Originally published July 25, 2010; prices updated May 2019
The Norwegian Epic is a homely ship. Boxy, lacking the graceful lines of most cruise ships, she looks a little like a stretch Humvee limo, all muscle and utility.
But as our parents tried to teach us, when it comes to beauty, it’s what’s inside that counts.
What’s inside the Epic is a combination of economy, practicality, innovation, a let’s-party design and a celebration of the spontaneity of freestyle cruising. Many cruisers, especially those on a modest budget, will find plenty of beauty in that.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship is big: With a 4,100-passenger capacity, the $1.2 billion ship is second only to Royal Caribbean’s massive $1.4 billion Oasis of the Seas, which sleeps 5,400.
It’s lively, with guests streaming along the promenades between dining and entertainment attractions well past midnight.
And it’s innovative, with such elements as an ice bar, a water slide that swirls riders on tube floats around a giant bowl, the circus-inspired Spiegel Tent, and for solo travelers, studio cabins with a private lounge.
A decade ago, Norwegian Cruise Line introduced freestyle dining. As it built new ships, the design kept evolving. The line got rid of the main dining room with its two seatings and replaced it with a number of smaller restaurants and the option to choose a different venue and time each night. On Epic, about half are included in the basic cruise fare, and the others carry an extra fee.
With Epic, NCL brings the same approach to entertainment. Instead of a main showroom that features a revue or variety show, the ship has a series of smaller performance spaces and a line-up that CEO Kevin Sheehan claims rivals Las Vegas and targets a younger, more sophisticated demographic.
The line-up includes one of Vegas’ big names, the Blue Man Group, which does eight 75-minute shows on a seven-night cruise, as well as Second City comedy troupe, Legends in Concert (tribute performers), a blues club, dueling-pianos show and Cirque Dreams and Dinner, a burlesque and acrobatics show in the Spiegel Tent, a two-story purpose-built venue with acrobatic equipment hung from the ceiling.
For kids, it has four Nickelodeon-themed shows, including character breakfasts and Slime Time LIVE!
Only the Cirque Dreams dinner show ($15-$20) and the Nickelodeon character breakfasts ($10 per child, $15 per adult) carry an extra fee; the rest are included in the basic fare.
(Editor’s note: By 2019, much of the entertainment line-up had changed. Nickelodeon, Blue Man Group, Legends in Concert and Second City were gone and a production of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” had been added. The blues club was replaced by the Cavern Club, which features Beatles tribute bands. A new show, Cirque Dreams Epicurean, is in the Spiegel Tent, with tickets at $24.99-$39.99, and “Escape the Big Top,” a family-friendly interactive mystery game, was added as daytime entertainment, also in the Spiegel Tent.)
“NCL changed cruising with dining and they may change cruising again by putting entertainment at the forefront,” said David Hartman, a Key Largo travel agent with Cruise Planners. “I think you’ll see other cruise lines follow suit. This is what cruising is all about — innovation, and then others follow.”
The ship continues some elements introduced on other Norwegian ships, including the Courtyard Villa complex, several restaurants, Bliss Ultra Lounge and NCL’s signature bowling alleys.
But Epic’s design is unique, partly because of the greater variety of dining and entertainment venues, partly because of design elements in the accommodations.
Sheehan winces when someone calls this ship ugly — and a lot of people have. “I think it’s a beautiful ship, but a lot of traditional people don’t like it,” he said. “We want to do something very different from what this industry has had.”
When he talks about what he finds beautiful, he speaks more of function than appearance, of design that allows guests freedom and flexibility in dining and entertainment.
Most NCL fares are dubbed as “affordable,” in keeping with those at Carnival and Royal Caribbean. But like Royal Caribbean’s new megaship, Oasis of the Seas, the fare on Epic is higher than on the line’s other ships. For a seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise in October 2010, the cheapest inside cabin on NCL’s Norwegian Sun (which entered service in 2001) was $499 per person double occupancy and $749 for a balcony stateroom; on Norwegian Epic, inside cabins (other than a studio) started at $709, balcony staterooms at $1,029.
And even though the big-name entertainment and many restaurants are included in the basic cruise fare, on Epic as on its competitors, you can still run up a big bill. Of the 21 dining venues, 10 come with a surcharge or have a la carte menus. The Epic’s spa is the biggest at sea, with 32 treatment rooms and services ranging from a Swedish massage to Botox treatments. It also features an enormous casino, with slot machines that spill over into other parts of the ship, and 20 bars and lounges where you can buy a drink.
The impressions shared below are from a two-night cruise-to-nowhere with about 2,500 travel agents, members of the media and special guests aboard. The ship was only about 60 percent full, most drinks were free, and fees for alternative restaurants were waived. Few places on the ship were crowded, and the party atmosphere ran high. Crew members were downright perky. “Have an Epic day with us,” they called out.
The design makes economical use of space, which contributes to its squat look. Epic doesn’t have the soaring atriums that many ships do. Few spaces occupy more than two decks.
The ship is color coded — if you get lost, just check out the carpet. Brown and red mean you’re on the port side, while blue/green and brown mean you’re on the starboard side.
The ship is built to take advantage of water views. In some suites, a small bathtub is snuggled into a corner with tall windows so guests can soak and look out to sea. In the huge fitness center, a line of treadmills and exercise bikes faces floor-to-ceiling windows; so do the hair and manicure stations in the salon. Even the Manhattan dinner-dance club — which you might expect to be dark — features a grand two-deck-high window.
The ship offers a bit of South Beach vibe as well. The top-deck POSH Beach Club has private cabanas that by night become part of a nightclub with VIP bottle service. Down on Deck 7, the Bliss Ultra Lounge and Nightclub has private VIP areas and White Hot dance parties. Guests who forgot their white shirts and feather boas can buy them on board.
The ship boasts 2,114 staterooms; all outside cabins have balconies. Most of the staterooms have NCL’s New Wave design with curved architecture that creates a snug arrangement that allows for more cabins to be squeezed into the space — but doesn’t always function easily. Standard cabins and even some suites are so narrow that it’s difficult to get around the bed.
Bathrooms in the standard balcony staterooms (216 square feet) drew plenty of discussion. Instead of being walled off, as on most ships, bathroom elements are separated — toilet in one corner, shower in the other, and the sink next to the bed. The advantage is that one person can’t hog all the facilities. The disadvantage is that the toilet and shower are each wrapped in partly frosted glass that doesn’t afford as much privacy as someone traveling with a non-romantic partner — or a teenage girl traveling with her dad — might want. And the sink splashes water into the living/sleeping area.
NCL says it will replace the faucets and reduce the water pressure to the sink. Guests can pull across a curtain that separates all the facilities from the rest of the stateroom, but that defeats the purpose of having them in separate compartments.
One of Epic’s selling points is the wide variety of staterooms. Along with the standard cabins intended for two people, the ship features family suites designed to fit four people, luxurious owners suites, spa suites with special spa access, penthouses and courtyard villas.
NCL refers to its courtyard villa complex — the Haven — as a “ship within a ship,” a two-story, 60-suite hideaway with a private pool, cabanas and daybeds, hot tubs, steam room, gym and concierge. The Haven even has its own restaurant and bar, with access limited to guests of the villas and suites.
The complex affords enough privacy, Sheehan says, to draw celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Kelly Clarkson and Reba McEntire, who christened the ship at a ceremony in New York.
Epic includes another first, 128 cabins designed for solo travelers, which I requested for this cruise. The cabins are small — about 100 square feet — but except for the toilet, feel more cozy than cramped.
Each has a window — with two layers of covering for privacy — that looks onto the corridor if the cabin starts to close in. The bed is large and comfortable, and space for a week’s wardrobe is adequate, but the only place to work on my laptop was cross-legged on the bed.
Studio guests have access to their own two-story lounge with a bar and snacks, and one afternoon I took my laptop there. The lounge was pleasant and comfortable, but since few people were staying in studios, I didn’t get any sense of what it would be like on a regular cruise. Likewise, since I was the only guest along my corridor, it was quiet, but I don’t know if that’s the norm.
Since NCL — like some other lines — charges a single traveler a steep 200 percent of the per-person fare for other cabins, the cost of a studio is less than what they’d pay for a standard inside cabin. For a cruise in September 2010, for example, fare for a studio was $949; fare for the cheapest inside cabin (128 square feet) was $649 per person double occupancy, so a solo traveler would pay $1,298.
Among Epic’s 21 dining options, the 728-seat Garden Café is the largest, featuring an extensive buffet with stations for prepared-to-order dishes. Smallest is Wasabi, a 20-seat, pay-by-the-piece sushi and sake bar, which often had a wait list of an hour or longer for a seat. O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill, a British pub serving American comfort food like chicken pot pie and tuna melts, is open 24 hours and carries no additional fee.
Eleven dining options are covered by the base fare, including Taste, with contemporary American cuisine; and the Manhattan Room, an Art Deco supper club with live music and dancing. Ten carry an extra fee: In 2019, Teppanyaki and Moderno Churrascaria are $29.95; the others, including Cagney’s Steakhouse, La Cucina and Shanghai’s, have a la carte menus.
Two days offered a very limited taste, but the overall impression was some very good dishes (the grilled steak and shrimp at Teppanyaki, the goat cheese stuffed mushrooms at Taste, the sushi at Wasabi) and some that fell short of expectations (dry salmon at Cagney’s). Service was attentive, but the wait between an order and arrival of the food was often long.
BARS AND LOUNGES
Twenty bars and lounges are scattered around the ship. They include a cigar lounge, a whiskey bar, a martini and champagne bar, and a sake bar. One of NCL’s signature features is a bowling alley, and Epic has three lanes each in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and O’Sheehan’s.
Most gimmicky: the Skyy Vodka Ice Bar, modeled after those popular in Scandinavia, with walls, bar and stools made of ice in a room kept at 17 degrees. Cover charge is $20, which includes two specialty drinks, use of a hooded poncho lined with faux fur, and 45 minutes access — which may be more time than you want to spend in an icy room anyway.
NCL made a big splash when it announced that it would bring Nickelodeon programs on board Epic and sister ship Norwegian Jewel. The Nickelodeon-themed programs include three character breakfasts per cruise, Slime Time LIVE!, poolside entertainment and dance parties. (Editor’s note: NCL ended its partnership with Nickelodeon in 2015 and no longer includes these programs.)
The ship has play areas or lounges for kids: Splash Academy for kids 6 months to 12 years, with games and activities targeted to four age groups within that span, and Entourage, for ages 13-17. All have video and other games. In addition, the youngest have an arts and crafts area, tweens have a karaoke stage, and in Entourage, teens get their own nightclub in the evening.
Epic’s water park also includes facilities built especially for children.
Cruise liners’ pool decks are getting ever more elaborate, and Epic’s is no different. The Aqua Park has three water slides, including one for kids, and a bowl slide, but passengers say the twisting green tube slide is the thriller — dark and dizzying. The park has two main pools, five whirlpools and a kids’ Splash and Play Zone.
Other recreational facilities include a climbing wall as well as a rappelling wall; bungee trampoline; the 24-foot-high Spider Web, sort of a climbing jungle gym made with bungees; an ice-skating rink; courts for basketball, volleyball and other games; as well as the aforementioned bowling lanes.
Passengers: 4,100 double occupancy
Passenger decks: 15; total: 19
Passenger staterooms: 2,114
Length: 1,081 feet
Beam: 133 feet
Gross tonnage: 153,000
Builder: STX, Saint-Nazaire, France
Price tag: $1.2 billion
Itineraries: Norwegian Epic sails Mediterranean cruises approximately from May to November, and Caribbean cruises from San Juan, Puerto Rico, the rest of the year, through 2021.