Focus On Fun Travel

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cruising the Norwegian Epic

     The Norwegian Epic, as briefly mentioned in my previous blog, is an amazing ship in many ways.  We did make the 1.8 Mile hike from the Freedom Tower MetroMover stop, thinking we would need the excercise to ward off the evil spirits of eating too much on a cruise ship.  We only regretted that move because the sidewalk ended just after crossing the bridge on NE 6th Street.  This forced us to cross a couple roads, which were busy, and ended up walking along 2 different and equally busy cruise ship terminals, Celebrity, Carnival, a non-used one, then finally the Norwegian terminal. We were excited to arrive at the vary same time as a friend and his wife (Paul and Krista), who had arrived late the night before and who stayed in Ft. Lauderdale.

Garden Cafe Forward overlooking Italian Restaurant
     Since we were on opposite ends of the ship, for check-in, we had to split up; Barbi and I heading toward the bow, Paul and Krista staying there at the aft.  This was about 11:30am.  Check-in was rather flawless and quick, which makes me glad we arrived a little early.  A little different than Princess, we were checked in, then sent to a waiting area for when they would allow us to board.  It wasn't bad and there was juice that was available. We were in the 4th group boarding, when they called us at about 12:30, and we boarded on deck 6 forward, but we were told that our staterooms would not be available until approx 2pm, so we headed up to deck 15 and the Garden Cafe for lunch.  The buffet takes up the whole forward part of the ship on Deck 15.  The design made it really easy to get food without standing in a line for too long.  The same items are served in different locations.  I went for a really cheesy mac-n-cheese, a roasted chicken breast, and some steamed broccoli.  My only disappointment here, and throughout the cruise was that no one came and asked if we needed anything.  They would clear used plates, but that was about it.  OH! Except to ask if we needed anything from the bar (Extra $$).  I did like that there were always utensils wrapped in cloth napkins stacked in a holder on the table. That is unique.  The menu in the Garden Cafe never varied from day to day, which I found to be a disappointment.  But, the usual good things were ALWAYS available.  Burgers, Hotdogs, Pizza, salad, coldcuts, and really good selection of Ice cream flavors (Not just soft serve vanilla and chocolate). How 'bout butter pecan? Surprise, we were allowed to go to our staterooms at 1:30.  Early!
Epic theater

     During this cruise, we really took advantage of the available entertainment on-board. Of critical importance, everyone should know that if you intend on seeing the world famous Blue Man Group, I strongly urge you book your seats well in advance of sailing.  We booked 45 days before, as these shows are always sold out.  And WOW! Was it an awesome show. And it is COMPLIMENTARY!  Consider this.  If you go to Vegas, tickets will cost you more than $100 to see them in decent seats.  Your cruise fare includes admission.  I would say that what you pay for this cruise is WELL worth it.  Also available for your entertainment, and again complimentary; The Second City comedy troup from New York in Headliners Comedy Club.  Alumni from this group includes John Belushi, Martin Short, John Candy, and Gilda Radner.  The comedy and improvisation was amazing.  For a show in Chicago, you would pay $30 pp.  Your cruise fare is getting cheaper by the day!  Finally, there was Legends in Concert.  Performing on stage for us was Steven Tyler (OMH, was he good)., Lady Gaga, and Elvis Presley.  I sang at the top of my lungs to Aerosmith favorites, while the Tyler imitator strutted around the stage and put on a really good show.  I am not much of a Gaga fan, and Elvis is always a favorite, but I would go back to this show.  If you were to attend one of these concerts at Bally's in Atlantic City, you would pay $37.50 per person.  Though we did not go, Nickelodian's Slime Time Live was also there for you and the kids to enjoy.  There was other entertainment that was available for purchase, such as Cirque Dreams and The Second City's murder mystery theater lunch.  We did go to the murder mystery and really enjoyed it, at the price of $20 per person.  As I said earlier, it is easier to book before the cruise.  But if you wait, there is a ticket counter on deck 5 or your stateroom interactive TV, which is convenient.  One other complementary place you should NOT miss.  If you like blues music, then do not pass by Fat Cats.  The band that played in here each night was incredible.  I took 10 seconds of video for an overall video production, and was immediately told to turn off the camera.

Balcony Stateroom 9060
     OK, I am going to insert my biggest disappointment with the Epic.  The Stateroom.  We had a balcony stateroom, and I guess I have always come to expect a little bit more for the price.  But this ship was built in France and has a very distinctive European design.  The first thing I had to overcome was the 12" - 18" of space at the foot of the bed.  Our luggage was placed outside the stateroom for us to retrieve, but I could not roll it past the foot of the bed.  Had to heave the luggage onto the mat placed on the bed.  I noticed throughout embarkation day that no cabin steward ever took luggage into the stateroom.  No special treatment here.  Also notice the curtain on the far side of the bed?  This is the divider between the toilet, behind frosted glass on the left, and the shower on the right.  One positive note, the curved design of the glass for the toilet and shower provided extra shower space.  For a change, I did not have to worry when dropping the soap on the floor.  See the towel hanging on the glass of the shower enclosure?  Right below and slightly right...there's the sink.  It is on the bedroom side of the curtain...right at the foot of the bed.  You could sit on the foot of the bed and wash your hands.  The bed was rounded at the foot and a little short for even me, and I am 5'9.  A couple days into the cruise, we discovered that the mattress and frame could be pushed back to give you a little more passing room, but then the bed sleeping was messed up.  Our cabin steward, Marlin, would always pull it back out to remake it.  Since this was the second voyage of the Epic since it's return from Europe, I think Marlin was still on European time.  The room was never made up before noon and never turned down before 8pm.  I guess she always expected we would be eating breakfast at 10am and eating dinner at 9pm, and always taking 2 hours or more to do so.  But you know what?  We always say..."You never spend that much time in the stateroom anyway."

Group dinner in The Manhattan
     Dining aboard the Epic can be varied, depending on your tastes and budget.  The first night, we ate in the Manhattan Room, Deck 6 aft.  We arrived at 5pm for the opening of the restaurant, along with 50 or so others in the line.  This dining room has a dress code, despite Norwegian being a "Freestyle" cruise line.  No shorts allowed.  There were several who were angry about this policy, as they were past passengers and were under the impression this policy did not apply on the day of embarkation, due to luggage still being delivered to staterooms.  A couple were able to argue their way past it by using this excuse, or pointing at the man in the wheel chair and saying..."he's wearing shorts!"  I believe a few of the passengers in following days would be disappointed about NOT knowing that this first night, LOBSTER was served.  I was not disappointed.  The Lobster was served as a cut in half tail, grilled, with the typical appetizers, salads, and dessert.  We were also instructed we could have multiple servings of the Lobster without having to order a whole additional plate of food.  NICE!  Considering the smallness of the tail,  I think I had 3 half tails.  All in all, probably 6 oz in weight.  Not bad for the diet, ya know.  The Manhattan room sports a jazz ensemble that plays music, along with some occasional singing, and a floor that is big enough for dancing.  We ate with Paul and Krista, and they got up and danced.  The only problem was where we sat, which was up close to the band, it was a little loud for conversation.  On another night when we ate here, with the group pictured above, we were farther back and it was perfect level for conversation and enjoying the music too.  We discovered a couple days later, that the line to get into Tastes Restaurant is not as long.  This restaurant is on Deck 5 mid-ship and requiring you to take the elevators/stairs in the forward section or the Escalators midship from Deck 7 in the Casino.  This restaurant is quite nice, but, we were told, does not have the dress code of shorts.  I never wore shorts to dinner, so I guess I never really got stopped.  It has the same menu as the Manhattan Room, and a part of it has an open area of dining looking up to the Casino on Deck 7.  We ate here more than the Manhattan Room and really liked it.  The wait staff were awesome, the atmosphere serene and quiet.
Tastes Restaurant From Above
O'Sheehans Bar and Grill is another you can choose from.  Eat a British style lunch of fish and chips, or any of the other menu items, then play some billiards.  Or take in a round of bowling.  Yes!  Really, there are three lanes of bowling here. (More on that later). If you are willing to spend a little extra, there are a whole host of specialty restaurants available to you.  I had Sushi at Wasabi.  Not badly priced depending on what you order.  Barbi and I also visited Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian Steak House.  If you have never visited this type of restaurant and you love meat, this is heaven for you. The cover charge is $25 pp, which is very competetive with Rodizio Grill or Tucano's here in Utah.  There is an all you can eat salad bar and then the waiters come by every minute or so delivering different flavored meats to you, such as (My favorite) Garlic Sirloin, Bacon Wrapped Chicken, Lamb, and Tenderloin.  They keep delivering until you turn over the little wooden thingy to display the red end, which signals Surrender!   Another favorite specialty restaurant is Teppanyaki, which is a Japanese steak house.  If you Like Benihana or the shore side Teppanyaki restaurants, you will feel right at home here.  Same cover charge, $25 pp.  With 21 places to eat (Including Room Service), which are either complimentary or have a cover charge, you will never want for a bite to eat. NEVER!

     Now for fun!  The Epic is loaded with fun things to do, both for kids and adults.  Now some may think I am a child at heart (Barbi would whole heartedly agree), but I believe the Epic Plunge slide video above shows how fun this can be for everyone!  There are 3 slides in total.  The purple is longer than the green, but the plunge was definitely the most fun.  I went twice!  Just behind the stairs to the plunge is a large children's water area, which is more shaded to protect those sensitive little skins from sunburn. Lots of Hot tubs all over the ship, including Spice H2O, which is an adults only area most of the time.  There is a pool here too, which doubles as a stage for other performances, along with a large screen TV.  We watched a video of Pl├ícido Domingo one night. There is also an inside big screen at the Atrium, Deck 5 mid-ship, where I found Barbi one day watching Soul Surfer. The Epic Casino takes up half of Deck 6, and WOW! Was it packed every night. Some say that Carnival is the "Booze Cruise" (Which I don't agree with), but I will say this appeared to be the "Gambler's Cruise". During our NCL briefings, we found out that when the Epic is in Europe, the Casino is rarely used. But when it comes back to the Caribbean, it is most definitely used. I tried my hand at the "extreme" climbing wall, but could not get this slightly overweight body over the 2 foot ledge above me. I worshipped the sun from my balcony and from the pool deck. For those of you who "Truely" worship, there is a "Freestyle Sundeck" on Deck 19, which is adults only, and cannot be viewed from above or below. Sun however you like here!!!! I was wowed by the amount of machines and free weights at the fitness center. Honestly, I have never seen that many free weights on any ship. For those who love to play some hoops, there is a full size basketball court on the back of the ship above Spice H2O. Never seen that on any ship either! And one other First! Bowling! There are three lanes at O'Sheehans and 2 Lanes at Bliss Deck 7 Forward. We bowled and had a blast doing it.

     For the Solo Traveler, the Epic is the first in the industry to offer solo staterooms, and priced as such.  
Studio Stateroom
The whole length and inside Deck 12, you will find the Studio's, which are accessible only by those who reside there, and not the general passengers. They have a gathering area and a snack bar just for these stateroom, along with planned activities just for the solo travelers. At 100 Sq Ft, these cabins are small, but fully functional with the needs of solo travelers in mind. With an Amsterdam flair, there are round windows in each stateroom which one can view the passersby in the hallway outside. Each stateroom has a queen size bed (Though designated a double) and with all of the activities and attractions on this ship, I for one believe it is a singles dream. No more begging or bribing a friend to go along to share the cost of a double occupancy stateroom. Go on your own and make new friends. Barbi and I met one such traveler by the pool one day. She loved being on the ship and having the privacy of her solo stateroom. For those who want more exclusivity. May I introduce The Haven Suites. These luxurious accommodations at the front and top of the ship range in size from 322 to 5,722 square feet (Sleeps 8). This area has it's own private entrance, pool, restaurant, concierge, and fitness center. We were able to tour this area and it is amazing. If you think it is out of your price range, think again.
The Haven Pool
Three couples could share the cost of the 5,722 Sq Ft, 3 bedroom Garden Villa comfortably. And since it is a 3 bedroom villa, each bedroom has it's own private bath, and a hall bath. Similar to a 3 bedroom condo. Really! Check it out and live the life of luxury without having to hock your BMW! Norwegian does really well with these type of accommodations and the benefits you get by reserving one of these suites. The next closest to it is Cunard's Queen's Grill Suites, though their largest suite is not THIS big.

     Overall, I really enjoyed this cruise. I look forward to Norwegian Breakaway (2013) and Getaway (2014) to see if Norwegian improves the stateroom layout. Breakaway is on sale now and will be sailing from New York city to Bermuda for 7 day itineraries. I would love to be on one of those new voyages. Perhaps with 2 couple friends sharing the Garden Villa!

We Are Here For You

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Miami FL...What to do for a day

     As I mentioned in my last post, Barbi and I needed a vacation from our family vacation.  This being interpreted means, sailing together on a ship for 7 days.  Not just any ship, but on a ship we have never been on before.  And to equal the importance, on a cruise line it has been 10 years since we have experienced.  The Norwegian Epic was our next adventure.  This is the largest ship we have ever been on, which debuted just last year.  This ship is longer than Cowboy Stadium (Yes, the whole stadium..end to end), though it does not hold 80,000 people.  The Epic is 1,081 feet and holds 4,100 passengers. To some extent, I would agree with John Heald that the exterior of the ship is not the most beautiful of designs, but it is very unique.  That is to say, fits well within Norwegian Cruise Lines mantra..."Freestyle Cruising".  This ship has 19 decks, and it is an engineering marvel that she does not tip over.  Anyone who chooses to experience her will find a boat load (pun intended) of fun, excitement, and yes..even relaxation.

     This was a "working" vacation for us, as we were here for seminars provided by Norwegian while aboard the Epic, to bring us (Other Travel Agents) up to speed on all things Norwegian.  But before we boarded the Epic, Barbi and I arrived a couple days early and camped out in the DoubleTree At Biscayne Bay Hotel.  A couple days before arrival, the DoubleTree alerted us that they would upgrade us to a balcony suite for just another $20.  We agreed! Gee, who wouldn't?  Getting there from the airport was a quick and easy taxi ride of $27.00, though we thought it was a flat fee of $24.00. We gave him $30, said thank you, and headed in. The DoubleTree must really love us, since they upgraded us to a Jr. Suite, not just a balcony. And what a room it was, there on the 8th floor, eating warm fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, the size of the palm of your hand!  We were facing north with a side view of Biscayne Bay. There was a 50" LCD TV, Fully stocked Mini Bar and Snacks (You pay extra for those), sitting area, and a large bathroom with a 10' double sink area.  The Balcony was about 15' in length with windows from the room the entire length.

     The DoubleTree was not in the middle of downtown Miami, but was convenient enough by hopping aboard the FREE MetroMover just a block walk from the hotel.  The MetroMover would take you to many stops in the downtown area.  It is best described as an elevated electric bus. Each car on a rail would hold 30 people or so, and is a favorite ride of all kinds of people, homeless or not.  We hopped off at the Freedom Tower stop, which is 1/3 mile from the well known Bayside Market Place.

     Walking to the place where all want to shop was leisurely, and only took about 10 minutes, since we had to stop and cross at the busy intersection of Biscayne Blvd and 5th and 6th Streets, which also is the intersection of the Port of Miami.  Ooh! Crazy idea.  Let's walk to the cruise ship!  There is a sidewalk that runs along the whole north side of NE 6th Street, leading beside the American Airlines Arena, over the bridge, and right into the port.  EASY!

     Bayside Market Place really has a little of everything.  the picture above was taken beside a really large Hooka Bar.  There area all kinds of food outlets, mostly on the second level.  If you want to have a little Cuban food, here is a convenient place.  Barbi found a Starbucks, which she insisted we have breakfast the next morning.  She loves their muffins.  I really enjoyed wondering around Art By God, a unique art gallery, where you can find trophy animals on the walls, full size fossil specimens hanging from the ceiling, jewelry, animals skulls, and lots of other things.  Honestly, I thought it was really a cool shop and I would go again and just stare.  Don't take your kids in here.  Touching and breaking would be a bad thing.  I got the impression I was constantly being watched, as if I was going to grab and run.  There are all the other favorites here, like Bath and Body works, Footlocker, Victoria's Secret, Hooters.  If you forget something important, you can find it here, then have lunch at Bubba Gumps.  You can relax at the Bayfront Park right next door.  While we were there, a concert was going on at the amphitheater there at the park.

     The Doubletree has lots of shopping opportunities as well.  Eateries galore.  Walk out the back doors, you will find yourself at a marina where you can hire a boat to take you fishing or a tour of the waterways that are so prevalent around Miami.

    Miami is a vibrant city with lots of culture and history.  We really only spend 1 day there, but I would love to go back and explore some more.  If you go there, or have been, feel free to share your favorite spots and places that should not be missed.

We Are Here For You

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It's the getting there!

     We decided to leave for southern California late in the evening to allow the little grandkids to sleep most of the way there.  Everytime we have done this, we tell ourselves we will never do it again. Going without sleep for 30 plus hours is truely a pain!  But between 4 drivers, we made it safely and in time to our destination in Oceanside.  Seeing the ocean again was a dream come true.  It has been 5 months.

     Too early to check in, we decided to have breakfast at Denny's, just outside the gates of Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps historic training base. After choosing the most inexpensive menu items, we enjoyed a nice, though noisy meal.  It was quite busy on a Saturday morning.  But everyone was happy in the sunny, warm, Late October Southern California weather.

     Honestly, I feel like I was the only one who wanted to go to the beach as soon as we could. I sometimes think I am an outsider with my wishes. But, due to arriving early and having no where else to go, the beach it was.  And what an awesome location. A 15 minute walk from the Worldmark by Wyndham condos, under the railroad tracks, past the marina and shops with all kinds of really cool clothes and trinkets.  Getting there was as simple as I have ever experienced it.  And I was not disappointed.  Here, about a mile north of the Oceanside pier, people were enjoying the cold Pacific water, either by wading, or mainly surfing.  The waves were perfect for it too.  My single son walked around in his bare feet talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. My pregnant daughter and her husband watched and played with their little girls, running from each wave as it washed up on the beach. My oldest daughter still at home had my Nikon D40 DSLR camera and was snapping away at all the photo opportunities everywhere.  Barbi and I enjoyed watching it all and savoring every minute.  No stress.  No worries!

     In the week we spent, we visited Seaworld twice, getting soaked to the bone by Shamu and his friends and enjoying all the park has to offer.  Went Trick-o-Treating in one of the neighborhoods Halloween night after Seaworld.  Attended a local church and were humbled and thankful for the kindness of the members, who, after finding out we were in need of a portacrib and high chair for our littlest grand baby, found a willing lady who let us borrow hers for the week.  Miracles and kindness are still found where ever you are in the world.  I Believe!  We also went snorkeling in La Jolla cove, which though the water was frigid, I think was a highlight.  It was amazing to swim out in the cove and near the sea lions which are so numerous there.  They were not afraid of us, but watched with curiosity as we hovered in the water with our black wetsuits, mask, and snorkel. They made lots of noise, swam under and around us.  I took my waterproof camera, but the water was still a little too murkey to get a really good shot.  You will just have to take my word for it.  If you are planning a trip to the San Diego area, I highly recommend some time in La Jolla Cove. The week after Halloween, it was not too busy at all.  If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, La Jolla is a great place to shop at high end stores.  It is really a fun little city.

     Thursday and Thursday night, it was exploring the Farmers market and Night market in old downtown Oceanside.  How fun was this!  Especially the night market, where Krista and I took lots of pictures and enjoyed the multicultural festivities.  When I say multicultural, I mean a whole lot more than just Hispanic.  There was African, European, Asian...I think I counted at least a dozen different nationalities represented in booths (Especially food) here.  Awesome!

     Alas, we planned on leaving Saturday morning, but when Friday turned rainy...and I mean not stopping soaking rain, we packed up and left early.  Good thing too.  Getting out of the LA Basin took an extra 2 hours.  We had planned on staying overnight in Saint George, but upon arriving at 11pm, we pushed on instead of keeping Grandma awake. Rain and Snow in the overpasses. A little trecherous, but again, getting there (Back) without incident.

     It was a fun vacation with the family, cooking turkey for an early Thanksgiving for the family we would not see at the real Thanksgiving time.  But as is sometimes the case, Barbi and I needed a vacation from this vacation.  And thank goodness, we only had to wait 5 days til just the 2 of us headed off to the Caribbean on the Norwegian Epic for 7 days.  HOT DANG!

We Are Here For You