Freestyle Cruising has come to the Mediterranean, with the arrival of NCL’s Norwegian Epic (which sails from Barcelona). Here’s what to expect.
Cruise dining is changing – no more sharing a table with strangers and eating at a fixed time. Freestyle Cruising, pioneered by Norwegian Cruise Line, means that guests have freedom to dine where they want, when they want, and with whom they want.
Aboard the Norwegian Epic I had a choice of 20 eateries offering seating for solo travellers, couples, friends and family.
There are at least 5 complimentary restaurants included in the cruise fare. I liked the stylish ‘Manhattan Room’ with its striking design, friendly service and good quality food. For a more informal style, there is the ‘Taste’ restaurant (but some dishes were a bit hit-and-miss); the Asian ‘Shanghai’ restaurant; the 24 hour ‘O’Sheehan’s bar & grill’; and the ‘Garden Café Buffet’ which consistently served fresh and tasty food.
There’s also a choice of premium restaurants for a cover charge of 19.95 US dollars per person. It a fun chance to dress up if you want. I tried the chic, French ‘Le Bistro’ and the relaxed Italian ‘La Cucina’, both of which represented fair value for the quality menu and refined ambience. For meat lovers there was the Brazilian churrascaria ‘Moderno’, and the American steakhouse ‘Cagney’s’.
I counted almost 20 bars aboard the Norwegian Epic, from the chic ‘Shakers’ Martini & Champagne Bar to the ‘SVEDKA Ice Bar’ – said to be the only authentic ice bar on the high seas. But beware, each time you buy a drink there is 10% VAT (Spain and Italy) added, as well as an 18% service charge – so a beer can cost you $9. You cannot bring alcohol on-board unless you pay a $15 corkage fee per item. But you can bring with you mineral water and soft drinks. Drink packages are available, but it’s worth considering your consumption before purchasing. Both guests in the cabin have to be on the same ‘deal’ for the cruise, so for example if you opt for the ‘ultimate beverage package’ of $64 each per day, then that’s $128 per cabin per day – what’s more it only includes alcohol by the glass and soft drinks, it doesn’t include bottles of wine or water or coffee – that’s extra too. My advice it to ‘pay as you go’; or even better still, purchase your cruise with an offer that includes drinks.
Until I sailed on the Norwegian Epic, I shared Simon Cowell’s opinion on cruise ship entertainment – let’s face it, cruise ship shows are notoriously cheesy. Well NCL are breaking the mould by signing up mainstream entertainment. I saw two of the included shows on-board; the laugh-out-load musical ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’, and the sexy dance show, ‘Burn the Floor’ (both West End & Broadway shows, but performed by emerging talent). I was really impressed (and surprised) by the quality and professional production.
The convenience of a pre-arranged cruise tour ensures you see all the sights in time to get back on-board before the ship sails – but it doesn’t come cheap. The Norwegian Epic itineraries include opportunities to visit places like Rome, Florence, the Côte d’Azur, Palma, Barcelona as well as the Canary Islands, Madeira and more, with individual tours from $104 per person up to $398 per person. Personally I preferred exploring independently; renting an inexpensive car to drive the Amalfi coast for example, and taking the train on a one-day travel pass to reach Rome. Alternatively, stay on-board and enjoy the water park, the Pulse Fitness Centre, the Mandara spa, sun decks, or have a flutter in the casino. There are free on-board activities planned throughout each day too.
The cheaper staterooms on a cruise are on the inside without windows (ideal if you plan to spend most of the time enjoying the ship), whilst the most expensive can be in an exclusive boutique-style ‘hotel within a hotel’, like the ‘The Haven’ aboard the Epic. NCL caters for solo travellers with their innovative ‘studios’ for singles only, which have access to a private lounge bar and mixer events throughout the week.
The main balcony staterooms are undoubtedly compact, the double bed is small for a tall person and the balcony was disappointingly furnished with just two chairs – to have a sunbed you need to upgrade to a premium cabin. Yet they are well-designed, sound-proofed and have lots of storage. There’s a safe, filter coffee machine, a mini bar and room service. In my experience, housekeeping was outstanding – clean towels twice a day if required, and an evening turndown service.
Holidaying on the high seas means using the cruise ship’s satellite system for internet access. The Epic had pay-as-you-go internet for .95 US cents a minute or .50 cents with a pre-paid plan. Alternatively, use free Wi-Fi whilst ashore, or contact your mobile operator before you sail for roaming packages for use in ports of call.
NCL offers a smartphone app for unlimited messages & calls between guests on-board for a nominal fixed fee.
Budget for tips and service extras. Cruise ships typically charge tips; and on the Norwegian Epic it was a steep $12.95 service charge per person per day billed to your account. If you don’t want to pay it you must dispute it before you check out on your last day of the cruise. Check your account every day on the smartphone app or interactive TV in your cabin. Pack snacks like chocolate and gum and household medicines like pain-killers etc. as on-board prices are higher than at home.