I was invited to attend the exclusive 2-night (July 2 – 3, 2010) pre-inaugural sailing for NCL’s newest and largest ship, the Norwegian Epic. Departing from NY City, the sailing began with the ship’s naming ceremony, which was hosted by comedian Jeff Garlin and featured the ship’s godmother, Reba McEntire. Adding to the festivities was the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks show which was broadcast live from the Epic on national television (WNBC). It included musical performances by Justin Bieber, Enrique Iglesias and LeeAnn Rimes. As I have experienced many times in the past, the folks at NCL really know how to throw a party! But let’s focus on their new ship, the Epic.
When discussing the physical attributes of a cruise ship (i.e., it’s layout and appearance), industry professionals often refer to the ship’s “hardware”. So, let’s start there.
At 153,000 tons with a passenger capacity of 4,100 (based on double occupancy), the Norwegian Epic is, by far, the largest ship in the NCL fleet. In fact, with the exception of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas (which was launched in December 2009), NCL’s Epic is among the largest cruise ships at sea. It is also one of the most uniquely designed cruise ships that I have ever been on (… and I’ve been on quite a few). In most cases, that “uniqueness” is a very positive attribute which reflects the thoughtfulness and attention that the Epic’s designers must have paid to maximizing the use of space to achieve a much bigger, wide-open “feel” to all of the ship’s public areas. And, the way that one area just seemed to “flow” into the next (without the “cookie-cutter” rigidity sometimes found on cruise ships) was truly remarkable. But, in a few areas, I did not perceive the unique design of the ship to be an advantage. For instance, the exterior shape of the ship seemed a bit “odd” to me. The bow is somewhat “stubby-looking” and the stern is “squared-off” so that the ship does not have a “sleek” appearance from the outside. Adding to the irregular look is a massive 3-deck appendage that was seemingly “plopped” on top of the front section as an afterthought (or, more likely, to further maximize the ship’s interior space). Obviously, the ship’s designers had to make some “trade-off’s” to accomplish everything they did inside the ship and, after all, from a passenger’s perspective, the interior design is far more important.
The decor of the Epic is modern and somewhat more “toned-down” than other NCL ships. Getting around was not quite as easy because of the ship’s unique interior design. Rather than having its public areas running at a uniform width through the center of the ship, the Epic’s interior gave the illusion of being designed that way but, in several different places, the interior width of the ship would seemingly vary and you would go to the right or to the left to enter another venue. So, just when I thought I had seen the entire ship, I would discover a new area. Having been on over 50 cruise ships, I found the layout of the Epic to be very interesting and “refreshing”.
Since all restaurants offer a variety of culinary choices, any evaluation of food is influenced not only by personal taste but also by what items are selected from the menu. For example, on the first night, my wife and I ate at the Manhattan Room, one of the ship’s main dining areas. She had a chicken dish, which she evaluated as “OK”, while I had scallops which were very good. Like all public areas on the Epic, the layout and décor of the Manhattan Room was a tribute to the ship’s designers. Wide open and “airy”, the Manhattan Room had the look and feel of a fine dinner theater. In fact, I was somewhat surprised when our dinner host (one of NCL’s executives) informed us that the Manhattan Room was not a specialty restaurant. The other main dining room, appropriately called “Taste”, was also extremely well laid-out and pleasing to the eye. At the center of Taste is a beautiful chandelier (claimed to be the largest at sea) that spirals down from the deck above. Although I did not eat in Taste, I am told that the menu is the same as the Manhattan Room, so I would assume our assessment of the food would have been about the same (i.e., “OK” to “very good”, depending on the entre’ selected and, of course, personal taste).
One of the hallmarks of NCL’s acclaimed “Freestyle Cruising” is the choice of dining options and, not surprisingly, the Epic takes this feature to a new level. In addition to the two main dining areas, the Epic offers 17 other dining venues, each with its own cuisine and ambiance. This includes the spacious main buffet area (the “Garden Cafe”), in which the food was consistently fresh and of high-quality (albeit with somewhat less variety than we’ve experienced on some other ships). It also includes the poolside grill (“Spice H2O”), “O’Sheehan’s” (a huge, sprawling pub that became the meeting place and “social nucleus” for many of the ship’s guests) and several specialty restaurants such as La Cucina Italian restaurant (which was even more attractively decorated on the Epic than on other NCL ships), Tepanyaki Japanese grill (much larger than on other NCL ships) and Le Bistro French restaurant just to name a few. Each of the specialty restaurants has a “cover charge” (which ranges from $10 to $35 per person) but, in my opinion, they are all well worth the money.
On this pre-inaugural cruise, I tried two of the specialty restaurants, Cagney’s steakhouse and Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian “all-you-can-eat” barbeque in which guests signal their servers with a green card (“OK, I’m ready for more”) or a red card (“No more, please. I’m stuffed”). My wife and I have raved about Cagney’s steakhouse on several other Norwegian cruise ships (e.g., the NCL Dawn, the NCL Gem and the NCL Jewel) and we enjoyed it just as much on the Epic. On the other hand, we were not nearly as impressed with the Epic’s Moderno Churrascaria, which is the first such restaurant on any cruise ship. The salad bar was absolutely fabulous (especially the plump shrimp and fantastic gourmet cheeses) but, other than the sirloin (which the servers cut right in front of you), my wife and I were both disappointed with the quality of the meats. Ironically, my son Greg (who is CEO of Direct Line Cruises) and several of our staff members tried Moderno Churrascaria and really liked it. So, don’t take my word for it.
A cruise passenger’s perception of onboard service is so often dependent upon who their stateroom attendant was and which waiters / waitresses served their meals. Since my wife and I started Direct Line Cruises, there have been several instances in which different clients on the same exact cruise would report radically different service levels. So, at best, any evaluation of service should be taken only as a generalization based on limited individual experiences while onboard.
Having prefaced this part of my review (to “cover my tail” in case the reader has a different experience), my wife and I found the service on the NCL Epic to be consistent with what we’ve experienced on other NCL cruise ships (i.e., very good with only minor exceptions).
Entertainment And Activities
It may be hard to believe but the show by the Blue Man Group actually exceeds NCL’s hype! It was the most unique (… yes, I’m using that word again… ) and professional act I’ve seen on any cruise ship. Thoroughly funny and entertaining, I would rather see that show night after night than to sit through some of the same old “Broadway song-and-dance” shows I’ve seen on so many other cruise ships. The Blue Man performance was in the ship’s main theatre which, considering the size of the Epic, was relatively small (with a seating capacity of under 600 people). However, despite that fact, the theatre was not “packed” because, consistent with NCL’s concept of “Freestyle Cruising”, the Epic was designed with multiple entertainment venues, each offering a different show.
In addition to Blue Man Group, the NCL Epic showcased “Legends In Concert”, which featured impersonated performances by Elvis, Madonna, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and other “super-stars”. If you like this sort of thing, you will probably enjoy it very much. Otherwise, you may find it to be “OK”, as I did.
Another Epic “first” is Cirque Dreams and Dinner which is performed by an exceptionally talented group of acrobats in a special theater-in-the-round called the Spiegel Tent. Several of our staff members saw this show and said that it was very good but, perhaps, a bit too long. My wife and I saw a very different show in the Spiegel Tent. Our 3-year-old granddaughter, who we were able to bring with us, is a big fan of “Dora the Explorer” and “Diego” and she just loved the Nickelodeon character breakfast which, in addition to Dora and Diego, also featured “Sponge Bob Square Pants”, “Jimmy Neutron” and others. In an exclusive deal with NCL, the Nickelodeon characters are presently appearing on the Epic and the NCL Jewel (which now sails year-round out of New York City) and will eventually appear on several other NCL ships.
Another featured act on NCL’s cruise ships is the Second City Comedy Troupe. Although I did not see their show on the Epic (… there just wasn’t enough time to do everything… ), my wife and I have seen them on several other NCL cruise ships. In general, we found their “rehearsed” skits to be very funny, and their “ad-libbed” routines very “un-funny” (but, then again, I never really enjoyed watching Jonathan Winters, who was regarded by many people as an “ad-lib” comedic genius).
Activities on the ship were plentiful. Unique to the Epic were the “Epic Plunge” (a massive 7-deck water slide), 6 bowling alleys and the SVEDKA Ice Bar (which NCL touts as the first ice bar at sea) in which the entire contents (including the bar) are made of ice and the venue is maintained at a “toasty” 17-degree temperature to keep it from melting. Now, that’s “really cool”! Patrons are provided with heavy jackets before entering and vodka is clearly the beverage of choice.
Like every modern cruise ship, the NCL Epic offers a wide variety of accommodations, ranging from lower-priced interior cabins (with no window) to huge luxury suites with personal butlers. Obviously, a guest staying in one of the large suites would have a different stateroom experience than one staying in a much smaller interior cabin so, once again, I must preface my stateroom review by cautioning the reader that it is based on my specific experience (which may or may not hold true for other types of accommodations on the Epic).
My wife and I were in a standard stateroom with a balcony (one of the “Category B” staterooms on the ship). Upon entering the stateroom, we had two initial impressions. First of all, the curved walls gave the room a very “unique” look (unlike typical cruise ship staterooms which are almost always rectangular with straight walls). The second thing we noticed is that the stateroom didn’t have a bathroom… well, at least, not in the traditional sense. You entered the stateroom through a door between a shower stall and a toilet stall (each with a heavily “frosted” enclosure). A curtain separated these areas from the main part of the stateroom which, among other things, included the bed, a couch, storage closets / cabinets and a sink. The advantage of having the sink outside of the toilet and shower area is that one occupant can use the sink while another is using the shower or toilet (a convenience that you don’t often find in traditional cruise ship staterooms). In addition, the unique design of the stateroom provided much more storage space than is typically found in a conventional stateroom of similar dimensions. However, despite that, I found the stateroom to be very “tight” (particularly in the cabins that have the bed nearer to the entrance door than to the balcony door) and, overall, I must admit that I would have preferred a more conventionally designed stateroom configuration or one of the larger deluxe balcony (“Category D”) staterooms on the Epic).
While onboard, one of NCL’s executives asked me what I thought of the ship and what type of client it would be best suited for. Without hesitation, I responded that the Epic would be most appreciated by the client who has been on many cruise ships and now wants to experience something truly unique. Consistent with that, it’s no coincidence that my wife booked the 15-year anniversary cruise for Direct Line Cruises’ staff on the NCL Epic and, now that we’ve gotten a small “taste” of it, we can hardly wait until September when we set sail on the Epic for 7 nights.