I was kindly invited on a short UK preview cruise from Southampton in June 2010. This was a few days after Epic had been delivered from the STX shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, France (where the QM2 was built) and entered service. I obviously cannot comment on the quality of the full range of dining and entertainment options as one would ideally need two weeks to sample everything. Only 2,500 guests were invited so I also did not experience the ship operating at full passenger capacity.
Norwegian Epic has an impressive 18 decks, although decks 1- 4 are not public decks. Decks 6 , 7 and most of 5 are almost exclusively dedicated to public rooms. Their are 18 bars and lounges, 20 dining options, plus multiple entertainment venues to choose from, in keeping with NCL's 'Freestyle' concept. Most of the public rooms are single height, but not all. Embarkation
Although I arrived at Southampton's 'City Cruise Terminal' a few hours after embarkation had began I had to join a long queue which snaked out of the terminal building. It took me almost an hour of slowly shuffling along to actually board the ship. In contrast it took me just fifteen minutes to board 'Oasis' at RCI's new terminal at Port Everglades a few months ago. Maybe the Southampton cruise terminals organization is to blame rather than the ship? For example, I noticed that there were five X-ray machines but only three were being staffed. Such big ships clearly need big infrastructure to operate efficiently, which something that RCI has recognised and put in place with 'Oasis'.
Passengers boarded via Epic's 'lobby' which is quite understated being only two decks high. It contains the usual reception desk, shore excursions desk and an atrium cafe. The first thing that struck me was how very wide and spacious the lobby was which instantly reveals the scale of the ship. The lobby has an enormous two story high-definition video screen which instantly signifies that you are on an informal 'fun' ship. It is used to show anything from tranquil seascapes to sporting events.
The second thing that struck me is that NCL have re-branded their internal dEcor. The often 'garish' semi-Carnival-esq dEcor of the 'Jewel' class has been replaced with an altogether more sedate approach. Many of the interiors are quite 'classy' and often not as 'glitzy' as RCI, in fact some aspects of the dEcor reminded me more of 'Celebrity'. For example, stair landing featured giant oval mirror designs and many elevator landings feature dark wood panels, reminding me of the QM2 at times. Most of the carpets are much less 'acid-trip' inspired than on previous NCL ships.
I will now give you a deck by deck tour of the ship: The front half of the first public deck, deck 5, is exclusively public rooms, the rear half being crew spaces. At the very bow of deck 5 is the 'Epic Theatre'. The Theatre is of course state-of-the-art, but somewhat smaller than you would expect from such a big ship holding just 900 passengers. We are of course used to seeing theatres that accommodate approximately half of a ships passenger compliment in one sitting. However this 'NCL Freestyle' and there are alternative entertainment venues. The theatre has raked seating spread across two decks; there is no balcony/circle. The Theatre offers excellent sight lines. However all the other entertainment venues are much smaller so can offer a higher level of intimacy, ideal for live performance.
Working our way aft, after the theatre, there is a photo shop and a very large 'art sales' area. 'I-connect' the internet cafe is located adjacent to the 'art sales' (starboard) and a little further towards the aft is the 'Click' photo gallery, which has 'digital' printing facilities. Adjacent to the photo gallery (port) is 'Le Bistro', French restaurant which is featured on board all NCL ships. Continuing aft, we reach the main Lobby. Just beyond the lobby are two escalators (one up and one down) to deck 6, emerging in the Casino area. Continuing aft, we reach 'Taste' restaurant which like many of the dining rooms onboard, quite intimate. The tables are in its own atrium which has a very impressive 'contemporay' LCD chadelier hanging above it. However passengers above can look down upon the dinners, so it's not ideal for the paranoid.
Deck 6 is entirely dedicated to public rooms. At the bow there is the upper level of the 'Epic Theatre'. Proceeding aft, we have the 'entertainment kiosk' which is a booking desk for all of the entertainment. All bookings are held on your pass card/room key, which is scanned on arrival to each show. Continuing aft a little there is the 'Speigel Tent' on the port side, which is a circular double height show lounge which offers the "Cirque Dreams and Dinner" show. The 'Speigel Tent' takes its name from a travelling tent, constructed in wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, originally built in Belgium during the late 19th Century. It is a circular room, with tables, a small center perfornce floor space and a balconly with addotoiponal tables, looking down. Compared to the orignal artist renderings it does not look as circus-tent like and is quite a dark sparse room. It has just 275 seats, but this of course adds to theatmosphere of the live performance. The furniture is flexible; however there were some seats which had their back to the show, which made little sense. The show carries a $15-$20 surcharge, depending where you sit.
Adjacent to the 'Speigel Tent' is the intimate 'Headliner's Comedy Club' which speaks for itself. 'O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill' is located amidships. This 'Irish Pub' style lounge, which serves food and is one of the the bigger lounges on the ship. It is very atmospheric and very popular. It looks down onto the lobby and it's video screen. It also has three bowling lanes, dart boards, pool tables, foosball and arcade games (a further three bowling lanes are located in Bliss).
Continuing aft, there are two escalators emerge from deck 5 into the Casino area which is located amidships. It is very extensive with 340 slot machines and many gaming tables. Unusually the Casino overlooks the Atrium below, whereas most Casino's on other ships are an enclosed room. I often found myself having to pass through the Casino to get to front or back of deck 6. Unfortunaely it is often quite smokey.
Moving further aft we reach 'Shanghai's Chinese Restaurant (starboard). The 'Cascade' bar serves the Casino and is located centrally, and 'Fat Cats' Jazz Club, which is an intimate 280 seat venue. The two level Manhattan Room Restaurant occupies the very aft of the ship.
The Manhatten Dining Room is the biggest dining room on bord and takes up the full width of the ship. It has a two deck high ceiling in the centre, although dining is only on the lower level. It has a charming art deco design with square windows overlooking the ships wake. I was initially a little disappointed as the original renderings made the room look larger with an enormous dance floor - more like a Cunard 'Queens Room' with dining tables. In reality the dance floor is somewhat smaller than illistrated. The furniture is flexible so tables, chairs and buffet stations are often set out on part or all of dance floor, at times. In fact the room was used a lot as a meeting venue during the preview cruise with a theatre style chair layout covering the dance floor. I had breakfast in this reseruant and it was very good. Hot items are ordered from the menu. Cold items were available from some buffet stations.
Deck 7 has two promenades raunning down each side of the ship. There are 'deck games' on the port side and a 'jogging track' on the starboard side. The Prom offers virtually no sea views as it is almost entirely obstructed by ten very big lifeboats, per side. However no cabins views are obstructed by the lifeboats. The lifeboat follows the modern tend of taking place in various public rooms without the passengers being required to wear lifejackets.
The best sea views on Epic are from the many balcony cabins. There is no observation lounge, althoug unuseally the 'Garden cafe' (self service resterant) is located high at the front of the ship of the ship (deck 15) and has some good sea views.
At the bow of deck 7 is the 'Bliss Ultra lounge' which is one of the biggest lounges on the ship, along with O'Sheehan's. It is a very trendy and very popular lounge/nightclub, being packed each evening during the preview cruise. The decor is more typical of the 'Bliss' lounges on other NCL ships (i.e. rather eccentric.)
Continuing aft, we have the 'Ice Bar' on the port side. This is an interesting novelty. The room holds 25 people, although I think you could easily fit 30 in. The room is quite sparse with an bar (made of ice) a few large ice sculptures and a few ice chairs. You are given a thermal poncho with hood and gloves to wear. In fear of stating the obvious, it's very cold inside. I was dissapointed that our glasses were made of 'glass' not 'ice'. Passengers are allocated a 45 minute slot in the ice bar. Most of my fellow Brits withstood the full 45 minutes apart from women who were wearing skirts and or open toed sandals, who lasted around 20-30 minutes. The ice bar carries a surcharge of $20 but you do get two free drinks of flavored vodka. It was extremely difficult to get a booking for the ice bar on my preview cruise. The opening hours will be surprisingly limited: nightly from 5oopm -10pm. I wonder if the demand will outstrip capacity. I was expecting 12.00pm to 1.00am daily which might ber more realistic?
Continuing aft we find the 'Tepanyakki' dining room, 'Wasabi Sushi Bar' and 'Sake' bar (starboard). I had Sushi for lunch which was very good indeed. Also on the port side is 'Shakers Martini Bar'. Continuing aft, we have 'Maltings' whisky bar, the 'Humadore Cigar Lounge', the shops and a barbers shop, where a man can get a haircut and wet shave. There were pictures on the wall of 1970's hairstyles, which now look humerous of course. At the very aft is 'Cagney's Steak house and Churrascaria' which overlook the Manhatten room. As NCL put it: "We've taken our traditional steakhouse and fused it with a trendy, energetic Argentinean-inspired Churrascaria". Decks 8 - 13 are purely accommodation decks, apart from the Medical Centre on deck 10 and the private studio lounge (formerly named the 'Living room') on deck 11/12, serving the 128 small 'Studio' cabins spread over both of those decks. Deck 13 also has a 'bridge viewing' window.
Deck 14 has cabins located forward and the 'Recess Kids Club' located amidships. Moving aft is the first squash court at sea, then the 'Pusle' fitness centre/aerobics room, hair and beauty salon and fully aft, the 'Mandarin' Spa. This 'health & beuaty'complex is particularly extensive. Located on this deck are a total of 39 spa suites, which have private entry to the luxurious thermal suite and fitness center. Eight spa suites each feature an in-room whirlpool, although this compremises the cabin space available. Deck 15 features the first level of the very ungainly forward deck extension (sometimes known as the 'carbuncle'). The lower level contains the 'Garden Cafe & The Great Outdoors' which is the self-service buffet area and lido (open air) dining area. The Garden Cafe is is not unlike those on any other modern ship. It is of reasonable size, but not enormous. The food choice and quality is pretty good. The plates and cups were china, but trays were notavailable. However the Garden Cafe was prone to getting crowded on my cruise, so what would happen if most of the 4000+ guests decided they all wanted breakfst there at once? Unuseally when dining in the 'Great Outdoors' passengers get a view of the Aqua Park, rather thasn the sea.
Having the buffet located forward, rather than aft, as on most modern ship caused me some navigational disorientation at first, but I soon got over it. The main entrance to 'La Cucina', the Tuscan-style eatery on deck 14 is via the Garden cafe buffet (deck 15) making it quite difficult to find, until you know. The centre piece of 'La Cucina' and its Italian decor is a real tree. The resterants also offers some nice sea views being purched high above the bow. Moving aft, into the open air is 'Waves bar' and 'Aqua Park/Kids Aqua Park' and 'Sun Deck'.
The 'Epic Plunge', is the only tube slide with a bowl slide and a 200-foot long tube. The Aqua Park also includes two main pools five hot tubs, a wading pool and a kid's pool that features whimsical sculptures, water sprays and a slide. Behind the twin funnels are two rock climbing wall. We then pass through an area called 'The Marketplace' which was not in operation, but I belive it will be an open air sales area (is there no excape from consumerism?) Beyond that is the 'Spice H2O' pool and bar. This area has an aft pool which turns into a dance floor/disco at night. There is another giant video screen which is flanked by two of the biggest speakers that you have ever seen. It is likely to prove very poular in the warm Caribbean climate although the bar can quickly get over crowded. Of course if it's raining or windy, the passengers will all migrate to 'Bliss' which in all likely hood would already be full.
Deck 16 forward, features the 'ship-within-a-ship' suite complex. This was not open or even complete on the preview cruise. Deck 17 Aft is the 'sports deck', full-sized basketball court, climbing wall and a very strange 24-foot tall enclosed climbing cage called the Spider Web. Deck 18 is the roof of the 'villa' complex. This features a private courtyard sundeck and public sundeck, port and starboard and the private 'posh beach club'. So I assume the 'have nots' can look at the 'haves' in envy?
NCL have really though 'outside the box' with this one - no other ship in the world has anything similar. All outside cabins have balconies and many have their 'new wave' curved walls. All grades of cabin are uber-trendy and look great in my opinion.
The cabin corridors are once again quite 'understated', although not unattractive. NCL still have that clever 'wheel' gadget next to each cabin door which is used to indicate "do not disturb", "please make up may room" etc. without the need for cardboard door hangers. Many of the cabins are an interlocking (mirror-image) design, a bit like a '69' configuration. This is not a new idea as many of the great ocean liners used this design to save space. However 'Epics' cabins have curved walls that help disguise the fact that the standard and deluxe balcony cabins are narrower than most cabins on other modern ships. I was in a deluxe balcony cabin, number 11080. Controversially in the vast majority of the cabins, including mine, have the toilet and shower split into two separate compartments, with frosted glass sliding doors, either side of the entrance door. This design cleverly saves space and allows the creation of a narrower cabin (hence more passengers). There is a vanity sink is next to the toilet cubicle. This wet area has a wooden affect floor, the bedroom area, carpet. Now the lack of toilet and shower privacy is an issue for some people. You can see a person's silhouette through the frosted glass doors of both the toilet and shower. However there is a curtain which can be drawn closing off the wet area (toilet and shower only, not the sink) from the bedroom area - so really it is a non-issue in my opinion. However it could be embarrassing if housekeeping is trying to gain access while you are towelling down as the cabin door is effectively in the wet area.
The 'pedestal' style vanity sink looks trendy, but it is nearly useless. Firstly the water constantly leaves the bowl, flooding the surrounding surface and floor. Secondly it has a large fixed spout with does not move, so if you tried to wash you face directly in the sink you would head-butt the spout. (I have since heard that NCL will address this matter). There is a shaving socket by the sink and a mirror.
The deluxe balcony cabin has a very large (in fact long) shower with a big shower head on a flexible pipe. The water pressure was very good for a shipboard shower. A glass door beats a curtain any day and the water did not tend to leave the shower and flood the floor. The vacuum toilet barked like a dog as usual, but at more decibels than normal.
The deluxe balcony cabins appear to no wider than the standard balcony cabins, but they are much longer. You get an extra wardrobe and cupboards. In fact I counted 15 different cupboards of various shapes and sizes. However the wardrobes were not very deep which will be O.K. in the Caribbean but may cause problems for European garb. When opened, the wardrobe doors block the limited through-way. The shower has shower gel and shampoo dispenser and the sink a soap dispenser (no individually wrapped Molton Brown luxury bath products here).
A large sofa (which takes up a disproportional amount of space in the cabins) pulls out to become a third berth. The main bed has rounded ends and tall passengers have complained that it is too short. The cabin lighting is trendy and quite effective, compared to some other ships. The balcony was of a very good size and easily accommodated two upright chairs and a very small table. The dressing table area has a hairdryer underneath it. There is a safe and mini bar. The only power socket (the US type) and under the vanity desk and are difficult to access. I believe the cabin LCD TV's are 'interactive' but none of them worked at all so I don't know. There was also a coffee making machine. The art was also missing from the walls of my cabin - but hey, this stuff will be fixed.
The 128 studio cabins located on deck 11 and 12 are just 100 sq ft. They are the nautical equivalent of 'bedsits', yet they are very cute to look at, at least. Unusally have big round windows looking onto the corridor, but people cannot see in. The corridor itself is bathed in a blue light and looks very sci-fi. These cabins were originally designed for couples (obviously small couples) but are now redesignated as 'single occupancy' with no single supliment. Reducing the studio cabins capacity makes the 'studio lounge' twice as spacious, although it appeared rather sterile and univiting to me. (Contrary to the first press releases the studio lounge does not have two levels, just an upper stair case serving the studio cabins on the deck above.)
I saw the 'Blue Man Group' in the Epic Theatre which was a full 1.5 hour show. Now if you have never seen the BMG (which I had not) it is almost impossible to explain what they do - but here goes: It's a humorous musical and visual show, with no dialogue, featuring the Blue Men drumming, sometimes on plastic plumbing, some rock music, some avant guard slapstick and audience participation: see I told you it was impossible to explain. Anyway it's unique and unconventional which exactly matches how NCL have promoted Epic as being. I really enjoyed the show, although some traditionalists would probably prefer 'Chicago' (soon to be offered on 'Allure of the Seas'). It worth reflecting how much a ticket to this show would cost shore-side, but on board it's free.
"Cirque Dreams and Dinner" show, held in the purpose built 'Speigel Tent' room is two hours long. It starts rather slowly with lots of comical dialogue and general tomfoolery. However, after 20 minutes, once the show got going and the proper circius acts performed, the show became a high-energy, interactive spectacle. The acts included a tight-rope walker with a very slack rope, balancing, juggling and strong man acts, to name but a few. There was even a man cavorting in a bath of water and flying on ribbons, much to the delight female members of the audiences. There was also a woman who can instantly change her clothes - I wish she could teach my wife that trick. At several points in the show I feared that I might have to say "waiter there is a performer in my soup" (although soup was not served).
The 'dinner' on the other hand was one of the worst meals that I have ever had at sea. This was hardly a good move given the fact that the audience were journalists including Douglas Ward of Berlitz Guide to Cruising and me. Firstly It was a set meal of only three courses, so there was no choice. The first course was a quarter of an iceberg (or similar) lettuce with some mediocre dressing, so hardlyy a salad. The second course was chicken and beef: the chicken being a 'reformed' piece with stuffing in it, mainly tasting of salt. The beef was mediocre and cooked 'medium' with no choice being given as to how you wanted it. The vegetables were relatively stewed and tasteless. A brown gravy coved the meal. The desert was made such dense chocolate that three quarters of my table were unable to stomach it. I recall that NCL said in a press release something like: " you will remember the show but you will not remember what you had for dinner". If only that were ture. That meal is burnt into my taste buds! It's a pity the Chefs were not as talented as the circus performers.
On a positive not the waiters did extremely well to work around the show and even joined in occasionally. So it was a poor meal, great show. I belive the surcharge is considerbably less than you would pay for the show shore-side. I walked past 'Howl at the Moon' show (dueling pianos) in 'Headliners' and the crowd seemed to be having a ball.
Epic is a floating resort and a reasonably high density ship, in terms of passenger numbers. Another way to look at it, is that 'Epic' has a similar internal volume to the Cunard's 'Queen Mary 2', but will often carry up to 1500 more passengers. However It's not a fair comparison, although an interesting one, because that's the difference between 'Premium' and 'Mass Market'. Epic's fares are likely to be considerably lower than the likes of Cunard.
Epic only has two stair towers and respective banks of elevators, so there is a very long walk between them. Some considerably smaller ships have three stair towers/elevators. The elevators are not the fastest or biggest that I've experienced either, those were on 'Oasis'. Oasis only has two stair towers but the speed and size of her elevators compensated. My preview cruise only carried 2,500 guests but the ship already seemed very busy. In fact I found it difficult to get served at any bar in the evening, although the invited guests probaly consumed more alcohol than the normal cruise passenger do. There did not seem to be a 'quiet bar' on offer. The TV screens around the ship which should display how crowded each didning room was were not functioning as yet.
It will be essential to book your entertaiment, ice bar and dining choices in advance as all the venues and dining rooms onboard Epic are generally small and will most likely sell-out very quickly.
It is refreshing to see NCL finally build a ship which truly competes with the big two and close the gap. Essentially Epic is like an NCL 'Jewel' class ship on steroids. In fact Epic makes the rest of the NCL fleet feel 'intimate' in comparison.
In my opinion 'freestyle' matches the tastes of the modern (often younger) passenger better than the traditional system: the inflexible 'two sittings' for diner followed by a main show.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and most cruise lines now operate a form of 'freestyle' on a more limited basis. However 'freestyle' is not perfect and restaurants can become crowded at peak times and queues can form.
Epic's major selling point is her multiple dining and entertainment options. I would hesitate to call her 'truly' innovative as this particular innovation took place back in 2001 when NCL introduced 'freestyle' with the 'Norwegian Sun' being the first ship to be designed specifically for 'Freestyle' with eight dining options. However, Epic takes the 'Freestyle third generation' concept further with even more dining options, enhanced entertainment and multiple venues. The cabins may not be conventional or the most spacious at sea, but they are definitely the trendiest.
Epic has all the advantages and disadvantages of a big ship. For example the corridors are endless and the stair cases go on forever, so not an ideal ship for those passengers with mobility problems. Epic is a relatively high density ship in terms of passenger numbers. I am not sure how well she will handle her full compliment in terms of embarkation, disembarkation, on board congestion and deck space. Whatever the outcome, you would certainly never be lonely onboard. I will also be interested to hear how the cruising public feels about the quality of her non-surcharge dining and cost of the various surcharge dining options.
Although 'Norwegian Epic' with 'Oasis of the Seas' are very different ships, people are bound to draw comparisons. After all, they are the two biggest new ships, operating similar itineraries, in the Caribbean mass-market.
So should you book 'Oasis' or should you book 'Epic'? Oasis of course wins on size and her groundbreaking public spaces such as the 'Royal Promenade', 'Central Park' and the 'Boardwalk'. Some aspects of the RCI experience are quite traditional: one main dining rooms, one main theatre with two sitting and two formal nights per week (although there are additional dining and entertainment options). Epic wins on the number of dining choices, dining flexibility and informality (no need to ever dress up if you don't want to) not forgetting the trendy cabins. Both ships have certainly upped the quality of entertainment at sea. Epic offers single 'Studio' cabins with no single supplement which is unique in the industry. Oasis has its 'Loft Suites' and Epic has it's 'ship within a ship' 'Villa' complex.
So would I recommend Norwegian Epic? Yes certainly for the young, the young at heart and families looking for a more informal 'fun' experience, with a vast array of dining options, on a very impressive, floating resort.