Norwegian Epic to the Canary Islands
My Norwegian Epic experience was a real curates egg of a cruise. The shows are real wow, the food is generally better than other middle brand cruise lines and the alternative dining is excellent in terms of both quality and value.
But, the ship has far too many passengers, there are nowhere near enough lifts and the cabin design is bizarre. The public rooms are, for the most part, in the main thoroughfares through the ship so they lack atmosphere, are noisy and do not have enough seats. The open deck and pool areas become very crowded and there is no indoor pool.
The drinks package has many exclusions (coffee, bottled water and juices) and a very poor wine selection. Bar service us poor and many drinks are served in disposable plastic glasses. Slimline tonic is just not available and for the last three days’ other basics had run out e.g. wholemeal bread.
The price is low but the cruise experience overall is not great. There is a ship out there for everyone, but I am afraid that Norwegian Epic is not for me. I am left with the feeling of having been at a holiday camp with refined food and great theatre shows.
I was not sure how to view NCL in the cruise market and after 10 days on Epic I am no clearer. There are some aspects of the cruise experience that are better than the other mainstream brands but there are other aspects that fall well short. I had assumed them to be comparable to RCI, but after 10 days on Epic and 10 days on Anthem of the Seas over the last 6 months, Anthem and RCI win for me on all aspects except dining and shows.
I joined Epic in Barcelona for a 10-night Canary Island cruise on the 3rd January. I booked through Jetline cruises and had a large balcony cabin, BA flights and the ultimate beverage package. I cannot argue with the value for money but what about the cruise experience?
The BA flight from Heathrow was very good and a short taxi ride (€39 fixed fare) from the airport got me to the terminal at 11.30. I opted not to use the transfers provided as they turned out to be rather too complex for such a short journey.
By any standard Epic is a large ship with over 4,100 passengers, this can quickly lead to queues and bottle necks if not well managed. At check-in there was some queuing but I was on board Epic by 12.15. Those who have seen Norwegian Epic will, I am sure, agree that she is not an elegant looking ship by any standard. Functional design leaves her looking tall yet squat with an extra couple of decks dropped on the front above the bridge. Many aspects of Epic’s design challenge the traditional cruise ship thinking, not always for the better.
This cruise had a very cosmopolitan mix of passengers including a large group of Russians. This made the lifeboat drill quite a protracted event as all the announcements were made in six languages. It also made a number of other services quite slow as language difficulties occurred.
The Epic theatre is very well designed with no pillars to obstruct views and the theatre booking system worked very well and made it easy to get a seat.
The first of the main shows that I attended was Burn the Floor. This was excellent in every way with a dedicated professional cast. Stunning dance and great music combined to provide a vibrant experience.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert was even better. This 90-minute extravaganza is amazing. The costumes, the sets and the acting was as good as any West End show and far better than anything I have seen on over 40 cruises.
The Spiegel Tent hosts the Cirque Dreams dinner show. This is another not to be missed show that combines a very enjoyable set menu dinner with very good entertainment including juggling, trapeze, acrobatics and slap stick comedy.
After a disaster with RCI’s Dynamic Dining on Anthem I was concerned about Freestyle Dining but went ahead and booked the Ultimate Dining package and made reservations for every evening before the cruise. It all worked a treat, no queues and it is possible to change a couple of bookings the day before.
Most of the restaurants are good or excellent and with very reasonable supplements.
Cagney’s is NCL’s signature steak restaurant ($29.95) This is an excellent meal experience. The quality and service is much better than the steak houses on some of the other cruise lines where they charge up to $50 supplement for a similar experience.
The Tepannyaki restaurant ($29.95) is another great experience as the chef provided both entertainment and great food and you dine with 8 or 9 others.
Le Bistro, the French bistro/brasserie ($19.95) is probably the weakest of the alternative restaurants. The service was OK, but not great, and one of the sections of the restaurant is right alongside the main walkway through deck 5. There is no solid wall between them just a grill and curtain so all the noise of the atrium filters in. Try and get a table in the main part of the restaurant if you want to try this restaurant.
La Cucina is the Italian restaurant ($19.95) that is located at the front of the ship on deck 14. The decor, service, menu and food quality is very good providing a very enjoyable relaxed restaurant. During daylight hours there are stunning views over the bow of the ship.
Moderno is the Brazilian churrascaria ($19.95). This was another excellent meal with very tasty barbecue cooked meats that are served at your table and a substantial salad bar – be hungry!
Shanghai is the no charge Chinese restaurant. You cannot pre-book this restaurant and it can be very popular, particularly at lunch on sea days. I visited one evening whilst the show was on and only had to wait 5 minutes for a table. A very enjoyable meal with a good varied menu and friendly if a little hectic service.
One disappointment with the dinning is the wine list and particularly the wines available by the glass. The overall list lacks imagination and is US biased and there are few wines available by the glass and those that are available are poor quality low cost wines. The same wine list is in use in every restaurant, there is no tailoring the wine to the theme of the restaurant.
Hygiene and Sanitizers
There are a very good number of hand sanitizers at all restaurants and when you enter the ship, there are also staff with sanitizer spray on the gangway and at restaurants. But still some passengers refuse to use them and put others at risk of infection.
The Garden Cafe
This is the main self service restaurant located at the front of Epic. It is a very large restaurant with 16 different service areas. Some popular items are doubled up but other areas offer specialist choices at lunch and dinner such as fresh pasta, Indian and Asian soups. There are a number of points where food is prepared to order. The range and quality of food on offer is very good and there are a lot of tables which are supplemented at busy times by the tables in La Cucina. Whilst the layout is traditional and does not compare to the newer free flow buffets, it works quite well and queues are minimal. There are 4 beverage areas and a choice of soft drinks is available at all meals. There are two ice cream service points (no charge) and 2 soft serve ice cream machines. There is a small bar but getting drinks service can take some time. There are however some obvious signs of cost cutting such as not having any tea spoons, they provide the wooden sticks, and there are no jam and marmalade portions, you have to spoon some from large bowls on the service counter, not much choice and not the most hygienic.
Great Outdoors Buffet
This is located at the rear of the Garden Cafe and provides 2 service counters and a good number of open air tables. This area is open for service at breakfast and lunch. There are 2 more beverage service points and 2 more soft serve ice cream machines in this area.
The Manhattan Room and Taste restaurants.
These are the two larger restaurants that do not attract any supplement. They are both open for dinner and one or other is open for breakfast and lunch on sea days. Both offered pleasant environment and contemporary menus that change daily. Tables are reasonably well spaced out and service is efficient and friendly.
I only booked one of the ships tours to the dunes of Maspalomas and Puerto du Morgan in Grand Canaria. This was a very enjoyable and I thought reasonable value tour. All other ports offer easy access to the city and hop on buses if you are looking for some sightseeing.
H2O Spice Zone
The main deck and swimming pool area became very crowded on sunny sea days and with entertainment it became very noisy. The refuge is the H2O Spice Zone at the aft end of the ship. This has a bar, snack bar (open for lunch on sea days and in the evenings) and a small swimming pool. This area is supposed to be for adults only, although this was not always regulated. This area is a great sun trap, but the only refuge from the hustle and bustle of the main deck area can be spoilt by the use of the large movie screen.
Alternative no cost dining
NCL made good use of the available dining space to provide alternative no cost dining options to spread the load at peak times, especially by using the Moderno buffet and the seating in Moderno and Cagney’s for breakfast buffets and themed lunch buffets on sea days.
The Not So Good
I had booked a large balcony cabin on deck 9. The first thing you notice is the very different layout of the cabins on Epic. It is not just about all the curved lines, the biggest difference is that there’s no bathroom, well not in the traditional meaning if the word. As you enter the cabin there is a toilet cubicle on one side and a shower cubicle on the other, both are separated from the main cabin by a curtain. The wash basin and the only storage for toiletries is in the cabin, the other side of the curtain and you have to dry down after a shower by the entrance door to your cabin. I suggest you check that it’s locked before showering!
This arrangement does not work for me, the more traditional bathroom on Norwegian Escape is much better. After using the cabin for a few days I found few more storage areas but they are all strange shapes and not big enough to lay folded shirts flat. The bed also seems shorter than most as it is rounded at both the head and foot ends so unless you are right in the middle you curl up or have your feet hanging over the bottom. The cabin was showing signs of wear, especially the carpet.
On a more positive note, there are a few nice touches in the Epic cabins. There is a small coffee machine with tea and coffee, there is a useful laundry bin under the wash basin for dirty towels and there is a simple rotating sign outside the door to signify do not disturb or please make up my room.
The balcony, as specified was large with room for 2 loungers but all you get are two very basic chairs and the smallest flimsiest table I have ever seen. Not much point in booking a large balcony. One point that only became evident when the weather warmed up is that the extractor vents for O’Sheehan’s kitchen are beside number 3 lifeboat. As my cabin was 2 decks above this lifeboat and O’Sheehan’s serves 24/7, there was an almost constant smell of greasy cooking on the balcony.
The cruise I booked included the Ultimate Drinks package, so there was not an option to omit it or buy a different package. As with most other cruise line’s drinks packages, there are some very strange exclusions which are no doubt designed to extract more money from you. You can have a beer, wine, spirit or cocktail up to $15. Liqueur coffees are included but regular coffee is not. Bottled water is also not included. As a wine drinker the other issue of interest to me is the number and quality of wines available by the glass. My first look at the wine list in La Cucina was encouraging as there was a good selection of wines by the glass but it then turned out that I had been given the 2015 list which was no longer in use. The 2016 list had only half the number of choices and most of the interesting wines were no longer available. I had thought that NCL had a lead on their competition in this area but this was not the case, they are about the same in terms of choice but have too many Californian wines for my taste.
On the subject of drinks many bars serve drinks in plastic disposable glasses and I could not find slimline tonic for a gin in any bar. Many of the bar staff were rather curt and generally unhelpful.
Internal Congestion and Noise
There were a total of 5 sea days as Epic could not berth at Tangier owing to high winds, and the weather on most of them kept most passengers inside the ship. This meant that all the internal areas were very busy and I found it very noisy. Congestion was compounded by the reservation of a number of lounges and bars for groups.
The casino on Epic is enormous and it takes over a quarter or more of deck 6 and you have to go through it to get from one end of the ship to the other. Many of the tables and slots were not being used so it was a sad waste of space.
There is a cafe bar in the atrium on deck 5 which serves excellent Lavazza coffee for a reasonable charge, but it is adjacent to one of the main entertainment areas so it is very noisy and almost impossible to get a seat as the seats there are the only ones for the atrium entertainment area.
A number of the other bars are on the main walkway through decks 5, 6 and 7 which limits the amount of seating and makes it difficult to find seats even at relatively quiet times.
There are far too many announcements for my liking, even though all the activities are in the daily programme. The entertainment staff seemed to be very amateurish in the management of activities and the location of some activities was far from ideal. Some quizzes were very badly organized and were arranged in an inappropriate manner to encourage participation.
This is the sports bar and diner that offers food all day at no supplement. The menu is traditional bar comfort food, but, for me, the ambiance is very poor. The main walkway on deck 6 cuts through it, there is a great deal of noise from the bar and the atrium below and it is far too dark to see what you are eating. It did however prove popular with others.
The Shops – Beware
All regular cruisers know, there is no such thing as a bargain in the onboard shops. A case in point that illustrates this and hopefully acts as a warning to you, I bought a small Spanish dress for my Grand Daughter for $25 on the ship. The very same item was on sale in the Malaga cruise terminal for €12 and in Malaga city for €5. I should have followed my common sense and waited until after Malaga but there was only one left in her size and I did not want to disappoint!
There is no covered swimming pool / solarium on Epic so hope for good weather on the winter cruises in Europe.
Availability of basic items
A number of basic food and beverage items had run out by day 7 of this 10-day cruise. These included brown bread, cranberry juice and a number of bottled beers.