Saturday, April 2, 2016

Highs and Lows of Life on Norwegian Epic

Highs and Lows of Life on Norwegian Epic

First, the bottom line: if we were billionaires, we might well spend about ¼ of the rest of our lives on Norwegian Cruise lines. As it is, living off a pension but with platinum status and with Luda finding good deals, we will probably continue at about one cruise per year. This year, we went on two cruises within the past few months, each very different. The highs and lows would be very different for different people, at different times, on different ships. On this cruise, the food, the drink and the spa were the high points on board the ship for us. The clear, absolute low point was the setup of the room, with nothing but a thin glassy partition between the sleeping space and the toilet, forcing all kinds of gyrations for all three of us at night.
       On our previous cruise, on Norwegian Escape to the Caribbean, I spent a lot of time on the ship meditating, especially about deep issues in basic physics. All three of us (Luda, me, Chris) used the rope-climbing system on the ship, and other exercise options. The setup of the room was no problem. To our local Quaker Meeting, I described the experience as “being at the quiet fulcrum of four great forces of nature – the sun, the stars in the galaxy, the ocean of life, and Luda.” But this cruise was quite different. With 13 days on board the ship, and only 4 sea days, I decided to focus more on the unique opportunities on-shore, which Luda organized and optimized to a degree which would curl the hair of people who believe in orderly predictable robust control (except on Majorca, where we walked into the ship two hours before the all-aboard deadline). This time, the ship was more for food, recovery and sleep – though we did see two live shows, both of which included interesting dancing girls and other engaging skits. Because I am scheduled for prostate surgery in 9 days, I resolved not to let hormones flow in my bloodstream the way I used to when watching such sights, but there was still a lot of room for the normal, safe flow of thoughts and qi.
            We arrived at the ship on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 16, taking the local port bus from Barcelona city center. The lines seemed long to me. (20 minutes?). There were friendly local girls managing the lines for NCL, and they did not implement the fast lines for gold and platinum customers we had used before. When we finally got to a check-in position, however, the girl was quite friendly and asked what we had seen in Barcelona. “The new cathedral, the arc de triomphe, the far market, the Picasso Museum, the street from the plaza down to the harbor circle, the whole path down the middle of Joan of Arc boulevard, and ...” “How many days did you spend here?” “Oh, we just arrived this morning, by overnight Alsa bus from Madrid.” Ah, the look on her face! And the feeling of pain in my feet... I had agreed with Luda that I needed to build up my body for the coming surgery, so I followed her intense itineraries all the way, and felt pain in my feet every single night... and often more than just my feet.
            On board, they were unusually religious about blocking entry even to the floor of our stateroom, before all assigned cleanups were done. (I never saw that before on Norwegian.) So Luda and I went straight to O’Sheehan’s, where we ordered Thai chicken wings and I ordered Newcastle ale. (Norwegian now offers four types of chicken wings, of which Thai is the spiciest. They were very good, and we came back many times on later days. I slightly preferred their older system, with just one type of wing and a spicier dipping sauce, but it seems most customers do not want as much spice as we would.) O’Sheehan’s food is free for everyone on Norwegian ships, and available without reservations almost any time of day, but the ale would have cost money – except that Luda had gotten a special deal including unlimited free food and drink for all three of us all days. Just that day, they did not have Newcastle, but they had Guinness and Boddington as backups. By the way, Chris went up to the Garden Cafe up top, where there was a broader selection and a great view, where he could have his personal freedom.
            I don’t like the geometry of O’Sheehan’s on Epic, with a noisy bowling alley visible close by on the good side, and noisier video games on the other side. I preferred the old “Ocean Blue” from earlier ships. They say that Norwegian will be renaming O’Sheehan’s back to Ocean Blue in the future, maybe because other folks felt the same, but I doubt they will be able to fix this geometry on Epic! Whatever... It wasn’t so bad, and the food tasted great right then.
            As I eased my feet, Luda eased into some news she worried about. “Well, Paul, we got the food and drink packages free, and we are paying less than half what other people paid for our kind of stateroom, so... I hope you don’t mind... it only adds up to $15 per person per day... I ordered the total spa packages for both of us for the whole cruise.” A month earlier, I would have said.. “better not.” In fact, Luda did ask my feelings in advance, and I pointed out that we have a much better spa right in our own neighborhood (“Spa World”), and that we would have other uses for our limited time aboard ship. But I also told Luda years ago, without reservation or retraction, that she could have absolute top control over our finances (in part because she really knows how to add and subtract a lot more than most people do).           At that moment.... with serious pain in my whole body...I was very relieved to hear we could go straight from O’Sheehan’s to hot showers for both of us, and a jacuzzi and so on. But we decided to go to our stateroom floor first, and were pleased that it was open and Chris was already there. He could use the one (exposed) shower in the stateroom, while we headed up to the spa. After we checked in at the spa, we each went to sex-segregated areas first, for bathrooms and showers. (The plumbing was great and modern, but the water was never as hot as I would have liked – or even needed for sore feet in need of lactase purging – and at a few times not hot at all. Still, on most days, the hottest water was ... OK, I guess... even when I pressed the safety buttons to get to the meager hottest water available.) Next, wearing robe and bathing suit, I entered the common area, where there were oranges, fruity cold water and hot water for tea at the entry. I went straight to the mid-sized baden pool, my rendezvous with Luda. It had six traditional jacuzzi jet stations, three of which had jets as powerful as the average home jacuzzi system, enough to be useful in massaging my feet and knees and other places I didn’t even realize needed it... It also had a bubble pool, much better than other bubble pools I have experienced even in Spa World, powerful enough that I could let my whole legs float and really benefit. And it had a traditional hot tub jacuzzi kind of enclave, an overhead shower post in the middle, and a long row of pipes set up like a very wide water chaisse... (something I never saw before) which is where I met Luda on most days. Our normal routine was for me to start with a shave, a prilosec and some glucosamine, then go out and get sore feet ... and come back to spa and then dinner.
            After the baden pool.. on later days we would go to the dry saunas with spectacular view of the sea and shore (from port side of the ship), one hot and one moderate, and the wet sauna, ending up on the big aft outdoor deck with fresh air and even better view. (Other folks used the regular chaisses and warm chaisses inside, just to read or rest, but not us. We preferred to read outdoors when we did read.)
            Dinner was the main time we used our unlimited meal package to go to specialty restaurants, which did require reservations. (But we were able to switch reservations the same day, on the one day when we wanted to.) For four dinners (starting on day two, coming back from Cartagena), we ate at Cagney’s steakhouse, which was the favorite for Luda and Chris. Chris especially loved the two-pound porterhouse steak, for many reasons – flavor, macho challenge of eating it all, and a good quick breakfast for the next day on the one day he couldn’t eat it all. On our first day there, I did have the two-pound prime rib, which was quite good, but not quite as flavorful as the very best prime ribs I had had decades before; I gave some to Chris’s breakfast plate for the next day, but still I ate too much. The brownie desert with port wine was excellent, as was the appetizer... but the next day my blood stream felt as awful and scary as it did a few years ago when I had too much coffee. I started to worry about sudden onset Type II diabetes... but it was a sea day the next day, and I worked hard on the treadmill, limited food, and went to LeBistro instead of Cagney’s that day. I swore I would not overeat like that again, and the strange blood feeling did not come back; it reassured me that I had survived that feeling with coffee in years past, with no long-term problem, so long as I learned my lesson.
            Later at Cagney’s, I had surf and turf, 12 ounce strip steak with oysters Rockefeller, and 18 ounce bone-in rib-eye without desert or appetizers – all with no ill effect. Luda said those oysters were the best she ever had anywhere. Luda and I agreed that none of the lobster anywhere in the ship would be worth trying again, but we are both spoiled by our memory of really fresh big lobsters and lobster stew we had before in Maine. It may be that the lobster in the lobster bisque at Cagney’s was the best lobster we had on the ship, but the liquid reminded me more of typical bland gravy than any lobster bisque I ever had.
            On the next day after that first Cagney day (i.e. dinner of our first sea day), we went to Le Bistro. I really looked forward to ordering bouillabaisse, which I once viewed as my most favorite food. (Life has spoiled me with many other great meals, but I still love a good bouillaibaisse). I was still cooling down from overeating, but I figured that bouillabaisse after a day of exercise and less food would be OK. It was, but the bouillabaisse was quite strange. They made a show of it, first dumping a big pile of seafood into my bowl, and asking if I wanted any fluid with it. It was good seafood, but not at all what I think of as bouillabaisse. They were surprised I asked for all of the fluid. (“How much gravy does the guy want on his pile of seafood?”) It reinforced a certain stereotype of what kind of customer they might be catering to, but no, not the ugly Americans; Americans were very much a minority on this particular cruise. (We have lots of memories of Australians, British, Irish, Iberians, even Russians. The Australians complained more than the others, but the Iberians used more body language to get what they wanted.) I enjoyed the French onion soup and the escargots much better than most of what I have experienced elsewhere, but I only ordered them that first day, as I gradually resolved to eat less. The escargots were especially tasty and calorific.
            The dinners I enjoyed most myself were in the Brazilian restaurant, Moderna, the churrascaria. This was the old Brazilian custom, where they come around with meat again and again until you turn over your card to red, which means “stop.” No need to overeat. Many excellent choices, which you can sample and return to, at least if they are on a good mood. At one time, in the spa, a fellow passenger asked: “How do you like the restaurants? Some people say they like the food, but not the service especially in Moderna.”  Well, the food was so good in Moderna that I still preferred it, and I did not mind spending more time there. The people were also very friendly, but only half the time were they happy to make sure to offer more of whatever we liked most. Especially good was the picanya, visibly pink/red. I had bad luck the first time with filet mignon, medium (too well cooked for me), but later they specifically came to me with filet mignon medium rare. The cooked pineapple was a nice surprise. There were other good meats, though the ribs were really, really overcooked. The salad bar was also an amazing spread, but oh did I make a silly big mistake the first time taking an innocuous looking green pepper from the salad bar. I also liked the Acai cocktail, which really did soothe my mouth a lot after that burning green pepper (but not enough by itself).
            Beyond Cagney’s... there was a time when Chris might have said that Tepenyaki was his favorite. He loved the basic (asuka?) surf and turf hibachi dinner, with filet mignon marinated in soy sauce. I ordered that too, but next time I would probably have ordered what Luda did: “edo”, a combination of really delicious jumbo shrimp and scallops, maybe even the tastiest scallops of my life. The “surf” part of akura was lobster, cooked OK, but when lobster is not fresh enough, that’s like stale sushi. The cocktails were both very tasty, and Luda declared the miso soup to be the best she ever had. (Well... I have had more miso soup in my life.)
            On sea days, for lunch, they also opened a sushi type bar, “Wasabi.” Even with our plan, we had to pay $7 total per person to gorge ourselves on their stuff, but we got more than our money’s worth. In fact, that was the best food of all, to my taste. Luda and I began with their cocktail and with a plate of salmon and hamachi sashimi. A restaurant in McLean has the best salmon sashimi we have eaten anywhere on earth (including Japan and China), but maybe this was next best. But the hamachi was unearthly good. (Chris also loves salmon sashimi and was excited by the hamachi, his first.) After that first round, I ordered “Hawaiian poke,” but the chef was wise enough to serve me hamachi poblano instead. That was not so large, but it was probably the best tasting dish I had in this entire trip. Later (we didn’t just run away from this place!), the chef on the second shift actually served real Hawaiian poke – probably better than any other poke I ever had, in mainland US or Hawaii, but still not as great as the hamachi poblano.
            The menu at Wasabi was a little confusing, however. I never saw any normal sushi rolls. Chris got a nice array of (Niri) sushi, but the only rolls I saw were the kind I think of as American supermarket fish-free rolls. The poke was listed on the rolls page.
            We also ate at La Cuchina, the Italian specialty restaurant, a couple of times. On a previous cruise, I had ordered osso buco at La Cuchina – and was a little surprised it was so different from the osso buco I had before in two restaurants in Italy. This one had more meat, like a big veal shank, which Luda liked, but it was a bit heavy for me. I tried the lobster diavolo, which Chris liked... but I didn’t. Uninspiring lobster and big pile of noodles I also found uninspiring, with spice-free red sauce.
            On the previous cruise, I spent a lot of time in the garden cafe, especially for a “cruise ship breakfast,” with hot tea, smoked salmon, herring, stewed berries in fresh yogurt, and accoutrements like tomato slices, lemon and capers. The smoked salmon in Norwegian is still much better than in the old days, but I didn’t feel like gorging on it as much this time, in part because I couldn’t balance it out as much as before, and in part because of our tough schedule on this trip. The herring was still excellent, better than what we get at home, but I ended up balancing it out with a strip of sausage (and tomato slices). BUT – the horror story on yogurt, milk and berries was one of the greatest disappointments on this trip, second only to the bathroom geometry. In all fairness, Luda did note something new and good – fresh blackcurrant berrries, with redcurrants and whitecurrants. OK, but I only felt like a little. But the only milk and yogurt was in horrible plastic little packages, much more plastic and tasteless than even the worst supermarket yogurt one can find anywhere in the US. (It reminded me a bit of the “wimpy” hamburgers one would find in the “Wimpy” chain in England in the 1960s, which made McDonald’s look like porterhouse steak by comparison.) Not EXACTLY tasteless... the assertive taste of chalk was pretty strong.   
            Does that cover it all? Well, not quite. Especially, what of that unlimited drink package? What a double-edged sword that is! On the earlier cruise... it almost seemed that “waste not want not” would call for us to get our money’s worth, and consume the most alcohol we could. But really? Still, we did have a fair number of drinks on most days. We missed the wonderful wine bar on Norwegian Escape, which let us enjoy sampling across all the wines onboard, but we remembered what we liked, even though they used a trick of making many wines available only by the bottle (for which they charge even under unlimited drinks!). Sometimes they let me order my favorite moscata on the package, sometimes not. The standard ship mai tai was a lot blander than the usual average real thing, but SOME nice bartenders would listen to Luda when she asked for a specific improved recipe. (My favorite Mai Tai is not Trader Vic’s, which is still quite good, but the special blend at a restaurant called Peking Gourmet Inn near our house. Luda could come close...). I also liked the Hazelnut Pina Colada up at the H2O bar, and even the Long Island Ice Tea which Luda ordered on several days.
            Onshore, we did buy a few bottles of wine to bring back as presents to friends. The ship would not lose anything if we were dumb enough to buy wine onshore instead of consuming their wine at no cost to us, but their “corking” policy has no exceptions even for people on the unlimited drinks package! So we checked in the wine on each such port visit as we entered the ship. Their policy says we can’t get it back until the morning we disembark; that would have caused us real risk and trouble in our case, when we needed to depart early on Monday March 28 to make our flight, but they made an exception and allowed us to pick it up and pack it away the night before.
            What of the nice pool and slides in the picture? (No rope climbing here.) Luda did use the slides, and even went to some of the late parties. I joined her half-conscious at some of the atrium events (like big trivia and karioke contests) in the evening, but mostly went to bed earlier and exhausted. I used the pool just once: on the day we embarked, as the pool was just filling up with cold water, about three inches deep, I used it to cool down my aching feet, actually before we went to O’Sheehan’s.
            About half the time when we went to O’sheehan’s, they tried to seat us on the bad side, by the arcade machines, where most seats were high bar type seats. But I remember Chris’s shock when the  menu there did not include his Chicago style hot dog, his favorite in that place. The waiter took us back to the seater, who then offered us a choice of “sharing table” or bar-style high table in the good area... but changed her mind, and let us have a normal table. Later I asked for sharing table (a big round table where they can seat multiple groups).
            That’s all I can remember of significance of the on-board part of the trip. Probably Luda and Chris remember more... well, we had a nice balcony with a view of the aft and room for two chaisses and a couple of chairs... part of Luda’s agile advance planning, and monitoring of the ships and the company.

            Our first cruise, long ago, was on Carnival. That prevented any further cruises for years. But once we started on Norwegian, we had little interest in trying other lines. We are open-minded in principle, but...  


Later addition: oh yes, no internet and very limited TV. On the previous cruise, we did pay for a few minutes of internet at the business center, just to print our boarding passes, but it was a huge mess. No more. Chris had MSNBC on a lot, while he also tried to catch up on school assignments in the room, but he hated the really strong liberal commercials. The BBC News available was much more sports than news, and there was nothing like the France24 we watch at home when CNN goes off course. But MSNBC certainly covered the terrorist bombings in Belgium and Pakistan, which made us wonder how our own airport might be affected. Some things made no sense until we got home and got more information. The solid free wifi at Barcelona airport was in many ways our first news in weeks (not counting the brief mobile wifi in a van, discussed in my blog post on Positano). That helped make it a real vacation, though it was interesting to hear what Australians and Canadians thought about the US primaries, at the sharing table in O'Sheehan's.

Even later: for completeness, I should have said something about the garden cafe and the Chinese restaurants, and more about the garden cafe. The Garden cafe, on the top floor, is in many ways the core of NCL's free style dining strategy; we also think of it as including the food and tea stands just outside of the cafe proper, by poolside, open for more times. In past cruises, we spent a lot more time in the Garden Cafe and Manhattan Room, but this time we mostly would just grab a quick plate at the garden cafe for breakfast, because of our port day plans. There were a lot of choices aimed at a general audience; the eggs benedict were something of a lifesaver for me, but I also was able to take the cottage cheese and blueberry compote just once. We had breakfast at Manhattan Room just once, on a sea day, but only used specialty restaurants (and the circus show) for dinner. Luda was very happy when they advertized a Latin American dinner night at the Garden Cafe, and gave it an early try; she liked the pork, but there was no sign of anything like the sopa da mariscos, the food I really enjoyed most in Mexico.
     I'm not sure what it would be constructive to say about the Chinese restaurants. We have learned that there is not just one "true authentic" style of Chinese cooking, but even the poorest rustic Chinese restaurants we have visited, or American strip mall Chinese restaurants, have a certain flair or tang. These did not. Chinese cooking does deserve to be on the ship, but we only went once to each of these restaurants, and later felt sad that we wasted time in the attempt.

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