A relative upstart among the cruise lines, having only been in existence since 2003, Oceania Cruises officially entered the big time in January 2011 with the launch of Marina, its first new-build. Sleek, spacious and oh-so-chic, Marina marks a giant step forward for the fledgling upper-premium line. (Riviera, Marina's nearly-identical sibling, launched in May 2012.)
Upper premium? Hmmm. After spending a few days aboard the 66,084-ton, 1,258-passenger vessel, you may begin to wonder if Marina has actually pushed Oceania across the line into luxury. Credit goes to the uber-fine dining (including super-chef Jacques Pepin's first namesake restaurant), amenity-packed cabins and abundance of artwork at every corner. Indeed, much of the inspiration for the ship's design came from such high-end establishments as Miami's Mondrian Hotel, the Palm Court at NYC's Plaza Hotel and Bouchon restaurant in Napa. Marina is not a true luxury ship, of course; its cruises sell at a more moderate price point and are significantly less inclusive (passengers will have to bring out their wallets for a range of fares charged a la carte, from cocktails to enrichment programs).
Of course, there are plenty of places to think about the distinction while chilling aboard the ship, whether you're getting a massage in the Canyon Ranch SpaClub, reading a good book next to the faux fireplace in the massive (yet surprisingly cozy) library or straddling one of the oversized padded lounges in the Sanctuary -- an aptly named touch o' the South Pacific near the pool that offers copious shade, swaying palms, ceiling fans and dedicated drink waiters.
Inasmuch as the ship offers double the capacity of Oceania's older vessels, it's no surprise Marina introduces a number of innovations to the line. One of the most touted is its Culinary Center, offering highly entertaining -- and practical -- hands-on cooking lessons from Culinary Institute of America instructors. Marina's culinary center is the most elaborate in cruising.
New restaurants include La Reserve, a 24-seat wine-themed eatery from Wine Spectator magazine; Jacques, for French country cooking; and Red Ginger, an Asian fusion mecca whose decor alone (a sea of deep reds, black and dark wood) will leave you smitten. In addition, cabins are larger, with an earthier palette and greatly expanded bathrooms.
Right out of the shipyard, Oceania Marina got most things right, but there were glitches. Service, generally superb in any venue we came across, didn't live up to the cruise line's standards in the Terrace Grill, the ship's casual restaurant, on a number of occasions (particularly when dining on the otherwise lovely alfresco terrace off the back). The bars and lounges laid out along the Deck 5 corridor, which passengers tramp through on their way to the Grand Restaurant, weren't particularly appealing or intimate. (Much nicer was the Horizon, the ship's top-deck bar and lounge.) Evening entertainment, never an Oceania strong point, was mediocre. Also, given the ship's port-intensive itineraries (with very few sea days), we found that activities often conflicted with time in port or were held at dinnertime. As a result, sometimes you had to make tough choices about what to do.
Despite these minor complaints, you can expect a ship that's fun to explore, focused on food and wine, easy to navigate and easy on the wallet when compared to luxury lines (hence that "upper-premium" designation).