Norwegian Epic Entertainment
The nighttime is the right time on Epic, which is clearly taking aim at Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class show-a-paloozas. One difference, though, is Epic's smattering of distinctive, relatively compact venues for the entertainment, which ranges from off-Broadway stalwarts (Blue Man Group) and Chicago transplants (Second City Comedy Troupe) to Vegas imports (Legends in Concert) and kiddie crowd-pleasers (anything with Nickelodeon).
Just remember that most shows need tickets (even the free ones, which are in the majority), though I had no difficulty getting into anything. Worrywarts can book online in advance of their cruise, while there's a spiffy box office/gift kiosk on Deck 6 outside the Epic Theater with a digital sign that provides an update of ticket availability. Generally, the later the show, the smaller the audience, so go later if you're in a big group and want to sit together.
The plush Epic Theater is home to the iconic Blue Man Group eight times a sail and Legends in Concert three times (Legends moves to the Manhattan Room for an "unplugged" version three times a week). Without giving away too much, the Blue Man show -- a hilarious mix of performance art, percussion and audience participation -- was almost identical to the show I saw in New York. Legends is a fun, loud, best-after-a-few-margaritas stage spectacular featuring a trio of talented celebrity impersonators. Take your camera if you want a shot with one of the faux celebs afterward in the foyer. Both are free.
Hop into the 259-seat Headliners for the Second City improv comedy show. This one's better with a larger audience, and sit closer to the front if you want to see the performers on the tiny stage -- otherwise, you'll be watching them on the TV screens strategically scattered about the room. Better yet, don't miss the Howl at the Moon Dueling Pianos show on the same stage. I saw the unpredictable sing-along twice and would have gone again if I had time (useless fact: Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" is the duo's most-requested song). Both are free.
There's also gratis blues in the 160-seat Fat Cats (reminiscent of a Big Apple basement club and often jam-packed) and lounge acts throughout the ship, plus the Nickelodeon offerings (see Family below). For karaoke, late-night dancing and billiards, there's the adults-only Bliss Ultra Lounge, where partiers are greeted by statues of horses with lampshades on their heads -- stay long enough and you'll end up in the same state. The pulsating lights on the walls were enough to make my head spin, as was the fact that the ship's "library" is composed of a scant number of tomes that share the same kiosk used to dispense shoes for the club's three bowling lanes.
Bar Central, a familiar NCL concept, is enlarged on Epic. Along with a cigar bar and beer, scotch and martini meccas, passengers can literally grab a cold one in the Svedka Ice Bar, a stunningly beautiful, freakishly cold (17 degrees) and unique-to-Epic hot spot. Reservations are required, and the $20 cover buys you two drinks featuring the namesake vodka. Most in my group of 10 didn't last more than 10 minutes in the icebox, even covered in the complimentary faux fur, but I still consider it a ship highlight. Don't miss it.
You may want to consider missing the Cirque Dreams and Dinner show, however. It engenders true love-hate responses among passengers; I'm among the latter. Set in the 217-seat, two-floor Spiegel Tent, the theater-in-the-round show is a weird mix of shrill singing, so-so acrobatics and forgettable food. Tickets start at $29.99 ($39.99 for the best seats); I'd rather go back to the ice bar and down more vodka. The space was put to better use during the Second City's three-times-a-cruise, frequently hilarious murder-mystery lunch, also $20.
Note: During Epic's Europe itineraries, the Second City shows (including the murder mysteries) will not be performed.
Norwegian Epic Public Rooms
As with many mega-ships, it can be hard to remember that you're on the open ocean. It's no different on Epic, whose grand outdoor spaces are almost entirely confined to the top decks (hence, no wrap-around promenade midship to burn off some calories).
Most of the main activity in the ship's interior centers on Decks 5, 6 and 7, where three levels of restaurants, entertainment venues and shops compete for attention. True, it all seems a bit mall-like, but you can't dispute the convenience.
Depending on the time of day, the three-story atrium and its giant video screen is either a hub of activity or a drowsy dead zone. When the sun is up, expect to see folks playing Wii golf or chatting up friends as tranquil videos backed by zither music light up the screen. At night, sports or movies are the featured attraction -- watch from plush chairs in the Deck 5 atrium coffee bar or, one flight up, on barstools at O'Sheehan's. (I opted for the latter and its eight beers on tap, free grub and perfect sightlines.)
In fact, the area surrounding the coffee bar is an ideal place for some quiet time, containing as it does the chi-chi Le Bistro; Epic's art gallery/auction house; the i-Connect Internet café; guest services; and the Click photo gallery. One cool thing about Click: There's no need to stare at hundreds of strangers' mugs when looking for your own. Just swipe your keycard at a kiosk to see your pictures, then find them in the binders located nearby.
For more action, head to Decks 6 and 7, which become packed with passengers at dinnertime and beyond. One place you won't find packed is Tradewinds. The ship's selection of duty-free -- and oft-deserted – shops, offerings include the Pointe, which sells all things NCL and Epic (including a $39.95 ship model); Jetties, for beachwear, cabana shirts and the like; and the Sandbox, a cute kid's store with stuffed critters and a wall of candy that can be yours for $11.96 a pound.
Be aware that the Epic casino slices right through the middle of Deck 6, so slot machines are unavoidable, particularly if you're heading to Shanghai's and several other venues. It's a curious design decision, inasmuch as the clanging sounds from the machine are jarring, and lingering entrails of cigarette smoke drive some passengers away from an area rich in culinary and entertainment options. Even when the area is empty-ish, you can still smell the smoke in the air, making it a real drag (pun intended). That said, the Vegas-esque gambling den is a risk-taker's dream, and at 13,000 square feet the largest NCL casino afloat. Choose among 340 slot machines, plus the requisite tables games, all of which make money go "poof!"
Norwegian Epic Spa & Fitness
Who needs a waterpark while you're at sea? Just about everyone it appears, and Epic delivers. Its mammoth Aqua Park is a kaleidoscope of pinks, greens and purples, centering on the Epic Plunge, in which tube-riders zip into a giant funnel before dropping through a 200-foot-long chute into a pool below. It's crazy fun, and I think I screamed louder than most of the kids waiting behind me in line. Two other slides are just as wet, maybe not as wild, but worth the wait.
Otherwise, expect a pair of standard pools surrounded by fountains, funky sculptures and an ocean of loungers. (Tip: Head farther aft to find available seating or check out the nearly hidden -- and frequently uncrowded -- sundeck on Deck 18; take the silver cylindrical elevator to the right of the Garden Café entrance, and don't forget the sunscreen.) Little ones have their own place to frolic in the Splash and Play Zone, a shaded oasis of fountains, wading pools and animal sculptures tucked under the water slides.
Other outdoor diversions include a rock-climbing wall (33 feet high, 64 feet wide) and an industry-first rappelling wall -- no surprise that more adventurers opted to let gravity do the work, so the rappellers (who clamber down the towering edifice) always seemed to outnumber the climbers. Still, the wait to do either paled in comparison to the lines for the bungee trampoline on the sports deck, home to a basketball court, the Spider Web (a two-story climbing cage covered in mesh and packed with sweaty kids) and more empty chaises.
To escape the frenzy of the Aqua Park, check out Spice H2O, a tiered, stage-like space that serves double duty as an adults-only pool during the day and an adults-only party space at night. (If you're worrying about whether the no-kids rule is taken seriously, in my experience it was.) For my money, the huge LED screen hugging the ship's aft detracts from the view; I'd rather see the actual ocean than a projection of waves. But the attendant bar and small buffet space was usually people-free, and there's a calming lull over the area that's fairly rare for Epic.
Alas, that's not the case at the Mandara Spa, a shockingly boisterous affair sequestered on Deck 14. Having just savored the facilities on NCL'S Norwegian Jewel, I expected the same sort of this-is-heaven experience on Epic. Instead, while the treatment rooms were lovely, the hydrotherapy courtyard and thermal suite was just short of a madhouse the half-dozen times I ventured forth. I never did get a chaise on the open-air deck, and the heated-tile loungers were almost always filled, or covered with wet towels.
All of that would have been fine, really, if the main attraction -- the therapy pool -- was actually therapeutic. But the chattering masses packed within ended that dream, and the unwanted showers provided by other guests who stuck their heads under the two super-jets spurting water into the drink mid-pool only added to the discomfort. It's too bad, inasmuch as the space itself is captivating, with an ethereal glow provided by twinkling lights embedded into the ceiling.
Better to save some money and splurge on one of 50 spa treatments (massages, facials, etc.) or hit the fitness center with its 37 treadmills and 18 cross trainers.