heard good things about the program in Chankanaab in Cozumel, and decided to book through Shore Excursions Group, with whom CruiseCompete has a partnership. After reading about the various options available on the Shorex website, I called the 800 number to experience their customer service. I was very pleased and impressed.

My call was answered immediately. The woman who answered the phone was extremely knowledgeable about the ports and the excursions, helping me decide between the dolphin “encounter” and the dolphin “adventure.” It was only when I provided my e-mail address that she realized I was in the travel business.

We woke up to overcast weather in Cozumel, with a few sprinkles of rain here and here. After too much sun in Costa Maya (despite repeated applications of sun screen), we took this as a positive. Disembarkation was easy, and cabs were plentiful as soon as we were outside the cruise dock area.

It’s a quick 10-minute cab ride from the cruise ship (depending on where your ship docks). After the driver made fun of my pronunciation of “Chankanaab”, we piled in and headed over. The cab ride was $12 plus tip..

Our dolphin swim package ($110 per person) included admission to the park and lunch in addition to the swim. We arrived a bit before 9AM and checked in for our 10AM swim, receiving wrist bands and getting a few instructions..We then took some time to wander around the park.

Chankanaab National Park was declared a nature conservation area by the Mexican government in 1980, though the local’s vision of a natural state is a bit different from what you might expect to see in the U.S. Attractions at the park include a few Mayan artifacts (some in situ and some relocated), a snorkeling area (with snorkel and scuba equipment for rent), a sea lion stadium, a zip line course, crocodile pens, beach chairs and umbrellas, a tequila tasting “village”, and restaurants and bars with roving waiters..

We walked along the paths in the park. The crocodiles were in two pens, one for adult specimens and one for juveniles. They weren’t very active in the morning, but were interesting to look at for a couple of minutes. The few examples of Mayan artifacts–large carved circles and stellae–held our interest for a little bit longer. Local plant species were also labeled.

Free lockers are provided for the dolphin swim. We were instructed to leave everything in the lockers including towels and cameras, and then waited on a bench for our group to be called. There were about ten of us in our group of various ages, with my son and my mom being the youngest and the oldest respectively. We donned life jackets and were led out onto a pier, which is part of a large fenced-in rectangle of ocean, perhaps 150 yards/meters across. Smaller rectangular contact areas were defined by piers around both sides. This is a fairly large complex that is home to about 20 dolphins, and several groups were already enjoying their experiences. We walked down two sets of stairs, then onto an underwater ledge that allowed us to stand looking out into the large open middle of the lagoon.

My son had a bit of trouble staying on the ledge. The life jacket didn’t have a bottom strap that went between his legs and kept floating up around his neck. He managed by holding on the fence behind him, and I was sure to stay nearby.

Here we met our trainer, Alex, a Mexican fellow in 20’s, and our dolphin, Chuck, who also happened to be 20. Chuck did a number of passes by the group, waving a fin at us, then coming close enough so we could pet him while Alex gave us instruction for the rides we’d be taking.

Two people at a time would swim about 50 yards out into the lagoon: one with a boogie board (which looks like a wide, 3-foot-long foam surf board) and one without. The one without the board was to float upright with one hand on his or her chest, and the other extended out. Chuck would then swim by, roll over on his back, and allow the person to grab his pectoral fins for a ride back to the ledge.

Chuck would then return for the person on the boogie board who was instructed to lie flat with his or her legs straight. Chuck would then put his nose to the foot of the person on the board, and accelerate toward the dock. This was the highlight of the experience, and skipping across the surface of the water under dolphin power did not fail to bring a huge smile to anyone there.

It does help to be able to swim a bit, but it’s not really a requirement. I helped my son and my mom get where they were going, but other park employees were around to help people swim out if needed.

After the rides, each person had the chance to “hold fins” with the dolphin, kiss him on the snout, and received a kiss on the cheek in return. The purpose, of course, was for the professional photographer to take pictures. More about this later.

The amusing thing that happened at this point was that another dolphin showed up and started performing the same behaviors as Chuck. This frustrated the trainer, but we were told that the second dolphin was a 3-year-old who just wanted to be like the local dominant male (Chuck). We petted this dolphin as well, but were then told to ignore him so he would go away and we could continue the experience.

We noticed that one of Chuck’s eyes was closed and wondered if he was ill. The trainer told us that Chuck was literally half asleep, as dolphins can sleep with half of their brains at a time. I’ve never heard of dolphins doing anything other than resting while in this state, so I’m not really sure if I believe this (my exhaustive, 2-minute internet search didn’t turn up much) though I have met many people half-asleep at their jobs, so I guess it’s a possibility.

Next, we were led to a shelf in one of the smaller rectangular enclosures to get into the water with two other dolphins. We lost a splash fight with them, and watched them jump over us before being led out onto the dock. We passed a manatee encounter in progress, where people in the water were feeding lettuce to the giant mammals.

After removing our life vests, we were then to a room full of computers so we could view and purchase photos. The system was efficient–they pulled up all of the photos for your family to be reviewed. However, a single photo print was $37.50, or we could have had all of the photos for the three of us on a CD for $200. While there were some spectacular shots, we declined.

The stamps on our wrist bands admitted us to a small buffet at the restaurant next door. There was no line, and the food was good.

Despite there being six cruise ships in port that day, and Chankanaab being the #1 attraction in Cozumel, the park was surprisingly empty. As we finished lunch, the sea lion show was about to start. We walked in three minutes before show time and found seats in the front row in the small stadium where all seats were very close to the action. Three sea lions of different ages performed, with the funniest moment being when a sea lion appeared to lip sync the chorus of “I’m Sexy and I Know It.”   Afterwards, we were offered the opportunity to get a picture taken while being kissed by a sea lion. My son was first in line, but of course the photo op was arranged to make very sure that no personal cameras could capture the moment. We didn’t bother to find out how much this photo was selling for, but the fact that we were offered a 10% off sticker was in indication that it wasn’t going to be cheap.

Next we moved on to the zip line course. Cost was $60 per person. Two guides carefully assisted my son and me as we climbed the towers, clipping us to safety lines immediately upon reaching the top. The course was said to cover about a kilometer, and we had great views of the park and the ocean. At one point we descended to narrow wooden platforms, and were clipped to safety lines above our heads so we could walk over the crocodile enclosures. My 7-year-old loved the experience and wanted to go again. For me,  it was pleasant but not something I need to repeat.

Our next stop was the beach. Here sand has been trucked in to make a beach area above a rocky sea wall. Steps lead down to the snorkeling area, and dive shops rent both snorkel and scuba equipment. Traditional Adirondack chairs and Adirondack-style lounge chairs (oddly enough) are plentiful under  thatched beach umbrellas, and there are also a few hammocks strung up between trees.

We had brought some snorkel equipment for $20. A full set (snorkel mask & fins is $15, but I had the snorkel and mask, and my son needed the mask and fins) and borrowed a life jacket for my son. As it was my son’s first time snorkeling, we engaged a guide who worked for tips. He was an enthusiastic young man who brought a life ring to help Leo float, and seemed to enjoy the snorkeling as much as we did.

While I hadn’t expected much (Cozumel is hardly Hawaii or Aruba when it comes to tropical fish) I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of marine life we saw. This included an octopus, several squid, puffer fish, a moral eel, some sort of sea snake, and even a spider crab that our guide dove down to tease out of its hiding place. We also viewed an underwater statue of a somewhat human figure with upraised arms (known as “Christ of the Yucatan”), plus a couple of authentic Spanish cannon and a Mayan stellae that had been sunk there for our viewing pleasure. A man on shore tossed us some fish food (or at least food that fish would eat) and I gave it to our guide to distribute and it attracted a swarm of fish of various types.

After returning our equipment and tipping our guide ($20–he was really fantastic) we had no trouble catching a cab at the park entrance to return to the ship.

Dining

Buffet. The buffet, known as “the Garden Cafe”,  was absolutely excellent. Every meal offered a variety of choices, and many were quite good. The cuisine was varied, with different themes on different days. Taking small tastes the first time through, then going back for more of what we liked was a winning strategy. The lines were never particularly long, and there were always tables available.

Soft-serve ice cream was available most of the day, and lunch and dinner offered scoops of various flavors.

Speigel Tent EpicCoffee. I was pleasantly surprised by the coffee on board. Norwegian uses Lavazza, an Italian brand as its exclusive grind. Certain lines have been known for their terrible coffee (coffee on Princess used to be an industry-wide punch line), but the coffee dispensed at the buffet and available elsewhere was consistently good.

Main dining rooms. Norwegian is known for its “Freestyle” dining, where passengers simply show up to eat in the main dining rooms whenever it’s convenient for them. This concept has a lot of appeal to it especially on port days and when traveling with a group. The other mainstream lines quickly saw the value in this type of flexibility, and soon offered their own versions as an option to cruisers.

The criticisms most frequently heard about Freestyle dining is that there is often a wait to be seated. We experienced none of that, and were seated immediately on all three of our forays into the Manhattan Room and Taste. However, both food quality and service left a lot to be desired.

The food itself was very hit-or-miss. Most of the appetizer courses were quite good, though the blue cheese dressing was thin and almost watery. The main courses varied. A grilled salmon entree was excellent, but the steaks were gristly. A “club sandwich” in the taste dining room at lunch featured a single thin slice of ham and a single slice of turkey.

The worst, though, was the service. Waiters were forgetful, slow, and at one point completely absent. When in a hurry to make a Blue Man Group show, the waitress in the Manhattan Room took ten minutes to bring us the check to sign for a bottle of wine. At lunch in Taste, after very slow and indifferent service throughout the meal (drinks not refilled, etc.), the waiter simply disappeared after we ordered dessert. After waiting 15 minutes we simply got up and left.

The entertainment in the Manhattan Room was excellent, however. Singers, dancers and musicians were all of a very high caliber, and provided an enjoyable background to the meal.

Specialty Dining. For a variety of reasons, the only specialty dining venue we experienced was the Spiegel Tent, where the circus show was performed. The shrimp and beef tenderloin entree (the same meal for all adults–kids can have chicken fingers instead) was good though not spectacular. However, that entertainment was far more important than the dining at that point.

Room Service. We only used room service a few times, but each time food was delivered very promptly and the quality was OK. The selection was fairly limited. On other cruises we’ve had no problem getting food delivered that wasn’t on the menu, but didn’t get around to asking this trip.

Epic's Internet Cafe- Image courtesy of NCL

Epic’s Internet Cafe- Image courtesy of NCL

General thoughts/miscellaneous.

The ship rarely never felt crowded. Deck chairs were at a premium on sea days after the first one (mark your territory early!  Pro tip: towel clips are a good way to keep a chair reserved) but generally the design does a good job of distributing people throughout the ship. Speaking of deck chairs, there are a lot of shaded areas on the main deck to enjoy being outside while staying out of the direct sun. Helpful not just in avoiding sunburn, but also key to being able to read in this era of tablets and other recreational electronics.

The internet cafe, located down on Deck 5, was convenient and easy to use. Thought the screens warned that internet at sea was slower than on land, connectivity was surprisingly good. Various plans are available to purchase time, but the minute-by-minute plan was fine for quick e-mail checks and responses.

Norwegian offers a free ship-board mobile app. Wi-Fi for the app itself is also free to use. As this only seemed to work sporadically, and it contained mostly general information, I didn’t find it very useful.

Our cabins were on Deck 13 aft, so a quick jaunt up two flights of stairs put us on the open Deck 15 with the pools, the water slides, the climbing wall, and the buffet.

The Epic staff was incredibly friendly at all times. They smile, make eye contact, and say hello whether they are passing you in the hallway, cleaning up around the pool, or sitting at a gaming table waiting for players. While this was obviously the result of training, it all felt very genuine.

I had a great conversation with a guy from Zimbabwe while waiting for a seat at a poker table. He had been a dealer onboard for some years. His story is typical of many onboard staff–he sails on 8-9 month contracts, returning home to see his family for a couple of months in between. They’re saving up to start a business when he has had enough of the onboard life. He was excited about going to Europe with the ship, and pleased that the line allows him to transfer among routes to visit different parts of the world.

The emphasis on cleanliness onboard was staggering. Hand sanitizer dispensers were everywhere, and staff members with spray bottles of hand sanitizer were stationed at the entrance to all restaurants. One animated Filipino lady stands out, her musical call of “Washy washy happy happy” put smiles on the faces of most passengers..

It was odd to be on a ship without deck names–the Epic just has numbers. I heard several passenger comment that they were surprised that there was a deck 13 aboard ship.

Norwegian does a very nice job of welcoming passengers back from shore on port days. In addition to wet cloths and cool drinks, they offer a towel exchange. Passengers simply drop their sandy towels in bins, and are handed clean towels in return. This keeps sand out of cabins, save stewards time replacing towels, and of course allows passengers to head straight to the pool upon return if they so choose. Very smart.

Post-cruise. Disembarkation was well-organized and relatively painless. We had a later (7 PM) flight, and had originally planned a visit to a Miami-area attraction like Jungle Island, but we were all pretty tired and opted instead to relax. The Miami airport Hilton offered a room from 10:00AM-5:00PM for $110. Here we could nap, enjoy the pool, and catch a free shuttle to the airport. We were tired enough that we mostly just napped.

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