Three days on the Norwegian Epic… It went by at a rate of knots that made the Normandie look like a non starter in the speed stakes. Day by day, here’s how it panned out.
It’s an unfeasibly early 4.15am check in at Newcastle Airport for the BA shuttle down to Heathrow Terminal Five. A simple airside change of gate, and I’m on the haul out to Barcelona. Managed to blag an exit row seat, with about four foot of glorious legroom in front of me. Love the views of the cloud capped Pyrenees drifting by below as I pick at some nibbles and a vitally refreshing OJ. Wheels down on time, through the airport quite quickly. Meet the rest of our media group, and then we’re off on our way to board the Norwegian Epic.
The sheer size of the Epic is still something to marvel at, even after three years. The huge width of the ship permits an enormous amount of interior space to create fabulous, diverse sets of vaulting public rooms. Quick bite of fish and chips at O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill, and I’m back in the zone. Lifeboat drill is held inside, and then it’s pre dinner drinks with what proved to be a lovely media group. We’re outside on the aft terraces outside Spice H20 as this enormous, sea going cathedral swaggers out of sunny, beautiful Barcelona; destination Naples.
Dinner in the gorgeous, retro Manhattan Room, with its wall of glass windows overlooking the stern. There’s a live band playing old Motown, and Ike and Tina Turner stuff. It’s got the look- and feel- of a thirties style New York supper club, and I love it. Great food, service and music. After dinner, i call it a night at about ten. Been awake for more than twenty four hours by this stage. My head crashes onto the pillow, and I’m out even before the light clicks off.
At sea. A good night’s sleep, a decent breakfast, and all is well with the world. Warm sun feels good on my skin. The Norwegian Epic is full- there’s more than 4200 passengers on board- but the flow of the ship makes it seem like so many less. The upper decks are a giddy whirl of water slides, pools, hot tubs and tiki bars. There’s even a kiddie’s Nickelodeon area. Rows of sun loungers, fast food outlets and a slew of sunning space. It feels like a cross between Waikiki Beach and the French Riviera. Designed to make you feel good. It works.
Pathetic attempt to grab a healthy lunch at the Garden Cafe buffet is sideswiped by irresistible striploin steak only marginally smaller than the ship. Lord forgive me, I could not walk past those nice little slices of chocolate cake. Epic fail.
Penance is a bottle of chilled champagne, savoured in one of the ridiculously big padded chairs. There’s an avenue of these, in between the forward pool area and the outdoor shops just behind me. A sweet, warm breeze drifts down this alleyway, Carries the music from the live band playing up front; bits of Bob Marley and some Stevie Wonder go with the champagne flow. People saunter past in both directions. Eventually come to the realisation that the bottle is emptier than Paris Hilton’s head. Doh.
I manage to grab an hour out on my balcony. Nice, large space, and a quick coffee from the in room coffee maker to go, Love the sound of the ship’s mass, moving through the sea and throwing up quite a wash. We really are powering along now.
No words can really describe the amazing, early evening performance from the Blue Man Group. But here’s a few, anyway; toilet rolls, crunchy nut corn flakes, lasers, hammers, and plumbing used as drums. Oh, and a bit of escapology. Lots of blue paint. Dazed? You will be. Keep up at the back….
Dinner in Le Bistro is sumptuous. Onion soup, amazingly tender and succulent surf and turf, and creme brulee all washed down with a warm, rich Malbec. Great food and service, and even better company. Disco? Rude not to, really. Wonder idly who will be the first to try and climb on the life size horses at the entrance. There’s bowling lanes in there, too. The whole thing looks like a Moroccan harem, with big divans, recessed sofa areas, and oversized pimp chairs; very a la P. Diddy. Some good tunes, too. Vintage Michael Jackson, some Chic- forever cool- and a packed room to boot. The cuba libres are like the medicine of the gods. Best use sparingly. Long day tomorrow. But it’s fun. Bed at three. Doh….
DAY THREE: Up at a ridiculously early hour to grab a quick breakfast in the Garden Cafe. The Norwegian Epic is edging into the Bay of Naples. The sun is rising from behind Mount Vesuvius; the old brute seems to be glowering at us from across the water, but even it’s squat, scary stance can’t detract from the sheer beauty and serenity of the moment.
We’re already snuggled up against the dock of the Stazzione Maritima by this time. I trudge off the ship, half awake, to be met by the human dynamo that is Wanda. Wanda is our tour guide; a Joan of Arc dressed by Gucci. Short in stature, but my God, her energy levels are something Duracell can only dream of. Wanda woman is taking us to Vesuvius. I begin to pity the scarred, scary looking old gargoyle. Vesuvius, that is.
We hike up to the summit of the mountain itself, some 4200 feet above the city of Naples. It’s a steep, onerous trudge across rolling tracts of black volcanic sand. I’m thrown by the sight of flourishing vineyards standing near jagged tracts of vast, mis shapen lava accumulations. We walk past cloud level, and the sun disappears. Seconds later, it comes back. Seeing into the crater is like looking down the jaws of a tiger shark. We’re too insignificant for Vesuvius to care. It knows how to deal with our kind; just ask the still cowed shades of Pompeii, right down the hill.
We yell into the crater for effect. Vesuvius responds with thirty centuries of silent, stony contempt. Euphoric to have got to the top and enjoyed the staggering views over the bay, but happy to follow the indefatigable Wanda back to the bus. I sag into my seat on the blissfully air conditioned coach like some puppet with its strings cut. But Wanda has more in store for us. Yup, it’s an afternoon in Pompeii.
Any attempt at Frankie Howerd jokes fall flat when confronted with the reality of Pompeii. This is a sixty six hectare, shattered corpse of a city, and it died screaming. Twenty thousand denizens and hedonists went down with Pompeii; it’s like a cross between a first century Las Vegas and the Titanic. You can still see the rutted truck marks left by Roman chariots more than twenty centuries ago.
Lower floors of houses and shops, immolated for centuries under seven metres of pumice, ash and hot lava, jut upwards in the afternoon sun like ranks of serried, jagged molars. Pompeii is immense, upsetting, tragic and deeply, deeply spooky. The sheer scale of its destruction is a lesson that we have neither the gall or gumption to comprehend. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but I’m glad to head back to the air conditioned serenity of the Norwegian Epic.
It’s been quite the day. Sadly, alas, it’s also arrivederci to the wonder that is Wanda. Ciao Bella, grazia!
Back on board, showered and changed. It’s five o’clock, and that can only mean one thing; Margarita. The first one goes down quicker than a hooker’s drawers at the start of Fleet Week. But oh boy, what an adrenaline charge. There’s live music on deck, and the soft, warm air is beginning to subtly change. So, too, has my mood; the ghosts of Pompeii were refused entry at the gangway. As the second, sweet margarita kisses my throat, the Norwegian Epic is threading her way out into the bay. Over it all, Vesuvius looms and watches. And waits. Our last night at sea begins with a killer watermelon martini at Shakers Cocktail Bar. Then we’re all kitted up with fur capes and gloves, for a session in the Svedka Ice Bar. Surreal does not begin to cover it.
Everything inside here is literally made of ice, save for the fur rugs on the ice benches. And, of course, the bartenders. We have luminescent, bright blue coloured cocktails in glasses made of ice. In our garb, we look like a cross between a coven of defrocked nuns and those jawas from The Empire Strikes Back. Fun it is. Yes.
Dinner tonight is in Teppanyaki. This Japanese themed restaurant is as much drama and theatre as fine dining, and proves to be anything but teppan-yucky. We sit in wary anticipation as our kimono wearing, bandana bedecked chef unleashes a blizzard of brilliantly sharpened knife blades on succulent cuts of beef and seafood; and all at a speed that makes Bruce Lee look about as agile as Bruce Forsyth. The guy is a whirling dervish, and each requested dish is cooked up to sizzling, finely sliced perfection in front of you.
Scared? Moi? Hell, no. I climbed and conquered Vesuvius, pal. I am Spartacus. Even if I felt more like Albert Steptoe’s older brother when I got back on board. It’s a fantastic, thrilling piece of food as theatre. We’re all pretty much beat after our epic adventures of the day. And, as it’s now eleven o’clock and we have to be up at six to leave, that can only mean one thing.
That’s right. Sing it with me. D-I-S-C-O…… Two and a half improbable hours of cuba libres, and an inevitable, graceless gallump around the dance floor to Mambo No. 5, and finally, sayonara, sweetheart. It’s 1.30 in the morning. Hangovers? Pah. Spartacus never bitched about hangovers, did he?
We’re docked in the port of Civitavecchia, waiting for the shuttle to take us to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The coffee helps me little. I feel like an undertaker with the hangover from hell. Maybe I should try gargling with embalming fluid. I mean, look what it did for Engelbert Humpaduck, or whatever the hell he’s called.
The coach rattles through the wondrous, rustic countryside of Lazio as sunrise kisses the cornfields. There’s an interminable wait at Fiumicino itself. Our flight takes off twenty minutes late, but swoops down into a grey, somber looking Heathrow on time. I fall asleep on the shuttle up to Newcastle.
Looking back, I’m awed and amazed at how much good stuff we shoe horned into three short days. I met some truly amazing people indeed, and sampled everything from the fiery miasma of Mount Vesuvius to our chilly little tinctures in the Ice Bar.
The Norwegian Epic herself was big, both in size and the scale of the welcome on board. Even the above account is not a complete narrative of everything that we got through. And, for those of you pondering that sixty-four million dollar question…. The answer is: yes. Somebody did manage to climb up on that ruddy great horse just outside of the disco. And no, it wasn’t me. I get vertigo sitting on the edge of a kerb. Horses for courses? Sure. But when it comes to climbing up on to something that big, Spartacus I am not. No. Not ever.