We just completed our second cruise with Oceania, having previously sailed on Riviera in the Meditteranean. This time, we chose Asia. We had done some of China before, but wanted to see how it was changed. We also had not been to Japan, and the Pearls of the Orient itinerary aboard Nautica offered a couple destinations that were of interest, but which we thought might be too out of the way to get to otherwise.
Embarkation: This was fairly smooth. Our family arrived on 2 different flights. One group of us arrived on a flight that arrived in the morning. As a bonus, since the cabins were not ready yet, a bonus tour of Hong Kong was provided, which was most welcome with almost everyone. Better to see some of the city than to sit around waiting for the stateroom to be ready. This was included in the airport transfer fee. A few guests had a similar tour of the city booked for the next day, and had to get that canceled, but this was definitely a bonus. Once on board the ship, things went very smoothly.
Service: To me, this is Oceania's greatest strength. Everyone aims to please, is tremendously polite, seemingly happy, and hard working. There is seemingly nothing you ask for that cannot be arranged. This extends from stateroom stewards, dining staff, sommeliers, concierge, destination services, to maintenance folks and the officers on board. The staff is phenomenal, friendly, and really makes cruising with Oceania a great experience.
Dining: The food on board is fantastic. On board is the Grand Dining room, which offers open seating, meaning you can go when you like. The menu varies daily, and on a 16 day cruise, only a couple, very popular menu items repeated. The food is fantastic and consistent. There are two specialty restaurants on board, Toscana and Polo Grill. Reservations are necessary, but we got 2 meals at each. I honestly prefer the Grand Dining Room to the specialty restaurants as there is more variety, but they are fun for just mixing things up a bit. There is also a buffet restaurant, which we used only for breakfast on days that began early. There was a bit more self-service than we had experienced on Riviera, and we were not big fans of that for sanitation reasons. It also tended to be crowded at breakfast time, and tables were hard to get. There is a burger place by the pool, which was great for days we got back to the ship a bit late. Generally speaking, the food service is, after the service, a major selling point for choosing Oceania.
Beverages: Beverage service is a la carte. There are a couple options for per diem all you can drink packages if you are into that sort of thing. The wine list at the restaurants is solid, if not a bit overpriced. There is a team of friendly sommeliers that know the list well. You can bring wine and other beverages on board, provided you consume them in your stateroom, which we took full advantage of in some of the ports of call where the weather was nice and we could enjoy a glass of wine on the balcony looking out over Shanghai or Hong Kong. If you choose to bring a bottle to a restaurant or lounge, the corkage fee is $25. We are mostly wine drinkers, so I am not sure about the pricing of cocktails and other beverages.
Stateroom: We had a standard veranda room. It was a big smaller than on Riviera, but cozy. The bathroom is shower only, and small, but you're on a ship. Furnishings were great, and towels, soft drinks, and water were replenished constantly. During warmer weather, we made good use of the veranda. The room serviced twice daily, in the morning and at turndown. A couple times we got back during servicing, and found our stewardess, fluffing curtains, sanitizing all surfaces. Just phenomenal service.
Public Areas: We spent a lot of time in Horizon's Lounge, which offers a great panoramic view in front of the ship. Tea is served there, and is a lot of fun if you can handle more food. Later in the evening, it becomes more of a lounge atmosphere. The only downside is that it is the only place smoking is allowed indoors on the ship (albeit in one corner). They have a ventilation system that helps keep the smell out, but it's not always effective, and sometimes the smell permeated throughout Horizons and into the stairwells. I'd prefer they keep smoking to outdoors only. The Nautica Lounge is used for lectures, shows, and receptions. There is a casino on board as well as a couple bar areas, which we did not utilize. There are two shops as well offering luxury items, which we also did not use.
Entertainment: The string quartet and the band on board were quite good. We did not get to any of the shows. They had a couple cooking demonstrations with the head chef which were fun, and wine tastings which were expensive but fun on days at sea. Also they had lectures on board which were fantastic about history and issues relating to upcoming ports of call.
Fellow Cruisers: This is an older crowd. I would not recommend taking kids on an Oceania cruise, as entertainment options are limited. The people who travel on Oceania are mostly experienced and well traveled people. I am in my 30s, and enjoyed it just fine. There were a few of people who were quite elderly and debilitated, which is of no concern except that it can slow you down on excursions.
Destinations: Oceania bills itself as creating destination-oriented cruises. While they offer plenty of Caribbean cruises, they also offer lots of cruises to off the beaten path destinations or destinations that one would not typically associate with cruising. Our cruise stopped at Hong Kong, Keelung Taiwan (30 minutes from Taipei), Naha in Okinawa, Kobe (an hour from Osaka and Kyoto), Hiroshima, Shanghai, Incheon (45 minutes from Seoul), Dalian, China, and Tianjin (2 hours from Beijing which is inland). There were overnight stays in Hong Kong, Kobe, Shanghai, and Tianjin. Dalian was not exactly a tourist destination, but it was fascinating to see a mushrooming Chinese city that is not tourist oriented. All other destinations offered plenty of things to do.
Excursions: My main criticism of this cruise was that the excursions were mediocre. Often, groups on excursions were quite large (30+). My family is relatively young and energetic, and sometimes it felt like significant time was wasted in shuffling the large group around. I wish more options were available for more fit people. Most of the excursions lay out what degree of stairs and walking will have to be navigated. I would love it if each destination offered an excursion or two which are sort of "If you have to ask how many stairs there are, choose something else". In other words, something a little more fast-paced and agile. Our excursion in Taipei was not the best. We went to the National Palace Museum, which houses some of the great treasures of ancient China. To say it is a crowded place is an understatement, but with a group of 30+ people, significant time was wasted just herding the group around. We did Shanghai on our own, which was quite doable. We were able to do much more than one would have been able to do with any of the excursions Oceania offered. Additionally, in Kobe, we booked an independent tour of Kyoto, which saw more of the city using public transportation than the excursions did, and avoiding long bus rides and the herding issue. To top it off, this was a far cheaper option. The only issue with independent arrangements is that you may not get priority in going through immigration procedures and disembarkment at various ports, and if you get delayed for any reason, the ship may not wait for you. Nevertheless, in the future, we will lean towards independent arrangements.
Pricing: I believe the cruise itself was priced fairly, and may even be a bit of a bargain. It's not a Carnival sort of pricing, as you get a heck of a lot more service, but for the length of the trip, I thought it was priced well (booked with 2 for 1 and airfare included). Internet costs are simply outrageous, and from those who used it, I was told it was slow. The spa and gym services were also priced stiffly. Excursions are quite pricey as well, and in my opinion, overpriced. At the end of the trip, you'll get a bill for a service charge, but I actually appreciate this, as you don't have to spend a bunch of time deciding how much to tip. In short, the cruise is fairly priced, but they hit you hard for anything extra you do, which is often more than you are getting. I suppose this is the business model of the cruise industry.
Flight Arrangements: I added this category here because this is a common criticism I heard from fellow cruisers. My flight arrangements were quite reasonable, but for some, the air itineraries were quite absurd. Some fellow family members from Chicago were sent to LA (2 days before the first day of the cruise, which is admittedly a bit complicated in light of the long flights and time zone issues) despite there being a couple of daily direct flights available to Hong Kong from Chicago. Several cruisers I spoke with take a credit and make their own flight arrangements independently to avoid situations like these. Were I to have had a similar itinerary to the rest of my family, I would have been in trouble and either had to cancel or have a big mess in arranging extra vacation time at work.
Summary: There are a few hassles, but overall, this was a second fantastic experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this cruise, and have learned a bit in terms of how to optimize the experience further for the next one. From Oceania, you will get reasonably priced luxury, excellent food, and intriguing destinations that offer you an opportunity to "travel" and not just cruise. Even days at sea were highly enjoyable. The staff makes this work more than anything else. I would highly recommend Oceania.
The cruise is billed as Hong Kong to Beijing, but it actually docks in Tianjin. Tianjin is the closest port to Beijing, but it would be akin to docking at Virginia Beach to visit Richmond. It's a good 100 miles away, and in Beijing traffic that is not all that close. In addition, there is a ton of reclaimed land along the Yellow Sea Coast here, and the port is not all that close to the city center of Tianjin either. None of this is the fault of the cruise line, just geographic reality. We had, however visited Beijing before, and chose the Huangyaguan Great Wall excursion. It was about a 2 hour drive up there, with a stop for lunch. The restaurant was kind of typical China - fine, but not necessarily nice. The drive up was fascinating. Once we got to the wall, we were given an hour and a half of free time, which was perfect. We certainly had enough time, which is perhaps the only excursion we took where I felt we got enough time at the most interesting destination. The wall here is spectacular (more so than Badaling, I think), and it's a physically challenging walk that is well worth it. We were transported back to the ship after another long drive. This excursion was fantastic.
Our cruise arrived in Hiroshima in the morning, and left early in the afternoon. We went to the A bomb dome as well as the Peace Memorial Park and museum. I could have used more time in the museum, but we were on a limited schedule. We also visited the Shukkeien Garden. I could have sacrificed that to instead have more time at the museum, but it honestly was a very beautiful spot, especially with the plum blossoms out, so I didn't mind too much. It does highlight the fact that Hiroshima is not just about August of 1945, and is a thriving city.
The cruise docked on Kowloon a couple hundred meters from the ferry terminal there. For those that have been to Hong Kong before, there is not possibly a more attractive place to be docked. You could sit on the back of the ship in the evening and view Hong Kong's spectacular skyline. We had been there before, so we chose the 9 Dragons tour to see a bit of the New Territories. We saw a temple, which was interesting, and eschewed a second temple in favor of a very nice garden in the city. If we hadn't been there before, you easily could have just done the city on your own.
The ship docks in Kobe, which is a modern city with decent access to other cities like Osaka and Kyoto. We booked a tour of Osaka through Oceania, which went to the Osaka castle, as well as a Buddhist/Shinto temple. It was not the best excursion, as our group was quite large, and a significant amount of time was spent going back and forth on the bus. To no fault of Oceania, unfortunately Osaka was obliterated during WWII, so the sites on the tour are reconstructions. We booked a Kyoto tour independently which was fantastic. One interesting aside was the immigration was a huge headache. Immigration officials boarded the ship and set up in the lounge. They did an infrared temperature check, followed by a face to face passport inspection. Priority was given to those on excursions, then those with independent arrangements, and finally, by floor number. We stood in a massive line. In other ports, where the passport inspection took place in a customs facility, things went much more smoothly.
The cruise docks at Incheon, which is rather interesting. Incheon has some of the world's highest tides, and the ship must pass through a lock to get to the pier (the lock appears to be half the size of the ship, but they make it work). We went to the north, and made a brief stop at the Freedom Bridge, then moved on to the observatory where you can look across the DMZ into North Korea. They then took us to the third tunnel, a tunnel the North Koreans constructed for a possible invasion. The only issue here was that we apparently missed our appointment time and had to stand around waiting to descend on the train into the tunnel. The excursion then took as to lunch in Seoul, and concluded with 45 minutes of free time in a shopping district in Seoul that was unimpressive. I am not sure if there was more to see in Seoul or not.
We had been to Shanghai before. We choose to do it independently. The ship docks half a kilometer from the Bund and we awoke the morning of arrival to see the spectacular Pudong skyline out our window. Excursions included tours of the city, a ride on the Maglev train, and other things. We did 90% of what were offered on several of these excursions on our first day there on our own at a far lesser cost. Shanghai has an impressive subway system, and the ticket machines have English language options, which made getting from place to place easy (and insanely cheap). Cabs are plentiful and cheap as well (if not a bit harrowing). A ride from the Bund to the Maglev station cost about $5 equivalent, and took 20 minutes. Shanghai is walkable, and best experienced that way. It's one of the world's great cities, and in my opinion, was the highlight of the cruise.