This is a review of the Oceania Marina Baltic Treasures Cruise, which departed Stockholm on June 21, 2011. My wife and I (who were traveling with another couple) were quite excited about traveling on this new ship. We've never cruised with Oceania before but had numerous recommendations from friends who enjoy it. Unfortunately, having reflected on our experience on the ship we have mixed feelings about the cruise. There were many highs and a few lows, which put a damper on our feelings and made us question the value proposition of this cruise.
EMBARKATION: We stayed at the Stockholm, Sheraton, which turned out to be an easy 15 minute drive to the port. We arrived around 12:30 PM, given that we had been assigned a 1 PM embarkation time and we did not know what to expect in terms of crowds when we arrived. Much to our surprise, there was hardly anyone there and our bags were quickly taken by a longshoreman. We were directed to a counter where our passport was checked against a passenger manifest. Within a minute or two, we were further directed to board ship. (Our friends who were traveling with us, but we're not staying in concierge class as we were, were advised to arrive at the port at 3 PM. However, they came with us, and had no problem checking in). Once on board we were directed to a lounge, where, within five minutes we were called to the reception area to formally check-in. (Our friends came just a few minutes later.) Since our state room was not going to be ready for a half-hour or so, we were advised to have lunch in the Terrace Café. Without any question, this was the easiest and most civil check-in we have ever experienced.
STATEROOM: Our concierge state room, 9120, port side, aft, was well located just a few cabins away from the aft elevators and staircase. This elevator bank led directly to the main dining room, the Terrace Cafe and the Polo Grill and Toscana specialty restaurants. The ninth floor deck had the concierge lounge and a laundry facility forward. Physically the room was quite beautiful, with dark wood appointments a nice large king bed that was comfortable. A laptop computer was provided, however, since we brought our own we did not use the one provided. There was a flat screen TV with Fox and MSNBC, but no CNN, which was missed. The bathroom had a large tub which we did not use and a small shower. The countertop was a bit small, but provided enough room for most of our toiletries. Two mirrored cabinets on the side gave us ample extra space. In addition there were a few other drawers and shelves for storage. The towels were large and fluffy and Bulgari soaps, lotions and shampoos were provided. Based on previous reviews, we were worried about storage space but the drawers, closet and cabinet proved adequate. So physically the cabin met our expectations, though I would have preferred a larger shower without a bathtub since we never used it. (I'm sure a big tub is a good marketing tool for certain groups.) Now for a few negatives. When we arrived, the cabin was clean, but not spotless. We quickly found a cabin attendant on the floor (not ours), who took care of our issues. While I am not sure, I believe that in order to get cabins ready, deck by deck, a team approach is used to prepare the rooms. Thus we are not sure if our cabin attendant actually cleaned our stateroom. Indeed, our attendant, Ebner, was the best attendant and we have had on any of our cruises. He and his assistant seemed to be always there, out of sight, except when we needed him. So despite the slightly sour first impression, we were extremely satisfied with the cleanliness of the room.
The big negative for the room became obvious for us when we were docking in St. Petersburg at 6 AM. Our cabin shook and shuttered, not vibrated, in our opinion excessively. The clothes in the closet and shelves shook, glasses rattled and it woke us up, which to say the least, upset and annoyed us a lot. We complained on our mid-cruise evaluation and met with an officer the executive concierge who told us that it was normal for the thrusters to operate like that. We had them follow up and come by our cabin when we were departed another port, but again we were told it was normal. If that was normal, it was unacceptable to us. We were offered another cabin farther aft that we declined, since we felt it could be worse and not worth the trouble. We were most recently on Celebrity Solstice class ships (once in a corner stern cabin and twice aft in regular cabins), and never felt such shuttering. Sure there was vibration, but this felt as if someone was pushing an accelerator and brake at the same time, causing the ship to buck. I don't know whether of the Marina is propelled by a pod system or a regular propeller with side thrusters. I would expect that such a new ship would have the latest in technology, which I think is the pod system, and be reasonably smooth. This whole experience really disappointed us and put a damper on the whole cruise. If we were to ever choose Oceana Marina again, we would stay mid ship, away from the thrusters near the bow and stern.
SHIP COMMON AREAS: Without getting into details, everything in the common areas was done tastefully and comfortably. The reception area is beautiful, the theater was warm and inviting, the library was innovatively designed and the pool deck was quite nice. There were ample elevators with rarely a wait. The Horizons Lounge was big, but didn't seem to be used too much except for teatime.
DINING: As expected this was where the ship excels, however we did not get off to a good start. Our first dinner was in the Grand Dining Room a beautiful room with views along the stern. We were seated portside in an elevated area near the door. This area must be where they put their starting waiters. While I can no longer remember all the details, service was slow, I think there was a language problem with the waiter and busboy understanding us, and the waitstaff inadequately responded to an issue with our friend who had a food allergy. A headwaiter was brought over to make sure that the allergy was properly addressed in the kitchen. And then another supervisor (we think) came over, took more notes and assured our friend that all kitchens would be advised of her allergy, she would be given a daily menu from the restaurant where we were having dinner so that the chefs could prepare a suitable meal. The result was that on that first night, the dish prepared for our friend apparently was mediocre, and no one ever followed up regarding the allergy on subsequent nights. Why say something if it was not going to be followed up? I should note that our friend did not want to be treated differently and therefore simply advised each waiter of the allergy so that it could be addressed, which it was. Other than that first night, the food and service was probably the best we've had at sea. Jacques was especially nice, and the food excellent. In addition, the waiter brought a nice birthday cake for our friend and sang a personal song for him. The Polo Grill service was superb, the room, beautiful, and the food very good. I had a ribeye and was a little disappointed (maybe due to my very high expectations), but it was of high quality and prepared properly. Next time I would get the filet mignon. Toscana was also very good, and the service almost overbearing, but not. But the real surprise was Red Ginger as they prepared Asian food in a way that was a little different, but absolutely delicious. Of course, the service, there was excellent as well. We also ate at La Reserve, a specialty restaurant with a fixed menu with wine pairings, that charged $75 per person. It was quite an experience. We started with sparkling wine and appetizers and that was served before we sat down. Since only 16 people can be accommodated at once at two tables, the atmosphere was very personal. Before each wine and dish was served it was described to us by our waiter. It seemed like the chef was allowed to use some originality is preparation and presentation, and it showed. We had the “Exploration Menu” that included 7 courses with Scallops, Foie Gras, Risotto, Wild Salmon, Chateaubriand, cheese and desert all with wine pairings. This dinner was a highlight. We went back to the dining room once for dinner and sat towards the rear of the room and the service and food were quite good. We also went to the Terrace Café, on a number of occasions, and it was the best buffet at sea we ever had. Not only were the food selections wonderful, including lobsters and steaks, but the presentation was very attractive. We also appreciated the fact that guests did not take their own food but was served by staff. We liked not having hundreds of hands reach for food. If desired, staff would also carry the food to your table. We also ate at was the Wave's Grill on the pool deck. After coming back from a shore excursion we had a late lunch and enjoyed the hamburgers, fries etc. There were other interesting items on the menu but they were not tried. I'm sure they were very good. On balance, the Marina excels when it comes to dining choices, and presentation and quality.
SERVICE: As mentioned above, our cabin stewards were excellent. Wait Staff, especially in the specialty restaurants and buffet, were excellent; in the main dining room it was a little uneven. I think the entire crew liked working on the ship, were very proud of it and it showed.
ENTERTAINMENT: This was one area that was disappointing, though truthfully we did not take the time to see and do everything offered. Even though our expectations were not very high, because we knew that the ship was not huge, had an older crowd, and we had a port a day, we were disappointed. We thought the show entitled "Groovin" was amateurish, and did not take full advantage of the singers and dancers talents. River Rhapsody was much better. We were insulted by the performance of the Great Desmondo and Cherry… it seemed like 1950s corn and therefore a dated show. We also listened to the “Smooth Jazz Sounds of the Andy Band" and while they were good, it was a shame there are only six people listening at the Martini Bar. So while we weren't expecting great entertainment, and frankly didn't go out of our way to find it, what we did see was just fair. Probably the best part of the entertainment staff were the singers and dancers who are very talented and engaging individuals. We met a few of them around the ship working venues other than the Marina Lounge, where the shows took place. I should note that as active members of the entertainment staff, unlike other ships, where the singers and dancers just performed, on the Marina they were involved in various other entertainment capacities. We really like that, as it made show performances that much more personal.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: This cruise was port intensive, with no sea days. Every day we were busy on a shipped organized shore excursion or on our own.
Helsinki, Finland: We chose to take the Oceania Choice “Highlights of Helsinki” tour made available by the ship. The Oceania Choice tours have smaller groups on smaller buses. The tour took about three hours, and we saw these three major tourist attractions: the Senate Square, the Rock Church, and Sibelius Park. While interesting, it seemed like the tour filled in time, and we could have seen these sights in an hour or so. My recommendation is to do it on your own... take a taxi downtown. Then walk around and get a feel for the city. We did not have that opportunity as we saw the sights and headed back to the ship.
St. Petersburg, Russia: With two days in the city, we decided to arrange for our own private guide. A friend of ours recommended Elena Ulko of Ulko tours. I then looked up her company on Trip Advisor and found some ambiguous negative remarks that apparently were posted by her competition who in my opinion were upset about getting new competition. To her credit, she responded forcefully and frankly: I liked her spunk. After reading the reviews, we actually had the opportunity to meet and interview her in St. Petersburg, Florida (where she was vacationing) several months before our trip and really liked her. We booked and found Elena to be excellent. We ordered a Mercedes Sprinter van because the four of us wanted some extra room, and it was well worth it. She responded to our many questions via e-mails, arranged for ballet tickets at a price that was less than what we saw online and, of course, provided our entry documents and instructions so there was no problem when we got off the ship. We were expecting Elena to personally be our guide but when we arrived we were greeted by Ekaterina (who we called “Katia”). I have to say that initially I was a little disappointed, because we had such a good rapport with Elena and expected her to guide us, though she had warned me in advance that she might have a problem doing so. The good news however is that Katia was fabulous. Elena had planned out a wonderful two day trip including the Jewish synagogue, the Hermitage, Peterhof (which we took a hydrofoil to get to) and then we saw a ballet at the Mikhailovsky Theater. The ballet proved to be the highlight of the day and was in a theater that was recently remodeled and performed by a privately supported production company. We saw Le Corsaire which had wonderful staging, scenery, costumes, performers and orchestra. (Extra advice: the theater only takes rubles for programs and refreshments, so make sure you have some.) The next day we went to Pushkin to see Catherine's Palace, had lunch in the city and then saw the Peter and Paul Cathedral. I must say having a private guide in a private van made seeing St. Petersburg easy and a lot more comfortable than sitting on a bus. There is a lot to see in a short period of time and with only four people we were able to move about very quickly. Katia knew her way around and moved us to the front of certain lines, got us the best seats on the hydrofoil and was very knowledgeable, answering our questions about history and life in St. Petersburg. I would highly recommend Ulko tours and especially Katia as a guide.
Tallinn Estonia: We took the ship's tour “Tallinn & Old Town” that started at upper town and we walked to lower town and then returned to the ship. Tallinn is a nice small city worth seeing but could probably have been done on our own with the information available from the ship and on the Internet. A shuttle bus runs between the port and the lower town.
Riga, Latvia: We took the ship's tour “Riga-Jewish Heritage tour". This proved to be a very interesting tour, with stops at the site of the destroyed “Great” Synagogue, the Rumbula Memorial and the New Ghetto museum. Our guide was most informative, explaining the atrocities of the Holocaust as it related to his city. The mood of the trip was somber, but it was worthwhile .
Visby, Sweden: I took the ship's tour “Visby by Bicycle”, a tour that went out of the town of Visby to explore a slice of the island of Gotland. Our guide was a native of the island, and she ably guided us by bike around some of the most interesting attractions. We were able to go up some country roads that a big bus could not easily negotiate. We also had a refreshment break at Fridhem, a former royal summer cottage that is now a country inn and restaurant. In general seeing a tour by bike, to me, is a better way than by bus since you get a better feel for the place you are visiting and it is fun. In addition, you get to meet people with a similar interest (biking). My wife and our friends took Oceania Choice “Medieval Visby”. I was told that the tour was informative but bear in mind the island is more a vacation resort than a real tourist destination.
Gdynia, Poland: Gdynia is the entryway to Gdansk , Poland. We chose to see Gdansk on our own by hiring a taxi cab at the port. The taxi situation was a little unnerving. There were taxis next to the pier after we got off the gangway and other taxis just outside the gate to the port which was in walking distance. Only a few drivers on the pier spoke English, and we assumed that even fewer would speak English outside the gates. So, we hired a taxi on the pier. He took us to Gdansk, pointed us in the right direction to see some sights, and took us back. We felt that was the best way to see the city in a short period of time. The main square in old town was attractive enough, but frankly, when we found out it was all rebuilt after the war and were not the original buildings (since they were destroyed in World War II), it took some of the some of the sizzle out of it. Nevertheless, the Polish people are very proud of their old town, and I'm glad we went.
Ronne, Denmark: I took a ship’s tour, “Discover Bornholm by Bike”. Bornholm is the name of the island where the town of Ronne is located. We took a ride through a forest to a smokehouse then saw a round church in a small town and rode back to Ronne. It was a nice way to see a little piece of a pretty island. There really were not many tourist sites and the island is primarily a vacation spot for Danes. Were it not for the biking, I would have been happy spending a day at sea. My wife and our friends took the ship’s “Walking Tour of Ronne” which was a tour of the town that discussed its long history. But again, this island is, like Visby, a vacation destination.
Warnemunde, Germany: Warnemunde is the port serving Berlin. We arranged for another private tour with a professor from a university in Berlin who was recommended by a friend of ours. I do not believe he seeks out tour groups, so I am not going to name him. He was however an expert on the Holocaust, and while we did not have time to go to the Holocaust Museum we did go to a few sites that would not be on everybody's list of things to see. We went to the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish neighborhood, Checkpoint Charlie and saw some of the remains of the Berlin Wall. In addition, we visited some smaller sites of Jewish interest, including the New Synagogue. We actually saw a lot in a short time, but the truth of the matter is we really didn't have enough time to see the city adequately. Traveling a total of six hours to and from the ship and touring for another five hours makes for a very long day. It was worth it, but I think one must expect that they are only getting their tongue whetted for another visit.
Copenhagen, Denmark: Unfortunately, we had to catch a plane to Paris and did not have time to tour Copenhagen. From what we saw from the taxi, we will be going back.
Disembarkation: When we were in Tallinn (six days before the end of the cruise) we were given a questionnaire regarding our disembarkation preferences when we arrived in Copenhagen. One of the options was to arrange a private car transfer to the airport at a cost of $279 per vehicle for two people. In addition, there was a warning that “taxi availability on the pier is limited and you may expect lines” but that the fare would be around $50. Not wanting to pay $279 or take a bus, I stopped by the Destination Desk to ask their advice. They reiterated that taxis are scarce, and because of that we decided to get off the ship as early as possible since we had a plane to catch and wanted to take a taxi. After a good, unharried breakfast in the Dining Room, we got off around 7:30 AM, found our bags very quickly and went to the taxi stand, where there was a taxi waiting with no line. So for us it was no problem but I did hear that there were lines later in the day. Nevertheless, the disembarkation experience was excellent and pain-free.
Rambling thoughts: While we continue to have mixed thoughts about the cruise and rebooking on Oceania, there were a few things of note that we really liked. Water and soft drinks are free, the wine list was very good and reasonably priced, laundry and dry cleaning were fast and priced fairly, a full breakfast was available from room service in our concierge cabin, there were no formal nights, there wasn’t a cruise photographer in our face all the time, the spa and gym were very well equipped and clean and my massage was great, though typical cruise pricey. On the negative side, the internet is slow and expensive with a 200 minute plan costing $140. The ship can provide faster service if it wants to pay for the bandwidth. I note that Celebrity did speed things up on the Equinox when I last traveled…Oceania should do the same. When booking a cabin, bear in mind that there is a subtle caste system. Reservations for the specialty restaurants are accepted first for those in suites, then concierge and then the remaining cabins. As a result you may not get the best times for your reservations if you don’t take a concierge level cabin or suite. In addition, the same cabin order apparently is used for boarding the ship. I assume that being an Oceania Club member may help making reservations early, but I don’t know. Finally, while there were a lot of things to like about the ship, I am not sure if we’ll soon book again with Oceania. It probably will depend on a specific itinerary and what the alternatives are. As mentioned above, it will also depend on the value proposition offered versus the competition.