Reporting from aboard the Norwegian Epic ——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.
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."