Oceania Oceania Regatta ReviewPanama Canal Celebration (Los Angeles to Miami)Julian Bernard
Number of Cruises: 60
Cruise Line: Oceania
Sailing Date: January 29th, 2006
Oceania Regatta Cruise Review
Panama Canal Celebration (Los Angeles to Miami)
My wife and I sailed on board Regatta on a 16 day
cruise, described as the “Panama Canal Celebration”, leaving Los Angeles late in
the evening of January 29th and arriving in Miami early in the morning of
February 14th. Despite weather which was unsettled in both the early and late
stages, it was a very enjoyable and satisfying experience.
We had booked early enough to have an all inclusive package which included Air Canada flights from and to Toronto. Oceania's arrangements with Air Canada allowed us to collect our Aeroplan points in the usual way. Despite booking fairly early, our initial cabin assignment was on Deck 4. Four days before departure, our travel agent was able to offer us a last minute upgrade to a midship cabin on Deck 7 provided we accepted immediately and, of course, we did. Arrival in Los Angeles was about 4.30 pm and, as U.S. Customs and Immigration procedures had been completed in Toronto, we headed straight for the baggage claim area and met the Oceania representatives who were waiting nearby. When all 14 passengers from our flight had been accounted for, we were escorted to the bus platforms where there was a brief wait for the bus. About a dozen more people were picked up at another terminal and we were soon on our way to the ocean terminal (San Pedro). Baggage was unloaded and we were asked only to ensure that it was all there. The usual processing procedures were astonishingly swift and painless and we were in our cabin only a bit over two hours after our flight landed. We headed off in search of dinner and our baggage was in our cabin, on the beds on a protective baggage blanket, when we returned.
Our cabin, 216 sq. ft., had all of the usual amenities including a television with CD player carrying a few regular channels including CNN, and several on-ship channels including three devoted to the ship (ship’s bow webcam, a map showing our progress and a chart of current statistics) as well as two channels devoted to onboard programming. The wonderfully comfortable Tranquility Beds can be set up as two singles or as one queen size. Bedside lights, dressing table/desk, glass topped coffee table, alarm clock, glassware, a minibar, safe and a two seater sofa completed the fittings and furnishings. There was sufficient clearance under the bed for our luggage and adequate drawer and hanging space in the cupboards. The bathroom was compact but well laid out with ample space for toiletries and a walk-in shower which did not flood the floor. Bathrobes and slippers were provided - the slippers could be taken home. The balcony was big enough to accommodate two comfortable, curved frame chairs with a mesh fabric which allowed rainwater or splashed seawater to pass through, and a small table. A pseudo-wood deck drained quickly and ensured that there was never any standing water. The cabin was cleaned or tidied up as appropriate and towels changed three times daily.
Several things had attracted us to Oceania at the outset and in none of them were we disappointed. On previous cruises we, and especially me, have been put off by the 'formal' nights which often require an extra suitcase. Oceania's unostentatious dress code of “country club casual" suited us perfectly. The relaxed, unstuffy atmosphere throughout the ship was also a welcome change which so permeated all on board, whether guests or crew, that it was a truly relaxing experience. Even Captain Sanguineti would pause for a chat. Despite their long hours, crew members were always efficient and friendly. The ability to eat when and, with few limitations, where we felt like it were for us real bonuses. And if cleanliness is a virtue, Oceania’s crews are virtuous indeed. Wherever one went someone was vacuuming, sweeping, polishing, scrubbing or even hosing down the exterior where obvious efforts were being made to lessen the ravages of salt water. Hand cleaner dispensers were placed at the entrance to the dining areas. We were unaware of anyone being ill or suffering from any digestive or food-generated problems. There were a few cases of seasickness after Cozumel.
Regatta has five dining areas: the Grand Dining Room on Deck 5 and the Terrace Café on Deck 9, both open for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Waves Grill on Deck 9 which is open for a long lunch (11 am to 4 pm), and the Toscana and Polo Grill, both on Deck 10 and both open only for dinner. We patronized all of them except for Waves Grill where the largely fast food menu did not particularly appeal. The concept of, and need for, “fast food” seems somewhat out of place on a cruise.
The Grand Dining Room is a large area with tables accommodating anywhere from two up to ten or so. A circular area in the centre was raised a step or two and seemed to be slightly noisier than the surrounding area. For any meal, guests can turn up whenever it suits them and are asked only if they would like to eat alone or at a shared table. Unless ‘talked out’, we usually chose to share and this way met many interesting fellow travellers including two people who had been on the waiting list and who were offered at the last minute our original Deck 4 cabin. The passenger complement was big enough that we rarely met the same people twice. The menu covered the full range of starters, soups, appetizers, meat, chicken and seafood, some more appealing than others depending on one’s personal tastes but all top rated or very close to it. Seafoods were especially well prepared. Only a chronic grumbler could find anything to complain about. An interesting feature was that a bottle of wine, if not finished, could be marked with the room number and retrieved at a later date in any of the restaurants.
The Terrace Café on Deck 9 transforms itself in the evening into Tapas on the Terrace but, aside from more elaborate offerings appropriate to the time of day, there is little discernible difference - it is still a buffet and a very good one at that but it is not a tapas bar in the usual Spanish sense. The menu even allowed me to indulge in my fondness for smoked salmon three times in one day in addition to enjoying it twice on many other days. My sole criticism was that breakfast scrambled eggs do not take kindly to resting on a steam table for any length of time; however, omelettes cooked to order were available at the window which dispenses pizzas at other times. The fresh-baked croissants were superb. The breakfast choices were sufficiently broad to satisfy both (European) continental and American tastes. In addition to its indoor seating, there is an outdoor area at the stern accessible through two sets of automatic sliding doors. On warm days it could be difficult to find a seat outside. There also seemed to be a peak period of about half an hour during each meal when crowding in the buffet area could be a bit of a problem, easily resolved by arriving a bit earlier or later.
Polo Grill and Toscana, the latter with an Italian flair, on Deck 10 are somewhat more exclusive in that dining is by reservation only. We dined twice at each of them, once as part of a group of six, and had no difficulty getting reservations which are offered at 6.30, 7.30 and 8.30 with the last one being the most popular and again with the choice of sitting alone or at a shared table. Even on the evening when we arrived at 6.30 there was no rush to get out of the way though the 7.30 guests were arriving long before we were finished which suggests that lingering time is built into the reservation system. The rooms are located on either side of a common galley; both are quite small, seating fewer than 100 in each at tables of varying capacities. Elbow room and table separation seemed to be more generous. At the risk of upsetting the kitchen management, I cannot recall any really significant menu differences between the two smaller restaurants and the Grand Dining Room except that, in Toscana and the Polo Grill, the courses had a tendency to keep on coming unless one ordered with caution. Both restaurants did, however, create the feeling of a special “night out”. There was no extra charge to dine in either.
For those who did not want a formal meal or who had slept in, coffee, tea and baked items were available in the Horizons Lounge, a large, bright and comfortable area forward on Deck 10, until 11 am every day. Horizons was also the setting for afternoon tea with sandwiches, cake and cookies served every day from 4 to 5 pm. On the occasions when we asked for Room Service, our orders were delivered cheerfully and on time.
Bar areas included Martinis where a pianist frequently entertained, the Grand Dining Room Bar, Waves Bar on the pool deck and the Horizons and Regatta Lounges. There was never any sense that drinks were being “pushed”. There were no restrictions on consuming one’s own drinks on board as long as they were not carried into the public areas. Ice buckets in the rooms were filled daily and refills were readily available.
Entertainment was certainly low key, and most of it was offered in the Regatta Lounge, forward on Deck 5 - in the evening a magician, comedian, a string quartet and an eight piece orchestra which sometimes expanded to include the quartet members, and musical presentations by the cruise director and his staff. During the day movies were occasionally offered along with shuffleboard, dancing and dance lessons, a singles get together, sing-a-longs, bingo, a needlework group, bridge and bridge lessons, chess and backgammon. An art sale or auction seemed to take place every day but, as we paid little attention to it, can only comment that, to us, it seemed to be superfluous but others make think differently. Much more to the point were the excellent presentations by the two Guest Enrichment Lecturers, Dr. Stewart Nelson, who spoke about the oceans and the Panama Canal, and Jerry Kindall, a former major leaguer, who spoke about baseball and the people who made it their game. All of their talks were videotaped so that they could be seen again on the cabin TVs.
In the Deck 9 pool area there always seemed to be enough lounge chairs for everyone. The pool water was just the right temperature but the hot tubs were overly warm and not used much. It was a delightful area to enjoy some fresh air. The Deck 10 walking track, 13 circuits to a mile, was well patronized.
Oceania@Sea was open 24 hours a day. Staff members were available from 8 am to 7 pm when at sea and for reduced hours when in port. Internet access was expensive, especially when compared with shore based Internet cafés, but each passenger was given, well before leaving home, a shipboard email address so there was no reason to be out of touch with family and friends at home. Recipients of messages were notified at intervals throughout the day by lists which were hung just inside the computer room; the most recent list was also displayed on a monitor in the corridor with recipients names in ascending cabin number order so they were easy to spot. There was a fee of $2.00 for each incoming or outgoing message. Classes on many of the days at sea were somewhat inconvenient for those who wanted only to check their email but the fact that the room was never locked and the usual availability of two additional computers in the library compensated adequately for any inconvenience.
Other facilities included the Mandara Spa and beauty salon, a well equipped fitness center, medical office, two boutiques, photo gallery, casino and a self serve laundromat. Forward on Deck 10 is a veritable oasis, an attractive and well stocked library with lots of comfortable seating. It never closes and books can be borrowed on the honour system. There are four public elevators, two forward and two aft. “Oceania Currents”, distributed every evening, kept everyone informed about shipboard events.
Regatta’s itinerary was, for us, one of the attractions as it offered us the chance to see places we might never visit otherwise. Because of the common origins of many of the people in the places we visited, there was inevitably some sameness to some of them but that need not detract from the experience. Stops were in Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco (Mexico), Puerto Quetzal (Guatemala), Puntarenas (Costa Rica) and San Andres Island (Columbia). Stops were also scheduled in Playa del Carmen and Cozumel (Mexico) but heavy seas meant that a safe transfer to a tender could not be assured and, after trying for an hour, both stops were cancelled. The fact that the wind seemed to be picking up rather than abating was a factor in the decision. Cozumel’s pier, badly damaged in the hurricane last fall, is not yet repaired. This was disappointing for all who had booked shore excursions, particularly those hoping to visit Tulum or Chichen Itza; full credits to our shipboard accounts were quickly processed, without having to ask for them.
There is always a feeling among passengers on any ship that shore excursions are overly expensive and that is true of those offered by Oceania though they are almost certainly no worse than any others. I can comment only on those in which we participated.
At Cabo San Lucas the “Deluxe Whale Watching and Coastal Cruise” required only a short walk from the spot where the ship’s tender had deposited us. The tour boat was a fairly large, two decked catamaran. We had an excellent view of Los Arcos (the arches), a rocky promontory at the end of Baja California. But, as is so often the case, the whales kept their distance though we did see them but the dolphins found us quite amusing and closely accompanied the ship. After the excursion there was time to wander around town or return to the ship.
Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala has a small but attractive cruise terminal featuring local architecture, many stores offering hand crafts, and a few other retail outlets. If all you want to do is shop, there is no need to go further. We chose the 9 hour trip, including 2 1/2 hours on the bus each way, to Lake Atitlan and Panajachel but allowance had not been made for the damage in a storm last year to the main street of San Lucas Toliman which necessitated walking almost a mile over cobblestones and broken pavement from the bus to the boat; tuk-tuks were made available for the return journey but should have been on hand at the outset. On the boat there were a couple of high steps and at Panajachel short flights of high riser stone stairs without railings or handholds which created hazards for the largely older crowd taking part. Presumably this excursion was also offered on the outward Panama Canal journey so word of the extent of the problem should have found its way back to the Destination Services staff. To be fair, the condition of the San Lucas Toliman road was mentioned on board but the impression conveyed was that it was a minor issue which might well have been corrected by the time we got there. The hotel, garden and lunch at Panajachel were excellent but the time used walking left insufficient time to explore the interesting local market and most passengers left only with the memory of the persistency and doggedness of the local hawkers.
>From Puntarenas the “Tropical Forest Aerial Tram” included a one hour tour in cable supported open gondolas, each containing four pairs of seats. Moving slowly and gently through treetops sometimes close enough to touch, each gondola rose from a coastal plain, through a dry forest area and into a tropical rain forest where, fortunately, it did not rain. The circuit to the top and back again took about one hour. Visitors were shown beforehand a video explaining the construction of the system and the care taken to avoid disturbance of the forest floor by lowering the supporting pylons from helicopters. A walk through the forest on a ground level boardwalk completed the tour. Participants were each given a long staff to help themselves up the more steeply graded stretches. The bus ride, about 90 minutes each way, afforded views of the countryside and the sight of alligators basking on riverbanks. Despite some fears, there were no mosquitoes - in fact, insects were not a problem anywhere.
San Andres Island is a part of Columbia and is located almost 500 miles from the Columbian mainland. A group of four of us chose to hire a minivan for an island tour which lasted just under three hours and which took us to most of the local sights. The truth is that there is not a great deal to see or do on the island but fine sea views are everywhere. We have thought on occasion about a relaxing vacation on San Andres and, with this in mind, did have a look at the three most popular hotels.
For us, the highlight of the cruise was the 11 hour passage through the Panama Canal. We had tried to absorb just about everything Dr. Nelson had told us about the ill-fated French attempts to construct a sea level channel, a project which eventually foundered when faced with the problems of terrain, climate, tropical diseases, enormous death toll and lack of money. Early in the 20th century the project was revived by American interests which recognized that success could be achieved only if malaria and yellow fever could first be brought under control and if the sea level idea was abandoned in favour of a canal with locks. With those decisions made, work progressed and the canal opened in 1914. From the vantage points of the Horizons Lounge, the open air part of the Terrace Café and our own balcony we were able to watch and understand the entire process. We felt privileged to have been there.
Having reported all of the good things, I should mention our few minor quibbles. The outer row of tables on the open air portion of the Terrace Café were equipped with heavy umbrellas set in the usual manner through an opening in the centre of the table. At night, or when it was too windy, the umbrellas were closed but their bulk meant that guests on opposite sides of the table could not see each other. One evening all of the umbrellas had been removed; on another, the guests at one table asked that their umbrella be removed but it was obvious from the struggle by two of the staff to comply that this was not an easy task. A solution should be found. The majority of the passengers are probably not avid tea drinkers and are unlikely to be converted by the unimaginative selection available. At the top of the list should be a minimum of Orange Pekoe, English Breakfast Tea, certainly not decaffeinated as was offered, Assam and green teas with designer teas completing the selection. Water must be boiling or as close to it as is possible - just hot isn't good enough. Even better would be a separate thermos of boiling water for each guest which dedicated tea drinkers would know how to use. These comments apply in all of the restaurants, to room service and to the afternoon tea offered in Horizons. The ice buckets in the cabins were attractive but inadequately insulated which meant that ice cubes didn’t last long.
Having been invited to one of the Deck 8 suites, my wife, an Occupational Therapist, noted a potentially dangerous problem in the bathroom which is equipped with a tub/shower combination. The non-slip surface is close to the taps and shower head. The grab bar on the wall is too short and not located correctly and, as a result, getting in and out of the tub whether for showering or bathing could be risky, especially for older people. At the very least a suction cup bath mat should be provided. Guests occupying those rooms might be well advised to bring one anyway, just in case.
U.S.A. Times, a satellite newspaper was delivered daily. Heavily oriented towards sports and stock market reports, it contained little news. Much better shipboard news letters are available and Oceania should consider giving passengers some choice as to which one they would like to receive.
A few days before the end of the cruise we were given a questionnaire asking us to record homeward flight times or whatever other arrangements had been made for onward travel after the cruise. We were given baggage tags which, by colour and number, indicated our disembarkation time. Baggage had to be outside the cabin by 10.30 pm the night before but this proved not to be a problem. The Terrace Café was open at 6 am for breakfast. Cabins had to be vacated by 8 am. Guests were invited to sit in any public area except the Regatta Lounge which was being used by the Customs and Immigration people and for crew members who were being paid off. Because our homeward flight was not until 3 pm, we were last on the list and so settled in Horizons until our number was called, about 9.45 am. Our luggage was waiting for us in the terminal. Loading the buses took a while and we were on our way to the airport where a leisurely lunch, ample seating and a book helped to fill in the time. The whole process was as well handled as disembarkation procedures, always fraught with tensions, can be. Many passengers with earlier disembarkation times chose to jam themselves together on the stairways but their impatience gained them nothing but their own discomfort.
Potential passengers looking for a structured environment, fixed dinner seatings with the same table companions, who like to dress formally and who enjoy elaborate stage shows will probably not be happy with Oceania. Freer spirits who do not enjoy being locked into a rigid routine and for whom the surroundings, the sea, the ports and the camaraderie are important will enjoy the Oceania experience. While the latter description might be thought to apply to a younger clientele, the fact was that most of the passengers on this trip were retirees having a great time. Quite possibly, on shorter trips the age mixture could be quite different.
As we compared notes on our experience, we heard only positive comments. Most of us agreed that, after 16 days, we were 'cruised out' but we would certainly cruise again and quite likely with Oceania. Oceania has found a niche and is filling it admirably. We hope it stays focussed and wish it well.