Norwegian Epic cruise offers luxury getaway amid pandemic

The Norwegian Epic boasts 15 restaurants, 17 bars, a fully-equipped spa, a sprawling casino, three gargantuan water slides, a bowling alley and a theater capable of putting on Broadway shows.

The ‘Norwegian Epic’ sailing along the high seas in all her glory. (photo credit: NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE)
The ‘Norwegian Epic’ sailing along the high seas in all her glory.
(photo credit: NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE)

At the end of watching the hit Broadway show Priscilla Queen of The Desert aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic last week, I cried. No, I didn’t shed tears because a son was finally reunited with his long-lost drag queen father. Nor did I weep because the men in the show wore high heels with much more aplomb than I ever could. 

I cried from relief that it’s still possible to have fun again.

When the actors sauntered out on stage for their final bow in their vibrant costumes, their eyes were shining with pride not just for executing stellar performances, but because they were able to share their talent with an audience again.

Lavish restaurants, show-stopping Broadway musicals, meeting and conversing with strangers hasn’t been part of my life for the better part of two years now and, suddenly, when aboard the cruise liner, it all came back in one exhilarating rush.

Many industries experienced a setback amid the COVID crisis, but cruises were hit particularly hard. In Norwegian’s case, their ships didn’t carry customers for 500 days and only started back up again this July, Nick Wilkinson, the company’s regional vice president for Israel, the Middle East and Africa explained.

With its water-slides, Jacuzzis, and mini-pools, the top deck of the ‘Epic’ is fun for the whole family. (credit: NOA AMOUYAL)With its water-slides, Jacuzzis, and mini-pools, the top deck of the ‘Epic’ is fun for the whole family. (credit: NOA AMOUYAL)

Like many, I wondered how one can remain safe on a cruise during a pandemic, yet NCL managed to create what could possibly be the safest vacation possible these days.

The company mandates that all guests be fully vaccinated, which unfortunately means that children under 12 are not yet allowed to cruise. Every crew member, too, is vaccinated and tested once a week. Additionally, the ship is equipped with temperature monitoring devices in several areas of the ship that are surreptitiously taking the temperature of guests as an additional measure.

Upon arrival, guests arrive in a giant terminal where they receive a rapid COVID test. Those who are negative are ushered on board and begin their vacation. Those who test positive, Wilkinson assures, are also taken care of with the company setting them up in a COVID hotel and watching over them until they are able to test negative.

Moreover, while the Epic can usually hold 4,100 people, for the moment, Norwegian only admitted half so the ship wouldn’t be at full capacity.

“We want to be seen driving the health and safety standards in the industry,” he said, adding that the added regulations and cost assumed by the company is seen as a long-term investment that reassures its customer base that all is well on the high seas – even in today’s uncertain era.

And you know what? It’s a formula that seems to work as aside from wearing masks indoors on the ship, guests - myself included - were happy to chat, eat, drink and be merry and put the COVID headache behind us and focus on what’s on offer.

And those offerings are plentiful. 

The ship, which was built in 2010 and refurbished last year, boasts 15 restaurants, 17 bars, a fully-equipped spa, a sprawling casino, three gargantuan water slides, a bowling alley and a theater capable of putting on elaborate Broadway shows like the aforementioned Priscilla.

The interior of Norwegian Cruise Line’s balcony staterooms. (credit: NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE)The interior of Norwegian Cruise Line’s balcony staterooms. (credit: NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE)

LET’S START with the food. In a word, it’s spectacular. Whether you’re savoring the cheesy goodness that is the spinach and artichoke dip at O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill or a succulent steak at Cagney’s Steakhouse – one of their specialty dining restaurants – it’s impossible to be hungry aboard the Epic.

On the cruise, the Premium Beverage Package (PBP) card is your friend. That card grants you unlimited access to the myriad of libations available on board and can be obtained for guests who choose the Free at Sea package when booking. My drink of choice? Their “perfect” margarita, which lived up to its name. 

Free at Sea offers four premium options of which you can select two (at the moment their website offers a sale on all four). In addition to the premium beverage package, one can get free wi-fi, a dining credit for the ship’s specialty upscale dining restaurants and excursion discounts.

While the ship’s endless array of things to do is tempting, there are some destinations that must be explored. On our itinerary we stopped in Livorno, Italy and had a delightful “light” lunch at the Fattoria San Donato – an organic wine farm tucked away in the Tuscan countryside. That “light” lunch ended up being quite a spread with all ingredients locally sourced from neighboring farms. On offer was salami, olives, Gorgonzola and bread drenched in garlic and olive oil along with generous carafes of Chianti and a Vernaccia white wine that owner Federica Fenzi encouraged us to drink from. 

Then, we took a lazy stroll inside the medieval walls of San Gimignano, a beautiful Tuscan town that looks virtually untouched for hundreds of years. We marveled at the intricate towers built in the 13th and 14th centuries, savored mouthwatering gelato and picked up several trinkets to take home – most notably small packets of saffron that will turn even the most basic dish into a gourmet masterpiece. 

An ornate chandelier hangs in the middle of the ship, giving guests a sense of the luxury that awaits them on board. (credit: NOA AMOUYAL)An ornate chandelier hangs in the middle of the ship, giving guests a sense of the luxury that awaits them on board. (credit: NOA AMOUYAL)

After a jam-packed day ashore, the night has only just begun as dinner and exploring the ship’s nightlife can have one out and about until the wee hours of the morning. Most entertaining was the Ice Bar where varieties of vodka are offered to guests at -17 Celsius. I wish I could tell you what those offerings were, but I was too cold to absorb what Ralph – our kind, ear muffs and gloved wearing server – told us. I do know the orange-colored cocktail I enjoyed was delicious, though.

So how much would this all-inclusive extravaganza cost? Surprisingly, it’s not as steep as one would think, especially considering the value for money. Per person, depending on the season, balcony rooms cost between $1,600-$2000; the lavish and newly refurbished Haven suites run between $4,000-$7,000 and the studio rooms ideal for single-travelers are $1,450-$1650. 

“After 500 days of not having customers, this is the big cruise comeback,” Wilkinson said. 

That comeback includes introducing new ships to their fleet including the Prima, which will make its sailing debut in August 2022. 

Wilkinson is particularly eager for Israelis to join in on the company’s growth as the Jewish state is the sixth largest international market in the cruise industry.

To that end, much is planned for Israelis looking to Passover 2022 and beyond, with several cruises available that have Israel on it’s itinerary. As for the Epic itself, she will be back in Mediterranean waters in April next year.  

So while Epic may have been my first time cruising, it won’t be my last. 

The writer was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Lines.