Thursday, 23 February 2012

An Epic Adventure Pt 7

The Story So Far, Pt 2

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

Day 4: Our first port of call, Dutch St Maarten meant we were able to stretch our legs (and wallets, at the many shops), enjoy some beach time and feel like we had actually seen the Caribbean, as opposed to just soaking up its sun.

That evening, we took the Chinese restaurant, Shanghai’s, for a test-drive. And were mightily glad we did. While La Cucina gave us the hint of old Italy, Cagney’s served up fine steaks and the Manhattan dining room offered a nice, cosmopolitan mixture, Shanghai’s is the real Chinese deal (at $15/person).

We were greeted immediately and made to feel extremely welcome, with another perfect window table-for-two. With prawn crackers and a selection of three dips (including a wonderfully spicy little number) to goad our none-too-reluctant appetites back into gear, we enjoyed barbecue pork spare ribs, salt-and-pepper calamari, hot ‘n sour soup, egg drop and corn soup, sweet and sour chicken, steamed mahi-mahi, Malay lamb curry, Peking noodles, egg fried rice and a really different dessert of crispy chestnut and red bean triangles (in filo pastry) with green tea ice cream and caramel sauce.

If that sounds like a lot, it was. Our diets went straight out of the window, and on to Neverland. If it all sounds delicious, it was. If you were wondering what the Malay lamb curry was like, wonder no more. It was the best curry dish I have sampled in many an age, and a truly authentic taste of Chinese-Malaysian cuisine (one of the chefs is a Malay Chinese, apparently). With deeply ingrained fusions of kaffir lime, coconut milk and other Asian spices, it lingered long, slow and richly on the palate, and was easily voted our Dish of the Cruise So Far.

Dinner was followed by another trip to Fat Cats (can you see a pattern here?), where the Manhattan Jazz Ensemble were in residence for the evening, offering a more laid-back style to the blues of Charlie Love and Co. We would have stayed longer but we had another confirmed appointment – with some men in Blue.

Living in Orlando, we are fortunate to have a permanent theatre for the renowned Blue Man Group and, two years ago, when Norwegian announced that one of the star turns aboard their latest ship would be a show by the same Blue Men, it was clear this would be a sea-going headline act unlike any other.

When our cruise booking was confirmed, the very next thing to book was a night with Blue Man Group, and that was for the 10pm showing tonight. Arriving 45 minutes early meant we were among the first in line and guaranteed a seat near the front, and the next 1hr 20mins were pure outrageous, zany, unpredictable fun with the Blue Men.

Put simply, there is nothing quite like a BMG show. Their lively, rock-music-backed humour comes directly from the Planet Tharg and is slightly anarchic, slightly child-like, slightly odd and wholly entertaining. To see this quality of show, live at sea, is an utter triumph for Norwegian. The fact they can stage it so well, multiple times every cruise, is astounding.

Day 5: Another port of call, this time St Thomas, the largest of the US Virgin islands. If there is any particular typical Caribbean island, it borrows heavily from St Thomas – steep hills, stunning bays, brilliant beaches, thick tropical greenery and that delicious, laid-back vibe that could only be the Caribbean.

Yes, there is also shopping; LOTS of shopping, of the heavily duty-free variety, which also attracts cruise ships; LOTS of cruise ships. There are 5 in port today, two from Celebrity and two from Royal Caribbean, including the massive Oasis of the Seas. It amounts to some 17,000 visitors on an island with a population of only 60,000. The shops will have a good day; the taxi-drivers will have a good day; and the beaches will have a good day.

If it sounds like an uncomfortable day to actually BE one of those visitors, you could also be pleasantly surprised. The harbour itself boasts a mini shopping mall that soaks up a lot of visitors; the town has plenty of alternatives to lure a few thousand more of those keen maritime shoppers; and the island’s fleet of taxi-cabs, mini-buses and coaches dashes hither and thither to spread out the rest. And it all works remarkably well.

After a relaxed breakfast at O’Sheehan’s (corn beef hash, eggs, toast, coffee and orange juice), we amble off the ship for a wander round the port’s mini-mall, then head for the taxi rank to find out a price for a visit to Mountain Top (the island’s principal lookout point) and a trip to the beach. It turns out it is actually cheaper to take a guided tour and be dropped off at a beach (about $25/person), so we jump aboard a taxi-cab with two other couples and are off for an impromptu bit of sight-seeing.

Mountain Top, with its peerless overview of stunning Magens Bay (above, one of National Geographic’s top 10 beaches in the world), remains a must-see destination on St Thomas, both for the view and a drink at the World Famous Banana Daiquiri Bar. The full two-hour tour offered a comprehensive view of this island, with plenty of social commentary from our driver, and being dropped off at Morningstar Beach Resort (below) then supplied the necessary beach walk and lunch.
By 3pm, a short taxi ride had us back at the ship and we were able to enjoy the 4pm sail-away from our balcony as another blissful Caribbean day started to draw to a close. The weather for both our first two ports of call had been perfect – almost unbroken sun and around 86F – while the sea remained calm and the deepest of blues.

This evening, we had an early dinner that required us to be showered, changed and  at the Spiegel Tent shortly after 5pm. Cirque Dreams & Dinner is another Norwegian innovation, a purpose-designed, small-scale, theatre-in-the-round, with entertainment of the Cirque du Soleil variety – i.e. acrobatic, athletic, inventive, musical, humorous and breathtaking – along with a set-course dinner (in this case, a starter trio of chicken satay, crab cake and lettuce wedge; a main course of prime rib and shrimp; and a ‘trilogy of sweets,’ consisting of a red velvet cupcake, a vanilla bean pot du crème and a mini flourless chocolate cake).

And, yet again, we are left in awe of what Norwegian have packed into this unusual setting, a 90-minute cavalcade of eye-catching calisthenics, dance, aerial feats, balancing, trapeze and even a quick-change couple who defied the imagination. OK, it cost an extra $20/person but it is a superb addition to both the dining and entertainment choice and, along with Blue Man Group, gives Norwegian Epic two genuine headline sensations.

Amazed but also slightly exhausted by the array of feats set in such close-up detail, we took ourselves off for another standard feature these days – movies under the stars (or the Dive-In Movie, as Norwegian likes to call it at their Spice H2O pool area). Tonight’s film was Soul Surfer, the true story of a young Hawaiian surfer girl who managed to follow her dream to become a pro surfer despite losing an arm to a shark attack. I don’t think anyone is likely to be going swimming at Nassau, our next port of call!

But, before that, we have another sea day to enjoy. More of that soon…