Oh, how they hated her. The traditionalists. The vocally indignant. The verbally flatulent. Norwegian Epic raised hackles- and eyebrows- like no other ship I can ever remember when she first debuted in the summer of 2010. Seems a long time ago now.
Her genesis was long, troubled and controversial. It included an almost complete tearing up and redrawing of the building plans when the ship was already under construction, swiftly followed by the cancellation of a planned sister ship. The occasional dockyard fire- suspected sabotage, but never proven- was often the only thing warming the often chilly relationship between Norwegian and the French shipbuilders, STX.
Of course, she was meant to elicit controversy. And boy, did she ever. Especial wrath was reserved for what became known as the ‘Top Hat’; the private area atop the superstructure for the top end penthouses, and their attached restaurants and bars. It looms over the top of the ship. The design has not been replicated in the imminent Norwegian Breakaway.
Then, there were the cabins with the famous curved walls, outside sinks, and separate bathroom/toilet configurations. These also remain unique to the Norwegian Epic and, I suspect, that will continue to remain the case. Some loved them, but many did not.
But it was strange how those same critics were, and in some cases still are, reluctant to give her credit for some startlingly successful innovations. The block of small, funky interior studios that she previewed have been runaway successes, and great kudos should go to the line for making cruising far more affordable to singles. These cabins- ‘mini me’ hotel rooms- have proved so popular, that they will be repeated in the next three new Norwegian ships. I hope more of them are retro-fitted across the fleet.
So successful have they been, in fact, that the likes of P&O and- whisper it- Royal Caribbean- have even been shoe horning in small handfuls of single cabins on some of their ships during annual refits. Shipping lines, take note; it’s a start, but not nearly anything like enough.
But the first thing that struck me about the Norwegian Epic -both at a pre- launch shipyard visit, and on her inaugural press cruise- was her extraordinary breadth. It allowed Frederik Johansson, chief architect for Tillberg in Sweden, to create a run of vast, vaulting public rooms on a series of arrow straight lines that run almost from bow to stern. It also allowed the creation of many more side venues, in the shape of numerous restaurants and bars, that are sleek, tasteful adjuncts to these main thoroughfares.
Johansson also toned down the interiors in comparison to the playful, exuberant palette of the earlier Norwegian Gem and her predecessors. The ship feels far richer and, in places, much more like the transatlantic liners of old. This look is especially true of the Manhattan Room, a vast, New York styled restaurant cum dance venue, with a floor to ceiling glass wall overlooking the stern. You almost expect to hear Xavier Cugat (google him, kids) and his white- jacketed dance band start blaring out salsa at a moment’s notice. It is a singularly lovely room, and will also be reappearing on both the upcoming Breakaway and her sister, Norwegian Getaway, due to debut in January, 2014.
Of course, the new ship unveiled an unheard of string of restaurants. More than twenty of them, with most attracting a not exactly earth shattering fifteen to twenty dollar surcharge to eat there. Understandably, many traditionalists railed at this but, truth be told, the passengers seem to love them. As a trend, extra fee dining is here to stay.
There were the old favourites, such as French accented Le Bistro and the fabulous Cagney’s Steakhouse, as well as a much enlarged version of the wildly popular Japanese Teppanyaki. But Norwegian took full advantage of the ship’s unprecedented interior handle to try some very new, cutting edge venues unheard of at sea before.
There was an ingenious, Spiegel style circus tent, with a bite menu and at-table magic demonstrations. The aforementioned Manhattan Room (no fee here, by the way) has dinner dances, and ‘legends’ tributes to the likes of Elton John, Tina Turner and Elvis Presley. There is a fantastic Brazilian steakhouse, Moderno Chrurassica, which has been such a success that it, too, will be rolled out onto the new ships.
The vast, traditional dining rooms of old, with their two settings, have been thrown overboard. In keeping with the company’s Freestlye Dining philosophy, there are smaller venues such as the chic, uptempo Tastes in the lobby, as well as 24/7 comfort food and a typical, pub-style atmosphere in O’Sheehans, with it’s snooker tables, bowling lanes, and the best fish and chips anywhere at sea. Like the enormous, forward facing Garden Cafe, these are all fee-free venues.
Dining as entertainment in itself has become an evolving theme at Norwegian, and one it does very well. But the real coup for Norwegian Epic has been in the concept and creation of an entertainment handle unequalled at sea; one every bit as sensational and groundbreaking as that pioneered aboard the Norway herself, back in 1980.
Where else but in Vegas could you see performances from the world famous Blue Man Group, and without the cover charge? The Epic also has the Moroccan-themed Bliss Ultra club disco, one of the true decorative aberrations in the overall, on board style.
Another hugely successful idea has been to take the night life outdoors, with the creation of Spice H20. This huge outdoor club looks like a terraced Roman theatre, and looks out over the stern of the ship. it has proved very popular with the late night crowd and, again, it is set to be replicated in the new ships.
Back inside, there is a genuine Ice Bar, complete with freezing shots and fur coats, and a genuinely elegant Martini bar called Shakers, a popular reprise familiar from the previous Jewel Class sisters. On Epic, the planners have done a largely deft, wonderful job of keeping the sedate, sybaritic watering holes away from the more full on, late night venues. All things considered, it is quite an inviting mix in and of itself.
The huge outer decks are awash with pools, hot tubs, boardwalks and water slides on a stunning scale. Think Coney Island in it’s heyday, but with an up to date, irresistible vibe that majors on fun living out in the sun. Like many other ships of her ilk in this day and age, the Norwegian Epic is not a sedate, leisurely experience during the daylight hours.
The ship still has her detractors, and she always will. But she has been a tremendous success, spending her winters cruising the eastern and western Caribbean on alternating, seven day circuits out of Miami. Each spring, she crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona to operate a popular, if pedestrian, seven day round trip cruise to Italy and the French Riviera, before returning to Miami in mid autumn.
And, though the ship will indeed remain very much a one off, there is a lot to be said for distinctiveness in the often uniform palette of contemporary cruising. Norwegian took some huge risks in building the Norwegian Epic. Some worked brilliantly, while others did not. But the ship has certainly been an inspired leap of faith. Twenty years down the line, it will be very interesting to see just how cruise commentators evaluate this massive, often thoughtlessly maligned ship.