Myself, my wife, our two teenage daughters, and a family friend, just returned from the Norwegian Epic, having taken a back to back sailing, from the 14th to the 28th August. On the whole, we had a superb couple of weeks, went to some amazing places, and met some great people. However, this being the inaugural sailing, the ship has issues. We’ve never cruised with NCL before (the only other cruise ship we’ve been on was the Disney Magic, last summer… and the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais probably doesn’t count), so I can’t say whether the problems are line-wide, or to do with the Epic being a brand new vessel, that’s still finding it’s sea legs.
A lot of issues people have mentioned in other reviews – the small sinks, the smoking (even though we’re non-smokers, aside from one woefully misguided visit to the cigar lounge, in a bid to try everything the ship had to offer/make ourselves throw up…), the nickel and diming, the omnipresent casino etc. – weren’t a problem with us.
Perhaps expectations have been lowered by all the complaining, or maybe we’re still feeling guilty about returning to a luxury cruise ship, after witnessing the incredible poverty around the port in Roatan. It feels churlish to complain about a sink that makes your socks wet because it was too shallow, when you’ve just driven past a family of 20, who wave and smile, despite apparently all living together in a rusty sceptic tank about the size of a small tumble dryer.
Either way, while the Epic itself may be uglier than a box of fried kittens on the outside, it’s beautiful where it counts. That might not matter if you’re a lonely, acne-ridden teenager desperate for a date, but it’s important for a cruise ship. Admittedly, there are no big, open spaces inside, but the smaller areas mean that it only really gets crowded in the casino, or before and after shows (if you want good seats, you really have to be in line at least 45 minutes beforehand – and that’s just for the restrooms… ba-dum-tish!). Plus, it gives the ship a sense of intimacy. When you’re below decks, on 5, 6 and 7, you never sense you’re lost in some big, faceless, resort. Areas such as O’Sheehan’s really do evoke their templates – it honestly did feel like a pub.
Most of our problems with the Epic could by solved pretty easily, as they’re logistical issues. We had a few wobbles with some of our bookings – two of our shore excursions were missing when we got aboard, so we had to re-book them, for instance. Also, it’s a shame our initial impression of the ship wasn’t better – you’re shuffled into the ‘box office’ on deck 6, and straight into a bottleneck of all the other clueless saps trying to get their bearings.
The muster drill on our first week was something of a shambles too – equivalent to a free music festival, as organised by a bunch of drunk five year olds. Admittedly, it was slightly tighter the following week, so maybe they’re learning what does and doesn’t work (DOES WORK: telling people how best not to drown in a tight, hassle-free manner… DOESN’T WORK: gathering them in their meeting place, and then just letting them mill around for 45 minutes without any instruction, while they wonder whether they can go yet – and then startling them with a series of high-pitched horn blasts).
I was sharing an interior stateroom with my friend, while my wife and two daughters had a standard balcony cabin (we booked a little late, and also forgot to win the lottery in order to afford a villa). Contrary to what many have said, unless you’re Jabba the Hutt or Godzilla, the size of the cabin is fine, and there’s plenty of storage. Although we were able to laugh about the infamous split-bathroom issue, I’m not sure it’s a good sign that we had to laugh about something in order to tolerate it (“I just chopped off my hand… ha ha ha! It’s ok – I can laugh about it! Ohhh… that really smarts… Ha ha ha!”).
In some respects, the biggest issue – far more than the frosted glass – is that the locks on the cabin doors simply don’t work. On more than one occasion I was in the shower or toilet, with the curtain closed to keep out my cabinmate, when housekeeping came in through the cabin door, due to the useless lock. At least twice I had to shriek at somebody to get out, lest they be confronted with a hazy, semi-obscured image of me struggling to pull up my pants (or worse). It wasn’t just our cabin with a dodgy lock; it was also happening across the hall, with my wife and daughters.
The other big issue for us was the racket up on deck. Now, I like a party as much as the next guy, but I also value audible conversation. There was no chance of getting sunburnt on the Epic, because we couldn’t stand the noise on Deck 15 for more than about ten minutes during the day. It would only have been marginally less tolerable if the captain had been up there, flinging buckets of horse intestines at people. Honestly, it was like being trapped inside an iron drum with a live howler monkey, while a thrash metal band hammered on the outside with their instruments and fists.
We used the main pool twice – once very early in the morning, and the second time late morning. On the first occasion it was fine – though I lasted about five minutes, due to a bunch of kids who insisted upon squirting water directly into my contact lenses. The second occasion was beyond dreadful – it was as crowded as it usually was (the pools are the size of the average footspa, as you’ve doubtless read), but the thing that sent us fleeing was the music. Does it really need to be that loud? Really? Whose idea was it to play it at that volume – Beethoven?! Fair enough if you’re trying to drown out the sound of agonised screaming, but these are people trying to enjoy themselves. We literally had to shout at the top of our voices in order to be heard – it was like being in a nightclub, or the front row at rock concert, or strapped to a jet engine, in the middle of a bomb testing range. It was utterly needless, and I rarely went up on deck because of the noise. Seriously, NCL – lay off the decibels a little.
We spent more time in the Spice H2O pool, which was better, but even in there they had a tendency to play movies during the afternoon, which meant that there was nowhere on the ship to just soak and relax. The pool is directly below the screen, and I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to unwind while a couple of hundred people are staring right at me while I’m wearing nothing but a pair of swimming shorts.
Spice H2O, we felt, was a missed opportunity all round. It’s a great area, at the back of the ship – and very relaxing in early evening around sunset (despite a weird choice to play grisly nature videos on the big screen… which is kind of akin to attending a yoga class by somebody who’s just been thrown through a window, constantly picking glass out of their face while instructing you to “Breathe… and relaaaaaax… ow! Ow! Fffftt!”).
Unfortunately, most of the alleged night club-style events in Spice were an embarrassment - people were seemingly put off from dancing because they'd end up being projected onto the main screen in unflattering close up (and then edited into the souvenir DVD so future generations could laugh at them), or shunted off to the side like cattle, so the entertainments staff could perform some weakly choreographed dance routine (and then you’d be bellowed at if you chose to stay seated, as if you’d wandered into a disco run by the Gestapo). Most awfully, Silas, the Cruise Director, seemed to know that this was a bad idea, his gravely bark vacillating between promising “More choreography coming up shortly, folks” and assuring us that “You’ll get your chance to dance soon”.
We felt the entertainment staff was lacking somewhat overall. Some of them rather lacked in enthusiasm to the point of appearing like they were barely able to resist launching themselves overboard, while others – chiefly the aforementioned cruise director – had too much, and it felt like you were being ordered to enjoy yourself (“Ve hev ways of making you have fun…!”).
Likewise, Michael “The Bingo Godfather” was on the tannoy seemingly every five minutes, angrily threatening us with severe punishment if we failed to attend his apparently endless bingo sessions… “This is Michael your bingo godfather… come to bingo, or I’ll turn up at your cabin with a baseball bat and break your ankles…!”… “Play bingo, you lazy slobs, or I’ll set fire to your clothes…! While you’re still wearing them!”… “Play bingo – I have your children”…
One final negative that I should mention… we took the behind-the-scenes tour ($55 – no visit to either the engine room or the captain’s boudoir, in case you’re wondering) during our second week. We got to visit the poop deck – or, at least, the deck where everyone’s poop ends up. We learned that the waste is processed by being burnt down to a powder, before being flushed out to sea. Well, my advice is don’t bother with the water slides on a day when the ship is in port, as this would appear to be the time they choose to do the processing. And the start of the slides is right next to the funnels. From which the fumes are emitted. However, if you happen to like the stench of burning human waste, you’ll be in your element. I, however, made two trips down the Epic Plunge that day, before giving up entirely, as it was difficult not to feel like a turd in a toilet bowl.
That said, plenty about the ship is pretty perfect. The entertainment was second to none – Blue Man is as great as we’ve ever seen it (and we’d already seen it three times) even in this stripped down form. Legends, as cheesy as it is, we enjoyed more than we expected, Slam Allen is fantastic, Jeff Hobson was a real highlight (my wife was dragged on stage one night – which was very, very funny… especially as he dragged her up by her hair), and Cirque, though utterly bizarre and the gayest 90 minutes of my life (heck, it would probably be the gayest 90 minutes of Jeff Hobson’s life too, and he’s camper than a field of tents), was never less than enthralling. I also loved Howl At The Moon, though my companions only really enjoyed it once they’d had a bit to drink… and a few shots of testosterone.
The only slight misstep was Second City. Some of the sketches work, while others are just baffling, and the improvisation sections are very much dependent on the audience shouting out funny things. All too often, the suggestions are pretty predictable (admittedly, I didn’t shout anything, so I should probably shut up).
The food, on the whole, was good. We’re not going to complain about the cover charge for restaurants – we knew what we were getting into – but we ate at all of them apart from, obviously, the Epic Club (we peered through the windows like grubby urchins, tears rolling down our soot-encrusted cheeks, hoping forlornly that some wealthy widower would adopt us). Though Manhattan and Taste were clearly a step down from the pay venues, some of the best food we had was in the Garden Café and O’Sheehan’s. The fish and chips in the latter, and the quality of the carvery meats and the delicious curry, in the former, were fantastic. We weren’t enamoured with the wings in O’Sheehan’s, though – they always arrived lukewarm, and we weren’t going to risk a gutful of salmonella.
Though tasty, we felt the steak in Cagney’s was quite fatty, and we didn’t much care for the relentless meat barrage in Moderno. Our plates at the end of the meal looked like the scene of some terrible accident. The salad bar was superb, and the final steak they served was very good – though by that stage we had semi-digested meat filling every available space in our bodies, and the only way to fit any more inside was to risk pushing it out somewhere else, like a grim twist on the Play-Doh barbershop.
We enjoyed Le Bistro, La Cucina, and the noodle and sushi bars (though watching my friend attempting to eat sushi for the first time was a high point of hilarity – you’d think he was trying to force a jar of raw marsh slugs down his neck), though Shanghai’s didn’t really do it for us, and we felt Teppanyaki was disappointing –the ‘show’ was impressive, but pretty much all the food tasted identical, with the same sweet sauce poured over it.
The only other downside is that two weeks felt slightly too long for us. We were ready to get off the ship a couple of days shy of the end of the cruise. We’d been to every restaurant, every bar, seen all the entertainment more than once, and it was a shame that the Freestyle Dailies don’t have more variation between the Eastern and Western itineraries; we could’ve done with that. Ten or eleven days would’ve been perfect.
This review probably sounds like a long catalogue of complaints, but we honestly had a great time. In fact, I defy anyone not to have a good time on the ship. On the whole we liked the cabins, we ate well, saw some great shows, and made the most of the ship where possible – the rock climbing and rappelling walls were a hoot, we had fun at the martini tasting, and on the behind the scenes tour, took some of the enrichment classes, and tackled the waterslides on the days when our sinuses weren’t being assaulted by the acid tang of roasting excrement. On the whole the crew were very friendly and helpful (despite one or two sourpusses), and my kids, in particular, spoke very highly of the counsellors in the teen club (though that might be because none of the counsellors enforced the 1am curfew…).
Would we sail the Epic again? Maybe. I think we’d have to wait for the entertainment to change (on the behind-the-scenes tour we were told that the initial contracts for the main shows are all five years…), and for some of the other issues to be resolved or tightened up. Though we enjoyed NCL’s Freestyle approach, overall the Epic lacked the magic of the Disney ship. If we’re lucky enough to cruise again, we’ll try a different line, and a different ship, and probably a different itinerary. Not because we hated the Epic, but because we feel we’ve done it now. In some respects, the problems on the Epic gave it character – it’s kind of like a newborn baby deer; all the pieces are there, and unless somebody shoots it, it’ll grow into a majestic stag. Inevitably, right now it’s having trouble keeping upright, and keeps bumping into trees. Also, the deer in this metaphor is horrifically deformed, with a massive, oversized head. And it occasionally smells of poop. Reply With Quote