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Travel: Norwegian Epic cruise to the Eastern Caribbean
By Ray Hanania
Last Thanksgiving in November 2013, we cruised the Eastern Caribbean on the Norwegian Epic, a phenomenally large boat that featured an outdoor water park with several water slides and a cyclone funnel, as well as the only ship to offer performances of Blue Man Group.
The Norwegian Epic is a phenomenal boat and the cruise was tremendous. Although I have a little criticism, overall the cruise was one of the best and I am already booked to cruise on the norwegian Epic one more time, this time to the Western Caribbean. The costs are very manageable for great service and a beautiful suite with a balcony, and the island stops are unforgettable. This is the ship you MUST try on your next cruise.
The boat has two separate sections including the Haven which is a very costly private suit area that offers its own pool, and inner sundeck (without a view of the ocean) and an outer sundeck with a view of the ocean and the rest of the ship’s sundeck areas.
If you book early, you can not only get a decent suite – we purchased the mini family suite which offers 245 square feet of space that includes a large balcony, a double bed, a pull out bed underneath the main bed for the kids, a sitting area, standup shower and toilet area
The boat has several restaurants that you have to book ahead of time and that cost additional fees to enjoy including a Hibatchi-type restaurant, a steak house, an Italian restaurant and Chinese. It has a main public and free dining area that gets crowded at the normal eating times (breakfast, lunch and dinner) but that offers some snacks in between. The sundecks and swimming pool decks have liquor and drink bars and also snack bars where you can grab a hamburger, hot dog or slice of pizza.
The food was not the best, but it was acceptable, which is all that Norwegian Cruise Lines promises. But the cruise itself was smooth and fun. NCL offers two Caribbean cruise trips, one to the Eastern Caribbean, which we did, which includes St. Marten/St. Martin, the St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
You can book one or maybe two land excursions during the trip, or even purchase a “day pass” that allows you to enjoy a hotel on any of the islands. We booked package tours in St. Martin and the Virgin Islands, and then a land package at the Riu Hotel, which, because of the whether we were allowed to cancel. The Bahamas were stormy but I quickly realized that the Bahamas today are not the Bahamas I first enjoyed as a traveler in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
The Bahamas have changed dramatically. Atlantis, the humongous water park multi-hotel complex you no doubt have heard much about, was really a pit for the average vacationer. The beaches have been consumed by hotel grounds which have spread like a cancer on what was once a phenomenally beautiful endless beachfront.
Today, Paradise Island is no paradise. And I wonder why any family really pays $6,000 to $7,000, with all the incidental costs involved, to go to a water park at a dump that you couldn’t enjoy more and for a far cheaper cost right here in the U.S. at the Wisconsin Dells or any other of the many great Water Park areas.
The whole reason to go to the Bahamas was to enjoy the beaches and the beautiful Bahamian culture, which has soured slightly as most of the cruise travelers book one of the many “tours” at Atlantis that are offered for the 8 hours of land stay.
The boat has a lot of things for young children and teenagers to enjoy, too, including their own club. And there is a health club for the adults to stay fit.
Here’s an overview of the Norwegian Epic and the Eastern cruise we took (St. Marten/St Martin, St. Thomas Virgin Islands, and Nassau Bahamas. We are definitely are going to try the Norwegian Epic cruise again to experience the Western Caribbean tour that includes Ocho Rios in Jamaica, Georgetown in Grand Cayman Islands, and Cozumel, the little island just outside of Cancun in Mexico, all places I have enjoyed many times in the past, two.
The boat cruise experience
- Passenger Capacity: 4,100 (double occupancy)
- Gross Register Tonnage:155,873
- Overall Length: 1,081 feet
- Max Beam: 133 feet
- Draft: 28.5 feet
- Engines: Diesel Electric
- Cruise Speed: 20.2 knots
- Crew: 1,753
The Norwegian Epic is a huge boat, but not the largest. It just looks that way. But the on-board water slides are great for the kids.
Boarding and disembarking are hassles. Because there are so many passengers, it gets very crowded. Lines get very long. One dining area is not enough and oftentimes the food is gone and you have to wait, or come back. It’s not easy to find seating in the dining room either.
The staff is very cheerful.
Internet is expensive and inconsistent. $100 for 250 minutes, of which you will spend 50 minutes of your time just trying to log-on. Who wants to walk to the crowded Internet café with very few seats to stand at a glass display to check your email?
The entertainment remains the same. The Circus is great, but like Blue Man Group, once you have seen them, it’s pretty hard to get excited on a second trip.
The room upkeep service is very good. They assign one employee for every 30 rooms, but some how they manage to remember who you are, especially paying attention to the children, which kids love. But, they’ll push you to pay a “tip” upfront of $252, and you will be pressured to tip them again on board. It’s a bad system that leaves passengers with a terrible taste when they finish the cruise.
The Captain is Norwegian and like a lot of Norwegians, doesn’t seem interested in mingling with the riff-raff – err, the passengers. It would be great if he spent more time with passengers instead of trying to push people to attend the worthless Jewelry hustles that take place during the trip. Yes, they will tell you that there is an “IMPORTANT” information session in the Theater that you “MUST” attend. But it’s really a scam to force you to purchase jewelry through the participating jewelers on the three island stops you will make. The much promised “gift” is garbage. Don’t waste your valuable boat time listening to someone pitch you on buying low-grade jewelry – the high grade jewelry is beyond your means if you are sitting in the theater listening to their pitch. You can’t afford the good stuff.
We purchased a drink package so our son could grab drinks any time he wanted. We ended up doing that for the adults, too. It’s expensive. But, it does help, although you can get your own drinks by going to the cafeteria buffets when they are open and grabbing whatever you want to drink. The only place the fee helps is at the many bars.
The Epic has an iPad App that helps you plan events that was very helpful, although like I said without good Internet, it is worthless.
The rooms and balcony were beautiful. The rooms are a little cramped, even if you get a 245 square foot room, one of the largest for the average people. There is a 345 square foot room and the Haven, the exclusive area that costs about 4 times as much as an average trip. I guess if you have the most to throw away, you throw it away. But the 245 square foot room and balcony were very comfortable.
There is nothing more magical than sitting on the balcony and enjoying a cigar or a drink and watching the ocean, or looking up at the brilliantly clear night sky to catch sight of meteors and “falling stars.” One night we saw 20.
The Caribbean Cruises have three stops. The Eastern Cruise stops at St. Marten/St. Martin, St. Thomas in the Virgina Islands, and Nassau in the Bahamas. The Western Cruise, which will take later this year, stops at Ocho Rios in Jamaica, Georgetown in the Cayman Islands, and then Cozumel Island in Mexico near Cancun.
Each visit lasts most of the daytime hours. You usually disembark at 8 am and then begin either scheduled tour that you pay for extra, or explore the port on your own. We did a combination and picked out a few excursions.
Many hotels on the islands offer “Day Passes.” That is where you can pay to enjoy the hotel and its beach and services while on the island. It’s made for the cruise passengers. We did that in Nassau to check out the Riu Hotel where we thought we might want to stay on a future trip. But it turns out, as I wrote, Paradise Island is a disaster. The beaches have been ruined. They are so narrow now with the strong waves and Atlantis has gobbled up most of the beach converting into a tourist trap waterpark, with some ponds filled with sharks, fish and stingrays. The water is murky and stinky and you really wonder how the fish even survive in the filth.
St. Marten, 8 am to 6 pm
The first stop was St. Marten/St. Martin. It is half Dutch and half French. It’s beautiful. The boat stops at Great Bay on the Dutch side of the island.
There is a beautiful port center filled with little stores and tourist trap junk you will want to check out if you
We booked a “Fun Buggy Ride” – small, open air car scooters that you drive – in a long train of about 10 buggies and drove through the Island to Philipsburg Beach. Their, the guides help you park and then take you to the beach area which is crowded. It’s a public beach, of course. The excursion lasted 3 hours and costs $357 for three people, two adults and one child (in two open air mini-cars).
The beach is lined with should-to-shoulder restaurants with patios. All wood. And in front along the beach were five or six rows of chaise lounge chairs. You find an open chair and rent it for about $14 each, in the front row. You can put your bags on them and hawk-eye them as you wade into the water and relax. The beach is packed so you have to watch your possessions closely.
You can grab some food and plant your fat ass on a chase lounge and enjoy the view for 3 hours before you are back at the boat.
We did the buggy rides early and then spent the day walking around downtown Philipsburg along the Great Bay and walked up and down Front Street, a wonderful beach walk lined with restaurants where we enjoyed some lobster and ceviche and people-watched.
It rained a bit but the rains, as they say on the islands, don’t last long at all. The French atmosphere made the cozy downtown store window shopping fun.
You need to pay a fee to board a ferry to take you from the boat dock area across the bay to the beachfront, and then return before the boat leaves. It was probably the best thing we did to explore the little friendly town ourselves on foot.
The little town is about 17 blocks long fronting the bay. There is Front Street, and then a second street called Back street that both run parallel with the beach front. So you can walk up and down both streets safely and enjoy the shops, restaurants and sights.
The ferry stop near the docked cruise boats. You can take the ferries across the bay to the Town
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, 8 am to 4 pm
We decided to tour St. Thomas on our own. The cruise ships dock in gaggles at St. Thomas, which is one of the more popular cruise stops because it’s American territory and your cell phones will work fine. You’re not in a foreign country.
We exited through the herd like crowds through the Island processing center called Havensight to a market place with about 50 retail souvenir shops. There is a cluster of permanent pre-fab long buildings with dozens of stores in each. It’s the entrance way through St. Thomas Harbor.
Many are jewelry shops because for some reason, the cruise industry has conditioned tourists into believing, falsely, that you can buy great jewelry during your cruise. It’s not true. The jewelry you buy will be dressed up to look quality but they are low-grade. Most of the retail shops sell diamonds, perfume and watches.
We had considered one of the many beach excursions and trips that the Norwegian Cruise Line offers on the Epic, but they were so expensive and they were crowded. Long lines make the whole experience horrible. The idea of being sardined at a beach and rushed from one place to another is discouraging.
So, we decided to go it on our own and I am glad we did because we did so much more and cheaper.
As we walked around the souvenir shops, we saw many “Buggy Wagon” truck and the driver was hawking rides. We paid him $8 per adult to go to Magen’s Bay, the crowded but nice public beach on the other side of the island. The cruise port and Magen’s Bay are located in the middle of the Island on opposite sides, but it is a narrow “neck” and a short trip. The Island itself is huge.
We joined 6 other people who didn’t book anything, and he took as to the public beach on the Island. The trip took about 30 minutes and it wound through the mountainous area around St. Thomas. It costs each person $4 to enter the beach area, and then you can rent a chaise lounge for $16 and then find an open spot on the sand. Most people crowd near the entrance area but the beach bay winds around about two or three blocks.
The water in the bay is beautiful and calm, some waves It was very enjoyable, surrounded by mountains with homes and gardens. We stayed there about 3 hours and also enjoyed some food from the many little restaurants nearby.
We were able to easily grab a cab back, for about $14 without a problem.
When we came back, because we were on our own, we went to the St. Thomas Sky Lift. The tickets were $21 per adult and $12 for children. It was a nice ride to the top of the mountain overlooking Havensight and downtown St. Thomas, which is not like a typical island business center. It’s not as cozy or encouraging so a lot of people stay in the port retail area, which is a shame.
The Sky Lift has a restaurant and souvenir shop at the top. And the views of the bay below with seven cruise ships docked in the bay below making an interesting portrait.
Nassau, Paradise Island, Bahamas, 12 noon to 7 pm
The “cows” start to lineup to leave the boat about 45 minutes early on the 5th Deck of the boat. It’s terrible. I guess there is no easy way to accommodate 4,100 anxious tourists. The Cruise ship terminal is packed, too, in Prince George Harbor between the main Island and the strip called Paradise Island which offers the most beautiful beaches in Nassau.
We had to take a cab from the Cruise Port to Paradise Island, over the bridge to get to the Riu Palace Hotel where we purchased a Day Pass. We didn’t want to go to Atlantis because if you hate cow-herding, you will hate Atlantis. It’s a cow-herd paradise for children. But we hoped the Riu Palace would offer a beach experience that we longed for from the 1980s when the beach was a pristine place to enjoy.
The beach, Cabbage Beach (West Beach), is just under 2 miles long so there is a lot of beach to walk. Behind and to the west along the beach beyond a barricade is Atlantis and its private beaches, which are small. (Cabbage Beach faces north.) From Cabbage beach you can walk to Atlantis Beach, which faces north. Then, walking west, you will come to Cove Beach, which is a little nicer and the place where the cheaper tourists end up staying. And further West, you can walk to Paradise Beach, but again, if you have an Atlantis wrist band that says you are staying at the resort.
Atlantis is like a cluster of hotels, from cheap and crappy to expensive and ok. Each has their own beach area You can go to any beach but you will have to walk from the cheap ones to the great beaches. It’s a haul. Paradise Beach is almost exclusively used by the highest end of Atlantis, dotted with little thatched huts for guests at the hotel. People wander into the Atlantis resort but they have check points, not very good, and if you’re not staying there, they may ask you to leave.
Riu Palace seemed like a good alternative. It’s right on the furthest West end of Cabbage beach adjacent to Atlantis. You can walk to the east and enjoy the beaches beauty. It really is spectacular. The Riu Hotel is small, though. One dining room. One pool. The beach is unfortunately a bit too narrow, much narrower than it was in the 1980s and 1990s when I really enjoyed it. And if the weather is rough, as it can be, the waves will be huge and hard to enjoy the water.
The day pass costs about $75 per person and gives you total access to the Riu Palace, including lunch and dinner. You can also buy a day pass to Atlantis, which is more expensive. And you’ll have to also purchase a separate passes for the water slides and water parks. The taxi cab costs about $20 round trip for 3 people. if you can get a cab.
When we arrived, the weather was horrible and rainy. The Riu Palace was very generous and when we couldn’t enjoy the beach told us they would refund our payment in full without even asking. They just did it. Had the weather been nice, it would have been a great afternoon.
Near the Riu is the Comfort Inn along the beach which is also very small. It’s not easy to get a cab back to the cruise line. I ended up taking a limousine from the Comfort Inn back to the cruise port.
The Cruise port at Nassau was fun. It had nice little shops and an “open air” market that wasn’t really open air at all, and inside a huge clay walled warehouse. There were some great restaurants with plazas and nice cafes where we enjoyed lobster and ceviche salads. It was great. We walked around the shopping area near the cruise port, called Festival Place, which has little shops.
We chose three entertainment events on board to enjoy.
The first was Cirque Dreams and Dinner package, where we ate dinner while watching the circus performers really do amazing things in a space of about 20 feet in the center of the restaurant, hanging and swinging from the ceiling right over our heads. The costs was $119 for the dinner for three.
It was thrilling and very entertaining. The dinner was nice.
We also saw Blue Man Group, which is phenomenal. Norwegian Epic is the only ship that offers the exclusive show. If you have not seen it on the mainland, you have to see the show on board the ship. When it was over, we posed for photos with the blue-faced performers and purchase done of the three paintings they create during the show.
It was well worth it. We chose a show during a night when we were at sea, rather than a night when we would have a land excursion. But that means booking things as soon as the bookings open before the cruise. The shows on days when you are at sea book up quickly. Few people want to rush from the land tours back to the ship and then to a show all in the same day.
The final show was the Legends Concert, which features celebrity look-a-like singers performing in lip-sync to the music. Kind of like a Karaoke party. But, at least it was something to do. It lasted 55 minutes.
During the cruise, one of the look-a-like celebrities was Steven Tyler. He was close but he walked around acting like him and a lot of people on the boat thought he was the real thing. Not. Big lips. Wild feminine clothing and makeup. Always smiling. Nice guy. (Dude looks like a lady!)
Dining aboard the ship
Besides the Cirque Dreams and Dinner package, we also purchased two other specialty dinners that we scheduled for nights that we were at sea.
Moderno is the Brazilian Steak and meat restaurant where they bring you freshly cooked meats on a skewer (similar to Fago de Chao and others like it). They are a little skimpy on the servings though. Although they did serve grilled pineapple which was phenomenal. I had to push to get a second serving, though, and that was disappointing. The meats were good but they were not great. The dinner lasts about 90 minutes. They do gentle nudge you out. The costs was $135 for three people.
The other specialty restaurant we booked was Teppanyaki, the Japanese hibachi restaurant where we enjoyed some sushi and also lobster and steak seared right at the table on the hibachi grill. It was fun and very similar to the hibachi restaurants in the states. That’s also planned for around 90 minutes. The cost was only $75 for three people.
None of them were spectacular.
Overall, the cruise was enjoyable. Like everything, it seems that everyone is trying to make more money. The cruise cost $3,000 for three people (one child) but if you book early you can save about $300 and one of their children travel’s free offerings. Though in reality, the child doesn’t really travel free. They still charge you tax and fees.
Still, nothing beats the islands. And when you can visit three islands and enjoy the variety that each offers, it makes the inconveniences of the cruise itself worth it all.
The food could be better but you can’t blame the cruise line because so many tourists are inconsiderate pigs and cows.
I definitely will be sailing on the Norwegian Epic again, hoping that the experience will at least be as good or possibly, who knows, even better the second time around.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and political columnist. He is the managing editor of the Illinois News Network at www.IllinoisNewsNetwork.com.)
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Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at www.TheArabDailyNews.com, www.TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com. He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, YNetNews.com, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media. In 2009, Hanania received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.
The managing editor of Suburban Chicagoland Online News website www.SuburbanChicagoland.com, Hanania's columns also appear in the Southwest News Newspaper Group of 8 newspapers.
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