Freshly perked up from her recent refit, Regatta was a charmer. Our penthouse had been totally redone in soothing sea colours and lots of light, the public areas were inviting, and despite the rumors we had heard about the effects of Norwegian penny-pinching in the culinary department, the food seemed to us at least as good as we remembered from previous Oceania trips and perhaps even better (of course, this voyage covered the holiday season, so that may have played a part: Christmas Eve dinner at the Italian restaurant, Toscana, for instance, was like it must have been to eat at the table of a medieval pope).
Everything seemed to run with a smooth efficiency. The staff and crew were engaged and consistently attentive, and you never felt hurried or manipulated or treated like a number, the way you might on other vessels: tour departures were orderly (though not always on time) and overall organization was so smooth I saw no serious line-ups for anything. Oceania has been in the business long enough to get these things right, of course, though crews and staff are always changing and there are no guarantees.
One of the reasons we took this cruise was the itinerary—a chance to see the Komodo dragons, and an up-close look at village life in Papua New Guinea, as well as an opportunity to revisit Bali—and we weren’t disappointed. And our encounters with Australia—the people and the places and the wildlife—were a surprising delight. The tours themselves had obviously been chosen and vetted with some care, and any hiccups we encountered (drivers uncertain about destinations, for instance) were decidedly first-world problems.
One of the secrets of this class of ship, despite the vessel’s smallness, is that there’s always a little corner just for you (though it’s not always in the library, where the comfy seats fill up fast). We quickly got into the habit of taking afternoon tea, a gracious affair accompanied (as it is on all six of the Oceania ships) by a resident string quartet, then catching up with the quartet when they did their after-dinner set in the hallway above the grand staircase, where the evening’s post-prandial passegiata takes place. Listening to them was quite the most enjoyable way to digest the evening meal, and some nights they were playing to a standing-room-only crowd (of about twenty). Quite often the captain himself hovered at the back. (In the lead-up to Christmas a display of gingerbread mansions was set out in the hallway, fronted by a spread of cookies and Christmas cake and fruit, and it was fascinating to see how many people, just risen from their four-course meals at the Grand Dining Room and making their replete way past us down the corridor to the show lounge to be entertained, would snatch up a cookie or two and munch them as they strolled past.)
At the end of their program on Christmas Eve the quartet players set down their instruments and sang a traditional Polish carol, tender and simple. For a moment they turned that little corner of the ship—a decorated tree in the corner, cake and stollen on the table beside the gingerbread castles—into a little shared vignette of Christmas spirit and cosiness. The smiles that people smiled at each other—maybe a couple of dozen were there—were spontaneous and natural. For a special moment, it was like being at home.
The entertainment offerings never have been one of the great draws on these smaller ships, and this cruise was no exception, though the small team of singers and dancers put then hearts and voices into everything they did—and where, other than on a cruise ship, are you going to hear four different renditions (three of them live) of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a 36-hour period? Three might be coincidence. Four suggests a leitmotif. First it was in the Renee Zellweger movie Judy, which they showed as a matinee on a sea day. That night two of the ship’s singers did a version of the famous Garland/Streisand duet. The following evening the string quartet played their own arrangement. And the same night the featured entertainer, a two-time world champion harmonica player from Malaysia (you never know, do you?), played it as the closing selection in his K-pop-style show. It was, he said, a song about hope, and indeed it is, which of course makes it very appropriate for a shipload of eternally hopeful travelers like us.
Of course, the “loyalty” evenings of handshakes with the captain and free champagne were entertainments in themselves. This is where the Oceania frequent flyers are made to feel important, and the events have a distinct flavour of the cult. Without us, the purser said, they wouldn’t have jobs, and he emphasized his gratitude by falling to his knees to thank us. Various couples were called to the stage to receive their long-service pins, and we were asked to give a special round of applause to an elderly couple who were spending something like their 478th night on an Oceania ship. They tottered to their feet and waved their acknowledgment, as celebrities do. Surely they must be at least non-voting members of the Oceania board by now. We lesser mortals could only reflect glumly on how many hundreds of thousands of dollars (not to mention years of our time) we would have to spend if we hoped to compete. I had to have another glass of champagne to keep my spirits up.
A later loyalty reinforcement session featured a parade to the stage of over 100 members of the ship’s crew, resplendent in their best uniforms (our butler and our house-keeper prominent among them), to be showered with the love and gratitude of us, the audience. The new purser (replacing the one who had fallen to his knees before us a few days earlier, who I assumed was in the brig for excessive mugging, in both definitions of the term, judging from his on-stage antics and the wine prices) gave the same speech we heard from his predecessor. And a tall, authoritative woman strode forward to tell us firmly that she was “in charge of managing your loyalty on board.” No whips or stilettos were involved, but we understood. Then the entire audience was encouraged to perform (it is apparently an Oceania tradition) the singing and acting-out of the letters YMCA as the crew paraded off the stage to the infamous disco tune, back into the reality of the actual ship, where they would resume their duties of care and feeding (and managing) of the multitudes. This, we thought, is how it must feel at a political rally. Great fun.
I’ve never been convinced that you get anywhere on these ships by complaining—passengers are always griping about something or other, and the crew and staff must inevitably get hardened to it—but I did have one interesting experience in this regard. It had to do with my complaints about the ambient music, which was almost exclusively high-decibel soul singers and freeform jazz, all day every day, even in the specialty restaurants (I was by no means alone in my complaint, to judge from conversations around the ship).
Very early in the cruise, having had no success with the on-board staff, who said decisions on that sort of thing were made in Miami, I sent an email to Bob Binder, the CEO of Oceania, asking him to do what he could to have the public-area music selections include a wider range of musical tastes. I heard nothing back, so some days later I contacted Oceania’s public relations agents, with a copy to Binder: a reasonable and I thought persuasive letter, by no means a rant, pointing out that this was certainly not the kind of music you’d hear, at high volume and constantly, in a country club—“country club ambience” of course being one of the principal selling points and image-enhancers in all Oceania’s brochures and sales material. I also happened to mention that I’d like a response before I wrote my assessment of the cruise for Cruise Critic and Tripadvisor and my personal blog.
The next day I was stopped in a hallway by the ship’s General Manager. “The music,” he said. “We’re working to fix it.” The Cruise Director reaffirmed the news to me that afternoon. An investigation was under way, he said. Mistakes had been made. And, sure enough, by evening the ambient music was totally changed. Volumes were down and selections were more varied. I was impressed. At last, I thought, I had been able to do a little something to improve the lives of my fellow human beings. I’d be interested to know if the changes lasted beyond the end of that cruise.
Spacious, comfortable, well-equipped, meticulously maintained.