Live From Marina, Oceania's Game-Changing New Cruise Ship

February 8, 2011

The newly christened Marina recently steamed between Miami and the Bahamas on a three-night preview cruise. Cruise Critic Managing Editor John Deiner, who was onboard for all the fun, reported live from the scene.

Onboard at Last: First Impressions From Oceania's Marina
(Saturday, February 5, 4 p.m.) -- Oh, Mary Hart. You're everywhere. But that's one of the things that's, oddly enough, defining this vessel in the early going.

I've seen you in the spa, on the grand staircase, sipping soda at a bar. When I thought you'd disappeared to start your godmotherly duties, you magically reappeared poolside, shooting video while a waiter served you a drink. The point: Marina may be more than 66,000 tons and sleep 1,200, but it's small enough to find Mary Hart at every turn.

That's a compliment, by the way, and it goes along perfectly with the surprising familial vibe this ship is giving off. Sleek and modern, plushly appointed and even more beautiful than the pictures let on (Teak decks! Art at every turn! Restaurant decor that would compete with NYC's finest!), it's the friendly feel that's stolen the show for me -- and not just from the predictably amiable service. To wit: One waiter actually threw himself in front of me on the lovely outside terrace outside the buffet when a blast of wind threatened to send my lunch flying over the side. Now that's service.

While this three-night christening cruise may not be an exact replica of real life, there's no denying that a lot of people seemed to have found their happy place onboard. Mine? I'm already drawn to two tantalizing, ceiling-fanned havens in the ship's aft, near the pool. Deep wicker chairs, palm trees and linen curtains that catch the breeze set a scene that's unique to me on a cruise ship.

A child of big ships packed with big crowds (NCL's gargantuan Norwegian Epic, in fact, is bobbing peacefully just across the harbor), I'm happy to say that in mere moments I may have become a convert to mid-sized, less-peopled vessels. True, it's early. I have lots left to explore, but I dig the mini-casino, the dearth of sprawling bars, the library that goes on forever (bonus points for the faux fireplaces) and the outdoor lounge area at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub.

And I dig Denise, a longtime Oceania aficionado from Palm Springs, Calif., who's onboard. She actually recognized the bartenders at the pool bar from past cruises. And they recognized her. I marveled as they mixed and poured her drink of choice as I chatted her up -- without ever asking what her drink of choice was. Try that on Epic.

Designer Decor, Luxe Loos and Pretty Pashminas
(Sunday, February 6, 12 p.m. EST) -- It doesn't matter who you're talking to or where the conversation takes place: The subject invariably turns to the cabins on Marina. By all accounts, the decor throughout the ship was a group effort, with company honchos Frank Del Rio and Bob Binder leading the charge (that's not to take anything away from designer Dakota Jackson, responsible for the Vista and Oceania suites). From pillows and china patterns to ferns and wall art, you're supposed to think you're lazing about in a luxurious estate.

I haven't done much lazing about in a private estate, but I get it. In my eyes, it's more akin to a boutique hotel -- and that's a good thing, since I'm a hotel animal. Before embarking, Cruise Critic members Michael and Carla Perry of Victoria, B.C., emailed me and asked what I could tell them about the Concierge Level Verandah rooms and its attendant lounge: "Can you sneak a peek in it? Does it have food? Does it have beverages? Does it have computers?"

The answer to all: Yes.

I'm staying in Cabin 9074, which is a Concierge Level Verandah, the same accommodations the Perrys have booked for their June Baltic Treasures cruise. And guess what? They'll be staying in a treasure as well. Done in a pleasing soft-blue/brown/off-white palette, the stateroom offers about 325 square feet of space -- encompassing a bed with million-thread-count sheets (well, it's really plush); a sitting area with a couch that's actually comfortable and two pretty pillows; a flat-screen TV I refuse to turn on; and oak built-ins that offer so many nooks and crannies that I can't fill them all. A lovely teak deck with two faux-wicker chairs set a lovely scene on the verandah. (One thing I should mention: Besides the expected slippers/bathroom combo in the closet, my wife discovered two Oceania pashminas tucked into a drawer that are ideal for the chillier parts of the ship. Nice.)

At dinner last night at Polo, Marina's NYC-ish steakhouse, there was a minor debate at my table over the cabins' bathrooms, gorgeous marbled affairs with a separate shower (with a sunflower head) and tub. One of my tablemates said he would have preferred less tub and more space in the main living area. Uh-uh. Marina has it right -- I'm among who'd rather have room to move around in the loo, and the bathtub is primo (according to an Oceania rep who was also at the table, Del Rio wanted larger bathrooms because that what passengers desire). There's soft lighting as well, and cubbyholes on both sides of the sink that run to the ceiling.

The Debate Rages: Bigger Loo or More Cabin Space?

If I had any quibble, it's that there's not enough space to pile stuff -- the desktop isn't particularly large, which leaves only the coffee table and a few glass shelves to serve as the Official Cabin Dumping Ground. Whatever . . . like I said, it's a quibble, and ultimately keeps the cabin less cluttered.

As for the Concierge Lounge, it's a great little hideaway with soft couches, three computers to serve all your email-reading needs, shelves of up-to-date magazine and a snack area with grab-as-you-go sodas, juice and water, as well as pastries, yogurt and coffee (and lattes!). I haven't seen any booze on offer, and that's probably a good thing, as it gives me a reason to leave Deck 9.

--Cabin photo appears courtesy of Oceania Cruises

Super Sunday on Marina: Let's Go... Oh, Who Cares
(Monday, February 7, 1 a.m. EST) -- We may have been in the middle of nowhere between the Florida Coast and the Bahamas, but there was one thing on most minds Sunday on Marina: the Super Bowl. Sure, the day was super in many ways aboard this new ship, but once the sun started to set, talk turned to the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers and what kind of beers those rolling cars milling about the pool deck held.

So how does one celebrate America's crazy football-fueled holiday while at sea? With lots of chicken wings, bottled beer and... no commercials. Yes, no commercials. The big-screen feeds of the game featured all the action, none of the shilling. I still don't know what that crazy talking baby did this year. Or the Clydesdales. Interestingly, the commercial-free ESPN feed was sponsored by Royal Caribbean International -- and every time Oceanians were reminded of this fact, it was met by muttering from those gathered on the pool decks, site of the ship's big Super Bowl party.

This being a preview cruise, Oceania made sure it was a memorable event, enlisting veteran CBS sports commentator Verne Lundquist for its pre-game festivities. Along with ship staffers, Lundquist co-hosted an endless (and tiresome) trivia game before the big event; I fell asleep on a cushioned lounger long before it ended, roused only by Christina Aguilera bellowing the National Anthem. I don't know what happened to Verne, but I haven't spotted him since.

But, really, it was all about the game after Verne disappeared. I watched the first half from a poolside table, marveling at the fact that so many passengers thought to bring the jerseys of their favorite team (really?) and entranced by the sliver of moon that slowly rose above the ship. Then, a few minutes before half time, I moved to Horizons, Marina's top-deck mega-lounge, instantly regretting that I hadn't watched the game from the start in the venue (the screen was that much better). Here, the crowd was smaller, a bit more subdued and decidedly more interested in the free-flowing cocktails. Sorry, Fergie. For some reason, you and the rest of the Black-Eyed Peas chased more than half of the crowd out of Horizons, leaving the cocktail waitresses dangerously free. And when I left midway through the third quarter, I noticed that the pool crowd had dwindled to next nothing as well. Let's blame the fine-dining venues for that, ok? It surely wasn't the rockin' chicken wings at the Waves Grill located just a few feet from the poolside screen, or the comfy chairs perched in front of the big screen in Horizons. And while Green Bay eventually won the game, I have yet to hear from anyone who actually cared...

The Story So Far: A Roll Call of Who Shouldn't Be Onboard
(Monday, February 7, noon EST) -- After two days on Marina, it's pretty obvious who the ship is geared toward: Destination-oriented luxuristas who prefer bingo over basketball and like their sheet counts in the quadruple digits. But who'd probably be better off on another ship?

Families. You're not going to find a water park, a kids' club, nursery or a hapless twenty-something dressed as a cartoon character on Marina. Indeed, Oceania exec Frank Del Rio said straight out in a press conference on Saturday that the ship isn't meant for families. And it's clearly not.

oceania-marina-mini-golf-course.jpg Sports Buffs. Whereas the mega-ships are outfitted in basketball courts, climbing walls and other sweat-inducing time-sucks, Marina's pastimes are more sedate. There's a tennis court on the sports deck, true, but there's also a putting green. And while the fitness center is large and well-appointed, it seems more folks are just as content sticking to paddle tennis and bocce.

Entertainment Seekers. If you need Blue Man Group, a Broadway show and a dozen stages packed with performers playing simultaneously, you're out of luck on Marina. There have been piano players, string quartets and deejays strutting their stuff, but it's not the onslaught of entertainment many cruisers have come to expect. Last night in the Marina Lounge, the ship's lovely main performance venue, there was a spirited salute to the '60's called "Groovin'." It was energetic and fun (who doesn't want a little "Age of Aquarius" with their mai tai?), but it ain't heading to the Great White Way any time soon.

Dieters. There doesn't seem to be such thing as a short meal on Marina. The food, in a word, is exquisite -- and worth lingering two or three hours over. I haven't checked out Jacques (yet), but the Asian fare at Red Ginger was out of this world, particularly a foie gras and watermelon salad that scared me on the menu, but turned out to be the finest dish on Marina I've stumbled across so far.

The Bon Appetit Culinary Center: Look, Ma, I'm Emulsifying!
(Monday,February 7, 4:30 p.m. EST) -- Anyone connected even remotely with Oceania Cruises the past few days has been boasting about the Bon Appetit Culinary Center, offering the first hands-on cooking classes at sea. This makes Marina the only ship afloat where you can say that if you can't take the heat, get into the kitchen.

So I did. I'm no wannabe chef here (even grilled cheese can confound me), but I was assured that anyone can take a class and get out alive. As it turned out, it was a real hoot, and dang if I didn't actually learn something. Credit goes to master chef Kathryn Kelly, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America who's on Marina for the next three months.

The facility itself is a sleek affair, with about a dozen work stations at which teams pair to make whatever the chef has up her sleeve that day. Classes start at $49. There's a spectacular view of the ocean on one side of the room, and windows packed with gawkers on the other. The chef, of course, works up front, with a continuous live feed of what she's doing projected on a screen (very helpful, since it's a blink-and-you-miss-it environment). In the future, plans call for class-goers to exit the ship at some ports and go shopping with the chef for fresh ingredients.

Our task on this voyage was to make grilled lamb/feta burgers (with homemade pita buns), a salad, gazpacho and tzatziki sauce. The class went at lightning speed, with Kelly blaring out orders -- chop this, mince that, dice this and that -- as she masterfully instructed, entertained and offered assistance where needed. My partner in crime and I put our shallot into our gazpacho by mistake ("Oh, you probably improved it," Kelly reassured us), but otherwise our meal came out tasting like real food.

Overall, it's a high-spirited activity, with some sipping pool bar cocktails while grilling, others eagerly comparing dicing skills. At one point, Kelly asked the crowd to simmer down (I have a feeling she was directing that into my corner of the room), seconds before popping open two bottles of Chianti to go with the burgers.

Afterward, I asked Kelly if the classes are always this raucous. "Oh, this was nothing," she said. "You ought to see what happens when we make pasta."

About Last Night: A Grand Finale on Marina
(Tuesday, February 8, 3 p.m. EST) – After three busy days, I'm off Marina. While cooling my heels at MIA, I've had a chance to reflect on the last 12 hours spent onboard. Here's how things went down:

Jacques Attaque! What's better than a meal at Jacques? Jacques Pepin actually greeting you at the door. The culinary megastar had passengers grabbing their cameras and their complimentary Oceania cookbooks to remember the moment -- and a few even chased him down the corridor when he wandered away. Dinner was sublime (pumpkin soup out of an actual pumpkin, anyone?), though the room was a bit louder and the crowd more animated than I'd expected. Credit probably goes to inaugural-season excitement, so it'll be interesting to see how things shake out.

It's Showtime. During a pulsating coda to Marina's preview cruise, Cuban singer Willy Chirino rocked the main pool deck. Oceania bigwig Frank Del Rio had predicted during a short stop at my dinner table that even guests with a "little bit of dance in them" would become hoofing fools (my words) once Chirino cranked up. That turned out to be the case, and with plenty of white-man-overbite moves to go around. Alas, crews setting up the elaborate lighting effects for the show had to deconstruct much of the pool area for most of Monday, which marred an otherwise lovely day on the decks.

It's Showtime, Part 2. Oddly enough, a live musical salute to the world's waterways (yep) in the Marina Lounge was held at about the same time as Chirino's performance. I ducked in to watch the show, sat down, and then felt trapped -- there were only about 15 other people in the (relatively) sprawling space, and I didn't want to walk out on the talented group onstage. The show was fine, with songs like "Walk Like an Egyptian" paying tribute to tributaries like the Nile.

Loo Talk. What is it with cruise ships and bathrooms? A surprisingly large number of passengers I chatted up steered the convo to the separate tub and shower configuration in most staterooms -- and the fact that the sunflower showerhead hangs a tad low for taller guests. As a result, there's no way to avoid a deluge once you step into the shower stall. Folks seemed generally in favor of the separate tub, but even my wife would opt for more space in the cabin living space (and more outlets as well).

Pennies From Heaven. I concluded the evening in Marina's bite-size casino, whose two parts are connected by a gloriously garish purple-lit bar. After putting a total of $50 into two penny slot machines, I ended up cashing out $50.87. Score!!