NORWEGIAN EPIC–NCL ’MARMITE’
Is not just a metaphor is a reality.
I just come back from a 17 days “back to back” cruise on Norwegian EPIC and I realised, once again, that EPIC and in general Norwegian Cruise Line is like marmite for breakfast: you love it or you hate it! Norwegian Epic is big, brassy, bold and ballsy…and I love it!
But let’s take it step by step
If Epic stands out in one particular area, it’s in its cabin design. From its funky “new wave” staterooms and its wildly popular solo Studios to the fact that every outside cabin has a balcony (an industry first), there’s a lot to admire and question on the ship.
We had a Haven 2 bedroom Villa – cabin 17024. Whoever had the idea of building The Haven deserves a big hug! The Haven complex, the largest “ship-within-a-ship”, nestles atop the ship on Decks 16 and 17, the space also includes a private pool, two whirlpools, a gym, sun deck and the posh Epic Club restaurant. The 60 accommodations include 46 Family Villas, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and separate living and dining areas (up to 506 square feet); eight Deluxe Owner’s Suites, with king-size beds, floor-to-ceiling windows and his-and-her powder areas (up to 852 square feet); and six Courtyard Penthouses, with queen-size beds, separate living and dining areas and a luxury bath (up to 322 square feet).
When we board the ship EPIC just got a make-over in the dry dock of Cadiz. Not a 100% successful one but you can feel it all around the ship. The Concierge area, Epic Lounge and Epic Club lost their heavy kitschy, purple velvety ambiance and now look modern and fresh with an understated elegance. Even the room had been touched by this changes and looks more elegant and modern. Of course the only slip on-board Norwegian Epic is the attention to details: a vanity mirror disconnected and left on the table with the cable hanging next to a hole in the vanity table, a smoke detector (safety please!) covered with tapes due to the loss of some screws to fix it on the ceiling, couple of doors not properly fixed and making a constant subliminal noise when the ship was moving. But at the end of the day the “little” Villa is a lovely space to spend your vacation and I love it.
The only thumb’s-down for our cabin was the location: 17 Deck just opposite the Crew Access Door. A lot of banging and noise even if we mentioned that to our concierge. But as the noise was mainly in the spare room used during the voyage only as a laptop and storage room we survived 17 day with no problems.
The service in Haven is exactly what you expect from a Premium Cabin; an excellent butler and steward, always there without being too much in to your face ready to assist with whatever you need: from laundry to organising a private party in your own private space. Lots of genuine smiles and polite conversation even if the guests in Haven are not all the time “Premium Guests” and the feeling of “new money-bad manners” is quite common on NCL. The Concierge, located in the heart of Haven assist us with everything we needed from bookings and cancellations of restaurants and land tours to dealing with day by day issues even if the results were not all the time the expected ones. Monica, our Concierge was great, especially when she was dealing with stupid requests from “posh guests” travelling with low-cost airlines
The space in Haven is more than generous: a private gym and spa-like area with sauna, steam room and hot tubs, an elegant modern decorated lounge, a nice partially open terrace for lunch and snacks, the lovely elegant courtyard with a not too big not too small pool, a private sun deck and of course one of my favourite spots – The Posh Beach Club. Pity that due to complaints from guests on 17 Deck the bar was closing at 7.00PM, but we were located under the Posh Club and we understand perfectly why.
NCL pioneered the freestyle dining concept (that is, eat whenever you want with whomever you want and wherever you want), and it’s taken it to a new level on Epic. The LCD touch screens around the ship display information including deck plans and which dining rooms were the most crowded. (Far from ideal in a Norovirus situation). Whereas most mega-ships feature a massive, swanky dining hall where strangers mingle at large tables under glistening chandeliers, Epic goes another route. Booking the speciality restaurants is advisable. If there is a queue for the main dining rooms you are given a pager. These normally go off within 10-15 minutes regardless of the staff telling you there will be a half an hour wait.
We didn’t used the main dining rooms but is a choice between Taste, set in a cool space at the bottom of the ship’s main atrium and the Manhattan Room, an Art-Deco space with a two-deck window overlooking the ship’s wake, and a bandstand and dance floor.
I prefer to have my lunches and dinner in other venues, initially paid restaurants but unfortunately now, as an incentive for new bookings, included in dinning packages:
- Le Bistro – Contrary to the name, Le Bistro is not a bistro. In France, a bistro is a low end dining venue where the patrons eat whatever the cook has decided to make that day. Le Bistro is just the opposite. It is an upscale fine dining venue where the guests select from a menu of items prepared in the French style. The rooms are done in a charming Second Empire style with copies of French Impressionist paintings on the. The food offerings are a selection of French dishes that appeal to a broad audience. Before the dinning package Le Bistro has as a main element in his the formula the intimacy. To maintain its charm, Le Bistro requires a relatively small room, not a cavernous hall. Thus, while most things on Norwegian Epic are done to a grand scale, Le Bistro remains a comparatively small room. The place used to be my favourite restaurant on Epic. After Norwegian introduced the dinning package the standards dropped dramatically. A long wait for the food to arrive, more waiters who don’t know the menu like before, a kind of rushed service to create space for the next bookings, and even the quality of the food was not the same. The duck and the lamb needed to be sent back to the kitchen being too cold, but the escargots and the bouillabaisse were charming and spot-on and manage to balance the culinary experience of that night. However after 2 quite disappointing experience I decided to limit my booking in Le Bistro for 2/week.
- Cagney’s – a classic dark, woody steakhouse with an amazing menu and service. Cagney’s menu selections begin with starters such as shrimp cocktail or oysters, soups and salads including lobster bisque and Caesar salad, mains of 10oz New York Strip steaks, Salmon Oscar or vegetarian saffron casserole amongst other dishes with the option of 6oz lobster tails, sides ranging from baked potatoes to steamed asparagus and fries with white truffle oil and parmesan cheese and desserts including raspberry crème brûlée and warm espresso chocolate brownies served with macadamia ice cream. Always during those 17 days Cagney’s was the best choice for dinning.
Two words: Go hungry. The Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes appetizer was a hit at our table! The crab cakes were soft, creamy and warm. The perfect combination for crab cakes. I can confirm that Cagney’ uses ‘Premium Angus’ steak which is of a higher quality that the steak used in the ships other restaurants. Not only are the steaks amazing, the sides are spectacular as well. The signature Chagney’s fries are dressed to impress in truffle oil and parmesan cheese. They won’t disappoint. The creamy corn is also one of our favourites.
- Moderno Churrascaria – South American-style steakhouse where servers keep bringing slices of grilled meats to you until you pop (or tell them to stop).Is an all-you-can-eat meat fest. Again due to the dinning package the ritual was change and now the different types of meat arrive in a quite chaotic way but the taste is unbeatable. The restaurant serves succulent skewers of barbecued meats which are carved tableside. Guests control how much they want with their green and red card, green means the carving continues and red is shown to indicate when guests are full. The signature cuts of beef, lamb, pork and chicken are served along with rice, black beans, mashed potatoes and sweet fried bananas on the side, a wide selection of salads, Brazilian cheese bread and desserts including coconut flan, papaya crème and mango rice pudding. My favourites: Ceviche from the salad Bar, Picana and Garlic Beef. A big plus for the restaurant this time was the charming Maître D’ Mihaela who control the entire venue with a massive genuine smile and made us return more than we expected in Moderno
- La Cucina – is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Italian specialty restaurant and on Norwegian Epic, the concept has been enhanced to become a much more substantial, located in the front of the ship overlooking the bow. There are large picture windows both to the front and to port and starboard. Since the restaurant is high on the ship’s superstructure, the views from these windows are panoramic. While there has been an overall upgrade to the menu, popular favourites remain. The fried calamari was again fresh. It was lightly breaded, tender and not at all rubbery. La Cucina’s entrees now include a rib eye steak prepared with garlic butter. This was perfectly prepared – – tender and flavourful. For dessert, I had chocolate ice cream with an espresso sauce. The ice cream provides refreshment while the espresso provides zest.
- The Epic Club – Epic’s first class dining room. Located within the precincts of the luxurious Haven section of the ship, it is open exclusively to guests staying in the suites that make up The Haven. And if you want you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Epic Club. The Epic Club is indeed a club and the guests in the Haven “all come to know one another.” Thus, the atmosphere in the Epic Club is enhanced, not only by the intimate size of the room but by familiarity with your dining companions and the 5 stars Maître D’ Diana who was always the perfect host. The cooking here also resembles a specialty restaurant. Each item is prepared ala minute. Moreover, the use of spices and the care in preparation makes this a gourmet experience. Because of the speciality restaurants on board we didn’t use Epic Club too often but one of favourites was the butternut squash soup, which contained pieces of duck to balance the flavour of the vegetables. The Black Angus strip steak on the lunch menu is a straight forward dish. It is not the best cut of beef but through the use of pepper and other spices, the Epic chefs render it quite flavourful.
We didn’t missed again the amazing The SVDEKA Ice Bar with its 8 degrees below zero temperature and features ice sculptures and furniture carved out of ice. Wearing our poncho and drinking the included s two cocktails served in an ice glass we enjoy it so much and went back couple of times. My favourite cocktails: Cobalt Blues and Nordic Apple .
I don’t hesitate to say that Norwegian Epic offers the best entertainment at sea today. NCL has been in my top for entertainment form the beginning. With Epic, NCL sets the bar to a new height, industry-wide
Epic Theatre now hosts the double Tony Award winning (for costume design) musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Based on the flamboyant comedy movie, this colourful extravaganza features over 500 dazzling outfits, including 200 headdresses and an array of feel-good dance floor hits. I saw the show 3 times in 17 days and I will go back again and again. I didn’t have the feeling for one second that I was watching a cruise ship show…it was 100% West End or Broadway. Burn The Floor, the second main show on Epic featuring 14 dancers, a live band and two singers and brings their Ballroom Blitz show to the Epic with sizzling and steamy dance routines taken straight from their hit Broadway show.
The Cavern Club invokes the spirit of the iconic Liverpool nightspot made famous as the venue for The Beatles early shows. Moodily-lit with plenty of red brick, it makes a good stab at recreating the atmosphere of the 1960s club, though some modern decorative touches do break the spell. One of the bartender told me that the venue is designed in partnership with the owners of the real 57-year-old club.
Bliss Ultra Lounge suffered a make-over during the last dry dock and now looks a little bit less glitzy, more modern and more inspiring. Great DJs feeling the vibe and knowing the audience when they were choosing the music and good cocktails even if the service was quite slow – again a consequence of free drinking package and shortage of the crew. I miss the cages but I was happy to see the old horse at the entrance retired.
The main feature of the Pool Deck is the Aqua Park with its ‘Epic Plunge’: the only tube slide with a bowl slide and a 200-foot long tube. The Aqua Park also includes two main pools five hot tubs, a wading pool and a kid’s pool that features whimsical sculptures, water sprays and a slide. Behind the twin funnels are two rock climbing wall. Even if the weather wasn’t great we couldn’t miss the chance to jump on the slides….AMAZING!
Even if for the general concept of entertainment Epic got a massive thumb’s up for this cruise I still need to give a thumb’s down for the Cruise Director and his team. A massive obsession for line dancing: anywhere, everywhere, anytime and doesn’t matter the music! Same steps and same screaming with an Assistant Cruise Director, Nacho, desperate for a promotion. This “get involved” of animators not guests destroyed the genial idea of themed parties: White Hot, Night Out, Fabba. Instead of listen and dancing on ABBA music (great for the gay crowd on this cruise) we were locked as spectators on a boring amateur-ish dance routine of Nacho&Co. When finally the line dancing finished and we were ready to Fabba party the music change and the DJ returned to his normal playlist. Do something about that NCL: you have genial concepts but …explain the concept to cruise Director team…in details!
Another thumb’s down: SHORE EXCURSION Department. I am not a big fan of excursions booked on board and normally I want to organise my private exploration sessions. This time I put everything in the hands of Epic Shore Excursion Department. BIG MISTAKE ! The only few port-talks were boring and un-professional done, the logistic of each trips chaotic and the customer service of the ShoreEx Manager was … inexistent. When trying to give some feedback after one experience the answer was: “too busy to speak with guests” and 25% discount “if they are not happy”. And once again, our amazing concierge Monica has to deal with the rudeness of the ShoreEx Manager and cover the damage. Some training is needed in this Department for sure.
In my opinion ‘freestyle’ matches the tastes of the modern passenger better than the traditional inflexible system: ‘two sittings’ for diner followed by a main show. However ‘freestyle’ is not perfect and restaurants can become crowded at peak times and queues can form. Ideally popular shows need to be booked and entertainment options can clash. Some traditionalists may simply not warm to ‘Freestyle’. Especially when you meet shorts during dinner, white socks in sandals or somebody taking his tie off after 5 minutes at Captain’s Cocktail Party.
Epic has all the advantages and disadvantages of a big ship. For example the corridors are endless and the stair cases go on forever, so Epic may not be an ideal ship for those passengers with mobility problems. Epic can feel very busy at times and the pool deck was often crowded.
So how to sum up a ship called Epic? She has her good sides, and she has her not-so-good sides and with upgrades to entertainment, activities, and the lovely haven, she’d probably have been met with near-universal praise aside from those little slips to Carnival’s style.
I am not afraid to say that I like EPIC and I like NCL. The company is, in my mind, the most mainstream of today’s cruise lines. I mean that in a good way. They’re centrists, offering a huge swath of people a chance for a fun, social vacation at a decent price. Accessing some of Epic’s better activities will require you to plan ahead, and in a few cases will cost extra. But you won’t break the bank, and you sure will get a lot of wow for your pounds.
I realised, once again, that EPIC and in general Norwegian Cruise Line is like marmite for breakfast: you love it or you hate it! Norwegian Epic is big, brassy, bold and ballsy…and I love it!
So what about another cruise on board of Norwegian Epic?! Done….and booked for February 24 2016.
EPIC here we come!