Oceania Brings Us the Riviera

| Friday, 25 May 2012

Oceania introduced Riviera to the Oceania Cruises fleet with a lovely christening ceremony (watch the video) held mid-cruise in Barcelona on May 12, with Cat Cora, the Food Network's only female Iron Chef, as the godmother. Riviera is the sister ship to Marina, introduced in February, 2011, and together these two spacious and elegant ships have redefined Oceania. Capacity combined they now make up two-thirds of the Oceania fleet.

If someone asked for my professional opinion, and in fact I get asked this quite a lot, I would say these ships are among the best at sea – when you consider all the elements that comprise the ideal cruise to me. Why? I believe there is a ship for everyone, but certainly not everyone will like the same ship. My personal preference is for ships built primarily for travel – and Oceania focuses on port-intensive itineraries, often in port every day of a cruise, making it a great line for travelers.

The best cruise travel includes excellent cuisine, because eating well is one of life's best pleasures. For cuisine, Riviera and Marina both provide a formidable culinary consistency that I have rarely seen at sea, even on so-called luxury cruise lines.

Finally, it must provide a night of perfect relaxation and sleep to restore me for the next port of call. The staterooms are roomy and accommodating, with luxurious king-size beds and pillows with Ralph Lauren linens.

To top it off, Riviera is just a gorgeous ship, with beautiful décor, original artwork, good entertainment and quiet but attentive service. Add the philosophy that exciting destinations are the primary reason to board a ship, and Oceania is now among the best cruise experience anywhere – at least for me.

Does the Oceania Riviera appeal to you? Discuss it here in the Oceania forum.

The Culinary Details

Most of the cuisine served aboard Oceania was developed by the popular French chef Jacques Pépin, known for his 1960s television series on PBS. Pépin is now 76-years old and still is far more interested in preparing amazing food than branding his own name – like so many modern chefs.

In fact, Pépin had never opened a single restaurant in his own name until last year when Oceania's Marina set sail with the intimate and eponymously named "Jacques" onboard. (There is also a "Jacques" on Riviera). His authentic French menu features classic dishes like French black foot free-range chicken, warm pistachio and truffle sausage, pumpkin soup ladled from a real carved pumpkin and Brittany-style Maine lobster. Best of all, there is no additional charge to dine there.

Nor is there an additional charge to dine in any of the other five main restaurants onboard Riviera and Marina including the Polo Grill for steaks and chops, Toscana for abundant Italian and the Grand Dining Room as the regular restaurant. In addition, there is Red Ginger which qualifies as one of the best Asian Fusion restaurants at sea, with only Nobu aboard the Crystal ships as a rival.

The line does not include alcohol or gratuities in its cruise fare, but you can purchase a house wine and beer package for a very competitive $29.95 per person per day. To add spirits the daily price becomes $49.95 per person.

Even more Culinary Options

For those who want to avoid the calories, Oceania is one of the few cruise lines affiliated with Canyon Ranch Spa for its healthy choice menu items.

People who love good wine can try La Reserve sponsored by Wine Spectator Magazine; a series of seminars on wine pairings and tasting (cost: $95 plus gratuity).

Everyone should try the Bon Appétit Culinary Center - the only cooking classes at sea where not only the chef, but also the guests have an actual kitchen work-station with sinks, induction heating elements, whisks, knives and real ingredients. Other cruise lines only have show kitchens where you can watch the chef. I made my own frittatas, scones and poached eggs. Add this to watching the 24-hour Jacques Pépin channel on the stateroom television, and I feel ready to open my own restaurant.

Other Onboard Attractions

Other onboard attractions include arts and crafts classes, hands-on materials supplied. For inspiration, both new ships come with an extensive multi-million dollar all-original art collection, with the exception of a few limited-edition Picasso prints on each ship. There is also an expansive library.

Each ship has a production-show theater with a 10-piece show ensemble and a seven-piece orchestra. The theaters are nice but not the high-tech extravaganza venues you see on mega-ships. But the advantage to that is stage shows (produced by industry veteran Jean Ann Ryan) with more emphasis on talent than "special effects." The tribute band "Beatlemania Now" also appeared on my cruise, but different special artists will appear on various cruises.

The Spa is run by Canyon Ranch Spa. Oceania is one of the few cruise lines in the world not to have Steiner Leisure for its shipboard spa services. One of the few rare differences aboard Riviera is a thelassotherapy pool in the spa in place of two hot tubs on Marina.

But other than décor and the spa pool the two new ships are nearly identical. When these two new ships were originally announced in 2007 CEO Frank Del Rio said "Good things come in threes," but times change and on this cruise he said "If there is to be a new ship it will probably go to Regent with a few years." Regent is the luxury sister cruise line to Oceania and Del Rio is CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, the parent company for both lines.

About the Chief, Frank Del Rio

I want to add something about the personality behind Oceania Cruises; Frank Del Rio. He was with Renaissance Cruises in the 1990s when it went under, once a very popular cruise line that just made a few fatal errors which Frank outlined in this New York Times article.

Frank started Oceania with just one of the repossessed Renaissance ships in 2002, and grew slowly by adding more former R-ships until the line was acquired by a private equity firm, Apollo Management in 2007. Oceania now enjoys the same cult-like following that Renaissance held in the 1990s - solidly booked at very healthy prices. Apollo gave Frank a nice compensation when he sold the line, plus he now serves as CEO for both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. It's a classic American success story.

Amazingly, Del Rio built these most enticing cruise ships, yet he has never set foot aboard a competing cruise ship. (Inviting a cruise line executive to sample the competition is an industry courtesy). Frank doesn't care about the "conventional wisdom" of other cruise lines. He would rather take his cues from his customers. "I just built the ship that I would want to take a cruise on myself," he told us.

Frank Del Rio has very good taste.

Does the Oceania Riviera appeal to you? Discuss it here in the Oceania forum.

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