Oceania Cruises

Oceania Cruises - Cruise Line and Cruise Ship Reviews

Oceania Cruises has a niche almost to itself in the cruise business, above the mainstream lines in terms of service, dining, itineraries, and overall ambience, but not quite up in the stratosphere with the true luxury lines.

That goes for its prices too, which are higher than premium competitors like Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line, but below lines like Seabourn and Silversea Cruises.

For its first eight years in business, Oceania Cruises operated three near-identical sister ships, each carrying 684 guests. In 2011, though, it introduced the 1,258-guest Marina, which offers the same low-key ambience as the older ships, but carries nearly twice as many passengers and has twice the number of restaurants, plus more personal space per guest.

All of the ships have a casual, low-key, country club feel, and days are programmed in a relaxed way, with few organized activities and announcements. Instead, the emphasis is on letting guests relax at their own pace, enjoy the ports of call, and just unwind.

What few activities there are are calm and orderly: enrichment lectures themed on the region you’re sailing; informal health and beauty seminars; cruise standards like bingo and shuffleboard; and classes in fitness, photography, art and computers. The line’s newest ship, Marina, also offers a great Culinary Center for hands-on cooking classes, and an Artist’s Loft manned by guest instructors.

Otherwise, guests are left to their own devices. If you want to be pampered, head to the spa, run by the famous Canyon Ranch. Those in a reading mood can grab a leather armchair in the ships’ comfortable, old-fashioned libraries. If you feel lucky, you can do a bit of gambling in the small casino. If you feel athletic, hit the gym or pool.

The Grand Dining Room on Oceania Cruises' MarinaIn the evening, guests can go dancing or see a movie; sing at the occasional karaoke session; enjoy a pianist playing standards in the Martini lounge, or a string quartet in the atrium; or take in a comedian, singer, or other guest headliners in the main theater.

Since Oceania Cruises first started up, it’s put a lot of emphasis on dining — both the experience and the cuisine, the latter created by legendary chef Jacques Pépin. Like the luxury lines it emulates, Oceania doesn’t charge for any of its regular dining experiences.

Both main restaurants and specialty options come free of charge, though you have to make reservations for the smaller rooms —
• two of them on the line’s older ships: the Mediterranean-style Toscana restaurant and the Polo Grill steakhouse,
• and four on Marina: Toscana and Polo Grill, plus the excellent pan-Asian Red Ginger and the charming, rustic French restaurant Jacques, created by and named for Jacques Pepin.

Dining in all ships’ main restaurants operate on an open-seating basis: just wander in whenever you get hungry during open hours, and the maitre ‘d will find you a table.

The one group Oceania Cruises will not appeal to is families with young kids. By design, the line’s ships have no kids facilities and offer no kids’ programs. Another group that might want to think twice is smokers: Only a couple small areas on each ship allow smoking — just a small corner of the Pool Deck and a corner of the nightclub.

Summary of Oceania Cruises
• Oceania Cruises bills itself as an upper-premium cruise line, positioned squarely between the luxury segment and the premium segment. Essentially, this distills into “pay less, get more.”
• Oceania offers a vacation that emphasizes fine food and wine, luxurious accommodations and personalized service aboard its four intimate and mid-sized ships.
• Award-winning itineraries visit more than 300 ports in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the Americas aboard three luxurious, 684-guest ships - Regatta, Insignia and Nautica – and the new 1,250-guest Marina, the first ship designed specifically for the upper-premium market segment.

The Slow Boat to Europe

Mid-Atlantic Ridge, March 28, 9 a.m. — My stateroom TV displays an icon of our ship on the Atlantic Ocean. Six days after leaving Miami, we have crossed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge en route to Funchal, capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, where we will make landfall nine days after departing south Florida.

Outdoor Dining on Oceania Cruises“I am looking for a piece of land,” my Romanian room steward says jokingly. We have seen nothing but blue ocean since leaving the Port of Miami. A storm is brewing 700 miles north, with gale-force winds churning sky and sea. The procession of whitecaps extending to the horizon is a result of that storm, Captain Jahn Rye tells me on the bridge later in the day.

Our ship, Oceania Cruises’ Regatta, pitches and rolls only slightly, rocking us to sleep at night like babes in cradles. It was another story in November when Regatta, en route from Lisbon to Fort Lauderdale, encountered the tail end of a hurricane to battle 85 mph gusts and torrential downpours that flooded balconies and left water standing in some staterooms. Some of the passengers who endured that journey — courageous souls, no less — returned to cross again on our cruise. “We’re just hooked on crossings,” one of them confides to me as we peer out at the ocean from the ship’s stern.

There is something magical about a crossing. “It’s a great way to decompress,” says Jay, a public relations executive from Boca Raton, Florida. Nick, the British casino manager, says a crossing is more of a vacation than a regular cruise. There’s certainly no rush to disembark in ports each day.

“Going ashore today?” I jokingly ask a dining room steward on our sixth day at sea. “Yes,” he replies, “on the lifeboat tour.”

I had been worried that the sea god Neptune would taunt us with giant swells that would toss our ship like a someone juggling a hot potato. Apparently, the crew had been concerned too — airplane-style barf bags are placed in the elevator landings throughout the ship. Thankfully, none were put to use on our crossing. Our sea was serene.

Into The Abyss
On the first full day of our cruise, I watched on my stateroom television as Regatta charted a course between the Berry Islands and Great Abaco in the Bahamas. Alongside Eleuthera, the map showed no land ahead of the ship until Europe. The shading of the ocean changed from light blue to dark blue, and it appeared that we were sailing off the edge of the earth.

The night before, on the upper deck, a few passengers had watched Miami’s receding skyline, and one said aloud what I had been thinking, “Say good-bye to land.”

On the second full day at sea, we enter the Sargasso Sea and in front of it, the ominous-sounding Nares Deep. Just north of us is Bermuda. Should we fear sailing through the Bermuda Triangle, a region of sea reputed to have swallowed ships? Andrew, the assistant dining room manager, has no fear, but he says he once worked with a Bulgarian who removed all his money from his safe and slept with it whenever the ship rounded Cape Horn. Some places are legendary among superstitious sailors.

The library on an Oceania cruise shipLater that evening, at a cocktail reception in the Regatta Lounge, our Norwegian captain takes the stage, “I’m a little seasick,” he says to a round of laughter. And then, “we’re crossing the Atlantic to Europe. Well, at least, that is our aim.” More laughter. “The next two days look good,” a moment’s pause, “so enjoy it while you can.”

While he jokes about it, Captain Jahn Rye is confident that we will have good weather. He charted the route to Funchal a week before departure, studying weather patterns and currents. “I try to avoid low pressure systems,” he tells me on the bridge as he points to a chart to show me the storms north of us. “Normally, I like to stay south of the low pressure, because the winds blow counterclockwise around it.” Not only do we avoid the storm, he says, but also the tailwind gives us a push as we’re headed toward Europe.

Soothing Sea
On Deck 9 just past noon, the Regatta Orchestra is performing. Two gentleman dance hosts tap their toes to the rhythm, and one takes to the dance floor with a lady from Montreal. There is a spring in her step as she walks away after the dance, and her mood seems to underscore the collective mood on the ship. Dispersed around the pool deck, everyone appears relaxed, happy and content.

With a capacity of 684, our ship is only half full. There are more crew than passengers. We pass our days leisurely. Some sit with their noses in books from Regatta’s excellent library on Deck 9. A former librarian gushes that the library is one of the best she’s ever seen — land or sea. More than 1,500 volumes were added the week before our sailing. The books are new, the pages crisp.

Other passengers wrap themselves in cashmere blankets or cover themselves with over-sized towels to lounge in teak recliners on pool deck. Some are napping in their staterooms. The restless seek activity: fitness programs, enrichment lectures, cooking demonstrations, ping pong, bingo, arts & crafts, computer classes, movies, games, high tea — and at 5 p.m. today, a champagne tasting in the Martini Bar on Deck 5.

Oceania Cruises - cruising the RegattaNearly all activity takes place on Deck 5, and that is one of the attractions of this small ship. On Regatta, you’re never more than a few minutes’ away from one end of the ship to the other. Small on size, Regatta is not small on offerings. The five open-seating dining venues include the Grand Dining Room, Waves Grill and the Terrace Cafe on deck 9, and two specialty restaurants, Polo Grill, a steakhouse, and Toscana, an Italian restaurant, where a polite request will get you a few chunks of aged Parmesan cheese before your meal. While both specialty restaurants require reservations, neither require that you pay an additional dining fee.

Traveling solo, I sat for dinner, frequently, at the Terrace Cafe. Each evening the area was transformed to Tapas on the Terrace. While the selection and quality of food was outstanding (as was all food prepared by Chef Stephane Leday), the real attraction here was the sea and the sunset.

I also dined with others in the Grand Dining Room and learned that my traveling companions were a diverse lot. One man had been on the ship for 42 days straight. A family from San Diego was using the ship to get to Europe, where they planned to tour for eight weeks before returning home on Queen Mary 2. A retired couple from Richmond was doing the same. “We could have flown to Europe for less money,” one of them said, “but this is such a pleasant way to get to Europe.” We would all arrive across the Atlantic without jet lag, as we traversed the half-dozen times zones by moving our clocks ahead one hour on six nights of our cruise.

The World Is Not Flat
Barcelona, Spain, April 3, 6 a.m. — Regatta docks at the Port of Barcelona. Our good captain has achieved his aim (although we never doubted he would miss). Some passengers are staying on board to continue Regatta’s sailing to the Greek Isles.

Nearby our ship, at the end of Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, is a statue commemorating Christopher Columbus’ return to Spain following his crossing of the Atlantic during a time when popular legend held that the world was flat. Sail to the edge, then fall into an abyss inhabited by sea monsters and mythical creatures of lore.

Facing the sea, the explorer points the way for the masses. Many went to the new land. On this bright April morning, nearly 350 of us have returned to the native continent of our forebears, traveling as they did to America: crossing the Atlantic by ship.

Returning to Regatta

by Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.
On Oceania Cruises' Regatta. “We love the configuration of this class of vessel,” say Ken and Nancy from Los Angeles. They’re referring to the former R-class vessels once operated by Renaissance Cruises and now part of the successful Oceania Cruises' brand. The formula for success: good value on small “upper premium” ships. “Upper premium” means that Oceania aspires to come close to product parity with much higher-priced cruises on the luxury ships. Does Oceania succeed? Stay tuned.

What a day in Saint-Malo, France. The walled city is absolutely charming, but it’s not alone in the variety of offerings all accessible in fewer than 40 minutes from the tender landing. Across the bay is Dinard, well worth the short water shuttle transit for a walk along the coastal pathway to admire the Belle Epoque villas and exotic plants that bring to mind Provence.

Not more than 20 minutes from Saint-Malo is Cancale, where we enjoyed a shellfish lunch in an extremely charming cafe in the fishing village renowned throughout France for its oysters.

A drive along the Emerald Coast brought us to Mont Saint Michel, the stunning world attraction that is made even more dramatic by the fact that it is situated in a bay that is home to the largest tidal movements in Europe. Forty minutes after leaving Mont Saint Michel, we were back in Saint-Malo.

Oceania Cruises is docked city center overnight in Bordeaux. Yes, awash in sunshine, Bordeaux is beautiful.

Only 30 minutes from Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion is not only a wine-producing but also a beautiful village.Back on the ship, Regatta is delivering a top-notch experience. Though priced much lower than the luxury lines, Oceania provides a near-luxury experience, albeit with smaller staterooms and bathrooms and fewer inclusives, such as alcohol, prepaid gratuities and as on the ships of sister company Regent, shore excursions. There’s even a charge for soft drinks for now. Spring of 2010 will reportedly usher in free soft drinks and bottled water. Food is as good as I’ve had on any ship, especially the specialty restaurants Toscana and its wheel of Parmigianno Reggiano the size of a Ferrari tire, and Polo, with USDA prime beef prepared to perfection.

Died and gone to heaven? Only 30 minutes from Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion is not only a wine-producing but also a beautiful village. “People here believed that the wine alone was enough to make the village famous,” says our guide, Isabelle Auzely. “They took it for granted that their village was also very beautiful, and so the message hasn’t been widely communicated.” Saint-Emilion has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.

A crescent moon hangs over the rosy stroke-of-lipstick horizon that crowns the French city of Bordeaux. I am seated on the 10th floor at a window table at an elegant Italian restaurant. The view is stunning; the cuisine is “ooh la la” delicious. This could just be Bordeaux’s best Italian restaurant. Unfortunately for the locals, it leaves town tomorrow. Toscana is to Regatta what Harry’s is to Venice. The Chocolate Lasagne is delish, with a glass of limoncello, of course. What’s more to love: No additional charge to dine at Toscana, serving Bordeaux’s best Italian, tonight only.

Today Regatta is anchored behind the breakwater in St. Jean de Luz. Situated in Basque country, near France’s border with Spain, St. Jean de Luz is an exquisitely lovely town that relatively few cruise passengers get to see. Pity. Aside from the town itself, the region serves up much of interest. Tours are offered to Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, to Biarritz, Pamplona and various Basque villages. Then there’s the gorgeous stretch of beach for those who only want to ‘bask’ in the September sun. Certainly, part of the appeal of small-ship cruising is the ability to visit destinations that the big ships can’t reach, beyond the breakwater and far from the crowds.

Regatta has done something that few other ships have done. She squeezed behind the breakwater and dispatched her guests into St. Jean de Luz.

From my table here in the square “Place Louis XIV,” I am witness to a scene so lovely that it engages the aesthetic sensitivity of the soul. Locals outnumber tourists; Spanish mixes with French. On the border between two countries, we are in the land of the Basques. The square is encircled by plane trees (think sycamores) and cafes. Aproned waiters sashay between tables with trays of wine, beer, coffee and water. A church bell rings, a boy rides his bike, white-haired ladies sit on a bench, one clutching the leash of her white miniature poodle, the pooch’s hair matching hers.

At The Praca de Liberdade In PortoAn obese man in a wheelchair sits at a table with friends. Tanned and with bushy white brows, he sips a beer while talking and gently gesturing with his hands. The sun illuminates his kind face; his friendly demeanor infects those nearby. Apparently he is well known in the village, as many people stop to talk to him. Standing, they bend, supporting their bodies with hands on their thighs. The heavy man listens, then speaks, gesturing carefully so as to not to spill the beer that his wife allows him. I say this because it appears that she is his caretaker. The blue bathrobe he is wearing and a flotation device tied to his wheelchair suggests they’ve just come from a therapeutic swim. A good heart gone bad?

The pleasant scene is disturbed by a boy who crashes to the pavement while running. He screams; his mother comes to the rescue. The church bells chime again. An hour has passed with no consequence.

If I cupped my hands, I could scoop up a handful of the sunlight filtering through the plane trees and stick it in my pocket. To capture the light’s tangible texture on canvas, artists poise at their easels. I too try to make the afternoon indelible. Time has little relevance here, except for 7:30 p.m. I half think of missing the last tender. Would that be so bad?

..world-renown for their ports. I’ve yet to duck into one of the cellars, Sandeman’s, for example, but I am in high spirits nonetheless.Sunday morning and Regatta has arrived on schedule in Oporto, Portugal. Yesterday, was a relaxing sea day. We’ve had two of those so far on this itinerary, with more to come. Many passengers have told me that they chose this particular sailing because of the itinerary, not only the ports of call but also for the fact that the port calls are pleasantly punctuated by the sea days. Oceania cruisers, in general, are people who appreciate the cruise line’s destination-intensity. Regatta, for example, typically arrives early in port and leaves late. As a pediatrician from New Orleans told me, “Our routine is to get off the ship early, do our tours, come back to the ship, have a nice dinner and crash on the pillows.” I’ve found that to be pretty much the norm. The passengers on this cruise are people who want to extract as much as they can from the destinations while Regatta is in port. Thus, Oceania’s passengers aren’t just cruisers. They are destination-seekers.

Sunday afternoon, and I am strolling Rua Diogo Leite. It is here that Porto’s popular wine cellars are situated, world-renown for their ports. I’ve yet to duck into one of the cellars, Sandeman’s, for example, but I am in high spirits nonetheless.

That’s because the sunny scene here on the River Douro is a happy one. A small band/choir performs traditional songs so lovely that the gathering crowd has a hard time moving on. Against the backdrop of the river and the colorful buildings on the hillside of the opposite bank, one woman in the choir sings loudly, and slightly off key, but with such spirited bravado that she engages the emotion.

Once again I experience the true pleasure of travel. In A New Earth, the writer Eckhart Tolle gives one reason that travel brings such happiness. Tolle posits that a great deal of thinking, say 80 percent if you want to quantify it, is bad for us. Why? Because thinking typically takes us to the past, where regret is prone to rear its ugly head, or to the future, which is the domain of fear and uncertainty.

During travel, much of this type of thinking is absent. Quite simply, we are content to absorb all that is new before us and live in the moment. No regrets of the past, no fears of the future. I don’t know if Tolle is right in his assumption, but I do know that I often seem to be happiest when I am in motion. How about you?

Oceania Cruises Cruise Ship Reviews

Q & A With Oceania’s Frank Del Rio

by Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.
During a walkthrough of Oceania Marina, under construction in Genoa, Italy, Frank Del Rio, Chairman & CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, talked with us about the new ship, the Oceania brand and the line's upper-premium positioning.

Oceania MarinaRalph Grizzle: With Marina, you’re nearly doubling the capacity of your existing ships. What impact will that have on the guest experience?
Frank del Rio: There is an 80 percent increase in passenger capacity on Marina, but a 120 percent increase in the size of the ship, so the size makes for a more comfortable ship. The guest-to-space ratio is much higher on Marina than on our existing vessels. [Editor's note: Oceania's newest ship will have similar capacity to Holland America Line "S Class" vessels, such as Maasdam, but Marina will have 25 percent more space.] Also, we will have a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than we have on our existing ships [800 crew to 1,258 guests]. We’re elevating the Oceania experience by improving everything that we can — entertainment, the number of restaurant offerings, the guest-to-space ratio and so forth.

Q.How involved are you in Marina’s design?
FDR: Short of having a hammer in my hand, I am involved. It’s Bob [Binder, Oceania's president] and me. He’s been alongside every step of the way. We happen to have common tastes, so it’s not often that he wants green and I want blue. You can see our fingerprint in every room on the ship.

Q. Marina is the first ship to feature suites appointed with furniture and fabrics from Ralph Lauren’s Home Collection. How did that relationship come about?
FDR: We wanted a signature stateroom, and we thought about which American designer best represented what the Oceania brand stands for —casual, timeless elegance. Ralph Lauren was it.

Q. You pointed out in one of the walk-in closets there was no tie rack. Why not?
FDR: There’s no tie rack purposely. We make it a point that we offer a country club casual ambience where tuxedoes and suits are never required. I would be going against my own brand identity if I told you to bring a tie. I don’t want you to bring a tie. You’re on vacation. I want you to relax. I want you to be casual and comfortable.

Q. As we were looking at the space where the Terrace Cafe will be, you told me that one of your pet peeves is standing in line. How have you handled that on Marina?
FDR: We’ve eliminated it on all of our ships. If there is a line, we’ve failed miserably.

Oceania's Executive Culinary Director Jacques PepinQ. The ship designers joke that you’re not building a ship, but a floating galley. How do you respond to that?
FDR: For fine cuisine you need three ingredients: a good chef, good natural products and a good galley, and you can see we’ve done that by creating a very large, well-built galley.

Q. Other cruise lines are sourcing passengers from Europe, but not Oceania. It seems to be a very American product. Why?
FDR: It’s not that we’re an American cruise line; it’s that there is so much demand for our product on our own shores. And it’s so efficient to source from the United States that up to now we have not needed to do a whole lot of sourcing offshore. However, about 15 percent of Oceania’s business comes from outside the U.S. and Canada, with Australia and New Zealand being our number-one, non-North American market.

Q. One reporter said that the closest competitor that comes to mind for this size ship (1,258 passengers) and quality of product offered is Crystal. How do you respond to that?
FDR: We don’t target Crystal. We don’t target their product. We don’t target their guests. In reality, we don’t target any other cruise line. We are what we are. I believe the majority of our new customers that will come to Marina will not come from Crystal. They’ll come from Holland America, they’ll come from Celebrity, they’ll come from Princess. If you take the upper suites on board Princess, Celebrity, Holland America and Cunard, just the upper suites, do you know what percentage of those customers I need to fill Marina? 1.2 percent. So why bother targeting Crystal? 1.2 percent of the upper suites [on the premium lines] fills Marina.

Q. Tell me about some of the enrichment programs on Marina.
FDR: We’ll have the Bon Appetit Culinary Center, created in conjunction with Bon Appetit magazine. Unlike many cruise lines that have some sort of cooking demonstration, which is a look-but-don’t-touch experience, this is a hands-on cooking school. People will pay similar to what they would pay for a shore excursions to attend classes that are taught by top chefs who we’ll bring on board as guest chefs.

You’ll go ashore to a market, bring back fresh vegetables and meats and fish, and the chefs actually teach you how to cook. There’ll be 24 individual work stations with your own cook tops, your own ovens, your own pots and pans and knives to slice and dice, and you’ll actually learn to cook. You can take one course, or you can take a series of courses throughout the voyage, so that by the end of your voyage, you are a seasoned chef or at least you’ve learned how to boil water.

Across the hall from the Culinary Center is the Artist’s Loft. The idea is that we will always have a resident artist on board. On one cruise there could be a resident oil painter who will teach you to paint with oil. On the next cruise there could be someone who teaches you how to do sculpture or some kind of crafts.

Oceania has longer itineraries than most cruise lines, and people want to make sure they have plenty to do. We think the idea of the Culinary Center and the Artist’s loft resonates with our customers, who are into enriching themselves. They’re way past accumulating things. They’re into experiencing things. They want to learn.

Q. So Marina will not be offering a seven-day itinerary?
FDR: The shortest itinerary Marina will offer is 10 days. Her sweet spot is 10 to 14 days. Why would you want to leave the ship after seven days?

Q. What was the response on the opening sales day for Marina?
FDR: In the first 24 hours, all of the owner’s suites, all the vistas, all the oceania suites, all the penthouses went. In one day, 53 percent of the inventory sold [Marina's inaugural season is sold out.]

Fine dining on Oceania CruisesQ. Will Marina offer open-seating dining?
FDR: Yes. Even if everybody decides to come to dinner at the same time we can handle it. The maximum guest count is 1,258. We have 1,577 seats in all of our dining rooms. The idea is that no dining room will ever fill crowded, the waiters won’t be rushed. Now obviously, not everybody can dine in Polo at the same time, because there are only 134 seats. But there will always be a seat for you at one of our restaurants at any time.

Q. When did the idea come about to build Marina?
FDR: During the inaugural of Nautica, November of 2005. It was obvious by that time. Oceania had three ships, the demand for the product was overwhelming, and there were no more R ships to be had. To grow the business, I had to order another ship. So we were planning everything — the design, the architects, the shipyard — and when we became associated with Apollo, we had the financial wherewithal to actually pull the trigger. Within 60 days of closing our transaction with Apollo, we placed the order.

Q. What was the first design element that went down on paper?
FDR: If you really drill down, the first thing we thought of in building the ship was the cabins. And the one thing in the cabins that we designed first, that we said everything had to be designed around, was the bathrooms.

The building of Marina has always been a collaboration between Bob [Binder] and I and Robin [Lindsay] and Franco [Semeraro, senior vice president hotel operations]. We’re very close. We’re not just colleagues, we’re friends. We sat around the campfire, and we asked when we build our next ship, what do you want? Everybody had a list. Maybe we’re boring, but we don’t have many disagreements. We all know what we want. We know what the brand stands for and what it doesn’t. One of the things I think we do well is that we know what we are and what we’re not. We don’t try to be everything to all. You can’t please everybody all the time.

Q. What does Oceania stand for?
FDR: We are primarily a destination-oriented, foody-lover’s cruise line, and if you can stay within those parameters and execute flawlessly, we think the market is huge.