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Did I say we aren’t really ‘cruise’ people? We actually didn’t know this and blowing a week of your vacation and the money to find out, is not fun. But let me back up a little and explain how we found ourselves on a cruise. Our friends Mary and Tom, were heading to Port Canaveral to embark on a six night Caribbean cruise, with stops in ports in Jamaica, Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. They were seasoned cruisers and knew exactly what they liked and wanted. They had a twelve year old daughter Macy and she would be bringing her friend Hannah, along for company. So they wanted a kid-friendly cruise with a youth group and tons of activities to keep them both occupied, and safe. And of course, a warm weather cruise, because who the heck would want to do one to somewhere cold? Mary said “Why don’t you join us?” and that’s how we came to be on a Norwegian Cruise aboard one of their biggest ships, the Epic.
The Epic is a floating hotel for 4100 people, with 19 decks, including an entirely private luxurious deck for those that own or upgrade to The Haven. Besides the typical sundry amount of restaurants, buffets, fitness centers and wifi areas, which seems basic in most of the places we travel, the other things that caught my attention were two pools, five hot tubs, three multi-story slides, an adult area complete with a pool. Whew, as we are not fond lovers of being with a lot of children, I was happy to know there might be a place I could hide away from noisy families. They also offered many children and teen areas (unimportant to me), but more compelling for me were a bowling alley, a casino, a jogging track, a sports complex, video arcade and a spa including thermal water therapies. Now, I was unlikely to use any of these amenities or participate in these activities, but it was an added incentive to maybe do something different on this vacation. The main point in us going on this cruise was to spend time with our friends.
Norwegian Cruise Line, from what I could tell, had one very distinct difference from other cruise lines. They had ‘free dining,’ meaning there was no set time for your meals. Instead, you are free to feast whenever you like. We were to learn that this difference would become a huge bone of contention once we experienced it, and understood what that would exactly entail. You see, they only have one buffet area, albeit huge, and pretty much the only place to get breakfast. So, between high time, pretty much 07:00 – 09:00 hours, almost 4000 people must come and eat at the buffet. Now when you are serving yourself, getting up to visit the egg station, then the fruit station, and don’t forget the coffee station, most breakfast times would take about an hour. This lead to a huge backlog of people and so there were huge lineups for food and for tables. We were travelling as a group of seven and it was hard to get seated together, so we mostly split into four and three for this meal. But honestly, there were times when finding space for the three of us was very hard! I quickly came to realize why planning dinning times are so liked by many, with the guaranteed seats and dining companions and no fighting for a place at the trough!
There are ‘things’ one gets to know when you cruise. As a first timer, one is really at a deficit. There were many shows on the ship, and besides being told by our friends to reserve the Cirque du Soleil Act and dinner ahead of the cruise, we were silly and embarked upon the ship expecting to be able to sign up for dinners and theaters over the course of the week. That was after I figured out how to use the in-house reservation system on our television. So, later on that first day, as we went to reserve our meals at the restuarants for our numerous days afloat, the only available times at most of the specialty dining areas was 9:00 pm. What??!!! When I am on vacation, I’m usually hard pressed to be awake at this time, never mind eating a meal. I was not only disappointed but angry about this. I had spent the couple of months before the cruise, browsing over all the literature Norwegian put out and they did not once mention the importance of pre-booking. Mary just looked at us and muttered ‘newbie,’ cause after all, they had made their reservations for everything months before setting sail. As for the entertainment, I will say they had some really fantastic acts, and I was able to sign up for a couple, but there were a couple of shows I would have liked to have seen, but they were all booked solid even before embarkation day. The one saving grace is that Sue, having some special needs, had contacted their special needs department and had a contact person before she even stepped on the ship. They were able to work some magic so we could eat earlier in the night, between 5:00pm and 6:00 pm, because Sue couldn’t wait that late at night.
So two pools I had read and many hot tubs. I packed my bathing suit and swimming accessories, including my beach bag for the many hours I imagined I’d be pool side soaking in the rays and dunking in the pool to cool off. The realty was so far from this! Firstly, I was to learn the pools were at the top of the ship where it is extremely windy. Now I’m the type of person, it must be at least 30C with humidex before I will even think about putting on shorts. So a swim requires even hotter temperatures to lure me into the water and if there is any sign of a breeze, even at 25C, I generally am very cold and can get blue finger nails. So I hit the deck and wondered if I should have packed a coat! The breeze was enough to keep me in long pants and long sleeves throughout the cruise. Of course, the idea of two pools was also really a stretch in their description. They were really very small, what I referred to as postage stamp size. You couldn’t really ‘swim’ in them they were so small, but rather you could stand, with six of your closest friends up to chest high water. The only difference between the pools and hot tubs was the level of water, which was also chest high when you sat in the hot tub! When I actually thought about the weight of water and what it entails to carry that across the ocean, I wasn’t really surprised by the small size of them, at least logically. And if you were to venture beyond the frigid breezes and climb a tall ladder, it did look like fun to slide down a multi-story slide into the postage stamp, the true use of these pools. But thinking this vacation would include some good sunbathing and splashing, was a hugely disappointing reality. And the slide was closed after the first day due to the high winds out in open ocean. Go figure.
Given the hugeness of the ship and the amount of people on it, I was surprised to actually have found some privacy in areas were Sue and I enjoyed an afternoon or two together. I found out you just have to climb higher and higher, beyond the bars and line dancing on deck, and there are small balconies all over the ship. When you hunkered down below the balcony, you were safe from the winds and could enjoy some sun and a good book. I also must commend both the entertainment and the food. All the specialty restaurants were very good. However it was the entertainment that was excellent. We watched a Cirque de Soleil show in about the space of a 12×12 area they had as a stage and they did all sorts of acrobats and flying trapeze numbers. I held my breathe a few times as their timing and proximity to the audience (me) was so close it was extremely risky for a mishap. Their shows and entertainers were overall excellent I enjoyed the shows we went to. We did spend an inordinate amount of time in the family karaoke bar, as Macy and Hannah wanted to sing. However, they agonized each night over choosing a song and when they did, they would chicken out. So yes, Mary and I eventually got up with Macy, and we sang backup while snapping our fingers so Macy could have her moment of karaoke. Another star was born that night and it only took her the six nights to work up to it!
Ah the ports. We had something to look forward to. I had even planned an excursion at one of them, a half day of snorkeling at a reef. I was so very excited. However, I was soon to learn that actually going into port is a rather happen-stance occurrence on cruises. Apparently seasoned cruisers are aware of this. Weather and ocean conditions, especially so far off shore since the boats are so big and have to be in deeper water, are often cancelled. One woman told me she had sailed six times and never been able to disembark at the Cayman Islands. As we were disembarking the ship, the woman was gleaming from ear to ear. I considered ourselves lucky, having heard her experience. But it was short lived and I was soon disappointed. As we reached shore, all the excursions were cancelled that day because of rough ocean conditions. So much for snorkeling. This became just another part of the vacation that was disappointing.
So all in all, we did not enjoy this vacation and decided we were not cruise-type people. The trip had served its purpose for us, which was to spend time with out friends Mary and Tom. In fact, I understood why they enjoy cruises so much as parents. There are a ton of activities every day for the children and youth. Macy and Hannah were entertained and kept safe, while Mary and Tom enjoyed adult time. Macy and Hannah were able to experience more independence, wandering around on their own on the ship, where they never would be able to at home in safety. Truly, if I had children, I really think this would be the type of vacation I would take for the family. But when Mary said “We are going on a cruise to the Dominican and Grand Turks,” we quickly said, “Enjoy.” But even as I write this, we are planning another cruise, this time to Alaska. We are hoping our experience is much better. We are doing a combination land and cruise vacation. We are going to try it again, on a bit of a smaller ship, with more knowledge and experience as we are no longer ‘newbie’ cruisers. We hope to see beautiful landscape and some wildlife. We did invite Tom and Mary, who just said “A cold weather cruise, no thank you.” So truth is, our first cruise was almost our last cruise, but not quite.