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For weeks if not months now, I’ve been driving past huge signs blaring, “MIAMI-DADE WELCOMES NORWEGIAN EPIC” — and let’s not even talk about the barrage of radio and print ads of what was sounding like The Innovative Cruise Ship Phenomenon of the Decade. It’s certainly a big enough deal for the city, as the Port of Miami’s first new cruise ship in three years. But would this 4,100-passenger, $1.2-billion extravaganza in fact outdo all the hoopla over other splashy recent debuts like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas last fall, or the Celebrity Solstice a year earlier?
Having just returned from a two-night “cruise to nowhere” for travel agents and media, my answer to that question is mostly yes with a touch maybe of not so much. Apart from my relief that NCL has opted not to push the ginormousness envelope of the Oasis — still the largest cruiser afloat — there’s a lot to like about the Epic.
Much of the new ship’s likeability resides in the food and the entertainment. I’m definitely a fan of Norwegian’s “Freestyle” concept, in which passengers have extra flexibility especially on where and when they can dine, and the 20 eateries packed into the 1,079-foot (329-meter) length of this ship serve consistently good-quality (sometimes even great) fare, whether it’s simple fish and chips out by the pool deck; Indian curry among the more middle-of-the-road favorites in the appealing Garden Café buffet; or pasta at La Cucina (eleven of these are included in the base fare). You’ve got cool offerings like Shanghai’s noodle bar (one drawback: way too small and hard to get into) and Teppanyaki, a Benihana-style Japanese grill where the chefs lend a touch of razzle-dazzle to slicing and dicing your meal before your eyes. They’ve also added something new to the NCL restaurant repertoire: Moderno Churrascaria, with tasty Latin-style meat skewers and cuts. Even the dinner-show fare was much better than I expected.
The entertainment is where the Epic shines brightest — and in fact at times the whole thing feels more like a Vegas-style extravaganza than a cruise ship, with not a lot of peace and quiet. It starts with the nightclubs; when you walk into Headliners or Fat Cats, for example, it feels like a real comedy or jazz club instead of some slightly shrunken cruise-ship version thereof. The Bliss Ultra Lounge exudes a genuinely hot dance club vibe, and for some (literally) cool novelty, the petite Svedka Ice Bar is a trip — a couple dozen people at a time don fur-lined wraps to hang out in 17°F (-8°C) temperatures between ice-block walls (it’s the only bar not included in the base fare).
As for the shows, besides the standard interactive murder mystery and celebrity impersonators, NCL has gone the extra nautical mile to line up some impressive brand-name spectacles. One is the Blue Man Group, the performance art troupe which has been around for years yet manages to keep itself fresh, topical, and occasionally even shocking. Another is the Spiegel Tent, an update of a century-old cabaret/circus hybrid which combines goofy dialogue and clowning with some truly amazing acrobatics and gymnastics. The kids on our cruise, meanwhile, loved the Nickelodeon character breakfast with Sponge Bob and Dora the Explorer, as well as Slime Time Live.
The activities are for the most part nothing new (casino, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, shops), but the trio of water slides does break some new ground. There’s a somewhat tame purple one, a wilder green one, and a big yellow one which involves being flushed into and out of
cruisedom’s biggest “toilet” bowl (I highly recommend holding your nose toward the end, or you’ll end up with a snootful of H₂O). Another feature worth calling out is the gym, one of the best and roomiest I’ve ever seen at sea (I can’t comment on the spa, as I was never able to get in).
Once you get into the staterooms, I like that all outside cabins have balconies, and folks traveling alone or with friends can get special “studios” for one (though these are all tiny, balcony-less inside cabins) and have their own little lounge area. And the storage space is probably the most plentiful I’ve seen on a cruise ship.
As for the minuses, they’re relatively few and small-bore, if a bit surprising given all the advance hype about design and innovation. First of all, the Epic‘s design itself is fairly conventional compared to the Oasis and the Solstice, with a merely workmanlike decor suggesting an updated 1950s (sorry, “midcentury”) esthetic (I assume the “challenges” NCL CEO Kevin Sheehan alluded to during the press briefing may well have included some cost-cutting due to the economic crisis that hit while the ship was in construction). The staterooms, meanwhile, did sport interesting touches suggestive of ocean waves, but fell short in a couple of practical areas — I heard complaints in particular about the fact that in a society where everyone owns a plethora of plug-in gadgets, the cabins have only two outlets, and awkwardly placed ones at that. Also, more than a few passengers expressed dislike for the bathroom design, which is essentially incorporated into the cabin. As for the outdoors, with the exception of the water slides, I was surprised by the pool areas, which were small, square, and sometimes overcrowded — which didn’t stop anyone from having a blast.
Now, many travel journalists will rarely mention minuses for fear of being stricken from “the list” for the next fam cruise (as I may have just been). But unless you’re very fussy, none of Epic‘s flaws are likely to be dealbreakers, and I feel that before vacationers spend their hard-earned time and money they deserve to get as full a picture as possible. Would I recommend this ship? You bet — just about everyone on board had a grand old time, families in particular. So while the Epic may not be 100-percent epochal, it’s pretty darn cool, and a welcome addition to the world’s cruise ship market.
In 2010-11, the Norwegian Epic is sailing eastern and western Caribbean itineraries as well as western Mediterranean; 7-day/6-night fares start at US$649.