Blissfully Sliding on Garlic Infused Greece into Turkey
Nautica: Athens to Istanbul, October 29 - November 10, 2009.
We are not first time cruisers -- we are veterans of over 350 days aboard cruise ships including extended cruises of 30-65 days. This was our first cruise on Oceania having been attracted by a stunning itinerary (Athens, Crete, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Katakolon, Santorini, Delos, Mykonos, Rhodes, Kusadasi, Istanbul) packed efficiently into 12 nights.
Nautica is a perfect sized ship from which to absorb these incredible ports. At a maximum capacity of 684 our passenger complement never overwhelmed our ports and we were often the only ship in port for half or all of our port time. Perfect. We have memories of exploring the extensive ruins at Delos as exclusive tourists peeking into the heretofore lost mysteries of our ancient past, and a quiet afternoon enjoying the scenic, gustatory and shopping delights of Santorini after the much larger Costa Fortuna had already left to steam on to her next port.
Nautica is well maintained, exceptionally clean, and staffed with a core group of wonderful folks who continually went out of their way to make us feel like this ship was our elegant home. We enjoyed a level of service that has become difficult to provide on today's larger behemoths.
We had originally booked a basic, outside cabin for this trip -- later we purchased a very reasonable upsell offered by Oceania. As Concierge Class cruisers we were allowed early embarkation -- there were no lines --there were but a few quick stops for details and a virtual walk on board the Nautica which was docked at Pireus in Athens. We enjoyed a quiet, excellent lunch at the Terrace Cafe on deck 9, our cabins were ready a full two or three hours before the cabins on the rest of the ship, our luggage was delivered to our cabin immediately, and we were able to negotiate the one self service laundry on board and complete three loads of wash (we had arrived in Athens several days earlier) before the throng of passengers from the lower deck staterooms began to flood this small facility.
The dining experience at the Terrace Cafe was excellent. Our food was always served by Oceania Crew who cheerfully loaded our plates with exactly what we requested. There were no trays, but the size of the food venue was not large so getting seconds or additional courses in general did not involve long lines or, often, any lines at all so the process was quick and efficient. Crew members were usually there to carry our plates and help us find a table. The tables were set with clean linen place mats as well as glassware, napkin and silverware set ups. Beverages were not self service -- they were cheerfully provided by crew who attended to refills as soon as they became necessary. Emptied plates were cleared with similar precision.
Surprise discovery -- orange juice (which certainly tasted fresh squeezed) was complimentary and available at all times in all dining and bar venues. As soon as a glass was emptied a refill was offered.
Tea was served with a ceramic tea pot full of really hot water -- the capacity of the pot offers the tea drinker three or more cups of tea. The hot water never had a lingering coffee grounds taste as happens when carafes are shared between coffee and tea service. And a large selection of teas were available -- I was able to enjoy my favorite Jasmine Green Tea throughout my voyage.
The ship is petite. The cabins are petite. They are well appointed with all the amenities that we could have desired, including robes, slippers, 150 ml bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel, shower scrub, and body refresher, soaps, sewing kit, lap robes, umbrella, tote bag, hair dryer, ice, glasses, mini-bar fridge... Extra bottles of bathroom amenities as well as bars of soap were always stored below the sink in our very tiny bathroom.
Actually bathroom is a misnomer as there was only a shower sized for an average to small person to stand up but not necessarily turn around -- the room itself had a scant sized space in which only one person could expect to stand -- but there was adequate storage space for bathroom and toiletry needs and there were always twice as many clean towels available for us as we might need. Every time the room was cleaned towels were replaced. No signs about saving the environment and keeping towels. Though this policy may be a blow to the environment having clean towels twice a day (like having the crew serve all food on the buffet) probably helps to limit on board illness.
The cabin itself was as well appointed as the bathroom, and also as petite. There was a small love seat, barely large enough to seat two, a small table, a desk, and the bed(s). In order to accommodate a fridge it was clear that the desk was extended about six to eight inches post construction -- an unfortunate 6-8 inches as with our beds in the twin position passage around the beds to the sitting area and verandah was a real knee knocker.
Between closet, desk and bed side table storage we had no difficulty completely stowing all that we had brought with us for our journey.
The verandah though petite had two comfortable chairs and a small table.
Another surprise was what happened when we ordered room service. An alternate, larger table top appeared from behind the couch, it was placed on our cabin table and covered with a table cloth, and the breakfast was elegantly set out for us by the room service steward.
We felt very honored to be passengers this cruise on the Nautica with Captain Jurica Brajcic who was the Nautica Captain who outran the Somali pirates a couple of years ago. One evening's entertainment was a talk by our captain on the details of Nautica's encounter. It was standing room only by the time we arrived at the Nautica Lounge for the talk so we enjoyed it later on video on our cabin TV.
The ship offers the usual on board shops and casino which operate when at sea - and the entertainment staff offer daily bingo, trivia and other activities, as well as movies and live entertainment each evening. There were the strings that played in the Upper Hall and a real human musician dance band that played for dancing and enjoyment each day. There were also guest entertainers as well as musical reviews in the evenings. There is an onboard Canyon Ranch Spa offering all of the expected spa and beauty services. I have to admit that we took advantage of very few of these amenities since we experienced a very port intensive cruise -- only one full day at sea out of twelve days on board.
The ship also has a gym area (petite as is the whole vessel) offering a petite array of free weights and machines and a small, open air "hamster track" for those desiring to walk or run. I truly missed the wrap around promenade decks found on ships like Holland America as the decks that wrap the whole ship are much larger than the confined tracks on Oceania, and they are also sheltered from the sun and much of the elements. On the upside you are allowed to run on the "hamster track" which is not allowed on a classic promenade deck.
We enjoyed most of our evening meals in the Grand Dining Room which is open seating. It, too, is petite with very little space between tables and some tables that are located well back in corners -- blocked in by walls or railings that feel claustrophobic. Food is always subjective. We found most of the food just fine (we ate very well), a few items that were really special, and a very few items like the crispy risotto that I was served not really acceptable. The desserts were, unfortunately for my hips, excellent. And, according to our oenophile traveling companions the wine selection on board was also excellent.
There was only one evening when we had to wait for a table in the Grand Dining Room -- on that evening we were offered the chance to go upstairs to the alternative Italian dining room Toscana which we cheerfully accepted.
As for service in the dining room -- when it worked (which was about 60% of the time) it was excellent. The crew operated like a well oiled, very attentive machine providing service that was in finely tuned concert with our needs and desires. But then there was the other 30-40% of the time when things just didn't go as they should -- such as extensive waits between courses or to have that water glass refilled or to get the sommelier over to the table ... We find ourselves wondering if something happened along the way as our dining room service was impeccable during the first half of the cruise and it seemed to deteriorate somewhat as the cruise wound down.
Our experience at the Toscana Restaurant was, in our opinion, over the top. The menu included the ability to order multiple courses (appetizer, soup, salad, pasta, entree, etc.) and the food was rich and done well -- with lots of garlic, and lots of over the top rituals ... for instance after our elegant bread basket was delivered a cart was wheeled up with an "olive oil" menu that contained no fewer than 20 olive oils and oil infusions from which to choose to fill our Rosenthal olive oil cups. Though we enjoyed the meal and the service was great it was a bit too much for us and we did not repeat this dining venue.
We also supped one evening at the Polo Grill (steaks and seafood), another alternative dining room. Our experience there was excellent. We enjoyed superb steaks, salads, appetizers and sides and a high standard of service. It is interesting to note that on this cruise it was almost always possible to obtain a reservation at Toscana, but it was very difficult to get space at the Polo Grill -- the night we dined there the four in our party shared our table with another couple.
We also enjoyed a few tasty hot dog lunches at the Waves Grill on the pool deck. They serve hot sandwiches, hot dogs and burgers as well as ice cream and milk shakes. And they are open until 4 pm so on those port days when lunch in port was not possible and when we could not get back before the buffet closed at 2 pm, this dining venue was essential.
The ports on this cruise were absolutely fantastic. We cannot comment on Oceania's excursions as we usually did our own thing in port. We did our homework before the cruise and either walked ourselves to do our touring or we hired a taxi that we found ourselves after reaching the port. There were four of us in our party and we found that in most ports the cost of the taxis were very reasonable to share between four adults and the advantage to us was a personalized tour that went only where we wished to go. We had no trouble finding transportation anywhere. In most ports the going rate for a taxi was about 40 euros an hour however it was possible to bargain. For our ports in Turkey our travel agent at home had arranged for private tours to Ephesus and two days of private touring in Istanbul. Our guide in Istanbul was absolutely the best that we have experienced anywhere making our time there truly magical.
Highlights of our experiences in port include walking all the way down the donkey trail on Santorini (not for the faint of heart), realizing that those orange-brown bits of stuff that were all over in the grass at Delos were actually large pottery fragments, the terrace houses at Ephesus, the Acropolis in Athens, and just about everything that we did in Istanbul.
Nautica has a nice library with an excellent selection of books and resource materials -- especially so for a ship of her size.
The ambiance aboard Nautica is reminiscent of a classy gentleman's club. She really looks great but if you look close, there are truly cheesy elements in her decor. I understand this this ship was one of eight originally built for the old Renaissance Cruises -- those that are not with Oceania currently sail under the Azamara or Princess logos. We cruised the Azamara Journey a few years ago and it is a dead ringer for Nautica -- down to the identical (and rather bizarre) paintings on the walls and ceilings, and the identical pieces of "art" around the ship. I am just as puzzled as to why the cherub in one of Nautica's dining room ceiling murals has his arm up the robes of the oddly one legged woman as I was on the Azamara Journey three years ago. I am similarly just as offended by the chubby, naked female statue which seems to have a coat hook rather than a head in Nautica's reception area as I was at the identical statue found in the Journey's reception area three years ago. The "plates" and other artwork that appear to be stored behind glass cupboard doors in the Grand Bar are, upon close examination, merely faux painted representations that sit behind glass on a shallow two inch faux shelf. This is certainly not the caliber of the art collections that we have experienced on lines like Holland America but, I admit, that the net effect works.
Would I cruise Oceania again? Yes, without a doubt if another outstanding itinerary presented itself. We choose our cruises for itinerary first, cruise line second. And we did have an absolutely wonderful cruise.
We very much enjoy extended cruises of 30 or more days. Would I be willing to do that (or possibly an ocean crossing) on Oceania? The answer here is a resounding No. So many of her amenities are packed into such a petite space on board this ship that for a period of time longer than, say, 15 port intensive days, or during several consecutive days at sea, I believe that we would get uncomfortably claustrophobic. DH and I who cheerfully completed 65 days aboard Holland America's Amsterdam a year ago but feel that we could not get along for that length of time in one of Oceania's petite cabins. Unfortunately, the purchase of larger digs would be prohibitively expensive for us on this cruise line.
Other related difficulties to extended cruising aboard Oceania's current ships include the lack of a real, sheltered, classic promenade deck. The ability to take long walks without getting dizzy or sunburned while on a long cruise, or one with several consecutive sea days, is essential.
We also feel that to meet the needs of extended cruisers Oceania needs to offer more laundry venues. At present, even on our 12 day cruise, the very clean and well maintained single self service laundry venue was always crowded and often tension ran high when trying to find an available dryer. The alternative is to send your clothes out for laundry or dry cleaning services which we also did. These services were good but rather pricey, charging by the piece.
And, last -- we feel we need to mention what became our pet peeve on this trip. Our port side deck seven cabin was located not far from the aft stairs and three decks down from the Italian Toscana restaurant kitchen. Every day from mid afternoon through early evening we were infused with garlic odors that wafted down the stairs and filled our cabin. No question that we were well protected from vampires throughout this voyage but we did find the odors unpleasant and they did penetrate our clothing so that we brought home garlic infused garments. We have never experienced this type of proliferation of cooking odors on other vessels so we are left with lingering questions as to why they occurred on Nautica and what, if anything, Oceania could do to correct this situation.
Even though garlic infused we have to give Oceania and this cruise five stars for providing a tremendous cruise experience for us and our travels through Greece and Turkey.