This will likely be one of the most memorable cruises of all of those we've ever taken. I wish to thank everyone at Oceania from Frank Del Rio on down. You guys are wonderful.
Of course, the Marina was virtually brand new-and quite beautiful. Very spacious-even more so than the Oceania R-Ships. We sailed with less than 1,200 on a 65,000 gross ton ship, so venues were very uncrowded and there was never really a line or wait for anything—Except the tenders in tender ports-which was fairly frustrating at times as those of us on private tours were delayed leaving the ship while they got all of the shore excursions off first.
The Grand Dining Room was very ample with tables always open. Each of the four main specialty restaurants was very nicely done.
Unlike the R-Ships, the Marina finally has a real dedicated theater-style showroom. Some people may like the lounge seating of the R-ships to this, but, to seat enough people for a ship this size, this is the right way to do it. The walkways in front of each row of seats was sufficiently wide enough to allow people to pass without forcing anyone seated to stand and the viewing angles were pretty good from most seats. The only questionable part, IMHO, were the desk-type tables that pulled up out of the armrests-a little too tight for most of us overeating cruise passengers. Of course, I never saw many people using these.
We were in one of the "Oceania Suites"--#12006. What can I say? One of the best and best thought-out suites I have ever seen on a ship. I could live in this suite. Living/Dining Room, TV Room, Bedroom, more than ample walk-in closet, two bathrooms (Though every husband we met said the same thing—the wife pretty much took over the "big" bathroom and the husbands all ended up permanently relegated to the "guest" bathroom!). Private (one-person) Jacuzzi on the balcony with a big screen TV over the Jacuzzi! Very nice-sized bar came fully stocked with a bottle of Bacardi Rum, Grey Goose Vodka, Black Label Scotch, a red and a white wine and a bottle of Gin (which I quickly traded for a second bottle of scotch!). My only real issue with the suite was that there were so many light switches that it usually took me 20 minutes to figure out how to turn off all of the lights. My wife's issue was that there seemed to be constant whistling from the bedroom sliding glass door on windy nights. Of course, I slept right through it.
The dining room and specialty restaurant service was even better than I recall from past Oceania cruises, if that is possible. Grand Dining Room staff was excellent, very accommodating—never a problem. Specialty restaurants, of course, were a step above. Our "team" taking care of us in our suite—Butler Ravi and the Assistant Butler (whose name suddenly escapes me) were always available to fill all requests, and our Cabin Steward, Jahaira and her two assistants were just flat-out excellent..
Food, of course, was the highlight of the cruise. And, this, of course, was the "Jacques Pepin cruise". Jacques was staying just down the hall from us and we were invited one night to La Reserve for dinner with Jacques and his wife and his Sous Chef, Jean-Claude and his wife and a few other passengers. Absolutely the most incredible dinner experience. Appetizers and champagne, followed by six incredible courses with a wine paired to each one: Scallop, Risotto, a Fish dish, Chateaubriand, Pear and Goat Cheese and a Chocolate Mousse topped gateau. Three and a half hours of sheer pleasure and great conversation.
We also had eight specialty reservations, two in each of the main four, and we managed to squeeze in an extra at Toscana for our final night—a very special final dinner onboard with two couples with whom we had shared most of our private tours.
I think of all of the specialty restaurants (aside from La Reserve), Toscana was my clear favorite. Starting with the choice of Olive Oils and Balsamic vinegars and through the meal, everything was outstanding. And the Veal Scaloppine Marsala my favorite dish on the ship. And, the Pennette San Gimignano as a "side dish" was incredible—I could have eaten that as a full meal and been very happy. Of course, the other specialty restaurants were each very good in their own right. Red Ginger was a big hit with everyone. Very well done. Get the Sushi as an appetizer.
Entertainment: Food, of course, was the high point—and, as usual with Oceania, Entertainment was the most disappointing area—Although, it was actually a considerable improvement from our past Oceania cruises. With the dedicated stage and showroom, they now had a troupe of singers and dancers (four of each) putting on actual "production shows" with costume changes and some variety. Not quite up to the par of the production shows one sees on other cruise lines, but definitely a worthy bit of entertainment. We especially enjoyed Jennifer, from New Jersey-one of the young singers. They did the "Welcome" show and three other full productions plus participated in other activities around the ship.
The spotlight performers were a mixed bag:
Artur Banaskiewicz - Violinist: He did two shows before leaving mid-cruise. He was good at what it is he does, but two full shows of gypsy music on the violin is far too much for me. I think I found his manner of speaking and accent more entertaining than the music.
Danny Buckler - Magician/Comedian: As a magician, his act was fairly pedestrian. Small time magic starting with the trite and obvious "Indian Rope Trick". But, as a comedian, this guy was clearly the most entertaining act on the ship. Great rapport with the crowd, quick delivery and reaction. Absolutely charming. Two shows.
Agata Sava - Soprano. Two shows. We missed her first show as we were in La Reserve for a long evening, but, after seeing her second show, we were more than happy that we missed the first. Absolutely excruciating—a soprano who had trouble hitting the high notes. And a style reminiscent of the Bride of Frankenstein in a full body cast. No movement, little expression—and an accent and delivery that made it sound as if she did not speak English—at all. Sounded as if she'd memorized the lyrics by sound or phonetics. The worst.
Bruce Parker "California Soul Man": Two shows (we missed the second). He was actually quite good—very energetic. Sort of the Anti-Agata Sava. Moved around the stage, involved the audience. Really worked it. If there was a problem, it was in the material and the audience. This was, quite simply, not an R&B/Motown crowd. And, among all of the available R&B/Motown material, he tended to pick some of the more obscure songs—not good to do with a crowd who isn't into that style of music and only knows the "big hits".
Don Bryan - Ventriloquist: I've seen his act before—must have been on Nautica. Decent Ventriloquist, funny enough act with a couple of entertaining twists
The nights in Le Verdon, Cadiz and Livorno, there was no real show.
HONFLEUR - 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.: We didn't really have an interest in doing a long D-Day beaches tour here and we'd been to Rouen and Giverny on a recent cruise stop, so we decided to just walk around Honfleur, visited the Boudin Museum and returned to the ship in the afternoon. Picturesque little town.
SAINT-MALO - 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.: Here we did a private tour with a party of eight to Mont St. Michel, Dinan and Saint Malo with Westcapades for 80€ pp. Our guide was Marc, the owner of the company. He did a very nice job of providing commentary on the way to Mont St. Michel in the morning. Having left the ship promptly upon arrival, we beat most of the crowds to this site. Very impressive old monastery. Then it was on to Medieval Dinan. Very nice little town, free time and lunch, then back over to St. Malo, where we parted ways with Marc and walked through the walled city, then tendered back to the ship. One key here with the early start was to report to the showroom ahead of the time the first of the ship's shore excursions was to depart—so we were able to get tender tickets for the first tender while the shorex participants were still amassing.
PONT AVEN - 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.: It was raining a good portion of the day, so we just spent some time wandering around Concarneau. Very touristy little town-walled medieval city—a short walk from the tender pier.
LA ROCHELLE - 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.: This is one of only two ports where we took a shore excursion—"Saintes & Cognac", a full day tour for $199 per person—not bad as shorexes go—we had a nice little visit to La Rochelle, then Saintes and then a tour of the Hennessey Cognac distillery with tastings. Only real negative was 38 people on the tour.
BORDEAUX - 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. -Here we had a simply marvelous tour with Maryse of Bordeaux Excursions, party of 8 for 118.75€ per person. Maryse picked us up at the pier in Le Verdon and drove us to two wineries in the morning-- chateau LOUDENNE www.lafragette.com - Crû Bourgeois of Medoc - also called the "Pink Chateau" for its outstanding XVIIth Century architecture and château LYNCH-BAGES in Pauillac, listed in the 1855 Classification Medoc Wines www.lynchbages.com, then lunch at "brasserie" LE CAFE LAVINAL www.villagedebages.com
After lunch, we continued through Saint-Julien and Margaux vineyards with stops for pictures by the renowned chateaux (Pichon, latour, margaux, etc...)
Then on to Bordeaux for a walking tour through the city. Maryse is one of the best guides we've had.
BIARRITZ - 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. - Actually, the port is St. Jean de Luz. We had nothing planned here. We thought we might take a taxi to Bayonne or Biarritz, but we found the town of St. Jean so charming that we spent the day here instead. Took the little tourist train (5€ per person) for an orientation of the city, then just walked around on our own.
BILBAO - 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.: Here we decided to do the city on our own. A free Oceania shuttle took us to the center of town from where we walked to the "Casco Viejo"—The Old City, then around the riverfront to the Guggenheim Museum. There are three very interesting and distinct bridges across the river near the Guggenheim. We crossed the river on the first, then took the elevator to the top of the second and came back across the river on the third, getting some incredible photos on this route.
LA CORUNA - 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.: Here we hired a private tour for six of us with Brendan Lowe of Guided Galicia. Brendan is an expatriate Kiwi living in Vigo—very nice guy. We went, in the morning to the Pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela through the church, market and town, then on to Cambados for lunch, then to the town of Betanzos then back to La Coruña and a visit to the Tower of Hercules -Cost for the tour was 91.67€ per person.
OPORTO - 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.: Here we were supposed to do our second shorex—"The Medieval City of Guimaraes" (half day, $119 pp), but the city was completely fogged in and they could not dock the ship—so, disappointingly, we missed this port altogether.
CADIZ - 1:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.: We had a party of 10 here on a private tour to Seville with Cadiz and Beyond for 85€ per person. It was, by far, the hottest day of the cruise—46 Celsius/114 Fahrenheit. Our guide in Seville was excellent and the visit to the Cathedral and the Palace was quite interesting. No way we walk up the Giralda Tower in that heat though! Still, Seville is an enchanting city.
CASABLANCA - 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.: Here we booked a private tour for six with travel exploration Morocco for a cost of $108 per person, payable in advance by credit card in US$. Our guide, Redouane, met us at the ship and took us to the Mosque, the Synagogue and an open air market and on a driving tour through the city. Both the Mosque and Synagogue were impressive, each in their own way, but most in our party were not thrilled with the market or the city itself—sort of filthy with crazy traffic.
BARCELONA - 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.: After several visits here, we know Barcelona so well that we did not see a need for a tour. This visit, we made it a point to visit a couple of sites we've neglected in last visits. We, basically, wandered through the Barri Gotic, visiting the Synagogue (Oldest in Europe and rediscovered only a few years ago) and the Cathedral, then a visit to El Corte Ingles and a stroll down Las Ramblas.
MONTE CARLO - 12:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.: Here we did a private tour with a party of 8 visiting the towns of Grasse (and the Fragonard Perfume Factory), Gourdon and St. Paul de Vence. St. Paul is one of my favorite towns in France-incredibly picturesque. Cost was 65€ per person.
LIVORNO - 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.: This was our second shore excursion—"Pisa - Lucca - Puccini", approximately 10 hours for $179 per person. After an interesting visit to the home of the composer Puccini, we visited the beautiful walled city of Lucca and the wonderful Pisa with its Leaning Tower and other landmarks. Only 16 passengers on this tour and a very good guide, making it one of the better shore excursions.
ROME - Here, we joined a group of eight for a tour of the main sights of Rome with Valerio Nacci of NCC. For only 50€ per person, he picked us up at the ship and took us to the Vatican, Trevi, Piazza Navona, Vittorio Emanuel, Pantheon and Coliseum, then dropped us off at our hotel and returned the others (who were doing back-to-backs) to the ship in Civitavecchia. Very much worth the price.
We flew into Heathrow several days before the cruise, rented a car and spent four nights in Canterbury, staying at the House of Agnes:
Excellent little bed and breakfast. It's a centuries-old B&B, but we had a very modern and newly built-out "stable room" for £80 per night. The place was very well run with an excellent breakfast. There was ample convenient on-site parking though the driveway was a little difficult to navigate. The location was right outside the main West Gate to the old walled city so everything was in close walking distance. Canterbury turned out to be an outstanding choice for a pre-cruise stay. Much nicer than the industrial Dover, yet within a half hour drive of the port. We took a charming river boat ride one morning, visited the Cathedral the next and took a drive out to the picturesque town of Sandwich the third. Other than that, we just relaxed, walked about the town, ate, shopped and enjoyed.
We spent two nights in Rome post cruise at the Residenza Farnese:
A steal at 120€ per night. One of the absolute best locations in Rome. About a block from the Campo di Fiore and about three blocks from the Piazza Navona on a quiet side street. The Campo di Fiore is now one of my favorite piazzas in all of Rome. A vibrant piazza lined with several very reasonably priced restaurants with ample outdoor seating. We ate in two of them:
I had pasta in both and both were VERY good. It is hard to beat the outdoor tables on the Campo. My wife loved the Gelato at Blue Ice. They have not one, but two, locations within a block of each other on the road leaving the Campo in the direction of the Piazza Navona.
All in all, this was an absolutely GREAT cruise.