The solo traveler complex is not intended to be Match.com afloat. The cabins attract couples such as Tim and Cheryl Timmons of Woodbridge, Va., who shared one studio and booked another for their 18-year-old daughter and her friend. Weren't the staterooms just a bit too cozy for two? Tim, a former Navy man, laughed. "I come from submarines," he said. "These are very spacious."
"Freestyle cruising" — a big selling point for NCL — largely means partaking on your own schedule, whether that's drinking at any of Epic's 20 bars and lounges or choosing among its 21 dining options, including pizza delivered anywhere onboard 24 hours a day ($5). There are no assigned mealtimes, no luck-of-the-draw cruise-long dinner partners.
"Elegance" is not a word I'd associate with the Epic's ambience. But the 60 courtyard suites and villas on Decks 16 and 17 are an exception. The one I saw had two bedrooms, two real bathrooms (one with ocean views) and a stylish Asian-influenced décor in burgundy and sand. These suite guests have their own beach club and pool, lounge and restaurant, and private elevator.
The ship has no library, no game room, no organized bridge playing. The median age of guests was 37, "high-energy cruisers," said cruise director Silas Cook. "Bingo is not as popular as in Alaska." Those high-energy types could be found early in the morning at Pulse, the fitness center. Other calorie-burning activities included rock climbing, rappelling and basketball.
There were hits and misses among the activities. The belly-flop competition skirted disaster when John Smithlin from Hermosa Beach hit his head on the bottom of the pool. The next day, sporting a neck brace and multiple stitches, he was line dancing to the tune of "Elvira." ("I can't jump," he said, "but I can bounce.")
Karaoke and trivia drew crowds, as did "Dancing With the Epic Stars," in which staffers were paired with guests. Teresa Perez, 64, of Brooklyn, who did an over-the-top tango with assistant cruise director Matt McLean, danced away with the trophy.
A big draw with the kids was Nintendo Wii on the 23-foot-wide screen in the central atrium. There were 978 kids under 18 onboard, and the Epic was ready for them: three tube water slides (also a hit with the adults), a 24-foot spider web climbing cage, the Entourage club for teens, programs with Nickelodeon characters Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Some guests were miffed at what they perceived as "nickel and diming" — $5 a person a game for bowling, $11.95 for an in-room movie. One could pile up a hefty bill in seven days. The Mandara Spa enticed passengers with Botox, acupuncture and teeth whitening, and Pulse fitness offered detoxing, stomach flattening seminars and the like for a fee.
But there was also plenty of good free stuff, including Blue Man Group, late-night movies in the atrium, multiple music venues for the not-exorbitant price of a drink, an ice skating rink (with synthetic ice) with skates provided.
The six alternative restaurants had cover charges of $10 to $25, but Taste, O'Sheehan's Irish pub (24 hours), the Garden Café buffet and the Manhattan Room were free.
My best meal was in Le Bistro, the formal French restaurant ($20 charge), where I had a good rack of lamb. I also enjoyed La Cucina ($10). Teppanyaki ($25) was more about theater than food. We sat at a counter around a big grill as a Japanese chef (from the Philippines) sliced and diced with a flourish, then flipped a bit of egg into the mouth of a willing guest. Everything tasted like soy sauce, but it was an experience.
Moderno Churrascaria ($18) is Argentine and strictly for carnivores. Waiters appear tableside with skewers of broiled meats; guests keep eating until they've had enough, at which point they flip the little green card at their place setting to the red side. Fun and good.
The food was generally high level, except for the Murder Mystery Lunch and the Cirque Dreams dinner show, which were strictly banquet fare. A noodle bar and a sushi and sashimi bar, both with a la carte pricing, were very popular.
Not as popular, perhaps, as those studios. NCL says they're more than 85% booked through the end of the year.
Solo traveler Louise Leduc, a hospital employee from Montreal, a first-time cruiser and recent widow who had never traveled alone, said, "Even with all the little quirks, would I come back? Oh, yes!"
This could be the start of something big.