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An Epic Journey Ending In Caribbean

Barnacled and bruised, and beleaguered since birth, the Norwegian Epic is riding off into the sunset next spring. Perhaps the sun will be kinder to the big ship in Barcelona because, on this side of the ocean, the sun appears to have done melanoma-like damage.

EpicAmong the critics, that is.

The Epic arrived in New York in the summer of 2010. Despite her size (4,100 passengers minimum and close to 6,000 maximum), she was never the biggest. She was never the prettiest, sometimes derisively described as the ship with a box-top hat. She was never duplicated and when the idea of a potential sibling was aborted before Norwegian spent any more on the plan it only added to her unpopularity.

Yet we loved the Epic.

We were fortunate enough to cruise on her twice. She was the biggest “freestyle” ship anywhere, and that helped. She introduced Blue Man Group to the seas, and that was better than we anticipated. With a somewhat unorthodox traffic flow, there were pre-launch predictions of line-ups everywhere, but they never materialized. Only on the Epic was serious attention paid to accommodation for singles, and that made her a trend-setter.

Maybe it was because her first master, Trygve Vorren, was as nice a captain as we’ve ever met after being told he wouldn’t be, and because we had a chance to know him a little, not many months before he boarded the big cruise ship in the sky. And that his successor, Slam AllenFrank Juliussen, was just as warm, as honest and as entertaining…two years later. Maybe it was because Slam Allen blew us away with his performances at Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club on the Epic, even though we’re not huge fans of fat cats, jazz or blues.

The disaster in the cabins — sort-of see-through bathroom doors — was so much a non-starter with passengers that two years ago (when she was a two-year-old) readers of Travel Weekly picked the Epic as the “best overall individual cruise ship” for the third year in a row, and that same year Porthole Magazine named her the “Best Mega Ship.”  She has also been decorated for her entertainment, new restaurants, gambling venue and family appeal.

In what has to be an unusual marketing ploy, Norwegian is promoting her final Caribbean cruises as the Epic’s “Farewell Tour in the Caribbean” when her cruising days there end next April. Judging by the ship’s passenger popularity, it’s probably a certainty to sell out.

Why is the Epic leaving?

Norwegian has launched two ships (Breakaway and Getaway) since the Epic and two more (Escape and Bliss) are coming. The place to start new ships is always in the Caribbean, the world’s cruising hotspot, and there is a limit to a cruise line’s capacity. So it is time for the Epic to move on, perhaps to calmer waters.

It’ll be interesting to see how Europeans take to her. Undoubtedly, the Epic will undergo some changes to cater to Europe’s tastes and culture. They’ll have her for three years, minimum, and probably longer. However, if she’s not welcome, there’s a lot of us who would take her back.


Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Carnival Sensation
4 nights
November 16, 2014
Port Canaveral (return): Freeport, Nassau
Inside: $119
Cost per day: $29

An Epic Move in Norwegian Entertainment?

EpicOf all the cruise ships we've sailed on, the Norwegian Epic still ranks at or near the top of the list. This, despite the fact that many have railed against it as the ugly duckling of the family for any number of reasons, starting with its "box top" appearance.

Frankly, what a ship looked like never bothered us one way or the other. We were more concerned with where it was going, how comfortable it was if there's turbulent waters, how easy it was to navigate, what it had to offer on board, if its people were friendly and interesting, and what came out of the kitchen.

We love the Epic.

So now it's going to Europe, to be based in Barcelona. Oh, to be in Barcelona, a city we also love…

We do have a question about the Epic's new life: What about the entertainment?

Norwegian specializes in entertainment. It was on the Epic that we first saw Blue Man Group, not once but twice. It was in the Epic that we were introduced to the Slam AllenLegends in Concert. And it was on the Epic that we met and enjoyed a jazz/bluesman named Slam Allen — it appears we weren't the only ones who liked him, because Norwegian moved him and his band off the Epic and onto a newer, "prettier" ship, the Breakaway.

But what happens in Europe?

Do Europeans feel the same way about the glitzy performances of "legends" whom some — not us — might call poor imitations of the real Michael Jackson, the real Rod Stewart and the real Whitney Houston?

Eric Clapton notwithstanding, do Europeans find the blues (assuming that Slam Allen was succeeded by another blues band) as comforting and entertaining as North Americans do?

We're told that Blue Man Group played for tiny audiences in Europe…will it have a permanent place on the Epic?

Since its arrival in late 2010, the Epic has had its toe in European waters each summer, so Norwegian's decision to send it off to Barcelona was not done without research, of course. But those were just summer sailings and we wonder if this maligned yet popular ship will have what it needs the most: European entertainment sustainability.

Otherwise, the Epic will never be the same.

Celebrity Summit
7 nights
May 4, 2014
Bayonne (return): King’s Wharf
Inside: $494
Cost per day: $70

A Slam Dunk: Breakaway's next

Before Norwegian Cruise Line came calling, Harrison "Slam" Allen had been on a cruise ship once. It was in Scandinavia, at the Hooter Blues Festival — not the Hooters you're thinking of, but a tour orchestrated by Maury "Hooter" Saslaff.

Slam Allen parlayed his maiden voyage into a multi-week tour of Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. He doesn't remember the ship, only that it was huge and booked, and he never gave a thought to making a career of playing his blues and soul and jazz numbers for a living while sailing the high seas.

And now he does.

Slam Allen is a star on the Norwegian Epic, but only until the end of next month. How good is he? So good that Norwegian has signed him to be the headliner on its new ship, the Breakaway, when it's launched in May.

This is a perfect fit.

Not only is he popular with passengers, but he's from New York — albeit upstate — and so is the Breakaway, or at least it will be after making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Before agreeing to be the Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club's signature performer when the Epic arrived in 2010, Allen was one of those multi-talented entertainers playing just under the radar…yet around the world.

"I was basically unknown," he says. "Norwegian didn't really know who I was. They didn't really know what I was going to do. As soon as I started doing it, It became an instant success. and now I've got the formula. One night a guy 86 years old came up to me and said: 'I never listened to this stuff my whole life, but I like you.' It really convinced me I'm doing the right thing. I finally understand now who I am. Norwegian helped me do that. Then, I was still trying to find my way, trying to find exactly who I was. I felt like I could play a little bit, like I could sing, but it was me being me is what people liked. I know now what to do and I put it into a formula every week."

At the end of February, he'll take his two-month break. When he returns, it will be on the Breakaway. That will extend his Norwegian agreement, one that has worked well for both sides.

It began when he was playing the Terra Blues Club, on Bleecker Street in New York City.

Allen remembers it like this:

"The manager, a friend of mine, knew an agent named Ben Carizzo, who was looking for a blues band. I was at a crossroads, where I want to try something different, and I was in the right place at the right time. Ben liked what he saw, saw some videos, and he sent that to the Norwegian corporate office…the rest is history. They said 'We want you to be part of the family and stay here for a long, long time.' And I will, until I say 'Enough.'”

The last time Slam Allen said “enough” was after eight years. He was touring with James Cotton, considered one of the greatest blues artists of all time. Allen played guitar and sang lead vocals for Cotton, who lost his voice after battling throat cancer in the ‘90s.

“After eight years, this was going nowhere for me," says Allen. “They were coming to see him, not coming to see me. As much as it was a privilege to play with him, and one of the highlights of my life, I had to step out. I had to kick it up a notch and go on my own. He's a legend. Hopefully I can be one, but the only way I could was to leave that situation. I left in 2010. Now I'm building Slam Allen as a brand.”

To that end, he’s going to host a theme cruise on the Breakaway — the Slam Blues Cruise for fans of Slam Allen who want to hang out with him. He's taking a week off in June to be on the ship conducting everything from a songwriter's workshop to late-night jam sessions to playing (this is a week off!) at a venue in Bermuda, where the Breakaway stops for three days.

Slam Allen's already come a long way…from a rookie, riding a cruise ship in Scandinavia, to spending two-thirds of his days on Norwegian's best ships.

Coral Princess
14 nights
April 6, 2013
Fort Lauderdale, Aruba, Cartagena, Panama Canal, Fuerte Amador, Puntarenas, Los Angeles
Inside: $999
Cost per day: $71

A Peek Inside a Slam Show

In the first of his two 90-minute sets that evening, "The Soul Working Man" kneeled before a cruise passenger, took her hand and sang a moving tribute. Before returning to the stage to continue his rollicking, impromptu show he explained to the other passengers that this woman wasn't supposed to be there.

"She's been walking with Mr. C," Slam Allen said. "I know what that's like because my father walked with Mr. C before he died."

His defiant challenge to cancer was a touching moment in what is otherwise a show that jump-starts passengers into singing and dancing on the Norwegian Epic, twice every evening, six nights a week, eight months a year. Slam Allen is the headliner at Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club, and has been since the Epic arrived in June 2010.

Most nights, his shows are standing room only.

Allen is not sure why, but he has an idea, just like he's not sure what each show is going to be like…but he has an idea.

Everything's all improv," he explains. "I have a set list of about 200 songs and I pick and choose. When I feel the mood is right, I throw in a song. I learned to do that from research. When I play, I ask myself what would make people feel good, and that's what I do. When I see the crowd is starting to get a little down, I play something a little fast. Every night is different."

Over more than two decades of doing this, the 46-year-old native of Monticello in upstate New York has slowly realized why people come to see him and his four-man Slam Allen Band.

It's Slam, being Slam.

"I'm packing that room every week and sometimes it amazes me — how do I do it? Pack this room every week, with different people and have the same result? Finally, bing, 'It's you. It's who you are, who you always wanted to be.' That's the truth. The person you see on that stage, that's me. Come to my house and you'll see. I'm the same. I like to laugh."

As much as he laughs, there's a serious side to what made him — and continues to make him — Slam Allen.

"I had a spiritual awakening," he says. "The short version is it opened me up, to be able to feel, to feel other people's energy, and be able to take mine and give it back to people. As recently as a few weeks ago, it gave me a better understanding of what I was doing and how I was doing it, how I was affecting people. I had it all my life but I just realized it. Since I was a kid, people just liked me…and I didn't understand why. People always gravitated to me, always wanted me around and as I got older, I realized I have this gift to make people happy and feel good around me. It comes from up above and comes through me, goes through my music. That's how I broadcast, through my music."

Spawned by listening to legends George Benson (jazz) and B.B. King (blues), his music has also been influenced by Ray Charles and Sammy Davis, Jr.

He puts it into focus this way:

"My style is a combination of both blues and jazz. I say blues is the father of it. Jazz came along and sophisticated it. Ray Charles put the gospel influence into blues and made people go nuts. Some people were very angry with him, because blues was always known as the devil's music. Jazz made it acceptable, cleaned it up and sophisticated it. Lot of people loved that style. That's what really defined Ray Charles.

"Sammy Davis Junior…when I saw his passion, it brought tears to my eyes. He sang, he danced, he did impressions, he twirled a gun. He did so many things that you could tell this is what he was made to do. It was his passion. That's what I put in my mind…all-around entertainment that just makes people happy.  I'm one of the last of a breed of live entertainment with the true original form of music, which is the blues. Blues spawned a lot of music, like soul, rhythm and blues, funk, rock 'n roll. I try to cover it all."

Tomorrow: Where is this Epic legend heading?

Norwegian Pearl
7 nights
September 21, 2013
Seattle, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Victoria, Vancouver
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

An Epic Man Called Slam

For Harrison Allen, Jr., his journey to packing a blues club on a cruise ship started in a wrestling ring.

"I wanted to be a pro wrestler," laughs the personable star of the Norwegian Epic's Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club. "I trained for wrestling but I found out it's too hard. It's a rough, rough business. I had one match. I was what you call a jobber. My job was to get beat."

On stage, he's known as Slam Allen and, yes, the name did come from wrestling, but not for what you might think — a move called a body slam.

"There was this person younger than I was [he was a teenager]…he was a little runt, like the smallest of the litter," Allen recalls. "He had a stick, like a two-by-four, that he used and he called the stick 'Slam.' I took on that name, and it kind of stuck with me."

While Slam Allen is 0-1 as a wrestler, he's something like 1043-0-1 on the Epic, because that's about how many shows he's done in more than two and a half years. He's always a hit and the "draw" represents the only show he ever missed, because of rough seas.

Wrestling, however, did leave its mark.

" I was fascinated by entertainment," he says. "At the time, I didn't really know pro wrestling was all fixed. I just had a passion for entertaining people and I saw how characters moved people, because people rooted for the good guy and booed the bad guy, and I wanted to be part of that. I just love entertaining."

By then, he'd already had a taste of music as entertainment. He just didn't think of it as entertainment.

"Music had been around me all my life, so it was second nature to me," adds Allen, now 46. "I didn't think I was doing anything different than what my dad and my uncles were doing. They had a band for years. As early as five years old I was on stage to sing and play with my Dad's band. I remember the first song I ever sang — it was called 'Tighten Up'. I was 13 and I was already playing the Chitlin Circuit — Alabama, Mississippi — with my dad."

His late father played bass, regular guitar and drums. He was also a deejay, which gave young Harrison access to a library of records that helped to shape his musical career.

" I travelled with the band for a while, then I was a kid for a while. But music always called me back. In high school, I was playing the string bass, and reading and playing classical music. Bass is nice but you can't pick up chicks with a bass, so I had to get a cool instrument."

That was a guitar.

"What really got me into guitar was when my Dad let me hear B. B. King." he says. "After the first record, that was it. I started to get into guitar players. Then I heard George Benson, and I was into jazz. I wanted to be George Benson. Eventually I tried to take the fluid playing of George Benson and the blues of B.B. King, and make it my style."

Today, his style also includes a touch of Sanford & Son

Yes, that Sanford.

"I grew up watching it," laughs Allen. "I liked the way Red Foxx had this quick wit, the way he could come back with something funny, and say something funny from something you said…he made me laugh. I absorbed it and I became Red Foxx, only cleaner. I have the whole collection of Sanford and Son. I watch it over and over again."

There's a little bit of Fred Sanford in the Epic's Fat Cats & Blues Club, which is eight months of the year, because he's fun…and he's funny. He's also, well, his interpretation of his nickname says it best…

"SLAM took on a new meaning after I got hold of it," he says, "…Smooth Like A Mother."

Tomorrow: Why Epic passengers love Slam The Man.

Carnival Legend
12 nights
April 22, 2013
Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Marseille, Olbia, Livorno, Rome, Naples, Messina, Dubrovnik, Venice
Inside:  $679
Cost per day: $56

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