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Norwegian Epic - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

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First Impressions

The 155,873-ton, 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Cruise Line's newest -- and biggest -- ship, is a mishmash of decorating styles and themes, a blend of contemporary, retro, kitschy and elegant. And that's a good thing. Tastes, a fee-free restaurant venue, is sleek and sophisticated while O'Sheehan's, a pub and bowling venue, is kitschy and Victorian in ambience. In an era in which cruise lines are often decorating ships based on one specific vibe (Oceania's country house hotel influences and Celebrity's contemporary boutique hotel-like schemes come immediately to mind), the mixed style design approach on Norwegian Epic is refreshing. It's fun to be able to find a venue that matches whatever mood you're in at the moment.

Some miscellaneous observations:

The Atrium Coffee Bar, the hub of indoor life onboard, is one of the few places that is reminiscent of other NCL ships and will make past passengers feel right at home. Bar Central -- with its specialty martini, beer and scotch bars -- is another, but on Epic it's been expanded to include the very cool Ice Bar.

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Atrium

The Epic Casino on Deck 6 is immense -- it just goes on, and on, and on.

If you like to dine in a see-and-be-seen milieu, bag an atrium table at Tastes, one of the two fee-free main dining venues. Tables are set on the ground floor of a three-deck atrium, underneath a massive LED chandelier that changes colors. Passengers on Decks 6 and 7, above, can lean over railings to check out who's eating what.

Teppanyaki is a fantastic concept that exists on other NCL ships, but venues there are small and the restaurant concept is so popular that reservations can be tough to bag. Here's hoping that a huge expansion on Norwegian Epic will mean there's more room for everybody. And don't miss the adjacent Wasabi sushi bar -- and the aforementioned sake bar.

Having seen a preview of Cirque Dreams and predicted its smash appeal, it's fun to see the crowds lining up for the dinner and show at the Spiegel Tent. Other fantastic new additions to onboard entertainment include the Blue Man Group, a hip and feisty mime-style act, and Legends (two shows "in concert" and the more informal "unplugged"), where chillingly talented performers impersonate, in song and dance, stars like Tina Turner, Madonna and Elvis.

Ultimately, this is a ship that revolves around activity and entertainment. Its multiple dining options and overall Freestyle ambience -- which deconstructs some of the more outdated traditions of cruise travel -- is geared to young (and young at heart) travelers, whether veteran or virgin cruisers.

Bedtime

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Cabins

First thing to know: for the first time ever on a cruise ship, all outside cabins are balcony cabins!

Second thing to know: also for the first time ever, most of Norwegian Epic's cabins have curvy walls that lead to round beds, arched sofas and wavy wall units (the television is the usual rectangle).

Third thing? Travelers cruising alone who want their own digs without paying the dreaded single supplement can reside in a dedicated "neighborhood" of cabins for one that are centered around a communal Living Room gathering spot.

Clearly, Norwegian Epic's approach to staterooms is the most innovative we've seen. Ever. We haven't mentioned yet the standard bathrooms, which divide the shower or bathtub from the toilette via cubbies that are, alas, covered in translucent glass. The sink is actually in the bedroom. Whether this lack of privacy will trouble you -- or delight you -- is entirely up to individual preference.

Frankly, the new design for standard staterooms is fun but there are a few hitches. The cabins are narrower than industry norm, and as such the rounded bed was not created for six footers. The cabin's sofa (many pull out to make a bed) is weirdly shaped around a bulge in the wall; it's curved and very uncomfortable (you sit sort of twisted).

The balcony is pleasant and entirely ... normal, with two chairs and a cocktail table.

Balcony cabins come in two types. The big difference between the "standard" and the "deluxe" is a few meters of space, lengthwise. So with the latter, the bathroom area has a full size tub or really deep shower, and the sinks in a sort of alcove. With the former, you're limited to a postage stamp-sized shower and a sink that's in the middle of the cabin.

Inside cabins on Norwegian Epic do not have the wavy walls. They're cozy and comfortable with twin beds that convert to a queen, private en-suite bathroom and the usual amenities, from in-room safe to flat screen television.

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Solo Cabins

The 128 studio cabins for solo travelers are 100-square-foot accommodations with a full-size bed, flat-screen TV, neat ambient lighting (four different colors), and separate areas for the bathroom, sink and shower. These are technically considered inside cabins, but they do have a window (with adjustable venetian blind) that looks into the corridor. Ironically, the frosted-glass bathrooms that are controversial in the standard cabins-for-two don't exist here (you get a toilet and a shower in a regular, pre-fab, plastic-formed bathroom). The irony of course is that here who cares about privacy? You're in the cabin alone!

Studio passengers also get an exclusive, shared social space called the Studio Lounge, a sleek, contemporary spot to chill out, with its own large-screen TV's, coffee-making facilities and a bartender at certain times of the day. The whole studio complex reminds me of the pod hotel craze that's creeping into airport accommodations.

Norwegian Epic's courtyard -- its ultra-luxe, boutique ship-within-a-ship area -- consists of 60 suites centered around a two-deck-high private courtyard. Forty-six Courtyard Villas, measuring 506 square feet, each feature two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Six Courtyard Penthouses, measuring 322 square feet, include a bedroom with a separate living and dining area. Finally, eight Deluxe Owner's Suites, at 852 square feet, feature floor-to-ceiling windows and separate living, dining and bedroom areas.

All courtyard suites offer access to stunning private space with a private pool, two whirlpools, saunas, sunning area, a fitness facility, private indoor/outdoor dining, a bar and a concierge lounge.

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Spa & Fitness

NCL has also introduced its first spa cabins onboard Epic, located on Deck 14. The accommodations, which come in standard balcony, deluxe balcony and suite, are clustered by the spa in a private enclave accessible only by keycard. Spa passengers also have access to the ship's 24-hour thermal suite.

Mealtime

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Dining

With some 20 dining options, it'll likely prove impossible to try everything during Epic's weeklong Caribbean cruises. The ship features all the signature NCL restaurants found throughout the fleet, from Cagney's steakhouse ($25 per person) to the French Le Bistro ($20 per person), and introduces a few new options. Moderno Churrascaria ($18 per person), an Argentinean churrasco, serves skewered meats presented by tableside passadores.

Teppanyaki ($25 per person), as mentioned earlier, got a huge expansion on Norwegian Epic -- up to 115 diners can now eat here simultaneously. Sticking with Asian cuisine, Epic also features a sushi bar, sake bar, and a new-to-the-fleet noodle bar (a la carte), which is located within the casino, a la Atlantic City or Vegas gambling houses.

One important note: reservations are strongly recommended at Epic's for-fee venues. Primetime dining space tended to book-up with alarming speed during our pre-inaugural sailing.

While many of the restaurants on Epic levy additional charges, a number of fee-free options are available, including Tastes, the ship's velvet-walled atrium eatery, and the Manhattan, the dinner-dance venue featuring a dramatic two-deck-high picture window. For casual diners, the Garden Cafe is one of the nicest buffets in cruising.

Hungry around the clock? O'Sheehan's Bar & Grill is the dedicated 24-hour joint. The venue is fashioned after a hometown-y British sports pub, and serves comfort food like English breakfast (with the baked beans), tuna melts, corned beef sandwiches, chicken pot pie, plus a number of bottled and draught beers. Here you'll also find three bowling lanes, dart boards, pool tables, foosball and arcade games. Dining is surcharge-free.

Reserved exclusively for Norwegian Epic's suite and villa guests, the Epic Club will feature a large wine display, glass sculptures and pearl drapes. The Courtyard Grill is a casual, outdoor area of the restaurant serving suite and villa guests breakfast and lunch.

Grand Old Favorites

While Norwegian Epic looks dramatically different from its fleetmates, the Atrium Coffee Bar is one of the few spaces onboard that really reminds me of NCL's other ships. It's definitely the heart of the indoor action (especially when the weather's iffy). The mood here can be raucous (this is a great spot for watching big sports competitions, like the World Cup, which aired during our pre-inaugural cruise) or serene (I'm a softie for the film images of nature scenes paired with soothing tunes).

Bar Central on Deck 7 is another concept that comes from existing NCL ships but it's been expanded on Epic. Here, in addition to signature lounges like Shaker's for martinis, and Maltings for beer and malt scotch, you'll also find the Humidor cigar bar, the Ice Bar and a sake bar.

As previously mentioned, past NCL passengers will also be familiar with a number of the line's signature restaurants, including Le Bistro, Teppanyaki and Cagney's.

New and Nifty

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Entertainment

With its bevy of brand-new entertainment, Epic is taking aim at Oasis of the Seas to become the cruise ship with the most thrilling nighttime activities. Epic features the critically acclaimed Blue Man Group, who perform eight times on a seven-night cruise -- two shows each day on four days. Epic Theater, the show's (mid-size) onboard venue, seats roughly 600 passengers, nearly twice as many as Blue Man Group's home theater in New York City. The show is free (i.e. included in the cost of the cruise fare).

Cirque Dreams and Dinner, another innovative new concept, is a strange twist on dinner theater, blending burlesque-style theater with circus-like acrobatics. The experience, which carries an extra cost of $20 per person ($30 for better seats), takes place in the Spiegel Tent, a one-ring, red-and-white-striped big top. (We do not recommend Cirque Dreams for kids under the age of 10.) Other new entertainment venues include Fat Cats, a blues and jazz club, and Headliners Comedy Club, home of improv comedy troupe Second City. Headliners is also host of the very popular Howl at the Moon dueling piano show.

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Pool Deck

NCL's older ships do feature waterslides, but Epic takes the puny-one off slides of its fleetmates to another water-based level. The ship's colorful top-deck AquaPark features three striking waterslides: the sherbet orange slide, called the "Epic Plunge," has a huge bowl where presumably one spins round and round, before shooting down; the lime green slide boasts tight, corkscrew twists and turns; and a purple slide actually shoots around the funnel and through the rock-climbing wall.

Inspired by the Ice Bar in Stockholm (and beyond), Norwegian Epic's Ice Bar is of course one of the ship's most unique features. You queue up at a designated hour, don a quite attractive pewter-colored nylon parka-poncho with fake fur hoodie, slip on some wool gloves, and head inside into what essentially is a gussied-up meat locker. Walls are ice covered, and furniture, including the bar and benches are made of ... ice (and the seats are about as comfortable as you'd expect). About 20 people at a time can participate (you're asked to show up on the hour, put on the protective gear, and then enter at half past, from 5 to 11 p.m.). Cost is $20 per person, and you get two tickets each for pre-made vodka drinks (think vodka/peach schnapps or vodka/Curacao). They'll warm you up!

O'Sheehans, the ship's new concept 24-hour pub, is a smash hit -- a fantastic place for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between. Try the fish and chips and the warm apple crumble, though everything we had, from a burger to chicken wings and a breakfast fry-up, was delicious and prepared a la minute.

Spice H20, an adult-only pool area on the back of the ship, is a superb spot for a casual alfresco lunch or a drink (anytime the bar's open!). It's got a small pool that can be transformed at night into a dance floor -- a fantastic spot for post-dinner gyrating.

Huh?

Without a doubt, the onboard feature that will spur the most controversy will be the radical new approach to cabin bathroom design. The majority of cabins on Norwegian Epic have the loo in one cubicle and the shower in another. Each has a frosted glass door. Now, while it's a fair assumption that to be sharing a cabin with someone, you know them pretty well, there is a matter of keeping romance alive with an element of mystery. Or are we being prudish?

Kid-Friendly Factor

Norwegian Epic Video Tour: Kids' Stuff

Kids (and big kids) will certainly be able to stay active on Norwegian Epic. A multi-use sports deck includes a full-size basketball court, batting cage, bungee trampoline, rock-climbing wall, rope adventure course and a 24-foot-tall enclosed climbing cage called the Spider Web. Epic's rock-climbing wall is quite a bit larger than the others on NCL ships: 33 feet high, 64 feet wide. There's also a rappelling wall, the first at sea (this is almost the opposite of rock-climbing -- you work your way down a cliff by rappelling off of it).

Epic also features the requisite kids' spaces. Recess has two separate spaces for kids ages 2 through 9 and ages 10 through 12. The kids' area includes a space-themed play area, air hockey table, dance floor, Wii's, etc. The Tween Zone features multiple Wii and PlayStation areas, along with a private karaoke performance stage/cinema. Entourage is Norwegian Epic's top-ship teen area (ages 13 through 17). This space includes air hockey, pinball, foosball, a video jukebox, and nine flat-screen TV's, five of which are located around a central video game console featuring PS3. In the evening, Entourage turns into a teen-only nightclub. There's also an arcade a floor below.

NCL has teamed up with Nickelodeon to create special programming on Norwegian Epic (and Norwegian Jewel). Offerings include character meet-and-greets and story hours, interactive game shows (like SlimeTime LIVE!), character breakfasts ($10 per child; $15 per adult) hosted in the Spiegel Tent, special Nick Live! poolside performances, and activities such as arts & crafts and Nick-themed dance parties. Special Nickelodeon theme cruises will also be offered annually.

Bottom Line

I can't wait to go back onboard! What was most intriguing about Norwegian Epic was the cruise line's deft success at blending a whole range of features and amenities into a cruise experience that offers something for just about anyone. Sophisticates may prefer Fat Cats for blues and the higher-end restaurants (not to mention the courtyard villa complex for big spenders). Families will love the kids' club, the waterslides, and eateries like O'Sheehans and Garden Café. The solo-oriented Living Room idea is a brilliant one that eliminates one of the traditional downsides of traveling singly on a big ship where it's hard to meet others. And for honeymooners and romance seekers, the ship's spirited, casual Freestyle ambience opens the door for spontaneity and fun.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief

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