Inside Look at the Norwegian Epic

Fran Golden

As the mega cruise ship Norwegian Epic gets ready to set sail, AOL Travel takes a tour before its U.S. debut.

Norwegian Epic, a 4,100-passenger ship, makes its U.S. debut on July 2, with festivities in New York City that include a naming ceremony. AOL Travel went to Europe to get a sneak peek at the ship, which aims to break new ground in entertainment, dining and design at a cost of $1.1 billion. But does this big, bold and beautiful cruise liner truly live up to its name?

When you first lay eyes on the Norwegian Epic, it looks more like a resort than a ship, with balconies that run along nine of the 19 decks, providing every ocean view cabin with a private outdoor space. There's also what can only be described as a huge box sitting high above the bow, which holds a complex of 60 5-star villas. Waterslides jut out at interesting angles and colorful swirls decorate the hull of this French-made vessel. The overall impression is of fun, on a grand scale.

This 153,000-ton ship is one of the largest at sea and while it does have some quiet spaces -- such as the villa complex -- they are the exception not the rule. Don't board Epic thinking you're going to St. Barts, come to enjoy a crowd and relish an exciting place like you would in Las Vegas or Orlando.

In terms of cruise entertainment, Norwegian has set out to break the mold. A purpose-built 650-person theater will host the marquee act, Blue Man Group -- a music, comedy and multimedia show that's been a longtime hit from New York to Vegas. The other big attraction is the Cirque Dreams and Dinner, held in an intimate space under a red and gold big top. As you dine on a set menu -- unfortunately rather boring steak and chicken -- female acrobats twist and turn in a large ring dangling above your head, while strong men, jugglers, a tight-rope walker and even the wait staff (who are in on the act) will keep you entertained with their performance as well as their extravagant costumes.

Epic also features an impressive line-up of club acts, such as The Second City, who perform improv comedy; a dueling piano rock 'n' roll act called Howl at the Moon (they take audience requests), and a selection of jazz and blues acts at Fat Cats who play into the wee small hours. If you're concerned some of the shows might sell out ahead of time, it's possible to pre-book online, and the ship also has a box office for those seeking tickets once onboard.

The whole concept of "freestyle" cruising was created by Norwegian, which includes dining when you want and where you want. On Epic, there are 20 eating venues to choose from (about half of them aren't inclusive), as well as room service, and you can even have pizza delivered anywhere on the ship.

The main dining rooms include Tastes, a black and white restaurant seating 540 that serves contemporary dishes such as wild mushroom omelets. The 600-person Manhattan Room has an elegant Art Deco interior with two-story floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, live band and dance floor. This place has the air of a retro supper club, serving up a traditional selection such as New York strip streak. The ship's buffet, the Garden Cafe, is a well-designed airy space themed on a British solarium with stations including Chinese and Italian cuisine, deli and salads.

Norwegian fans will recognize some of the restaurants from the line's other ships, like Cagney's Steakhouse, Le Bistro, and Teppanyaki (an all-you-can-eat sushi bar with chefs performing as they prepare your food). All these places charge extra, ranging from $10 to $25 per person. New arrivals on Epic include a Chinese restaurant and a noodle bar, but the big culinary wow is the Moderno Churrascaria, where you can sample a variety of skewered meats presented by tableside passadors.

Norwegian has also fulfilled its promise to break new ground in cabin design. The line's "New Wave" concept has been taken literally, with curved walls and furniture. The elegant interiors include a cream and purple color scheme and dark wood cabinetry. The new design also splits the bathroom into two translucent compartments -- a toilet on one side of the cabin and the shower (or tub/shower combo) on the other. The sinks have been taken out of the bathrooms altogether and are closer to the bed -- so far, not a popular decision.

The Studios are the other big innovation on Epic -- 128 cabins designed specifically for solo travelers, including a private-access shared lounge -- and are already selling out on early sailings. The idea is that single passengers shouldn't have to pay extra to stay in a cabin, as is typical on cruise ships. The internal Studios are small at 100 square feet, but cleverly designed, with portholes overlooking the hallway and a lighting scheme that you can change depending on your mood (sultry red, for instance). The Studio Lounge is a wonderful two-deck social spot with a bar, which contributes to the overall feel of an upscale dormitory.

For top-tier guests, the Epic's villa complex, accessible by private elevator, has 60 swanky cabin suites. The 852-square-foot Deluxe Owner's Suites, which sleep four, have forward-facing views; Courtyard Villas are 506 square feet and sleep up to 6; Courtyard Penthouses, for two, are 322 square feet and have a round bed. All come with separate living room, luxurious bathrooms and open-air or enclosed balconies. The complex offers exclusive access to a private pool, two whirlpools, gym, sauna, sundeck and indoor and outdoor restaurants. There's even a private nightclub called, unsurprisingly, Posh. Villa guests also receive both concierge and private butler service. If it wasn't for the lure of Blue Man et al, villa guests could easily spend the whole trip in their 5-star retreat.

Epic also introduces Norwegian's first spa cabins and suites with complimentary access to spa facilities. Note to honeymooners: eight spa suites have a whirlpool in the bedroom.

Bar Scene
The ship has 20 bars and lounges to choose from, but the drinking spot that will undoubtedly get the most attention is also the coolest, literally, as the first Ice Bar at sea. Guests are provided with faux fur-lined parkas and gloves to handle the chilly 17 degrees temperature. And while some might be able to withstand sitting on benches made of ice, most will probably prefer to belly up to the bar made of (yes you've guessed it) ice to sip vodka served in glasses of the frozen stuff. Only 25 people can fit in the space at one time -- it gets tight, but that helps you warm up a bit -- and you have to pay $20 (including two drinks) for the 45-minute experience.

The Bliss Ultra Lounge is a late-night hangout with more bowling lanes, a DJ, dancers in cages and beds for lounging. Most of the action on Epic takes place on Decks 5, 6 and 7, but hipsters will also want to head to the top of the ship on a warm night to dance under the stars at Spice H2O, which plays Latin beats and has a giant video screen.

Epic also has an Irish pub called O'Sheehan's (the name a tribute to the cruise line's CEO Kevin Sheehan), with brick walls, wooden bar, three bowling lanes and dart boards. They serve pub grub here too, including a very tasty chicken pot pie.

Spa and Fitness
Epic has the largest spa at sea, with 31,000 square feet of space dedicated to fitness and relaxation. Don't let the Mandara Spa's bustling reception area put you off, the treatment rooms are the perfect escape. Many of the rooms also have balconies, so you can choose to have your treatment in the open air.

New signature treatments include the Thai Herbal Poultice Massage (what look like giant teabags filled with herbs are used to rub the skin), but if you're feeling particularly flush, opt for the Epic 24 karat gold facial...using real gold.

For a fee, you can enjoy spa facilities that include wonderful ocean view saunas, a hydro pool and an open-air relaxation area. A medi spa offers treatments, including Botox, and there's a full-service beauty salon (the ship has a real barbershop for men too).

Epic's huge gym has 37 treadmills, 18 cross trainers, and areas for TRX and kettlebell training, yoga and pilates classes, group cycling, Gravity reformer and a body sculpting boot camp. So there's no excuse to put on extra pounds when the temptation of over 20 restaurants overwhelms you.

Kids and Families
This is a ship families will love. Younger kids will have fun with Nickelodeon at Sea, offering themed family entertainment that includes character meet and greets (SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer are onboard), interactive game shows and character breakfasts. Older kids will love the crazy Aqua Park with its three waterslides, including the only tube slide and largest bowl slide at sea, called the Epic Plunge (although some say it needs more speed). There are two main pools, five whirlpools and a wading pool in the Aqua area as well as a Splash Zone for youngsters.

A 33-foot high, 64-foot wide extreme rock climbing wall and the first ever rappelling wall at sea, simulated bungee jumping and a large cage for climbing will put active kids, and their parents, to the test. The sports deck has a full-size basketball court, which can also be converted for use as an ice-skating rink. Club facilities include a huge play space for younger kids, divided into age group, while teens can hang out in their own club, called Entourage, in a separate area away for the little 'uns.

Get a sneak-peek at the Epic here:

The Route
After its New York debut, Epic will homeport in Miami from where it will offer weeklong Caribbean itineraries. In 2011 Epic will also offer a summer in the Mediterranean, cruising from Barcelona.

Epic Facts

•The Ice Bar uses approximately 1,585 gallons of water to make up its bar, walls, tables, stools, glasses and ice sculptures. That is enough water to make 60,000 ice cubes.

•There are more than 30 spa therapists in the 31,000 square-foot Mandara Spa.

•The Aqua Park's slides run over 750 feet if they were put end to end. That's taller than the Washington Monument at 555 feet tall.

•It took approximately 160 hours to paint the hull artwork onto the ship. The ship's hull art was created by Norwegian Cruise Line employees.

•Norwegian Epic is made of 77 million pounds of steel. That's equivalent to 28,000 mid-size cars.

•Guests can lounge on the pool deck on one of the 2,395 chairs.

Epic's restaurants will serve approximately 20,370 meals a day.

Norwegian Epic boasts the largest LED chandelier at sea made up of 40,000 crystal glass pieces.

•The Epic Casino, Norwegian's largest, has 350 slot machines.

Photo Credits: Blue Man Group - Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line; All other photos - Courtesy of Fran Golden
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