It’s slightly daunting joining a 4,100-passenger ship knowing 1,200 of those passengers are kids… but with SpongeBob on board it makes for a lot of fun – even if you’ll need a holiday when it’s over, writes Adam Coulter
In the weeks leading up to our cruise on Norwegian Epic I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with my son while he watched the Nickelodeon cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants, so I could get an idea of why it’s so popular.
For readers unfamiliar with SpongeBob, he’s a lovable character who lives at the bottom of the sea in a place called Bikini Bottom with his friend Patrick the Starfish. He works in the Krusty Krab restaurants making crab patties and – well I could go on, but you get the drift.
Anyway, needless to say SpongeBob is a huge hit with small children and the idea of meeting him (and Patrick) was almost like the build up to Christmas for my four-year-old, Findlay.
Big is better
We flew to Barcelona, and as we approached the cruise terminal we played games such as the first one to see the ship wins a prize. Not hard – the ship, as befits her name, is vast, and towered high above all the other cruise ships in port.
Epic is in fact the third biggest ship in the world after Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, carrying a whopping 4,100 passengers. She cruises out of Barcelona during the summer season, operating mainly seven-night Mediterranean cruises until mid-October.
Norwegian Cruise Line has an ongoing link up with Nickelodeon called Nickelodeon at Sea, so SpongeBob and the other cartoon characters are on all the Epic sailings throughout the summer, popping up at character breakfasts and special meet and greets on the ship, one of which we went to.
These take place a few times each day and they give the kids a chance to shake hands and have their picture taken with whoever is their favourite Nickelodeon character.
But the cruise we were on was particularly special in that not only were the cartoon characters on board, but also the stars of various huge (in the US) teen and pre-teen shows such as iCarly and Victorious, plus a film crew, live broadcasts, and meet and greets. The dates for these “All Access” cruises have not yet been confirmed for this year, but if your child is a fan – get on board, as these are a unique chance to meet these TV stars.
The passenger mix was predominantly Spanish and American and then the various other nationalities were evenly split between Brits, Italians and French.
Epic is very much for families (do not sail during school holidays if you don’t like kids), with seven of the 16 decks given over to “freestyle family fun”.
This ranges from the huge water park on the main deck, with the only tube slide at sea; to the kids’ club – the biggest on a ship – taking up a large part of Deck 14 and open to two-year-olds upwards.
Unfortunately, because most of the kids were Spanish, my eldest didn’t want to go there: which was a real shame as it looked like a lot of fun – with a spacethemed play area, an air hockey table and interactive light up dance floor, Wii gaming areas, an arts and crafts area and a cinema – and that’s just for the pre-teens – there is a whole other area on Deck 16 given over to teenagers.
We had two adjoining cabins (which I recommend – some friends of ours, also with two kids, opted for one cabin and regretted it), which gives you the chance to spread out and gives you privacy if you choose to stay in.
Each night there were some really lovely touches for kids, with the chamber maids bringing all sorts of different SpongeBob goodies which included everything from a pillow case and towel, to a battery-operated candle, notepad and pens and of course a sponge.
Each evening when we got back to the cabins my eldest would get increasingly excited at the prospect of what he’d find on his bed, and this of course included the ubiquitous towel animals (of which there were many, including a monkey hanging from the lightshade).
A week on Epic is not cheap. There is a $12 per person per day obligatory tip added to your bill, which over the course of a week adds up to $336 (yes kids of any age also pay tips).
This is not unique to Epic, it’s standard US cruise ship pricing, but a real shock if you aren’t made aware of it. This incidentally is on top of a tip every time you order a drink at the bar. so much food so little time
It is all about the kids, but the beauty of a ship like Epic is that come the evening it becomes a play area for adults too.
It’s worth bearing in mind that different nationalities have different ideas of when is a suitable time for kids to go to bed. In my house it’s before 8pm, in Spain it seems that before 1am is acceptable.
The result of this is that until late there were kids in every available place they were allowed into – whether it was the outside disco, or the Cirque Dreams or the Spiegel Tent. I even saw a child who can’t have been more than 12-years-old trying to get into the Bliss Ultra Lounge at midnight.
It’s impossible to try out every dining, drinking and entertainment option in a week but we made a good attempt. My personal favourite is the Teppankyaki restaurant, which is more like a show than a restaurant, with the chefs entertaining and engaging us as they cooked the meals on hot plates as we looked on. The food is sublime: a mix of Japanese, Thai, light Chinese and Vietnamese flavours, with the tenderest cuts of meats and the freshest of seasonal greens.
For a lighter option try Wasabi, just outside Teppanyaki, a sushi and sake bar, which is great for a quick snack and people watching as it’s located just off the main thoroughfare of the ship.
La Cucina (pictured above) is billed as a Tuscanstyle eatery – it’s basically a straightforward pizza and pasta restaurant – with a $10 cover charge, and ideal for kids. For us the big selling point was its position right at the prow of the ship, with huge windows giving stunning ocean views.
There are too many other places to list (20 in all), but after canvassing other passengers I would also recommend Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian-style restaurant with skewered meats served by passadors (waiters); and Shanghai’s, high-end Chinese cuisine. The former has an $18 cover charge; the latter is à la carte pricing.
Cirque Dreams and Dinner is also a delight. It offers an old-style supper-club atmosphere combined with a wordless (due to all the different nationalities on board), highly entertaining and at times quite racy show.
I’m always in two minds when it comes to shore excursions with youngsters, and so it was that we opted to simply get off at Livorno, Civitavecchia and Naples, rather than do anything arranged, which retrospectively was probably the wrong option.
Hand on heart, I cannot recommend any of those places in themselves – my advice would be to book an excursion to Florence, Pisa, Rome, Vesuvius, Capri, Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast. Anything is better than being stuck in Civitavecchia during a downpour.
Palma however, was a different matter: It was a joy to wander around its streets and have a tapas meal before the fi nal sea day back to Barcelona.
If you don’t like big ships, large crowds or kids then Epic isn’t for you. But if you want the variety and quality of entertainment, superb cuisine and fantastic facilities plus a perfect environment for children, few other ships come close.
My one regret: not seeing Blue Man Group. Oh well, I’ll just have to take another Epic cruise.