As someone who gave up flying years ago, I always find it a bit of a challenge to coordinate ocean transportation to/from Europe. When I heard that the new NCL Epic would be making her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York at the time that I needed a “ride” home, I was ecstatic at the possibility to book passage.
As it turned out, I was able to be a part of the two-night UK Inaugural event and simply stay onboard for the seven-night transit.
At first glance, the Epic had the appearance of a sleek block of ice floating on the water. Atop this rectangular-shaped monolith, brightly colored tubes extend gracefully and whimsically out of the top and slowly curve downward for several decks. These tubes are part of the expansive Aqua Park which also includes the largest bowl slide at sea, the Epic Plunge, which I have not yet dared to try. With seven decks of what is being called, “Freestyle Family Fun” there are more than enough family areas and activities to keep even the most jaded kids entertained.
Regarding accommodations, be prepared for something totally different: Studio staterooms designed AND priced for the solo traveler. NCL employed a team of yacht designers to construct a very livable stateroom utilizing only 100 square feet of space. Finally, solo passengers can cruise without the dreaded single supplement. It will be interesting to watch the pricing scale over the next year to see how it compares with the least expensive inside stateroom. However, staying the Studios has another advantage: the Studio Lounge. Insert Lounge photo. Accessible only with key-card entry this two-story lounge has its own bar with nightly get-togethers only for the Studio passengers. A nice, casual way to meet and mingle with other solo passengers without having
to attend what I imagine would be the traditional, awkward Singles Party at Sea.
Another innovation onboard the Epic is the Ice Bar. As the only Ice Bar at sea, it is really a very large deep freeze, re-cycling the water used to chill the room. For $20, everyone is given a fluffy gray slip-over parka with a faux fur-trimmed hood along with two specialty drink coupons. Passengers are lined up thirty minutes before their reservation time to don their coats and enter the Ice Bar. Fifteen minutes seems to be the tolerated time to “chill out.” Looks like fun. Personally, I’ve nearly frozen while waiting for busses when I lived in Chicago, so this isn’t a big draw for me. But it is such a unique experience that it is definitely worth a try.
If Carnival is known for their “Fun Ships” and Royal Caribbean “Delivers the Wow” then I’d have to say on NCL “That’s Entertainment!” On the NCL Epic, nightly entertainment has reached a crescendo. There are two incredible, world-class shows that I feel should not be missed; The Blue Man Group and Cirque Dreams & Dinner.
On a seven night Caribbean cruise, The Blue Man Group will perform eight 75-minute shows in the Epic Theater, the traditional main theater on other cruise ships. Nowhere else but on the Epic can you experience a live Blue Man Group performance for free. At least for now. If Royal Caribbean ever charges a fee for their ice show, I wouldn’t be surprised if NCL adds a small fee to see this show. But that’s only my speculation. Passengers will soon be able to make all their reservations for specialty dining and live shows online forty-five days prior to their cruise. Until then, beat feet to the box office the first time that it is open and reserve your seats.
The other incredible performance is the Cirque Dreams and Dinner. “Under” what is called the Spiegel Tent, it is really a large dinner theater with the look and feel of a very glitzy, very Art Nouveau circus tent. I have to admit; at first I was a bit skeptical.
As your fixed menu appetizers are served, the Circus Master/Interlocutor begins his spiel. To my surprise, he pronounced the name of the tent with the same “sch” sound as in the Yiddish word, “spiel.” With the aplomb of Joel Grey in Cabaret, he also narrates in a pseudo Teutonic accent. I was concerned that this would simply be a knock-off Cabaret with a few acrobatics thrown in for effect. Was I ever wrong.
What starts slow, builds to a peak with amazing acrobatics, audience participation, comedy and fun. My description; sassy, sexy and sleek. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen, on land or at sea. Listen to the dialogue; it’s rapid fire fun and innuendo.
Now onto the nitty-gritty. While this isn’t my review, I’d like to call it point; counterpoint. There are always things that need comment. Here they are, not in any particular order. I’m listing these to help you to better sell this ship to your clients. I’ll be as objective as possible.
- All oceanview staterooms have balconies. Great idea. For your clients who want the most sun, Deck 8 has extra-large balconies as well as no covering above them allowing for sun all day long. The down side is that people in the balconies above can toss grapes down at you if they desire. You might also avoid sunbathing sans swimsuit, too. But if sun is what you or your clients want, book a cabin on Deck 8.
- No longer can you rely on the “carpet fish” to point to towards the bow of the ship. On the other NCL ships, there is the iconic fish school woven into the carpet. When you are lost and want to know which way to the front of the ship, you simply had to look down and follow the lone fish in the school; it always swam towards the bow. On the Epic, you are pretty much on your own. To help alleviate confusion, there are two color schemes to help differentiate port from starboard. The port side color scheme is orange, the starboard side is blue. Access to the private Courtyard Villas is via the elevators on the blue side. Getting confused one too many times, I decided to use the name of a town in Florida, Port Orange, to remember my direction. The port side being orange, from the carpet colors to the lights on the elevator indicator, I found this extremely helpful in learning my way around.
- Looking for a quiet place to escape to read? When not in use, the Fat Cats Lounge has a couple of wonderful leather sofas to relax in, read, watch the sea or just doze. Only tell your favorite clients or this won’t last long!
- BYOB. The Epic does not have a library. On this seven night transatlantic sailing, a library would have been greatly appreciated by many of the passengers. For example, there was a notice in the daily newsletter for a Book Borrowing Event. Apparently, within fifteen minutes after the event began, 90% of the books were gone. BYOB: Bring Your Own Books.
- Enjoy a cup of tea? The same Lipton tea that is offered at the coffee stand in the Garden Café buffet is $2.50 at the Atrium specialty coffee bar. If there is going to be a charge for tea, it should at least be something fancy, not plain old Lipton.
- Try the Manhattan Supper club, one of the two free main dining venues. For the best view in the house, try to get one of the tables at the aft window. The view is wonderful. Imagine as you cruise away from a lush, mountainous Caribbean island at sunset, the ocean a deep blue contrasted by the billows of whitewater foam from the powerful engines. My fav table – #120. Yes, it’s luck and timing as there are no reservations, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
- If your client wants what I call a sunset cabin – the aft-most cabins facing where you’ve been – warn them of engine rumble. Very noticeable on Deck 8 and 9. Not overly annoying but still noticeable. Same for the last eight to ten cabins at the back of the ship, too.
- ATM machine has a $5.50 fee. If you plan to use it, take out what you’ll need for the entire cruise.
- So far, there are no cabin amenities. Bring your own shower cap, bar soap, hair conditioner etc.
- Bottled water in room is $.75 more than if you buy it yourself at a bar. Both add a 15% service fee. If, like me, you go through over a dozen bottles of water on a seven night cruise, it adds up.
- Bar menus do not have prices.
All being said, the new NCL Epic is a winner. I’m loving every minute. The crew is extremely friendly and eager to please, the cabins are spacious, the ship itself is a breeze to learn your way around and the food is very, very good. I would have no hesitation recommending this ship to any of my clients. For the upmarket sector, don’t forget the exclusive Courtyard Villas. Key-card access only with private swimming pool and more, this is where Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell and many other celebrities hunker down when they want to get away on a Caribbean cruise.
I’m the editor and creator of CruiseMaven.com, a solo traveler cruising the world on waves and wheels. I hope my articles and photos entertain, advise and inspire you to travel the world without flying. Take a breath… stop for a meal and a glass of wine along the way.