One of the biggest cruise ships at sea, Norwegian Epic is busy, bustling, showy, and fun. She's the best ship at sea for entertainment, with an amazing lineup from big shows to small, and she's also a winner for families, with great kids' facilities and water slides. Downsides? Her cabins, though chic, aren't the most functional, and she can sometimes feel a bit too busy and crowded.
Typical Per Diems: $85-$135
Norwegian Epic sails the Caribbean from Miami (spring/winter).
Big ships, like big mountains, tend to create their own weather. There they sit, looming above everything else in the landscape, while around them swirl great clouds of hype and expectation. Will they live up to it all, or will they (metaphorically) sink like a stone? Will they be Chris Daughtry or Sanjaya Malakar? Prius or Yugo? Avatar or Ishtar?
NCL's new Norwegian Epic has an extra-tough row to hoe, debuting after a tumultuous building process and in the shadow of Royal Caribbean's own, almost universally well-received giant, the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger heavyweight champ Oasis of the Seas.
So how does she stack up? Let us tell you: She has greatness in her, but she's not all great. She has charm, but she's not all charming. She has va-va-voom like an old-time vaudeville revue, but some acts you just want to pull offstage with a long cane. She's not a true game-changer like Oasis, but she has some attributes that we'd love to see become industry standard.
Originally designed to be the first of three identical super-megaships that, NCL hoped, would usher its casual "Freestyle cruising" concept into a new era, Epic almost ended up not being launched at all due to disputes with the shipyard regarding design changes and cost overruns. In the end, a compromise led to her completion, but the orders for her sister-ships were cancelled, leaving Epic as the sole vessel in her class and sibling to none. In a sense, we think that's probably a good thing, because many of Epic's failures (none huge, but a few annoying) are in her hardware, while most of her great successes are in her software: innovations that could very well be implemented aboard other vessels in the NCL fleet, whether the wonderful Jewel- and Dawn-class ships or some new, as-yet-unknown new NCL vessels of the future.
Our major complaint is that her layout can feel choppy and unintuitive, and when indoors it's very easy to forget that you're at sea. Decks 5, 6, and 7, the main interior public decks, often force people to walk through public rooms (the casino, shopping) to get from one end to another, and the placement of furniture and other impediments leads to bottlenecks. The Pool Deck is also choppy and full of odd angles, and when crowded can be very difficult to cross. On cabin decks, some staterooms are hidden away down corridors you can only access once you find the unmarked doors that lead to them. Now, granted, Epic is no more guilty in this regard than most other megaships launched over the past dozen years, and some of these things (the bottleneck issue, for instance) can probably be alleviated by just moving things around or adding additional signage--all things we suspect will happen over the next few months. But the point is, Epic could have been done better. Rather than simply building a larger version of a standard megaship, NCL should have taken things to the next step, as Royal Caribbean did with Oasis and Allure and Celebrity did with Solstice, Equinox, and Eclipse: Made a ship of the future, not just a larger ship of the past or present.
Regarding the lack of "at sea" feel we noted, that's both a minus and a plus. On the minus side, public rooms are laid out in such a way that you're rarely reminded you're in the middle of the ocean. On the plus side, Epic appears to be remarkably stable. Our recent sailing was on smooth seas out of New York, but at no time (and we mean no time) did we feel the movement of the ocean at all.
When all is said and done, and we've aired all our complaints about Epic being not exactly epic, but more, y'know, the same but bigger, we're happy to report that she's fun--fun the way NCL ships usually are: casual, social, completely un-stuffy, and with a nice, friendly feel. At night, she really hops. Between the entertainment and the multitude of bars and lounges, fun-loving passengers won't ever get bored. But the ship isn't just for the party crowd. Very obviously, NCL has set her up as a family-oriented vessel, with a great kids' playroom, hideaway teen center, three huge water slides, several climbing features, and a partnership that brings characters like SpongeBob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer from Nickelodeon onboard for various kids' activities.
Epic is, really, a sort of huge, busy experiment that, we hope and expect, NCL will continue to experiment with over time, tweaking her until she really shines. She's got a lot going for her as is, so it's just a matter of learning from mistakes and finding ways to work around them. In this, we wish NCL good luck, because it's no secret: We have a real soft spot for the line.
Let's get our complaints out of the way first and talk about the cabins' one major, weird, and annoying failure: their bathrooms. Really, what was NCL thinking?
Here's the concept: In each stateroom on board, the traditional bathroom--a separate, space with a door and containing all the necessaries--has been deconstructed. As you enter a cabin, you'll see immediately to one side a shower or bathtub with a sliding glass door. To the other side, you'll find the toilet in its own little booth, also with a sliding glass door, and there's a curtain you can pull across the whole entryway/bathroom area for privacy. The sink and medicine cabinet are in the cabin space itself, just beyond the toilet and shower booths. The idea seems to have been that this arrangement would allow two or more people to use the bathroom facilities simultaneously, without having to crowd into a tiny space. The reality, though, is that it all just doesn't work.
The most egregious failure is with the sinks, which combine a tiny, tiny bowl with a foot-tall, gooseneck faucet that, when turned on full, nearly shoots right out of the bowl and always splashes over the edge, no matter how careful you are. Since counters are also tiny (and often placed right next to the cabin's sitting area), water often shoots out onto the floor and furniture. NCL executives acknowledged this problem soon after the ship's launch and noted that they planned to replace the faucets and then evaluate whether replacing the sinks would also be necessary, so future cruisers may not have to deal with this particular issue. Until that happens, Epic cruisers can expect to do a lot of mopping and sopping.
Beyond the sink debacle, though, the "in-cabin" arrangement of shower and toilet present other problems: steam, for one. We noted that after a normal shower, cabin ceilings are often covered in condensation--unpleasant at best, and at worst a recipe for mold (or at least a major pain for the stewards who have to clean up). It's also very difficult to keep the floor of your entryway dry, so you have to remember to put on shoes when getting ready for dinner or you may end up with soaked socks. In short, we'd bet pretty good money that this bathroom arrangement won't be repeated on future NCL ships.
Bathrooms aside, Epic's staterooms have a lot of interesting features. Her balcony staterooms--which means every outside stateroom, since all outsides have balconies on this ship--are a big departure from cruise tradition, featuring free-form, curving walls rather than the oblong boxes typical on every other ship today. Walls sort of undulate from front to back, meaning some parts--for instance, where the bed is located--are wider than others. The effect is very pleasant, accented by other cabin features like concealed contour LED lighting, large back-lit round ceiling fixtures over the beds (which, combined with rounded-edge beds, give the sleeping area a "domed" effect), dark wood trim, and an earth-tone color palate. Each balcony cabin has a sitting area, a flatscreen TV, minibar, and a tea- and coffee-maker. Balcony cabins measure between 216 and 245 square feet and vary in the amount of closet and drawer space provided--some have a ton, others not so much.
Standard inside cabins (128 sq. ft.) lack the balcony staterooms' wavy walls, but unfortunately mimic their bathroom arrangement. All in all, they're pleasantly if simply styled, and have a flatscreen TV, a minibar, and a tea- and coffee-maker.
Also inside, but of a completely different character, are Epic's major accommodations innovations: her 128 Studio cabins. Years ago, many cruise ships (the old QE2 comes to mind) were built with a number of small staterooms designed specifically for people traveling on their own. That idea died out over the past 3 decades, but Epic brings it back with a vengeance, creating a whole separate "wing" of the ship for solo travelers, who in addition to their staterooms also get private keycard access to the Living Room. This modern, double-height space is just for Studio guests, with its own bar, quiet reading area, TV screens, and concierge area. You can think of it as a swinging singles hangout, but that all depends on what kind of singles end up signing on. The Studios themselves were designed by a different creative team than the rest of the staterooms onboard, and you can tell: Where the standard staterooms are woody and calming, the Studios are all neon and bold angles, and pack a lot into their modest 100 square feet of space. Each has a padded white wall surrounding the bed, a large one-way "porthole" window that looks out into the corridor, ingenious small storage nooks, and neon-esque lighting that you can adjust according to your mood. Glowing track lights also line the corridors outside. All Studios come with a flatscreen TV and tiny desk area, but not much else. Priced for the solo traveler (at about $150 per stateroom more than the per-person price of a double-occupancy inside), they can actually accommodate two hipsters, so long as you like togetherness.
In terms of suites, the big draw on Epic, as aboard NCL's other recent ships, is its Courtyard Villas, a separate "ship within a ship" area perched way up on Decks 16 and 17. Each villa combines spacious suite accommodations with access to a villa-guests-only courtyard whose pool is surrounded by plush daybeds and deck chairs, private cabanas, and tables for alfresco dining. The complex also features two hot tubs; a steam room; a private bar; a concierge lounge; a sun deck; a private gym overlooking the pool; and two private dining spots just for suite guests, one casual, one formal. The suites themselves are knockouts, with separate bedrooms and living/dining rooms; huge, gorgeously appointed bathrooms with an oceanview, whirlpool tubs and showers; large private balconies; and floor space that ranges from 506 to 852 square feet. Smaller courtyard penthouses lack separate living and bedroom spaces, but their design is pretty cool, with an oval bed in the center of the room and elaborate bathroom spaces behind it, separated by a curving partition curtain.
A total of 42 staterooms and suites across a range of categories are wheelchair accessible.
Public areas aboard Epic are clustered on Decks 5, 6, and 7, essentially bow to stern. In the bow on Decks 5 and 6, the main Epic Theater is home to two of the ship's main entertainment offerings: the Blue Man Group and Legends in Concert. Blue Man, for those who haven't seen it in Vegas, New York, or elsewhere, is an ever-evolving piece of performance art in which three . . . aliens, essentially, dressed in black coveralls and wearing blue body paint, run though a program of surrealistic gags and set pieces based around half-willing audience participation, edgy humor, drums (big ones), videography, unexpected detours, improvisation, and paint, lots and lots of paint--so much that audience members in the first rows are all given plastic ponchos to wear over their clothes. The Blue Men maintain a stony, Buster Keatonesque silence, communicating with the audience only through intense eye contact and gestures, but they set up such a great sense of play that sometimes a participatory routine will go on and on, just because no one in the audience is willing to stop having fun. Short story? They put on the best show at sea today, partly through pure quality (we laughed our butts off), party because they're essentially the anti-cruise-ship-show: quirky and renegade instead of staid and predictable. Big kudos to NCL for getting them aboard ship. The Epic Theater's other show, Legends in Concert, presents performances by celebrity-impersonators including faux Elvis, Madonna, Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Diana Ross, and others.
The remainder of Deck 5 comprises the ship's art gallery (pretty much a yawner), its Internet center (there's also Wi-Fi all around the ship, if you have your own computer or smartphone with you), and its photo gallery, which uses facial recognition technology so you can easily find all photos of you shot by the ship's photographers. Toward midships, a two-story atrium houses the ship's reception decks, a cafe, and a two-story video screen that's used for Wii video games, sports events, filmed concerts, and other specials. The screen is visible from the atrium floor and also from O'Sheehan's bar on Deck 6. One of our favorite spots onboard, O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill (named for NCL's CEO, Kevin Sheehan) is a multipurpose kind of bar, with three bowling lanes to one side, pool tables to the other, a Bennigan's-looking dining section on its port side, and a nice bar area to starboard, serving a decent if not applause-inducing selection of domestic and international beers and liquors. We found this to be the best meeting spot on board, but somehow we always ended up staying for awhile rather than going to do the work that we'd planned. Guess that means it's a good bar.
Just forward on Deck 6 is the hub of Epic's entertainment district, with access to three separate theaters and showrooms: the Epic Theater, the Spiegel Tent, and Headliners Comedy Club. The Spiegel Tent is a new kind of entertainment venue for a cruise ship, offering a dinner-theater-in-the-round experience, with seating around the main space and on a surrounding balcony. Unfortunately, the show to which it's normally dedicated, Cirque Dreams and Dinner, was for us a major disappointment. The concept: A troupe of allegedly penniless circus performers put on a show using whatever they can find at hand, which mostly means the audience. Doesn't sound bad so far, but it gets there. First problem: The audience is trapped. An actor announces at the beginning that there will be no bathroom breaks; audience members/diners are required to stay in their seats for the entire 2-hour performance. Second problem: Much of the performance is shrill, manic, and in-your-face--not what we enjoy while eating. Now, let us qualify by saying it's not all bad: The concept of a dinner-theater-in-the-round aboard ship has a lot of promise. Secondly, several vignettes throughout the show feature talented acrobats, including three musclemen who hoist each other into impossible positions, and trapeze artists and aerialists who do remarkable things in a confined space. If they put the emphasis more on the acrobatics and de-emphasized the silly accents and shrill speeches, they might have something. (And that's the beauty of live theater: If something isn't working, you can always change it.) The Spiegel Tent is also home to a special murder mystery show called Presumed Murdered, presented once per cruise by the Second City comedy troupe. Second City also provides great sketch and improv comedy acts throughout the cruise at Headliners, where you can also see a dueling-pianos-and-comedy show by a group called Howl at the Moon.
Heading sternward from O'Sheehan's on Deck 6, Epic funnels guests through a long expanse of casino before you reach Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club. This was a big highlight of our recent cruise, made great by the fact that the musicians here play the way they would in a land-based club--no holding back for the little old ladies (or at least, not holding back much). Our first night aboard, the Slam Allen Blues Band kicked through a wide range of material, from Albert King to Otis Redding to George Benson, and also included passages of inspired improvisation. The show is also participatory: Both nights we ducked in, Allen invited any musicians who happened to be in the audience to come up and sit in, taking over for one of the band members--and some did, adding a dose of spontaneity to the usually well-planned cruise entertainment line-up.
One deck up from Fat Cats, Epic offers a "Bar Central" cluster of nightlife venues, similar to those on its recent Jewel-class ships. There's Maltings Whiskey Bar, Shakers Martini Bar, and, most interesting of all, the Svedka Ice Bar, a frozen locker kept at 17 degrees Fahrenheit, where the furniture and artwork are all made of ice, specialty vodka drinks are served in ice goblets, and guests have to wear parkas. Nearby, a small barbershop offers shaving services and other beauty touch-ups for men. Best touch here? The absolutely godawful haircut model pix from the 70s that adorn the walls. Moving forward, the remainder of Deck 7 is taken up with shops--a lot of shops, offering the usual range from logo-wear to duty-free booze to high-end watches and jewelry. In the bow, the Bliss Ultra Lounge continues a concept inaugurated aboard Norwegian Star some years ago, with its velvety, bordello-meets-nightclub decor and (yo, hipsters!) a few bowling lanes and video games off to the sides. Up on Deck 15, the stern-facing Spice H2O is an outdoor nightclub with a dance floor and bar.
For kids, Epic has an extensive children's center on Deck 14, with Wii and Playstation 3 games, a dance floor, a movie room stuffed with beanbag chairs, a climbing maze and ball-jump pit, and more. Teens get their own space, a hangout and nightclub called Entourage, located up a hideaway staircase on Deck 16.
Pool Fitness & Spa Facilities
Epic has one of the busiest, most activity-packed Pool Decks we've ever seen--and whether that's a good thing or not depends on your taste.
The biggest standout feature is the deck's three giant water slides, which take off from a platform several decks up. Two allow for dark bodysurfing rides through long, twisting tubes, while the Epic Plunge involves riding an inner tube through a snaking, 200-foot pipe before being flung out into a large open-top bowl, where your momentum flings you into a few fast spins before you're flushed down a final short tube and into the deceleration zone. A great ride! But the water slides take up a lot of real estate--so much so that the actual pool area of the ship seems remarkably small and constrained, considering the number of people onboard. The area includes two main pools (with water jets that are illuminated at night for a little water-show fun), a wading pool and kids' pool, and five hot tubs. Behind and below the water slides, the kids' Splash and Play Zone has water-spouting sculptures and water sprays, along with a kiddie slide. Nearby, the ship's 33-foot-high, 64-foot-wide rock-climbing and rappelling wall has approaches at varying degrees of difficulty. Two decks up, on Deck 17, a sports and play area includes a full-size basketball court (which doubles for volleyball and soccer), a batting cage, a bungee trampoline, and the 24-foot-tall Spider Web, an enclosed cage laced with giant rubber bands that one has to climb on and through to get to the top.
Epic's fitness center and spa are located on Deck 14 in the stern. The giant Mandara Spa--allegedly the largest spa at sea, though we didn't get out our tape measure to check--has 24 treatment rooms, a relaxing thermal suite (offered for a fee and including a therapeutic plunge pool and heated tiled loungers), and a sprawling lobby stocked with expensive creams, lotions, and quick fixes. Our coauthor Heidi got a great massage here from a skilled South African therapist, though she could have done without the sales pitch for creams and elixirs at the end.
The ship's well-stocked fitness center has dozens of treadmills, cross-trainers, and exercise bikes; free weights and kettlebells (the first of the latter we've seen on a ship); and four different aerobics studios. Group classes include TRX suspension training, kettlebell training, yoga, Pilates, and group cycling.
A jogging track runs up and down the Promenade on the starboard side of Deck 7--you run one way, make a very tight loop, then run right back.
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