The Line in a Nutshell
Oceania is the phoenix that rose from the ashes after Renaissance Cruises went belly up in September 2001. The line operates three of Renaissance's lovely midsize ships and mimics some attributes of much pricier lines, with excellent service and cuisine and a quiet, refined onboard feel. It's also set to launch its first purpose-built newbuild ever. Sails to: Caribbean, Panama Canal (plus Europe, South America, Asia, Africa).
Oceania is positioned as an "upper premium" line intended to fill the service and ambience gap between big-ship premium lines such as Celebrity and Holland America and real luxe lines such as Crystal and Regent Seven Seas. It goes for a kind of floating country club feel, with a low-key ambience, few organized activities, small-scale entertainment, a casually sporty dress code, an emphasis on cabin comfort, and long itineraries that favor smaller, less visited ports. Prices are higher than premium competitors Azamara, Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess, though they often include airfare to the port of embarkation.
Due partially to the length of these cruises (mostly 10, 12, and 14 days, with some monthlong sailings spicing up the mix) and partially to the low-key onboard atmosphere, Oceania tends to attract older passengers who prefer to entertain themselves and enjoy the destination-heavy itineraries. Most are Americans, and many have sailed previously with Oceania (or even with Renaissance back in the old days). A sprinkling of younger couples usually find themselves on board as well, though children are rare enough to be surprising. Whatever their age, passengers tend to be drawn by the line's 100% casual dress code and ambience.
Because of Oceania's stringent nonsmoking rules, most passengers are nonsmokers. Aside from one corner of the Pool Deck and one corner of the Horizons nightclub, smoking is not permitted anywhere on board -- even in your cabin or private balcony.
Remember Renaissance Cruises? Founded in 1988, it made news in the '90s by building a large fleet of identical medium-size ships and going directly to consumers rather than working with travel agents. Both of these were fairly revolutionary moves back then, and, as often happens with revolutions, this one fizzled. Already in bad financial shape when 9/11 hit, the line was forced into bankruptcy during the resultant travel downturn. Left high and dry, its eight ships were put up for auction to the highest bidder. Oceania, founded by former Renaissance CEO Frank Del Rio, started up in 2003 with two of them (the former R1 and R2, renamed Regatta and Insignia) and added a third, Nautica, in late 2005. The remaining Renaissance vessels are now owned by Princess (Pacific Princess and Ocean Princess), and Azamara (Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest), and P&O Cruises (Adonia). In 2007, Oceania was effectively bought by Apollo Management, an investment group that also owns Regent Seven Seas Cruises and has a 50% stake in NCL. The infusion of cash allowed Oceania to plan two new 1,260-passenger, 65,000-ton ships, which are being built at Italy's Fincantieri shipyards. The first, named Marina, will debut in January 2011. The second, named Riviera, will debut in April 2012. Because the new ships are appearing after this guide goes to press, most details in this review refer to its original three 684-passenger vessels, unless otherwise noted.
Preview: Oceania's Marina & Riviera -- In late March 2007, Oceania announced plans to build a pair of 1,258-passenger, 65,000-ton vessels dubbed the Oceania class, a nod to the fact that they're the first new vessels built for the line. (Regatta, Insignia, and Nautica were all built originally for Renaissance Cruises.) Unfortunately for us, the first of the pair, Marina, was slated to debut just after this book hit the shelves, so we're unable to provide you with a firsthand look. However, we do know some details.
Both inside and out, the new ships will be an extension of the line's current Regatta-class vessels, retaining the same boutique-hotel feel while adding new amenities and a little extra engine punch that will allow them to travel 20% faster (and thus, sail farther on each itinerary). Also, 96% of all staterooms will have private teak verandas, and Owners Suites will be decorated with furniture, fabrics, bedding, and other accouterments from the Ralph Lauren Home collection. The ships will have four alternative restaurants (steakhouse, Mediterranean, Pan-Asian, and French bistro, the latter created by Jacques Pépin), they'll have spas operated by Canyon Ranch, and they'll have activities like cooking and art classes taught by visiting experts. According to the line, the ships will also employ the most advanced systems and technologies for minimizing their environmental impact.
Both vessels are being built by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, while their interiors are designed by Yran & Storbraaten, the architects behind the decor of Disney's Magic and Wonder, Silversea's Silver Whisper and Silver Shadow, and Regent's Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Navigator.
At press time, Marina was set to debut for the line in January 2011, and Riviera was to follow in April 2012. More details about the ships' programs and features are sprinkled elsewhere throughout this review.
Oceania's dining experience is one of its strongest suits, with menus created by renowned chef Jacques Pépin (one-time personal chef to Charles de Gaulle and, more recently, one of America's best-known chefs and food writers). Passengers are able to choose among four different restaurants for dinner: the main Grand Dining Room, the Mediterranean-style Toscana restaurant, the Polo Grill steakhouse, and the Tapas on the Terrace casual outdoor option. All four venues work on an open-seating basis (dine when you want, with whom you want), with meals usually served in a 3-hour window from 6:30 to 9:30pm. The new Marina and Riviera will have nine different dining options, including a main dining room and four specialty restaurants.
Traditional -- The Grand Dining Room, the main restaurant aboard each ship, features French-inspired Continental cuisine in five courses, with a string quartet providing music at dinner. Appetizers might include grilled marinated prawns, frog-leg mousse, and crushed new potatoes with chives and Malossol caviar, while soups might be as traditional as beef oxtail consommé or as unusual as Moroccan harira chicken soup. There are always several salads and a pasta of the day, and entrees are elaborate, well-presented versions of the big favorites (lobster tail butterfly, beef Wellington, steamed Alaskan king crab legs), plus some uncommon dishes: sautéed sea bream filet and pheasant breast ballotine stuffed with morel mushrooms. There's always a tasty vegetarian option, plus an alternative selection of basics: grilled sirloin, broiled chicken, salmon filet, and the like, and a selection of spa cuisine created in conjunction with the Canyon Ranch Spa Club (available in the buffet restaurant as well).
Specialty -- Two specialty restaurants -- the Italian Toscana and the Polo Grill steakhouse -- appear aboard every Oceania ship, both their original fleet and their two newbuilds. Toscana is sinfully overwhelming, serving half a dozen antipasti and an equal number of pasta dishes, soups, salads, and main courses such as medallions of filet mignon topped with sautéed artichoke and smoked mozzarella; swordfish steak sautéed in garlic, parsley, Tuscan olives, capers, and Orvieto wine; and braised double-cut lamb chops in a sun-dried tomato, olive, and roasted garlic sauce. Polo Grill serves chops, seafood, and cuts of slow-aged beef, with all the substantial trimmings: seafood appetizers, soups such as New England clam chowder and lobster bisque, straight-up salads such as Caesar and iceberg wedge with blue cheese and crumbled bacon, and side dishes such as a baked potato, wild mushroom ragout, and creamed spinach. Passengers can make reservations for either restaurant during breakfast or lunch hours at the Terrace Cafe. There's no extra charge, but there's an initial two-reservation limit to ensure that all guests get a chance. If you'd like to dine here more than twice, add your name to the waiting list and you'll be contacted if there's space (which there usually is).
The new Marina (the only one of the two new vessels for which details were known at press time) will have two additional specialty restaurants, as well as two even more intimate dining spots. Jacques, created by and named for Jacques Pépin, is intended to mimic the cozy bistros of Paris and of Pépin's hometown, Lyon. Meals will proceed at a relaxed, friendly pace, beginning with a basket of three different freshly baked baguettes served with pâté, gherkins, and pâté-like salmon and chicken rillettes. Menu highlights will include an appetizer of homemade pumpkin soup á l'Anglaise served in a pumpkin shell, fresh mussels marinière, freshly roasted free range chicken, duck, and lamb. There will also be daily chef's specials prepared from goods purchased in local markets at the ship's ports of call. Meals end with a choice of nine French desserts and a cheese tray. Red Ginger will be an Asian restaurant serving contemporary interpretations of Asian classics. The ships' La Reserve wine bar will also serve special wine-pairing dinners limited to 24 guests, while a little room called Privée will offer seven-course degustation menus for private groups limited to 10 passengers.
Casual -- On the casual side, the Terrace Cafe is a standard cruise ship buffet serving a range of sides, salads, main courses, and desserts. An attached pizzeria serves very tasty thin-crust pies. At lunch, the Pool Deck's grill is also fired up, serving burgers, hot dogs, and specialty sandwiches. In the evening, the outdoor portion of the Terrace is transformed into Tapas on the Terrace, a romantic eatery with regional Spanish and Mediterranean specialties, other ethnic dishes, and home-style favorites served from a buffet. Waiters are on hand to serve drinks and generally be charming.
Snacks & Extras -- High tea is served daily at 4pm in the Horizons Lounge, with a good spread of pastries, tea sandwiches, and scones. Room service is available 24 hours. Guests in Owners, Vista, and Penthouse suites can have full meals served course by course in their rooms.
The staff in the restaurants are crack troops, delivering each course promptly but without any sense that they're hurrying passengers through meals. Service balances precision with friendliness, skewing close to the kind of understated professionalism you see on the real luxury lines. The relatively small number of passengers aboard also means service is more personal than you find aboard the megaships. In the bars, staff tend to remember your drink order by the second day, and cabin stewardesses greet their passengers by name in the corridors. Like many other lines, Oceania adds an automatic gratuity to your shipboard account ($12.50 per person, per day, which may be adjusted up or down at your discretion). For guests occupying Owner's, Vista, and Penthouse suites, there's an additional $4-per-day gratuity for butler service.
There's a self-service laundry and ironing room on Deck 7, in addition to standard laundry, dry cleaning, and pressing service provided by the ship's laundry.
By design, activities are not a high priority for Oceania. Expect enrichment lectures themed around the region being visited; fitness, photography, and computer classes; informal health and beauty seminars by the spa and salon staff; and a handful of old cruise standards such as bingo and shuffleboard. For people who are self-motivated and/or prefer to spend their time aboard reading on deck or in one of the library's overstuffed leather armchairs, the sparse activities schedule is ideal. If you like a lot of organized activities, though, this is not the line for you. Oceania's three original ships have smallish, 19th-century-style casinos that see a fair amount of action.
The newer Marina will have a few more options. The Bon Appétit Culinary Center, operated through a deal with Bon Apétit magazine, will offer hands-on cooking classes taught by guest chefs from around the world. At the Artist Loft, meanwhile, rotating artists-in-residence will give short courses in disciplines ranging from watercolors to needlepoint.
Spas aboard all the line's ships, old and new, are run by Canyon Ranch, which made its name with celebrated resort spas in Arizona and Massachusetts and later opened them at sea aboard QM2 and the Regent Seven Seas ships. Internet access is available in each ship's Oceania@Sea Internet center, at terminals in the library, and via full-vessel Wi-Fi service. All cabins on all ships include a wireless laptop to allow Internet access, though you have to pay to use them.
The good news: You won't be assailed by steel-drum bands doing bad Bob Marley covers. Instead, you'll get a jazz band on deck in the afternoon and in the club at night; pianists performing Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and other standards at the martini bar before dinner; and an occasional string quartet.
The bad news: That's the high point of the onboard entertainment. Each night, the main show lounge presents a comedian, solo musician, folkloric act, or other guest headliner, but the shows don't have the breadth you'll find on larger vessels. Of course, there also aren't any big, bad Vegas-style song-and-dance revues, and for that we whisper a prayer of thanks.
Other entertainment includes the occasional karaoke session or movies.
There are no special facilities on these ships, and the line typically carries very few children.