Norwegian Epic - Western Mediterranean
A moment of madness occured on the 2nd August 2011.  Okay, with me it's ALWAYS madness.  But hey, sane is boring and I don't do boring.  Anyway, window shopping again I came across a fantastic deal for Norwegian Epic from the 2nd-9th October 2011 but then went and booked the 9th-16th by mistake!  I think it's because I had done a week-long Med cruise from Barcelona to three of the four ports on the same dates the year before on Celebrity Constellation.  Well it didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.  For a Guarantee Stateroom and flight it came to £988, almost the same as I paid for Connie.  The next price up was a double inside from over £1,200 so this wasn't to be sniffed at and it would be fun to try a Studio Cabin and the communal lounge which goes with it since I've heard such good things about them.  When I had been on Epic for the disasterous cruise from Rotterdam to Southampton in June 2010, I hadn't been able to book direct online as a single passenger so went to my travel agent then did the rest online afterwards.  At Steve Read's funeral in February 2011, I discussed Epic and her problems before, during and after that trip with Steve's friends, Dave Monk from Metro, and Claire Riches, Head of Marketing at NCL, who had given Dave and I a lift to the wake.  Steve had also been on that trip, plus the jolly afterwards, but I hadn't known until I saw his Sky Travel videos so immediately texted him to say, "Oi!  Why didn't you tell me you were going?", or words to that effect.  Mind you, I hadn't told him I was going either.  Oops!  Several stories were told of Steve's antics at the terminal, boarding and onboard which, knowing him, I could believe were no exaggeration!  Still miss that bugger and life's too quiet without him.  Claire told me they were changing the booking system so from this year, single travellers in the UK would be able to do it online like everyone else.  So I put it to the test - and goofed at the first hurdle!  I'd aged myself, putting the year of birth as 1960 and not realising until it was done so it had me as a new client when I'm a Latitudes member.  I'm so used to drop down menus where you select an option.  By the time I noticed I looked up their office opening hours and was a mere minute too late.  I contacted NCL UK via Twitter to ask for help since I was unable to phone until the afternoon.  They had been the first cruise line to follow me and have always been a nice, friendly bunch.  Patricia, in the office, got back to me very quickly and by lunchtime it was corrected with a new confirmation sent, including flights.  Next job was booking my transport and there was only one place to go.  At Silver Drive I'm known as the cruise lady, which is one way to be remembered by a business!  Now I was beginning to get excited, despite my rash decision, which I gave my dad a chance to talk me out of.  Despite a few faults with Epic, she is a fabulous ship but that first cruise didn't leave much time to enjoy her properly.  I've wanted to go back and thought it would be a while, since I still haven't managed a return to Jade after three years.  NCL get a bad press thanks to certain people on the internet when they're just a business and the other cruise lines don't get crucified for their business decisions.  Many people dismiss Epic purely on her exterior look alone, refusing to even entertain the idea of going beneath the surface, probably in case they actually like the product.  Yes she's no beauty queen but inside she is fabulous.  A complete departure from their older vessels.  I was totally blown away on my first trip.  They put so much thought into it and, unlike other lines' mega monsters shrinking public rooms so you play Sardines (if you can get in at all!), NCL retain space.  Take Royal Caribbean, for example.  While Vision and Radiance class have public rooms with plenty of seating, Voyager, Freedom and Oasis don't.  Places such as The Viking Crown Lounge, with three levels on Vision, are one from Radiance upwards, reducing the amount of space while increasing passengers.  The Schooner Bar on Radiance class is larger than Vision but a cubby hole you walk past between the Casino and theatre on Voyager and Freedom classes, with a nightclub opposite.  The pubs on Voyager and Freedom are so small you have to wonder why they bother.  NCL may frustratingly sacrifice deck space but they don't skimp on interior ones as they add more passengers.  Don't get me started on Princess and its P&O sisters!  NCL also have, in my opinion, the best food at sea.  It will also be great not having to posh up for a week.  I don't mind it occasionally, but P&O and Cunard take it too far with the majority of the cruise being like that.  People complain about NCL 'Nickel and Diming' but they have a choice.  If they choose to pay for extras, they have no right to grumble.  No one forces them to and there are plenty of free things to do aboard, as well as places to eat.  I received an email from NCL about the cruise and doing things via My NCL, so I registered with that.  I hadn't planned to do any tours in Italy, since I've been before and many of them are of no interest.  Then I looked down their list and saw some which could be good.  I don't care about Florence, Pisa or Rome (Rome would have the papal audience, being a Wednesday, so many places would be hard to get into as happened a year earlier).  Everyone does that.  I like visiting other towns and doing different things, such as when I did the Livorno canal tour a year before.  It also shows people there are more to these places than the norm.  After receiving an email from NCL on the 18th August saying 52 days to go (it was 51 but there you go), I logged into My NCL to see not only were the e-docs ready to print, but I had been allocated Cabin 11501.  I'd have to connect the new printer before I could get anything off but at least they now send REAL luggage tags instead of the staplemania I had with Gem and Jade - yay!!!!  Got to love Norwegian for listening!

So here we were, the day I was reunited with Epic after almost sixteen months, had arrived.  Because the weather that week a year before had been freezing and windy, while either side had been hot, I didn't know what to pack so played it safe with summer tops and cardies.  Then I checked the weather and it would be the complete opposite - woo!  I was so pleased I didn't have to take woollies and my winter jacket so my case would be lighter.  We were allowed to check in at Terminal 3 earler than scheduled.  I was given 24F, a window seat, and not even asked which type I wanted.  Then up to security and why is it, air or seaport, people ALWAYS take their belts, coats, shoes off and empty their pockets there instead of in the queue? In departures it was boiling.  Why are airports alway so bloody hot????  It is so you'll buy some overpriced duty free deodorant and underwear?  The gate wasn't due to be opened until 10.20am so I grabbed some breakfast - Boots chicken mayo sarnie washed down with Lucozade.  I love healthy eating!  The gate opened a bit earlier and was 24A.  We were bussed to the plane and, contrary to what the Captain said, it wasn't full.  We began to taxi at 11.25am, ten minutes late then waited forever to get to the runway with a private jet, big fat Airbus and smaller plane after us, finally taking off at 11.50am.  On the flight were a Scottish family who were very excited at taking their first ever cruise.  We flew over the Pyreneés before making the Barcelona approach.  Our unmistakable ship was down there along with the familiar vessels of Ryndam, Grand Holiday and Azamara Journey, who was the other side of the bridge.  Grand Holiday I saw the same time a year before on Celebrity Constellation in Italy, Ryndam was stalking me from Norway on Aurora three months earlier and the Azamara was last spotted in her old livery in Stockholm from Jewel of the Seas in 2009.

We went through the usual immigration then found the carousel.  After a little wait, it was turned on and luggage came through fast.  The transfer from airport to ship was a nightmare, but I won't lay blame because I don't know whether it's down to NCL or the bus company.  When you came out at arrivals, Holland America were there but NCL reps were nowhere to be seen.  I walked up and down, passing many signs but still not one NCL person so I ended up asking the HAL people who pointed a long way from the waiting crowd.  Once there, I was told to go and wait over by the yellow sign in front of the window.  We still had our luggage and I got chatting to a couple from London who were NCL regulars as we waited.  After 3pm, we actually moved to the waiting bus, dragging our cases behind us then waited for one of the reps to turn up before continuing on our way.  We were divided into fifteen as the driver took our luggage and put it into the hold.  At 3.30pm, more than an hour after landing, we set off only to stop at another terminal and pick more up.  A year earlier, Celebrity had been close to where HAL were and waved their paddle so passengers found them, we handed our cases over which were loaded onto a wagon and went straight to the port and all within half an hour.
Once we arrived at Terminal A, they offloaded the cases, put them onto trolleys and wheeled them away.  After more security as you arrived then an eerily quiet and empty check-in, it was time to board the ship.  As soon as I got to the top, I heard the remnants of eight bells.  Ryndam was due to sail at 5pm, so nothing unusual there except it was Epic!  None us us, who were tired and wanted to freshen up, realised but it explained the lack of photographers taking your boarding photo.  We went on via the middle of Prom deck, which is really badly designed, and I discovered that the first time.  Doors were either end and in this instance, we had to go aft to go inside.  My muster station, B7, was the Epic Theatre so I then had to walk, complete with hand luggage, all the way forward.  The only good thing about it was you didn't need to take your lifejacket.  Naturally I was very worried about my small case but a member of the crew offered to keep an eye on it for me. but that wasn't really the point.  Muster shouldn't have taken place until EVERYONE was aboard, especially since sailaway wasn't until 6pm.  I had to sit halfway down in the theatre and was having kittens about my case.  On my left was a Japanese lady who had arrived the day before from Tokyo and would be flying out the day after we returned and on my right was an American called Sandra, who filled me in about the Studio cabins.
It was all over at 4.50pm after a brief message and demonstration of how to put on a jacket.  Bloody waste of time then!  It took ages to get out, people in lower rows determined to go up the stairs to get out, preventing others from moving, despite the fact there was another exit nearer them.  My case was still there - phew!  The crew member stood guard over it so I thanked her then headed for the lift.  My cabin was 11 and this was 6 so there was no way I'd walk it with my back.  Many of us were waiting ages while Spanish people would just barge in whenever one arrived.  I reached 11501 at 5.10pm!  My main case looked forlorn standing outside the room.  The door at the end of the corridor is locked from the outside, so only those with a Studio assigned keycard can get in, which is a good idea.  Despite it looking cramped in the photos, it was actually fairly spacious with plenty of storage.  It was a bit tight getting around the side of the bed.  When I uploaded a photo to Facebook, it was nicknamed the padded cell.  Apt for me then!  The mood lighting, which changed colour, was irritating, but luckily I managed to find the switch straightaway.
After freshening up, I went up to Deck 15 for sailaway only I couldn't see what was going on.  I bought the soft drinks package - eventually!  It was so noisy at the sailaway party by the pool I had to yell at a couple of people to make myself heard then yell at the bloke selling the thing, which was right by the speaker.  I ended up going to the quiet area near the stern and called my dad, who told me Grand Holiday was on the move, followed by Ryndam.  As I was snapping them, I noticed we had moved away from the berth so went astern to get the Azamara.
My Inaugural Season T-shirt got a few smiles and nods from the crew as I headed for some much-needed food in the Garden Café.  I hadn't had a proper meal since the junk at about 9.30am BST, only a bag of cocktail snacks on the plane.  One of the crew had been on that ill-fated trip of mine and we discussed it as the Azamara came into view.  My dinner was a red bean curry which was delicious!  Really tangy like curry should be.  Then I went outside and spotted Ryndam sailing into the sunset before heading to the stern again to get the sunset and Azamara Journey.
I got a refill of Pepsi and the bartender looked at my T-shirt and said, "You've come back!"  He hadn't been on the first trips but heard about them and also how many passengers said they'd never return.  It's a shame because they were just teething problems and she's a very nice ship.  I returned to the padded cell but got a bit lost, though I did find the Lounge, which was exclusively for those in Studios.
A while later, after cancelling my Palma excursion due to the strain it would cause my back, I ended up having a cake in the Atrium cafe and bumping into the London couple, my dad texted to say Brilliance of the Seas was off our port bow.  When I got up, I couldn't see anything.  It turned out she was about twenty miles away.  Grrr!  It was a lovely mild night so I went for a wander and came across their Beatle tribute at Spice H20, who were very good apart from 'Paul' being clearly right-handed.  Afterwards I spotted something in the distance but one of Epic's fails is the juddering.  Even standing there above the pool deck, she judders and the deck even moves when people walk by.  It's not solid like other ships.  I have often taken great photos of other ships at night from whichever I've been on (most recently QM2 and Mein Schiff 2 in the Solent from Grand Princess) but this juddering made it difficult because there is no way you can keep the camera still unless you're happy snapping with a 3x.  I don't know whether the problem is caused by the snail's pace we were doing with our short hop milk run or a leftover from her initial problem but it's a bloody nuisance.  I've included the photo below but it could be a ferry for all I know.  Wouldn't be the first time I'd been caught out like that!  Afterwards I noticed the Great Outdoors was open doing late night food.  I was still hungry so grabbed something.
And so to the padded cell.  When I'd been on before, a card was provided in the slot.  I don't know whether it was just balconies or whether they stopped them, but I knew I'd go out without my keycard so improvised with a Red Funnel ticket and Hythe Ferry Sunday timetable change card.  Did the job!  Although, to be honest, I really can't see the point of these.  It only turns the lights off so defeats the purpose of saving electicity.  Unlike last time, I found all the switches - yay!!!!  However, the glow in the dark eyes were disconcerting.  They're really buttons for an overhead bedside light type of thing.
Monday was a sea day as we sailed to Livorno.  Unlike my similar trip a year earlier on Constellation, this would only take in four ports with two sea days.  Suited me fine!  I think the day after embarking should be at sea, especially if many have had to fly in.  It saves so much rushing around.  I was more tired than I'd thought and slept till 11.10am - eek!  I had many interruptions, including the Captain's announcement at 9.30am, which went on rather a long time.  Whichever steward I had had to do the cabin so I thought I'd better get out.  We'd had a rather bumpy night, which was quite fun but not when the safe door inside the wardrobe by my head kept hitting the inside of the door.  I realised I'd forgotten my hairbrush - oops!  It WAS in my bag but before I left, I used it to reach a power switch under a table in my bedroom and clearly forgot to put it back.  A quick trip to Guest Relations (and unlike last year, it actually said "Guest Relations" and "Shore Excursions" above each relevant desk so you didn't have to guess) then across to bokk another Palma tour, one with would be less strenuous.  Afterwards, I went to the photo shop to buy my sailaway photo and pre-order the DVD.  The bloke used to work for Cunard, first Vicky, then opened Betty and said he missed Southampton because it was great for the crew.  I went to lunch in O'Sheehan's and tried the fish and chips.  I'm always curious to see how foreign lines do our former national dish.  While NCL have the best food at sea (others have good but NCL is consistent, be it free eateries or paid), this was a little disappointing.  The fish itself was wonderfully flaky and succulent with plenty of flavour.  The fries (wish they'd use steak fries) were very dry and 'mushy peas' were pureed mint flavoured peas.  A good try though and I doubt many Americans would know any different. Afterwards I went for a wander.  They were having a sale by Spice H2O so I bought my dad an Epic T-shirt, seeing as I had inaugural stuff so didn't need more.  An American couple in front of me were glad to have the sea day as well.

On the way back to the cabin I popped into the shop to find a brush only their 'Essentials' are seriously lacking.  All available was a comb, which is fine - if you have short hair.  Unlike other ships, you couldn't even buy soap!  I really don't understand why NCL were so limited.  There is a captive market, especially considering the number of things you're unable to take on a plane, and they haven't tapped into it.  When I went back to the padded cell, the steward was doing it, so I dumped my shopping then went to get a Pepsi refill while he finished.  When I returned I noticed neither bin had been emptied, which I put down to my being there so he hurried it up.  Mind you, unlike other lines I've been on, these started around 9am and were still going after 1pm.  Despite sleeping so long, I was still incredibly tired.  Personally, I think they put something in either the aircon or food so you sleep then are hungry as soon as you wake up, which isn't a bad thing on NCL!  I did some internet before getting ready for dinner.  I had pre-booked the Cirque Dreams & Dinner in the Spiegel Tent.  They have two types, Standard and Premium.  I have no idea what the difference is apart from Premium sit closer to the acts and you pay $10 more.  There are two shows, 6.30pm and 9.30pm and doors open half an hour before.  The queue when I got down was horrendous!  I ended up near the back but it was okay.  An American couple, Len and Julia, were from Maryland and very chatty.  They got to the ship even later than I had.  Once the queue started to move, they scanned your card and in you went.  Len and Julia said I could join them and we were put on a table of ten, of which I was the only non-American.  You weren't allowed to take photos of video, but I thought I'd try and sneak some of the food and if I got told off, so be it.  You had everything which was on the menu and what I did like was how they asked about allergies at the beginning and put a coloured napkin in front of you.  I'm allergic to bell peppers/capiscum and far too many chefs put it into food which shouldn't have it so when my starter came, it was free of them.  Some just remove it but the smell from the juice is still there, but this had noe.  The only awful pepper smell was from everyone else's plate.  I had heard so much about this show from those on after my last trip and it didn't disappoint.  It lasts approximately ninety minutes and is amazing!  A mix of acrobatics, comedy, audience participation (one of the blokes on our table was roped into a silent movie sketch and was grateful to only do the clapperboard rather than have a bigger role), illusion.  The no photos rule was grating when one of the male performers was only clothed waist down as he started his act in a bath so was lovely and wet.  A shame his fellow performers towelled him down.  If anyone reading this goes on Epic, book this show.  You won't be disappointed - just so amazed you forget to eat!

I went for a walk on the Prom deck, despite the sign saying closed.  There was a couple at the other end playing chess then it was back to the cabin and found the bins still hadn't been emptied.  I also wondered if lack of pillow chocs were a cost-cutting measure, since Royal Caribbean seem to have dropped them too.  Early start in the morning for our arrival and ships, before my excursion, so I hit my lovely, comfy bed.  Well it deserved it for half of it creaking!  I wouldn't have minded if someone helped me make so much noise.
Land ahoy!  We were due to dock for 7am so I got up early.  Liberty of the Seas, who I hadn't seen since April 2007 when she did a preview in Southampton, was up our bum, due the same time.  Liberty had a few changes during her refit earlier in the year, including the addition of a screen on the deck so there was no missing her, no matter how dark her hull became as curtains closed because she now glowed.  During the weeks following my booking, I followed my ship weekly on the AIS and Livorno and Civitavecchia were the only ports she'd play Epic Roulette by not having a regular berth.  Where would she be today????  Place your bets!  It was bloody freezing as Grand Holiday and Silver Spirit appeared too.
It was so cold I clean forgot about Seven Seas Voyager, which was due for 8am, as I went to get breakfast and warm up.  I then got ready for my excursion, which was the Marble Caves of Carrara with the meeting in the Manhattan Room for 8.45am.  I think a lady was in the wrong place because the tour she mentioned wasn't one of the three.  One little niggle were the continual announcements, which were probably for the benefit of those just coming in, but they did annoy.  Mine was the second group called, we were given our sticker on the way out and a German lady from Hamburg said she was just following me.  She was on her own but had a balcony.  I liked how, unlike other lines, you kept half your ticket, which was for the shuttlebus, if you wanted to go into town after returning, so you didn't have to pay a charge.  There were just thirteen of us plus escort who looked like Steve Read!  I tell you, when I first saw him, my heart just sunk and I had to do a double-take.  He was taller than Steve had been, younger and was (I think) American but I really wished I could have texted him from the minibus to tell him he had a double on Epic.  What I did like was how he was wearing a top which clearly showed he was part of the crew and our escort, unlike other lines where they wear their usual clothes so you have no idea if they're a passenger of not.  Also on the bus was Mimi, an 85 year old from Houston and her daugher, Hannah.  I enjoy these type of cruises because you meet so many people from other countries rather than just sticking to your own.  We set off, picking up another guide en route and having a toilet break.  The marble caves should really be called marble mountain because there are no caves whatsoever that we saw.  I suppose if they called it that it would be less interesting.  After passing Pisa in the distance, we saw many buidings and sculptures which were made of marble en route to our next stop higher up the mountain.

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© Patricia Dempsey 9th-16th October 2011
Not to be reproduced without permission