I sailed on last weekend's New York inaugural sailing of Norwegian Cruise Line's (NCL) new ship, the massive, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic. The Epic is NCL's largest cruise ship, with alternating Western and Eastern Caribbean itineraries throughout 2010. I loved many aspects of the ship—outstanding entertainment; lovely décor, especially for an NCL ship; a wide range of restaurants; excellent solo cabins; and really fun water slides—but I also have some serious reservations about many issues on board, which I'll detail below.
The Size Factor
Though not as big as Royal Caribbean International's (RCI) Oasis of the Seas, the Epic is still a very large ship at 153,000 tons. It's over 100 feet longer than the Jewel-class ships and 25 feet wider; and it's tall—very tall at 17 decks high. Plus, it holds almost twice as many passengers: 4,100. Now for the bad. Even at half-capacity it still felt full, especially on the pool deck and in the large bar areas, though I must admit that while there were some serious traffic bottlenecks other bars just a few feet further down were not nearly as crowded. But I shudder to think what the ship will be like when it's fully booked. Those great water slides really do take up a lot of deck space, and while the so-called "water park" is expansive, it's still woefully inadequate for a ship this size. I hope that the additional adults-only pool will help alleviate some of the crowding (it wasn't open on this sailing).
The Entertainment Factor
This is where the Epic really shines. This ship offers the best entertainment I've ever experienced on a cruise ship. I saw both Blue Man Group and Cirque Dreams & Dinner, and I loved both, but the latter got really mixed reviews from others. I guess you either liked it or hated it; what I can say is that I've never seen anything like it on a cruise ship. I managed to sneak a peak at the packed show for Howl at the Moon (a dueling pianos show), and while I didn't see the Second City show on this ship, I've seen it many times and always enjoy it. I also didn't make it to the jazz/blues club, but it was also packed, nor did I see Legends in Concert, a musical impersonation show. Blue Man Group may be a bit too avant-garde for the typical cruise passenger, who will probably prefer Legends in Concert.
The main Epic Theater has only 681 seats, and feels very small. Blue Man Group and Legends in Concert alternate shows here; you must make reservations for shows, and can only attend one performance of each headliner per cruise, so you get to see only two traditional night-time shows, and won't be able to leave dinner and attend a show every night. This was a deliberate decision by NCL management, who wanted to get passengers out around the ship at night (and make more revenue). The other venues also feel small for a ship this size, and since they were completely packed when the ship was half-full, they may be frustrating on longer cruises. I think this was a major design blunder; yes, everyone on board will be able to see the show, but there won't be sit-down entertainment for all passengers every night, and that's not what cruisers have come to expect. There's also no movie theater, but since the Epic Theater has a large video screen, I suspect movies will be shown there during the day (though never at night, when the headliner shows occupy the space). The only disco is also on deck; there's dancing on the main Atrium stage in the evenings, but in bad weather, the open-air disco may be a real downer for partiers.
The Food Factor
The choice of restaurants is phenomenal, and this is where NCL distinguishes itself. I know NCL's Freestyle dining concept with open seating doesn't appeal to everyone, especially those who want a set table every night in the same place, but I appreciate the flexibility and variety. The two large restaurants on board are quite unique. Taste has an open ceiling looking up to the casino, while the Manhattan Room has live music (including a Legends in Concert show) most nights. But there are over 20 dining choices, two restricted to the passengers in the top-level suites and one snack bar reserved for the solo cabins. About half carry a cover charge for each guest, and it's pretty high in some cases: $25 for Cagney's steakhouse and the Teppanyaki, $18 for the new churrascaria restaurant Moderno, $20 for Cirque Dreams and Le Bistro, $10 for La Cucina, and $5 for pizza delivery. The others are more modest, including a Chinese restaurant with a $2 to $5 à la carte menu and a sushi bar with similar prices. Room service (with a fairly limited menu), the outdoor Garden Café, the grill by the adults-only pool, and the buffet are no extra-charge. A new pub, O'Sheehan's (named after NCL's CEO) is a great addition and does not carry a cover charge either. A comedy murder mystery lunch ($15 cover charge) and Nickelodeon character breakfast ($15 cover for adults, $10 for children) round out the options.
Where to begin? Cruise buffs have probably heard about the "wavy" cabin design. The cabins include more storage than I've ever seen on a cruise ship (enough for a months-long voyage) and really excellent lighting (once you figure out how to operate it). Beds are comfy, and all outside cabins have a balcony. Now the not-so-good. All cabins on this ship, regardless of category, are smaller than on other NCL ships—noticeably so. I stayed in a "superior balcony" (the equivalent of a mini-suite on a Jewel-class ship), and it felt very narrow. I was surprised how much I missed having a little coffee table when I was drinking coffee in the morning.
But the most controversial aspect of the cabins is the lack of a real bathroom. What you get instead are separate cabins for a toilet and shower (right in your entryway), and a sink next to the bed. (Some cabins have a different configuration with the bed closer to the balcony and the sink next to the sofa, which is much better in my opinion). I had myriad problems with the bathroom set-up. There's simply not enough privacy. Though glazed, both the toilet and shower clearly show the outline of the person inside; you can draw a curtain (not a door, even a sliding one) for privacy, but that separates you from the sink, a huge design blunder. And you'll have water in your entryway from the shower if you aren't careful; you'll also have it from the teeny sink and awkwardly situated, unmovable faucet (good luck washing your face or brushing your teeth). The faucets, however, will be replaced at some point, and the sinks may also be replaced. Sinks in higher-level suites are much larger and quite adequate, and the bathrooms are separate. Also, bedside lamps have illuminated buttons, and the phone is illuminated; it can be turned off, but not the lights, so the cabins are never fully dark, which got on my nerves. Most cabins also have no tubs.
The best cabins are actually the tiny solo cabins, which are sold for singles without a supplement, but also allow for double-occupancy. At just 100 square feet they are really small, but they are well-designed and decorated, with small but quite adequate bathrooms and a couple of small closets. Beds are full-size. Best of all, these cabins carry absolutely no single supplement and offer guests access to a private, two-story lounge area with snacks, coffee, and a full bar (plus a giant TV, though you also have one in your cabin). These cabins won't appeal to everyone, but I actually liked them a lot and would probably choose that over a balcony on this ship.
Tip: If you can afford it, the private luxury area of the ship is truly outstanding and clearly the way to go. It has a great sundeck, nice pool, small private gym, private restaurants, and beautifully decorated cabins (albeit slightly smaller in feel to those on other NCL ships). These cabins still have the individual espresso/cappuccino machines, and the bathroom is a separate area, though separated only by a curtain, a particularly odd choice for a luxury cabin. But when I was unable to find a free lounge chair on our half-full ship, I really envied the passengers in luxury cabins who were lucky enough to have access to a blissfully quiet and uncrowded sun and pool deck.
The Breakdown: Norwegian Epic Pros and Cons
Pros: Excellent water slides, good food in a wide variety of restaurants, nice buffet area (better seating than on other NCL ships), gigantic casino, great children's programs by Nickelodeon, excellent nighttime entertainment, reservation system for shows and restaurants, wide variety of bars, nightly entertainment in one main dining room, innovative and excellent solo cabins, nice separate areas for higher-level suite passengers.
Cons: Those bathrooms (or lack thereof), confusing (though ultimately great) cabin lighting, too-narrow and smallish cabins, many extra charges, aggressive cruise-director staff, no movie theater, only is disco outdoors, crowded pool and sundecks, bottlenecks in bar and restaurant areas, typically too-small pools, only two traditional nightly shows guaranteed per cruise, and did I mention the lack of real bathrooms?
My Bottom Line
The things I loved about Norwegian Epic I really loved (especially the entertainment, water slides, and food). The things I hated, I really hated. And this is a strange reaction for me. I've never really disliked anything so much or so viscerally aboard any ship I've ever sailed on or toured as much as I did the lack of bathrooms on this ship. I've stayed in many motel rooms that had sinks outside the shower/toilet area and had no problems; this set-up really got on my nerves. So would I sail on Epic again? Sadly, I would have to say probably not, despite the truly excellent things about the ship.
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line