It Pays to Wait

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Milder temperatures, fewer visitors and spectacular sunrise scenes after 7:00 a.m. -- these are the advantages of late-season sailing in the Mediterranean. While several European ships sail year-round in the Mediterranean, many ships remain in the region only until mid-November before heading for the Caribbean, South America or Asia for the winter. Late-season fares are better than in the summer months, and you’ll probably find a better deal on your air fare at this time of year as well.

The Show Lounge
We selected Oceania Cruises for this cruise because, in addition to the benefits of sailing late-season, the line’s beautifully appointed 30,000-ton ships are easy to get around and carry only 684 passengers. The open-seating restaurants and resort-casual dress code make it easy to dine when you please and enjoy the ship after a busy day ashore. Oceania's Insignia came through on all these points and turned out to be a superb vessel for Mediterranean cruising.

Ports

Main Stair Case
Our 10-night cruise aboard Insignia sailed from Barcelona and called at Marseille, Monte Carlo, Livorno (for Florence), Civitavecchia (for Rome – two days), Naples, Messina and Athens (overnight onboard). Oceania's itineraries are characterized by long days and many overnights in port, allowing passengers plenty of time to see the major sights in nearby centers. During the 15-hour call at Monte Carlo, for instance -- where Insignia docked on the edge of the famous yacht harbor -- there was ample time for exploring the Riviera by day, experiencing the casinos in action at night, and enjoying the spectacular views from deck. Eleven hours in Livorno allowed for a full day in Florence and Pisa. In Marseille, tours of the city were canceled due to civil unrest in France, and we sailed early to be out of port before darkness. Tours to Provence were able to operate, however, and the Destinations Services department made it very easy to switch from a canceled tour to one visiting Aix en Provence or Avignon.

On the route across the Mediterranean, Insignia provided us with the opportunity to see a diverse collection of art and architecture, from the 2,500-year-old Acropolis in Athens to the modern art of Picasso, Miro, Dali and Gaudi in Barcelona, along with the treasures of Florence, Pompeii and the Vatican, and some extraordinary scenery in France and Sicily.

The Weather

While we could have experienced daily high temperatures as low as the 50’s, this year the Med basked in highs in the 70’s, and there was no rain until the final morning in Athens. Mornings and evenings were cooler, of course, so we dressed in layers, which allowed us to add on or peel off as necessary. It was the ideal temperature for sightseeing and all the walking required to explore Europe properly. Onboard, it was never too cold to be on deck or on the balcony to watch sail-in or sail-out.

Touring Europe with fewer visitors was a real pleasure. The only cruise ships in port with us were the Delphin Renaissance, a German cruise ship that pulled into Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, the same morning; and Costa Allegra and MSC Lirica in Naples. In most ports we didn’t feel crowded, and queues were never very long.

The exceptions were Rome and Florence, which were actually much busier than on previous visits. With the change of Pope this year, pilgrims from around the world are flocking to Italy, so even in November, Rome was extremely vibrant. The line to enter the Vatican stretched four blocks at 10:30 a.m. and visitors thronged around all the major sites throughout the city.

With the shorter November days, dawn was breaking as we pulled into port each day, while departures were often in darkness with a view of the city lights as we sailed away. In the mornings, it was warm enough to be on the balcony and film the spectacular sunrise.

Going Ashore

Insignia’s itinerary was port-intensive, with only one day at sea during the 10-night cruise. On this type of itinerary the ship becomes your floating hotel as you tour Europe, having to unpack only once, a point appreciated by those passengers who had previously visited Europe on a motorcoach tour.

Those who had done Europe independently in the past enjoyed having their accommodations and meals for the day already taken care of, leaving them free to go ashore and explore without having to worry about the basic logistics for the day.

Our ship's limited complement of 684 passengers did not overwhelm any of the ports of call, and many people chose to explore on their own, setting off on foot or taking the train along the Riviera, and into Pisa, Florence and Rome.

The ship’s shore excursions were extremely popular, however, and Insignia’s Destination Services department was well organized, with the morning half- and full-day tours operating efficiently and on time. Although they were obviously more expensive than setting off on one's own, the quality of the tours we took was extremely high and we learned a lot from the highly qualified, English-speaking guides, who shared their wealth of knowledge and personal experience. (Prices ranged from $59 for a half-day to Pompeii from Naples, to $159 for 11.5 hours to Rome and the Vatican from Civitavecchia.)

Onboard Activities

The Gym
Since going ashore was the main focus of this port-intensive cruise, onboard entertainment was limited during days in port. More options were offered during the day at sea, when the guest lecturer gave two presentations and several classes were held in the computer room. This was in addition to jackpot bingo, the daily art auction, bridge and trivia games, golf nets, golf putting, the ping pong tournament and the very elegant Tea Time (served every afternoon in the observation lounge). The stateroom TV provided an extensive list of options including first-run movies, lectures and documentaries, the National Geographic Channel, a wealth of shipboard information with your choice of background music, CNN, and CBS sitcoms.

A variety of musical entertainment was featured in the lounges every evening, and a cabaret or production show took place in the show lounge. In Athens, a folkloric troupe came aboard for a colorful pre-dinner show.

Dining Options

Grand Dining Room
Insignia’s open-seating dining worked very well for lunch (12:30 to 2 p.m.) and dinner (6:30 to 9:30 p.m). We never had to wait for a seat in the dining room, whether we wanted a table for two or were happy to share a table with other passengers. The specialty restaurants, Toscana (Italian) and the Polo Grill (steakhouse) do require reservations, but there is no additional charge. (On our 10-night cruise, passengers could reserve once in each specialty restaurant while passengers in Concierge level staterooms and suites booked twice in each, something we did right away upon boarding.) The Terrace Café turns into Tapas on the Terrace each evening as the casual dining alternative.

Alternative lunch venues were the Terrace Café buffet and Waves Grill, which offered a daily fish, grilled sandwiches, sirloin burgers, all-beef hot dogs, salad bar and ice cream bar. Continental breakfast was delivered promptly to the stateroom each morning and the extensive 24-hour room service menu included a variety of snacks and meals. The dining room and Terrace Café were also open for breakfast offering full service and a buffet respectively. The Express Breakfast of eggs, toast, coffee and fruit was a great way to be served quickly in the dining room before heading off the ship for the day.

Oceania Cruises has gathered a loyal following in its three years of operation and many passengers we spoke with called it their preferred cruise line. The high level of food and service, open-seating dining, resort casual dress code and friendliness of passengers and staff aboard the line’s small ships combine to create a product that fits well with the needs of today’s active travelers.

Oceania will sail in the Mediterranean again from April through November 2006 with all three vessels -- Regatta, Nautica and Insignia -- exploring the Eastern and Western Med, late season, on a variety of itineraries.

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