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An Epic visit to Philipsburg, St. Maarten
Today we are docked in beautiful Philipsburg, St. Maarten aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic. Philipsburg was initially discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, though no doubt Columbus would have been in shock if he could see the immense size of the cruise ships docked here today – and the duty-free shopping pavilion at the end of the pier.
He might have also been surprised to learn that Philipsburg exists on an island divided; roughly half the island is Dutch, Philipsburg included, while the remainder is a French overseas colony with its own capital city, Marigot. It all means that this little Eastern Caribbean locale features a decidedly European-Caribbean vibe, if you can imagine such a thing. Think old world charm interspersed with island rhythms and you’ll get the idea!
Getting off Norwegian Epic this morning was deceptively simple for a ship with over four thousand passengers; in fact, I’ve had a harder time going ashore on ships with half the passenger capacity. Guests could disembark on Deck 4 via the forward or aft staircases; which greatly helped to disperse passenger traffic. Some nice little touches: the “Norwegian Epic” covered awnings and banners running along the sides of the gangplank, plus a plush seating area outside each gangway where passengers can sit. Common on luxury ships, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see on mainstream lines, which made it even nicer to see here.
While many passengers enjoyed the ship-sponsored excursions, I leisurely walked off around 8:30am and made my way into town. There’s a fantastic open-air water-taxi service you can take from near the duty-free pavilion to the main dock in downtown Philipsburg for only $6 US roundtrip. You can also hop in a van for $3 per person one way, but who wants to be stuck in a hot, stuffy van when you’re in paradise?
This is only my second time here, but I love it as much as the first. The sea is several astonishing shades of aqua blue, and the weather, colors and sunlight seem to change constantly here. Case in point: at 6am when I awoke, it was sunny. Then around 7:30, it started to become cloudy. By eight, it was pouring rain and by 8:30, it had cleared up entirely. So prepare yourself for variable weather. On the plus side, when it rains, it’s gloriously refreshing.
But with its pristine beaches, ample shopping and European vibe, it’s easy to see why cruise ships have been calling here for decades. True, Main Street is full of trinket shops or decidedly “normal” stores like Tommy Hilfiger, but there’s some real gems waiting to be found here for the adventurous cruiser. Try the Guavaberry liqueur – it’s quite tasty.
After four hours of wandering the town, I came back onboard the Norwegian Epic for a late lunch. The Garden Café buffet on Deck 15 was amazingly quiet, and I had no difficulty getting lunch or being seated either indoors or outside. What also impressed me, besides the beauty of this public area and its easy-flowing layout, is the variety of food on offer here. Everything from fresh sandwiches and wraps to Asian and Indian-inspired dishes can be found, along with traditional mainstays like hamburgers and hot dogs. They must have some German guests onboard, because the hot dogs were available mit sauerkraut, which made for a pleasant surprise. The food onboard is more international than I expected, and I think that’s a great thing.
A reader asked if I could comment on the food here aboard Norwegian Epic. I’ll be honest – I don’t normally go into too much detail food-wise because I am a miserable culinary critic; I like and appreciate finer things like caviar, but I’m not adverse to having a Big Mac, either. I will say that the food is a quantum leap above what Norwegian’s food used to be, and that I haven’t had a single meal onboard that wasn’t satisfying.
If I had to pick, my personal favorites right now are O’Sheehan’s and my dinner last night at Le Bistro. I still have yet to eat a single meal in either of Norwegian Epic’s main dining rooms, Taste & The Manhattan Room. I hear O’Sheehan’s also has a great breakfast, but I can’t pull myself away from the Garden Café and the wonderful nearby outdoor seating.
Speaking of readers, I’d like to thank all the readers (including my wonderful fiancée) who’ve sent in such nice comments over the past few days! Many of them have booked (or were going to book) the Norwegian Epic, but have been on the fence about it based on reviews they’ve read. Like many things in life, cruising is a very subjective experience and early reviews of the Norwegian Epic seemed to polarize cruisers, but I try to take each ship and line I travel on and measure it by their own merits. At the end of the day, it’s all about saying, “did this deliver what the brochure said it would? Is the experience an overall positive one? Would I sail on this ship again?” And for Norwegian Epic, I think that answer is a resounding “yes.”
Sure, there’s some things that are a little…odd…about this ship. The strange “blind corners” in some of the passenger corridors and the location of the switch for the light above the sink in your stateroom come to mind as a few examples. Which reminds me: if you’re looking to turn the light on above your stateroom sink, reach under the mirror and feel around. There’s a switch mounted to the wood on the underside of the cabinetry. Why they put it there, I have no idea. I didn’t find it until yesterday; I just assumed that light had burned out.
Here’s a quick peek at what’s happening aboard Norwegian Epic this evening as we sail off into the sunset, bound for St. Thomas.:
- 5:30pm – Caribbean Sailaway – Poolside
- 5:45pm – Nickelodeon Arts & Crafts – Fat Cats
- 6:30pm – Tables & Slots Open – Epic Casino
- 7:00pm – The Second City: Overboard – Headliners
- 7:00pm – Legends in Concert – Epic Theatre
- 7:00pm – On Screen Concert: Katy Perry – Spice H20
- 8:00pm – Deal or No Deal Gameshow – Atrium
- 8:30pm – Thirst (Teen’s Only) – Bliss Lounge
- 8:30pm – Piano Melodies with Grahame Sinclair – Shakers
- 10:00pm – Fedoras and Flappers Casino Night – Epic Casino
- 10:15pm – So You Think You Can Dance Epic? – Atrium
- 11:00pm – Comedy Magic with Jeff Hobson – Epic Theatre
- 11:15pm – Neon Party with DJ Ross Espi – Bliss Lounge
If you’ve never sailed away from Philipsburg, St. Maarten before, it’s an event that’s not to be missed. Sunsets here are usually spectacular, and today was no exception: Mother Nature even provided us with a sudden rain shower that drenched the pool deck and sent the sun worshippers running for cover; I think I may have been one of only a few people onboard who actually enjoyed some refreshing rain after a day of sweating away in the sun.
This evening, the Norwegian Epic is alive again, with no shortage of things to do, eat and drink. I’m struck that this is already Tuesday and yet there’s so much…well, Epic, that I still have to experience. Being Canadian, I swore up and down I wasn’t going to come to the Caribbean to get all icy cold in the SVEDKA Ice Bar here onboard the ship…yet I saw a group don parkas and head on in, and I have to admit I was intrigued. Is an icy experience in store for a future blog? There’s a good possibility!
This is a good time to mention that next month, Norwegian Epic will make her way across the Atlantic to spend her summer in the warmth of the Mediterranean. Before I’d embarked upon this cruise, I would have thought long and hard before picking a ship this large to take to Europe. But if you crave the entertainment that you can have onboard, or if you’re travelling with family or friends, this is probably about as ideal a ship as it gets. I’ve seen more than a few families where the parents are staying in a balcony stateroom and the kids are tucked across the hall in an inside stateroom, and there’s undoubtedly groups of friends here travelling in the cozy Studio Staterooms.
Maybe that’s what I enjoy about this ship – it’s not at all what I expected. I knew I would have an enjoyable time, and that there would be certain aspects of the cruise that would work better than others. After all, every cruise has its plusses and minuses. But perhaps I’m impressed because the Norwegian Epic is quickly rising to the top of my Norwegian Cruise Line experiences.
Our Live Voyage Report from aboard Norwegian Epic continues tomorrow, as we explore the Caribbean shopping mecca of St. Thomas, USVI! Looking to book your very own Norwegian Epic cruise? Get all the details from our friends at Cruise Experts Travel, or better yet, enter their Norwegian Epic contest! You could win a free cruise aboard her to the Med!
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