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Having recently spent two nights onboard Norwegian Epic – Norwegian Cruise Lines newest and biggest ship – I thought I should share my experience and a few tips I picked up in advance of its 2011 Mediterranean Season (Information and prices available here)

Initial Impression:

My first thought when seeing the ship up close was “Wow! This is HUGE!” True, it is not the biggest cruise ship in the world (Oasis of the Seas from the Royal Caribbean fleet is) but it lives up to its name. On the outside, at least, it really is Epic.

Check in:

The cruise terminal in Southampton is not the biggest in the world, and does not have much waiting room inside. Not a problem, unless you have 4,000 plus guests to check in. Check in can take quite a long time, so being there early is recommended. (Norwegian Epic will sail from Barcelona in 2011)

Onboard:

Embarkation led us to the main Atrium space on Deck 5 (you can also embark onto Deck 4, which is only used for embarkation and disembarkation). The Atrium has the reception and reservations desks (more about reservations later), the Atrium Café and Bar, and a wide open 2 story space set out with tables and chairs in front of a two storey video screen. This being the first you see of the interior areas of the ship does seem to give you a sense of the scale of the ship.

As you start to move about the ship you can get an idea of just how big it is internally as well. You can easily work off meals just by walking along the decks a few times (the ship is a fairly respectable 1,080 feet long), and you will walk along the decks a few times going to and from the elevators. For such a large ship, it was only designed with two banks of elevators, one at either end of the ship. It can be a long walk between the two.

You will also notice that most of the public spaces are concentrated around three decks – 5, 6 and 7. This helps to keep everything close by, but can make certain areas feel a little congested at times.

The original artist impressions of the décor of the ship were a little bit too bright and garish for my taste at least, but you will be happy to hear that the décor of the actual ship is a little more muted, and a lot classier as a result. It is elegant, without being over the top, fitting in nicely with the NCL “Freestyle” concept.

Staterooms:

Leaving the public areas behind, you find yourself in the corridors of decks 8-14, the main accommodation areas of the ship.

It is kind of easy to lose your way when you first venture into these corridors, as the long lines of stateroom doors all look the same. You will soon get used to it though. (Hint: The lift banks and carpets on your side of the deck match, red or blue)

Inside the stateroom you will first notice what NCL calls the “New Wave” concept – the walls are curved, trying to break up the standard straight line format that generally is seen onboard cruise ships.

The staterooms are a little small, but this is in keeping with standard cruise ship design. As you will not be spending too much time in your stateroom (with so much to do onboard why would you) this is not an issue. A big plus, however, is the addition of a substantial balcony to every exterior stateroom, offering you somewhere to have a cup of coffee in the morning while you watch the sun come up.

The bathroom facilities are also a bit different in the staterooms. Each area is separate, with the toilet and shower being behind their own frosted glass doors, located next to the entrance to the stateroom. This area can be screened off from the rest of the stateroom by a curtain, but it may not be the best solution ever.

There is a variety of different staterooms onboard Epic, catering to all manner of travellers. Single travellers have their own special stateroom grade, the Studio stateroom, which offers staterooms with no single supplement. As part of this, they also have access to their own private lounge, the Studio Lounge.

Families are accommodated in Family Staterooms, offering sleeping space for up to four people, with interconnecting staterooms available if required. These staterooms are also located close to the Recess Kids Club, which is great for younger cruisers.

Dining:

Name a style, any style, of cooking and you can find it onboard Norwegian Epic. With 20 dining options onboard, including a number of speciality restaurants. You have the standard French, Italian and Steakhouse restaurants available, but you also have a couple of not so ordinary choices, including a Brazilian Churrascaria, a Sushi Bar, and Teppenyaki, a Hibachi Restaurant where the chefs cook on steel plates in front of you. The speciality restaurants, while they do cost extra, represent great value for money. I dined in the Steakhouse, which for a $25 cover charge per person offers a delightful mix of steak and seafood, prepared by a team of chefs who really show their skill in preparing the food.

There are also a number of free dining options available, which also offers a great variety. There are two main restaurants onboard, Taste, which offers delicious modern cuisine, and The Manhattan Room, which offers the ambiance of a New York Supper Club, offering fine dining and dancing.

If you want more relaxed dining options, you can always enjoy the Garden Café, which is located at the front of Deck 15, and offers a huge selection of dishes, coupled with stunning views of the ocean. I enjoyed lunch while watching Southampton Port disappear behind me, which was delightful.

O’Sheehans, the “Irish” bar and grill on Deck 6 is the other casual dining option, and offers breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks around the clock. The menu is really simple bar food, but it is still a tasty option.

Dressing up for dinner is not required either, which is a nice touch. Provided you are not wearing a swimsuit or a towel, you are dressed for dinner.

Entertainment:

Cruise ships are known for the most part as floating resorts (how else do you keep 4,000 people entertained while at sea) and Norwegian Epic is no exception. During the day you will find numerous activities out on deck, including the water park and slides, which features the first bowl slide at sea (I didn’t try it, but it looks amazing). You can also enjoy the video arcade, or, if you prefer, bowling on one of the six onboard bowling lanes. Younger cruisers are sure to enjoy themselves too, with the Recess Kids Club on Deck 14 offering a wonderful stimulating experience, staffed by qualified childminders, and as it is conveniently located on deck 14, next to the family staterooms, the kids do not have far to go.

At night, entertainment onboard is very “Las Vegas” style, with a number of big name shows, such as the Cirque Dreams and Dinner show (I didn’t try this, but I heard great things about it. The show goes on above your heads during dinner, so you are right in the heart of the show) and the Blue Man Group, who put on their full Las Vegas Style Show. The show lasts about 90 minutes and is free, while the show in Las Vegas costs about $60 per person. Note: The front two rows in the theatre may get wet, as I learned when I was given a plastic poncho to wear.

If you do not want to go to one of the bigger venues, you can enjoy one of the many smaller venues onboard. I didn’t get to see a full show in the smaller venues (two nights onboard was not enough) but I did visit each venue to see what was on offer, and there is a lot to offer.

A small Jazz Club, Fat Cats, styled like a small American Jazz Club, offers an intimate venue for the house Jazz Band. As Fat Cats is so intimate, the band was really able to interact with the crowd, and it led to a great atmosphere.

Headliners Comedy Club is the home of the comedians onboard, led by the Second City Comedy Troupe from Chicago. Headliners was set up for Howl at the Moon, a duelling piano show, and when I arrived, the show was in full swing, with the crowd waving their hands, singing and stamping their feet. The club was also packed to the rafters, showing just how popular the show was.

Two nightclubs are also available onboard. Bliss, the nightclub found on all of the NCL fleet, is found on Deck 7, and offers great music, a great atmosphere, and, if you are interested, three adults only bowling lanes.

Spice H2O, is located out on deck 15, and as it is outside, may be a little cold in the evenings, but as Epic will be sailing in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, this will not be a big issue. I love the big screen in Spice H2O, as this allows NCL to do so much, including movies under the stars, or, in our case, World Cup under the sun.

If you are just looking for somewhere to relax with a couple of drinks, you will find numerous bars onboard, from O’Sheehans, which is a very relaxed place to have a drink, to Shakers Martini Bar, perfect for when you want to have a couple of cocktails. The pear martini is particularly good, in my opinion at least.

Right next to Shakers is the most special bar onboard Epic, and is something you must experience. Epic has the only true Ice Bar at sea (everything inside is made of ice, the bar, the furniture, the barman…) Entry into the Ice Bar is $20, but as 2 drinks are included, it is a perfectly reasonable price. I was particularly impressed by the ice sculptures in the bar. A Viking and a Polar Bear greeted us, though I believe they replace the sculptures every so often.

The morning after the night before, you can always revive yourself with a trip to the Mandara spa, the biggest Spa complex at sea. I sampled a couple of the massages (try the herbal poultice massage) and even though it was only for a minute or two, it was bliss. I would have loved to have the full treatment. The Spa is quite expensive, but as a treat it is a great idea. They also have a full hair and nail salon available, so you are sure to find something to suit you.

The Verdict:

Norwegian Epic positions itself as being great for couples, families, and single travellers (the Studio Rooms are sure to be popular), and is sure to be a big hit for great value, where you want, when you want, how you want cruising. People looking for a more relaxed, quiet cruising experience would be better looking elsewhere, but for a resort like experience, with great food, drink and entertainment, Norwegian Epic is sure to please.

– Christopher, Marketing Department