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 American Idol's Chris Daughtry or Sanjaya Malakar? Prius or Yugo? Avatar or Ishtar?
NCL's new 153,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic (www.ncl.com) debuted this month after a long history of setbacks and in the shadow of Royal Caribbean's own (and almost universally well-received) 5,400-passenger heavyweight champ Oasis of the Seas.
So how does the Epic stack up? Let me tell you:
She has va-va-voom like an old-time vaudeville revue, but some acts you just want to pull offstage with a long cane. That said, she's not a true game-changer like Oasis, but she has some attributes that I'd love to see become the industry standard.
She is, in the end, a product of NCL, a line that I love for being scrappy, friendly, and willing to try new things, even though some of those new things end up falling flat. The line really has helped transform the cruise industry over the past 10 years, most notably by popularizing its "Freestyle" casual cruising concept.
NCL has also seen its share of major failures. Most notably, it overreached in the Hawaii market, which is now scaled back from its original design. Epic, too, represents a de-escalation: Originally, she was to have been the first of three identical super-megaships, but disputes with the shipyard regarding design changes and cost overruns almost scuttled the project entirely. That leaves Epic as the sole vessel in her class, and sister to none.
But maybe that's a good thing, because the more I think about it, the more I realize that many of Epic's failures (none huge, but a few annoying) are in her hardware, while many of her great successes are in her software: innovations that could be implemented aboard other vessels in the NCL fleet, whether it's in the wonderful Jewel- and Dawn-class ships introduced between 1999 and 2007 or in some as-yet-unknown NCL vessels of the future.
But enough philosophizing. Let's get down to brass tacks, and look at what works, and what doesn't.
Success! Norwegian Epic Offers the Best Entertainment at Sea
As noted in a previous blog, I don't hesitate to say that Norwegian Epic offers the best entertainment at sea today. NCL has been in my top two for entertainment for about a decade, along with Disney Cruise Line. With Epic, NCL sets the bar to a new height, industry-wide.
In a sense, of course, they cheated -- as did Royal Caribbean last year when they made a deal to present Hairspray! aboard Oasis of the Seas (and next Chicago: The Musical aboard sister-ship Allure). Cheated how? They brought in established, big-name talent. Generally speaking, until now, cruise lines have developed their own shows or worked with outside creative teams to develop them. The new thing is to simply buy your way in to good entertainment.
Is that a bad thing? I say nope. In 13 years of covering cruises, I've seen only maybe four or five shows that I've genuinely enjoyed, so anything that raises the bar on that abysmal record is a plus in my book.
Aboard Epic, entertainment is almost uniformly great. The performances by the Blue Man Group were absolutely the best entertainment I've ever seen at sea. Dueling-pianos show Howl at the Moon was also loads of fun, and the sketch- and improv-comedy performances by the legendary Second City comedy troupe have been a major highlight for years. (On Epic, Second City also does a special murder mystery show called Presumed Murdered once per cruise). There's also Legends in Concert, a major troupe that presents celebrity-impersonator shows featuring performances by faux Elvis, Madonna, Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Diana Ross, and others.
And then there's Cirque Dreams and Dinner.
The concept: At a dinner-theater-in-the-round, with seating around the main space and on a surrounding balcony, 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 two-hour performance -- most likely because the performers are constantly moving around the space, and don't want to be sued if they trip a guest.
Second Problem: Much of the performance is shrill, manic, and in-your-face -- not what I want from a dinner-theater experience. Now, let me 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; trapeze artists and aerialists who do remarkable things in a confined space; and a woman who whirls what seems like dozens of hula-hoops from every appendage. If they put the emphasis more on the acrobatics and de-emphasize 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). As it stands right now, though, I give Cirque Dreams a thumbs-down. It's a clunker amid an otherwise great entertainment line-up.
Success! Epic's "New Wave" Staterooms Look Great
One of the first things revealed about Epic, back in 2008, was that 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 (giving a "domed" effect), dark wood trim, and an earth-tone color palette. Things aren't entirely perfect -- beds, for instance, are a bit short (I'm 6'2" and my feet stuck several inches over the end), and staterooms seem smallish, but overall they've got a pleasant feel to them, except in one major area.
Fail: The In-Stateroom Bathrooms Were a Big Mistake
The Concept: In each stateroom on board, the traditional bathroom -- a separate, doored-off space containing all the necessities -- has been deconstructed. As you enter a cabin, one side of you is 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 itself, just beyond the toilet and shower booths.
The idea seems to have been that this would allow two or more people to use the bathrooms facilities simultaneously, without having to crowd into a tiny space. The reality, though, is that it all just doesn't work.
First Problem: The most egregious fail is with the sinks, which combine a 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 similarly 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 in an onboard press conference 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. For now, though, expect to do a lot of mopping and sopping.
Second Problem: Beyond the sinks, the "in-cabin" arrangement of shower and toilet present other problems: steam, for one. I noted that after a normal shower, the ceiling of my whole cabin was 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.
Success! Epic Offers Quality Dining Choices
You can't argue with the numbers: In total, Norwegian Epic offers 21 dining choices, some complimentary, some entailing an extra charge. Let's list 'em out:
- Taste, one of two main restaurants, set in a cool space at the bottom of the ship's main atrium.
- The Manhattan Room,main restaurant No. 2, an Art-Deco space with a two-deck window overlooking the ship's wake, and a bandstand and dance floor.
- O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill, serving comfort foods throughout the day, including breakfast.
- Garden Cafe, the ship's buffet restaurant, with multiple stations serving different cuisine.
- The Great Outdoors, the ship's outdoor grill, pizza, and salad area, on the pool deck.
- Spice H2O, an outdoor nightclub, serves snacks like Thai stir-fried pork curry, beef empanadas, and spicy popcorn chicken.
- Atrium Cafe and Wine Bar, serving desserts and specialty coffees (the latter at a charge).
- Studio Lounge, the dedicated lounge for guests in the ship's studio cabins, serves morning coffee, afternoon tea, and evening cocktails.
- The Epic Club, another dedicated lounge, this one for guests in the ship's villas and suites, serves intimate breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- The Courtyard Grill, set in the Courtyard, a dedicated sunning area for guests in the ship's Courtyard Villas, serves meals during the day.
- Room service, which is, y'know, room service.
The following all entail a cover charge ($10 to $25 per person) or à la carte pricing.
- Cagney's Steakhouse, a classic dark, woody steakhouse, which shares its large, full-width-of-the-vessel space with --
- Moderno Churrascaria, a South American-style steakhouse where servers keep bringing slices of grilled meats to you until you pop (or tell them to stop).
- La Cucina, my favorite onboard restaurant space, hidden away in the stern and accessed via a stairway from the Garden Cafe, serves Italian dishes in a comfortable, family-style setting.
- Le Bistro, the ship's fancy French eatery, serves suitably rich cuisine in an intimate, high-end space
- Teppanyaki, which gives you a show as chefs slice, dice, and grill right in front of you on hot grills, sliding each order right onto your plate.
- Shanghai's, a classic Chinese restaurant.
- The Noodle Bar, attached to Shanghai's, serves a variety of casual noodle dishes.
- Wasabi, which serves up lovely orders of sushi and sashimi, accompanied by a selection of sakes.
- Cirque Dreams & Dinner, though there's so much frenetic action going on in the show that you may not notice the food. Menus are straightforward favorites, accented with a chocolate decadence dessert.
- 24-hour pizza delivery, available anytime, delivered anywhere on the ship.
Fail: Epic Can Be Hard to Get Around and Offers Little "At Sea" Feel
As compared to Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which is remarkably well laid-out and does a great job of reminding people that they're on a ship (mostly via great views from many angles), Norwegian Epiccan feel a bit choppy and hard to navigate. Sadly, it's easy to forget that you're on the ocean at all.
Now, Epic is not any guiltier in these regards than any other megaship launched over the past dozen years. Her guilt, such as it is, lies in bad timing and heightened expectations. NCL should have taken better advantage of modern design technology to create a more intuitive vessel that predicts the way passengers will move about.
As it is, things are sometimes clunky: 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 the other. 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 down corridors that you can only access once you find the unmarked doors that lead to them.
Now, granted, some of these things (the bottleneck issue on public decks, for instance) can probably be alleviated by just moving things around. Additional signage would help passengers find those hidden cabins, but that doesn't completely cure the fact that 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: Made a ship of the future, not just a larger ship of the past or present.
Regarding the lack of "at sea" feel, 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. My sailing was on smooth seas out of New York, but at no time (and I mean no time) did I feel the movement of the ocean at all.
Success! Epic Can Be Loads of Fun
When all is said and done -- and I've gotten out all my complaints about Epic being not exactly epic but more, y'know, the same but bigger -- I do have to admit that she's fun. The Epic is fun in the way NCL ships usually are: casual, social, completely un-stuffy, and with a friendly feel. Like I've been saying for years, NCL is the kind of cruise line you want to sit down and have a beer with.
At night, the ship hops. Between the entertainment and the multitude of bars and lounges (including outdoor, adults-only nightclubs up on the top decks), 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 waterslides (one for inner-tubing), several climbing features (including a spider-web climbing cage and huge rock-climbing wall), and a partnership that brings characters like SpongeBob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer from Nickelodeon onboard for various kids' activities (some of them -- boo! -- more like photo ops with a cover charge).
With 4,200 passengers on board (and more, if all second and third berths are filled), Epic has the potential to be pretty crowded. But if you're going for a bustling urban feel, this may not be a completely bad thing. Just be prepared to fight your way through to the bar to order, and definitely make reservations ahead for much of the entertainment and activities. For example, I was completely unable to get into the much-touted Ice Bar, where the furniture is made of ice, vodka drinks are served in ice goblets, guests have to wear parkas, and everything's kept at a chilly 17 degrees. It's my own fault for not making a reservation as soon as I got on board (or even beforehand, from home), but it was still disappointing.
A Review of Norwegian Epic: The Final Word
So how to sum up a ship called Epic? She has her good sides, and she has her not-so-good sides. Had she been simply a new version of NCL's recent Jewel-class ships, with upgrades to entertainment, family-friendly activities, and pool deck options, she'd probably have been met with near-universal praise -- I mean, aside from those screwy cabin bathrooms, which nobody seems to like.
Epic's problem is simply that she set up too many expectations, and doesn't deliver on them all. In the wake of a few new ships that came in above and beyond their own expectations (Royal Caribbean's Oasis, as mentioned, and also Celebrity's Solstice, Eclipse, and Equinox), maybe I've just gotten conditioned to expect that innovations will always work right out of the box. Maybe I should give Epic more time, to see if some of her problems are resolved so that the great things about her can really shine
I will give her that extra time, because I like NCL. The company is, in my mind, the most mainstream of today's cruise lines. I mean that in a good way. They're centrists, offering a huge swath of people a chance for a fun, social vacation at a decent price. Accessing some of Epic's better activities will require you to plan ahead, and in a few cases will cost extra. But you won't break the bank, and you sure will get a lot of va-va-voom for your buck.
Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Cruise Forum.