Last night this New Yorker went out on the town.   We started with one of the city’s top shows, the magical Blue Man Group, followed by an exquisite dinner of superbly cooked grilled salmon and fine wine at the Manhattan Club. Typical night owls, we then made our way to Fat Cat for an incredible live blues concert.

The thing is, I wasn’t actually in New York but sailing aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s brand new Norwegian Epic a few miles off the coast.   After singer Reba McEntire broke the traditional bottle of bubbly over the bow of the behemoth,  we set sail and I discovered cruise ship entertainment that is light years beyond anything I’ve experienced at sea previously.   Instead of seeing a “Salute to Broadway” floor show for the 200th time I had a choice between  entertainment that, in terms of quality and sophistication, doesn’t exist outside Manhattan orLas Vegas.

Of course there’s a lot more to say about the 5100-passenger Norwegian Epic than the stellar entertainment.   One of the biggest surprises was the quality of food served in venues with no surcharge.   The cruise line hit a home run with the private Courtyard Villa suites boasting private restaurant, deck space, lounge, pool, bar (truly a “ship within a ship”) and the cruise industry’s first stateroom for solo travelers.    The ubiquitous water slides and rock climbing wall are the longest and tallest to date.   Personally I think NCL’s biggest asset is the outstanding crew; on this ship service was exceptional in terms of efficiency and attitude.

But the  staterooms have glitches that may keep some cruisers from booking this ship.

Here’s my take on the brand new 153,000-ton Norwegian Epic that will hopefully help you decide if this is the ship for you.

Freestyle Cruising 2.0

Norwegian Cruise Line’s popular Freestyle Cruising concept, which guarantees maximum flexibility in dining, has reached its zenith on Norwegian Epic.   You’ll have a choice of 21 dining spots (10 with a surcharge ranging from $10 to $25), including a French Bistro,  the steak restaurant Cagney’s and Noodle Bar and others showcasing the cuisine of Italy, Japan, Brazil and China, among others. Best of all, you don’t have to pay extra to dine well:  I found the food noticeably improved, especially in the all-important Lido buffet, the Garden Cafe next to the pool.   I ate at the elegant Manhattan Club (no surcharge) dining room and felt like I was dining in a fine New York restaurant.

Food

Of course you expect better food when paying a surcharge for an alternative restaurant and you get it in spades.   But was a complete surprise was the enormous improvement in NCL’s cuisine I found aboard Epic.   At the Garden Cafe, a large buffet located next to the pool, not only was cuisine superbly cooked, but one can get pasta made to order plus hand dipped and soft serve ice cream with no surcharge. Not only is the cuisine above average in the Manhattan Club (photo left) restaurant, but it’s a beautiful setting with a live jazz band.   The one exception was very mediocre food served at Cirque Dreams, the ship’s unique supper club.

Decor

Since I normally find NCL’s ships attractively decorated it was surprising to be underwhelmed by Norwegian Epic’s interiors.  In an industry where cruise lines typically put a great deal of money into art and furnishings, NCL spared expenses.   Ceilings are low and carpeting in public areas is primarily brown combined with a few weird colors like red and orange.    The spa has linoleum flooring and nothing on the walls.   “Art” in public areas consists of advertisements and photographs.    What were attractive were some restaurants — especially Cagney’s, the Lido restaurant and the Manhattan Club –  and the beautiful Courtyard Villas.   Staterooms throughout are beautiful, decorated in soft beige with accents of magenta.

Entertainment

In terms of quality and choice, no other ship in the cruise industry touches Norwegian Epic and, with the exception of the Cirque Dreams supper club, it doesn’t cost a nickel extra.  ***You MUST pre-book the best shows online at NCL’s website (up to 45 days before departure) or expect to wait in very long lines aboard ship.

One of the world’s greatest shows is Blue Man Group, three guys painted blue who do a hysterically funny 90-minute show full of surprises.   It’s hard to describe so I’ll just say they do things with paint, Twinkies and drums.    Fat Cat showcases top blues and jazz groups or head to Second City for improv comedy.  Elvis, Michael Jackson and Tina Turner are among celebrities (or rather, their impersonators) you’ll find at Legends or head for the dueling pianos at Howl at the Moon.

What didn’t work during my short preview cruise was Cirque Dreams and Dinner, an insufferable live two hour show that was unbearably loud and chaotic, with too many costumed performers for a smallish room.   And, this was the only time I found the food was poor.   However, I predict that the show will be modified and the food improved so, unless you’re sailing within the next few months, it will be safe to book.  (NOTE:  this is in no way connected to Cirque du Soleil, although there are similarities like acrobats).

Staterooms

The design of Norwegian Epic’s staterooms (excluding those found in the Courtyard Villas) may be a deal breaker for some:  there are no private bathrooms.  When you enter the cabin, on one side is the toilet and on the other is the shower (some with tubs), both enclosed with a translucent glass stall.    The theory is you can pull a curtain separating this area from the rest of the cabin for privacy, to towel off, dress and undress.  But what happens when someone must enter or leave the stateroom?    While a couple may be fine with this arrangement it may be a problem for families sharing a stateroom:   kids probably don’t want to see mom and dad parading around in towels.  And these staterooms don’t even have complimentary bathrobes.

The tiny sink and medicine cabin is adjacent.   After washing my face or taking a shower, the floors were drenched with water.    Add to that, I had to search for towels which were tucked away in another part of the cabin.  While the toilet is enclosed, in terms of sound it’s as private as a public bathroom.

Add to this an unnecessarily complicated lighting system.  When you enter you must deposit your key card in a slot or the lights won’t go on or off and the days are long gone when a steward welcomes you to your stateroom to show how everything works.   It took me 24 hours to learn how to turn off the sink light — it’s located under the medicine cabinet — thanks to another passenger who called guest services.

If you’re over 5’11″, your feet will stick out over the mattress and this is true ship-wide, even in the Courtyard villas.    And while balconies are good sized, the table situated between chairs is too tiny to hold a cup of coffee.

Villa Courtyard Suites

Stepping into the private Villa Courtyard complex felt like entering a Four Seasons Hotel.   Soft shades of beige,  golden leather furniture and a very polished concierge greeted us to this area only accessible by guests with courtyard accommodations key cards.    A private deck area with pool, whirlpools and comfy rattan furniture is the centerpiece surrounded by 46 “villas” (actually, staterooms) on two decks.    While Courtyard Villas exist on other NCL ships, Epic boasts a private dining room as well.  Add to that a large beautiful lounge and private outdoor bar, fitness center, nightclub and you have a beautiful area.

However, like the rest of the ship, you’ll still find the same small circular mattresses:  if you’re 5’11″ and above, your feet will stick out of the bed.

On the plus side, there is an enormous amount of closet space and a large flat-screen TV.  And, as mentioned above, the staterooms are very attractively decorated.

Cabins for Solo Travelers

My hat is off to NCL for building cabins specifically designed for solo travelers.  Each Studio stateroom, at approximately 100 square feet of living space, features a contemporary design with a full-size bed and separate areas for the bathroom, sink and shower.  In addition, guests in the Studios have private access to the exclusive Studio Lounge.  Here, singles can grab a cup of coffee in the morning, meet up with fellow cruisers and plan their day or relax with a drink in the evening.  Since many of the Studio staterooms are connecting, there is also the opportunity for friends to travel together while giving each their own private space.

PRO’s

If you love Freestyle Cruising, this ship offers the the largest number of options in terms of dining and entertainment.   Exceptional entertainment and service, above average food, excellent service and plenty of activities to entertain the kids.   If you want a luxury cruise experience with top entertainment, I highly recommend the exquisite Courtyard Villas.   For the first time solo travelers can have their own staterooms without paying an enormous amount.    While far from gourmet, Norwegian Epic’s food was above average.    Kids will love the long water slides and Nickelodeon activities, especially character breakfasts.

CON’S

Aside from problems in the staterooms cited above, Norwegian Epic feesl crowded in some areas when sailing at full capacity of 5100 passengers.   During days at sea, the majority of passengers have breakfast and lunch at the ship’s Lido restaurant.  But seating at the Garden Cafe is only 1200 and while there are tables on deck there will be lines to find a table.   The pool area isn’t big enough for a full compliment of passengers.    If you like the atmosphere of a casino, great.  Otherwise this is a very noisy ship with lots of announcements and an unenclosed casino with an endless number of slot machines stretching almost the length of a deck.   The ship lacks a library and self-service laundries and there are no bathrobes or toiletries in staterooms outside suites.    The spa was so spartan I wasn’t tempted to get a supposedly luxuriating beauty treatment.