How much more intense it all was as we boarded Oceania's Marina in Copenhagen after 18 months of enforced home time! And what a great ship to come back to.
I always think of Oceania Cruises as a bit of a 'new kid', although it is nearly 20 years since the visionary Frank del Rio raised this special company from the ashes of the defunct Renaissance Cruises. The proposition was simple: in-depth and fascinating port-intensive itineraries, late evenings and overnights in port, a casual ambience, competitive pricing and great food. What's not to like?
Starting with the Regatta class, the 684-guest intimate ships of the former Renaissance fleet, the company built a great reputation and sound financial footing ready to expand with the Oceania class vessels in 2011, when the 1,250 passenger Marina was launched, followed by Riviera in 2012. Excitement is afoot with plans for the next iteration: Vista is on its way, set to launch in 2023.
Ten years on, it was good to take another look at the elegant Marina. Large by our standards (here at Mundy we tend to focus on vessels with fewer than 1,000 guests), but small in the greater scheme of things, Marina feels intimate and spacious with some breathtaking rooms. The most impressive has to be the glorious light-filled Grand Dining Room, a tribute, as the company says, to the spirit of Europe's marquee five star restaurants - think the Negresco in Nice, the St Regis in Rome or El Palace in Barcelona. Sparkling chandeliers, spotless white napery, elegant rococo style chairs, and the art… well, the art deserves a paragraph of its own.
The world-class collection of artworks personally curated by Frank del Rio and Bob Binder for Marina and Riviera is quite special. Every day we spotted something new, perfectly chosen for its location and displayed with love and care, as if in a private home. Alongside masterpieces from acclaimed artists such as Picasso, Miró and Damien Hirst are captivating gems from emerging artists (Frank del Rio favours talents from his home country of Cuba), classic historic pieces, and a whole variety of forms including painting, sculpture and blown glass.
My question is, does great art on a ship enhance your cruise experience? Everyone will have their own opinion on this, but I err towards a 'yes'. Just as your home décor enhances your day to day life, likewise these thoughtful selections, some of which you will love while others do nothing for you, make your daily perambulations around the ship more interesting.
Oceania Cruises make much of their food offering, to the extent of trademarking their claim of the 'finest cuisine at sea'. They may own the slogan, but that doesn't necessarily make it true. Whilst Oceania's lavish menus and range of restaurants are truly impressive, they may not always be to your taste, and accustomed as we are to the outstanding offerings of a range of top end cruise lines, we wouldn't like to put our full weight behind the claim (even though our weight was certainly more substantial after four days on board!).
On the other hand, there are some lovely touches, such as the extensive olive oil and balsamic vinegar menu at Toscana, and the deft tableside boning of your Dover sole in Jacques.
Selecting your cruise is an interesting process. Sometimes it's all about the itinerary - a destination that is top of your bucket list, for example. And sometimes you just want to be back at sea, on a ship you like, and if you go somewhere interesting that's a bonus. Either way an Oceania itinerary should work for you, with global options as well as lots of choice close to home.
What we like is the combination of 'marquee' calls with unusual ports you might not have visited before, so you get the great contrast of busy sightseeing, beautiful scenery, authentic or unspoiled seaside villages, and access to some interesting local opportunities (made available on Oceania's 'Go Local' programme of shore excursions).
Back on board, the service was a delight, very much from the heart. We enjoyed the variety of nationalities looking after us, all with interesting tales of their own pandemic experiences around the world. Of course we were the vanguard guinea pigs, testing the ship before the real guests arrived, so things were still settling down. We did wonder how everything would work with higher numbers on board, but no doubt it will all shake down nicely in due course.
It was a treat to take another peek at the top grade suites - Owner's, Vista and Oceania. It had always been my assertion that these welcoming accommodations are the best value on Oceania, when you compare them with equivalent sized accommodation (or indeed smaller) on the ultra-luxury ships, and I stand by my claim. Your butler will look after you well, there are lots of inclusions, and the space is fantastic. If you were thinking of inviting family and friends for a celebratory cruise, this would work extremely well, with inexpensive lower category accommodation available, and don't forget the intimate Privée (for ten guests) where you can host a private dinner.
Whilst we are on the question of price, Oceania offers good value with plenty of inclusions, which will be particularly appealing if you are accustomed to a more mainstream product. However if your normal experience is all-inclusive, do take the time to talk through what is not included with your cruise consultant. The extras are of course affordable, but you might find what feels like 'nickel and diming' to be a little bit irritating. On the other hand, you may love the fact that you don't feel you are subsidising fellow guests, and are simply paying for what you experience.
All in all, our wonderful return to the sea also rekindled our enthusiasm for the relaxed and stylish Oceania product, which we have no hesitation in recommending.