Story and photos by Robert W. Bone
AT SEA, in the Western Caribbean:I’m writing this after an exhaustive search for an afternoon quiet zone aboard NCL’s new, super-ship called the Epic.
Sometimes a sanctuary can be found in, of all places, a disco named Bliss, which saves its major frenzy for the hours immediately before and after midnight. During the day, however, it can be a peaceful haven for a minority of book readers. That is, unless the disco’s two-lane bowling alley is in use.
Inside the Bliss, a small counter is officially designated the “Library.” But when the librarian is in residence, she is charged with handing out bowling shoes, along with passing out volumes from her single bookcase.
The discothèque cum-library cum-bowling alley is consistent with the mood of a ship designed more to produce non-stop entertainment for a crowd of nearly 4,000 cruisers on a week-long voyage to the western Caribbean. The ship normally stops at three destinations on this cruise – Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico and Roatan Island in Honduras, before returning to its starting point in Miami.
But there are many – perhaps most – aboard who couldn’t care less about the stops. These three port calls are each a brief interruption in a mix of daily diversions that the vast majority of the passengers enjoy and prefer.
It’s true that the more classically inclined can choose some shore excursions to Mayan ruins and cultural stuff. The preponderance of the cruisers aboard the NCL Epic are more likely to plunk down their money for beach and water experiences, if they decide to take a tour at all.
While the ship is underway, the action never seems to slow. The casino is possibly the largest and noisiest afloat. Non-gamblers also can find activities at all hours.
Upstairs on the pool deck, there are water slides, a climbing wall, and other wet and sunny activities.
The entertainment intensity and quality are certainly higher than many cruise ships on the high seas. More conventional ships seem to struggle to provide some kind of stage show, often called something like (ho-hum) “A Salute to Broadway” or perhaps “Hollywood’s Magical Musicals.”
NCL’s Epic goes far beyond that, booking high-priced entertainment from Las Vegas, leading off with the popular Blue Man Group, an abstract mixture of mime, mayhem, and merrymaking.
The most enjoyable performance, and one of the best I’ve seen on land or sea, is the circus that whirls around your dinner table at Cirque Dreams. Some compare it with Vegas’ famous Cirque de Soleil, but to my mind the floating version was far more enjoyable. It takes place in the Spiegel Tent, a special round showroom built specifically for the purpose.
Other entertainment includes members of Chicago’s venerable Second City comedy club group, and at least one top-flight Vegas magician-comedian, who will sell you his DVD following the show. Also-rans would include a foot-stomping blues band and a pair of dueling pianos whose pianists will know and respond with virtually any song you can throw at them.
There are even special shows for children, modeled after familiar characters seen on the Nickelodeon TV channel.
For some time now, NCL has been proud of its “freestyle dining,” a choice of many more than the usual restaurant offerings, and ones which will accept diners at any time at least reasonably close to breakfast, lunch, or dinner hours. Some of these dining rooms are included in the price of the cruise. Others have some additional charges. None of them list any particular dress codes. They prefer no shorts for evening dining hours, mind you. But unlike some cruise ships, the management would sooner walk the plank than require a coat and tie, much less a tuxedo as a requirement for admission.
Here’s another peace-and-quiet hint. The Italian restaurant, La Cocina, which doesn’t serve any meals until at least 7 p.m., can provide a welcome sanctuary for reading or computer typing before that hour. Sneak in the back door at the forward end of the starboard corridor on Deck 15 and find a table in the corner which overlooks the bar and a wonderful panoramic view of the ocean ahead, but don’t say I said anything about it.
As most repeat cruisers know, the NCL Epic is only a smidge less in size than the largest cruise ships in the world, a title currently held by a pair of vessels launched by Royal Caribbean. The Epic may seem crowded at times, but at least it’s crowded with merrymakers who eagerly lap up the festive atmosphere.
Some understandingly enough grouse about the unusual layout of most staterooms. They include startling innovations like separated semi-see-through toilet and shower cylinders behind a single curtain. The small washbasin right in the bedroom reminded some of a dentist’s spit bowl. Single beds seem shorter and more narrow than those on other cruise ships.
There are also some innovative inside “Studio” rooms which are designated for single passengers – and available without the dreaded single supplement. Others who put up with the small beds in the doubles might envy the relatively commodious sleeping arrangements in the special studio units, even if the beds stretch almost wall-to-wall.
There is also a pricy “Courtyards” section, for high-rolling cruisers who like their own special space away from the larger number of regular passengers. These have more conventional arrangements and more private bathrooms.
In any case, it’s a safe bet that many who spend little time in their cabin feel the more unusual sleeping arrangements are far outweighed by the fun to be had elsewhere on the ship.
On the Epic, the show must go on, and it does, at full speed ahead.
Travel writer Robert W. Bone, the author of several guidebooks, now lives near San Francisco after 38 years in Hawaii.
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