Posted on Tuesday, July 6, 2010 by Peter Knego
Join Peter Knego in this Sea Treks blog aboard the maiden U.S. two night inaugural cruise of NCL’s massive NORWEGIAN EPIC. No time for rest and relaxation with 153,000 gross tons of innovative and at times, controversial, ship to be covered.
As much as I’d like to rally with my ship loving brethren over the ungainly shape of the massive new NORWEGIAN EPIC, I just can’t. Not yet, anyway. There is something so obvious and bold about that four deck high wedge atop the ship’s bridge that simply calls for more scrutiny.
I would suggest the EPIC’s monkfish profile is to modern passenger shipping what the lopsided PASTEUR’s or the rigid L’ATLANTIQUE’s must have been to theirs. Ironically, all three ships are a product of the same St. Nazaire, France-based shipyard (although the yard’s name has morphed from the bewitching Chantiers de l’Atlantique to the utilitarian STX Europe).
In her utter simplicity and brazen lack of superficial curvature in certain places, namely the block of suites that comprise her high “forehead”, I almost find the EPIC refreshing. Anyone could argue the similarly-sized and proportioned MSC MUSICA and FANTASIA (also products of STX) are far more handsome but are they as interesting to look at? From a bow-on view, the EPIC is astonishing, while a 3/4 bow view makes her almost seem like a giant sci fi apparition. If the 1960’s television series “The Thunderbirds” featured a cruise ship, it would undoubtedly have looked something like the NORWEGIAN EPIC.
But it is not what this $1.1 billion mass of steel and glass looks like from afar that will make or break her. It is how she functions and serves a complement of 4,100 passengers (max capacity of 4,600). Just as bold and unapologetic as her exterior, so are her many pioneering features. Some are likely to raise eyebrows and the occasional shriek and others are surely going to be studied and copied by other lines, much as many of NCL’s earlier cruising innovations have been. Remember all the naysaying with the introduction of the first private “Out Island”, first proper “mega” ship NORWAY and the utter shock and horror traditionalists expressed when “Freestyle” cruising debuted?
My sleepless, harried, two days on board barely scratched the surface. At least in images and video, I have about 90% of the ship covered. 153,000 gross tons in 48 hours rounds out to 3,187.5 tons per hour, a figure I’m still too exhausted to wrap my mind around.
A fully detailed Decked! blog covering most deck areas, public rooms and accommodation will accompany this Sea Treks report shortly.
From several blocks away, the giant midnight blue wedge was visible, meshing into the Hudson River skyline. The passenger terminal seemed almost overwhelmed by the presence of its newest, largest ever “guest”.
In fact, in order to clear the berth, the EPIC’s five forward starboard tenders had to be removed and stowed across the slipway and then hauled back aboard midstream in the Hudson after the ship had backed away from the pier.
After checking in, we headed immediately to our 245 square foot Category D4 Deluxe Balcony cabin, 12084, on port Deck 12. I visited a mock up of its configuration in St. Nazaire three years ago during the ship’s keel-laying ceremony and found its prototype especially nice to look at with its dark veneers (in France, the colors were more of a mahogany versus the current walnut tone), rich but soothing color schemes and plush soft fittings.
However, even in this slightly larger category (the regular balcony cabins measure 216 square feet), the “strait” at the foot of the bed is very narrow. With two people, it is negotiable but with three people (which it supposedly accommodates), the lack of floor space would induce claustrophobia and bruised toes.
By now, it is no secret that the split bathrooms at the entryway and the en suite sinks are creating a bit of a controversy. I hugely appreciate NCL’s visionary new approach to the cabin w/c layout but think they were spot on with the STAR class format of a properly enclosed three-in-one bathroom with separate dividers and should have stuck with that. Some intimate things are better not seen, heard or, well, “smelled” and the curtain (which doesn’t fully close off the area) can’t address the reasons private bathrooms were invented in the first place. I predict there will be a “run” on public bathroom space on board the EPIC for those seeking a bit of privacy in their commode. Ironically, as we later discovered, inside and studio cabins do have solid doors to their w/cs.
The showers in the entryway guarantee a slippery floor and a “greenhouse” environment. Those laminate floors will begin to warp after being regularly inundated with water. And, while there is a frosted glass shower door to blur the details, should a cabin mate or steward enter while one is in the shower, anyone in the corridor at that moment will immediately know more about the person in the shower than that person in the shower might want them to.
As for the sinks with their tall faucets that splash water into inadequately shallow basins and all over everything in the vicinity, this will be addressed in the near future. Apparently NCL’s former CEO thought it would be “cool” to have sinks that one can fit a tea kettle underneath. Note the word “former”.
In other respects, these staterooms are quite dreamy. The beds, which can configure as queens or two twins, are comfortable and firm; the bedding is of a high quality, although I personally prefer sheets and blankets to incinerating duvets; the sofa slides out to become a reasonably comfortable, if slightly short mattress; there is abundant, easily-accessed storage space in a variety of interestingly curved nooks and crannies; the coffee makers are a really convenient touch (although the supplied coffee is typically bitter shipboard fare); the flat screen TVs are a good size and seem to function well and the balconies are just right without taking too much space away from the interior portions of the cabins.
Although I asked for more time after the two night preview cruise in order to fully document the ship, I was told everyone had to be off by 10:00 AM on July 4th as the EPIC was being turned over to NBC for their exclusive use that day. I learned later that NCL invited a select few to stay on for the July 4th Macy’s Fireworks show, which is a real “no no” when others, like myself, paid whopping airfares to attend this inaugural event.
My first impression, especially after spending the prior day on board the similarly sized but far less dense QM2, was that the EPIC was screaming for a few loftier spaces. At 153,000 gross tons, it would be nice to have a triple deck dining venue or a soaring atrium for the proper “wow” factor.
I also felt that deck space was very limited in the pool area and that passenger flow was congested in the central promenades of Decks 5 through 7 where most of the public rooms are situated. This was especially surprising since there were only 2,500 people on our cruise, which is only a bit more than half of the ship’s capacity.
For the next five hours, Rob and I raced about, trying our best to cover the ship-within-a-ship Courtyard Villas, some of the upper deck areas, most public spaces and cabin accommodation. It was hit and miss as the EPIC gradually filled with guests.
The Courtyard Complex was somewhat disappointing when compared with the most recent STAR class ships. The prior vessels’ massive suites with their private whirlpools, piano lounge and private decks are non extant. Instead, there are some interesting 852 square foot owner’s suites with jaw-dropping views over the bow, glass-enclosed balconies and a double deck concierge lounge.
The courtyard pool and spa area is sunk within a two deck tall block of suites on all sides, save for the aft/port corner where there is a view of the sea from the Promenade.
The exclusive Epic Club grill is one of EPIC’s most appealing spaces with its floor to ceiling windows and tones of beige and brown.
In the main body of the ship, there are some inspired decorative touches, such as the blue (port) and orange (starboard) stairtowers and plenty of that dark-grained laminate to give a “wooden” effect.
Blue and orange contrasts popped up in several places, including the glass fittings in the suites and the bowling balls in Bliss Ultra.
Soft fittings ran the gamut from sleek and sophisticated to eye-popping (some patterns from the STAR class ships have returned in spots like Bliss Ultra, which is in every respect meant to feel “glitzy”).
For better or worse, some spaces like the Garden Cafe, La Cantina, the Tradewinds shops, Headliners Comedy Club, The Spiegel Tent, O’Sheehan’s Pub and Fat Cats Jazz and Blues Club seem to have taken their decorative cues from land-based shopping malls.
Other venues, like the Manhattan Room, Shaker’s Martini Bar, Maltings Beer and Whiskey Bar, the Taste Restaurant and Shanghai’s have an elegant and sophisticated contemporary feel with hints of Deco, MidCentury Modern and even the occasional Beaux Arts.
Although views of the sea are blocked by the extended lifeboats on the EPIC’s finite promenades, if your timing is right, you may encounter one of the ship’s three on board “Legends” (Tina Turner, Elvis, Madonna).
The fiber optic chandelier hovering over the aft end of the central atrium area is reputedly one of the most expensive ever put to sea.
After a hurried but tasty lunch in the extremely well laid out Garden Cafe, we headed to the Epic Theater for the christening ceremony at 2:00 PM.
Emceed by “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Jeff Garlin, whose ad libs mostly fell flat, the ceremony was impressive in its synergistic use of all the ship’s main entertainment venues where various live acts simultaneously contributed to the event.
A long, reverential blessing was followed by more of Garlin’s cheekiness before godmother Reba McEntire appeared to press an animated heart that was projected on the screen, releasing a pre-recorded champagne bottle’s splatter on the ship’s bow.
We had time for a round on the ellipticals in the massive gym prior to heading topsides to witness the EPIC’s New York departure.
On the Sun Deck and in the Aqua Park areas, there was literally no available rail space. One can only imagine what it will be like when the ship is at capacity on a regular revenue cruise. To be fair, this may have been exacerbated by having the entire aft portion of the EPIC closed off in preparation for the 4th of July Fireworks event.
Once in the Hudson, it took a while for the tenders to be hoisted back on board before the EPIC began her glide past the beautifully lit New York skyline. We finally went to the Garden Cafe to take photos through its tinted windows.
The EPIC cleared the Verrazano Narrows bridge by a mere 24 inches on the prior day, so we wanted to secure a good vantage for her second passage underneath the graceful suspension span, once the world’s longest at 4,260 feet. We climbed to the top of the slide platform and watched, wondering what the people driving across the bridge were thinking as the massive ship approached.
The tides must have been lower than on the prior day as the tip of the radio mast slid by at least three or four feet from the bottom of the roadway’s underbody.
The open decks and public areas were bustling with crowds and loud music. There was no quiet place to just sit, relax and watch the scenery pass.
We retreated to our balcony as the sky beyond distant-but-sharp-as-a-pack-of-needles Manhattan turned from pinkish blue to a fiery magenta.
The media group headed to the Spiegel Tent at 7:30 for the extra tariff Le Cirque Dreams and Dinner show, one of the EPIC’s exclusive new entertainment innovations. Our embarkation cards, which use facial recognition software, were scanned at the entrance and (since the lower portion of the room was filled) we were led up to an open gallery in the round overlooking the stage.
What ensued impressed more for its execution than content. Waiters seamlessly and synchronously delivered three simple but tasty fixed courses (a wedge of iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing, stuffed breast of chicken florentine and fillet mignon and a raspberry and chocolate decadence with mixed berry sauce) at set intervals in the show.
The extra tariff entertainment/dining venue costs $20 per person for prime seating or $15 for back seats. The acrobatics, lighting and technical aspects were impressive but it was far too long and the hammy dialogue and drawn out juggling routines were at times groan-inducing. The dated gender stereotyping was annoying (Hello, “Prince Charmaine”?), if just not plain offensive, too.
From there, it was off to Wasabi for cold beer and sushi with some fellow writers before we headed to the pool area for a balmy summer night stroll.
We started the second morning with a pot of freshly brewed coffee, then raced up to the Garden Cafe for breakfast. Once again, kudos to NCL for their excellent chandlering. I had a marsala omelet (onions, tomatoes and bell peppers), watermelon slices and salmon with capers and onion, doused in fresh-squeezed lemon juice. All very basic stuff but fresh and of a consistently high quality.
At 1:00 PM, there was a press conference in Headliners comedy club. The EPIC’s Captain Trygve Vorren and hotel manager Klaus Lugmaier were briefly introduced before NCL’s executive VP of Global Sales and Passenger Services Andy Stuart, CEO Kevin Sheehan and COO Roberto Martinoli fielded questions from the audience.
At 2:00 PM, the press were given an opportunity to interview members of the Blue Man Group.
We tried making the rounds once more to finish documenting the ship but with only limited results.
We did visit the Studio Cabin common area on Decks 12 and 13 and found an open Studio Cabin on aft Deck 12. These compact but expertly conceived cubby holes are beautifully designed with porthole style windows that look into the central passage but the six inch tween deck ramps in those same passages need to be clearly marked to prevent trips. Much more on them in Decked!
We also had a chance to visit the Ice Bar, donning gloves and a faux fur-lined parka/pancho for a few moments before it was opened up for regular business. This venue is the first of its kind put to sea, featuring a bar, seating and sculptures made of ice. For crowd control, reservations and a tariff of $20 per person is charged but that includes two drinks. Only 25 at a time are allowed in for a maximum of 45 minutes but most people don’t usually last that long in the carefully controlled 17 degree temperature.
One of the pleasures of attending inaugural events is getting the chance to meet people like Cruising Authority’s Barry Vaudrin. A couple years ago, I was a guest on his podcast and we met for a mini-interview reprise that afternoon, discussing my recent visit to Alang and our mutual impressions of the EPIC. Barry has spent years in the cruise industry, loves ships and it shows in his work.
Rob and I had time for a quick workout in the gym before regrouping for the 7:00 PM Blue Man Group show in the Epic Theater. We were not allowed to take photos or video but the show lived up to its very high expectations. Attendees in the first two rows are given plastic panchos for protection from the often messy on stage antics. According to Rob, who attended one of the BMG’s early performances in New York, it is true in almost every respect to its original incarnation, featuring PVC pipes, regurgitating vests, a live backup band and some truly astounding food performance art. This was yet another well-orchestrated NCL production and entertaining, to boot — all part of why I predict the EPIC will shine, despite some inherent design flaws.
Dinner at 9:00 in the EPIC’s vastly expanded, extra tarrif ($25) Teppanyaki was just as good as it has always been on NCL’s other Freestyle ships, beginning with miso soup and seaweed salad with ginger dressing. I chose the Chicken Yakuidon Noodle main course but would have been perfectly satisfied with a huge portion of the delicious veggies that were grilled in garlic and soy sauce. Dessert was a tasty green tea cake with a dollop of green tea ice cream.
Although I had initially been troubled by the cramped and clotted passenger flow on the prior night, with a little “practice”, it seemed to contribute to the ship’s overall “party” atmosphere, recalling high-density but altogether fun cruising experiences on much lamented older ships like Costa’s CARLA C and Chandris’ BRITANIS.
Alas, with so much more left to document, it was off to pack and try to get some sleep.
On the 4th, I was up at 6:30, dragging the tripod and gear around for one last round of the public areas on Decks 5 through 7. Fortunately, most of the guests were still asleep by the time I was wrapping things up and the disembarkation announcements began. This was the first time I could actually see what the Shakers Martini Bar area looked like without an impenetrable layer of travel agents and media. Nice!
We had breakfast in the Garden Cafe with sweeping views over the tops of VEENDAM on our port side and NORWEGIAN DAWN on our starboard side. Disembarkation was as seamless as a swipe of our cabin key cards. The NORWEGIAN EPIC was soon behind us, waiting to be broadcast into millions of living rooms that night as the epicenter of Macy’s annual 4th of July fireworks celebration.
Overall, it is impossible to correctly assess all aspects of the EPIC, having only experienced a small portion of her many offerings but I applaud NCL for trying something unique and innovative in an otherwise formulaic time for new cruise ships. Full Decked! in the works!
Special thanks: Martin Cox, Rob Di Stefano, AnneMarie Mathews, Courtney Recht, Barry Vaudrin