It is probably important for you to know my wife and I are seasoned cruisers. Over the past 25 years we’ve sailed a total of 31 times on Celebrity, Azamara, Viking Ocean, Holland America, Cunard, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, NCL, and MSC.
This was our first sailing with Oceania. We picked this cruise largely because of the itinerary and the price, which was moderate for an upscale line at $523 a day for both of us, not including air. From my research it seemed Oceania’s closest competitor in size of ship, amenities, and on-board experience is Azamara. Both lines appeal to the same type of passenger who is looking for an all-inclusive, upscale cruising experience. Having sailed Azamara before, I was curious how Oceania compared with them.
The Oceania Nautica is one of the smaller ships on which we’ve sailed holding around 680 passengers. One of the more noticeable differences in sailing on a small ship is the lack of public areas from which to choose, less entertainment choices, and smaller cabins. Those deficiencies were somewhat mitigated by the smaller ports the ship can dock at, flexibility, more personalized service, attention to detail, and inclusive amenities.
I can’t really say there is any more or less feeling of crowdedness on the smaller ships than with a larger ship. It seems to be all relative to the space per person. Where we notice a difference from sailing on larger ships was embarking or disembarking the ship.
The smaller number of passengers reduced the lines and wait times considerably.
Also, the smaller ships are more nimble than their larger brethren allowing them to alter their itinerary or add a fresh local food to the menu. On this cruise, the chef added fresh Hake, which was amazingly delicious. They also featured an African night with a lot of local meats (crocodile being one) and produce.
The public rooms are nicely done on the Nautica and have a feel of warmth and elegance. The ship was exceedingly clean and well maintained. There are four dining options aboard the Nautica making it equal to or a step above larger ships. While the state rooms are small, the appointments and linens are a step above what you would expect from the more major cruise lines.
We missed not having any status on Oceania (as we do on other lines) so we received no discounts usually granted to more frequent travelers. However, there wasn’t much need for the Elite status as all guests enjoy the same privileges as Elite travelers on other lines, which include fancy coffees, a few free happy hours, a daily 2:1 happy hour, use of the steam sauna, and the best one -- no charge in the specialty restaurants.
It appeared to me that Azamara includes more inclusive perks like some free shore excursions, well drinks, house wine, spa memberships, and laundry. By my calculations the inclusions on Oceania amount to an added value over non-inclusionary ships of $60 a day ($10 spa, $5 soft and juice drinks, $15 specialty restaurant costs, $20 internet, $10 coffee). I estimate the value of Azamara’s slightly higher because of the inclusive laundry, shore excursions and alcohol at $90 a day.
The embarkation experience was one of the best in our 31 sailings. It took about ten minutes from start to finish. There were no lines, no customs, no waits, and no hassle. I only wish all our embarkations were this easy (see my 2013 review of Celebrity’s Infinity).
This isn’t something I have ever included in a review, but the Nautica’s evaluation process was the strangest I’ve encountered at sea. The good news is that in an attempt to save trees and be up to date, it’s a digital evaluation. The bad news is that it’s very user unfriendly. It’s so unfriendly, the staff had to schedule a time to explain to passengers how to fill it out. There are three major issues with the form, all of which seem fairly easy to solve, but apparently the home office has turned a deaf ear to making improvements. I figured it out on my own, but not after some frustration.
The ship has had minor refurbishing every three years, but no major refurbishing since it went into service in 2000. Even so, the public areas were well maintained, all the elevators worked continuously, and the décor was traditional with lots of wood. There were a lot of places to sit and read a book, or write a cruise review, while enjoying a cup of espresso or a drink. The Nautica is scheduled for a major two-week refurbishment in June 2020. The color scheme will go from traditional dark woods to modern cool gray and blue with a chandelier above the entry staircase. My art-loving wife is hoping they get rid of some of more dreadful modern art.
The public decks were Decks 5, 9 and 10. Getting lost was not easily done! Deck 5 is the location of the show lounge, small casino, piano lounge, two small shops, coffee bar, and main dining room. Entrance on the ship was on Deck 4 and involved a gangway of very low steps making a bumpy ramp basically. This is easier than big steps on larger ships. There were many people on-board with mobility issues who seemed to be doing okay getting around. One benefit is that the elevators were usually available without a long wait.
If food is your thing, like it is mine, then you will be reasonably satisfied on the Nautica. The specialty restaurants offer passengers a specific cuisine apart from the main dining room with a quality of fare a slight step above the main dining room. Tuscana features Italian fare while Polo is a steakhouse.
All of the dining rooms feature “anytime” seating. While the main dining room doesn’t accept reservations, we never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a table for two. We tried to eat as much as possible in the specialty restaurants, Tuscana and Polo, but getting reservations was very difficult. I am guessing the huge demand is largely because there was no surcharge for them. It is very unusual for a specialty restaurant at sea not to charge a small fee, which is the good news. The bad news if since there is no charge, the demand is high and it’s difficult to get a table for two, or even sharing on sea days. Because of the demand, guests are only allowed to make one reservation in each ahead of time and then cue up daily for a cancellation. Personally, I would rather pay a surcharge and have more access to the specialty restaurants than to pay nothing and have limited access.
All of the waiters and waitresses who served us were extremely personable, helpful, and attentive. We enjoyed the service in the main dining room as much as that in the specialty restaurants. However, finding a knowledgeable wine steward was difficult.
Polo is set in the décor and menu of the 40’sand 50’s. The quality of this specialty restaurant wasn’t quite up to that of others we’ve dined in. The presentation of the food was excellent. The service was good. The item to eat here are the steaks. The two fillets I had were done to perfection. We were not as impressed with the starters, soups, or salads. We tried Polo twice and that was enough.
Tuscano’s service and food seemed to be a bit better than Polo. The menu is extensive so it will take several visits to completely explore it. Everything we tried was very good. We tried to eat at Tuscano’s as much as possible, which meant dining there about four times in 14 days.
Unlike most other cruise lines, Nautica didn’t offer any Chef’s dinners. With the talented chef’s aboard the Nautica, this was disappointing. I would have loved to have paid a significant surcharge for a unique dining experience. This is something that I hope Nautica will consider going forward.
Some lines make free juice available only in the mornings and charge for all espresso and soda drinks. One thing we appreciate about Oceania is the fact that juice, sodas, and espresso coffee drinks are available anytime during the day at no charge.
There was a happy hour every day from 5pm to 6 pm that allowed guests to buy 2:1 drinks. However, their policy is rather ridged in what 2:1 means, which is the second drink must be exactly the same drink as the first, not just the same price, and it cannot be shared by another person. We felt this strict policy didn’t make a lot of sense when a person may have wanted two different drinks costing exactly the same. It also encourages over consumption of alcohol, especially when there are two people just wanting one drink each.
Speaking about over-consumption of alcohol, the “all you can drink” beverage packages also encourage over-consumption. I realize that “over consumption” is a relative term. Still, we have always found we do far better buying alcohol, wine, and beer by the glass or bottle than getting a beverage package.
I am an oenophile, so I am admittedly more interested in the wine experience on a ship than the average passenger. That said, there are much better wine experiences at sea than with Oceania. Unlike the Azamara, Oceania is not as friendly to oenophiles. The most notable wine friendly lines are Azamara and Princess, which encourage you to bring on you own wine and don’t penalize you with high corkage fees for bringing wine on board. Oceania limits how much of your own wine you can bring onboard and charges a stiff corkage fee of $25 per bottle, making it among the highest of any line at $25 a bottle. The more wine friendly lines only charge $10 per bottle.
Another perennial complaint of mine on most cruise lines is the high price of their onboard wines, which are priced about 4x’s or more over retail. For example, a $15-$20 bottle of La Crema Chardonnay goes for $86. That’s simply unreasonable. They more wine friendly lines have mark ups of 2 ½ to 3 times. Because of the steep corkage and markups on the wine, we chose not to bring our bottles on board and limited our wine consumption to beer or wine “by the glass.”
The Nautica had three wine tasting events during our 14 day cruise. The cost was $75 to $125 per person, which the highest charge of a wine tasting I’ve encountered at sea. We did attend two wine tastings and found them to be very informative. The bottles tasted were in the $80 to $200 range, but keep in mind of the significant mark up. While the presentation was certainly informative, I didn’t feel the cost of the tasting represented a good value.
Fitness and Spa
This is an area in which the Nautica is above average. They have a good selection of weight machines and free weights. There an adequate number of cardiovascular machines (stationary bikes, elliptical machines, and treadmills). They also had seven stationary bikes used for a spinning class on sea days. Be sure to sign up early for these as the classes fill quickly. I only had to wait for a machine once in 14 days. Notably, and unusual for most lines, every cardio machine was working for length of the cruise. Another pleasant abnormality, the men’s lockers worked perfectly and there were a sufficient number of lockers which were all keyed. There was always a locker available, never forcing you to leave your belongings unprotected.
The men’s locker room featured a steam sauna that was reasonably hot and in perfect working order for the cruise. On many other cruise lines the saunas just don’t get hot enough to break much of a sweat, but this is not the case on the Nautica. And an extra bonus was the steam room did not have a daily charge, which can cost around $10 to $20 a day on other lines. The locker rooms are incredibly maintained and cleaned. Every time that I used the locker room and sauna there was an attendant cleaning it up.
The Nautica does not have a spa bar featuring a lighter, healthier fare or fresh fruit juices and smoothies. This would be a wonderful addition to their spa area. You can get fruit smoothies, however, at the grill by the pool.
We thought the entertainment was a step below larger ships. This is more probably due to the lack of a theater than the talent of the entertainers. Generally speaking, the shows were not highly innovative and featured the normal array of comedians, singers, and instrumentalists. That said, we still found them worth attending and looked forward to most of them. The ships company featured some very good vocalists and dancers. It was refreshing that the Nautica had a a very good live orchestra rather than rely on sound tracks, which is becoming common on other cruise lines.
The theater is not a theater at all, but rather a large lounge which unfortunately makes viewing the show especially challenging. If viewing the show is important, you will want to be sure to snag a front row seat. The on-board entertainment found in the lounges was adequate. There was a string quartet that was very good, the ships band, and a piano player.
The enrichment and port talks were disappointing. First, there simply were no port talks, which we found highly unusual. There was a delightful South African lady who told personal stories about growing up in South Africa and her world adventures. The second lecture was a Hollywood writer who gave talks on Hollywood, and while they were interesting, we much rather would have learned more about the history, religion, and politics of the countries we were visiting since one of our goals for traveling is learning about the world. I expected much more in this area from a luxury cruise line catering to a more upscale and informed clientele.
I run a small business and being connected to my staff is imperative, even on vacation. I depend on having a functioning Internet while on board any ship. Signing up was incredibly easy. Included in the fare was one free, unlimited Wi-Fi access. Additional devices were $25 a day. Between us we had four devices, so since we were unwilling to pay an additional $75 per day, we had to coordinate and share our login, which often was a logistical challenge.
The Internet connectivity and speed was acceptable, but not great. I got access 70% of the times I attempted to get online. When I did get online I had chronic issues getting emails and websites to down load. In addition, the Wi-Fi signal is not consistent around the ship and there are many spots where you can’t get the Wi-Fi signal.
Unfortunately Verizon did not have a repeater on board (unlike other lines) so using my smartphone for data while at sea was not possible. I have previously learned to forgo the expensive Internet packages and just go with my smartphone when there is a repeater on the ship and when there are a lot of days in port.
The shopping experience is on par with most every other cruise line, boring! There is nothing exceptional to highlight here.
Ports of Call, Port Talks and Shore Excursions
Our cruise started and ended in Cape Town, stopping at Walvis Bay, Namibia, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, East London, South Africa, Richard’s Bay, South Africa, Maputo, Mozambique, and Durban, South Africa, debarking at Cape Town, South Africa.
There were no port talks given on the Nautica. While there was some prerecorded information covering the excursion packages on the television, there wasn’t any useful information about the port if you wanted to go it alone. It would have been so helpful to know about the safety of taxis, availability of Uber, if walking to town through the port area is even allowed, best sights to see, what areas to avoid, etc. They also did not provide maps of the harbor or surrounding area, which is a first in our cruising experience. We found the hourly shuttle service helpful, but not frequent enough. We would have preferred a departure or pick up every 30 minutes
As a result, we were totally on our own to gather whatever information we could from guests and the Internet. Had we been visiting ports in developed countries this probably would be more forgivable than when the ports are in a third world country. The lack of a port talk is a significant flaw in the Oceania experience and would keep me from booking with them in the future if a competing line was offering the same itinerary.
If the strategy behind limiting information on the ports was to drive passengers to book the ship’s shore excursions, it worked. We uncharacteristically opted for the ships excursions. Typically we save 25 to 75% off the ship’s prices by making our own arrangements. On this cruise, we didn’t have time prior to the cruise to do our normal research.
We also found that the African tour companies were unusually unresponsive by email. We typically have good luck using tour companies that are highly rated by www.TripAdvisor.com. Another great place to book private tours prior to departure is by looking under “Tours” and on the chat boards on www.CruiseCritic.com. We’ve never been disappointed following the advice of previous travelers. A new website to us is www.toursbylocals.com. We found this to be a very responsive and wonderful way to find independent guides.
Walvis Bay is a difficult port to negotiate as the dock is a mile or more from the city center. The town can be easily done on your own. There isn’t a whole lot to see, so I suggest you book a tour to Sandwich Bay. The scenery of the dunes coming down to the ocean and the drive along the beach are unique. See if they will also take you out to Pelican Point to see the hundreds of thousands of seals. We overnighted here so we were also able to go visit Moon Valley, which is similar to the Badlands of South Dakota. We were able to climb Dune #7, which was the highlight of that outing.
Port Elizabeth is a place with more touring options. There is a nice mall there if you want to stay in town. There are a number of day trips that can be taken to surrounding sites. We opted to visit Addo Elephant reserve. We found it to be a worthwhile excursion. If you are booking excursions off-ship, give yourself plenty of time to disembark. The local authorities insist on face-to-face immigration that can take up to an hour after docking to clear.
East London is a pretty sleepy stop. We were warned about walking around much. There is a mall about 5 miles from the ship that is probably safe. We chose to visit a Xhosa village constructed for tourists. There they had women and children singing and dancing. They separated the men from the women and gave each group talks on the Xhosa culture and a taste of homemade beer, brandy, and a traditional meal. The food and drink were “interesting” and we were very grateful for getting back on the ship and having a meal and a beer more familiar to us.
Durban is the third or second largest city in South Africa, depending on what source you reference. Getting around is very easy and secure as Uber operates there. We elected to go visit a replica Zulu village with some singing and dancing via a ship’s tour. While it was “ok”, the drive up to the village and the views from their coffee/tea shop were almost worth the trip alone. We had a very good guide who kept us entertained up and back with useful information on life in the city. The other point of entertainment is that the pilot which joins the ship to guide it in and out of port arrives and departs by helicopter. It was a show in itself.
Richard’s Bay is a bit of a sleepy stop. I would recommend getting a guide and heading off to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Park. It takes about 1:15 minutes each way, depending on traffic. We were able to spend about 4:30 hours in the park. Typically, going to game parks in the middle of the day is the absolute worst time to see the animals, but when you are on a cruise there are no other options. That said, we really were lucky. We saw several dozen elephants in the park, twice as many as we did at Addo and at closer range. We also saw seven grey rhinos, four water buffalo, four giraffes, and scores of impala and warthogs. It was certainly worth the $200 USD per person that we paid an off-ship tour company we booked through East Coast Safari (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Maputo About the only redeeming quality of visiting this port is that you get to say you’ve been to Mozambique. There is really nothing here. We took a city tour that could easily have been done individually at almost no expense. To support the local economy (which has a 50% unemployment rate), Oceania uses local people who are not trained tour guides. While we really applaud the company for their social concern, the quality of the tour is not surprisingly substandard. All the points worth seeing are within an easy walk of where the passenger ships dock. Those sights are the train station, the iron house, the botanical gardens, and the old fortress. Then if you want to shop for local crafts, the ship usually runs a shuttle out a market where there are several blocks of vendors. The local beer is 2M, which is worth a try.
So, back to the question I posed earlier. How does the Oceania experience compare with Azamara? All things being equal in price and itinerary, the nod would go to Azamara.
On the positive side for Oceania, the wonderful service and friendliness of the crew, the lack of a charge for the specialty restaurants and free Wi-Fi for one device was a definite plus and unique in my cruising experience. The entertainment was also very good for a small ship.
The weaknesses with Oceania as compared to Azamara are the lack of informative and relevant port talks, the weakness of the enrichment talks, the lack of any included beverages like wine, beer, or well drinks, the high markup on wine, no chef’s table events, and the lack of any included shore excursions.
Certainly, the Oceania is one of the better cruising experiences. The dining is undoubtedly one of the better at sea. The ability of a smaller ship to get into, or nearer, ports the large ships can’t may be reason enough to pay the extra fare.
For me, I will certainly sail the Oceania Nautica again when I find an itinerary at a cost equal to or slightly higher than that of a larger ship. I figure the inclusions are on Oceania are worth about $60 a day, which brings the cost down in comparison to larger ships. Read Less