MIAMI - The Norwegian Epic is a homely ship. Boxy, lacking the graceful lines of classic 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 vessel 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 waterslide 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 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 of choosing a different venue and time each night. On Epic, about half are included in the basic cruise fare; the others carry an extra fee.
With Epic, Norwegian 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 lineup that chief executive Kevin Sheehan says rivals Las Vegas and targets a younger, more sophisticated demographic.
The lineup includes one of Vegas' big names, the Blue Man Group, which does eight 75-minute shows on a seven-night cruise. Other entertainment includes a Second City comedy troupe, Legends in Concert (tribute performers), a blues club, a dueling-pianos show, and Cirque Dreams and Dinner, a burlesque and acrobatics show in the Spiegel Tent.
For children, there are 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.
"NCL changed cruising with dining, and they may change cruising again by putting entertainment at the forefront," says David Hartman, a 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 vessels, including the Courtyard Villa complex, several restaurants, Bliss Ultra Lounge, the Second City performances, and the cruise line'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 says. "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 Norwegian fares are dubbed "affordable," in keeping with those at Carnival and Royal Caribbean. But as on Royal Caribbean's new mega-ship, Oasis of the Seas, the fare on the Epic is higher than on the line's other vessels. For a seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise this month, the cheapest inside cabin on NCL's Norwegian Sun is $499 per person double occupancy and $749 for a balcony stateroom; on Epic, inside cabins (other than a studio) start at $709, balcony staterooms at $1,029.
And even though the big-name entertainment and many restaurants are included in the basic cruise fare, you can still run up a big bill. Of Epic's 21 dining venues, 10 come with a surcharge of $5 to $25. The spa is the biggest at sea, with 32 treatment rooms and services ranging from a Swedish massage (50 minutes for $119) to Botox treatments (from $300) to an Acne Attack Facial for teens (50 minutes for $99). Also featured are an enormous casino, with slot machines that spill over into other parts of the ship, and 20 bars and lounges.
The following impressions 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. The Epic doesn't have the soaring atriums that many ships do. Few spaces occupy more than two decks.
The ship is color-coded - when you get lost, just check the carpet. Brown and red means you're on the port side; blue and brown means 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 window.
The ship offers a bit of South Beach vibe as well. The top-deck POSH Beach Club has private cabanas that at 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 Epic has 2,114 staterooms; all outside cabins have balconies. Most staterooms have Norwegian's New Wave design, with curved architecture that creates a snug arrangement allowing 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 father - might want. And the sink splashes water into the living/sleeping area.
Norwegian 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 the 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 accommodate four people, luxurious owners' suites, spa suites with special spa access, penthouses, and courtyard villas.
Norwegian refers to its courtyard villa complex 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 complex 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.
The Epic includes another first, 128 studio cabins designed for solo travelers. The cabins are small - about 100 square feet - but except for the toilet, feel more cozy than cramped.
Since Norwegian, 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 a traveler would pay for a standard inside cabin. For a cruise in September, 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 the Epic's 21 dining options, the 728-seat Garden Cafe is the largest, offering an extensive buffet with stations for prepared-to-order dishes. The 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 such as 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 room service; Taste, with contemporary American cuisine; and the Manhattan Room, an Art Deco supper club with live music and dancing. Ten carry an extra fee of $5 to $25, including pizza delivery ($5); Cagney's Steakhouse and Teppanyaki ($25); Moderno Churrascaria ($18); Le Bistro ($20); La Cucina ($10); and Shanghai's ($15).
There were 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 (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 Norwegian's signature features is a bowling alley, and the Epic has three lanes each in the Bliss Ultra Lounge and O'Sheehan's.
Most gimmicky: the Svedka 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 vodka drinks, use of gloves and a hooded poncho lined with faux fur, and 45 minutes of access - which may be more time than you want to spend in an icy room.
Norwegian made a big splash when it announced in January that it would bring Nickelodeon programs on board the Epic and its sister ship, Norwegian Jewel. The Nickelodeon-themed programs include three character breakfasts per cruise, Slime Time Live!, poolside entertainment, and dance parties.
The ship has play areas or lounges for youngsters in three age groups: 2-9, 10-12, and 13-17. All have video and other games. In addition, the youngest passengers have an arts and crafts area, tweens have a karaoke stage, and teens get their own nightclub, Entourage.
The Epic's water park includes facilities built for children.
Cruise liners' pool decks are getting ever more elaborate, and the Epic's is no different. The Aqua Park has three waterslides, but passengers say the twisting green tube slide is the thriller - dark and dizzying. The park has two main pools, five whirlpools, and a children's Splash and Play Zone.
Other recreational facilities include a climbing wall and a rappelling wall; bungee trampoline; the 24-foot-high Spider Web, a climbing jungle gym made with bungees; an ice-skating rink; courts for basketball, volleyball, and other games; and bowling lanes.
- Passengers: 4,100 double occupancy
- Staterooms: 2,114
- Passenger decks: 15
- Total decks: 19
- Length: 1,081 feet
- Beam: 133 feet
- Draft: 28.5 feet
- Gross tonnage: 153,000
- Crew: 1,708
- Price tag: $1.2 billion
The Norwegian Epic sails from the Port of Miami on Saturdays for seven-night cruises, alternating between eastern Caribbean (St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Nassau) and western Caribbean (Costa Maya, Roatan, Cozumel). In May 2011, the Epic will move to Barcelona and sail a western Mediterranean itinerary (Livorno, Civitavecchia, and Naples, Italy; and Palma, Spain) through mid-October, before returning to Miami.
Norwegian Cruise Line has Caribbean cruises listed on its website from $669 to $1,199 per person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin through the end of the year.
Norwegian Cruise Line