We got pretty lucky in getting this cruise as we had original booked a shorter Eastern Caribbean Cruise (10 days) and we were offered this cruise due to overbooking on the other. Not only did we get 4 extra days but the cruise occurred during the holiday season which made taking off work much less impactful. Of course, I still had lots of work to catch up to when I got back, but not as much as if I had taken a shorter cruise in January.
This is our third time on Oceania. The previous two cruises were on the Marina. On our second cruise we noted an improvement in the food over the first and in this third cruise we noticed additional improvements, most particularly a little more adventurousness in Oceania's approach to spicing and more consistency in having high quality food in all venues: specialty restaurants, main dining room and the Terrace (buffet.)
We loved the ports. The first port (Charlestown) was cancelled due to this ocean conditions for the tenders. The others eight ports were all great. For the first time we took advantage of Oceania's excursions, booking two prior to departure and one on the ship. We found these to be at a reasonable price and ranging from okay ("Best of Bridgetown, Barbados") to being lots of fun with appropriate guidance for getting the most of the recreational opportunity (glass bottom kayaking and snorkeling in BVI.) The BVI snorkeling really made the glass bottom kayaking somewhat irrelevant as so much to see in the BVI excursion under the water, but we enjoyed the exercise of the kayaking.
The rest of the ports we went on our own, which is a great strategy for us personally as we can hire a car or share a van at lower prices than traditional ship excursion and can plan our day to come back for lunch on the ship and then depart again for the afternoon (or not depending on whether we wish to further explore the port or not.)
When you board the Marina or Riviera, while you are waiting for your cabin to be available, you can eat at either Waves or the Terrace Cafe --- or both. The first time, the initial cruise of the Marina from Barcelona to Miami, we were disappointed with the buffet, but on our second trip on the Marina, about a year later, we were pleasantly surprised by the increase in quality. For this third trip, the quality was about the same as the second, but missing was the mahi-mahi at the buffet and, for us, the selections offered were not as much to our liking. However, for the rest of the cruise, the Terrace Cafe presented itself in full splendor and we were very pleased with the selection. Still, the components of our lunch that first day were all of high quality and we (my wife and I) supplemented our meal with a shared order of the surf and turf (filet mignon and lobster tail) from Waves. Quite a nice bonus.
That first evening we dined at Polo Grill. The appetizers particularly the Chesapeake Bay Lump Crab Meat Cake with Pommery Mustard Sauce, were great! (We always share the appetizers we order between us just as we share the main meal and desserts.) For the entree, my wife ordered the Pancetta Wrapped Veal Fillet with Bay Lobster Tail Oscar Style and I tried the Porterhouse. The Veal and Lobster were nicely presented and tasted great. The Porterhouse was cooked as ordered (medium rare) but was not quite the quality I was hoping for. I possibly should have stayed with the Prime Rib or the Filet Mignon which were excellent on the previous cruises, but I often opt for variety over certainty of quality and happy to do so.
On our first cruise we rarely went to the Terrace, on our second cruise and third we had almost all our lunches at the Terrace and most of our dinners there. The Terrace has improved with each cruise, with the second cruise showing an improvement in selection (crab salad, crab legs) and the third in overall quality (even better sushi and sashimi quality, a little more spice and flavor in the entrees and appetizers and generally better prepared food coming a little closer to the quality of the main dining room -- quite a reach for any buffet, particularly given the quality of the main dining room on the Oceania ships.) It was particularly nice to get the North African, Asian and Indian dishes with better spicing and flavor -- not as good as the Asian and Indian food you find in the better local restaurants, but an improvement over our last two cruises on Oceania.
We particularly like the Terrace in terms of time management. In the specialty restaurants and main dining room, a meal is likely to take a couple of hours. However you can have a relaxed, casual meal in the Terrace at our own pace saving significant time if you aren't in the mood for a more pampered, but extended meal period.
The selection at the Terrace is quite good and generally contains most of the items on the menu for corresponding lunch or dinner in the main dining room. You can get small portions in order to sample most of what would normally be offered in the main dining room. (The Terrace is not self-serve but all food is served by Oceania staff -- some of the servers in the Terrace are not so good at English and it takes a little more communication for them to recognize you want a small portion, but the majority of severs pick up on this immediately.) Definitely makes sense to go with small portions, as one gets one of each type of sashimi and sushi (these unfortunately are the same selection each time), a small slice of beef or lamb, one lobster tail, one escargot pastry, on piece of fish, a portion of chicken, turkey or duck, a little bit of pasta, a sampling of several salads, several small portions of appetizers and very small slices of several desserts. One of the biggest improvements we found was in the quality of desserts in the Terrace. I rarely have dessert at home (and when I do it is usually fruit) but probably averaged at least 1500 calories every single meal in the Terrace -- five samples of desserts and two scoops of ice cream. Of course, sharing between my wife and I help compensate for those cases where we didn't get smaller portions.
I can't say enough for the quality of the cheesecake. During the 14 days, several recipes (not the same recipe with different toppings, etc. but quite different recipes) were prepared -- some softer some sweeter, some nearly identical to the cheesecake at the Barbican (London's great Music and Theatre venue) and some different than anything I had sampled before. All the cheesecake desserts were very good to outstanding -- some quite memorable -- and most of the desserts in the Terrace were very good to excellent -- maybe a few not worth the extra calories -- but so many times the desserts were in the outstanding/memorable territory. So for someone that almost always avoids sugar, this was a deviation in dining that was worth any health or extended-life-expectancy considerations.
The main dining room was better than ever and we enjoyed a few lunches and dinners there. It was hard to miss out on the Terrace Cafe, as the variety was greater in the Terrace than the MDR, but we were rewarded by a higher quality of food and we do enjoy the more formal atmosphere of the main dining room as a secondary option to the more relaxed Terrace. The fish was always cooked perfectly and, unlike our first two Oceania cruises, we did not have one instance of the food in either the main dining room or the specialty restaurants being over-salted. Also the food we always at the right temperature and very well presented.
I don't take for granted the degree of difficulty in preparing food for large numbers or the challenges in having an even half-decent buffet, and so I am more likely to be generous in my praise of the quality at both the Terrace and MDR. However, I can translate these experiences into 2012-2013 land dining prices -- for the Terrace, the lunch is worth $40 per person, the dinner, $75 per person and for the main dining room, the lunch is worth $29 per person (less due to the greater variety in the Terrace) and probably about $80 for dinner depending on the number of courses and if there is something particularly costly on the menu.
We also ate at Toscana (our third favorite of the 4 specialty restaurants.) We skipped the soup, but had both the pasta and the main entry. For whatever reason, we always feel more stuffed after our meal at Toscana than any other meals on Oceania.
Our second favorite is Jacques and we were also ate a bit too much there. I had to finish most of my wife's entree --the Lobster Thermidor -- thank goodness I had the quail which was a smaller portion than the lobster. The menu at Jacques has been a bit different on our three Oceania Cruises which is great -- whereas the Toscana seems to be pretty much the same on each cruise.
For the first time we tried cheeses from the Cheese Trolley -- don't miss out on this! Excellent cheese choices -- great with your wine and the bread and just perfect for extending a lovely evening and a wise detour to make prior to having one of the excellent dessert items at Jacques.
Our favorite specialty restaurant is Red Ginger. This time, we ate there twice and our waiter, Chua, was particularly good at influencing the chef to make the food truly spicy. In fact, he pretty much had to argue with the chef to accomplish this, but the results were worth the extra effort as this elevated Red Ginger from a bland quasi-Asian-fusion restaurant to fine Asian dining. The duck salad, which uses high quality duck and the finest parts of the watermelon, became extra special when the crisp duck was spiced strong enough to provide the appropriate contrast to the sweet, moist watermelon. The Tom Kha Gai, when properly spiced (not the default version offered by Red Ginger) competes with Tom Kha Gai in one's favorite Thai restaurants. And so on. Thai, Chinese and Indian food needs to be properly spicy.
I can't say enough for the quality of the appetizers at Red Ginger: even better than the previous two cruises. Don't miss out on the Calamari or the Tuna Tataki. Dessert is about the only non-essential, but that is only in comparison with the main fare. One can't miss selecting one of the specialty teas at Red Ginger: thus the value dessert is it provides a perfect reason to get a second or third refill of your chosen tea. My wife really enjoys the green tea ice cream -- and the trio of Asian-fruit-flavored sherbets is also a great choice.
Although I cruise Oceania primarily for the food, I can't say enough about how much I enjoy talking to the staff. These are usually very friendly and interesting people. To take a cruise and neglect having conversation with this staff would be missing out on a significant part of the experience. So many of these people sacrifice time in the present with their loved ones to ensure a better future for them and its worth your time to learn a little bit about them, their family and where there were raised and some of the places they have visited. Since the staff get some time off at the ports, they are a great source of information on potential places of interest for the cruise you are on or for future cruises. Also, special praise for the staff of the Destination Desk for being as enthusiastic to provide information on do-it-yourself exploration as well as for official excursions.
The only challenge I have found with some of the staff is when they have to think outside of the box. Oceania management does a good job at equipping them to follow procedure and protocol, but doesn't seem to prepare them for taking initiative to ensure a special guest experience. There are definitely exceptions (special praise to Sunny and some of the lunch waiters in the Terrace that will place and/or retrieve an order from Waves for you), but there are also a few that get confused when they need to think outside of their formal training. It does seem like Oceania has improved in this area, but still has a bit of a ways to go. Oceania also seems to have gotten more flexible in special requests -- very welcome change!
We generally skip the evening entertainment, which to be fair, is generally well done with quality performers. It just doesn't appeal to either of us as we prefer traditional classical or real jazz. Our favorite entertainment is the string quartet, particularly when they are playing actual string quartet movements and not arrangements of other works. Though the string quartet on the second cruise was a bit weak, the musicians on the first cruise (The Marina Quartet) and this one (The Riviera Quartet) were very good and were a pleasure to listen to.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable cruse. We had a great holiday on board and had many memorable dining and port experiences. We expect both quality and value; Oceania continues to be on our short list of cruise lines.