Big in stature and big in content, I have found it difficult to be truly succinct, so this blog truly is Epic!! As a result, I have divided it into two parts – non entertainment and then entertainment – as the latter was one of several stand out features for me.
Norwegian Epic was and, in some cases still is, a ship of firsts, that I was lucky enough to spend 2 nights aboard in 2010: the first ship to have dedicated single studio cabins, the largest casino at sea and the largest spa (by virtue of the number of treatment rooms), the first ship to feature a reputable land based theatre act in the form of The Blue Man Group, as well as the first big top at sea (the Spiegel Tent) with a dedicated Cirque du Soleil act. The list goes on...
In October 2015 Norwegian Epic went into dry dock and came out having had a facelift to many of the restaurants and public areas, including changing Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club into the Cavern Club, reminiscent of the Beatle’s Liverpool haunt (and home in the evenings to a Beatles tribute band and Siglo, a rock band) , a new library and photo gallery, a family SplashGolf attraction in the Aqua Park and a new 90 minute production of ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ headlining in the theatre. Indicative of every cruise line’s need to continually strive to capture the imagination and meet the expectation of guests in the 21st century – a swiftly changing environment!
When I went on my own family cruise holiday on Norwegian Epic recently, it was good to see the improvements, enhancing and sitting alongside the many older features peculiar to the ship and cruise line, that consistently work so well.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s strapline for so long has been ‘Freestyle Cruising’ – no set dining times and no dressing up for formal nights. At least one member of our party was sceptical as to how this would work when compared to the set dining and ‘Anytime/Freedom’ dining experienced on other cruise lines. In practical terms it got a huge thumbs up!
We rarely had to queue for any restaurant for more than 10 minutes when we hadn’t booked and there are plenty of benches and seats in the entrances so you can wait for your pager to go off. We did book a couple of the speciality restaurants (with a bit of help from NCL as I was unable to book a table online at the same time and on the same day, for the whole of our party – 2 cabins) as we wanted to eat there on specific nights, but I am not personally a fan of pre-booking everything I want to do when on holiday (as many cruise lines operating large ships encourage clients do), I do like to be able to apply a bit of spontaneity upon occasion!
The main restaurants – Taste (534 covers) and The Manhattan Room (594 covers) offered the same evening menu but with different choices every day. However, there were always the Classic Entrees: steak, chicken, fish and 2 different pasta dishes available each day, in case nothing else took your fancy: taking your pick from 11 appetizers (including 3 soups and 4 salads), 8 entrees (with vegetarian and gluten free options clearly marked) and 9 desserts. Taste is also open for waiter served breakfasts and lunches, is located in its own atrium and has a large LED chandelier which changes colour throughout the day, hanging above it. However, we preferred the ambience and décor of The Manhattan Room.
Decked out in an art deco New York Supper Club style, it has great panoramic views out of the two-storey floor to ceiling windows. On some evenings there was a dinner dance there (as it has a large dance floor) and there were plenty of tables available for couples to eat alone, either at tables for 2 or 4 people.
The other waiter served complementary restaurants are O’Sheehans Irish Bar & Grill (the only restaurant open 24/7, with seating for 269 guests and serving hot breakfast items in the morning) and the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant & Noodle Bar (seats 109 people and offering up more than 9 different noodle dishes). O’Sheehan’s is representative of an Irish/American neighbourhood sports bar serving dishes like chicken pie, fish & chips, burgers, tuna melt and buffalo wings. Although adjacent to the Atrium’s 2 deck high LED screen, it has additional flat screen TVs showing sports events, as well as three 10 pin bowling lanes ($7 a game including shoe hire and no bumpers!) on one side and pool tables, table football machines, darts and other arcade style games on the other.
The Garden Café (forward on deck 15) is the main buffet restaurant (680 covers) on Norwegian Epic and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Adjacent, but just out on deck is The Great Outdoors (366 covers) open for Early Risers breakfasts (6.30 – 7.30 am) Afternoon Snacks (3.00 – 5.00pm) and Late Snacks (9.30 – 11.30 pm) as well as main meals. We only visited for one Late Snack – tasty nachos and cheese, beef enchiladas and cookies.
The Garden Café was always busy, but we usually managed to find a table (for 5 people) either at the very front of the ship (great views) or in La Cucina (open to provide extra seating at breakfast and acting as a pizza and panini station at lunchtime) or in The Great Outdoors, as the weather was so good! At lunch and dinner The Garden Café serves soup, pizza, pasta, burgers, fried chicken, sandwiches and wraps, cold cuts, salads, fruit dishes and desserts, as well as Indian and Asian selections (many items being prepared to order at designated Action Stations), a Kids Corner (mac and cheese, pasta, sausages, burgers and fries) and in the evening a themed buffet.
We ate there on Asian night and they served an excellent Peking Duck and plum sauce. Other themes included Seafood, Spanish tapas and Caribbean. All in all the quality of the food was very good and the selection changed on a daily basis. I am being hypercritical when I note that with few British guests on board there was a distinct lack of a carvery station serving roast cuts and proper roast potatoes and no fruit pie or sponge with custard!
However, the French toast for breakfast consistently knocked spots off both the pancakes and the waffles. Food for guests with dietary restrictions was not obviously on show in the Garden Café – there were always sugar free dessert options and only on one day did I see an area of Jain Food (vegetarian and also without onions, potatoes, brinjals, aubergines and garlic, as eaten by very strict Buddhists).
The adult only Spice H20 also offered a lunch time self service grill style restaurant area.
There are 7 speciality restaurants on board, whereby there is either a set charge, eg. Teppanyaki ($29.95 pp, Japanese Hibachi restaurant, seats 104 guests, the largest such restaurant at sea) and Moderno ($24.95pp, Churrascaria authentic Brazilian steakhouse, seats 114 guests, where the waiters have turned into tableside passadors, brandishing huge skewers full of meat) or an a la carte price list at La Cucina (Italian Tuscan style, seats 182 guests), Cagney’ Steakhouse (New York style steak restaurant, seats 170 guests), Le Bistro (French with an American twist. The restaurant is elegantly bedecked in gold and steel wrought iron work with lots of contemporary and traditional paintings and sculptures. It seats 126 guests), Yakitori & Sushi (seats 25 guests) and the Spiegel Tent (where the cover charge ($29.99 pp or $39.99 pp for standard or premium seating respectively) includes dinner and a Cirque du Soleil circus act, termed Cirque Dreams Epicurean).
Having tried Teppanyaki, Moderno and Le Bistro in 2010, we opted for Cagney’s Steakhouse to celebrate a birthday. The steaks were excellent, ranging in price from $12 to about $25 for the 20oz Porterhouse steak, there was a choice of 4 fish options as well as the signature truffle fries and the staff and ambience were equally special.
The next night we went to La Cucina – after all, when in Rome, do as the Romans and eat Italian! We dined at 8.45pm and with uninterrupted views over the bow of the ship, it made for a glorious sunset. The restaurant was not particularly busy on the evening we were there and although the food was very good, it did lack a bit of atmosphere, unlike our night at Cagneys. The décor of the entrance is reminiscent of a black and white tiled Italian open courtyard complete with a large olive tree bedecked with lanterns at its centre, which then opens out into a typical Tuscan homestead. The restaurant features regional Italian specialities. I chose mozzarella caprese ($3.99) and seafood linguine ($9.99), whilst meat based main courses started from $18, excluding side orders.
Whilst the food in the main restaurants is very good, the speciality restaurants (where children can either eat off the complimentary kid’s menu or pay the restaurant cover charge), offer a more refined dining experience with a greater attention to detail and presentation. All in all a special treat!
As if all that wasn’t sufficient you can also get room service 24/7, chargeable at $7.95 per delivery. Most of the items are complimentary – continental breakfast with optional omelette choices, sandwiches, 11” pizzas, soup, salads, burgers and hot dogs, fruit, cheese, entrees, desserts and a short Children’s menu, but Special Occasion hors d’oeuvres platters are available at an additional cost.
There is a very modest dress code at night – no beach style shorts in the restaurants or open toed sandals for men, but beyond that nearly anything goes. There was an ‘optional formal’ night when some guests did wear DJs, but generally everyone took the trouble to dress for the evenings with some men opting for smart shorts and polo shirts and some women wearing maxi dresses. There were even a couple of themed party nights where guests could don their 70s disco gear or wear white or neon at the amped up White Hot Party in Spice H20.
For the general guest travelling on Norwegian Epic there are 15 bars (additionally there are bars in The Haven & The Studio for guests in those accommodations), including those in entertainment venues and restaurants. Some are only open when there are events on like The Bliss Lounge, Headliners, The Epic Theatre and whilst others like The Atrium Café, The Garden Café and Spice H20 are open most of the day (and night), bars like The Shakers Martini Bar, The Sake Bar, The Ice Bar, Maltings Beer & Whisky Bar and Cascades Bar have restricted opening hours.
We probably had a drink from most establishments during the cruise, but particularly enjoyed the piano player at Shakers in the evening (complete with champagne and nibbles, it doubles as Epic’s piano bar and periodically offers martini tastings for 74 guests), cocktails at Spice H20 and great views as we sailed away from that day’s port of call and the frozen cocktails from the Waves Pool Bar (with bar side seating for 24 guests).
We also experienced the Svedka Ice Bar (the first Ice Bar at sea and one of only 14 or so Ice Bars in the world). The bar as its centrepiece is a large ice cube with changing LED lights set in it. The whole chamber pulsates with changing colours of green, blue, pink and purple, reminiscent of the actual Northern Lights. Decked out like a proper bar there are tables, stools and iced vodka cocktails served in glasses made of ice. The temperature is -7C so the 25 or so guests are given fur capes with large hoods and gloves to keep out the cold – pay attention to what else you wear, as shorts and flip flops underneath may not be the best option!
Take a photo next to a large Viking warrior or a tall polar bear. There is a cover charge of $20pp for a 45 minute time slot – we managed about 25 minutes! Other bars worth mentioning are The Atrium Café –with seating for 117 guests. It is a bar as well as a Lavazza speciality coffee station, also selling macarons and speciality cup cakes, conveniently situated near the Atrium and The Cascades (casino) Bar, an elliptoid shaped bar with a crystal chandelier, lit up at night and with gaming machines set into the bar for 14 casino addicts who can multi task (drink and gamble!).
Norwegian Epic is nearly 1100’ long and has 19 decks in total. It has no ocean view cabins just with windows, so many of the public areas are on decks 5 – 7, below the lifeboats and actually have no or only a small sea view. On the other hand, this means that none of the cabins have an obstructed view, but it does produce a rather ugly side profile as all the balcony cabins are on decks 8 and upwards and the line is unbroken by other features. However some effort has been made to break the straight lines up with groups of cabins being pushed outwards slightly. Once inside however, the ship really comes into its own as the public spaces within Epic exude the impression of spaciousness – the Guest Services area is huge.
Many of the areas stretch the full width of the ship (for example O’Sheehans Bar & Grill and the casino) and guests are not funnelled down narrow walk ways in between different locations. Despite there being 4000+ guests on board, you never felt as if you were in a crowd (bearing out NCL’s boast at launch, that Epic would have 60% more passenger space than their then-largest ships). Nevertheless, it is a big ship and there are a few design glitches that interrupt its logical flow: you are unable to get to deck 5 in certain areas of the ship and can only access it via a small escalator on deck 6, in the middle of the casino.
Indeed there are only two main banks of stairs and lifts either aft or forward. This can make for a very long walk, especially when bearing in mind that other, smaller mainstream cruise ships may have 3 or more sets of stairs. The running track is on the starboard side of the ship on deck 7, but only runs down the length of the ship, not all the way round. The 3.8 circuits required for the mile are made even more boring by a sea view obstructed by lifeboats and whilst La Cucina has great views over the bows of the ship, it is accessed either by stairs from the front of the Garden Café or via a lift that takes you through lower recesses of the ship. However, attention has been paid to the accommodation corridors with zig zag structures breaking up the long lines of balcony cabins.
These cabins themselves featured several other firsts - they encompass a unique wavy style (which produces a cabin that is functionally ever so slightly too narrow) so that everything has curves (even the beds!) The conventional bathroom has been deconstructed so that the wash basin is in the main body of the cabin and the shower and loo split into 2 separate compartments opposite each other and with frosted sliding doors. Some cabins have a curtain to divide the bed and bath areas, providing a modicum of privacy. The design splits opinion and this feature has not been continued on newer NCL ships.
We had a BA grade balcony cabin for 3 people, midships on deck 12 (approx 200 sq ft). The settee made into a very slim 3rd bed (2’ or so in width) which was permanently made up as a bed during our cruise. But the balcony was a good size (approx. 56 sq ft) when compared to those on other contemporary, mainstream cruise ships. The double bed was actually 2 single mattresses zipped together, but quite tightly so that they didn’t move apart. We had 2 cabins next to each other and they were different (so that the curves fit together a bit like a jigsaw). The 3 drawers in the wardrobe of our cabin were very narrow, but there were 27 coat hangers, more than adequate for 3 people, as were the 3 plug sockets (adapters required) used exclusively for recharging electronic devices.
There was a hair dryer, a wall mounted TV showing a limited range of TV channels, lots of information on the ship, as well as the facility to make bookings in restaurants, for shows and shore excursion and a very welcome coffee machine. The central light was of a mildly futuristic design and there were useful flexible bedside spot lights as well. Other balcony cabins on Epic will sleep 2 or 4 guests and are of a similar size, as are the mini suites. Inside cabins are 128 sq ft and have a conventional ship’s bathroom. A feature of Norwegian Epic are the 128 studio cabins – inside cabins measuring 100 sq ft with a queen size bed, solely for single guests, at no additional cost. They are situated along the full length of decks 11 & 12, have a frosted ‘porthole’ looking out onto the private corridor and are accessed by a private key card which also allows entry to The Studio Lounge, a communal area for single guests complete with a bar, comfy seating, large screen TVs and other activities.
Sitting resplendent on the top of the ship (decks 16 – 19 inclusive) and at the bow end is The Haven (by Norwegian), an exclusive all suite collection of penthouse suites, owners suites (the largest suite available is a whopping 852 sq ft) and 2 bedroom family villas, accessible only by a dedicated key card. Again, these 60 suites made up the largest suite complex at sea when Norwegian Epic was launched. The accommodations (sleeping from 2 to 6 people) include 24 hour butler and concierge services and exclusive access to the Courtyard (featuring a pool, 2 whirlpools, a small gym and saunas) and Concierge Lounge, as well as a private restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining, and bar.
Most of them have large private balconies but there is also a secluded sundeck (The Posh Beach Club on deck 19), reserved for Haven guests and a further 20 guests not in The Haven, paying $59 per cruise who can use the club from 9am to 5pm. This area turns into an outdoor disco at night, with seating for 120 Haven guests. The Haven is dedicated to cater for its clients every whim and as such, they may never feel the need to leave this special sanctuary (unless they want to see some fantastic entertainment that is!).
Finally, there are several categories of Spa accommodation on board – ranging from balcony cabins to mini suites and Haven Suites. In a similar move to Celebrity’s Aqua Class (but without the dedicated restaurant), they are situated to allow easy access to the Mandara Spa and complimentary use of The Thermal Spa Suite (over 18 yrs only).
The thorny problem (for British guests at least) of paying gratuities and expensive drink prices, not in sterling, with an additional 18% service charge added, has largely been removed by the fleetwide introduction of NCL’s ‘Premium All Inclusive’ concept in April 2017. This includes a drinks package for all guests (including children and 3rd and 4th guests in cabins) based on alcoholic, non alcoholic and soft drinks up to $15 per drink, 1 bottle of water per person, per day in your cabin, complementary speciality Lavazza coffees with meals and pre paid gratuities (for all included services, ie. not for spa treatments etc). Haven guests will additionally receive complementary dining in the speciality restaurants (3 dinners on cruises of 3 – 9 nights duration, 4 dinners on cruises of 10 nights and over), 240 minutes free wifi per suite and on board spend.
Norwegian Epic does have some minor negatives and differences to more traditional cruise lines – there is no Captain’s Cocktail Party unless you are a Latitudes (past passenger) member, there is no Midnight Buffet (not that I ever thought that this was a necessity with the amount of food available during the rest of the day), the pillow placed chocolate has been replaced with a selection of spot the towel animals and apart from the three circus paintings approaching the Spiegel tent there is no artwork on the walls (apart from in the Art Gallery). There are framed photographs in the lift areas, typically showing activities from round the world and stair landings are uniformally colour coded red (port side, even numbers) or blue (starboard side, odd numbers) with a large mirror in the middle. Helpfully, there are LCD digital touchscreens all around the ship displaying information including deck plans and live restaurant and entertainment availability.
The staff were good on the whole, without being exceptional, but perhaps I am being over critical as my last previous cruise was on Queen Victoria, where I experienced their famed White Star Service. Nevertheless, the standard of English spoken on board by those in direct communication roles could have been better (they reminded me of the 90% English required for cruise line call centre applicants abroad!!) On the other hand, the usually boring mandatory lifeboat drill was prompt, slick and delivered in a manner that resulted in everyone listening!