My first experience with a cruise was traumatic. I was attending high school and my school organized a cruise through the islands of Greece. Fantastic, on paper. Too bad that the sea was so rough and the ship so small that there was a real hecatomb. Headaches, green-colored classmates, teachers panicking. Me? Not immune: I remember a terrible headache and a very upset stomach. That time I told myself that I would not cruise again. Ever.
Over the years, even if all my friends, relatives and acquaintances tried to drag me on a cruise, I always refused.
At least until I received a very special invitation. A press trip on the Norwegian Epic, with a maximum capacity of about 6000 crew members and guests, who had just returned from the Caribbean.
The Norwegian Cruise Line cruise would last three days in the Western Mediterranean, boarding in Barcelona, Spain, with a stop in my beloved Naples and then disembarkation at Civitavecchia (RM). Feel Free aboard the Norwegian Epic… really?
Curiosity had the best of me: I finally had the opportunity to make a new experience and above all to understand, with a brief turnaround, how I would react to a real cruise.
Norwegian Cruise Line has decided to change the cruising world, setting up a challenge that they easily won ad making it absolutely different from the traditional context. Introduced in 2001 on all the NCL fleet, Feel Free was popular with Norwegian cruise ships right from the start. Each boat offers up to 27 dining options, lounges, bars, theaters and several shows to choose from in the evening, according to your tastes. The restaurants where you dine are therefore open from 5:30 pm to midnight, with the chance to book in advance, both online and on board, even for the whole cruise. A very smart choice, I will tell you more about it later on.
As for the long dress at shows or specialty restaurants, it is not mandatory as it is for other cruise companies. I have personally seen cruisers enjoying a dinner with a show, in a fairly elegant setting, wearing flip flops and shorts.
Let me add a little personal note, though. Although you can do what you feel like doing, and although I do not particularly like to doll up when I’m on vacation, there are some circumstances where it really is necessary. None of us would think of going to the theater wearing a swimsuit, right? Apply this concept to your NCL cruise, carrying with you at least one nice dress and maybe a pair of classy shoes even that nice pair of low-heeled sandals will do!) if you are going to treat yourself to elegant dinners or the wonderful evening shows . It’s Feel Free, not Shabby Free!
Before you board
Before you embark you will need to submit a credit card for the cabin, as a guarantee and to open an account aboard, so make sure you have one available. Once aboard, you will not have to pull out the money (if you want, keep in mind that the accepted currency is the US dollar), you just need to use your room’s electronic key, signing up with the name and number of the cabin to pay for your purchases. The account is opened at the port at check-in and will be closed the night before the disembarkation. In the morning you will be provided with detailed statement of all charges. As soon as you open your account, a first authorization will be required to your bank. Usually it’s a deposit of $450 per person for 8 nights and more, $300 for seven nights and $150 for cruises shorter than 6 nights. Unused money will be returned on the day of disembarkation, however, some banks will take up to 30 days before unlocking the money.
If you plan to go straight to the pool as soon as you get on the ship, I recommend you to keep some clothes (and your swimsuit) in a backpack or a small trolley. In fact, bulky baggage must be registered at check in. If you get to the harbor with your NCL shuttle bus, it’ll be the staff to pick up the luggage for you. When luggage is checked, leave it to the crew (keep in mind that bulky luggage will have to be left out of the door in the evening before the landing, so you will need a small backpack or trolley to hold a spare for the next morning ), to get back in line. The check in just before boarding is, however, pretty fast. In fact, the over twenty clerks available allow you to quickly go through all the pre-boarding practices. You will be given a magnetic card that won’t have to be returned when you disembark. A nice souvenir that somebody even started collecting!
NCL Crew – Go with the flow
I want to tell you about my first impact with the Norwegian Cruise Line crew. As soon as I arrived at the airport in Barcelona, I was directed to a group of cruisers waiting for their shuttle bus. Our guide was accompanying us to the bus when a woman in our group slipped, falling on the escalators. Well, this guy not only ran to help her, blocking the escalators, but he brought down on his own all the heavy luggage of those blocked on the escalators. He accompanied the lady to the bus and brought her luggage for her.
I have to say I was pretty impressed. Cruise Director Richard Janicki told me “The crew guidelines are simple, they have to smile and be always available. If there is a problem, they have to sort it out themselves, it doesn’t have to get to me. ”
And indeed it’s just what happens. As soon as I boarded, I was welcomed by a huge “Welcome aboard!” with loud music. A new adventure was about to start and I was pumped!
In the morning, down the corridor from my cabin to the lifts, as I walked through cleaning crew it was a continuous: “Good morning!” “Hey, how’s it going today?” It was impossible to keep frowning because I had been awakened too early, surrounded by so many smiling faces.
I’ve been observing the crew, from the waitress who left me cute animals made from towels to the security personnel. I’ve never noticed any rudeness. I think the NCL crew is one of the main reasons why this cruise company is so successful.
If the boat seems huge, however, be aware that a whole section of the ship is dedicated to on-board personnel. A small town with men and women from about 70 countries around the world (Philippines, Indonesia and India, mostly). Three main departments and over 1,700 crew members.
NCL, one of the first companies to hire women since 2000, with the beginning of the implementation of the Free Style concept, today goes up to the 40% of women.
The crew works on a ship for about three years, then gets moved to another. To try to prevent the boredom and the inevitable homesickness that no Skype call will ever sate, the company has hired specialists who deal with the crew’s entertainment. Evening movies and popcorn, basketball tournaments, yoga classes, in short, seem to love their crew at least as much as their guests.
Perhaps that is why they smile so much!
Cabins – Something for every pocket
I stayed in a cabin with a balcony on deck 11. The cabin, very comfortable and bright, featured a beautiful glass door that opened onto a private balcony. I could enjoy the view of the sea … and even an different view of Vesuvius, as we sailed to Civitavecchia!
The bed was really comfortable and there was the chance of adding a third bed if needed. The cabin also had a nice leather couch that was very relaxing for me in the evening while I worked on my notes at my laptop. There were also more cabinets than I expected. I was greeted with a nice tray of chocolate frosted strawberries and a bottle of sparkling Brut, comfortable slippers and a soft white bathrobe: NCL probably wanted to spoil me!
With 41 different types of cabins, for a wide choice of options that meets all the needs of any type of cruiser, Norwegian Cruise Line is also mindful of prices. There are several types of cabins that allow you to enjoy a vacation at sea without spending too much. However, this does not mean that there is less attention in furniture or the services offered. One thing that has pleasantly impressed me was to see how silent the cabins were. Definitely a point in favor of NCL! Being able to retreat to that silent cocoon with a sea view to rest and recharge the batteries was wonderful!
Every type of cabin can accommodate up to four people and thus is very family friendly. With children’s or teenagers’ beds, a common space with sofa, table and television, a large bathroom and a bedroom for mom and dad, they seemed bigger than some studio apartments in Milan that I visited with my sister!
Studios – Solo cruising
The Haven – A luxury retreat
The Haven has a penthouse with balcony, deluxe suites with an entire glass wall to look out at the sea, and even family villas with two bedrooms and a nice balcony, designed for families consisting of four elements. Guests are offered Bulgari’s bathroom products.
Restaurants – All you can eat
The choice is endless and doesn’t forget anyone. In each menu it is clearly stated in clear view the vegetarian, vegan and gluten free dishes. However, I noticed that the waiters are particularly keen to answer any doubts and to meet even the most complex demands.
It is possible to book dinners in the main restaurants and specialties with 90 days in advance, online, choosing your favorite time, to avoid the crowds. The system adopted on board however allows you to have a quiet a walk while waiting for a free table. The waiting guests are in fact given a device that will start blinking to alert them to go back to the restaurant: the concept “Feel Free” is obviously reflected even in the smallest of details!
Among the main restaurants I particularly liked the Manhattan Room, an art-déco style club on deck 6, with a wonderful stage on which a pianist performed to entertain cruisers, in a romantic and very elegant atmosphere. The Garden Café, an inevitable stop for my breakfasts (and lunches), is one of the few safe places for late lunchers like me. Opened almost all day, it has a large buffet with cooks preparing meals in front of you. You can eat Italian, Mexican, ethnic food, desserts, salads and there’s even a nice gelato maker. Breakfast ranges from eggs and bacon, meat and beans, to pancakes, waffles and a selection of different desserts each day. Large white sofas or elegant upholstered chairs next to the windows are available for guests to enjoy such delicacies, accompanied by a breathtaking view.
The Spice H2O is a restaurant and club for adults only. With two hot tubs and a central swimming pool, it offers spicy foods and drinks for lunch and dinner, turning into a nightclub worthy of Ibiza at sunset.
If calories don’t frighten you, then go to the Great Outdoors, on deck 15, a grill with near the pools, serving burgers, hot dogs, chips and hot rolls all day long.
Another great choice was Cagney’s Steakhouse, with a menu almost completely dedicated to meat, so detailed that we had to ask the help of one of the waiters to know more about the cuts or what was the most tender (ribeye – delicious!). The menu is a la carte, in a very quiet room with sea view. Of course, it’s not the best choice for vegetarian or vegan friends.
Ice Bar – North Pole on the Mediterranean sea
Entertainment – Never a dull moment
Another tremendous success is also Howl at the Moon, a real music cabaret with two piano players turn the public into a part of the show. You will have to be ready to applaud, sing, dance and shout: fun is assured!
Only on the Norwegian Epic you will find the Cavern Club, the reproduction of a club where the Beatles played, with a cover band that every night delights guests with the greatest hits from the Fab Four and other international bands.
As if that’s not enough, every day a newsletter with all the daily activities is delivered to your cabin. From country dance lessons to foot reflexology lectures, video game challenges, live shows with interesting prizes, onboard days are always full. Even in the evening there are often presentations of watches by famous brands or games for families and couples, always very much appreciated by everyone. To make it brief, you never get bored!
Shore excursions – With or without a guide
The excursions are quite expensive, so if you want to explore Naples on your own, I would recommend my guide with a day itinerary from the harbor.
I have tried the Vesuvius + Pompei excursion, so I can’t tell you much about the others, except that they explore really beautiful places like Amalfi and Sorrento. For my experience, the bilingual tour guide (English/Italian) was really great. He talked about Naples, the Neapolitans, told anecdotes and even explained the origins of the Neapolitan dialect. I looked at the faces of the other cruisers, curious to understand their reaction, and I always found them with a beautiful smile on their face. Whenever the morale seemed low, because our feet hurt, our Neapolitan guide with a smart mouth, was able to make us laugh. It wouldn’t have been the same without him!
Yeah, because the excursion, combining Vesuvius and Pompeii, is not the easy. The hike up to Vesuvius by foot is quite tiring. We were given just over an hour to get to the top, take some pictures and get down again, but I found it wasn’t nearly enough time.
Also, having stopped for a pizza (discovering that the prices, just outside the archaeological site, are scandalous! 10€ for a Margherita??? In any other pizzeria you would pay less than 5€!) we entered the archaeological area of Pompeii when it was pretty hot. Even though we were never stopped for long, we could not see everything inside, not even the area where the gladiators used to train!
My suggestion, if you want to book an excursion, is to choose wither Pompeii or the Vesuvius, in order to have appreciate them more.
But how do the excursions work? It’s very simple. After booking, you will be delivered your ticket in your cabin. On the ticket you will find all the info, where you will be reunited with the group and the time (don’t be late!) you have to get to the designated deck. Once there, you will be assigned a number through a sticker. To disembark (and then when you get back) you will need your cabin key. Remember that when you get back on board you will have to go through the security checks once again, so metal detector, bag check and card control.
Pulse Fitness Center – Stay fit
Many friends tell me that coming back from a cruise, after eating so much and laying around, it is inevitable to put on weight. Well, on the NCL fleet you don’t have to. On the ships there is always a gym, you will find jogging tracks, basketball or volleyball courts… or even a climbing wall. On the Norwegian Epic I was able to see (no, I did not climb, I was terrified!) a climbing wall of 10×20 meters. This is the first ship in the cruise industry to have a wall of this type on board, accessible from two levels and with varying degrees of difficulty. But the thing that left me open mouthed was the bungee jumping trampoline, not far from the climbing area called Spider Web. It’s not exactly what I was expecting on a cruise ship!
If you don’t feel adventurous, on deck 15 every morning an instructor holds aerobics and dance sessions. You don’t have to book anything, just find yourself on the deck between the two bars, just by the pool, follow the pop music and join others to dance and have fun. The level is not overly challenging and you can stop whenever you want. I found it a great way to burn a bit of calories while having fun and especially making friends with so many other people!
So no excuses! On the NCL fleet being lazy is no longer an option!
Mandara Spa – Taking care of body and mind
As I have already mentioned, Norwegian Epic offers a series of Spa cabins. The reason?
Mandara is one of the largest spa complexes on board a cruise ship, that earned a World Spa Award as the Best cruise spa in the world. Almost 2883 square meters, with 24 private treatment rooms, two villas for couples, two Turkish baths Rasul, a hydrotherapy area, a Thermal Suite, a multi-service salon, a fitness center and a hairdresser.
In this context, you will also find 39 Spa cabins with balconies, mini suites and suites that offer free access to the spa. The Spa Suites also feature a large jacuzzi each.
The treatments range from hot stone massages to acupuncture, to teeth whitening and other practices that are performed exclusively by the specialized doctors on board. If the treatments are quite expensive, The Thermal Suite is not. There is a limited number of passes on sale, that cost about 200USD for a week or 50USD per day, but booking online before your arrival not only will you get the pass… it grants a 20USD discount!
As soon as I arrived at Mandara Spa I immediately noticed the atmosphere much quiet than other areas of the ship. The air smells of essential oils and the on-board staff is as always very helpful and nice. The changing rooms through which you access the Spa Suite are divided by sex. In the one for us girls there is a large area to undress, with lockers to leave the items we won’t carry inside, bathrobes and towels. There’s also shampoo and body soap, as well as a long row of mirrors and hairdryers.
You will then enter a relaxing area where you will find clean towels and something refreshing. Fresh lemon or orange flavored water, fresh fruit and the chance to enjoy hot herbal tea or chamomile with a selection available to guests. The area is quite large and you never have the impression of being on a cruise ship, unless you want to enjoy some sunshine. The exclusive area for the customers of the Spa Suite is in fact a beautiful sunny terrace, from which you can enjoy the magnificent view, laying comfortably on a chaise longue.
You can use sensory showers, steam rooms with different intensity, steam bath and wonderful heated ceramic deckchairs on which to relax after the treatments, to relax drowsing or reading a book.
A nice thermal pool occupies a good part of the space inside. Divided in different areas, all very pleasant, offers guests different treatments. From the hot jacuzzi to an area where strong hot water jets massage your legs, to the area where other jets (separated by intensity) massage your back, up to the small poolside niches where you enter for a pleasant massage on your hips and legs . My favorite area, however, where I would’ve gladly spent hours, is a part of the pool where you can lay down in the water, resting your head comfortably on a metal pillow. The hot water jets here are more intense, for a total body revitalizing and relaxing massage.
After walking so much because of the excursion I had swollen legs and feet. It took me an afternoon in the Thermal Suite to feel reborn.
I highly recommend buying a pass for this area, especially for those who book 7 or more day cruises: you won’t regret it!
The answer is… No! The first day I wasn’t really used to the slight vibration of the bed due to the movement of the ship, but tired as I was, I collapsed without thinking about it too much. Maybe I was just lucky, because the Mediterranean sea was flat as a table, but I never felt any movement. On board the Norwegian Epic, on the contrary I felt like being in a small town, where, just as usual, I sometimes got lost: it’s not my fault, it really is big!