Norwegian Epic: the best and worst in cruising

Sometimes the confluence of time, money and power leads to “one of a kind” creations. The Saturn-V rocket and the entire moon landing are good examples. The economic boom of the early 2000's brought other “wow factor” projects, like Steve Wynn’s eponymous Las Vegas hotel and the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The cruise industry also caught “wow-fever” during this time and gave us sailing wonders unlikely to be equaled for decades. In 2006, Royal Caribbean conceived its “Genesis Project,” constructing the two largest and most technologically-advanced cruise ships ever -- Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas.

To compete, the smaller but scrappier Norwegian Cruise Line created its own mega-ship design in 2006. It was dubbed “F3,” signifying the third generation of “FreeStyle Cruising” -- a term NCL coined to describe cruise ships with “no set dining times, no assigned tables, a relaxed dress code and more restaurants than days in the week.” F3 was touted as the epitome of the “FreeStyle” concept - an would become the third largest ship in the world.

Norwegian placed a firm order with a top shipyard in France for two new, identical F3 vessels in 2006 – with the discretionary option for a third. That third ship was never built; in fact, neither was the second. Only Norwegian Epic was finished – and within its “hull and timbers” are some of the best and worst attributes ever built into a cruise ship.

For this reason, I like to call Norwegian Epic the "Ugly Duckling" of the cruise industry. I just returned from my second sailing on the ship last week. My first was the inaugural cruise in June 2010, from Southampton to New York City.

What is Wrong with Norwegian Epic?

Epic is widely regarded as the ugliest cruise ship in existence, as the blog shows in a pictorial. Carnival’s top cruise director, John Heald, wrote on his FaceBook page, “it was a beautiful day in St.Thomas … though there were puddles of vomit along the pier. Then I realized we were docked next to the Epic.”

But as with the original Ugly Duckling, first impressions can be wrong, and Epic actually has some of the finest cruise ship features at sea. But first a dish of old-fashioned schadenfreude (a German word that means taking joy in the misery of others).

The gracious and majestic profiles of passenger ships have been celebrated for centuries. But it is hard to imagine a less appealing visage than Norwegian Epic's -- especially its protruding Frankenstein’s monster forehead dominating bow of the ship, evoking exactly the opposite impression of streamlined vessels cutting through the wind and sea.

Then there's Epic’s body, like a stack of Lego blocks. In an odder-than-life coincidence, I found a picture of a real 1995 Lego Toy Company box known as the Color Line Promotional Set: Cruise Ship. suggests Norwegian used this picture as the inspiration for the ship design – and they could be right.

This actual box from 1995 contains building blocks from the Lego “FreeStyle” product, which Lego created in 1995 -- a decade before Norwegian adopted the word “FreeStyle” in a hale chorus for its style of cruising.

Ugly is Not Only Skin Deep

And that's not all. Norwegian Epic has the worst stateroom design ever. Norwegian boasted “a unique bathroom treatment where every area is separate, including the shower and a modern vanity sink. The walls are curved to create a modern and chic living experience.”

In fact, the bathroom treatments are only semi-private and not soundproof at all. The toilet and the shower are only separated from the main room by partially closed frosted glass panels. Anyone inside either “facility” becomes a blurry image with little left to the imagination. To top it off, they are each located on either side of the front door, so if your room steward walks in at the wrong time someone could get an eyeful.

The “vanity sink” is a high-capacity faucet directly above a rounded bowl. Like a recurring gag in a Marx Brothers movie, turning on the water often leads to mopping the floor with a bath towel followed by changing your shirt. If you are lucky, you'll avoid soaking your vanity bed. The light switch for the sink area was on the wall under the counter; I had to call reception to help me find it, and when I got down on all fours I still couldn’t see it.

The “wavy walls” are a contrivance to reduce the square footage of the staterooms to “just large enough for the beds,” which tall people claim are several inches shorter than standard. The end of that shortened bed is so close to the opposite wall that people have to take turns crossing the room. The walls then curve the opposite way, accommodating a convex couch that is hard as a rock and could only sleep a third person if he happens to have scoliosis.

The public rooms’ décor is Reno casino reminiscent with burgundy and gold paisley carpets. But most frustrating is the limited size of the ship's entertainment venues. Most of the shows fill up nightly, so making reservations online pre-departure is mandatory. If you miss your reservation, you can get in a standby line for a bad seat (if you get in at all), and you have to queue up at least 30 minutes before showtime for that. The size of the showrooms is the most serious drawback of Epic,  the exact opposite of the “FreeStyle” concept F3 was supposed to embody.

So What is Right with Epic?

I just dished some of the worst aspects of Epic, and Norwegian is aware of these things. So let's be clear: I still highly recommend this ship for most cruisers, especially those who care about cruising solo and shipboard entertainment.

Single cruisers who want a cabin of their own without paying the “singles supplement" fee have never had a better ship than Epic. Not only does Epic have 128 “studio staterooms” -- small 100 square-foot cabins with queen-size beds -- but these rooms  share a public “living room” where solo cruisers can meet up for dinner and shows. The concept is so simple, logical and helpful for solo cruisers that it is a wonder more ships don’t have the same setup. But they don’t. Only Norwegian Epic has the studio staterooms, and that is a point of distinction.

What's more, despite the tiny showrooms Epic has the best entertainment at sea, in my humble opinion (as a person who has stage-managed several cruise shows and seen the entertainment on every cruise line in North America). Epic does not hire its own cast and put on its own shows, nor does it hire a producer to create “cruise shows” like so many other cruise lines. Instead, Norwegian signs on professional entertainers who bring their land-based shows to its ships.

Only Epic has the hit show "Blue Man Group." This is my personal favorite New York show. Epic also has “Legends in Concert,” a Las Vegas company that creates complete tribute shows to stars like Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elvis, Michael Jackson or Tina Turner with the same choreography and musical arrangements as the originals. Then there is Second City Comedy – the famous troupe out of Chicago that sent many now-famous comedians to TV programs like Saturday Night Live.

Other noteworthy attractions of the Epic include water slides and Nickelodeon characters for the kids; the Fat Cats Jazz Bar that actually features blues music nightly; the frozen “Svedka Ice Bar,” where everything from the tables to the vodka glasses is made of ice; and an array of delicious alternative restaurants as options to the “included in the cruise fare” food -- which itself is not bad at all.

Speaking of food, one of best spots on Epic is O’Sheehan’s Pub. All the food is free and a pint of English ale is just $5. The fish and chips are delicious, and you can even get fresh omelets in the morning. O’Sheehan’s is open 24 hours with food service -- the best 24-hour restaurant on the high seas.In a funny twist, the crewmembers cannot pronounce O'Sheehan's, so it is called "Oceans."

Ugly Duckling?

In the folk tale about the Ugly Duckling, the hatchling grows up to become a beautiful swan -- but Epic is still ugly. Still, the lesson is the same: Don't judge a book by its cover. Yes, Epic has its drawbacks; but it is also one of the best values in cruising and offers excellent entertainment -- and you can take that to the bank.