Mostly good (excellent!), a little bad, one ugly...
PRE-CRUISE : We were most impressed with the professional, personalised brochure that arrived prior to joining. It contains full descriptions of all the excursions available, final itinerary times, and lots of information about the cruise line and what to expect on the ship. Concierge class provided priority embarkation, and the process was quick in Istanbul. We were not allowed access to our stateroom straight away, but upon boarding we had a nice lunch and were soon informed that our stateroom was ready for occupancy. Entering our stateroom we were greeted with a chilled bottle of champagne. We read most of the Cruisecritic reviews about Nautica, Oceania and some of the ports of call, and found the website to be the most comprehensive around. The roll-call for our particular cruise was very informative, and Grace did a fine job of encouraging everyone, and counting down the days to embarkation.
OCEANIA POLICIES : We loved the 'country club casual' dress code! The website and brochures make it appear more formal than it actually is. Everyone is dressed nicely most of the time, but no dickie-bows or ball-gowns in sight. Open seating was another plus for us. On previous cruises, with other cruise lines, we have felt a bit restricted with having the same seating time every night, whereas Oceania allow you more freedom to turn up whenever you like and join another table or have a table for two (although these were a little bit harder to come by on our particular cruise). There is plenty of encouragement to book the specialty restaurants online before joining the vessel, or on the first day when you join, but in reality they were quite open to us turning up on the night and asking for a seat. Often at breakfast or lunch there would be staff approaching the tables in the cafe offering bookings for that night. As non-smokers we enjoyed the restrictive policy which prevents smoking other than an area on the pool deck and one in Horizons. It was great not to have wafts of smoke intrude on our balcony, and we quickly learnt not to use the door on the pool deck smoking side to avoid walking through a cloud of smoke.
FELLOW GUESTS : It was very noticeable for us how the ship is more intimate than the larger ones, as we met lots of new people, and often saw them around the ship. This is enhanced by free seating encouraging meeting new people, or joining new friends for dinner. The best recommendation for Oceania came when a senior staff member told us that of 530 guests, some 510 were repeats on Oceania! The assistant cruise director called us the "junior cruisers" as the guests were mostly of retirement age and much older. This is mostly a reflection of the length of the cruise as working people can't often take six weeks off. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting people with such extensive cruising and travelling experiences to share. Oceania don't really cater for children and we were very happy to have none at all on our cruise. This was again probably due to the length of the voyage, as there were a lot of children arriving for the Christmas cruise.
SHIP'S OFFICERS and STAFF : The Captain (Croatian) and many other officers were often seen walking around the ship and all were very approachable. The second Captain (Italian) was more likely to be seen in the smoking area, and was not much of a conversationalist. On disembarkation when he was standing at the gangway, a fellow passenger was heard to call him a 'cold fish'... On one of the first nights of the cruise there was a Captain's Cocktail Party, to which all were invited. We were pleasantly surprised to find it was very popular, and even more so that the bar staff were circulating with plenty of trays of FREE cocktails, wine and champagne - always our favourite type of drink! We had a lot of fun with the friendly restaurant and bar staff who represented some 40 different nations.
STATEROOMS: We chose a fairly central cabin on deck seven, so it was only ever a couple of flights of stairs and a short walk to anywhere on the ship. The elevators never seemed to be too crowded. The room is a bit cosy for two people, but with a balcony it worked fine for us. Our issue is with the lack of shelves and storage, especially on a 40-night cruise. There really should be some form of bookshelves available at least. The balcony has lovely teak decking and comfortable chairs, however the table is ridiculously small! Room service out on the terrace was not really possible. The bathrooms are typically small but well designed on Nautica with a few shelves and a good cupboard. There are lovely toiletries, in decent sized bottles, which were replaced regularly. The air-conditioning was not particularly effective, with some nights feeling a little warm in the stateroom, despite turning the dial to the coldest setting. The temperature in the room was not helped by the poor seal around the sliding glass door, which made for a rather loud whistling noise, and allowed plenty of moisture inside. Once in the tropics we were 'treated' to our own indoor rain shower from the condensation dripping from the air-conditioning vent! The nightlight in the bathroom is a great idea. It provides enough light that you don't need to turn on the main one during the night. Other cruise lines provided a pair of binoculars in the concierge staterooms which were much appreciated, but these were not available on Oceania. Cashmere blankets and towelling robes are available in the concierge class stateroom. The stateroom attendants in concierge class were very attentive, cleaning our stateroom as soon as we vacated. The eight towels were replaced morning and evening, and a turn down service provided a chocolate on each pillow. A couple of tips that some people might not be aware of: - Most "walls" on a ship are metallic, so it is useful to bring an assortment of magnets to pin up schedules and reservations throughout the voyage. - Suction hooks are great to stick to the mirror to hang up dressing gowns or sarongs. - Travel shops can provide an elastic washing line with suction cups on each end. Great when you do some hand-washing, or even use the main laundry as you can stick the lines to the mirrors and windows and let your clothes dry naturally (and avoid the queue for the laundry). - Most ship's water is perfectly drinkable, if not better than the bottled stuff that Oceania regularly encourage you to pay for. Fill your bottles from the tap in your bathroom, add some ice and away you go! Oceania should really provide some free bottles, especially to those that pay for excursions.
INTERNET and COMPUTERS :(here is the 'ugly') Internet speed, or a lack of it, is a major issue that Oceania badly needs to sort out. Prior to starting our cruise we had read (internet) reviews that it was slow but we were not prepared for it to be almost unusable. Many people on board had hoped to keep blogs up to date and send emails and photographs to friends and family, but after sometimes waiting 20 minutes for the homepage of Yahoo to even appear, this quickly becomes frustrating and tiresome. We wrote a letter of complaint a few days after arriving which we handed to the concierge. We were called to the computer room and asked if there was anything they could do to improve the service - of course we requested free minutes (which were not offered) but really the whole system needs to be overhauled. The staff thanked us for making a formal complaint, and we would recommend that others apply such pressure until things improve. The joining information gives you details of the email address that they assign to you for use during the cruise. We thought that this might be a free intranet situation, but again Oceania are being greedy and actually have the cheek to charge you two dollars per email for every recipient!!! There are classes for such things as Photoshop, but they are at the extortionate price of US$25! And charging US$20 to provide a CD (no, not a DVD) and copy your photos onto it is 'daylight robbery'!
RESTAURANTS: The Grand Dining room provided excellent meals every time we were there. The menu was different every day, and there were favourite selections and light options always available. The Grand Dining room serves dinner to 9:30pm, but we were always able to sit much later with dessert and coffee service continuing. The others shut down around you at 9pm. The Polo Grill steakhouse was a little disappointing, if only because the Grand Dining Room provided decent cuts of meat and other similar menu items. We had an issue a few times with less attentive service in Polo. We found the Toscana restaurant was excellent every time, with an extensive menu of wonderful Italian food, and the staff doing a great job of hamming it up as Italians. The Terrace Cafe buffet was not particularly extensive, but there were different dishes available each day which made up for that (other cruise line buffets have been a bit repetitive). Iced water would be poured even as you sat down, and then a staff member would quickly offer to carry your plate to your table, after you selected from the ever-changing display. Tapas on the Terrace in the evenings was a nice, more casual alternative to the dining rooms (still a buffet), and on occasion there would be a themed meal. Waves grill had spectacular gourmet burgers, hot dogs and paninis, and a lovely salad bar. Like the others, your iced water was always filled, your plate carried to the table, and orders taken for things like the milkshakes and smoothies. The ice-cream selection was different every day. We used room service for breakfast on days with early starts which was always good. The orders were always delivered on time. Once again it is worth taking concierge class as this allows for more than a continental breakfast.
ALCOHOL: We like a drink so this was an important issue for us. We took advantage of the lack of restriction on bringing our own supplies for the stateroom. We spent plenty in the bars but also enjoy a quiet drink in the stateroom or on our private balcony, for which we definitely needed more than the common allowance of two bottles of wine! We were a bit disappointed that the bars did not stock any local beers, even from Istanbul. We enjoy trying foreign beers when we travel, but Budweiser, Grolsch, Becks and Corona don't really count. Kingfisher was obtained in India but not available in all the bars. In many ports there was a duty free shop in the terminal, usually with very good prices for alcohol...
SHORE EXCURSIONS : We did a few Oceania shore excursions and although the prices are a little steep, the companies used each time were very good and it was value for money for those not keen on doing it themselves. There was a local representative on the ship in each port, armed with maps and information for those who wanted to explore on their own. On occasion these were not too helpful - in Port Said the guy was sending people to the national museum that had been closed for three years! We did think that Oceania should make a little more effort to let people know about such things as Hop-on-Hop-off buses that are available in more and more cities nowadays. The staff was at the gangway every time offering water for sale - once again, this should be complimentary when you have already paid for an expensive excursion! We did a few private excursions for half the Oceania price and they always provided complimentary water.
POOL DECK : We were regulars in the spa pools next to the swimming pool, with the bar staff making sure we stayed 'lubricated'. The spa is fresh water, while the swimming pool is salty. The pool was rather cool at first, but it quickly warmed up as the ship headed south. My swimming costume faded badly within a week due to the chemicals in the pools (mainly the spa pool), so don't bring your favourite one. There were signs in the pool area warning of this so they are to be heeded! In the early days of the cruise the deck staff provided lovely warm blankets to those who settled onto a deck lounger next to the pool. We usually were able to find a lounger in an acceptable position. There are lovely double loungers with extra cushions, and towels are always laid out on all of the loungers and quickly replaced as necessary.
SERVICES : Oceania automatically add 18% service charge / gratuity on everything (bar bills, spa services etc.), which we strongly disagree with. Gratuities should be at the discretion of the guest, allowing you to reward those that provide better service. On the flip side we did discover that the junior bar staff are not actually paid a salary, instead relying on the gratuity for drinks they "sell". At least they are rotated around all the bar positions, so they have the opportunity to work in the more lucrative bars, rather than be stuck in a quieter one. All seems a bit unfair to us though, as we would rather reward the staff that provide better service. Like most cruise lines, various exotic spa treatments are offered at equally exotic prices. A neck-back-shoulders massage was $120 for 50 minutes, then the obscene 18% gratuity is automatically added, and on one occasion the staff had the cheek to encourage a tip - claiming that the 18% is a "surcharge". The boutique kept updating their stock with different logo items and souvenirs from the various ports, and there were often displays of jewelry, perfumes and clothing Initially we liked that there was no over-exuberant photographer insisting you pose next to a life size dolphin or other costume every time you went off the ship. In saying that, at the end of the voyage we were watching a television montage of shots taken throughout the trip that we thought might have been nice to purchase on CD.
ENTERTAINMENT : We only attended a few of the performances, but reports of the music and dancing on offer were generally positive. There was a constant offering of organized activities where you could earn 'O-Points' that could be used to purchase logo items from the shop on board. Some people seemed to take this far too seriously, but plenty enjoyed the quizzes, games and competitions. We were pleased to see a BBC news channel on TV as well as the usual American selection. Unfortunately in India the selection was dramatically reduced to only Fox news, and this was not rectified over the last couple of weeks of the cruise. We would have thought this was just a case of retuning the satellite. Lots of people spent time in their stateroom watching the wide selection of movies available. Those that watched regularly thought that the selection should have been rotated a little more often. The destinations channel was very informative and prompted us to book a couple of additional excursions. The daily newsletter is only USA Today, although we did see a Canadian version delivered. The library has a most comprehensive range of interesting books, from magazines and novels through to non-fiction and reference materials. The radio channel had some decent rock music available, a change from the more classical or older music played in the public areas around the ship. Enrichment lectures were strangely lacking for such an extensive itinerary with so many historical sites to visit. We would like to have seen more available, at least on the television if not live talks. The Captain gave a very entertaining and informative talk about pirates, and the Nautica experience of last year. Every sea-day morning in Horizons was coffee-chat and needle-point, where small kits were available free of charge (yes, Oceania do give something out for free!), and a regular group turned up with knitting and other crafts.
VISAS AND IMMIGRATION : We thought the information from Oceania before the cruise was lacking about which countries actually require you to have a visa in advance. After some research we only bought a visa for India in advance, and had no problem getting visas on arrival in Istanbul. Once on board, the staff was very efficient with handling passports and getting them distributed in the ports that required them. We didn't enjoy getting up at 06:30 for a face-to-face meeting with Israeli authorities, but again the staff made it as quick as possible, and arranged plenty of officers to ensure the process was quick. We had read on the internet that Jordan could be problematic but we didn't even have to get our passports. The paperwork for India arrived in the stateroom only requiring some signatures. Ditto for immigration paperwork required for Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
OVERALL IMPRESSION : We are already booked for the 35 night trip from Capetown to Singapore in 2010...