(3:50 p.m. EDT) -- Since its inception, upper-premium brand Oceania Cruises has been laser-focused on its culinary offerings, going so far as to brand itself as having "The Finest Cuisine At Sea". And, with 11 different dining venues onboard, Oceania's newest ship in a decade, Vista, does not disappoint in terms of sheer variety.
Cruise Critic has just returned from Vista's first inaugural sailing -- a quick jaunt between Rome (Civitavecchia) and Naples, Italy, where we ate and drank our way through as many of the restaurants and bars onboard as time allowed.
Here are our impressions of the cuisine onboard, and what passengers can expect of this striking new ship.
Food is such a highly subjective subject. Ask a dozen people for their favorite dish, and you'll get a dozen different answers. Catering to the many different tastes and dietary needs of all passengers aboard is no easy task for any cruise line.
Where Oceania truly excels is in the sheer diversity of culinary options onboard. Most will be hard-pressed to come onboard and find a menu that doesn't appeal to them. From Italian-influenced cuisine in Toscana to Asian-themed dishes in Red Ginger, to the healthy breakfasts and lunches offered in Aquamar Kitchen, there really is something for everyone onboard Oceania's brand-new ship, Vista.
All told, Oceania's new Vista offers 12 different dining venues onboard. Better still, all are included in the fare, though some require advance reservations.
Right out of the gate, The Grand Dining Room made a strong impression, delivering high-quality cuisine in a space that is among the most attractive at sea. Guests were also treated to a Sunday Sea Day Brunch -- something the line does on its longer sailings -- in the Grand Dining Room that featured, literally, a mountain of jumbo prawns, plate after plate of caviar and accompaniments, a cheese station, and hot, made-to-order items drawn from popular breakfast and lunch menus.
We had the chance to dine in Toscana and were not disappointed at Oceania's signature Italian restaurant. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and distinctive features that mimic high-end restaurants on land (an olive oil cart, anyone?), the pasta and entrees here are molto bene. Vista's godmother, food and television icon Giada De Laurentiis, even has some of her recipes featured in Toscana aboard Vista, and the talk of the ship was the Godmother's Signature Capri-Inspired Lemon Spaghetti, which was superb. Coupled with the floor-to-ceiling windows that let in views of the Italian coast and Mount Etna as we sailed past, Toscana seemed authentically Italian, indeed.
But while we'd expect the specialty restaurants to be strong (they were) aboard Oceania's Vista, it was the more casual dining venues that really left a dramatic impression on us -- including one of Oceania's newest eateries.
With Vista, Oceania introduces three new venues: the healthy Aquamar Kitchen; the modern steakhouse Ember; and an onboard bakery adjacent to the exceptional caffeinated beverages at Baristas on Deck 14.
For us, the Aquamar Kitchen on Deck 12 was a standout winner. Situated poolside but still sheltered in a semi-indoor, semi-outdoor area, everything about this new venue for Oceania Cruises is a winner. The décor is soft and soothing, with a seaside ambiance that's only enhanced by the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. It's also the place to be for breakfast smoothies and power juices, Avocado Toasts, muesli and other healthy creations. We found ourselves having breakfast here every morning of the cruise, and frequently popping by for lunch, too.
Lunch offerings at Aquamar are equally strong, from the tasty, tahini-based Pita Sabich to fresh poke and buddha bowls. Pair it with a No-Groni nonaolcoholic cocktail or a healthy juice and you've got a great meal (or an excellent hangover cure!)
The Bakery housed within the Baristas coffee bar on Deck 14 made an already-popular space even more alluring. It's hard to resist fresh-baked croissants (using flour and butter imported from France for that authentic taste) or an afternoon beignet, and even harder when Baristas emerges as one of the more inviting cafes we've seen aboard ships, thanks to its upper-deck location and sweeping panoramic windows.
Ember is a classic American dining experience, so think steaks, crab cakes, pork chops, and even fish and chips and French Dip sandwiches. So how does that compare to Polo Grill, Oceania's long-standing steakhouse experience? Think of it this way: Ember is a thoroughly American dining experience in a more casual atmosphere. Polo Grill is a very upscale steakhouse environment, with dishes that are more classic and elaborate: foie gras, escargots, bisques and baked onion soups, Surf and Turf.
We didn't have the opportunity to experience Ember on our short media sailing but expect good things from this new venue that also comes stocked, as every venue aboard Oceania's Vista does, with a wine cellar loaded with interesting pairing options.
Oceania has been on a quest to revitalize its onboard beverage offerings, and it succeeds aboard Vista, which offers some of the most diverse bar menus on a ship of this size.
Each of the primary bars onboard -- Horizons on Deck 14, Martinis on Deck 6, and the new Founders Bar just aft on the same deck -- have completely unique menus chocked full of cocktails, martinis and spirits that promise to whet your whistle.
In Martinis on Deck 6, we loved the curiously-salty Sea Saltini, with Mermaid Salt Dry Vermouth and olive juice. Several cocktails are named after famous Hollywood stars, like the Sir Connery that has scotch, schnapps, agave syrup and angostura bitters; or the Bardot (Pink Gin, Campari, lemon juice and pineapple puree).
But chances are you'll be drawn -- as we were -- to the Founders Bar on Deck 6, just aft of the casino. It's tucked away, so you'll need to do a little hunting to find it. The rewards, however, are worth it: expect craft cocktails infused with smoke or garnished with smoke "bubbles" courtesy of a "flavor blaster", along with innovative ingredients. Don't see what you like? Ask the bartenders to whip you up something made with your favorite spirit.
Our only complaint about the Founder's Bar: it's too small for its own good, and quickly becomes standing-room only.
Beer selection -- always an uncreative list at best on most cruise lines -- is surprisingly robust aboard Vista. In addition to the usual suspects like Heineken, Guinness and Samuel Adams, expect to find quality brews like Goose Island IPA and imports like Newcastle and Old Speckled Hen.
The one weak spot among beverages aboard Vista are mocktails. Despite carrying a selection of Lyre's non-alcoholic spirits onboard, most menus lack visible non-alcoholic beverage options, save perhaps for a bottle of Heineken 0.0. Menus in Martinis don't include a single non-alcoholic cocktail, and requests for one prompted the usual virgin mojito suggestion.
The new Aquamar restaurant on Deck 12, however, offers some excellent on-menu non-alcoholic cocktails, including a delicious virgin Dark & Stormy made with Lyre's Spiced Cane Spirit that tastes just like the real thing, with none of the hangover. The problem: Auqamar is only open for breakfast and lunch, and requests for this beverage elsewhere around the ship were met with blank stares.
Venturing up to Horizons on Deck 14 will also get you a selection of three non-alcoholic mocktails made with Lyre's ingredients. The superb Founder's Bar on Deck 6 -- which has Lyre's bottles visible on the shelf behind the bar -- offers no non-alcoholic options on its menu, though we did have success asking for a creative off-menu mocktail here.
Mocktails aren't a trend anymore; they're a necessary offering for cruisers who choose not to imbibe. We hope to see Oceania expand this list of mocktails to all bars and lounges onboard in the future.
Food is arguably a staple of the cruise experience on any line, but Oceania elevates it by offering far more dining options than one would expect on a ship of this size and including all of them in the price of admission.
What's more, food onboard Vista comes in at a very high level of quality, delivered by a crew adept at providing excellent service. It's consistently good; bordering on great. Is it "The Finest Cuisine at Sea", as Oceania likes to say? That's harder to quantify -- the line is up against some stiff competition in the form of luxury line Silversea's S.A.L.T. program, and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' five-star Europa 2. But in its Upper Premium category, you'd be hard-pressed to find fault with what Oceania has on offer.
For foodies, Oceania offers a compelling product with innovative menus that the line has, throughout its 20-year history, always tried to improve upon. Quality trumps quantity here -- and that's a good thing. Right down to the line's room service offerings, cuisine onboard is an affair that nips at the heels of offerings on luxury lines costing far more per person, per day.
Oceania offers a recipe for culinary excellence on the seven seas -- and nowhere is that more evident than on its newest ship in the fleet.