Thursday, 23 February 2012

An Epic Adventure Pt 6

The Story So Far, Pt 1

Continuing our day-by-day look at a typical voyage in the life of Norwegian Cruise Line’s wonderful Norwegian Epic, by World of Cruising editor Simon Veness

For those who may be new to the Blog, having trouble keeping up or just plain not paying attention (and there WILL be a test at the end), here is a potted history of the cruise so far.

Day 1: Embark Miami (surprisingly efficiently), settle in, enjoy a wonderful dinner at the Italian restaurant La Cucina (for a $10/person fee) and discover Fat Cats Jazz Club and the amazing Charlie Love & His Silky Smooth Band. Hugely promising start.

Day 2: At Sea, sailing past the Bahamas. Chance to relax, unwind, explore and enjoy some more good food. Missed breakfast (bad for the Blog, good for our diets), had an early lunch at O’Sheehan’s, the pub-style bar and grill (corned beef and vegetable soup and a small Cobb Salad), watched ‘Before They Were Famous’ at the Headliners entertainment lounge (presenting the story of famous former Second City comedy performers) and were invited to a reception of the ship’s officers and hotel staff at the Epic Lounge (part of the concierge-level Haven, which consists of the top three decks forward).

Dinner that night was booked for the supper-club-style steakhouse of Cagney’s ($25/head), which we couldn’t fault for quality and size (we HATE over-large portions, but the option of a 5 or 10oz Filet was ideal for us; and 5oz is just right), and savoured over almost two hours. Just idyllic.

By the way, a quick diversion, which is important for most Norwegian Cruise Line ships these days but especially Norwegian Epic. Booking your dining (and entertainment as well, in this case) is important to get the most out of your cruise. Their unique Freestyle system (Norwegian were the first big-ship line to de-construct the traditional cruise experience by allowing open-seat dining at all their restaurants and, in the case of Epic, removing the traditional two-seating show-times as well) is perfectly suited to the more modern cruise ethos by allowing people to dine when THEY want to, not when they are assigned to.

But it does also raise the issue of people needing to know their options in advance and either pre-booking online or early on aboard the ship. Many of the top restaurants – notably Cagney’s and the Japanese-themed Teppenyaki – book up well in advance and you are not likely to get a table at many of the specialist restaurants just  by turning up.

OK, a diversion-within-a-diversion here. There are TWO types of restaurants aboard Norwegian ships, and especially their giant flagship. There are the standard restaurants – two main dining rooms, the Manhattan and Taste, the Garden Café buffet option, two day-time pool-side grills, the Great Outdoors and Spice H2O,  and the almost-24-hour pub-style of O’Sheehan’s – and then there are the speciality choices, which all come at a small supplement (from $10-$25/person).

There are fully seven of these (plus the Epic Club for those in the Haven), in addition to a Sushi Bar and Noodle Bar for light eaters, so the choice alone is borderline bewildering. It’s vital to read up in advance on what most appeals to you, and then book it to avoid disappointment.

Anyway, back to the story…

After Cagney’s we enjoyed the Manhattan Motown Cabaret in the main restaurant and then some more lively blues sounds from Charlie Love and Co.
Day 3: At Sea. More chill-out time, but we did at least make it up in time for a proper breakfast at Taste (the full-service dining option in the morning). Fresh fruit, coffee, yoghurt, granola and an omelette; a perfect scene-setter for the day.

Finding space on deck for some sun-time was slightly more problematic. It seems a lot of people (shame on you!) head up first thing in the morning, leave towels on all the loungers, then don’t bother turning up until late morning, leaving those who arrive around 10am without anywhere to stretch out. Not very American.

We briefly flirted with the idea of throwing all the unattended towels in a heap in the corner and enjoying a good row with the owners when (if?) they turned up, but discretion proved the better part of sun-bathing in this instance. We persevered with our search and did, at last, find a couple of un-toweled loungers on the sports deck for an hour or so.

We were quite happy with that, and happy to pass on our loungers to another couple who were equally frustrated by the be-toweled-but-unoccupied phenomenon.

Next up was another novelty. Presumed Murdered is a murder-mystery lunch show in the Spiegel Tent (usually home of the Cirque Dreams dinner show, which we’re due to see tonight), performed by the cast of Second City and given a great comedic improv flourish as we dined on shrimp salad, meatloaf or chicken entree, and chocolate éclairs. It is a novel and hugely entertaining addition to the typical at-sea variety of activities and another example of Norwegian’s creative thinking to both amuse their guests and maximize their revenue (there was a $15/head charge).

We had intended to take in one of the Pub Trivia sessions at O’Sheehan’s that afternoon but instead were sidetracked by a game of shuffleboard on deck with another couple from Houston, who proved extremely amiable company while we took turns to hurled our shuffleboard discs either into the far distance or nowhere-near-far-enough, in technical terms. Simple good fun and a nod to cruise tradition when deck games and the occasional round of bingo were pretty much the sum total of daytime acitivities.

Going for another casual wander afterwards, we were inveigled into a slightly more dangerous activity – Margarita Tasting at the Maltings Bar on Deck 7. For $15 a head, we got the chance to try no less than five different flavoured Margaritas (and not small measures, either), and were then offered a guide to help us back to our cabin. OK, I’m making the last bit up, but the volume of chatter, laughter and sheer nonsense by the end of the session was distinctly different from the reserved, quiet tones at the start.

There was a Grand Margarita, a peach one, a Margarita based on a classic Fuzzy Navel and another one with blue curacao, triple sec and cranberry as well as the tequila, plus the final one, which was pink, semi-frozen and MAY have had Grand Marnier in it as well. Seeing as it was hard to see straight and remember our own names at that point, it’s probably best not to dwell on the detail.

Remarkably, we were ready for a 7pm dinner at the Manhattan Restaurant, which was our big test of the main dinner choice (both Manhattan and Taste offer the same menu in the evenings), to see if Norwegian somehow scrimped on the regular (i.e. non-fee-based) offering while upping the ante at the many specialist choices.

Not a bit of it. Not only did we have a wonderful table for two right at the stern, to watch the dying embers of another perfect Caribbean sunset, our server Kerwin was a delight and we were excellently looked after, with a truly tempting array of dishes. Between us, we sampled the roast corn and cheese soup, Greek Salad, Lamb Shank, Louisiana-style Red Snapper, and a gorgeous Tiramisu.

If that was an accurate test, anyone who ate here ONLY for each night of the voyage (as would be the case in more traditional times) would still be royally dined and happy with their lot. Of course, knowing that there ARE so many alternatives just whets our appetite!