Last weekend, cruise experts Heidi Sarna and Matt Hannafin sailed on one of the very first cruises aboard the 4,100-passenger, 153,000-ton Norwegian Epic (www.ncl.com). Though it's not quite the size of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the brand-new ship is an innovator. Expect lots of people, some lines, and long cabin corridors that can seem to go on forever. But for megaship lovers looking for tons to do and choices in the dining, entertainment, and sports departments, the Norwegian Epic is a big winner. Here are the top 10 Epic moments from Heidi and Matt's first look at the ship.
1. The Blue Man Group wowed us. The typical cruise ship show is a glorified song-and-dance revue. In recent years, the major exceptions to this rule have been Disney (for obvious reasons), Royal Caribbean (which has been introducing real Broadway shows on its Oasis-class ships), and NCL, which has erred on the side of edgy for some time. Now, though, NCL has blown everybody away by signing the über-edgy Blue Man Group to perform eight 75-minute shows per 7-night cruise aboard Norwegian Epic.
We consider this something of a game-changer, because Blue Man is essentially the anti-cruise-ship-show. They're continually pushing the envelope, working with the unexpected, adding and changing material to stay ahead of their own already surreal curve. They're also funny: really, really funny. And of course, blue: three blue-painted, expressionless men communicate only through intense eye contact and gestures. The completely silent trio also uses drumming, audience participation, videography, and a lot of unexpected detours to drive the non-existent but completely compelling storyline. Short story? They put on the best show at sea today.
2. We loved the Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club. What makes this place so great? The musicians play the way they would in a land-based jazz and blues club. 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, the band also sometimes just improvised, letting it all hang out. Leader Slam Allen plays his Stratocaster with a searing tone and sings with a great, gruff blues voice. 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. Many did, though we suspect (without any evidence besides their uniform talent) that most, if not all, were musicians from other onboard bands. Still, the idea is great, adding a dose of spontaneity and improvisation to the usually well-planned cruise entertainment line-up.
3. The Plunge Water Slide made us grin.As we always say, there's nothing like some old-fashioned fun. The Norwegian Epic has one of the industry's three most exciting waterslides (the Carnival Dream and upcoming Disney Dream have the other two). It was sweet to watch the giant smiles of sheer joy on Heidi's 7-year-old sons and her husband when they zipped down the giant tubes and splashed into the de-acceleration zone. Heidi also gave it a whirl -- sitting in an inner tube, she zoomed down the wide enclosed yellow tube before being flung out into a large open-top bowl to do a few fast spins before being flushed down a final short tube and to the end. We appreciate simple, low-tech adventures, and the Epic's three slides totally deliver.
4. We drooled over the Asian cuisine. Asian restaurants are no strangers in the cruise world, with NCL itself, plus Crystal, Celebrity, Cunard, Holland America, and others all featuring some kind of Asian specialty restaurant aboard at least some ships. So what's the difference here? Epic offers four different Asian specialty dining experiences -- a Teppanyaki room, Shanghai's Chinese restaurant, a Noodle Bar, and the Wasabi Sushi & Sake Bar -- plus touches like two Indian dishes (one meat, one vegetarian) every day in the Garden Cafe buffet. The Teppanyaki is a theater-in-the-round experience, with armed chefs chopping, slicing, and slapping their ingredients into shape mere inches from the diners. Watch out for flying oil! Shanghai's and its accompanying Noodle Bar are decorated like an old-style Hong Kong restaurant, while the Sushi & Sake Bar has the requisite zen-like simplicity (the pure white counters are decorated with little tufts of grass).
5. O'Sheehans bar is the place to hang out. We won't deny it: We both love a good bar, on land or sea, and O'Sheehan's (named for NCL's CEO, Kevin Sheehan) is a good bar. Of course, it's a big bar, spreading all the way across the center of Deck 6, so don't expect intimate. It's also a sort of multi-disciplinary bar, offering three bowling lanes to one side, pool tables to the other, a Bennigan's-looking dining section, and a great view of a giant video screen that spans Decks 5 and 6 in the forward atrium. It's also got a bar, 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 a while rather than going to do the work that we'd planned. Guess that means it's a good bar.
6. We watched a World Cup match in the Atrium.The Norwegian Epic bills itself as a family-friendly and sporty ship. We found this to be especially true as Heidi and her family snuggled in oversize burgundy chenille chairs watching a World Cup match (Spain v. Paraguay, by the way) in the Epic's Atrium. Matt, who cruised solo for this one, also got a kick out of the great setting for such an important game, with no less than a gigantic two-deck high video screen in the atrium lobby on deck 5. Special sporting events are shown there as well as entertainment from time to time, but otherwise the default is serene landscapes and travel scenes shown sans audio (thank you very much) that make for great photo backdrops.
7. The Studio Cabins impress. 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 three decades, but now it's back thanks to the 128 wonderful Studio Cabins aboard Epic. Created by hip design firm Priestmangoode, each has a padded wall surrounding the bed, a large "porthole" that looks out into the corridor, ingenious small storage nooks, and very cool neon-esque mood lighting. Residents of these cabins get exclusive access to The Living Room, a mod, double-height space 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.
8. The Deep Tissue Massage at Mandara Spa was top shelf all the way. There are few things we enjoy as much as a good quality massage, so it's to be expected that Heidi booked a 50-minute Deep Tissue Massage in the Epic's gigantic Mandara Spa. The professional-looking complex has many therapy 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 (we all like to dream!). A very skilled therapist from South Africa used her forearms to really knead out Heidi's knots (and she has plenty) while still delivering a relaxing treatment. On other ships, we've had our share of disappointing massages that were a bit too light on the pressure. Massages are pricey on all cruise ships, and this was no different: $158 including an 18% tip that was automatically added to the bill. They say you pay for what you get.
9. We tested out the Rock Climbing Wall and Climbing Maze. As the mother of super-active twin boys and a super-fit husband, Heidi knows that ships with active hands-on sporty stuff are big hits with her family. All three love to climb and do at every opportunity, so they were thrilled to see that the Epic had a 33-foot climbing wall with five routes as well as a repelling wall. (Heidi snapped photos as they geared up and scrambled up the wall to ring the "I did it" bell at the top). Adjacent to the climbing walls are also a trampoline (complete with harness and cables for doing flips) and a 24-foot-tall climbing cage called the "spider web" that's laced with giant rubber bands that one has to climb on and through to get to the top. Did we mention that the basketball court (that doubles as a mini soccer pitch) and the batting cage were also big hits? (How else could Heidi so easily sneak away for that great massage?)
10. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty. New York City is one of the most special places in the world to cruise in and out of, with the skyline and Lady Liberty lining the glide up and down the mighty Hudson River. As former New Yorkers who still pine for the city, we had lumps in our throats when the Epic passed close to the famous statue. The Epic is now on her way south to start a year of 7-night alternating eastern and western Caribbean cruises out of Miami, before repositioning to Barcelona to cruise in Europe next summer. But don't worry about missing the New York harbor views: NCL currently has the Norwegian Jewel sailing out of the Big Apple to Florida and the Bahamas year-round.
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