ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN EPIC
Leo Gutierrez and I are bonding. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In a bathroom unlike any we've ever seen. That we are strangers unzipped at neighboring urinals does not diminish this magic moment.
Gutierrez can't get over the view outside. It isn't just pants-dropping; it's jaw-dropping.
Whiz-bang, you might say.
"This is a first!" belly-laughs the 39-year-old Colombian, an electrical engineer who wires up major cruise ships.
On this new state-of-the-art ocean liner — which touts, among myriad diversions, a bar made entirely of ice, two bowling alleys, a teppanyaki restaurant and a water park with a nefarious wedge-a-nating slide called the Epic Plunge — there is also a state-of-the-art men's room, a communal commode near the pool that offers panoramic, floor-to-ceiling views of the Big Briny. You can see out, and only the seagulls can see in.
Seriously, it's like dropping trou in an IMAX theater.
That's the currency on the Norwegian Epic, which many are calling a game-changer in the world of cruise ships. This floating Mall of America strives so hard to heighten every moment of your stay, to demand your attention to its buoyant bacchanal of delights — to punish the inert! — you even feel guilty for not hitting the head more often.
As he washes his hands, Gutierrez speaks softly, as if what he's about to bestow upon me is nothing less than the wisdom of the ages: "Let me tell you: You should feel privileged that you have had an oceanview pee." As he leaves, sucked back into this leviathan of excess, he cries out: "Only on the Epic, my friend!"
• • •
About 10 years ago, I took my first and what I thought would be my only cruise; it was a nightmare. I'll withhold the name of the company, but let's just say the SS Minnow had better accommodations. It was like a gurgling Econo Lodge, with gray food that would cause a flotilla of pirates to surrender. The entertainment had all the zip of Grandpa Ed telling knock-knocks. The crew spoke English only when it suited them — and not, for instance, when they lost our luggage.
And yet, when offered the chance at a two-day swing on the 19-deck, 1,080-foot Norwegian Epic — an inaugural sojourn "to nowhere" that would get to the Bahamas, if not exactly stop there — my curiosity trumped my Gilligan fears.
After all, these are the days of glorious distraction, of excess, of apps, of anything shiny to take our minds off the mortal coil. And with the exception of the computer world and the roller coaster racket, no industry indulges in indulgence quite like cruising. Word was that Norwegian Cruise Line had upped the ante to wildly gaudy heights. How could I say no to Nero on the Sea?
I invited my longtime buddy Sandy, who, despite his irrational fear of a rogue wave, gladly accepted on the promise of all the Coors Light he could drink. We drove to the Port of Miami, where the Epic sprawls out, 153,000 gross tons of titillation for more than 4,100 guests. By comparison, the average Carnival cruise out of Tampa carries about 2,100.
Yeah, it's a big'un.
When you first see the Epic, it doesn't look like a sea-faring vessel at all; it's the Imperial Cruiser from Star Wars.
A travel agent from Seattle told me: "You don't need Dramamine on this ship." And he was right. I didn't feel a ripple the entire cruise. The Epic is so big, it defies the ocean, a nature-thwarting pleasure beast at 22 knots.
But its technological girth isn't nearly as glitzy as its guts: 21 restaurants, just as many bars, a Second City comedy club, a Vegas-style casino, brand-name shows by Blue Man Group and Nickelodeon, any sport you want, any spa treatment you crave.
That just hasn't been done before — so many environments in a matter of steps. It's busy, noisy, and yet the pervasive design is Scandinavian calm: wood and chrome, minimalist touches out of Architectural Digest. It's elegant and head-spinning all at once.
The Epic trumpets the experience of "freestyle cruising," an oft-heard buzzphrase that implies a newfound liberty at sea. But if "freestyle cruising" also sounds a bit like "free-range chicken" — the appearance of free will, when in reality, your fate is just as sealed as the other cluckers' — you're not entirely wrong there, either.
• • •
For the longest time, the cliche of cruising — and, on most ships, the reality — has been the famously set schedule. You eat at the same time, with the same people, in the same large, blah dining room every night. Mass-cooked filets for dinner; Charo for dessert. Larry from Wichita, your assigned tablemate, is everywhere you turn, a communal designation not unlike your roommate with the deodorant aversion in the freshman dorm.
With freestyle cruising, however, the notion is that you can eat what you want, when you want, with whomever you darn well please. There are still the mass buffets to trough from if you so choose, and 10 other dining possibilities included in the basic rate. There are also specialty restaurants, 10 of 'em, with a "cover" of between $15 and $30 per person.
Your time is your own on the Epic. Julie Your Cruise Director doesn't plan your day; you do. "Choices" is another buzzword. (I'm telling you, Arthur Schopenhauer didn't talk about man's desire to choose as much as the marketing folks behind the Epic.) If you see Larry from Wichita headed for the sushi bar, you just duck into Cagney's Steakhouse, a D.C.-style dark-wood beauty straight out of a congressman's budget. That was my first meal: Salmon Oscar with king crab, a colossal shrimp cocktail and a sublime 2007 José Maria da Fonseca Periquita Reserva red wine. I did have to share a table, but my companions — a TV crew from Miami — were delightful.
That is, until they showed up again, at the pool area, 30 minutes later, and threatened to film my jiggly parts hauling down the waterslide. Buzzkill. Larry from Wichita would never do that.
• • •
Flip-flops are a must on the Epic, but track shoes and Red Bull don't hurt, either. After two days onboard, I felt like I had run a marathon — and subsequently set a record for pina colada consumption. It's not that the Epic is too epic to manage; it's actually incredibly streamlined, an easily navigable procession of walkways and elevators. But it breeds exertion, that's for sure.
In the span of a few hours, Sandy and I ate at Teppanyaki, a Japanese steak house with Benihana's shrimp-hurling flair . . . then conned our way into the 17-degree Svedka Ice Bar, where we donned fur-lined parkas and slammed shots of vodka while sitting on benches made of ice and watching Northern Lights pulse in the walls . . . then played a furious game of Ping-Pong on the sports-aplenty aft deck . . . then hit the roulette wheel, where the minimums, even in prime time, are a delightful $5 per play . . . then hung out at O'Sheehan's neighborhood-style bar, which acts as a main hangout area . . . then hit the Blue Man Group show, a reliable diversion of multicolored ooze and percussion. Huzzah!
There's usually a slothful pride in how much weight you gain on a cruise ship. You leave tan, rested and adorned with three new chins. But the Epic inspires such a furious pace, I think I actually lost a few pounds. Yes, you could just laze around on the Epic, but then, what's the point?
Of course, for all the pull of the action, the Epic features some 13 different lodging options, from the Deluxe Owner's Suite with panoramic views of the ocean to what Sandy and I shared: a balcony stateroom, which looked not unlike a swingin'-'60s pad James Bond would conquer in. Yes, it was small: A curtain separated a teeny toilet and a full shower from the bedroom, which had a queen-sized bed, barely large enough for two dudes who really don't want to touch during the night. But the room was posh and comfortable, and the balcony was fantastic. Still, when you're on the Epic, sitting around is for sissies.
• • •
The Epic isn't all spectacular. There are a few glaring miscues. For as cool as the Aqua Park is, the saltwater pools themselves are small, murky, warm. Submerging into one of these square utilitarian jobs isn't refreshing; it's Seniors Night at the Y. Maybe a decent wading area isn't important when you're docking in paradise every day, but the only way I could cool off was a trip down one of the waterslides.
Another downer on the Epic is one of its featured shows: Cirque Dreams and Dinner, a rubber-chicken and bad-theater groaner that's more Cirque du So Lame than anything resembling the revered theater troupe. The singing is a caterwauling mess, the amped-up quasi-Euro accents are cloying and the acrobats, while impressive, don't hit the high-wire enough. Sandy and I ditched on Cirque Dreams after eating a few bites of our ghastly chicken Florentine.
And then, at last, we come to that recirculated air on the Epic, the smell of perfume, duty-free Marlboros and money lost. It's that same suffocating stench you notice after two days, and 10 trips to the ATM, in Las Vegas.
Maybe I was the only one who could smell it, in the casino and out. And maybe that means I'm just not a cruise guy. But for all the talk of "freestyle cruising," that air was symbolic, a claustrophobic whiff that ultimately revealed the Epic, for all of its pizzazz, to be just another a cruise ship, albeit in its most puffed-up, regal form. The ship just happens to excel at the illusion of freedom better than the others — and these days, maybe that's good enough.
Sean Daly is the Times' pop music critic. He can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Channing Muller's views were reported incorrectly in story last Sunday about the Epic cruise ship. Muller said she enjoys activities on cruises and doesn't like to be lazy.