It was July in the Caribbean, and we were freezing.
Five new friends and I, all of us solo travelers, were in the Ice Bar aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic, shivering beneath silver ponchos with furry hoods. We had paid $20 each for the privilege of having two drinks while sealed inside this 17-degree freezer at sea.
We peeked out from our hoods to take in the bar made of ice, the 7-foot ice sculptures — a Viking and a bear — and the ice benches with their white faux fur throws. The LED lighting, designed to evoke the aurora borealis, morphed from red to blue to green to yellow. Me, I was just turning blue.
After 20 minutes, Nadja Geipert, a psychotherapist and science writer from West Hollywood, said, "This stopped being fun about two minutes ago." She was right, so we headed for the exit.
The Epic, on the other hand, shows promise of being great fun for those who travel solo.
This newest and largest ship in NCL's fleet of 11 made its inaugural seven-day cruise last month to the Eastern Caribbean with 3,893 passengers aboard. It's big — 1,080 feet long, 19 decks, 4,100 passenger capacity — but is not the world's largest cruise ship, a distinction that still goes to Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas.
But the Epic is innovative. My primary assignment on this cruise: to check out the studio cabins, a block of 128 staterooms on Decks 11 and 12, with direct access to a solo travelers' lounge, a sleek contemporary two-story space with a bar and two plasma TVs.
NCL is making news in an industry in which solo travelers traditionally pay a steep supplement or take a (sometimes unwanted) roommate. The fares for studios on this trip were $1,271-$1,409. One person occupying a double inside stateroom paid $2,037-$2,398.
The concept is a gamble for NCL. Chief Executive Kevin Sheehan, who was onboard for our cruise, estimated that the Epic's profit would dip as much as $5 million in its first year of operation because of the loss of half the revenue from the studios. NCL may not benefit, but budget-minded consumers may.
Stepping into one of the studios was a small shock. They are 100 square feet, about 30 square feet less than a standard inside cabin on this ship. But they are marvels of engineering, with more storage space than I could fill. The bed, two twins made up as one, was pushed against one wall, leaving a narrow path to access a tiny desk with a flat-screen TV above it and two small closets. At the other end of the stateroom were a vanity with a too-small, too-shallow sink, an enclosed toilet module and an all-glass separate shower, with a strategically placed band of frosted obfuscation.
The studios are cute, with a padded white vinyl headboard wrapping around two of the white walls, a purple duvet cover, and green and purple pillows. All are inside, with a big round window that looks onto a corridor (but can be closed off for privacy).
The lighting was unduly complicated and dim. Little buttons with emblems (a half-moon, a heart, etc.) could be pressed to create mood lighting — just what's needed in a solo cabin, said Ginger Moore of Panama City, Fla.
Alas, no one pointed out the room features. Susan Wainscott thought the nice metal-lined drawer to the left of the sink was ideal for her cosmetics. Turns out it was the trash can, and her cabin steward disposed of all her makeup.
Ultimately, though, these were minor annoyances. The solos I met, who chose this ship not for the destination but for the single accommodations, gave the studios a thumbs up.
"I don't enjoy the wild singles scene," said Peter Balmain, a retired nuclear engineer from Austin, Texas. "This is a perfect match for me."
Wainscott, an insurance professional from Winston-Salem, N.C., liked having other solo travelers to hang out with and liked the concept of the Studio Lounge. (But because the keycard system that blocks the lounge from the rest of the ship wasn't yet in place, people felt free to come in and snack and leave or use the space as a shortcut.)
About two-thirds of the studios were sold on this trip, but only about a dozen of us met each evening for drinks in the lounge. Only a line buried in the daily onboard calendar mentioned this get-together.
I had envisioned a young crowd of studio dwellers and figured I would be the housemother. But our core group ranged from 40 to 86 years old, women outnumbering men 2 to 1. We came from different states and different backgrounds but had one thing in common: We signed on because of the studios.
We were guinea pigs, albeit very pampered guinea pigs. "I can't believe how we're being treated," said Geipert, not like "some poor rejects who can't find anyone to go on a cruise with them."
Ship's Capt. Trygve Vorren, a single himself, visited us twice in our lounge. "I like this," he said. Another frequent visitor was fleet hotel director Klaus Lugmaier, who seemed to be everywhere at once, taking notes about malfunctioning TVs or safes, seeing that they were fixed, using his influence to book group dinner reservations for us when we couldn't get them. He arranged for us to have dinner on the house one night at an alternative restaurant.
The solo traveler complex is not intended to be Match.com afloat. The cabins attract couples such as Tim and Cheryl Timmons of Woodbridge, Va., who shared one studio and booked another for their 18-year-old daughter and her friend. Weren't the staterooms just a bit too cozy for two? Tim, a former Navy man, laughed. "I come from submarines," he said. "These are very spacious."
Around the ship
"Freestyle cruising" — a big selling point for NCL — largely means partaking on your own schedule, whether that's drinking at any of Epic's 20 bars and lounges or choosing among its 21 dining options, including pizza delivered anywhere onboard 24 hours a day ($5). There are no assigned mealtimes, no luck-of-the-draw cruise-long dinner partners.
"Elegance" is not a word I'd associate with the Epic's ambience. But the 60 courtyard suites and villas on Decks 16 and 17 are an exception. The one I saw had two bedrooms, two real bathrooms (one with ocean views) and a stylish Asian-influenced décor in burgundy and sand. These suite guests have their own beach club and pool, lounge and restaurant, and private elevator.
The ship has no library, no game room, no organized bridge playing. The median age of guests was 37, "high-energy cruisers," said cruise director Silas Cook. "Bingo is not as popular as in Alaska." Those high-energy types could be found early in the morning at Pulse, the fitness center. Other calorie-burning activities included rock climbing, rappelling and basketball.
There were hits and misses among the activities. The belly-flop competition skirted disaster when John Smithlin from Hermosa Beach hit his head on the bottom of the pool. The next day, sporting a neck brace and multiple stitches, he was line dancing to the tune of "Elvira." ("I can't jump," he said, "but I can bounce.")
Karaoke and trivia drew crowds, as did "Dancing With the Epic Stars," in which staffers were paired with guests. Teresa Perez, 64, of Brooklyn, who did an over-the-top tango with assistant cruise director Matt McLean, danced away with the trophy.
A big draw with the kids was Nintendo Wii on the 23-foot-wide screen in the central atrium. There were 978 kids under 18 onboard, and the Epic was ready for them: three tube water slides (also a hit with the adults), a 24-foot spider web climbing cage, the Entourage club for teens, programs with Nickelodeon characters Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Some guests were miffed at what they perceived as "nickel and diming" — $5 a person a game for bowling, $11.95 for an in-room movie. One could pile up a hefty bill in seven days. The Mandara Spa enticed passengers with Botox, acupuncture and teeth whitening, and Pulse fitness offered detoxing, stomach flattening seminars and the like for a fee.
But there was also plenty of good free stuff, including Blue Man Group, late-night movies in the atrium, multiple music venues for the not-exorbitant price of a drink, an ice skating rink (with synthetic ice) with skates provided.
The six alternative restaurants had cover charges of $10 to $25, but Taste, O'Sheehan's Irish pub (24 hours), the Garden Café buffet and the Manhattan Room were free.
My best meal was in Le Bistro, the formal French restaurant ($20 charge), where I had a good rack of lamb. I also enjoyed La Cucina ($10). Teppanyaki ($25) was more about theater than food. We sat at a counter around a big grill as a Japanese chef (from the Philippines) sliced and diced with a flourish, then flipped a bit of egg into the mouth of a willing guest. Everything tasted like soy sauce, but it was an experience.
Moderno Churrascaria ($18) is Argentine and strictly for carnivores. Waiters appear tableside with skewers of broiled meats; guests keep eating until they've had enough, at which point they flip the little green card at their place setting to the red side. Fun and good.
The food was generally high level, except for the Murder Mystery Lunch and the Cirque Dreams dinner show, which were strictly banquet fare. A noodle bar and a sushi and sashimi bar, both with a la carte pricing, were very popular.
Not as popular, perhaps, as those studios. NCL says they're more than 85% booked through the end of the year.
Solo traveler Louise Leduc, a hospital employee from Montreal, a first-time cruiser and recent widow who had never traveled alone, said, "Even with all the little quirks, would I come back? Oh, yes!"
This could be the start of something big.