For this cruise, leave your mind at home

07/18/2010 12:00 AM

07/19/2010 6:46 AM

Last week, on a Sunday morning, I returned home to the peace and quiet of New York City, from the clangorous, frenetic atmosphere of the 150,000-ton Norwegian Epic. I need a rest.

Now, it may be that on a normal, commercial seven-night cruise, the action aboard the Epic will not be as constantly pressured as on the two-night orientation cruise to which I was invited. Four thousand passengers will not be seeking reservations on the same night at Teppanyaki (Asian sword-masters leaping up and down, banging their cleavers through slices of calamari). All 4,000 people will not be begging for admission to the Spiegel Circus Tent (jugglers and acrobats). Scores of middle-age gentlemen will not be crowding a winding staircase to vie with little children for the right to plunge down a water slide into a giant, toiletlike bowl.

It may be that the Norwegian Epic on a normal cruise will turn into a peaceful haven of quiet and repose. But I don't think so. I am convinced that because of policies carefully engineered by Norwegian Cruise Line to make the ship into an amusement park by stuffing 4,000 people onto a boat designed to be an immense disco, it will be the clangorous, frenetic place I experienced.

I spent most of the two-day cruise looking for a quiet spot where I might sit and converse with someone, or bury myself in a book. I sought in vain for such a haven until I spotted, with relief, a map identifying the "Bliss Lounge" at the stern of the ship, a long walk away. The Bliss Lounge! Sound peaceful? I entered the dark, cavernous room thinking I had found an antidote to the crowds and noise of the Epic. Along one side of the Bliss Lounge was a three-lane bowling alley emitting the constant crash of pins. Along the other side were active billiards tables. Inside was a giant, 10-foot-high television screen blaring with heaven-knows-what. From speakers all about came the beat, beat, beat of heavy-metal rock.

Would you believe that in the scores of individual facilities, areas, rooms, bars and other enclosures of the Norwegian Epic spread throughout 17 decks, there is no library? Not a single book displayed? Not a square foot in which to read? This was a point of much discussion with some of my fellow passengers. We all agreed that we had never once visited a cruise ship, no matter how small, that did not possess a library.

The omission had to be a deliberate decision of the people who designed the Epic, who obviously didn't want to encourage the odd, antisocial and elitist activity of quiet reading. (In all fairness, in a corner of one shop, I found a tiny display of several paperbacks, most of them mysteries, a display so small that it would have been missed by 99 percent of the people aboard.)

No, reading or conversation or attending lectures or learning a skill or discussing something is not what the Norwegian Epic is all about. In a press release issued by NCL the day before the cruise, the Epic instead was carefully referred to as "the world's largest floating entertainment venue."

That it is. It is jammed, in every nook and cranny, with entertainment, not to mention one of the largest casinos found at sea, tons of shops and multitudes of hairdressers. But it mainly contains loud, pulsating entertainment. There are pianists everywhere, rock bands all around, shows involving audience participation to solve a fictional murder (the Second City troupe), the most ridiculous dialogue ever penned to introduce circus acts crammed into a small stage in the center of a dining area (the Spiegel "tent"), dueling pianos, celebrity impersonators aping Elvis and Madonna, the aforesaid circus performers making cracks about gays and following up with a mysterious, faintly offensive march by silent types dressed as orthodox Jewish rabbis with long black beards — all of this part of the "circus," making a point that no one was able to explain.

With the single exception of the Blue Man Group, a genuinely talented show of performance art, there is, as best I could determine, not a single act on the Epic containing a word that appeals to the brain. For every one of the countless entertainment options other than your one-time attendance at the Blue Man Group, you clearly are asked to leave your mind at home.

And though mine was a two-night cruise rather than a seven-night one, it was obvious to me that the atmosphere of crowds, crowds, crowds was the identifying hallmark of the Epic. You are never in a small circle of people surrounded by space; you are continually passed by endless streams of people, as if you were on a street in Mumbai.

As for me, I find my belief confirmed that the smaller ships are the more satisfying ships, that bigger ships are not necessarily better ships, that NCL has brought the industry of cruising down to a debased level, and one that certainly has nothing to do with travel, let alone any activity partaking of intelligence or culture.

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