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David Darman

Age: 61

Occupation:Beach Go-er

Number of Cruises: 50

Cruise Line: Oceania

Ship: Insignia

Sailing Date: March 25th, 2007

Itinerary: Transatlantic


MY PRIOR CRUISE EXPERIENCE

I had read so many positive reviews of the Oceania line that when I noticed the modest price of the Insignia's transatlantic crossing to Barcelona embarking in my adopted hometown of Rio de Janeiro I enthusiastically seized the opportunity to experience an Oceania cruise. Coincidentally, my first cruise disembarked in Rio back in 1976 when I began exploring the South American continent. The name of that ship was the Christopher Colombo which for you trivia buffs was the sister ship of the Andrea Doria which sank off the coast of Nantucket Island in 1956 following a collision with another liner (bonus points if you know the name of the ship). Since that time I have cruised about 50 times on a wide variety of lines running the gamete in price and sophistication from the "fun" ships to Seabourn and Crystal. Accordingly and not surprisingly, I believe my opinion is well informed and credible. I rate my Oceania cruise at the top in terms of cost/benefit value.

COST.
As usual I used the internet to obtain competitive bids for this cruise. We originally booked a so-called amenities package consisting of a minimum outside category cabin (D), prepaid gratuities, a $200 shipboard cabin credit, and a bottle of wine for $1620 pp or about $110 pp per day. On land one would have to pay almost that much just to eat as well as we did while on board. No wonder the cruise industry is booming. Cruising provides tremendous travel value. Shortly before sailing we accepted an offer from our TA to upgrade to a midship B2 balcony cabin for an additional $200 pp. My self satisfaction at having found a great deal was tempered slightly when I spoke with some passengers from the states and Canada who purchased the air/cruise packages for which Oceania is known. These packages afforded even greater value because the air component is priced ridiculously low compared to regular open jaw airfare, in this case from the USA gateway city to Rio and then back to the USA from Barcelona. The tight scheduling of this packaged air tends to be frenetic and is not for the faint hearted, but I believe deviations that allow more relaxed arrival and departure times/dates are available at a modest cost. Oceania air packages were not available for So. American residents from our USA based agent. Fortunately, TAP (Portugal) airline offers a reasonably priced one way fare from most cities in Europe to Brazil.

EMBARKATION AND DISEMBARKATION
Embarkation was pretty much a non-event. After a 20 minute taxi ride from our apartment to the terminal we left our bags with the porters and then had to wait in line about 15 minutes before receiving our boarding cards. We subsequently learned there were only 398 passengers on this sailing, a 60% occupancy rate. The absence of photographers at the gangplank also facilitated the boarding process. In fact, there were no ship photographers at all, a phenomenon probably precipitated by the advent of digital photography. There was a well attended class on board that dealt with computerized digital photography.

We encountered a minor glitch when we arrived at our deck 6 cabin. The key card didn't open the door so I had to hoof it down to Reception on deck 4 to ask for help. Time spent waiting in the hall passes slowly when one is eager to explore a new ship so I revisited Reception 5-10 minutes later when the "be right there" security guy wasn't right there. Hey, I had very high expectations after reading all those cruise critic accolades and here I was locked out of my cabin. While revisiting Reception I was a bit surprised to learn that the security chap had not been advised of our plight and only learned of it while I was there the second time. He then came to our room and fixed the door lock - something to do with the battery in the lock itself, not the key card. This problem reoccurred twice during our stay and was the only annoying glitch during the entire cruise - almost. I had requested a small fridge and when we were finally able to enter our cabin it's absence was conspicuous. I called Reception and they said they would send someone with a fridge, which they promptly did. Except it didn't work. So I asked Reception to send a replacement which they promptly did, except that one got as hot as an oven for the 3 hours our wine and meds were in it. Were these first negative impressions of Oceania a harbinger of things to come? Was I in for a constant assault on the high expectations I had brought to this party? Happily, no. We finally got a working fridge and the wine sommelier replaced a bottle of white that had cooked to the point it may have been spoiled. So much for the negatives. It turned out that these minor incidents were an anomaly and it was smooth sailing for the rest of the cruise, both figuratively and literally. The weather for the crossing was exceptionally good and so was everything else. Disembarkation consisted of walking off the ship after we finished breakfast. No lines. No announcements. No fuss.

CABIN
The cabin was nicely appointed with a sofa bed, small table, and a makeup desk/vanity with stool supplementing the queen size bed. Closet and storage space was adequate. It should be since I didn' t have to bring a tux and suits with me owing to the 'country club' mode of attire aboard this line. Or is that 'resort casual? ' I forget, but you need not ever wear a tie on board the ship so closet space should not be an issue even if you are a clothes horse. The bathroom was not large enough for double occupancy, but was comfortably functional. The detachable shower head was serviceable. There was never a problem of any nature in our quarters. The bath towels were considerably softer and fluffier than those on midmarket ships. A large bar of good soap lasted more than a week so we weren't bothered with tiny little bars or a liquid soap dispenser. The usual array of small plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner and skin creme were furnished as needed by Sigrit, our Romanian cabin attendant who was as efficient and pleasant as any I've encountered. The toiletries may be more upscale in the penthouse suites, (so I have heard), but the cabin attendant could not have been better. My wife was a bit disappointed with the built-in wall hairdryer and was not able to get a "real" one from Reception, however they did supply us with a long extension cord which we could use for our electrical appliances. The room television was smallish and I could not find the sleep function on the remote control. That was a bit discomforting (not enough to inquire about) and was probably due to my own gadget incompetence. The programming was good - lots of recent releases and some classic movies constantly available. Boy, I wish CNN would change its format. It's excruciatingly annoying to hear and see the exact same news story after the third time. We spend a lot of time in bed. Though we live in tropical Rio we have a goose down comforter and pillows galore, a super mattress and luxurious, high thread count, cotton sheets. So did our cabin. It far surpassed any bed I have experienced at sea and rivaled those in the very best hotels. There were no issues with the climate control in the cabin. It was always comfortable. The weather was mild, even sunny our first few days along the Brazilian coastline heading towards the equator, and we actually got to take some sun on our 40 sq ft balcony. In the evenings we could sit on the wooden chairs and have a drink under the stars. We never heard any outside noises either from our neighbors or the ship itself. Quiet enough to hear only the sounds of the ship sliding through the sea as we plotted our course towards Barcelona.

PUBLIC AREAS AND ENTERTAINMENT
In general all the public areas of the ship were tasteful and in excellent condition. Furnishings bordered on luxurious. Though there was no photographer aboard, the ubiquitous Park West Galleries was and had adorned many of the walls in the hall ways and staircases with some decent looking art. I didn't attend any of their auctions and was a little surprised to find them on board.

Much to my liking the casino was tiny, almost an afterthought. It consisted of 3 or 4 card game tables, a roulette table and a few dozen machines that resembled slot machines. I do not recall a craps table. In any event, there wasn't a lot of action in the casino. The largest attendance was for the Texas hold'em tournament. That's getting to rival shipboard trivia in popularity.

The gym/spa on deck 9 was well equipped for a ship of this size. In addition to the usual complement of treadmills, stationary bikes and those elliptical machines with moving arms that simulate cross country skiing (kinder to my run down knees than treadmills) there were a half dozen well chosen cable machines for muscle building. There were fairly heavy dumbbells (60 lbs+) for lifting and bench work. For $3 you could purchase earphones to listen to the TVs positioned by the aerobic equipment. Because I had a minor medical problem while aboard I didn't use the gym as much as I normally would, but it was more than adequate. Nor did I take the opportunity to check out the steam/sauna rooms.

A great library chockablock with good reading material and smart furnishings was located on a top deck. There were several copies of some popular new titles. Surprisingly, there were no checkout procedures. You could go in at any time, night or day, and take out any book you wanted or just read it in one of the opulent overstuffed chairs or sofas. Even the fake fireplace was pleasant looking and in good taste, sort of. The only downside to this honor system was the immediate disappearance of the guide books covering Spain, our final destination. Oh well, not much Oceania can do to redefine human nature. The same unmonitored procedure for scrabble sets and puzzles existed in the small game/card room adjacent to the computer school room on deck 10 ( or was it 9).

One of the reasons I was eager to cruise on Oceania is because Jacques Pepin is the executive chef of the line. I am a BIG Jacques Pepin fan having watched his TV cooking shows on public television for many years. In addition to the grand dining room on deck 5 the two specialty restaurants, the Polo Grill and Tuscana, are located on deck 10. These are truly fine dining spots with upscale furnishings and tableware to match ( Versace plates). Tuscana was used for duplicate bridge on sea days. Squeak, the bridge teacher was good natured and extremely competent. It helps to have the patience of Job.

The Horizons lounge on top deck forward, billed as the room with a view, doubled as the evening disco and the afternoon tea room. I didn't take notes and didn't spend a lot of time here, but I recall "tasteful."

The pool area on deck 9 was unique for the pool chairs which were large wooden contraptions with terry cloth coverings over the padding. There were a number of extra large chairs for two people to use simultaneously. Towels were abundant. Located nearby was Waves, the grill where various sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, and salads were available from noon to 4 every day. Ice cream and juices, too.

As maximum passenger capacity is about 685 on these 30,000 ton ships ( I am informed the Nautica and Regatta are identical to the Insignia in even the smallest details) the night club/ theater is appropriately scaled down. I don't recall a raised stage per se, except for some of the 12 piece orchestra towards the back of the stage area. The furniture is tasteful - this is true throughout the ship - and looks to be in excellent condition. No frayed anything. Banquettes and individual well-stuffed chairs encircle the stage area. This is a more intimate theater environment than that found on the larger ships of most lines and this intimacy complements the entertainment corps, a foursome of young singers who actually sing live and can relate to the audience at eye level. The cast emphasizes singing and deemphasizes costumes and dance and in my opinion puts on an enjoyable evening of cabaret style theater with no pretense of being a "Las Vegas show." The MC is the Cruise Director, Rob Wheatley, who I thought was a great cruise director, funny and good natured at all times. He seemed well liked by those with whom he worked as well as the passengers.

Among the other entertainers complementing the cabaret cast were a comedy magic act duo: "Des" something or other and his wife, Sherry who were British ( like all show people Des would no doubt hate me for not remembering his name in this review - if you ever get to see this, sorry Des). I had the pleasure of sharing a dinner table with Des and Sherry before seeing their act. During the conversation the name of British comedian, Benny Hill, came up and Des gave me some insight into the man. When I subsequently saw their show I was taken aback by how much Des's comedic style reminded me of Benny Hill, who I considered a very funny guy. And to see demure, retiring Sherry gallivanting on stage also threw me for a loop. Excellent show, both nights they performed. A couple of nights we were entertained by an accomplished clarinetist. I missed the impressionist. The cruise director put on some shows and games a few of the nights. These were well received. In general I liked the entertainment very much with a minor footnote.

My wife and I love to dance and while we did do some dancing from time to time I was a little disappointed with the orchestra. I didn't think they were as "tight" as they should have been. Not to be unkind, but maybe 6 gifted musicians would be better than 12 so so musicians. They performed at various spots thought out the cruise including some nights outside on the pool deck in the Tapas restaurant. At night the lunch buffet area was converted into a tapas style restaurant alfresco. I never ate there but it looked pretty all dressed up with candles, fine linens and tableware. Not sure why they call it Tapas as it was just a fancier buffet as far as I could tell. Maybe because sangria was available.

There was a bar outside the night club ( Martini's bar) which I frequented because it was the locus of team trivia. Mr Wheatly kept the proceedings in order despite threatened lawsuits and questionable ethics by some of the cheaters. The environment is enhanced in the evening by a pianist whom I am ashamed to say I never stopped to listen to. A string quartet entertained at various times and locations throughout the ship.

There was an enrichment lecture program but I have zero interest in conjecture over whether Princess Diana's death resulted from a plot or to hear a rehash of the Wallace/Simpson love story that resulted in the abdication of the King of England. I put a negative in the comment card about the enrichment lecture program.

FOOD AND DRINKS
I am a foodie and have written a few articles on restaurants for local magazines and an internet site. I had tremendously high expectations given the fact that my hero, Jacques Pepin, is executive chef of the company. In general I was very pleased with the quality of the food.

There is a single seating in all of the four dining venues but one must make a reservation for the upscale Italian Tuscana or the Polo Grill. Because passenger capacity was low we could eat in these specialty restaurants pretty much wherever we wanted to. We ate in Tuscana 4 nights and Polo twice (this would not be possible on a full ship when only one night in each is guaranteed, two if you occupy a penthouse).

The Polo Grill is a steakhouse. I have lived in Buenos Aires for extended periods of time and visit it from time to time. The steaks in Polo, though advertised as aged prime Angus, did not approach the flavor of the steaks I get in steakhouses in BA. Of course, that is a very high standard against which to be judged. Compared to other mid-market cruise lines the food is superb, at least as good as what you get in their specialty restaurants for which you pay a $20-30 surcharge. On the other hand, the lobster especially in Tuscana was fantastic, not at all resembling that which you get on Lobster Night or the Captain's Gala Party night aboard a lot of mid-market lines. No comparison whatsoever. Pastas were made fresh on the ship daily and the taste reflected the care given to food preparation. The gnocchi in pesto was a revelation. The fresh baked Italian bread was as good as the tiramisu. Very good.

The buffets at breakfast and lunch were far superior to that of all other lines besides Crystal and Seabourn (I have not sailed on Silversea or Regent) and these luxury lines will set you back between 2 or 3 times what you pay for an Oceania cruise. The difference in price between Oceania and HAL/Celebrity/etc is minimal, but the quality of the food and service is significantly better on Oceania.

I also appreciate the fact that I can bring wine on board without having to secrete it as if it were contraband. I do not believe that in practice the company distinguishes between a bottle of wine and a bottle of scotch. The $20 corkage fee for bottles brought to the dining room is fair. Wines cost about the same as they would in a good restaurant on shore. Drinks prices are on the high end, but I did not buy drinks ( medical situation) on my cruise so can't honestly report whether their drinks are poured sufficiently liberally to justify a $12 cosmopolitan ( with 18% tip included automatically) or a $21 Lagavulin ( the bottle probably costs them $50). In any event that is a manageable cost.

SERVICE
I cannot say enough about the wonderful service my wife and I received during this cruise. Perhaps it was attributable to the low passenger capacity or the fact that many employees were disembarking for vacation when we ported, but service was so amazingly efficient and graceful that it could be considered charming. Every single waiter, pool attendant, sommelier ( yes they have trained sommeliers), room steward, and officer we encountered was fantastically eager to give us what we wanted and to suggest something when it was appropriate. There were never language problems because staff were all fluent in English no matter what their native tongue. And smart too. Idle banter could turn into interesting conversation with anyone you might choose to engage.

CONCLUSION
Of all the cruise lines I have traveled, Oceania gives the most value for the price it charges. The accommodations and entertainment were very good and the food and service were excellent. We have already booked this same cruise for next year. It will include 3 new ports.

 

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