epicaerial530-resize.jpgLike Las Vegas, Orlando, and Cancun, the cruise industry’s latest and greatest megaships do not exactly scream “seduction.” But as a connoisseur of all things couple-oriented, I made it my mission to find the most romantic spots onboard the 4,100-passenger, 19-deck Norwegian Epic (shown, right), which made its debut in New York over the July 4th weekend. While my quest proved that Epic – which is the 5th largest ship at sea behind Royal Caribbean’s behemoth fleet – is not exactly The Love Boat, this $1.1-billion, 153,000-ton floating resort has enough features to satisfy couples who appreciate lively ambience and a wide array of entertainment choices. Epic sails seven-night Eastern Caribbean (Nassau, Bahamas; St. Thomas and St. Maarten) and Western Caribbean (Cozumel, Mexico; Costa Maya, Mexico; and Roatán, Honduras) itineraries from Miami, and will head to the Mediterranean from May to October 2011. Here are my tips for creating the best one-on-one time when you’re surrounded by 4,000+ fellow cruisers – and more than a few of their kids.epicnewwavestateroom-resize.jpgDon’t come up short, cabin-wise. NCL’s ships have never been known for generous cabin size, but Epic’s “new wave” design has given its 216-square-foot Balcony and 245-square-foot Deluxe Balcony (shown, left) cabins the long, lean proportions of a runway model. This may look great in pictures, but it’s not exactly apropos to real life. These cabins (949 in total), for example, are not even wide enough for a full-length queen-sized bed. At 5’7” I’m no Gulliver, but unless my head was smack up against the headboard, my heels hung off the bottom of the mattress (and my 6’2” boyfriend’s feet were totally off the bed). Another design gamble was the bathroom – or rather, lack thereof: As you enter the cabin, the toilet is on one side and the shower on the other, both behind frosted sliding glass doors. Privacy is provided by a curtain separating the bath area from the sleeping area – and the small, splash-prone basin sink (which NCL says it plans to replace) is for some reason on the sleeping side. My other gripe: The stationary blow dryer is plugged in under the vanity right where the coffee maker, cups, and glasses are. How many people are going to find the last passengers’ hair in their morning cups of Joe?epicspasuite-resize.jpgOkay, so what should romance-ready couples who want to experience Epic do? Book one of the eight Spa Suites (shown, right). At 322-square-feet, they feature soothing Asian-inspired décor, a sexier (and longer) oval bed, a separate toilet/shower area that curves around the rear of the bed, and a two-person whirlpool tub. Plus, you’ll have access to the Mandara Spa’s Hydrotherapy Courtyard (read on for details). For even more privacy, book one of the six 322-square-foot Courtyard Penthouses, offering access to the Villas Complex exclusive courtyard, restaurant, and bar.epicmandaraspa-resize.jpgSay “ahh” at the spa. Once you get past the semi-chaotic reception area, Epic’s Mandara Spa is a winner. The Hydrotherapy Courtyard (shown, left) – a pass is $30 per person per day, $199 per couple for the entire cruise, or free if you book a Spa Suite – features a three-pool heated whirlpool area, heated tile recliners, saunas with floor-to-ceiling ocean views, and a deck overlooking the ship’s wake. Try a 50-minute Elemis Aroma Stone Therapy massage in one of the couple’s suites ($298 for two). The adjacent Pulse Fitness Center is also state-of-the-art.epictaste02-resize.jpgReserve restaurants ASAP. NCL’s “freestyle cruising” format gives you 20 dining options, 11 of which are included in the fare and nine of which (from French to Italian to Asian) you’ll pay $10 to $25 per person and need to reserve in advance. (You can do so online, starting 45 days ahead of embarkation, or in person right after you board.) Of the free options, I was able to sample Taste (shown, right) for lunch and dinner, Garden Café for breakfast and lunch and O’Sheehan’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill for light snacks (it’s open 24 hours a day). I can highly recommend Taste (for well-executed contemporary cuisine with a nice selection) and O’Sheehan’s (as much for the fun pub ambience and views of the ship’s two-story TV as for the deep-fried comfort food), but found the Garden Café’s buffets disappointing. Of the specialty eateries, I enjoyed the California rolls at the Wasabi Sushi Bar, and I heard from fellow passengers that the adjoining Teppanyaki grill was both entertaining and yummy. For ambience, 124-seat Le Bistro, serving French cuisine, seems the most romantic. On the other hand, the biggest disappointment was Cirque Dreams and Dinner, a much-hyped dinner-theater partnership with Cirque du Soleil. Not only was the food (a $20-extra set menu of lettuce-wedge salad, steak and chicken combo entrée, and chocolate decadence desert) bland and rubbery but the obnoxiously overbearing dialogue and singing of the main theatrical characters made the amazing Cirque acrobatics extremely difficult to enjoy. Deux thumbs down.

Dodge the kids and teens. With three sea days, you’ll certainly want to pull up a pair of poolside chaises, but the main pool area on the Sun Deck features three water slides, an Aqua Park, a Nickelodeon stage, a video arcade, and two surprisingly small pools with five crowded hot tubs. Need I say more? To enjoy quality adult time on Epic, you’ll need to book a Spa Suite or one of the 60 suites in the Villa complex to access the Villa Courtyard’s serene pool and two hot tubs. The one quasi-oasis open to non-Villa passengers: Spice H2O, an adults-only beach club with pool and two hot tubs at the rear of the Sun Deck.


epicicebar-resize.jpgLet Epic entertain you. It’s impossible to be bored aboard this lively megaship after dark: You can enjoy everything from Blue Man Group to Second City comedy to Legends in Concert, a tribute show featuring Elvis, Tina, and Madonna – plus there are 20 bars and lounges. The 13,000-square-foot Epic Casino sprawls across a good portion of Deck 6 and keeps things loud and lively, as does O’Sheehan’s with its pool tables and adjacent bowling alley. Retro romantics can request piano vocals in Shaker’s martini/champagne lounge or classic rock tunes belted out by the dueling pianos of Howl at the Moon in Headliners. Cool off from 5pm-10pm in the SVEDKA Ice Bar (shown, left), which at 17 degrees is one of only 14 ice bars in the world and the first at sea. For $20 each, you’ll be outfitted with coats and gloves and enjoy two vodka cocktails and a max of 45 minutes of bone-chilling camaraderie. Then heat things back up at alfresco Spice H2O or Bliss Ultra Lounge.

How much will all this 24/7 entertainment cost you? Balcony and Deluxe Balcony staterooms start at $949 and $1,149 per person, Spa Suites are $2,699 per person, and Courtyard Penthouses are $5,499 per person. Specials are available, so check ncl.com and cruise websites for the best prices before booking.

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