After a 14-hour shore excursion in Cairo -- and the long, hard slog to Alexandria, where Oceania's Nautica was docked -- everyone was pretty worn out. You could visibly see the exhaustion of the more than 500 folks (of the 650-plus sailing) as they straggled back to the ship from a sea of motor coaches. They were, to be sure, thinking longingly of a relaxing cocktail, a quick buffet dinner ... and then bed.
But just as passengers approached a red carpet that snaked out onto the dock from the gangway, they heard the strains of "When the Saints Come Marching In," by the Nautica Orchestra, tucked up on Deck 5's promenade. A banner hung above the ship's entrance saying "Welcome Home." Passengers were offered fresh juices and hot towels. There was an immediate change in mood as the passengers stood up straighter, smiled genuinely and shook off their weariness. They were jazzed by the reception -- and so were the staffers on hand lining the red carpet saying hello. Christopher, a member of the ship's entertainment team, occasionally broke out into a jig; Bruno, the ship's concierge, broke ranks to greet a familiar passenger with a warm handshake.
This was the most moving of many, many wonderful moments, big and small, that were experienced on a recent Mediterranean cruise aboard Nautica, Oceania's newest ship. Others included the joie de vivre of officers and staff who competed in putting, Ping-Pong and shuffleboard with passengers in a rousing "Officers Challenge Day" tournament. I overheard a guest ask cruise director Leslie Jon what events were planned for the day -- and appreciated the gentle kindness with which he detailed them (he could have just told her to read the daily program). No matter how intense the dinner table conversation, we always enjoyed an interruption by the nightly "Pascal and Andrea" meet-and-greet, in which the ship's chef and restaurant manager visited most, if not all, tables, chatting and laughing. Mind you, these represent just a sampling of special moments.
Nautica is the third ship to join Oceania's fleet, and is in many ways identical to Regatta and Insignia, which have preceded it. The strategy, since the beginning, has been to create an ambience far more reminiscent of an English country house hotel than a cruise ship. There's an adequate range of facilities, yet the atmosphere is cozy and intimate. Decor is similar fleetwide, and all vessels have restaurants such as the Polo Grill, Toscana, and Tapas on the Terrace, along with a Mandara spa and cyber lab. Staff and crew routinely rotate among the three ships, so a returning passenger on any of them is likely to recognize friendly faces. That could also be because Oceania treats its employees well -- and they return, contract after contract.
I sailed on Insignia two years ago and loved it then; what was amazing to me is how much the experience has evolved since. Nautica has benefited from the launch of its older two siblings, and it reflects Oceania's more recent brainwaves (the other ships are being upgraded with Nautica's perks as well). These include the installation of all-teak decking around the pool, the creation of private cabanas, the gentle refurbishment of public rooms and the slight redesign of the Grand Restaurant to accommodate more tables for two. The Vista and Owner's Suites have received complete makeovers. There has also been a strong focus on courting experienced employees -- and you'll find that many of the officers, crew and staff members hail from luxury lines like Crystal and Silversea.
The shore excursions arena has improved enormously, and if the line still pretty much limits itself to mass sightseeing tours via motor coach, it's perhaps because the more mature demographic it primarily attracts won't yet support more adventurous offerings.
Someday, maybe. In the meantime, in an era in which ships are becoming so big that even the Panama Canal plans to expand to accommodate them, Nautica, along with its siblings, occupies the most unique niche in the cruise industry, offering small-ship luxury -- at moderate prices. Even better: The experience is anything but pretentious.
If you define luxury as unparalleled service, outstanding cuisine, an intimately sized ship with just enough of the key bells and whistles (variety of dining options, a gorgeous spa, a range of entertainment venues), intriguing itineraries, and an ambience of warmth, then this ship definitely belongs in that niche. On the other hand, there are also "mass market" factors that don't necessarily hew to luxury standards: Drinks and other extras are priced on an a la carte basis, standard cabins can be small (cozy, but small) with shower-only bathrooms, and there are plenty of inside cabins.
The beauty of Nautica is its ability to keep a steady foot in both camps. It offers enough of the sophisticated amenities that will only become more important as cruising continues to evolve (and attract a new type of passenger). At the same time, the line is savvy in positioning its fares for a range of travelers, from those who consider suites and butlers necessary amenities to those who value luxury without the Mercedes price tag. In the process, Nautica -- not to mention its siblings Regatta and Insignia -- offers the best all-around value in cruising today.