A Cruise Ship Learning Center Helps You Get More Than Your Money’s Worth

Cruise line ratings indicate how well a cruise line performs in the realm of customer service. Going on a cruise isn’t a common occurrence for most people. While it often is a means of transport, taking a cruise is a vacation in of itself. Doing proper research is an excellent way of weeding out cruise lines that underperform or deliver unfavorable experiences. Consulting the various sources that exists for cruise ship ratings is a very prudent way to know that your upcoming vacation will be done in style, class and elegance.

Cruise ship resources can come from several sources. Professional cruise ship reviewers exist and often will rate how effective a cruise liner is at delivering the goods. These individuals often have discerning tastes and can be a great source to consult when planning your next trip. Often these professionals are commissioned by hospitality ranking magazines or services to provide examinations of particular cruise liners. Sometimes these may be independent agents or experts in travelling accommodations. Either way these knowledgeable authorities can offer insight on the ups and down of a particular cruise liner with a detailed cruise ship learning center.

However, the experts can sometimes be compromised by their level of notoriety. A famous travel expert or cruise liner reviewer may be known to be abroad a certain ship. Often special treatment may be given, knowingly or unknowingly, to this person. This can compromise the validity of the rating if there is special attention lavished on this individual. Personalized ratings from passengers are a second viable means of securing reviews on cruise liners. These can be more reliable because they are filed by actual passengers that lack the visibility of professionals. Also, their experiences and position within a certain section of a cruise ship may be helpful for determining which level of accommodation to opt for. A bad review from someone in a luxury suite may convince you to book something a bit more practical.

Again, these reviews may not be completely reliable. Ratings given by passengers may lack the sophistication and technical abilities a professional rating has. Objectivity is also important to consider in both review cases. Each cruise liner experience is different. One room may have a very satisfied occupant while the one next door may loathe the entire experience. The key is to synthesize the ratings available and determine your own verdict. Ratings are great for a cruise liner but the decision on to go or not are ultimately up to you. Take each rating as a reference point from which to form your own opinion.

Norwegian Epic Cruise Ship Review

I was invited to attend the exclusive 2-night (July 2 – 3, 2010) pre-inaugural sailing for NCL’s newest and largest ship, the Norwegian Epic. Departing from NY City, the sailing began with the ship’s naming ceremony, which was hosted by comedian Jeff Garlin and featured the ship’s godmother, Reba McEntire. Adding to the festivities was the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks show which was broadcast live from the Epic on national television (WNBC). It included musical performances by Justin Bieber, Enrique Iglesias and LeeAnn Rimes. As I have experienced many times in the past, the folks at NCL really know how to throw a party! But let’s focus on their new ship, the Epic.

The “Hardware”

When discussing the physical attributes of a cruise ship (i.e., it’s layout and appearance), industry professionals often refer to the ship’s “hardware”. So, let’s start there.

At 153,000 tons with a passenger capacity of 4,100 (based on double occupancy), the Norwegian Epic is, by far, the largest ship in the NCL fleet. In fact, with the exception of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas (which was launched in December 2009), NCL’s Epic is among the largest cruise ships at sea. It is also one of the most uniquely designed cruise ships that I have ever been on (… and I’ve been on quite a few). In most cases, that “uniqueness” is a very positive attribute which reflects the thoughtfulness and attention that the Epic’s designers must have paid to maximizing the use of space to achieve a much bigger, wide-open “feel” to all of the ship’s public areas. And, the way that one area just seemed to “flow” into the next (without the “cookie-cutter” rigidity sometimes found on cruise ships) was truly remarkable. But, in a few areas, I did not perceive the unique design of the ship to be an advantage. For instance, the exterior shape of the ship seemed a bit “odd” to me. The bow is somewhat “stubby-looking” and the stern is “squared-off” so that the ship does not have a “sleek” appearance from the outside. Adding to the irregular look is a massive 3-deck appendage that was seemingly “plopped” on top of the front section as an afterthought (or, more likely, to further maximize the ship’s interior space). Obviously, the ship’s designers had to make some “trade-off’s” to accomplish everything they did inside the ship and, after all, from a passenger’s perspective, the interior design is far more important.

The decor of the Epic is modern and somewhat more “toned-down” than other NCL ships. Getting around was not quite as easy because of the ship’s unique interior design. Rather than having its public areas running at a uniform width through the center of the ship, the Epic’s interior gave the illusion of being designed that way but, in several different places, the interior width of the ship would seemingly vary and you would go to the right or to the left to enter another venue. So, just when I thought I had seen the entire ship, I would discover a new area. Having been on over 50 cruise ships, I found the layout of the Epic to be very interesting and “refreshing”.

The Food

Since all restaurants offer a variety of culinary choices, any evaluation of food is influenced not only by personal taste but also by what items are selected from the menu. For example, on the first night, my wife and I ate at the Manhattan Room, one of the ship’s main dining areas. She had a chicken dish, which she evaluated as “OK”, while I had scallops which were very good. Like all public areas on the Epic, the layout and d├ęcor of the Manhattan Room was a tribute to the ship’s designers. Wide open and “airy”, the Manhattan Room had the look and feel of a fine dinner theater. In fact, I was somewhat surprised when our dinner host (one of NCL’s executives) informed us that the Manhattan Room was not a specialty restaurant. The other main dining room, appropriately called “Taste”, was also extremely well laid-out and pleasing to the eye. At the center of Taste is a beautiful chandelier (claimed to be the largest at sea) that spirals down from the deck above. Although I did not eat in Taste, I am told that the menu is the same as the Manhattan Room, so I would assume our assessment of the food would have been about the same (i.e., “OK” to “very good”, depending on the entre’ selected and, of course, personal taste).

One of the hallmarks of NCL’s acclaimed “Freestyle Cruising” is the choice of dining options and, not surprisingly, the Epic takes this feature to a new level. In addition to the two main dining areas, the Epic offers 17 other dining venues, each with its own cuisine and ambiance. This includes the spacious main buffet area (the “Garden Cafe”), in which the food was consistently fresh and of high-quality (albeit with somewhat less variety than we’ve experienced on some other ships). It also includes the poolside grill (“Spice H2O”), “O’Sheehan’s” (a huge, sprawling pub that became the meeting place and “social nucleus” for many of the ship’s guests) and several specialty restaurants such as La Cucina Italian restaurant (which was even more attractively decorated on the Epic than on other NCL ships), Tepanyaki Japanese grill (much larger than on other NCL ships) and Le Bistro French restaurant just to name a few. Each of the specialty restaurants has a “cover charge” (which ranges from $10 to $35 per person) but, in my opinion, they are all well worth the money.

On this pre-inaugural cruise, I tried two of the specialty restaurants, Cagney’s steakhouse and Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian “all-you-can-eat” barbeque in which guests signal their servers with a green card (“OK, I’m ready for more”) or a red card (“No more, please. I’m stuffed”). My wife and I have raved about Cagney’s steakhouse on several other Norwegian cruise ships (e.g., the NCL Dawn, the NCL Gem and the NCL Jewel) and we enjoyed it just as much on the Epic. On the other hand, we were not nearly as impressed with the Epic’s Moderno Churrascaria, which is the first such restaurant on any cruise ship. The salad bar was absolutely fabulous (especially the plump shrimp and fantastic gourmet cheeses) but, other than the sirloin (which the servers cut right in front of you), my wife and I were both disappointed with the quality of the meats. Ironically, my son Greg (who is CEO of Direct Line Cruises) and several of our staff members tried Moderno Churrascaria and really liked it. So, don’t take my word for it.

The Service

A cruise passenger’s perception of onboard service is so often dependent upon who their stateroom attendant was and which waiters / waitresses served their meals. Since my wife and I started Direct Line Cruises, there have been several instances in which different clients on the same exact cruise would report radically different service levels. So, at best, any evaluation of service should be taken only as a generalization based on limited individual experiences while onboard.

Having prefaced this part of my review (to “cover my tail” in case the reader has a different experience), my wife and I found the service on the NCL Epic to be consistent with what we’ve experienced on other NCL cruise ships (i.e., very good with only minor exceptions).

Entertainment And Activities

It may be hard to believe but the show by the Blue Man Group actually exceeds NCL’s hype! It was the most unique (… yes, I’m using that word again… ) and professional act I’ve seen on any cruise ship. Thoroughly funny and entertaining, I would rather see that show night after night than to sit through some of the same old “Broadway song-and-dance” shows I’ve seen on so many other cruise ships. The Blue Man performance was in the ship’s main theatre which, considering the size of the Epic, was relatively small (with a seating capacity of under 600 people). However, despite that fact, the theatre was not “packed” because, consistent with NCL’s concept of “Freestyle Cruising”, the Epic was designed with multiple entertainment venues, each offering a different show.

In addition to Blue Man Group, the NCL Epic showcased “Legends In Concert”, which featured impersonated performances by Elvis, Madonna, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and other “super-stars”. If you like this sort of thing, you will probably enjoy it very much. Otherwise, you may find it to be “OK”, as I did.

Another Epic “first” is Cirque Dreams and Dinner which is performed by an exceptionally talented group of acrobats in a special theater-in-the-round called the Spiegel Tent. Several of our staff members saw this show and said that it was very good but, perhaps, a bit too long. My wife and I saw a very different show in the Spiegel Tent. Our 3-year-old granddaughter, who we were able to bring with us, is a big fan of “Dora the Explorer” and “Diego” and she just loved the Nickelodeon character breakfast which, in addition to Dora and Diego, also featured “Sponge Bob Square Pants”, “Jimmy Neutron” and others. In an exclusive deal with NCL, the Nickelodeon characters are presently appearing on the Epic and the NCL Jewel (which now sails year-round out of New York City) and will eventually appear on several other NCL ships.

Another featured act on NCL’s cruise ships is the Second City Comedy Troupe. Although I did not see their show on the Epic (… there just wasn’t enough time to do everything… ), my wife and I have seen them on several other NCL cruise ships. In general, we found their “rehearsed” skits to be very funny, and their “ad-libbed” routines very “un-funny” (but, then again, I never really enjoyed watching Jonathan Winters, who was regarded by many people as an “ad-lib” comedic genius).

Activities on the ship were plentiful. Unique to the Epic were the “Epic Plunge” (a massive 7-deck water slide), 6 bowling alleys and the SVEDKA Ice Bar (which NCL touts as the first ice bar at sea) in which the entire contents (including the bar) are made of ice and the venue is maintained at a “toasty” 17-degree temperature to keep it from melting. Now, that’s “really cool”! Patrons are provided with heavy jackets before entering and vodka is clearly the beverage of choice.